Extract from the memoirs of Eclair Gévaudan, 1849-1902.
New Orleans is a diverse city, and this is reflected in its supernatural creatures, following in the footsteps as they do, of humans from many nations. Though African, French, and Spanish influences predominate, Choctaw, Irish, Italian, German, Korean, and Polish tongues add their lilt to the city’s cacophony, as their respective spectres, wendigos and gremlins haunt its alleyways. And though these nations and their monsters jostle for work and for political power, calling each other all sorts of ugly things, they are united in their hatred of the werewolf.
Though most citizens these days have never met a werewolf. Weermen belong to the stories of great-grandfathers, who belong to a time before the brush strokes of the city’s map had dried, delineating God’s kingdom from the wilds. As civilization polished its rougher edges, the werewolves were banished to Bayou Goula, where for miles could be heard the eerie chants of their whirling midnight orgies. Occasionally, a werewolf would still be apprehended in the squalid boarding houses or tenements of the Quarter. Filthy, fleabitten things they were, with animal lusts and tempers, and the swamps or a jail cell were the proper place for them
Though, not quite all of them. The werewolf lately residing at 3235 Camp Street was a gentleman, innocent of the crimes shared by his brethren. John Longtail was his name, and he was, to my knowledge, the only werewolf ever to have possessed a Stradivarius violin, and certainly the most talented to draw music from it. Longtail was exceptional in another way. Lycanthropic transformation generally renders man into beast, but John Longtail was a canine who became a werewolf when bitten by man. He recalled the circumstances one evening as we enjoyed a bottle of port beside his fire.
“In those days, a dog’s highest ambition could be satisfied in the rubbish bins of a certain Irish Channel establishment. Among men, this tavern had a reputation for danger. But the Germans frequenting the place ate well, and drank better, so a mutt never knew what tasty morsel might be scrounged there. Whether a choice bit of mutton, or a corpse, it made little difference to a beast’s hunger. On that fateful evening, I had just commenced to déglacer the remains of an indeterminate mammal, when a patron of the hellhole was tossed through its back doors. Lifting himself, the man began to crawl down the dark alley in my direction. Smelling trouble and acquainted with man’s cruelty, I cowered before him, whimpering. The drunkard, mistaking my groans for a slur, became enraged and bit me. I remember nothing after that, but when I awoke, I was naked.”
From then on, Longtail’s canine form was afflicted with a humanness which would flare up in tandem with the fullness of the moon.
Let me paint you a portrait of John Longtail, as I remember him, stooped in the doorway of his library, gracious host whose frame bends slightly over the book he has brought forth from its depths. His clothing is fine, but not ostentatious. His mouthful of teeth and natural shyness incline him to mumble. His hair, in excess of what is considered excessive, is silky and earthen fragrant, like a stone in sun, or the secret place where bark meets tree vein. His face is beastly, but not unkind, full in its sympathy to all that brings grief to man and animal, or to the particular beauty of a symphony. His eyes are blue.
The first human to take pity on the transformed Longtail was Moses Kaplan, the old groundskeeper of newly planted Metairie Cemetery. Recognizing his tameness and his hunger, Kaplan offered Longtail employment as night watchman over the sleeping necropolis. By day, Longtail was allowed refuge in a crypt whose inhabitants had departed. By night, his keen eyes would roam the cemetery gates for those daring to climb and perform acts of mischief. In the morning, Kaplan would return, bringing a basket of food for Longtail. It was through Kaplan’s kindness that Longtail acquired his first suit of clothes, coarsely cut, but respectable.
Longtail recalled the early days of his transformation, marked by preoccupation with his fingers: sleek, dexterous things now sprouting from his paws, tools which would have been ideally suited for scooping marrow from bones, had this craving persisted. With his hunger sated on the Kaplan’s daily basket, Longtail felt new appetites awakening. One night as he sat beneath a cemetery magnolia, its flowering branches catching the light of a full moon, a petal floated to earth, landing upon the Longtail sitting upon that earth, spinning through the galaxy. Something within Longtail became alert then, for the first time, to the tree, to its roughness gnarling forth from soil in an explosion of impossible cleanness, its miracle of blossoms. When Kaplan arrived the next morning, Longtail—who had spent the night darting from plant to plant, sniffing and gently prodding—startled him with questions of all that grew and blossomed in the city of the dead.
Encouraged by the groundskeeper, Longtail threw himself into learning all he could of plants. His usefulness in this regard repaid Kaplan’s generosity, as Longtail was thereafter able to render assistance in management and cultivation of the cemetery grounds. If you visit Metairie Cemetery today, much of Longtail’s influence may still be felt there, in the arrangement of its hedges and flowering bushes: the resounding verdancy of earth an answering call to man’s architecture of grief. When all horticultural savvy that could be gleaned from Kaplan was exhausted, he presented Longtail with his first book: an illustrated guide to fielding and pruning. Though Longtail was illiterate, by diligent application, the illustrations and symbols on its pages began arranging themselves in meaning before his eager snout.
Spit-shined to respectability, the cemetery dust polished from his claws— and with new wages judiciously appointed by Kaplan in his pocket—Longtail began venturing beyond the cemetery gate for cautious stretches. Kaplan supervised these early ventures, shielding Longtail from trouble, but as Longtail’s confidence grew, Kaplan desisted in his chaperonage, and Longtail’s wanderings placed him farther afield of cemetery home and crypt. One day, he found himself before a Magazine Street curio shop, under the peeling signage, “la Belle Orleans.” The shop’s dusty windows were a marvel, jumbled with the whole of human ingenuity and neglect, presided over by a shrewd, but not unfriendly keeper, who, after first raising an eyebrow in Longtail’s direction, forever after treated him with the same indifference afforded the other customers. This was as good an invitation as Longtail could hope to receive. On his next visit, he stepped tentatively within.
...to be continued.