The muffled sounds of upbeat jazz could be heard through the bar’s blue wooden door, in-tune with the jingle being played on the piano in the corner. Outside, thousands were parading around in skimpy outfits and feathered masks, enjoying the last of the Mardi Gras celebrations. The streets were littered with barely-legal women trading their self-respect for a few measly dollar-store beads. Partiers and drunkards saturated the cobblestone sidewalks while elaborate floats inched their way down the route in a seemingly endless succession.
Crews had spent the year preparing for this night, lovingly gluing a craft store’s worth of glitter and feathers on their carnival-esque floats. Moderation was the antithesis of Mardi Gras.
The bar was a lone island refuge in an ocean of overwhelming colors and sounds that had become of the French Quarter. Discreetly nested in a narrow alleyway just outside of Bourbon Street, the dive was surprisingly empty that night. There was only the bartender polishing a glass behind the counter, a stranger at the piano, and me, the man who’d picked the worst time of the year to do some sight-seeing in New Orleans. Call it a rite of passage, if you want, but I’d always wanted to be part of the celebration at least once in my life. Unfortunately, I grew weary of the ceaseless party almost as soon as it began.
“Hey bartender?” I said, trying to get his attention.
I’d been at the bar for over ten minutes and still hadn’t been served.
The piano’s melody – the only sound I could stand in the cacophony of trumpets, saxophones, and trombones – came to an abrupt stop. Her player left her hanging mid-song, like a selfish lover refusing to tend to her post-coital needs. Gesticulating his arms with cartoonish theatrics, he slid off the bench and turned to face me. His appearance caused a momentary twinge of fear in my chest.
His chocolate skin had been painted to resemble a skeleton. His lips were made to look like brittle teeth, his face was mostly white and full of fake cracks and shadows, an inverted black heart had been drawn at the base of his nose, and black paint had been applied around his eyes to make them look like empty sockets. A bulky snake clung to his shoulders like a scarf. The man wore a top hat with black, red, and ochre feathers coming out of the left side, as well as a bundle of rat skulls around the rim. He wore a black dress shirt, red vest, and dark overcoat. A variety of chains dangled from pocket to pocket with no clear purpose, and a belt made of tiny skulls surrounded his waist and clattered whenever he moved. He certainly earned the double take I gave him. In any other city, or on any other night, he would have been an oddity. But, as I composed myself and let my startled nerves settle, I realized he was just another carnival-goer.
The old man – or, at least, I think he was old – casually strolled to the other side of the counter. He placed a hand on the bartender’s back and moved him aside. Unaffected, the tender continued to polish his glass absent-mindedly. Could he have been deaf, perhaps?
“What will it be?” asked the skeletal-faced pianist, through a thick New Orleans accent.
I figured he was staff, so I replied, “Something strong.”
“Yes, yes. I know just the thing for you, my friend. Let Papa Etienne make you his specialty,” he replied.
He started to work his magic, mixing together different vials of booze and flipping the containers in the air with expertise. I watched in silence, captivated by the show. Etienne was definitely putting his colleague to shame. The result, however, was a foul-looking concoction akin to a forest bog.
I looked at the sludgy, greenish-brown liquid in the hopes that the colors and texture would somehow improve once the bubbling came to a stop, but my hopes were for naught. Etienne peered at me with great interest, his painted toothy smile stretching.
“Go on, go on. Drink up, my friend! I guarantee it’ll make the world seem like a whole different place!” he said.
Not wanting to be rude, I decided to give it a try. Maybe it’d taste better than it smelled. Bottom’s up, I thought, taking a reluctant, but large gulp of the contents in my glass.
The taste was vicious, like tree bark or a half-ton of pinecones put through a food processor. The thick liquid fought me all the way down my throat. Now, I knew why the bar was empty. Anyone who’d had a taste of this must have run for the hills. I gagged and coughed, pushing the glass aside, but all of a sudden, I felt … good. No, not just good, downright euphoric.
“Heeeeey what’s in this?” I asked, as my head spun with a pleasant buzz.
“Oh, just herbs and roots,” answered Papa Etienne.
A tingling sensation prickled its way from the back of my neck and crawled down my spine, numbing it with its warmth. From the mirror hanging behind the bar, I could see my pupils had dilated so wide that my eyes looked utterly black. Whatever Etienne had given me had definitely been worth the nauseating flavor.
“Listen my friend. I need you to do something for me,” said Etienne.
He leaned in close and whispered in my ear, but the words came out jumbled. It was like having double vision, but with my ears instead of my eyes. I could only make out a few stray words: hardly enough to understand the message.
Without wanting to, my body shifted into a standing position. That was my first hint that something odd was happening to me. The next was when I finally realized something: the bartender hadn’t stopped polishing the same glass since I’d arrived. Through my blurring vision, I peered at his reflection. His pupils were like mine, and his facial expression was strangely blank. I wanted to say something, but my mouth wouldn’t open. I tried to move my arm, but it wouldn’t budge. My body no longer obeyed me.
Papa Etienne leapt energetically over the bar and landed inches from me, his snake’s head close enough for its forked tongue to kiss my cheek. Looking me in the eyes, Etienne reached into his coat and pulled out an object out of view. I felt him placing it in my hands. The object was cold, cylindrical, grainy, and had a bit of weight to it. I could only speculate as to its nature, because I was unable to drop my gaze to see what it was.
“Go now, friend,” he began, leaning close to my ears.
His next words eluded me, but the unmistakably cold tone he used made my stomach tighten like a fist. As though pulled forth by a puppet master’s strings, my body took slow steps towards the door. I tried to will myself to stop, but my hazy mind wasn’t strong enough to resist Papa Etienne’s influence. It felt as though I was looking through someone else’s eyes; my body didn’t feel like my own anymore. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t scream, I couldn’t even blink on my own. The only thing I had control over were my eyeballs. Even then, they served little purpose when I couldn’t even turn my head to fully examine things. I was forced to watch as my hands pushed the cobalt door open.
As soon as I exited the building, my ears were assaulted by a wall of deafening music. I progressed towards Bourbon Street and the rowdy crowd populating it. They gyrated to the obnoxious beat and cheered as a succession of floats wheeled by. There was something odd about them, though. Something I hadn’t noticed before. The crowd’s movements were jagged and laggy, as though I was seeing them through a strobe light. Then again, it was entirely possible I had Papa Etienne’s drink to thank for the unsettling effect.
Out of nowhere, a woman in an ornate mask flew in front of me, and then slid back motioning for me to follow. As she drifted farther away, her face began to morph. Her bedazzled feathered mask took on an altogether different appearance.
Instead of a stiff piece of handcrafted cardboard, it became malleable and clutched to her face like a second skin. The holes of its eyes became as dark as a bottomless well. Then, someone bumped into me, shifting my narrow line of sight to a group of young women dancing without fear of judgement. They, too, metamorphosed into hideous shapes that brought goose bumps to my flesh. Their skin peeled off with a ripping sound, revealing serpentine scales underneath.
They weren’t human: they were demons. Demons using the carnival setting to masquerade among the living. The more I looked at the crowd, the more otherworldly creatures I saw. The old woman in the wheelchair? A fiery beast on a chariot of thorns. The duo hitting on a pregnant woman? They were feathered beasts with crooked yellow teeth.
Two pitch black eyes locked onto mine as something I hesitate to call a man reached its meaty hand to my shoulder. A portion of his face had melted off to reveal a porous skull coated in writhing maggots. Through the holes of his incomplete set of teeth, I could see his tongue flicking back and forth like a twig in the breeze. A thick black substance oozed out of his nose and dampened what was left of a bushy mustache on his “good” side. Despite the festive green and purple suit he wore, he evoked nothing but unadulterated terror. As he stumbled closer to me, I could smell a mix of rotten eggs and booze on his breath. The odor didn’t mix well with the drink I’d ingested, causing my stomach to gurgle in protest. If that wasn’t bad enough, his viscous tongue rolled out of his mouth and slithered towards my cheek. My arm darted forward of its own volition, and I felt something wet and sticky drizzle over my hand.
The man groaned, released my shoulder, and doubled over. Black blood seeped out of his guts, and I knew it was the same substance coating my fingertips. Another shove, and I momentarily lost eye contact with the demon. When I saw him again, however, I was shocked to find just a regular man, his face twisted in a look of pain and betrayal. He was just a pudgy, middle-aged guy trying to make sense of his final moments, his throat straining to call for help over the sound of jazz and people cheering. He died without anyone noticing.
I felt a presence at my side. From the corner of my eyes, I peeked at the alleyway. Dark, serpentine-like tendrils rose from the shadows, and weaved together into the shape of a man. Into the shape of Papa Etienne.
“Come,” he murmured, his soft voice somehow louder than the music around us.
He led me back into the bar, where I spotted his snake slowly coiling itself around the bartender’s torso. Was I going to suffer the same fate?
“You did better than I expected,” said Papa Etienne, as he circled around me and pulled the object from my hands.
He turned me away from the bartender and held the object in his gloved fingers up to my face, showing me a bloodied knife. Hundreds of tormented faces had been carved into its ivory handle. Their mouths opened and closed as crimson drizzles pushed over the edge, and reached them.
“Now, now. Don’t look so grim, friend. You did well today. Got the right target,” he said excitedly, “You didn’t even try to fight it. That’s good. Papa Etienne doesn’t like the strong-willed.”
A crunching noise resonated through the empty bar.
For once, I was glad I couldn’t move. I didn’t want to look.
Papa Etienne hummed a pleasant tune, smirking as he looked me over from top to bottom, “Since you were such a good sport, I’ll even let you go, friend … as long as you don’t tell anyone about this … and if you even consider it, remember that I have <emthis.”
He placed the knife on the counter and leaned against the wall, motioning to it.
“Your fingerprints are all over it, I’m afraid. Tsk tsk!” he taunted.
The prickling sensation in my spine started to fade ever so slowly, and I found myself able to move my fingertips. I was too afraid of what would happen if Papa Etienne found out, so I stayed as still as a statue.
“Now, friend. Why don’t you have a little fun … on the house,” he said, eyes gleaming with amusement.
He reached into his jacket, pulled out a velvet pouch, and slipped his fingers inside. In one swift motion, he outstretched his hand and blew a light glittery powder into my face.
I felt an instant high, then nothing.
I woke up draped over my hotel bed like a towel on a lawn chair, with sirens whirring off in the distance. The light of the sun prickled like needles in my retinas from a nasty hangover, the strength of which I hadn’t experienced in ages. My head seemed as though it was about to collapse on itself, and the sensation worsened when I sat up and my blood rushed painfully into my cranium. Through anguished groans, I staggered to the restroom, applied a wet towel to my forehead, and popped a few pills.
As I waited for the painkillers to kick in, I began to wonder how I’d returned to the hotel, and, more importantly, what had I done after leaving the bar. Did I even want to know? I looked at myself in the mirror, and was surprised to see that I was in relatively good condition. No scratches, no blood, not even a single misplaced hair on my head. Perhaps it had all been a hallucination. At least, that’s what I thought until I saw the headline on the morning paper. That pudgy man’s face was plastered above the fold, as though threatening to unveil my crime to the world.
I needed to run. I needed air. I darted to the balcony, holding a hand to my mouth. I felt ill. Terrified. Horrified. What had I done?
The party hadn’t missed a beat, despite the events that had unfolded. Jazz music was still playing, people were still dancing in the streets, and floats were still driving by.
As I looked into the crowd, I saw Papa Etienne looking back at me. He tipped his top hat, smiled wryly, and disappeared into the alleyway where I’d found the bar. Before my very eyes, I watched as dozens of large copperhead snakes slithered into view and piled on top of one another, their markings matching the brick façade. One by one, they bridged the gap between the two buildings until they reached the very top. By the time I made it out of the hotel to check, I found that they’d solidified into a surface no different from the buildings they were made to mimic. It was as though the alleyway had never existed.
Ten people went missing that night. Three were confirmed dead in the weeks following, and the rest were never found. I can’t help but wonder, if I had resisted Papa Etienne’s influence that night, would I have been one of them?