CAT AND MOUSE
So I’m out front of Jaxon’s, down in the French Quarter, singing for my supper. Jaxon’s been good to me. For some fool-headed reason he lets this old cat sit on his doorstep and wail on her trumpet, just like in the old days, even though both of us could get taken for it. They don’t get seen again, them’s that get taken. Jaxon knows it; I seen all them pictures behind his bar. And don’t my brother know it, too.
So I’m singing for my supper. Me an’ my trumpet, making the magic them tourists wanna hear. They don’t want no sad songs no more. They want happy tunes these days, blues that sounds more like yellows and greens. So I give it to ’em, and they give me a couple credits, and we all walk away happy.
But not today. Today, the Silence finally finds me.
Oh, honey, I know who they is. They got the Look about them, you know? This one’s just a baby. Fresh outta Silence school. Dressed like a tourist, in his tee shirt and floppy sandals, but please, this ain’t my first rodeo. I know who he is, but I don’t know if he knows I know who he is, you got me?
But the crowd around me also know who he is, because all a sudden they start finding the rest of Bourbon Street real interesting.
So I’m caught, right? I’m a fish on a hook. The kid sees the trumpet before I can put it away or sing up a spell to make it look like a vape or a Coke bottle or whatever else they haven’t banned yet. So he knows, one, I make music outta magic, which only the Confeds is supposed to do; two, if I’m here it means they ain’t caught me yet; and three, I could be his ticket to a bigger, shinier badge.
I put my trumpet back in its case real slow-like, bell side down, no sudden movements. He comes right up to me. I play it cool, because, heck, what else am I gonna do? I know if they catch you Busking, they break your instrument, and we ain’t just talking about your trumpet. The Silence makes mimes outta musicians.
“That’s quite the lovely song you were playing, citizen,” he says.
That’s how we’re gonna play this? He gotta pretend he’s some kinda cat and I’m the mouse?
But of course I don’t show none of that. I just smile, sweet as pie, and say, “Thanks, sugar.”
“What song was it?”
“Don’t got no name, sugar.” I give him a nice, flirty up-and-down. He’s built like an oak tree, and he look fast too. I don’t think I could outrun him, even if I was half my age.
“You made it up?” He frowns, and I wonder if that’s a crime now too.
“Naw. Momma used to play it. She was in a brass band, before the war. Living Music Brass Band, you heard?” I pick up my trumpet case and don’t wait on no answer. “Excuse me, sug—”
He catches my shoulder, and it’s everything I can do not to bolt. “Just a minute, citizen, if you please. May I see your papers?” When I don’t move or say nothing, he goes on, “Any citizen can ask to see another citizen’s papers. It’s our right, by Confederate law.”
“Reckon you right, Sir.”
I pull out the ID card we all gotta carry and give it to him. He look a little disappointed. It’s a fake though, so joke’s on me if he catch it. Well, I’m just hoping he’s too green yet to spot the difference.
Of course I don’t got no real papers. Momma came over before the Fall of the States, and she done spent the rest of her life trying to get herself and me and my brother out again. Only ever managed herself.
I’mma get you two out too, baby girl, soon as I can. Yeah, sure you will, Momma.
He gives the card back just as I start to sweat. Smiling wide, like he trying to be charming. “Tell me, citizen, have you heard of the Nightingales?”
I shake my head hard as my old bones will let. “I want nothing to do with no Nightingales, Sir. Revolution ain’t my tune. I just wanna get home to my cat.”
He chews that over a spell. I think he expected I gonna play dumb. He leans in. “I hear there’s a secret meeting of these Nightingales tonight.”
“If you say so, Sir.”
“Tell me where this meeting is, and I’ll overlook your unlicensed use of magic on public grounds.” A little smile crooks up his cheeks. “You did know Busking could get you taken away?”
I ain’t sure what the best answer is, so I stay silent.
Wrong answer, though, ’cause now he look mad enough to spit. “Tell me!”
“I don’t know nothin’ about no meeting, honest.”
He steps closer. I can smell that sour-stink hotel coffee he had for breakfast on his breath. He licks his lips. “Tell me, or I’ll shred your lips to ribbons.”
“I’m telling you, I —”
Then the kid does the one thing I was praying he ain’t gonna do: He opens his mouth, so wide all’s I can see is teeth and tongue and pink, and out of that empty hole comes… Nothing.
The sounds of the street go dead. Can’t hear no tourists talking, no cars honking, no bike bells chiming. All of it, gone.
Everything is Silence.
And it hurts. Good Lord, does it hurt. The Nothingness crawls over and under and through my skin sucking up my magic like a straw; and it builds and builds till I feel I’m gonna burst.
I ain’t proud of what I do next, because my Momma, she taught me never to raise a hand in anger. But this ain’t no hand, it’s a trumpet case, and I whack him upside the head with it hard as I can swing. He goes cross-eyed and staggers like some kinda drunk, and now he really look at home on Bourbon Street.
All the sounds come rushing back. And it’s time to go.
I run. Fast as my old legs will go. That ain’t so fast anymore, but I got the up on him. He’s just a dumb kid fresh from the farms, and I been living in the Quarter half my life. I know where to go so you ain’t gonna be seen.
I beeline ’round Preservation Hall, not looking back, and now I’m down the alley behind the Cabildo, and I burst on through to the Square and into a crowd of tourists, five deep. They watching the street performance, the one that goes on every hour on the hour? It’s got all them official jugglers and jumpers and crap. You can’t even hear yourself think over the state-approved jinglejam.
I plug my ears best I can and whistle a low little tune. My magic starts running through me. All a sudden the long hair goes short, the brown eyes go white, and I look like some maw-maw from the sticks come in for a wild weekend in sinners’ city before she croaks. My trumpet case turns into one of them big straw handbags.
Nobody sees me change. Or if they do, they don’t say nothing.
I walk right back the way I came, easy as you please. The kid’s in the Square now, scowling up a storm. He got his bully stick out, a big mean thing like a timp mallet the size of your leg.
But he don’t notice ol’ Maw-Maw. The Silence can’t see through our kinda magic — not yet anyway. That’s what makes ’em so mad. The Silence, they act like they the only ones got the power to shape things. But it’s our kinda music — the rough, magic kind that shows ’em up for the liars they is. As long as we around making noise, their lie ain’t never safe.
But then, neither am I. And I just wanna live, thank you. I just wanna live.
I go home. Soon as I open the door and drop my trumpet case, out she come running, my sweet little Clementine.
That fat ol’ tabby tangles herself up in my legs like Mardi Gras beads, tail whipping this way and that, until I can’t hold the spell no more. My skin shivers, and I look myself again. She wants a song, I know she do. She always do.
“Not now, Clem,” I tell her, nudging her off. “I ain’t got it in me right now.”
I fall on my couch, heavy as a stone. I get to thinking, about living and not living and everything in between. There ain’t no sneaking from the Silence no more. They the ones with the bully sticks and badges and boys built like oak trees. Me, all’s I got is luck and a song. And one day, they both gonna run out. I think of Jaxon, about all them faces behind his bar. I think about my brother. His picture ain’t behind that bar. He never made it so far as New Orleans. But trust me when I tell you, he had an angel’s voice. He was fifteen and beautiful, and he could make a statue cry with that voice of his. That voice I can’t even hear in my head no more, no matter how hard I try.
If the Silence gets what they want — a world with only jinglejam, where the blues don’t even got no yellows or greens, just a bunch of greys — then maybe my brother got taken for nothing.
I get up and take out my trumpet. I don’t know why. I got something to prove, maybe. And even before it’s outta the case, Clementine starts getting her yowl on. She’s gonna let it all out, no matter what kinda men or mice be listening.
Clem’s got the right of it, I think.
I pick the old girl up and love on her tight.
“C’mon,” I tell her. “It’s time for you and me to find us some Nightingales.”
“Cat and Mouse” © L.C. Brown May 30, 2018
L.C. Brown lives with her husband and
two kids in a secret volcano lair just outside New Orleans, L.A.
illustration by Fran Eisemann. Trumpet 2 by hyenacub-stock.Nightingale Silhouette, cat, mouse, Bourbon Street, Bourbon Street street sign from Pixabay.