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Chambliss, the wealthy only son of a prosperous sugarcane plantation owner in Louisiana is madly in love with Camellia, a slavewoman, though they keep their relationship secret from his father, and are separated until the father’s passing, upon which Camellia moves into the house with Chambliss. When a cholera outbreak sweeps across the plantation, however, Camellia is not spared.
The dark room, lit only by the lamp on the table, revealed Chambliss’s grimacing countenance staring back at him from the chipped mirror on the wall above the bed. He looked down into her ashen face, once so ebony and lively-eyed, now cadaverous in the clutches of cholera. He kissed her hand, her cheek, and she whispered in his ear, “Never… let us… part.” Her eyes fluttered closed, and the breath passed her full lips for the last time, in a deathly imitation of a sigh.
“I must have her back,” he cried. “She was my life, who now lies dead, and my heart lies dead, there in her breast.” As he said this, how truly he believed it was so, he could still hear her voice, calling his name, “Chambliss, Chambliss, Chambliss,” like the rustling of the leaves, like the hushing of the sea, like the moaning of the trees. He fled the room, leaving the elderly housekeeper, Jehosephine, to tend the body, as was proper. And the next day she was interred in the cemetery behind the church, not a mile from Chambliss’s plantation home.
Chambliss sat brooding on his porch, watching the sun as it sank slowly lower and lower into the deepening darkness of the Louisiana summer night. He looked to the horizon, towards the Gulf, and saw the mass of thunderclouds slowly rolling across the twilit sky, twisted forms of grey and black, tinged red at the edges. He heard the chanting of far off voices in the bayou, where the ancient witch Zenobia Laveau lived, the distant aunt of the beloved Camellia, practicing rituals of which no living mortal, save herself, knew the derivation of.
Gogo Zena, as the witch was called by her followers, knew of many secrets, beyond those of the traditional magic. Her very reputation was steeped in mysterious incantations and sacraments, and she knew, as one of her kind does, when they are needed.
Chambliss dropped into a slumber, no not a slumber, a trance, cognizant of an electricity in the air, like that of a lightning storm, before it strikes. He followed the current of it, stumbling over tree roots, sliding over trailing vines, into the bayou, as if pursued by the Hell Hounds. He stopped only when he reached a clearing, lit by a bonfire, next to which squatted a wizened old woman, Gogo Zena, her eyes closed and rolling, fluttering back and forth in their sockets, while she muttered in a primeval tongue, guttural and rhythmic, rocking back and forth on her heels. He sat by the flames, and she opened her eyes, apparently expecting this visitor, at the time when the moon had passed the third quarter of the night sky, hidden as it was by the unyielding clouds.
“Kon-men lé-z’affè? How are things, misyé? Gogo Zena knows. Konnen much things about any things, men, but what you want, not everything. Kon-men lé-z’affè, misyé? Camellia is not all gone, I know, wi. You are mouri inside, and she is mouri outside, two moso of a tout, pieces of a whole. How to fix it, are de ways, un you go to her, de she come back to you. Maybe work bon, or petèt pa, maybe no.” Gogo Zena rose to her feet, her dark wrinkled face shadowed heavily by the dying flames, her solid body throwing a stout shadow across the dirt and loam. She pressed a packet into his hands, a twisted paper, scented of spoilt flowers, telling him to burn it over her grave by the next dark moon, and lay the ashes in a trail to his house.
The next new moon, a night in which not a single light shone, a silky shroud of black broken only by swirling mist cloaked the land and the sky, as Chambliss carried out Gogo Zena’s instructions. As he walked through the darkness, scattering the ashes as he went, the thunderheads gathered in the southern sky, rumbling discontentedly to themselves.
The storm broke the next morning, soaking the land in a dampness that settled in the joints. From dawn until dusk the maelstrom raged on, the thunderclaps rumbled into the night, a ghastly thunderous night, and though the rain had ceased, the clouds still roiled in the heavens, a war fought by the souls of the dead as they pushed against the gates of this world. In the graveyard, a damp figure crept about, dark-faced and dripping, the vaporous air of the cemetery clinging to her clothes.
Chambliss sat by the fireplace, staring into the flickering flames, the fast flitting fingers that licked at the charred logs. The wind moaned and the thunder crashed, the trees groaned and the branches rattled. He pretended not to notice when he heard the sound of the front door open and close, half-asleep he dreamt of footsteps treading wearily down the hall. In dreams, his subconscious had brought to him visions of Camellia, and now he saw them once again, but this time they were different. Her jet hair in ordered rows upon her head trickled muddy droplets to the floor, dirt forming crescent moons beneath her fingernails and vagrant smudges on her cheeks, her scent of flowers wilted. He rose from the sofa and took her in his arms, kissing her frigid mouth, touching her icy skin. He met her eyes with the longing of a man who thirsts for water but is denied, and with the gratefulness of a man hungry for food who has been granted it. “Never…let us…part…” she whispered, as he stroked her cold forehead, spongy and pliant to the feel.