Sherri L. Smith, whose excellent novel “Flygirl” made our Blockbuster-Free Reading Exchange last summer–and also won the California Book Award, was a YALSA Best Book for Young Adults, and made it onto 14 State Award Lists–has a new novel coming out that is causing buzz-buzz-buzz! It’s called “Orleans,” and it’s arriving in bookstores on March 7. Booklist has given it a starred review, and Kirkus calls it “a harrowing and memorable ride.”
YARN is the only place where you can read you can read this short story prequel to “Orleans,” called “Orleans: Carnivale.” This is the story of Carnivale in a very different New Orleans than the one we know today. Smith’s novel takes place after a wave of fatal hurricanes and Delta Fever decimate the population of the region. Citizens of the Outer States think there is no life in the Gulf Coast, but in reality, a new primitive society has emerged. From this society comes Fen de la Guerre, who has been left with the newborn child of her tribe’s leader, whom she is determined to give a better life.
Sherri tells YARN that “Carnivale” takes place approximately nine months before the start of “Orleans” and gives a glimpse into the world of the heroine, Fen de la Guerre, and her chieftain, Lydia, before their world is turned upside down.
And here … It … Is!!!
By Sherri L. Smith
“You might find this hard to believe, Fen, but I was a grown woman before we met.”
Lydia smile when she say it, but I know she trying to put me in my place. We been doing this since I can remember, but she forget I know where I stand. Right behind her, watching her back. Orleans done shifted winds again and I don’t like it one bit. So, no way am I letting this woman ride out on Mardi Gras night with an unknown krewe.
“We all go,” I tell her. “Uncle Romulus, Harney, whoever else you choose,” I say, naming the smartest and the strongest in our tribe.
“That’s not how it works, Fen, and you know it. Carnivale and Feast of All Saints are days to set aside tribal allegiance. We are all of Orleans here. It serves us well to remember that, even if only twice a year.”
I kick a toe in the dirt floor of her hogan, shifting pebbles around before I smooth it out again.
“You know what I remember? Charlie Ann and Mischief being caught by Le Bête’s people last fall. Mischief, strung up in that tree while they be bathing in his blood. For all we know, they still be drawing blood from Charlie Ann.”
ABs be like that. Fever and drugs come on them and they go into a frenzy. Crazy, they drag folks off to use as blood slaves—transfusions, bad hoodoo, anything to keep the Fever down. And, when it come to Delta Fever, O-Positive blood be better than most.
That be my tribe, OP.
“Now, you telling me them ABs won’t be on the hunt on Mardi Gras? You saying they stop being crazy a couple times a year so they can hold hands and torches with the rest of us?”
Lydia wrinkle her brow and I know she see my point.
“Do you remember the first meal you had with us, Fen? The day you came out of those woods, burnt and starving?”
I remember. I weren’t trusting no one back then, but I been so hungry I been dying. Lydia done had to feed me with her own two hands. Bite for bite, she share her plate with me so I know she don’t be feeding me poison or drugs.
“Trust,” she say now. “We learn to trust or we starve.”
With that, she turn her back on me and go on decorating her Mardi Gras mask, the one that will keep folk from knowing just who be riding out unarmed and in the open. Even on Mardi Gras, trust only go so far.
Orleans ain’t always been like this. Back before I been born used to be they called the place New Orleans and Mardi Gras be a party lasting almost two whole weeks. Folks come from all over. There ain’t been no tribes then, just families and people. They all come to be a part of the party that used to be Mardi Gras. Father John and the Ursulines teach that Mardi Gras be a celebration before Lent. Forty days of sacrifice leading up to Easter and the death of the baby Jesus. Seem like Lent last the whole year round these days, and the last time Orleans saw Jesus, he be a hurricane that tore the whole place down. So I can’t say I see the point in Mardi Gras. Fat Tuesday. It like a joke. But it mean something to Lydia, and she mean something to me. So I don’t fight with her no more. And I don’t let it go, neither.
We keep Mardi Gras like the old folks did, like the first krewe that ever rode. Men in masks holding torches called flambeaux went riding around the old city of New Orleans when it was still French and Spanish. That been so long ago it be like it never happened. Strange, for a place where nothing new seem to last that we still be holding on to that.
Lydia don’t got a horse—they a liability for a tribe like us. Too easy to track, too hard to feed. But the As in Uptown got some, keep them in the old zoo up there. They bring them down to the Market two nights a year. An honor system exist in Orleans for a few things. Ever since the Fever spread, there been the Rules of Blood. Rules that say each blood type don’t mix with the others for fear of spreading the disease. So O tribes, As, ABs and Bs have different days at the Market, down by the old French Quarter where a body can barter for goods. On Mardi Gras, rules be this: come to the Market, join a krewe. Horses be waiting, or bikes or folks go on foot. Blood type don’t matter on Mardi Gras. Everybody wear masks to be anonymous. For a few hours, folks risk the Rules and mix together. Otherwise, if a pure O krewe go riding, just about every blood hunter under the sun be chasing them down.
I never rode with a krewe before. To my mind, it be an easy way to get killed. But Lydia a chieftain for a reason. She lead. We follow. So, when she tell Uncle Rom to watch the camp and she head out for the Quarter, that’s what I do. Rom give me the nod as I go. He know we got to protect our own. I slip out of camp after Lydia, far enough behind that she don’t notice, but close enough to use this knife if I got to protect her.
Torches be lighting the Market up ahead. Lydia be silhouetted against the firelight. Anybody looking for her can see her now. I stick to the woods, then low to the ground when the dirt become gravel and the trees start to thin.
Lydia ain’t looked back once.
Then she pass the old cemeteries, St. Louis Number 1 and 2. That be when the trouble start.
I see her react before I hear them—a gang in the crypts whooping slow then fast, like monkeys. Lydia flinch to the side and I see a club I didn’t know she been carrying rise up against the torch glow. I draw my knife, then sheath it. I can’t be drawing blood on Mardi Gras. If that be Le Bête’s folks in them graves, the scent of blood only make them crazier. Even if it be they own.
The whooping turn to shrieking. I search the ground with my boot and pick up the smoothest rock I can find. It’ll have to do.
Suddenly, the shrieking stop.
Lydia know better than to run. She be just as likely to head toward a hunter as away from one. She drop into a crouch, watching the rusted gates of the graveyard. Weeds grow tall against the crypts, slowly knocking the stones down. A good place to hide, but a dangerous one, too. I seen more than one fool catch themselves on the metal rods that used to hold some of them vaults together. Rust get in your blood, you just as dead as if you had the Fever. I pad closer to the wrought iron fence that wrap around the graves. The gates be hanging at odd angles, busted from they hinges long ago by wind and storm.
I be close enough to hear them creaking now. The fight be in me, rushing in my blood. I grip the cement in my hand. Lydia ain’t moved a muscle.
The gate burst open, slammed back on itself so hard it break apart. ABs then. Three of them come streaming out the graveyard, whooping and hollering like the drugged up fools they be. I take the first one out with a blow to the head. His eyes be on Lydia and he don’t see me jumping him from behind. It jar my wrist something awful, but it work. His eyes roll back and he go down. I keep moving, diving straight for that broken gate. I grab a piece of iron, sharp at both ends, and come around swinging to take the third AB in the shins. Number 2 already gone past me and Lydia putting her club to use on him.
Lydia and me, we fight good together. My AB give a hard punch to my middle when I stand up, and another to the side of my head, but that iron bar come down nice and solid on his shoulder and his whooping be screaming now. He kick at my legs and we both go down, but I still be holding that bar. I shift my grip and point the sharp end at him. Maybe this one be smarter than the others ’cause, when he see how close that rusted point be to his eye, he done. He shut right up and roll to the side. I let him get up and run.
The other two ain’t gonna be running nowhere soon.
Lydia be breathing heavy, but when I give her the okay sign, she nod at me. She take a deep breath and stoop down to the gravel to pick up her mask and brush it off. We don’t say a word. Jawing off be a good way for hunters to know how many of you there be. I signal to her again, a finger across my throat, and jerk my head back the way we came. Time to quit this. Lydia just smile at me, amused and close-lipped so her teeth don’t catch the light. She rest the club on her shoulder, a warning to any other fools hiding in the graves, and keep walking. Shaking my head, I follow.
When the gravel turn to pavement, Lydia put on her mask and step into the open. The Quarter near the Market be lined with two-story buildings rebuilt with something stronger than brick after the first few hurricanes. When most places be tumbling down, the Quarter still mostly look like it do in old pictures. The streets widen in front of the Market where little white lights outline the blue tarp roofs of the stalls. The clack of shifting horses drift my way over voices what be singing and laughing. Things you don’t be doing most days in Orleans.
I round the corner, so close against the wall of some old restaurant or hotel that I can smell the green moss growing off it. I keep my lids lowered so the light don’t catch my eyes and give my hiding spot away. Now I can see the horses, corralled in by a circle of people, maybe twenty or so, all in masks made from what they can find– old cans, paper, plastic tarping. One man got a box on his head made out of wood. In the flickering light I can’t see much more than that.
Lydia walk tall into the crowd. Her mask be a face, an old funeral mask from the burials at the Dome, but she done covered it with dozens of pheasant feathers and dried leaves in a pattern. She look like she part of the land, growing up tall and straight as an ash tree, birds nesting in her hair. People part, and I know they can see through her disguise. Lydia walk like a queen. Maybe they don’t know she OP, but she be a chieftain for sure.
Nobody move for a knife, rope or club. They just step aside and I see her nod, the feathers on her headdress dipping. A man, face hidden by a mask of moss and bark shaped to look like rough skin and a growing beard, lead a horse to her. She take the reins and jump onto its back like she been riding every day of her life. The man mount his own horse and the others follow. Six in this krewe. The folks on the ground hand up the flambeaux. Lydia take one and hold it out far from her body so it can’t spark her headdress.
Even though I be in the shadows, she turn and look at me. In the torchlight, I see her eyes gleaming through the mask, her smile bright against the dark night.
Trust, she say. Trust or starve.
I nod once, and step farther into the dark. I be the reason she can walk in the woods without looking back. I watch out for Lydia, but she be watching out for all of Orleans. The riders circle the crowd, but Lydia don’t lead them. She fall back and the man with the box on his head kick in his heels. His horse leap forward and the others follow, one after the other. Tonight they be a new tribe. Tonight they a krewe called Orleans.
They swirl in a circle, the leader shout “Allons-y!” Let’s go, he say, let’s go! And they ride out into the wild night, singing.
And though it go against my gut, I don’t follow. Maybe Lydia be right. Trust got to start somewhere before anything gonna change in Orleans. I never believed it could change, least not ’til tonight. I still got that rod in my hand, can still smell the sweat of the ABs we fought, but there she go, riding with strangers who be her enemies any other day. More folks be arriving. Krewe after krewe mount up or head out on foot, running through the city, chanting they songs. Mardi Gras be wild in Orleans, but a different kind of wild. The kind of wild where hope can grow.
Sherri L. Smith was born in Chicago, Illinois and spent most of her childhood reading books. She currently lives in Los Angeles, where she has worked in movies, animation, comic books and construction. Sherri is the author of four award-winning novels—“Lucy the Giant,” “Sparrow,” “Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet” and the California Book Awards Gold Medalist “Flygirl,” which the Washington Post named a best book of the year. Her next novel, “Orleans,” set in a post-catastrophe New Orleans, hits shelves March 2013. For more information visit www.sherrilsmith.com.