Spring 1999, Volume 16.3
Blood is Their Secret
Marco Morrone's story "Blood is Their Secret" is the first chapter of an historical novel describing the 1890 assassination of the New Orleans chief of police and the Mafia hysteria which followed. Mr. Morrone recently completed his Master's degree in History at the University of Texas. He lives in San Francisco and teaches English at Redwood High School. This is his first published work.
The boy woke, having been dreaming in English. In the dream his parents were alive and the three of them were sailing away from land on a ship. They spoke English too, in the dream, but he was too young to speak himself, and so he cried. "There, there," they said to him, and to each other: "he cries too, for leaving." They held him up so he could look back at the land, but it looked plain and grey and less like itself than did the sea, which rolled away all around them like great green hills beneath clouds of white spray.
He had not been asleep long, but it had not been his intention to fall asleep at all; he had intended to feign sleep for an hour and then dress and sneak out of the house to meet up with his gang. He considered not going at all now that he would be late, but realized that if he did not go he would be too anxious to sleep in any case, and so he wormed out from beneath the thin blanket which covered him in his pallet. He could hear it raining outside, as it had been for almost a week, and though it was not cold out from under the blanket he shivered as he pulled on his clothes thinking of the long walk in the rain at night. In the closeness of the small room, he could feel the sounds of even his most careful movements reaching out like long quiet arms to where the others lay sleeping, but they did not stir, their bodies too grateful for the time stolen away from work and resting greedily in the dark peacefulness of the balmy, rainy night.
Dressed but for his shoes, he crept out of the sleeping room of people. He noticed that Nino's place across from him was empty, but he did not find this strange or alarming. Many times he had woken up in the night to hear Nino either leaving or arriving, so that his nocturnal movements had by now taken on some aspect of daytime normality. Once or twice Nino had caught him looking and scowled at him and afterward the boy had tried hard to forget the entire incident so as not to cause trouble. But another time Nino had come over when he noticed that his arrival had awoken the young one and he leaned close, his man's whiskers hovering close to the boy's face like the fur of an animal in the darkness, and from amid a slow, strange smile he had said, "just between us, ah?"—withdrawing afterwards without a sound, the white of his teeth and eyes receding into the shadowy recesses of the small room like something slipping below the surface of a deep pool.
The boy stepped into the main room, where Anna cooked and they all ate and sometimes sat around the table and laughed and had a glass of wine. Nino always brought the wine, which was too expensive, but he managed to force some on everyone anyway and they were all together then. It's a shotgun shack, Frank had said of the place. The three of them were all brothers and sisters, but he wasn't; he was the one they took in.
Passing out of the kitchen and into the small entryway on the other side, he slipped on his shoes and set out into the rain, which had begun to retreat into the low, wet clouds that had been clinging to the rooftops of the city for days. On such a night with no moon it would be hard to find his way in this part of town where there were few electric lights, and even then only at street corners. As the rain let up, it drew the smell out of everything around. He imagined finding his way along like an animal, like a lion. He could smell the earthy rot of wet leaves on the ground and the soaked wood of the plank sidewalks and the night itself too, which always made him think of smoke. He made his way along the alley that connected the house to the main street, creeping through the mud like a lion, listening for everything around him. In the unsettled outskirts of the city itself he knew there were lions, or at least deer and boars and wild dogs. Some of the men in the neighborhood had been hunting out there and brought them back a deer once, with skin so soft the boy couldn't imagine how it had held the deer together in the first place. How easy it must be to kill a deer, he remembered thinking, just a touch on the skin and it all comes right apart.
When he reached the intersection of the alley and the main street, he and the road around him were partially illuminated at a distant angle by the streetlight that hung over an intersection a block down to his right. The street was empty and its cavernous, muddy ruts had filled with rainwater, reflecting only glimmers in the slanting, swaying electric light. He kicked along, following a loose order of streets and alleyways which would bring him to the meeting place. The roads had become treacherous and slippery, in places bog-like in this section of the city where none of it was paved. He had been on some of the concrete roads in the Garden District and found them fast and wonderful. The cobbled streets too fascinated him, on dry days the unpredictable clip-clop sound of hooves on the irregular texture of them, though he himself had turned an ankle once running away from a shopkeeper and had a good beating as a result. But a rainy week washed these better streets full of mud as well, so that it was slow going everywhere. Even the streetcars crawled carefully along their tracks, the big teams that pulled them scrabbling and slogging for footing in the swampy ground, baying and snorting their frustration to one another. Horses have a rich animal smell, he thought, one that lingers in the street after they are gone, and lions can smell it a mile away. Where do the horses go at night, he wondered, when the streetcars stop running? Do they lean their bodies up against barn doors, catching a rest from the day's work, or do they run around free? Do they run-around knock-around at all hours kicking up mud on the back streets of the Quarter like him, burning away the night?
When he arrived, only two others had even shown up at all. "Late," said one.
"Probably fell asleep," said the other.
"No," the boy said. "They were up. I had to wait."
"Sure," said the first. The other smiled.
They were not his favorites, the ones who had shown up, but they were the ones he would have expected to come even if the others didn't. And there was also a frantic, hopeful energy that came from being three and not one, and soon they were running along the muddy streets together laughing and pitching rocks at storefronts. They passed an uninhabited space that set apart several buildings, what might have been a park or a small green had it not been piled high with garbage and even some of the collected muck from the neighborhood privies. In the weak white glow of a streetlight some blocks away, the foul steam rising from the enormous heap of refuse made it look like the smoldering remnant of something that had burned down. They stared at it a moment and when they heard a rustling off to one side, they hunted up some rocks to shower at a few rats which had allowed themselves to be discovered.
Further on, they eventually passed into the grander residential section of the Quarter, where the old three- and four-story houses rose narrow and ornamental like castle towers. Many had their own electric lights, usually one outside on a second or third balcony, which gave the impression that the house itself remained on guard even as its inhabitants slept. They paused before a particular three-story brick fortress perched at the rear of its lot with a small garden in front rather than in back, as was the style. The boy's two fellows agreed that it was a good house for robbing.
"This one," stated the first.
"Sure," said the other.
"What do you say, then?" the first fellow said to the boy, who had not spoken.
"I don't know," he said.
"He doesn't know," said the first.
"No, ah?" said the second.
"What makes it so good?" said the boy.
"What makes it?" said the first.
"There's a tree—there, a climbing tree on the side."
"It goes up to the second-floor. Easy."
The boy looked over into the shadowy left corner of the lot and saw a shade tree standing at attention beside the house, one low bough riding up alongside a small tract of the second-floor balcony.
"So?" said the first fellow.
"He's afraid," said the second.
The boy said nothing.
"He's afraid," the second fellow said again.
"Maybe not," said the first.
"Piss on you," said the boy, and he and the second fellow turned and stared at one another eyeless and faceless, each unable to discern much beyond the thin outline of a child's body opposite him in the low yellow of the distant electric light on the second floor balcony, where the tree limb reached.
But before the feeling of the moment had faded from the front of their minds, the boy found himself running. He crashed numbly through the garden in front of the house and misjudged the tree itself, hitting it first and hard with his face and chest and knocking some of the wind out of him, but his right hand had taken hold of a branch, and soon after the left, and so before the anger had drained away he had climbed head-high into the tree. When he had made it as far as the bough that reached out toward the balcony like a bent arm he looked down and saw the first fellow hissing encouragement up at him and the second fellow standing and watching from a short distance away. The bough itself left a greater distance between the tree and the balcony than it had appeared from below, but as he came closer to the light he gained confidence in the sure placement of his hands and feet, and so he made it up and over the ornate iron railing with little further difficulty.
On the balcony, the boy took a deep breath to settle himself and then looked out from his new vantage point. He saw that above them, a watery pink moon now floated in and out of the high grey sky, and that like the rain before it, some of the darkness had lifted away. Standing on the cool smooth stone, he was struck by the chaotic beauty of the muddy street, with its brightening constellation of rain-filled pools, each reflecting faithfully the passing glimpses of the moon above. Below him, he noticed the first fellow starting to scramble up the tree.
Turning around, he tip-toed several steps to one of the glass doors which ran the length of the balcony. Pressing his face close to the glass, he could see through the gauze of a curtain the stark interior landscape of a drawing room larger perhaps than his own entire house. Although the details within remained hidden in shadows, he imagined a kingly richness for all the furnishings, and an appropriate nobility for the masters of the house, whom he conceived to be the most wealthy and powerful people in the city. His fellow had by this time made it as far as the bough, but had paused at the disconcerting gap between the tree and the railing. The boy reached over to help him, but as soon as he felt the other's weight come into his own hands he heard a noise behind him and to the left, and immediately his hands were unweighted and his fellow began sliding back down the tree, clawing away for a grip as he went. The boy watched, powerless, as his fellow descended the tree far faster than he had intended and landed in a heap. But another noise behind him, this one louder and more distinct than the first—a door opening—tore his attention back to the balcony on which he stood.
At the opposite end beside an open glass door he saw a man in his sleeping clothes holding a long-barrelled hunting rifle. Part of the boy considered a quick leap over the railing and a return down the way he had come, but fear had come between his mind and body. And so he stood, motionless, facing the man at the other end of the balcony who simply stared back at him, perhaps uncertain of what action to take next since his presence alone had apparently not been sufficient. After the shock had passed, the boy began to notice that the man was not as he might have imagined—that he was instead somewhat old and stooped, and that his head seemed shriveled beneath his white wispy hairs. The rifle itself looked dusty and ill-used, as if it had been lifted only moments before from above the mantle. Even in the midst of his fear, the boy entertained the thought that perhaps the figure before him was not in fact the master of the house but a kind of scarecrow, an outrageous statue employed to terrify intruders, or else to mock them.
But the statue began grumbling to life suddenly, some speech gathering in its stony throat, its face flushing with anger, and the boy rediscovered movement of his limbs and began backing away toward the railing and the possibility of flight.
"Goddam dagoes," the man spat.
The words slipped inside the boy like a long thin knife, and from the deep place where they touched a hot liquid poured out into his body. He stopped backing away and took up standing again. The man came a step closer to him and still the boy did not move, except for the tensing of his arms and shoulders, the clenching of his fists; he understood that he had begun readying himself, and that when the man got close enough, he would lash out at him with all the blind, coiling strength he had. But as the man reached out for the boy, the rifle clambered out of his other hand and the butt-end struck the stone floor hard, and an instant later the balcony exploded in a flash of light and noise which shook the air around them and left a screaming sound in the boy's ears.
It was only after the echo of the shot had dissipated that the boy realized he had not been wounded or killed. He wanted to curse the man, to run at him headlong and deliver his full fury, but he found that this power had left him as quickly as it had come. His limbs were moving now and so he began a speedy descent, pausing at the base of the tree on instinct to look back at his enemy, who had not yet moved again since the sound of the shot and who stood looking down at the boy in horror at the suppleness and vitality of him, at his movement.
His fellows were long gone and so the boy wandered home alone, his mind busy with remembering and his spirit full of the warm life that comes from having gotten out of a close spot. As he neared his own neighborhood, the boy set about planning his stealthy return to his own sleeping place, pausing to wonder if he would be returning after Nino, and if he might accidentally wake him up when he arrived just to see the look he would have on his face. This image dreamed him back past the streetlights and into the Italian section of the Quarter, with its attendant darkness.
But where he expected to find dead calm, he found stirrings of wakefulness. Through the shutters of some of the houses he even saw the flickering orange of oil lights. He wondered at first if it were near dawn and some of them had started the day over already, but the moon was still high and the now cloudless blue-black night deep and full behind it.
He could not quite get his mind around the activity he was witnessing. He thought at first the rifle shot must have woken them, that he and his fellows had been found out, that people were out looking for them even. But none of this made sense or would explain why so many lights were burning at this hour of the night and the strangeness of it chilled him, and in recollecting his adventure on the balcony he suddenly could not remember whether or not he had been brave. The feelings of the time seemed remote and untouchable, and sank deeper within his current confusion as he approached his own house and noticed the familiar patterns of light lurking behind the shutters of the side window.
He plodded the few remaining steps to the door, resigned to punishment: a whipping, he imagined, from either Frank or Anna or both of them depending on how angry and how tired they each were. But he found it difficult to dread this, preoccupied as he was by the general failure of his own enterprise and how it swallowed up without remorse the excitement of the evening he had just passed.
As he set foot on the front step he paused, hearing the sound of voices within and some of them not of the house. His own patchwork of concerns tumbled from his mind as he eased the outside door open and padded on cat-paws to the door which separated the entryway from the kitchen and he stopped there to listen more closely. He could tell they were men talking, sitting around the kitchen table probably, and that Nino was one of them, but they kept their voices low. Between himself and the voices he could hear Anna banging around in the kitchen, cooking or cleaning up or going through the motions of one or the other. In straining to hear the nature of the conversation, he noticed that he had been leaning his weight up against the door, so he withdrew quietly out of nervousness and then watched in horror as the door fell open from its latch by several inches.
He felt certain that discovery was imminent. He held his breath and the idea pushed forward from the back of his mind that if they were indeed discussing his whereabouts that any disruption in the room—a noise outside, the creak of a floorboard—would instantly call them to action. And yet a moment later Anna passed by the doorway and failed to notice him. He exhaled carefully and for a few long moments could not think about anything at all but the fact that he did not know what was going on.
Minutes passed, and as he became accustomed to the open door and the idea that he had not been found out, he worked his way forward patiently until, while remaining concealed in the shadows, he could see most of the room on the other side of the door and hear much better. The men had on heavy, muddy boots and hulked around the small square table which they had pulled over to the far side of the room. There were two of them besides Nino, but you could have made a third from the thickness of this pair. Tracks of fresh black mud crisscrossed the pale wood floor and Anna was mad, he could see, but not at that. She paced the small cooking area picking things up and putting them down as if she were looking for something but not finding it or anything else she wanted. She had a pan heating up on the stove, and though she did not seem to be listening to the conversation in the other part of the room, now and again one of the men would say something and she would stop what she was doing and stare off and shake her head and mutter to herself and then carry on with her distracted rituals.
"We want to get out of these clothes," one of the pair of men announced. A moment passed and no one at the table said anything further and no one moved.
"Your sister is angry," ventured the second man.
Nino chuckled. "Your brother is a genius," he said to the first, "another Da Vinci."
"Another Brutus," said the first. Nino laughed.
"I know what you say," the second man replied.
"You do?" asked the first.
"Yes," said the second.
"Yes, I suppose you do." "Oh he knows," said Nino. "He's very smart. Watch him. He may discover something at any moment. A light bulb, a bicycle, a flying machine."
Another quiet moment passed and the first one said, "We should change out of these clothes, and the boots."
"Go then," said Nino, but again no one moved. He smiled and shook his head. "You'd think you would be used to it by now," he said.
"This isn't meant to be funny, this business. Are you—" the second started to say, but a look from Nino stopped him. The first man's hand had begun to tremble just a bit on the table, his nail tapping on the wood, and he took it off and let his arm hang loose at his side.
"You'd think you'd be an expert," Nino said, reclining in his chair somewhat. "A man is just an animal with a mind in his head. And this one, a real animal. This one a wolf."
"Still, are you—" the second one said, "don't you think they'll come for us?"
"Are you afraid?" Nino asked.
"Are you not?"
"Oh yes, I am terrified," Nino said. "There will be trouble. But the time for this bellyaching was before."
"They will think it was Italians who did this," said the first man.
"He is right," said the second.
"A good point. You are both top students," Nino said.
"You are mad," said the first.
"Truly," said the second, "you are a crazy dreamer, and you have doomed us all."
At this Nino rose from his chair, and in the anticipation of what might happen next the boy moved forward into the light that shone through from the kitchen into his hiding place. He had been standing there for no more than a moment or two before he realized that Anna was looking in his direction and that she had in fact trained her full concentration upon him. He thought about how she always took care of everything and wondered if she would take care of this new trouble as well, but then he could feel from the way her eyes held him hard and tight like he was her own son that the distance between them had suddenly collapsed and that they were both on the outside looking in at the world of men.
"What's done is done," said Nino. The men sat still and watched him with patient, almost inanimate attention. "You try and hold the truth of this thing tight in the center of you like a small stone. But you can't. It breaks apart and pumps out into your body like blood. And it is all your own and you belong to it. This blood is your secret—its power comes from both its keeping, and its revelation."
The men were silent, and the boy too had fallen into a kind of trance, as he often did when they sat around some nights and listened to the old men telling stories. And he felt as if this time the hearing had drawn him up into the telling until he had become part of it, until he and his life had become part of something altogether different. He felt himself sliding from his own world into this other, down the warm, sandy slope which he now saw had always separated the two.
In the midst of his descent, Anna snatched him by the arm and pulled him out into the kitchen before the men, and she and Nino stared at one another over him. The boy looked with curiosity on the two strange men sitting at the table. They had hard faces and massive bodies, but there was something soft around the edges of them, their hands and shoulders, but perhaps this was just in comparison to Nino, who stood tall and had a metal certainty to every turn of his body. He might have been a soldier under his skin, or a boxer or a ball player, the boy thought. The strange men stared at the boy with a look of blank incomprehension. Nino looked down with a kind face for a moment, but then he returned his attention to his older sister, who seemed poised to lecture him as she often did in her quick, sharp phrases. But she did not. She and Nino looked at one another with the dark eyes of their parents and the boy could feel her hand and arm tremble through the firm hold she had on his shoulder. She moved the boy forward a half-step towards Nino and held him there and said nothing. The boy saw Nino reach out and pull stray curls of black-brown hair away from where they had fallen across her face and then touch her with the palm of his hand on the cheek. Anna reached up and took Nino's hand in her own and kissed the knuckles on his hand hard, so that it left a red mark. Then she turned around and went back to the other side of the room, leaving the boy where he stood.
Nino squatted down so that he was looking up into the boy's eyes. They stared at each other in silence for a moment. The boy did not know if something was expected of him at this point, but he had no idea what he might provide if this were the case and so the only option seemed to be silence.
"Well then," Nino said finally, "where have you been?"
"Out. I see."
"An old man tried to shoot me when I broke into his house," the boy said.
"But you have escaped uninjured, it seems."
"Very good. That is more than I can say for our party, in which one of our number received a cut on the hand." One of the men shifted in his seat and the boy noticed that the man had been holding his left hand under the table. "One of the other boys fell out of a tree," the boy said.
"And was he injured?" Nino asked.
"I don't know. He left while the old man was shooting at me. The man called me goddam dago."
At the hearing of this Nino smiled a thin smile that had nothing to do with his customary humorous demeanor and shook his head slightly from side to side and the boy realized that Nino was a man capable of killing another man.
"You are very brave," Nino said.
"I know," the boy said, and Nino smiled a grand smile this time, and the men behind him turned to each other and nodded and laughed.
Nino's hand fell upon the boy's shoulder. "Then you will hold the truth here, like a brave man does," he said, touching the boy in the chest.
The boy nodded, though at the same moment he found himself flooded with self-doubt; he was uncertain he would ever be able to live in the world of men, to know the truth as they knew it. Just then the outside door to the house opened and closed and a moment later Frank came into the kitchen and everyone in the room turned to look at him.
"There has been a murder," Frank said. "An important man, I think. And many arrests. But they say they are looking for the Mantrangas. The Mantrangas! Why would they do such a thing?"
The boy looked at Nino and saw that his face held a plain and terrible look, a look that seemed composed of equal parts sadness and amusement but was topped by eyes as cold as the rain.
"I don't know Frank," Nino said. Nino would not tell Frank the truth, the boy knew this. Anna knew everything but Frank did not; she kept them apart and made everything work out alright.
"You've been out for some time," Nino said. "Please. We are anxious to hear."
Nino pulled up a chair for his brother at the table, and the boy felt himself fading into a background of adult noise and conversation. The boy remembered Nino's truth inside of him and he wondered what kind of truth it was, good or bad. What kind of truth?
He could feel the secret life of him running in his blood, racing around inside of him and singing out for itself, hunting for somewhere to go but instead retracing the same familiar pathways of the same familiar soul. The boy knew that this would be what the world required of him from then on, and all he could do was hope that the feeling would grow him up fast enough to endure it.