The Black God’s Drums: New Excerpt
The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark is an immersive debut novella that brings an alternate New Orleans of orisha, airships, and adventure to life.
In an alternate New Orleans caught in the tangle of the American Civil War, the wall-scaling girl named Creeper yearns to escape the streets for the air—in particular, by earning a spot onboard the airship Midnight Robber. Creeper plans to earn Captain Ann-Marie’s trust with information she discovers about a Haitian scientist and a mysterious weapon he calls The Black God’s Drums.
But Creeper also has a secret herself: Oya, the African orisha of the wind and storms, speaks inside her head—and may have her own ulterior motivations.
Soon, Creeper, Oya, and the crew of the Midnight Robber are pulled into a perilous mission aimed to stop the Black God’s Drums from being unleashed and wiping out the entirety of New Orleans.
The night in New Orleans always got something going on, ma maman used to say—like this city don’t know how to sleep. You want a good look, take the cable-elevator to the top of one of Les Grand Murs, where airships dock on the hour. Them giant iron walls ring the whole Big Miss on either side. Up here you can see New Algiers on the West Bank, its building yards all choked in factory smoke and workmen scurrying round the bones of new-built vessels like ants. Turn around and there’s the downtown wards lit up with gas lamps like glittering stars. You can make out the other wall in the east over at Lake Borgne, and a fourth one like a crescent moon up north round Swamp Pontchartrain—what most folk call La Ville Morte, the Dead City.
Les Grand Murs were built by Dutchmen to protect against the storms that come every year. Not the regular hurricanes neither, but them tempêtes noires that turn the skies into night for a whole week. I was born in one of the big ones some thirteen years back in 1871. The walls held in the Big Miss but the rain and winds almost drowned the city anyway, filling it up like a bowl. Ma maman pushed me out her belly in that storm, clinging to a big sweet gum tree in the middle of thunder and lightning. She said I was Oya’s child—the goddess of storms, life, death, and rebirth, who came over with her great-grandmaman from Lafrik, and who runs strong in our blood. Ma maman said that’s why I take to high places so, looking to ride Oya’s wind.
Les Grand Murs is where I call home these days. It’s not the finest accommodations: drafty on winter nights and so hot in the summer all you do is lay about in your own sweat. But lots of street kids set up for themselves up here. Better than getting swept into workhouse orphanages or being conscripted to steal for a Thieving Boss.
Me, I marked out a prime spot: an alcove just some ways off from one of the main airship mooring masts. That’s where the gangplanks are laid down for disembarking passengers heading into the city. Concealed in my alcove, I can see them all: in every colour and shade, in every sort of dress, talking in more languages than I can count, their voices competing with the rattle of dirigible engines and the hum of ship propellers. It always gets me to thinking on how there’s a whole world out there, full of all kinds of people. One day, I dream, I’m going to get on one of those airships. I’ll sail away from this city into the clouds and visit all the places there are to visit, and see all the people there are to see. Of course, watching from my alcove is also good for marking out folk too careless with their purses, luggage, and anything else for the taking. Because in New Orleans, you can’t survive on just dreams.
My eyes latch onto a little dandy-looking man in a rusty plaid suit, with slicked-back shiny brown hair and a curly moustache. He got a tight grip on his bags, but there’s a golden pocket watch dangling on a chain at his side. A clear invitation if I ever seen one. Somebody’s bound to snatch it sooner or later—might as well be me.
I’m about to set out to follow him when the world suddenly slows. The air, sounds, everything. It’s like somebody grabbed hold of time and stretched her out at both ends. I turn, slow-like, to look out from the wall as a monstrous moon begins to rise into the sky. No, not a moon, I realize in fright—a skull! A great big bone white skull that fills up the night. It pushes itself up past the horizon to cast a shadow over the city underneath, where the gaslights snuff out one by one. I gape at that horrible face, stripped clean of skin or flesh, that stares back with deep empty black sockets and a grin of bared teeth. It’s all I can do not to fall to my knees.
“Not real!” I whisper, shutting my eyes to make the apparition go away. I count to ten in my head, whispering all the while: “Not real! Not real! Not real!”
When I open my eyes again, the skull moon is gone. Time has caught up to normal too—the sounds of the night returning in a rush. And the city is there, spread out again: breathing, shining and alive. I release a breath. This was all Oya’s doing, I know. The goddess has strange ways of talking. Not the first time I’ve been sent one of her visions—though never anything so strong. Never anything that felt so real. They’re what folk call premonitions: warnings of things about to happen or things soon to come. Most times I can figure them out quick. But a giant skull moon? I got no damn idea what that’s supposed to mean.
“You could just talk to me plain,” I mutter in irritation. But Oya doesn’t answer. She’s already humming a song that whistles in my ears. It’s about her mother Yemoja leading some lost fishermen to shore. The moon is Yemoja’s domain, after all. Giving up, I turn back, hoping to find my mark again—but instead, I’m startled by the sound of footsteps.
My whole body goes still. Not just footsteps but boots, by the way they fall heavy. More than one pair too. I curse at my bad luck, ducking back down into my alcove. I chose this spot special, because it’s some ways off from the usual paths people take—just near enough for me to see them, but far enough to keep out of their way. No one ever comes this far out, to this part of the wall. But those steps are getting closer, heading right for me! Cursing my luck twice again, I scramble back to huddle into a far corner of the alcove, where the shadows fall deep. I’m small enough to curl into a ball if I draw my knees up under me. And if I go real still, I might escape without being seen. I might.
I’m expecting constables. Rare to see any of them up here, but could be the city’s decided to do a sweep for one reason or the other. Maddi grá coming up, and they like to make everything look respectable to visitors—respectable for New Orleans, anyway. Maybe someone’s complained about all the street kids up here picking pockets. Or worse yet, could be the city’s workhouses and factories need more small hands to run their machines—machines that seem to delight in stealing fingers. I grit my teeth and ball up my fists as if trying to protect my own fingers, not daring to breathe. Damn sure ain’t going to end up in one of those places.
But the figures that enter my alcove aren’t constables. They’re men, though, about five of them. I can’t make them out in the dark, but by their height and the way they walk they have to be men. They’re not wearing the telltale blue uniforms of constables though, with the upside-down gold crescent and five-pointed star stitched on their shoulders. These men are wearing dull faded gray uniforms that almost blend into the dark. Their jackets got patches on the front that I recognize right off: white stars in a blue cross like an X over a bed of red, the letters CSA stitched underneath. The brisk twangs that roll off their tongues are Southern, but like those uniforms, certainly nothing made in New Orleans.
“Alright then,” one of them says. “You can get us what we want?”
“Deal already set up, Capitaine,” another voice answers, real casual-like. This one’s a Cajun. I’d recognize that bayou accent anywhere. I lift my chin off my knees to risk a peek from under the lid of my cap. The one talking that Cajun talk ain’t got on a uniform. He’s wearing some old brown pants and a red shirt with suspenders. I still can’t make out any faces, but can see a mop of white hair on his head almost down to his shoulders. “Dat scientist be here next day, on a morning airship from Haiti. Gonna see to meeting him myself.”
My ears perk up at that. A Haitian scientist? Meeting with these men?
“How long we have to wait?” a third voice asks. This one’s impatient, almost whining. “Captain, we don’t need all this fuss. I say we just snatch him when he gets here. Put him on our ship and fly off. Have him in Charleston in no time.”
The Cajun makes a tsking sound. “Ma Lay! Do dat, brudda, and you get de constables involved. Dey gonna cost you mo dan I do. Not how we do tings down here, no.”
“Seems all you folk do in this city is drink and gamble and eat,” the third voice sneers.
The Cajun chuckles. “We like to pass a good time. Make music and babies too.”
The first voice, the one both men called Captain, steps in then. Sounds like he’s trying to keep things from boiling over. I glance to those black-booted feet, realizing I hadn’t pulled my sleeping blanket into the corner with me. That was careless. But nothing I can do about it now. My heart beats faster, hoping none of them steps on it or bothers to look down.
“So after this scientist gets here,” the captain is saying, “then what?”
“When he get settled, I set up de meeting between the two of you,” the Cajun answers. There’s a pause. “You got what he coming all dis way to get? You don’t deliver, he might run.”
“We got his jewel, alright,” the third voice says in his usual sneer.
The Cajun claps, and I imagine him smiling. “Den it should work out fine.” He extends a hand and the captain offers over a thick wad of something. The unmistakable beautiful sound of crisp bills being counted fills up my alcove.
“You’ll get the rest when we see this scientist—and his invention,” the captain states.
“Wi, Capitaine,” the Cajun replies. “You give him his jewel and he gonna hand over dat ting you want.” He stops his counting and leans in close. “De Black God’s Drums. Maybe you boys able to win dis war yet, yeah.”
The captain dips his head in a nod before answering. “Maybe.”
There’s some more talk. Nothing important from what I can tell. Just the questions and assurances of men who don’t trust each other and who up to no good. But I’m only half-listening by now. My mind is on the words the Cajun said: the Black God’s Drums. With a Haitian scientist involved, that can only mean one thing. And if I’m right, that’s big. Bigger than any marks I was going to pinch tonight. This is information that’s gonna be valuable to somebody. I just need to figure out who’ll pay the highest price. Long after the men leave my alcove, I sit there thinking hard in the dark as Oya hums in my head.
Copyright © 2018 P. Djèlí Clark.