My name is David Talbot.
Do any of you remember me as the Superior General of the Talamasca, the Order of psychic detectives whose motto was "We watch and we are always here"?
It has a charm, doesn't it, that motto?
The Talamasca has existed for over a thousand years.
I don't know how the Order began. I don't really know all the secrets of the Order. I do know however that I served it most of my mortal life.
It was in the Talamasca Motherhouse in England that the Vampire Lestat first made himself known to me. He came into my study one winter night and caught me quite unawares.
I learnt very quickly that it was one thing to read and write about the supernatural and quite another to see it with your own eyes.
But that was a long time ago.
I'm in another physical body now.
And that physical body has been transformed by Lestat's powerful vampiric blood.
I'm among the most dangerous of the vampires, and one of the most trusted. Even the wary vampire Armand revealed to me the story of his life. Perhaps you've read the biography of Armand which I released into the world.
When that story ended, Lestat had wakened from a long sleep in New Orleans to listen to some very beautiful and seductive music.
It was music that lulled him back again into unbroken silence as he retreated once more to a convent building to lie upon a dusty marble floor.
There were many vampires then in the city of New Orleans -- vagabonds, rogues, foolish young ones who had come to catch a glimpse of Lestat in his seeming helplessness. They menaced the mortal population. They annoyed the elders among us who wanted visibility and the right to hunt in peace.
All those invaders are gone now.
Some were destroyed, others merely frightened. And the elders who had come to offer some solace to the sleeping Lestat have gone their separate ways.
As this story begins, only three of us remain in New Orleans. And we three are the sleeping Lestat, and his two faithful fledglings -- Louis de Pointe du Lac, and I, David Talbot, the author of this tale.
"Why do you ask me to do this thing?"
She sat across the marble table from me, her back to the open doors of the cafÈ.
I struck her as a wonder. But my requests had distracted her. She no longer stared at me, so much as she looked into my eyes.
She was tall, and had kept her dark-brown hair loose and long all her life, save for a leather barrette such as she wore now, which held only her forelocks behind her head to flow down her back. She wore gold hoops dangling from her small earlobes, and her soft white summer clothes had a gypsy flare to them, perhaps because of the red scarf tied around the waist of her full cotton skirt.
"And to do such a thing for such a being?" she asked warmly, not angry with me, no, but so moved that she could not conceal it, even with her smooth compelling voice. "To bring up a spirit that may be filled with anger and a desire for vengeance, to do this, you ask me, -- for Louis de Pointe du Lac, one who is already beyond life himself?"
"Who else can I ask, Merrick?" I answered. "Who else can do such a thing?" I pronounced her name simply, in the American style, though years ago when we'd first met, she had spelled it Merrique and pronounced it with the slight touch of her old French.
There was a rough sound from the kitchen door, the creak of neglected hinges. A wraith of a waiter in a soiled apron appeared at our side, his feet scratching against the dusty flagstones of the floor.
"Rum," she said. "St. James. Bring a bottle of it."
He murmured something which even with my vampiric hearing I did not bother to catch. And away he shuffled, leaving us alone again in the dimly lighted room, with all its long doors thrown open to the Rue St. Anne.
It was vintage New Orleans, the little establishment. Overhead fans churned lazily, and the floor had not been cleaned in a hundred years.
The twilight was softly fading, the air filled with the fragrances of the Quarter and the sweetness of spring. What a kind miracle it was that she had chosen such a place, and that it was so strangely deserted on such a divine evening as this.
Her gaze was steady but never anything but soft.
"Louis de Pointe du Lac would see a ghost now," she said, musing, "as if his suffering isn't enough."
Not only were her words sympathetic, but also her low and confidential tone. She felt pity for him.
"Oh, yes," she said without allowing me to speak. "I pity him, and I know how badly he wants to see the face of this dead child vampire whom he loved so much." She raised her eyebrows thoughtfully. "You come with names which are all but legend. You come out of secrecy, you come out of a miracle, and you come close, and with a request."
"Do it, then, Merrick, if it doesn't harm you," I said. "I'm not here to bring harm to you. God in Heaven help me. Surely you know as much."
"And what of harm coming to your Louis?" she asked, her words spoken slowly as she pondered. "A ghost can speak dreadful things to those who call it, and this is the ghost of a monster child who died by violence. You ask a potent and terrible thing."
I nodded. All she said was true.
"Louis is a being obsessed," I said. "It's taken years for his obsession to obliterate all reason. Now he thinks of nothing else."
"And what if I do bring her up out of the dead? You think there will be a resolution to the pain of either one?"
"I don't hope for that. I don't know. But anything is preferable to the pain Louis suffers now. Of course I have no right to ask this of you, no right to come to you at all.
"Yet we're all entangled -- the Talamasca and Louis and I. And the Vampire Lestat as well. It was from the very bosom of the Talamasca that Louis de Pointe du Lac heard a story of the ghost of Claudia. It was to one of our own, a woman named Jesse Reeves -- you'll find her in the archives -- that this ghost of Claudia supposedly first appeared."
"Yes, I know the story," said Merrick. "It happened in the Rue Royale. You sent Jesse Reeves to investigate the vampires. And Jesse Reeves came back with a handful of treasures that were proof enough that a child named Claudia, an immortal child, had once lived in the flat."
"Quite right," I answered. "I was wrong to send Jesse. Jesse was too young. Jesse was never -- ." It was difficult for me to finish. "Jesse was never quite as clever as you."
"People read it among Lestat's published tales and think it's fancy," she said, musing, thinking, "all that about a diary, a rosary, wasn't it, and an old doll. And we have those things, don't we? They're in the vault in England. We didn't have a Louisiana Motherhouse in those days. You put them in the vault yourself."
"Can you do it?" I asked. "Will you do it? That's more to the point. I have no doubt that you can."
She wasn't ready to answer. But we had made a great beginning here, she and I.
Oh, how I had missed her! This was more tantalizing than I'd ever expected, to be locked once more in conversation with her. And with pleasure I doted upon the changes in her: that her French accent was completely gone now and that she sounded almost British, and that from her long years of study overseas. She'd spent some of those years in England with me.
"You know that Louis saw you," I said gently. "You know that he sent me to ask you. You know that he knew of your powers from the warning he caught from your eyes?"
She didn't respond.
"'I've seen a true witch,' he said when he came to me. 'She wasn't afraid of me. She said she'd call up the dead to defend herself if I didn't leave her alone.'"
She nodded, regarding me with great seriousness.
"Yes, all that's the truth," she answered under her breath. "He crossed my path, you might say." She was mulling it over. "But I've seen Louis de Pointe du Lac many a time. I was a child when I first saw him, and now you and I speak of this for the first time."
I was quite amazed. I should have known she would surprise me at once.
I admired her immensely. I couldn't disguise it. I loved the simplicity of her appearance, her white cotton scoop neck blouse with its simple short sleeves and the necklace of black beads around her neck.
Looking into her green eyes, I was suddenly overcome with shame for what I'd done, revealing myself to her. Louis had not forced me to approach her. I had done this of my own accord. But I don't intend to begin this narrative by dwelling on that shame.
Let me say only that we'd been more than simple companions in the Talamasca together. We'd been mentor and pupil, I and she, and almost lovers, once, for a brief while. Such a brief while.
She'd come as a girl to us, a vagrant descendant of the clan of the Mayfairs, out of an African American branch of that family, coming down from white witches she scarcely knew, an octoroon of exceptional beauty, a barefoot child when she wandered into the Motherhouse in Louisiana, when she said, "I've heard of you people, I need you. I can see things. I can speak with the dead."
That had been over twenty years ago, it seemed to me now.
I'd been the Superior General of the London Chapter of our Order, settled into the life of a gentlemanly administrator, with all the comforts and drawbacks of routine. A telephone call had wakened me in the night. It had been from my friend and fellow scholar, Aaron Lightner.
"David," he'd said, "you have to come. This is the genuine article. This is a witch of such power I've no words to describe it. David, you must comeÖ"
There was no one in those days whom I respected any more deeply than Aaron Lightner. I've loved three beings in all my years, both as human and vampire. Aaron Lightner was one of them. Another was, and is, the Vampire Lestat. The Vampire Lestat brought me miracles with his love, and broke my mortal life forever. The Vampire Lestat made me immortal and uncommonly strong for it, a nonpareil among the vampires.
As for the third, it was Merrick Mayfair, though Merrick I had tried my damndest to forget.
But we are speaking of Aaron, my old friend Aaron with his wavy white hair, quick gray eyes, and his penchant for southern blue-and-white-striped seersucker suits. We are speaking of her, of the long ago child Merrick, who seemed as exotic as the lush tropical flora and fauna of her home.
"All right, old fellow, I'm coming, but couldn't this have waited till morning?" I remembered my stodginess and Aaron's good-natured laughter.
"David, what's happened to you, old man?" he'd responded. "Don't tell me what you're doing now, David. Let me tell you. You fell asleep while reading some nineteenth-century book on ghosts, something evocative and comforting. Let me guess. The author's Sabine Baring-Gould. You haven't been out of the Motherhouse in six months, have you? Not even for a luncheon in town. Don't deny it, David, you live as if your life's finished."
I had laughed. Aaron spoke with such a gentle voice. It wasn't Sabine Baring-Gould I'd been reading, but it might have been. I think it had been a supernatural tale by Algenon Blackwood. And Aaron had been right about the length of time since I'd stepped outside of our sanctified walls.
"Where's your passion, David? Where's your commitment?" Aaron had pressed. "David, the child's a witch. Do you think I use such words lightly? Forget the family name for a moment and all we know about them. This is something that would astound even our Mayfairs, though she'll never be known to them if I have my say in matters. David, this child can summon spirits. Open your Bible and turn to the Book of Samuel. This is the Witch of Endor. And you're being as cranky as the spirit of Samuel when the witch raised him from his sleep. Get out of bed and cross the Atlantic. I need you here now."
The Witch of Endor. I didn't need to consult my Bible. Every member of the Talamasca knew that story only too well.
King Saul, in fear of the might of the Philistines, goes, before the dreaded battle, to "a woman with a familiar spirit" and asks that she raise Samuel the Prophet from the dead. "Why has thou disquieted me, to bring me up?" demands the ghostly prophet, and in short order he predicts that King Saul and both his sons will join him in death on the following day.
The Witch of Endor. And so I had always thought of Merrick, no matter how close to her I'd become later on. She was Merrick Mayfair, the Witch of Endor. At times I'd addressed her as such in semi-official memos and often in brief notes.
In the beginning, she'd been a tender marvel. I had heeded Aaron's summons, packing, flying to Louisiana, and setting foot for the first time in Oak Haven, the splendid plantation home which had become our refuge outside of New Orleans, on the old River Road.
What a dreamy event it had been. On the plane I had read my Old Testament: King Saul's sons had been slain in battle. Saul had fallen on his sword. Was I superstitious after all? My life I'd given to the Talamasca, but even before I'd begun my apprenticeship I'd seen and commanded spirits on my own. They weren't ghosts, you understand. They were nameless, never corporeal, and wound up for me with the names and rituals of Brazilian Candomble magic, in which I'd plunged so recklessly in my youth.
But I'd let that power grow cold inside me as scholarship and devotion to others claimed me. I had abandoned the mysteries of Brazil for the equally wondrous world of archives, relics, libraries, organization, and tutelage, lulling others into dusty reverence for our methods and our careful ways. The Talamasca was so vast, so old, so loving in its embrace. Even Aaron had no clue as to my old powers, not in those days, though many a mind was open to his psychic sensibility. I would know the girl for what she was.
It had been raining when we reached the Motherhouse, our car plunging into the long avenue of giant oaks that led from the levee road to the immense double doors. How green had been this world even in darkness, with twisted oak branches dipping into the high grass. I think the long gray streaks of Spanish moss touched the roof of the car.
The electric power had gone out that night with the storm, they told me.
"Rather charming," Aaron had said as he greeted me. He'd been white-haired already by then, the consummate older gentleman, eternally good-natured, almost sweet. "Lets you see things as they were in the old days, don't you think?"
Only oil lamps and candles illuminated the large square rooms. I had seen the flicker in the fanlight above the entranceway as we approached. Lanterns swayed in the wind in the deep galleries that wrapped the great square house about on its first and second floors.
Before entering, I had taken my time, rain or no rain, to inspect this marvelous tropical mansion, impressed with its simple pillars. Once there had been sugarcane for miles all around it; out back beyond the flower beds, still vaguely colored in the downpour, were weathered outbuildings where once slaves had lived.
She came down barefoot to meet me, in a lavender dress covered with pink flowers, scarcely the witch at all.
Her eyes couldn't have been more mysterious had she worn the kohl of a Hindu princess to set off the color. One saw the green of the iris, and the dark circle around it, as well as the black pupil within. A marvelous eye, all the more vivid due to her light-tan creamy skin. Her hair had been brushed back from her forehead, and her slender hands merely hung at her sides. How at ease she'd seemed in the first moments.
"David Talbot," she had said to me almost formally. I'd been enchanted by the confidence in her soft voice.
They couldn't break her of the barefoot habit. It had been dreadfully enticing, those bare feet on the wool carpet. She'd grown up in the country, I thought, but no, they said, it was merely in an old tumbledown part of New Orleans where there were no sidewalks anymore and the weather-beaten houses were neglected and the blossoming and poisonous oleander grew as big as trees.
She had lived there with her godmother, Great Nananne, the witch who'd taught her all the things that she knew. Her mother, a powerful seer, known to me then only by the mysterious name of Cold Sandra, had been in love with an explorer. There was no father of memory. She'd never gone to a real school.
"Merrick Mayfair," I'd said warmly. I took her in my arms.
She had been tall for her fourteen years, with beautifully shaped breasts quite natural under her simple cotton shift, and her soft dry hair had been loose down her back. She might have been a Spanish beauty to anyone outside of this bizarre part of the Southland, where the history of the slaves and their free descendants was so full of complex alliances and erotic romance. But any New Orleanean could see African blood in her by the lovely cafÈ au lait of her skin.
Sure enough, when I poured the cream into the thick chicory coffee that they gave me, I understood those words.
"All my people are colored," she said, with the French in her voice then. "Those that pass for white leave and go north. That's been happening forever. They don't want Great Nananne to visit. They don't want anyone to know. I could pass for white. But what about the family? What about all that's been handed down? I would never leave Great Nananne. I came here 'cause she told me to come."
She had a temptress's poise as she sat there, small in the great winged chair of oxblood leather, a tiny tantalizing gold chain around her ankle, another with a small diamond-studded cross around her neck.
"See these pictures?" She said invitingly. She had them in a shoe box which rested in her lap. "There's no witchcraft in them. You can look as you please."
She laid them out on the table for me, daguerreotypes -- stark clear photographs on glass, each one fitted into a crumbling little case of gutter perche, heavily embossed with rings of flowers or grapevines, many of which could be closed and clasped shut like little books.
"They come from the 1840s," she said, "and they're all our people. One of our own took these pictures. He was known for taking portraits. They loved him. He left some stories -- I know where they are. They're all written with beautiful handwriting. They're in a box in the attic of Great Nananne's house."
She had moved to the edge of the chair, her knees poking out from under her skimpy hem. Her hair made a big mass of shadows behind her. Her hairline was clean and her forehead smooth and beautiful. Though the night had been only cool, there was a fire in the fireplace, and the room, with its shelves of books and its random Grecian sculptures, had been fragrant and comfortable, conducive to a spell.
Aaron had been watching her proudly, yet full of concern.
"See, these are all my people from the old days." She might have been laying out a deck of cards. The flash of the shadows was lovely on her oval face and the distinct bones of her cheeks. "You see, they kept together. But as I said, the ones that could pass are long gone. Look what they gave up, just think of it, so much history. See this?"
I studied the small picture, glinting in the light of the oil lamp.
"This is Lucy Nancy Marie Mayfair, she was the daughter of a white man, but we never knew much about him. All along there would be white men. Always white men. What these women did for white men. My mother went to South America with a white man. I went with them. I remember the jungles." Had she hesitated, picking up something from my thoughts, perhaps, or merely my doting face?
I would never forget my own early years of exploration in the Amazon. I suppose I didn't want to forget, though nothing had made me more painfully conscious of my old age than to think of those adventures with gun and camera, lived on the bottom side of the world. I never dreamt then that I would return to uncharted jungles with her.
I had stared again at the old glass daguerreotypes. Not a one among any of these individuals looked anything but rich -- top hats and full taffeta skirts against studio backdrops of drapery and lavish plants. Here was a young woman beautiful as Merrick was now, sitting so prim and upright, in a high-backed Gothic chair. How to explain the remarkably clear evidence of African blood in so many of them? It seemed no more in some than an uncommon brightness of the eye against a darkened Caucasian face, yet it was there.
"Here, this is the oldest," she said, "this is Angelique Marybelle Mayfair." A stately woman, dark hair parted in the middle, ornate shawl covering her shoulders and full sleeves. In her fingers she clasped a barely visible pair of spectacles and a folded fan.
"She's the oldest and finest picture that I have. She was a secret witch, that's what they told me. There's secret witches and witches people come to. She was the secret kind, but she was smart. They say she was lovers with a white Mayfair who lived in the Garden District, and he was by blood her own nephew. I come down from her and from him. Oncle Julien, that was his name. He let his colored cousins call him Oncle Julien, instead of Monsieur Julien, the way the other white men might have done."
Aaron had tensed but sought to hide it. Perhaps he could hide it from her, but not from me.
So he's told her nothing of that dangerous Mayfair family. They haven't spoken of it -- the dreadful Garden District Mayfairs, a tribe with supernatural powers, whom he had investigated for years. Our files on the Mayfairs went back for centuries. Members of our Order had died at the hands of the Mayfair Witches, as we were wont to call them. But this child mustn't know about them through us, I had realized quite suddenly, at least not until Aaron had made up his mind that such an intervention would serve the good of both parties, and do no harm.
As it was, such a time never came to pass. Merrick's life was complete and separate from that of the white Mayfairs. There is nothing of their story in these pages that I now write.
But on that long ago evening, Aaron and I had sought rather desperately to make our minds blank for the little witch who sat before us.
I don't remember whether or not Merrick had glanced at us before she went on.
"There are Mayfairs living in that Garden District house even now," she had said matter-of-factly, " -- white people, who never had much to do with us, except through their lawyers." How worldly her little laugh had sounded -- the way people laugh when they speak of lawyers.
"The lawyers would come back of town with the money," she said with a shake of her head. "And some of those lawyers were Mayfairs too. The lawyers sent Angelique Marybelle Mayfair north to a fine school, but she came home again to live and die right here. I would never go to those white people." The remark had been almost offhanded. She went on.
"But Great Nananne talks about Oncle Julien just as if he was living now, and they all said it when I was growing up, that Oncle Julien was a kind man. Seems he knew all his colored relations, and they said that man could kill his enemies or yours with the look in his eye. He was a houn'gan if there ever was one. I have more to say about him by and by."
She had glanced quite suddenly at Aaron and I'd seen him glance away from her almost shyly. I wonder if she had seen the future -- that the Talamasca File on the Mayfair Witches would swallow Aaron's life, as surely as the Vampire Lestat had swallowed mine.
I wondered what she thought about Aaron's death even now, as we sat at the cafÈ table, as I spoke softly to the handsome and well-defended woman whom that little girl had become.
The feeble old waiter brought her the fifth of rum she had requested, the St. James from Martinique, dark. I caught the powerful scent of it as he filled her small, heavy octagonal glass. Memories flooded my mind. Not the beginning with her, but other times.
She drank it just the way I knew she would, in the manner I remembered, as if it were nothing but water. The waiter shuffled back to his hiding place. She lifted the bottle before I could do it for her, and she filled the glass again.
I watched her tongue move along the inside of her lip. I watched her large searching eyes look up again into my face.
"Remember drinking rum with me?" she asked, almost smiling, but not quite. She was far too tense, too alert for that just yet. "You remember," she said. "I'm talking about those brief nights in the jungle. Oh, you are so right when you say that the vampire is a human monster. You're still so very human. I can see it in your expression. I can see it in your gestures. As for your body, it's totally human. There isn't a clueÖ"
"There are clues," I said, contradicting her. "And as time passes you'll see them. You'll become uneasy, and then fearful and, finally, accustomed. Believe me, I know."
She raised her eyebrows, then accepted this. She took another sip and I imagined how delicious it was for her. I knew that she did not drink every day of her life, and when she did drink she enjoyed it very much.
"So many memories, beautiful Merrick," I whispered. It seemed paramount that I not give in to them, that I concentrate on those memories which most certainly enshrined her innocence and reminded me of a sacred trust.
To the end of Aaron's life, he had been devoted to her, though he seldom spoke of it to me. What had she learnt of the tragic hit-and-run accident that had caught Aaron unawares? I had been already gone out of the Talamasca, out of Aaron's care, and out of life.
And to think we had lived such long mortal lives as scholars, Aaron and I. We should have been past all mishap. Who would have dreamt that our research would ensnare us and turn our destiny so dramatically from the dedication of those long loyal years? But hadn't the same thing happened to another loyal member of the Talamasca, my beloved student Jesse Reeves?
Back then, when Merrick had been the sultry child and I the amazed Superior General, I had not thought my few remaining years held any great surprise.
Why had I not learned from the story of Jesse? Jesse Reeves had been my student even more surely than Merrick ever became, and the vampires had swallowed Jesse whole and complete.
With great devotion Jesse had sent me one last letter, thick with euphemisms, and of no real value to anyone else, letting me know that she would never see me again. I had not taken Jesse's fate as a caution. I had thought only that for the intense study of the vampire, Jesse Reeves had been too young.
It was all past. Nothing remained of that heartbreak. Nothing remained of those mistakes. My mortal life had been shattered, my soul soaring and then fallen, my vampire life erasing all the small accomplishments and consolations of the man I'd once been. Jesse was among us and I knew her secrets, and that she'd always be quite faraway from me.
What mattered now was the ghost that Jesse had only glimpsed during her investigations, and the ghost story that haunted Louis, and the bizarre request which I now made to my beloved Merrick that she call the ghost of Claudia with all her uncommon skill.
-- excerpt from Merrickby Anne Rice. Copyright 2000 Anne Rice; used by permission.