Elysiana

Event: May 05, 2011

Photograph by Jeff Becker
Photograph by Jeff Becker

By Moira Crone

To mark the five-year anniversary of Press Street’s first publication, Intersection | New Orleans, Room 220 is publishing excerpts of prose and artwork from that book. Press Street co-founder and board president Anne Gisleson wrote an introduction to the series by looking back at how Press Street and Intersection fit into the historical context of what is now the St. Claude Arts District.

“Elysiania” is an excerpt from Moira Crone’s forthcoming novel The Not Yet. The narrator, a young man named Malcolm De Lazarus, was raised in an orphanage in a future New Orleans, circa 2121. The novel concerns a society where the possibility of life extension—physical immortality—is a reality for the very wealthy.

(For Magazine at Henry Clay Streets)

The doctor I worked for called me in one evening to tell me she had made a discovery. The place where I grew up, the Audubon Foundling House on the New Orleans Islands, had once been a monastery for “contemplatives”— mystic nuns, the Poor Clares. They were cloistered. They had taken vows dedicating their every deed and word to “God,” she said.

She didn’t even flinch at that antique word, “God.”

The building had survived the floods from the time of the Great Kat and even later, when the Mississippi changed its course and the Gulf took all the land south of the city. It had remained when many other houses were moved so that the islands could be fortified by protection levees. Its wall, one of the highest in the whole city, became its floodwall, and saved it.

I remembered the high barrier around us. As boys we had to climb into the attic to see over it.

The nuns prayed all day, and all night, too. They didn’t meet with outsiders often. She supposed the nuns thought ordinary people were too weighed down by the material, by matter itself. The contemplatives must have felt themselves approaching a state of absolute spirit.

I told her about a little niche we had in the foyer. It was set in the wall at waist height. It had two sets of doors, like small wooden gates, one in the outer foyer and the other in an inner meeting room. These doors slid up and down like windows. There was a space in between the two, not more than eighteen inches in width. On the outside wall there was a bell. Inside, a hole for peeping through, and another bell. Visitors rang the outside bell and
asked the nuns for the candy they made—one pound, or two. They raised their door, placed their money in the in-between space, and then closed the door again. Then the nuns replaced the money with “divinity,” closed their inner door, rang their bell as a signal, and returned to their seclusion. Thus they remained cloistered, but managed to have commerce.

The product was perfect. They couldn’t sell the invisible, so they sold something in honor of the invisible: white candy, made of sugar and egg white, sweet as heaven. “Like little dollops of cloud,” she said.

That niche was the very best for hide and seek, I recalled. People always forgot it was possible for a small boy to wedge himself between the doors.

“But where is our secret trapdoor?” she asked, for she was on her quest, trying to understand what the ancients could possibly have believed. “It must be here someplace,” she said, pressing on her chest. “No one sees it now.”

I told her about the only piece of the old art I saw in my first twenty years. A large disk in relief above the outside gate, all white. There was a heart in the center, and beneath that, two arms coming up from no body, like the branches where a tree splits up to reach. Spreading out from the arms, two open hands. Behind the heart, rays of sun and snakey flames, and then a crown, and another crown, and then above all that, the words: “Deus Meus Et Omnia,” which she translated for me. “My God is All.”

I found this absolutely astounding: when the time came for the nuns to pledge their lives to prayer, their parents brought them wedding dresses. On an appointed day, a novice would stand at an altar. Just as if God were the groom.

“Imagine, did this God come? In through that little door? Was he on the outside? Or was he hiding somewhere in between, always invisible, waiting for them to open the doors on the inside, to let him in? What goes on between those worlds?” she said, touching her heart. “Matter to spirit and back again. How does the exchange work?”

She never asked me questions I could answer.

Moira Crone is the author of several books, including What Gets Into Us and Dream State. She is widely anthologized and in 2009 received the Robert Penn Warren Prize for fiction.

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