The Secret of New Orleans By Kay Michener


Every song starts in silence. I looked out the window at Iowa in deep Christmas and saw white expanses with inked-­‐in trees and the V of geese in flight. Remembering the wild hoarse goose song that hits me in the gut every time—a cry both communal and of each one’s effort to part the wind—I threw on my coat, stepped into my boots and ran out of the front door.

Sharp cold air froze my breath into puffs of cloud. I jumped off the steps into a foot of powder snow and stomped across the yard. I listened. Hoarse croaks of the geese barely registered. I waded across the road and looked down the slope toward the bare trees which line the creek’s wanderings.

Dark grey clouds rolled overhead. I watched as a huge white expanse parted the clouds.  I thought I saw an eye. Then,  a huge mouth full of spiked teeth opened and a strong but shivering voice boomed. “Tinylittlehappy! New Orleans needs her daughter back. Come home now. Now. Now. Now. The C c c c l l l. Can’t talk. Too cold. The c c c c l l l I I I is missing. Too cold. Have to go back.  Brrr. Come hoooommme. “

Thunder boomed as the spiked mouth closed and clouds disappeared the white

jaws.  Stunned, I kept looking up hoping to learn more.

What to do? I staggered through the snow toward the barn. Hoppy! I could ask Hoppy!   Soon I was digging my cold fingers into Hoppy’s curly warm fur. Hoppy purred at me and gave me a llama kiss.  Then he knelt and told me to get on his back.

Hoppy sprung up like a pogo stick and bounced out the barn door.  In 3 leaps we were in the clouds traveling south.  I thought I saw a fish tail just ahead but cold wind forced me to bury my face in Hoppy’s fur and hang on tight.

Had I slept? Warm air bathed my face. Peering between Hoppy’s big banana ears at the clouds, I glimpsed a fish tail. Suddenly we almost ran in to a huge glittering fish rolling in the clouds.

“Oh there you are.   I’m Mimi.  Follow me”  said a high pitched voice  and we followed golden scales in a glittering descent.

“Mimi,” I began,  “What was, “ Mini interrupted,  “Clyde talking about?  He was trying to tell you what a jam we are in.  You see..”

Mimi, being a fish, was headed for the river.  Hoppy swerved toward the bank but I slipped out of my coat and fell off, landing  in the Mississippi in my underwear.

Mimi swooped under me and dumped me into a small sailboat. Hoppy bounced along the river bank and giggled. Mimi pushed me to shore. Crow flew down with a rope and I grabbed one end.

 I looked up and on the shore and the other end of the rope was in the hands of a curly haired woman dressed in a billowy 18th century dress. Butterflies fluttered and danced all over her dress and in her hair and around her face. “Tinylittlehappy, she sang, “I am Calliope.  I need your help. New Orleans needs your help.”

“Uh, sure,” I said, “What needs doing?” “Listen,” she said, “What do you hear?”

I held my breath to listen. Quiet. I shook my head to get the water out of my ears. Still quiet.  “What happened to the waves, the insects? Am I deaf? But I can hear you.”

“But you cannot hear the music of New Orleans, right? All the sounds from water dripping to saxophone notes, bird notes, car horns, children’s voices: all go together to make music. But how does this music get woven together? What is the source of the Song of New Orleans?

“Well, I guess it is all those sounds tumbled in a stone tumbler. But they end up liquid, floating along for anyone to pick up notes and make a song. So how do sounds stay in the air and not end up being tumbled into sinking chunks? Or lost?

“I weave all these sounds together. Or at least I did before I misplaced my calliope. During the last storm it blew up on land and dried out. It was so small that I put in in my pocket. I was going around the shore line looking for another place to play it but it fell out. I need you to help me find it. If it is in water it will get bigger and bigger and soon I will not be able to move it and hide it. Quickly, quickly, we must find it.”

“How big does it get? Let’s see, it has bellows, a keyboard, lots of whistles and pipes. What color is it?”

“Umm. Rainbow colored. It looks like a rainbow but if you run into it you feel a solid wall.  It changes all the time. I am the only one who can play it because I am the muse of New Orleans. We must hurry, hurry. It has to be along this shore somewhere, I think.”

Crow arrived with a beak full of feathers. “Here, Tinylittlehappy. Tie these on your arms so you can walk on the water next to the shore and find the calliope.”

So I blew my breath out and thought small, small, smaller. When I was about 6 inches tall the feathers were as tall as I was and I tied them to my arms. I jumped out of the boat and walked across the water waving my arms to stay airborne.

 Mimi swam under me and we traced the shore line looking for a rainbow in the river currents.  As I was running next to some tree roots I stubbed my toe and slammed in to a  solid wall.  The wall shimmered and sparkled with rainbow colors. “Calliope!” I hollered.

Hoppy, Calliope and Crow raced down the river bank towards the rainbow. Crow tied the ends of the rope together and made a loop. He dropped one loop over the rainbow and the other over Hoppy’s head so that the rope was tight against Hoppy’s chest. “Pull Hoppy, Pull”, we all shouted.

The rainbow shook and moved a little. Calliope and I grabbed the rope to help and I popped back to my normal size. We braced our feet and pulled. With a sound like a big wet kiss, the calliope sprang from the mud and we sat down hard.

Mimi’s head poked up from the river and she squeaked, “Clyde! Go see what he found! Go south to the next big tree.”

Calliope and I took off and sure enough, Clyde was churning the water under a tree about 20 feet away.  “Float that rainbow wagon down here,” he snorted as he dived and jumped up again and again. “I hollowed out a place with some water and some air.”

Once again Hoppy, Calliope and I pulled on the rope and floated the rainbow towards Clyde’s cave. “Perfect,” Calliope said. “Now, Tinylittlehappy, we will go collect the music. But first I need to pocket my butterflies.” And with that she plucked one out of the air and as I watched it turned to brightly colored sugar crystals. She dropped it in her dress pocket and it chimed B sharp. As she picked and dropped, her pocket rang with notes of struck crystal. She turned to me and took my hand. “Let’s go,” she said and we skimmed over New Orleans toward the sound of saxophones.

Piano music grew louder as we opened the door to a dimly lit large room filled with tables. We stepped to drum beats as we found a table. Calliope ordered two glasses of ginger ale. We listened. Calliope reached into her pocket and drew out a sugar butterfly and dropped it into her ginger ale. Along with the fizzy bubbles I saw little notes waft into the air and as I watched they wound through the air until they reached the band. Some notes disappeared into the trumpet, some landed on the drums, some flew into the keyboards. Melody riffs took shape. Tempos became more complex.

Calliope reached into the air and captured some of the notes. Each note instantly turned into a clear sugar crystal which she dropped into another pocket. “Breathe deeply, Tinylittlehappy. You are the one who will carry the music back to the calliope.”  She headed for the door and I followed.

Crow met us outside. Clear sparkles of pulsating ropes circled his neck. “Good work, Crow,” Calliope sang, “Just look at all the sounds you have found. Tire squeaks, fish frying, a kazoo, murmurs of love, coins falling, sneezes. Hand those sounds over to Tinylittlehappy and go get more.”

Calliope turned to me. “Breathe those sounds in and wear the ropes in your hair. Come walk along the streets and breathe as deeply as you can. You and Crow will make many trips back to the calliope tonight. I will visit more bands and tweak the music and collect notes and riffs.” So saying she squeezed into another doorway.

Crow perched on my shoulder and we poked along listening. I began to notice that every time I took a deep breath the sidewalk looked like it was farther away. I glanced into a shop window and saw why. With every breath I took, I was growing taller. I towered over everyone. I think I was 10 feet tall. A street band thundered past and I laughed so much that by the time it passed I was 20 feet tall. “Time to go,” Crow said. I sailed over the tree tops with Crow pulling me by the hair.

Crow stuck a pipe in the ground over the calliope. We took turns blowing down the pipe and stuffing the sparkling pulsating ropes down the tube. When I was back to normal size we flew back to the busy street and collected more sounds. Each time I grew 20 feet tall, full of musical air, we returned to the calliope and stuffed the air into the pipe.

By dawn we noticed that steady streams of air bubbled up in six or eight columns in the river. Clyde told us that he recruited Octavius the octopus to work the bellows on the calliope.

“We did it!” Calliope shouted as she skipped in with her pockets jingling. “ See those bubbles? Now everyone in New Orleans will breathe in music and as every note takes shape from a saxophone, a piano, a triangle or a sigh, more music fills the air until we all become music. Long live New Orleans!”

“Just one more thing, Tinylittlehappy. Where is the door so I can get in to play the calliope?”

“That’s easy,” I said. “Just watch.” I picked up my pen and drew a door in the riverbank.

“Thanks,” Calliope said and she opened the door and went inside. Music poured over the countryside. As far as I know she is still there except for visits to collect more notes.




P.S. Some bells and whistles may have fallen out of Calliope’s pocket and these belong on the calliope. If you find some, please return them to Ten Gallery at 4432 Magazine Street, New Orleans.