New Orleans. New Year’s Day. A misty morning. In the distance, a train whistle screams. Church bells toll and toll, monotonously. Close by, laughter and profanity echo up from Chartres (I learned last night it’s pronounced “chart-ers,” “Rue de Chart-ers”). Upon the rooftop opposite, a black crow against a gray sky turns his back on me. From my second-story balcony hangs the Louisiana state flag: a white pelican against a blue sky spreads her wings and bares her breast to feed her nest of young with her own blood.
My kids think it must be one of the strangest images they have ever seen, never mind on a governmental seal (the state motto, reading backwards from our vantage, is “Union, Justice, and Confidence”). To me, however, the image is familiar. Like the city of New Orleans, I grew up Catholic. The churches of my youth were filled with wonderfully weird pictures. They were painted on the pillars, walls, ceilings, and floors, illuminated by candles or glowing all on their own in stained glass. These were things to contemplate while the priest droned on, while your mother nudged you to sit or stand or kneel with rest of the congregation. Everywhere was something strange. Long-bearded saints baring their breviaries and crucifixes like wizards casting spells. Martyrs nonchalantly holding their own severed heads under their arms. There were unicorns, phoenixes, and dragons. There were grinning demons and brooding doves: images of torture and triumph, telling cautionary tales and offering examples of pious living.
The pelican feeding her young with her blood was easily interpretable because basically the same image hung high above the central altar. Christ nailed to his cross, spouting red from his gaping side. A cherub with a chalice collected the holy blood as it fountained forth. It was this image — the cruel and unusual capital punishment of the peaceful God of love — toward which all church-aisles led, toward which all prayerful eyes directed their attention during the sacred ceremony (except when the priest held aloft the consecrated bread and wine, miraculously transubstantiating into the actual body and blood of God right before our piously averted eyes). This was the holy sacrifice made for the salvation of his faithful.
And as I averted my gaze, I might glimpse, depicted in a mosaic of floor-tiles or intricately carved into the shellacked back of a pew, the familiarly fantastical pelican. So Dante in his Paradiso refers to Christ almost affectionately as “Nostro Pelicano,” our pelican. So Prince Hamlet fraternally declares: “To his good friend thus wide, I’ll ope my arms /And, like the kind, life-rendering pelican /Repast them with my blood.”
On the shore of the Mississippi two blocks away, the whistle from a steamboat cries out. Then from the other direction, from nearby Bourbon Street, comes the whining of police sirens. When these noises die away, and after a brief unexpected, almost expectant quiet, I hear the clear call of a solitary trumpet, rising from some corner of the French Quarter: it is the beginning of a deliciously sweet and melancholy melody. As if in time my pelican flag billows and waves, welcome to New Orleans.