The baby wouldn’t have a name. “It died.” As though to damper the indelicacy of its voicing, Mrs. Duchande hissed through lips covered with a dainty lace kerchief. “It was mongoloid,” she told her friends. “It was a bastard.”
Its gender happened to be male, and had he survived the soon-to-come journey through its mother’s weak canal, his parents would have named him Dominique Duchande, IV. But such a title would never be granted, nor any proper name ascribed. It wasn’t a thing done in Catholic South Louisiana. Their understanding of the Pope’s proprieties and Latin Mass precluded the naming of unborn babies. Neither tight-lipped priest nor parishioner could conjure up an explanation for why a baby was a baby at conception and therefore couldn’t be aborted without inviting the certainty of burning in hell for committing a venial sin, yet still proclaim that to name dead babies that never gulped even a single breath of life, never suckled the smallest taste from mother’s breast, never lifted tiny lids to expose the grey eyes of the world’s newest innocent creature, blackened one’s soul.
When it died, it tried to comfort its parents, singing them a song dead babies can only compose with the help of angels come to take them home, for the baby was unconstrained by man’s interpretation of God’s Word. He knew he was a real baby, and the tune flowed soundless to his parents’ ears.
Let not my mother worry
why I remain asleep,
for in her joyful world,
she knows not I am dead.
Let my father dream
his dreams of ancestral land.
He thinks I’m safe inside her,
though grief hovers on his heel.
Let angels thwart
the end of them,
while Grandmother smiles
and thinks she wins.
* * * * *
Tres strolled down the curvy dirt road that led home through his family’s hayfields. He munched on tender honey grass, sucking out its rummy sap while cool, fat drops of midday rain rinsed off his world. The fresh musk of Louisiana earth, blended with blooming clover and crisp rain air, filled him with contentment. On the horizon stood the house he built, glowing warm and proud on ancestral land.
His mother drove up beside him, slowing to a gentle roll under the sweet orange trees that lined the drive.
“Son, come sit,” came her deep, deliberate voice.
“Mother, Joie’s waiting.” He didn’t lose a stride.
She patted the seat beside her.
“Mother, can’t it wait? Joie went to the—”
“The doctor—I know, she’s… Tres, please stop walking!”
In the ghostly blankness of his mind, Tres’ what do you know blossomed into the vignettes tragiques he’d seen once before.
He stopped and stared at the puffs of pale clouds now distant.
She braked a full stop, the door handle at his fingertips.
She wore a yellow sunhat and matching linen dress, and draped across her shoulders lay a waistcoat, its white piping and tiny white button at the neck glowing in the reborn sun.
Tres wondered who had folded her roof. It had only now stopped raining.
His mother smiled her look of concern.
She hated Joie. Did she hate his baby? He had to believe his mother wouldn’t, couldn’t, hate the baby’s mother all her natural life. Another dead baby. Joie too? No, he’d feel it. Mother might feel sorry for Joie now… The thoughts flew in and through and out of his mind in an instant, and he realized his mouth hung open, the soles of his boots had bonded to the earth, and he still didn’t know what terrible thing had happened and couldn’t bring himself to ask, couldn’t will himself to hear.
His gaze rolled down to the door handle. His hand pried back the latch. His arm swung open the door.
Hopefully, by the time he looked back into his mother’s face, he’d have figured out what good might come from whatever this bad news might be.
He slid in. He noticed the dark specks of imperfection in the seat leather, foggy in his head.
“Son, you know, I’m here for you…”
“It’s dead, son. It’s dead.”
That was how Dominique Duchande, III found out about his second baby.
Another of his children was dead. Another heir and numeral, a IV. In his mother’s mind, they would all be just one more it.
* * * * *
A year later, PawPaw was hunched down in his garden, pulling weeds when the car of two representatives of the United States Army Corps of Engineers clanked up. When he stood to face them, the tall one demanded, “You have to leave this place.”
The shorter, thick-necked corpsman added, “We can’t keep rebuilding the same levees over and over.”
Joie stood with MawMaw at the stove, holding her hand as they watched men they didn’t know pronounce a sentence upon them. She looked out into the woods her forefathers had settled, here, in the mire of Deep South delta, the very fabric of her heritage. A canopy of Live Oaks the age of her ancestors dwarfed the house, and the crisp pineyness of cypress wafted over a latticework of unhurried bayous. This land was their home—beloved fishing holes, wilderness trails, and moss-draped trees where the qui'lerrrrl'ps of tree frogs and winding whir of cicadas harmonized to the rhythm of brown crickets and the chorus of Joie’s beloved equine. It made them the we that they were.
MawMaw waved the men up the tall row of steps to the kitchen, saying, “Come sit,” then busied herself with serving coffee while the corpsmen spread out an official map larger than her kitchen table. They pushed aside her cups of café au lait.
“From here—” the tall corpsman pointed to a spot where the Mississippi River ran true south before a great curve, “—to here.” His finger crawled around the edge of a great O, where the river almost touched itself before turning south again. East of those points, only a narrow swathe of land separated over a hundred Fryoux’ from the rest of the world. But spring waters often swelled the river to overflowing, breaking bits and pieces of levee and drowning their land.
“We’ve told you. Nature has to take her course,” the short corpsman barked. “This is where we’ll build the new levee.” His stubby finger cut across that narrow passage into Fryoux land. “Don’t you understand? These flimsy house stilts won’t hold up in the middle of a river.”
Waters would liquefy this lush land and carry it in great, discombobulated heaps into distant swamps to rot without the faintest recollection of its bearing on the lives of those who cherished it. The soul of Joie’s entire people would meet its demise. PawPaw had taught his family to love their land in the way they loved their lives. Would they now fear the river like a dying man who fears his closing day, with no degree of control, waiting for last visits, the ultimate decree, one final labored breath?
In all her years, Joie had never heard anyone speak so harshly to her grandfather, yet the corpsmen wore blank faces, sitting there straight-backed in their crisp uniforms as though they visited royalty, not a rickety home where, at nighttime, passersby could see the slivers of light that crept through fissures in its weathered half-inch by four-inch wallboards. The only new structure on the peninsula was a chapel they had started building that spring, and Daddy had already etched Mother’s name into a platform upon which a wooden pietà would lay: In memory of our beloved Ariat. Joie wanted to slap the men. They’d obliterate an entire culture! Why wasn’t PawPaw fighting them?
Her shoulders rounded over. The dignified old patriarch, who just sat there unflinchingly, could do nothing. PawPaw’s head, browned from long decades under the sun, hung a tad lower than usual, but Joie was the only one who noticed. She knew him that well. Because she loved him that well.
PawPaw certainly wondered how future generations would learn that obstacles were made for overcoming if he, their leader, couldn’t overcome this final, greatest obstacle to their very future. How would they feed themselves? Would another familial graveyard be abandoned, same as PawPaw’s ancestors’ thrice before?
The family had settled in these woods to remain safe, but now the whole clan would lose their homes while the nouveau riche remained dry on the highlands—even their animals would be safe on that land they had stolen from PawPaw’s father. Joie could only imagine how her dear grandfather’s gut would wrench when he saw the Highlanders’ livestock grazing safely on high land while his extended family slinked away—how he would see himself as a failure after all the bigotry and injustice he had survived at the hand of the Highlanders; how, in the end, he would have failed at the one most foundational duties of the patriarchy—this would be the cruelest of blows.
The corpsmen finally stood to go, the tall one offering a humph and, “Keep the map.”
“We won’t come tell you again,” the other warned over a shoulder.
Joie and MawMaw remained silent and motionless as PawPaw placed a thumb on the map to cover his little peninsula and stare at the result. Then he folded the map, took it outside, and put a match to it.
* * * * *
The prospect of PawPaw losing the family’s last bit of land sent a shiver up Joie’s spine as she stood at her French doors looking out into black skies six months later. Would God wipe out a culture that wouldn’t, couldn’t exist anywhere else?
She strained to see the barn that was home to her beloved Itsy. It might be the last night she could see its silhouette in the moonlight, though the far-reaching clouds of a massive storm were already nipping at its glow. Hurricane Valerie was coming.
She filed away the memories of how she mucked Itsy’s stall and rubbed her withers, and how the mare looped her head around to nuzzle her legs and back. PawPaw was right—there was nothing like a beloved horse treating you like its own species.
She smothered the memory of how Tres had understood that, how he loved horses nearly as much as she did. How he had even helped her muck the barn once (though he rushed home to bathe so he could avoid his mother’s lecture about getting dirty from common labor). What had she been thinking… the idea of a Highlander marrying a Lowlander… ludicrous. Joie and Tres had been clueless to his mother’s shenanigans until she bragged about journeying down to Isle de Jean Charles, at the tip of Louisiana’s delta, to have a vodoun curse Joie. Then she had gone home and convinced her neighbors to stop buying PawPaw’s vegetables, stop letting Joie’s family earn a living.
A sudden longing tightened her throat. Tres was barely a mile away. Maybe she could take a quick gallop and catch a glimpse of him at his bedroom window, staring out into the black.
She pinched herself. Seeing his mother’s monstrous, hilltop house on their way out in the morning would be more than enough. They’d probably already evacuated, anyway… left the staff to batten up the mansion and even their fancy horses’ shiny, lacquered stables. They were probably sipping digestif up in Natchez by now.
When she noticed a dim blush above the trees, she shook her head, glanced once more at Itsy’s home, and closed her French doors. It was time.
If only her mother were here.
Our livelihood is but a peninsula, our lives its slaves.
The childhood memory of the only cross words Joie ever heard between her daddy, Jules, and momma, Ariat, still plagued her thoughts and dreams. She was only four when the family midwifing duties called upon her mother. She was driving away in her calash, Jules repeating, then hollering, “No, the rain’s comin’.”
Ariat winked at her husband. “So is the baby.”
Joie and her brothers looked back and forth from their mother’s smile to their father’s reddening cheeks.
“Wait, I’ll drive you!”
“No, help M’Maw feed the children.”
She tapped the long-reins on her horse. “Getty-up.”
Joie cried, “Mommmyyyy!”
But her mother only waved goodbye. “Toots, go nap. Be a good ‘tite fille.”
“Don’t leave meeee!” She ran after her mother.
But her father yanked her back by the collar. “Go do like your momma said. Pretty little girls don’t whine!”
Joie could only frown. She wasn’t whining. Little babies whined, and she wasn’t a little baby. She already knew her numbers to ten in English and French, and could sing the alphabet song and Frere Jacques, too!
Jules dragged her by the collar to where the top button popped off, and at the top of the tall steps his tight fist pounded open the door and he pointed that long finger at the bed with his wife’s new quilt.
Joie ran and jumped up into her mother’s deep moss mattress. She made pretty pictures in her mind. She’d bring her mother some lavender water hyacinths that float on Grande Bayou and look like the lace doilies she knits.
Bayou Paul swelled. The mare strained against her collar. Her feet slipped on soggy leaves. The carriage and the brown mare and Ariat along with them slid ever so slowly and gracefully off the slick planks and into a churning river that most times was barely a creek.
Though Joie would dream that scene over and over again for years to come, that first time, Jules woke her from her nap and latched onto her like a buoy. He rocked back and forth, rubbing away the tear-soaked hair stuck to his only daughter’s forehead and cheeks. Then he tore free and raised the lantern.
His face was wet. Mommy wasn’t coming back; it wasn’t just a dream that first time.
In the years to come, Joie wouldn’t recall her father’s hugs or kisses prior to or since that day. She was never Daddy’s little girl. She had to bend her neck back as far as it could go just to see the face of the giant man. He rose before the rooster, and other than on the Lord’s Day, his wife, three older sons, Joie, and a tiny Joey still in diapers saw him only at mealtime, churchtime, choretime, and bedtime. On the Lord’s Day—when Ariat was alive—the family awoke to the thick, warm aromas of dark roux, caramelized onions with green peppers, celery, and garlic from the family garden, and the sound of cracked corn Jules pulverized in the hand mill latched onto a corner of the kitchen table. Before church, they ate cornbread he sweetened with honey from hives so close to the cane fields that it was dark and sweet as molasses, and they drowned large chunks in bowls of coffee-milk. After church, the aromas of the morning’s cooking watered their mouths and they all sat for a dinner comprised of the bounties of their land—its deer, squirrels, rabbits, and fruits of the waters Jules boiled with the staples of their garden or simmered in roux gravies and stews.
When Ariat was alive, she soaked lost bread, Painperdeau, in eggs, cream, and sugar, then fried it for breakfast in butter churned from the cream of their own cow. For dinner and supper, she made her own versions of gumbo, stew, rémoulade, and étouffée. But on Sundays, she rested and allowed her husband to pamper her.
After Ariat died, MawMaw prepared their meals. After Ariat died, her children were never again chased out of the kitchen with threats to be tickled or kissed to death. After Ariat died, they never again fell asleep in the arms of pure love and drifted into slumber alive with dreams of their ancient land.