a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
Today, I swam with the fishes and the frogmen
in my nylon bathing suit with the faux Hawaiian print
not as out of place as I thought I would be
out on the bayou
with the laughing gulls and mottled ducks
paddling along the marshy edge
and staring at me, blissed, out of one fastidious eye
so I didn’t tan,
moving along beneath the opaque and murky-green water,
my hair floating on the surface like sheets of kelp,
and manifesting my blood:
my mother says that her mother went out, unescorted,
into what used to be Los Angeles swamp
to catch crawfish.
No one would walk in that water, my mother says, but her,
because she came from this place
not Backatown or above Canal
but along the Misi-ziibi, the Great River
that captivated our Choctaw and Fon and French predecessors,
she came from men who trawled shrimp and cooned oysters
and raised cane,
she came from women who broke heads and gutted and shucked
and caught crawfish in waters like these,
so she knew the oyster shells lining the bottom,
she was careful not to slice her feet.
if she knew that I swam here,
among the hairy shrimp and mosquito hawks
and devil horses with red wings where they ought not be,
if she knew that I borrowed this skiff from the beautiful ones,
the ones with polished bronze skin and rectilinear hair,
the ones who are white now
and moving to town.
Perhaps she would acknowledge what she always knew:
that I would return to this place, not to regress,
but to continue.
That white man is staring at us, I said to Number Three, the watery hum of the Plaquemines Pride urging a clear-toned rise in the volume of my voice. Wind blew its spit off the surface of the River. The Plaquemines Pride is a ferry that crosses the Mississippi at one of the many bends where passing ships disappear into a line of trees, leaving behind them their wake which causes the ferry to surge upward and tilt gracefully from side to side. Plaquemines is not to be confused with Plaquemine, the former being the name of a parish in Southernmost Louisiana, and the latter being a small city in Iberville Parish, both having been derived from the Atakapa word, piakimin, meaning persimmon. Take care with your pronunciation: one sounds like PLACK-uh-mins and the other, PLACK-min.
The ferry launch is tucked into a sharp curl in the River near one of a chain of Becnel’s farm stands, where you can buy sprouted vegetable plants and young trees, frozen crawfish boudin, persimmon and various citrus, Creole Rose rice, five-dollar cracklin’, and Ponchatoula strawberries, Ponchatoula from the Choctaw meaning flowing hair, in reference to the Ponchatoula River, which sounds like PAWN-shuh-TOO-luh.
Black men, their skin a shining obsidian, tossed their laughter like crab traps over the edge of the boat.
Number Three released his jaw when the horn called, horns and ships and ferries and skiffs having been a regular part of his life since he was born into this watery place, raised in a wobbly house that wind blew to bits, the unused front door confronting the River’s levee and the crooked back door opening onto the endless wetlands to the east of Point-à-la-Hache, with its hollowed-out courthouse and a place-named ferry of its own. Number Three shucked oysters as a small child, as soon as his hands could pry open its lusty mouth, he shot Bbs into squirrel and killdeer, into robin, crane, marsh hen, wild duck, pooldoo, and grey herring (its posture a ballerina’s). He skinned coon and rabbit, muskrat and nutria, making sure to remove the muss, he scaled largemouth bass and black buffalo under live oak and bald cypress, caressed by the velveteen tresses of Spanish Moss and bourbon and beer, all of it supplementing the base diet of the unschooled bayou: assorted shellfish for days.
That’s not a white man, Number Three flashed a tobacco smile, that’s my cousin.
The ferry bumped against the riverworks and a man in greasy boots and gold incisors walked nonchalantly to the edge, easily tossing the thick braid of rope around a bollard. Habit permeated the boat: same words spoken for countless years, same accents, same fish for sale from the back of somebody’s truck, same wake, same musty smell coming off the water, same heat. Friends and familiars called out to each other, All right, as they exited the ferry, driving up onto the levee and down to the highway below, the all falling down and stretched out, the right rising up, as if the English language had the tones of the Vietnamese, the northern setting the standard and the southern relaxing back into the dampness of another summer day.
Arms sunburned and scarred by nearly five decades of manual labor, neck dark orange except for the white lines that had escaped the sun’s greedy glare, feather-light hair grasping sweat underneath an old cap, amber-colored eyes and bowed legs, Number Three waved at his cousin as both of our vehicles turned toward Pointe-à-la-Hache, his arm hanging out the window as he drove. As you read, say it aloud: PREENT-la-hash, that first syllable squeezed from the back of your throat, not an open-throated point but a tight-throated preent, like the call of a bird who only knows the skies above Plaquemines Parish.
With the Great River on our right, we wound our way into lower Louisiana. This is flat land. This is uninterrupted horizon, the clouds in an Arabic formation, all of them visible, from start to stop. This is the savanna of swamp and slough. The concave places collect rain and convex are up in pine country, the levees engineered by free men and erected by those in chains. This is the exposed limb of Turtle Island, the pinky toe of a massive stolen continent. This is the epitome of the Global South: sun-darkened and silt-rich, ancient as bone and born again just yesterday. Bought and sold, traded, bought and sold. Older than writing. Exotic in its ordinariness, eloquent in its incoherence. Wet with monsoons that are named after women. The deathless object of desire.
This land is a great trickster: its moss not really moss, its grassy green fields obscuring water underneath, its False River that is really a lake, its dead-looking cypress not at all dead, its black Catholics and white slaves, its Houma, its Caddo, its Creoles, its Isleños, the River’s edge shifting when it damn-well pleases, the solid and steady place where you once stood ten years gone.
I spotted a baby alligator dead in the road.
Number Three turned the wheel slightly to avoid hitting a turtle. They make a good stew, he commented. My grandmother called it cowan.
We dipped lower onto an unpaved road near the edge of the water. Number Three parked his red truck in what seemed to be a pre-ordained spot. I exited the vehicle and listened: distant rumblings, wind, water, birdsongs. Flat land. We detached the skiff that belonged to another of his cousins, and dragged it along the dirt into the water. Into Grand Bayou.
If you arrive in Plaquemines Parish with your foreign accent and your Dickies, with pockets bulging with trowel and contour gauge, with compass and graph paper, sluice box and pickax, with anthropometers, craniophores and calipers, with your National Geographic hat decorated with fashionable mosquito netting, if you arrive in this place with your hair unkempt, your manners west-coasted, and your vocabulary un-updated – scouting for some romantic version of history – you will be sourly disappointed. This is not the rotting swamp of Kate Chopin, not the plantation-fantastic of Walker Percy, not the perilously-prismatic New Orleans of Washington Cable.
You will excavate no Quadroon Balls here:
no fancy, printed invitation cards written in swirling, continental French; no orchestras on stages decorated with filament; no curtained carriages dispensing masked girls and their godmother-chaperones; no seductive-yet-sad-eyed tragic mulattoes begging for the next dance with an older white man; no adolescent girls in Quinceñera-esque gowns with indelicate dipping necklines; no hints of something just short of marriage: a townhouse in the city and a few pregnancies, an inheritance of a four-poster bed and a mule.
You will find a brand new skin here in the Lowlands of the Catastrophic Storm.
Prior to your arrival, prepare yourself for the beginning of the rains. It comes like a hill-slide in a place with no hills. If you’re out on the road – one of the two roads – either on the road that follows the River or the road that follows the Wetlands – you will see it coming miles away from your two-roaded self. To the left of your sight, the sky is the bluest blue, an oceanic blue that eats little pieces of you, and to the right of your sight is a wall of pewter grey, looking as if it has been painted in one broad stroke from the toppest of the sky down to the even-planed ground – it looks downright painted there, and it is coming. Rain in your eyes, rain in your mouth, fish-smelling rain on your fingertips and muddy-chocolate rain against your scalp, rain that falls like fire, rain that kisses your face and then breaks your heart.
The land is flat here, so the rain has nowhere to go. Lake of Rains. Plain of Rains.
Rain collects itself in any helpless crevice and only hesitatingly trickles away. Rain in ditches with summertime wild grasses. Rain in deer blinds. Rain in rabbit traps. Rain in sugar cauldrons. Rain in buckets inside the house. Rain on pelts hanging from tincan roofs. Rain on the nightshade. Rain in the ferry captain’s hat. Rain in the crawfish pot. Rain in the beds of ubiquitous trucks. Rain in translucent shrimp shells. Rain in sucked-out crawfish heads. Rain in the tackle. Rain in the bellies of trawlers and pirogues.
In this land, young girls are fished like croaker and drum.
I had my hair tied back from my face, a big gathering of brown hair curled like the River is curled, hanging heavily down my back, wetted from the onslaught of the rains. My hair the hair of a girl born free, a foreigner in this place.
Listen closely to follow my story:
My hostess for the day offered me a towel when I entered her home through the kitchen, my hair dripping on her buckled-linoleum floor. Her skin was the color of boiled ricewater. My instruments, tape recorder and notepad, tucked comfortably in my rained-upon bag; my accent, as California as a surfboard, not impeding my duty to eat any dish of anything that I found in front of me, the food having been plated and tabled before my arrival.
Stewed rabbit. Stuffed mirliton. Dirty rice. Oyster dressing.
She was one of thirteen children, all born at home to a mother who spoke no English, all born to a mother who had no formal schooling, there having been no school out on the bayou, all of them born in a lantern-lit clapboard house out on stilts over the marsh near Encalade, her mother “keeping house,” according to the 1910 census for Plaquemines Parish, her father “fishing.” All of them, like my family then and before then, my French-surnamed family living up and down the River, on land as low as this and higher still, classified as MU: mulatto.
Under the protective, brown-skinned shadow of St. Martin de Porres, patron saint of the mixed-race, she watched as her mother arranged the marriages of all of her sisters to fishermen –
– the sisters adolescents, the fishermen well past the middle-point at forty.
As soon as her sisters could “keep house,” the fishermen floated in, quiet as a germ, some docking their boats and some staying down there in the water, they came looking with rubber boots and overalls, with their fishing poles and shrimp nets and crab traps and oyster sacks: all the instruments to make a catch. Her mother dangled before them a daughter.
When her day came, her fisherman stunk of liquor and loam. Scum under his fingernails, leathered necklaces of skin around his collar. In his mouth: the teeth of a sheepshead.
I didn’t hardly seen him at all, she told me as she watched me eat her food that set my mouth on fire, he stayed on the boat til it was time to make another baby.
With every baby, the priest at St. Thomas Catholic Church got to know her better. Another baby, another baptism, another charitable visit to the stilt-house with food and milk in tow. Another baby. Another baby.
Poverty looks no different out on the water near Encalade: no power, no pipes, no pearls in the oysterman’s mouth. Mind your location as you read it aloud: on one bank of the River, you will say ANK-uh-lard, and on the other, ONK-uh-laid.
My hostess and her nine sisters had no Ball to choose their man: no horse-and-carriage to carry them to the Salle de Lafayette or the Salle de Orléans, no decorated masks for the face, no cat-eye masks or jeweled masks, no layered gowns with tulle to scratch their thighs, nothing to cover their color, their cashew almond pecan color, their olive cauliflower banana peel color, their ginger parsnip potato skin color, their buckwheat coconut kidney bean color. No genteel manner no French schools no classic literature. No quadrille.
There’s nothing to see here, nothing to discover or excavate, nothing upon which to base your novel or your field report. Just the storms rolling in, and the rains hanging from the sky, perfect as a dream.
I have only two photographs from that day, that first day that I rowed into Grand Bayou, that first time in my life that I’d rowed a skiff, my only exposure to boats having been the large fishing boat that my father bought on a whim, to cruise Lake Castaic and fish for bass, bass being a rare fish in Louisiana, the water here mostly salty, brackish, and vengeful.
In the first photograph, Number Three captured me from his place at the back of the skiff. I am rowing – I must have handed him my camera and said, Please take my picture. (I am reliably polite.) It is a simple shot. You can see my profile, my face turned right and angled down, looking through wire-framed sunglasses, and my arms are in motion, dipping one end of the paddle into the brown water. My hair is bound in a long braid down my back, thick as a mud snake, and I am wearing a borrowed baseball cap, something to shield part of my face from the sun.
In the background, you can see camps and docks suspended over the water.
Number Three held my camera with his cigarette dangling from his mouth, his muscle shirt revealing a faded old tattoo of what looked like a Viking. Drank too much that night, he said. He looked self-conscious sitting there in the small boat, with no fishing line reflecting the clouded light of the open sky, with no nets astray, with nothing but this foreign woman fascinated by a landscape that hadn’t ever meant much to him.
(Don’t say nothing about them being black, Number Three warned me later, when we docked our skiff beside an unpainted house that was suspended over the water, a wooden house that the coming storm would collapse like a pile of drumsticks, blowing hard as it did through the swamp like Zydeco, the music of the Creole people, the rains dragging the surface of the water like spoons on a washboard, the wind, an accordion drawing its breath, singing. I knew that the people who lived in this waterway attributed their brown skin to their Indian ancestors, the proof in the flat and heavy tendencies of their hair; I knew that the African ancestors were unmentionable, the African ancestors dragging the surface of the ocean, to the delta, to the River, never having gotten as far as New Orleans. So I didn’t.)
In the second photograph, Number Three captured me in a state of utter bliss: my body is submerged in the water, so opaque that just the suggestion of my limbs appear a glowing yellow color, my dark hair is loosed from the braid, my eyes squinting closed, my mouth broadly smiling. My face turned up toward the sun, worrylessly growing dark.
In front of my childhood home grew an olive tree. It was contained within a little fenced-off patio within the larger body of the rest of the yard, which wrapped its arms around two sides of our house, sitting as it did on a large corner lot. Our house was a placid gold color and the waist-high fence around the olive tree was even more placid, faded, it was. Olives regularly surrendered themselves to the brick patio beneath its trunk and branches, crashing onto the brown-red bodies of bricks and staining them with their black blood. When I roller skated on that patio, the seeds of the olives halted the big pink wheels of my skates, and I regularly stumbled forward, righting myself in front of the picture window of the sunken living room.
In back of our house rose a tall and glamorous pine tree. It stood like a pillar against the cement brick wall that separated our property from our neighbors’, whose unfortunate name was Horlick. The pine tree hugged the fence and shook its tassels like a flapper at a fictional dance in a place where it doesn’t rain, light green tassels not quite sharp and dark green tassels that pierced my fingertips and brown tassels that shook themselves free, falling into the waiting swimming pool below. If I wanted to go swimming, I had to haul the long-armed net from the side of the house and drag it along the surface of the water.
Did you have a treehouse?
A ladder that your daddy built into the trunk of a mighty tree?
A floor made of two-by-fours and maybe even some walls with openings that passed for windows?
A silly password that had to be whispered to enter the wooded threshold?
A bucket at the end of a rope to pass food and toys up into the sanctuary of sap?
Did you have a treehouse?
Where are you right now? Are you exiting the ferry? Have you begun your drive down into the Lowlands? The people who live here will speed around you – let them: they know the way the River bends, the cut-offs and the turn-backs, they know the path that lies ahead.
Prepare to be astounded. This place isn’t what it once was.
As you drive down the road, the Mississippi on your right and steady ground on your left, they will begin to rise before you: The Treehouses. The manors and cottages, the Big Houses and double-wides, the ranch-styles and wannabe-plantations, rising before you, off in the distance but visible from your hanging jaw as you gaze at them from the road, while the people who live here speed by on their way to Mass or to cochon de lait or to crawfish boil or simply: home. High, high up in the trees.
The Treehouses. Emblems of the time being.
You probably shouldn’t stare or hang your head out of the window of your bug-carcassed car, you probably shouldn’t aim your camera or the flat eye of your smartphone in the direction of the trees. This isn’t a site on a hurricane tour, an opportunity to glide through someone else’s calamity. You probably shouldn’t slow to a snail’s pace because the people who live here have no time for your outsider’s gaze. But gaze you will.
Up, up, you will gaze.
The Treehouses rise with the unvanquished mark of a scar. They stand like exclamation points on flat land.
This is what you do when the rains have broken your heart: you rise up into the trees, a resurrection in this Catholic land, you rise up to where the rains cannot drown you out.
Slowly, outsider, slowly you will descend down the River, and see the concrete slabs that now sit like cemetery plots throughout Point-à-la-Hache. Grass grows wild around them, wildflowers in their limitless unabashed beauty surround them, debris loosely decorates them, Holy Mary Mother of God stands modestly before them: concrete slabs telling you where people used to live, where houses had once stood, so close to the tender land, flush against the earth. They lie there upon the ground like Neolithic ruins: relics of the time before the storm. Duplessis. Frederick. Barthelemy. The names of families that once lived here, families with skin the color of mud, wet mud and dried mud, mud a kind of currency, mud neither black nor white.
Now, see the Treehouses: floating, light as air, curtains and blinds, leaves and branches, they appear like stilt-walkers that don’t walk. Their entire underbellies: exposed like a girl whose dress has lifted in the wind. And the stairways. The stairways rising up into the trees, flights of 28, 30, 34 steps up to the front door, and back stairways that rise just as high, and automated lifts on the outsides of the Treehouses, to carry the elderly and the infirm, up to salvation. Up to the place where the rains give up and finally seep or drain or simply fall away.
This is what you do when the rains have broken your heart. You rise.
Your older sister informed me that I’d missed you
you drove up from your horseshoe village
down there on Grand Bayou
with your belted slacks and your dress shoes, bent and a bit worn,
with your collared shirt and sunburned face
tan masking white underneath
I was trying to write my book about you and your kind
and me and our kind –
how I’ve bled and shed hot tears over this:
the pigeon-toed tracks that our great-greats left for us to follow
leaving this place behind and birthing me
while you were drinking iced water on Governor Nicholls
I was mulling over the shtetl that cocooned my grandmothers
and their needle-pricked fingers
and the choices that they made that made you and me
perpetually in mixed company;
To get to the water, we had to pack up the Bug
and enter the flow of traffic on the freeway, and then another, and then another
the cold-watered ocean waiting for us
at the end of a long drive,
as welcoming as pouring rain on a winter day
we laid our blankets out on the sand
my sisters tanning their bodies, and me: born the color of Louisiana,
the color of a storm
letting out its held breath.