You are on page 1of 25

Virginia Tell Novel

(972) 897-8844 71,300 Words

BORNE FROM THE CUTOFF

Prologue

Charlie didn’t know Francis before that dreadful night, and Francis knew nothing of Charlie’s

slaughterings. Nor would they have sought out each other’s company had not the strict mores of

prison life segregated them. The only thing they had in common that day was their proximity to

the woods when lightening cracked too near the chain gang’s guard, or rather, his mount.

Roadside convicts were an almost unnoticeable element of Iberville Parish scenery, but that was

before Charlie and Francis, before they slipped into the ten-foot-high sugar cane rows that led to

the woods a sprintable hundred yards away.

* * * * *

At nighttime, any passersby could see the slivers of light that slipped through cracks in

the half-inch by four-inch wallboards of our home. My ancestors built our house generations

before, settled in a soggy delta, the place of our heritage. Ours was a land where canopies of

Live Oaks the age of my ancestors towered over our roofs, where the smell of the bayous was the

crisp pineyness of Cypress.
On that last night, the breeze that traveled with the waters of The Great Mississippi blew

through the quiet of my bedroom, billowing the thin shears hung over French doors and

expansive windows, like slow soap bubbles that fatten then suddenly pop. In gentle waves it

rocked the mighty limbs of those old oaks, a delicate sachet of giant arms against the roof,

swishing like a lady’s party petticoats. The lulling swish and the ping of rain on our tin roof

when time to sleep were my favorite sounds, along with the mysterious song of my horses.

Most nights, the sounds of the delta - its crickets and tree frogs and cicadas - harmonized

with the chorus of my beloved equine like the waltzes played at the gala events I dreamed of

attending, though my name never graced an invitation. No invitations to Mardi Gras Balls, nor

coming-out parties, not even a sip-and-see. None of the many celebrations for a myriad of

occasions my Highlander neighbors prided themselves in hosting and attending. We weren’t

their kind.

But the waltz of our land was agitated that last night, and my family found no comfort in

the hum of our homeland. Hurricane Valerie, no more than a hundred and fifty miles off the

coast of Grand Isle (the tiny gulf islet a scant eighty miles south of our home, in Louisiana’s

southernmost delta) had dutifully warned us that she would be a storm never to be forgotten.

And all of God’s creatures knew it, one by one becoming more and more restless. The cattle had

long ago migrated to a common, treed area. Incessant cackling from the hen house persisted for

hours, and other insects and animals would soon follow suit, nature’s warning system alerting us

through body and voice.

It was late October and we had already dismissed as preposterous any expectations of yet

another hurricane. Each season, we start at A to name the big storms, then proceed through the

alphabet, but never had the South made its way to V, and the season was all but finished. Back
when Valerie was still a tropical storm, we simply assumed the new she-devil would sooner or

later fall apart or veer off in some other direction. And we continued to assume she would alter

her course even five days prior to her arrival, when she passed over the Florida Keys and into the

Gulf. But she kept coming, kept growing. For almost two weeks she’d been out there,

nonchalant, at her leisure making way toward us. Her path never veered from its direct route to

our home, day after day creeping a little closer.

At my window that night, in the breeze preceding the storm, I shuddered in my

threadbare shift not for the coolness of night air, but for the remnants of childhood guilt I could

never quite expunge from memory – guilt for what I had said in my grandmother’s kitchen when

I was nine and stood at her window looking out into the rains that came at the very fringes of a

hurricane whose eye had altered its course and made landfall over two-hundred miles away. I

pouted, “I wish that stupid thing would come this way. Nothing interesting ever happens here.”

And I felt guilty about spending so much energy lamenting over my relatively

insignificant personal issues when the following day would write its history as a tragedy for our

land and, along with it, a tragedy for our people as a whole. Though in retrospect my troubles

seemed insignificant in the grand scheme of life, that day’s trials, that day’s tribulations were my

entire world, my past and my future.

At Sunday Mass two days before the storm, Father’s Rabalais’ sermon explained that

God gives us guilt when we need to take some type of action, to do or say something. But I

couldn’t figure out what action I should have attempted, whether there was someone with whom

I was supposed to make amends, or seek forgiveness. Perhaps He merely wanted me to stop

feeling sorry for myself, grieving about how I had managed to tear apart my life limb by limb.
At the window was a terrified girl-woman wondering what would come of her days and her

nights and her everything else.

I minced a flap of lip skin with my right canine, trying to distract my thoughts. Valerie

was not just another hurricane. She was the hurricane. Perhaps not for many, but for my people

she was because our poor little parish could not stand yet another with her power and ferocity.

The surrounding parishes would survive and in time fully recover, but the land upon which my

ancestors lived and regenerated would not. Not from an angry lady like Valerie.
Book One

Our livelihood is but a peninsula, our lives its slaves.
Chapter 1

“Mommmyyyy! Mommy, pleeasse!”

“Pleease, let me go with you!”

Mommy won’t give in to my pleas, and it’s so important!

She doesn’t understand and I can’t make her. But I know something terrible is

coming.

“Mommmyyyyy! Don’t go! Please, don’t leave meeeeee.”

Mommy is driving off. She’s waving goodbye. “Toots, go take your nap. You can

lay on my new quilt, Toots. Go on now. Be a good cher fille.”

She drove off in her new calash, her beautiful mare extending her trot like she

was in a contest for the most beautiful and talented of all Morgans in the whole wide

world.

“Mommy! Mommy, please don’t leave me!”

“Tooda, go in the house and do like your mamma said.” Daddy was real mad.

He hates it when I cry. Says pretty little girls don’t cry.
But I don’t care. And I’ll cry if I want to. And he can’t stop me. He doesn’t even

care, and he doesn’t know what I know, and he’s gonna cry too when he finds out. Then

he’ll be sorry he didn’t listen.

It’s too late now. Mommy’s carriage is out of earshot and out of sight, and

Daddy’s mad for my whining. That’s what he calls it, anyway. Any time I really believe

in something and I keep telling him about it, he says I’m whining.

I don’t whine. Little babies whine and I’m not a little baby. I already know my

numbers to ten in English and in French, and I can sing the alphabet song and Frere

Jacques, too.

He’ll just let her go and I won’t have a mommy anymore, and he doesn’t care a

bit. Not one eansy, weansy, little bit.

He repeats his demand with a tight fist on the front door and a long finger that

points to the bed with Mommy’s new quilt.

I ran as fast as I could and jumped up into the thickness of her moss mattress,

praying fervently that God make her safe and help me to think pretty thoughts. I made a

picture in my mind of the time Father brought Mommy some lavender water hyacinths

when he went to Grande Bayou. Mommy loved them and I couldn’t wait to get her some.

They float on our lazy bayous like lace doilies.

Mommy’s mare strained against her collar to pull the calash through the slop of a

sodden path. At the Amite River, the wheels slipped along the planks of the bridge. The

river was swollen with rains, and fallen leaves made the boards slick. I watched.

Over and over I called to her but, still, she wouldn’t listen. She never even turned

around to wave or tell me she saw me and knew I was there. And she kept ignoring me
even as the carriage and the mare and her along with them slid slowly and gracefully off

the slick planks and into a river that most times was barely a creek.

“Mommmyyyyyy!”

That’s when Daddy woke me up. And that’s when I wake up even now, when I dream

that dream over and over again.

The first time I dreamed it, Daddy woke me up and held me tight, and rubbed away the

mass of brunette stuck to my forehead and cheeks. Darkness had fallen and, until he turned and

raised the lantern, I couldn’t see his face. It was wet, too. Mommy wasn’t coming back; it

wasn’t a dream at all.

Tres Duchande wasn’t coming back either. He was a limb I had torn away. He was my

husband. It was all too real, and though my best attempts to remain whole after the amputation

failed, the very effort itself was the seed of my trials and tribulations. The realities borne from

the death of Mother, the withdrawal of Father into his own painful remorse, the prospect of being

cut off from the love and security of my land and life – these were the realities, the ripening

seeds from which I yearned to mentally escape.
Chapter 2

My father and my brothers and, before them, my ancient grandfather and his ancestors back a

hundred years before, provided for their families by means of the endowments of our river and

its delta lands. Abundant alluvial soil, the richest in the world, greatly endowed our crops and

fattened our animals, and such was the case for our extended family, a people measured by the

fruits of a parish separated from the rest of the world by The Great Mississippi River.

The Army Corps of Engineers brought my father a map to show us how the river

encircled our land. The spot on the map before the first great curve (where the river still ran

south) and at the last great curve (where it turned true south again) almost touched each other,

but east of those points, on the Army Corps of Engineers map, the ‘O’ of the river delineated our

sustenance.

The river’s first turn was only a mile or so across land from the final curve, and that

configuration made for the setting of an endless variety of childhood games and contests. Our

favorite competition was a down-river race, one group via land, one via river. Would the winner

be my three older brothers, paddling with the swift current, zooming down and around the

fifteen-mile boundary of our land? Or perhaps the winner would be me and my younger brother,
Joey, running as fast as our seven- and five-year-old legs could carry us, clawing our way

through the one-mile stretch of thicketed land at the mouth of our peninsula.

It was pretty hard running sometimes – a pretty hard row to hoe, as my grandfather put it.

The land was very low and always boggy, the water table a shallow sub-surface lake. When

spring floods liquefied the snaking mountains of levees, mammoth waters raced directly south

along our path. Joey and I, like the water, chose the shortest route back to the river - due south.

Only once did Joey and I win, and our pact to keep the winning method a secret from our

older brothers still holds, after many years and countless to-the-death tickles from stronger

siblings.

The morning was young; all of us were home on summer break. Lazy cloud puffs drifted

across a baby blue ceiling, and July’s air was thick with vapors from the river, forcing out salty

droplets on foreheads and upper lips. After what seemed an eternity, we finished our last chore,

and by then Joey and I almost burst at the seams with anxiousness to carry out our plan. All

morning we had egged-on our brothers for a contest, and they, as always, chided us for even the

suggestion that we might beat them. But Joey and I were relentless and badgered them until they

succumbed.

We all climbed into our wooden, flat-bottom bateau, and within minutes Joey and I

hopped out at the up-river drop-off spot, at the southernmost part of the river before the big

doughnut. We pumped our little arms and legs as fast as we could, and didn’t stop running until

we were safely hidden within the woods where Patches, my best-ever pony, waited patiently.

With his help we pulled a big one over on the big kids, galloping through the soft soil that was

always so kind to Patches’ hooves, flying through the delta, its breeze whipping our hair

horizontally. I sunk my fingers deep into the thick hairs of Patches’ mane, and one cluck later we
were off. Joey wrapped one arm around my waist and used the other to feebly slap Patches’

rump, why I don’t know. Patches need only be asked. With only a simple request he would run

his heart out. He loved it that much. And that day he did run fast. He thundered through the

woods, took flight over ditches, streams, and downed trees, plowed through blackberry bushes

and thicket, and ran and ran and loved it all.

Racing games were always the highlight of our summers, our weekends after chores and

Mass, and sometimes at the end of a weekday once the encroaching summer made the sun slow

down, giving us a lot more light to play under.

In the late summer after my thirteenth birthday, my youngest older brother, Beaufort, got

a Catahoula hound dog (a prized possession in our neck of the woods), and challenged Cousin

Alphonse and his we-don’t-know-what kind of dog, Raymond, to a pirogue race. The Catahoula

is indigenous to Louisiana. It is our State dog and a prime hunting breed, and we used them to

herd the pigs and cows because they’re so darned bossy. Beaufort’s Catahoula was a big one; he

weighed almost as much as two of those big sacks of potatoes. Catahoulas have legendary

staying power, and Beaufort’s really liked having his way, so all us kids viewed him as a

formidable opponent in our much acclaimed dog-and-boat games.

The challenge commenced at Sardine Point, at a place on the river close to Alphonse’s

house, near the northeast section of the ‘O.’ The first boy-dog-boat team to make it to the

opposite bank, retrieve a stalk of river cane for proof they hit land, and then return to Sardine

Point was the winner.

We allowed no paddles, and aids were limited to a single stretch of rope about twice the

length of a man, bridled around the dog’s neck and chest at one end and secured to the nose of

the pirogue at the other. It was the dogs that did all the work in this competition.
Joey always thrilled at the prospect of such a race. His old, paddle-footed Basset Hound

had won with great regularity through the years, but Hound’s nine years of life impacted their

winning odds more appreciably with each birthday. My little brother, for his minimal weight,

had drawn more than his share of victories, yet, with Hound’s advanced age and Joey’s

increasing weight, the prospect of triumph withered.

The race started as any other, each boy in a delicate balance at the center of his boat,

minimizing drag, and each boy praising his pet, insisting, urging him faster and faster still. But

when the passing Delta Queen’s immense paddlewheel created a wake that Joey’s pirogue could

not navigate, tragedy became all but inevitable. In the late summer, when the river was very low,

paddlewheels typically traveled the deep center channel of the river, but the three boys and their

dogs and boats were upset in Delta Queen’s wake when it ventured too far north of center.

Joey led the pack and needed only feet to dock when the paddlewheel’s wake turned into

tumbling waves in the shallows of the approaching shore. Joey tried to steady his boat, and

stood to reach for the branch of one of the trees that spread like an umbrella over the river’s

edge. The boat pitched and Joey jumped for the branch. Then he hung there, watching the boat

go belly-up beneath him. Hound howled in dog-neck-deep water, struggling to keep his nose

above the waterline as his feet sank into the river’s slimy mud and the submerging pirogue and

rope bridle sucked him under.

Beaufort and Cousin fared better than did Joey because the wake was still a wake when it

passed them. They scrambled to save their little buddy and his hound.

All three boys told the story for years to come – one of great adventure, braveness, and

honor. With a fully-developed aptitude for storytelling, one obviously honed through years of

our patriarch’s example, they told of how the contest was forgotten when their camaraderie and
family loyalty summoned them to save a boy and his dog. Joey’s version normally included his

valiant domination over fear as he dropped himself from the tree and trudged through

treacherous waters to rescue his dog, his lifelong companion. The accounting of events quite

impressed the rest of us family members, as a small detail was always omitted. When Joey

jumped into the river to save Hound, he pooped his pants.

For forever and a day, all our great aunts and uncles had cautioned us kids that the thin

arms of riverbank trees would not hold our weight. Our kin never ceased to remind us about

what happened to Great-Uncle LaFleur when he was trying to rescue his old Lynx from a

riverbank tree. He scooted too far out on a limb and, when it broke, Uncle fell right down on top

of a gigantic sleeping alligator that without delay bit his face off.

So when Joey dropped himself into the brown water, the vision of Uncle and his missing

face caused him to forthwith poop his britches. Everybody teased Joey with great fervor that

night and for many days afterward, but when Joey and I got to bed that night and I asked him

why he soiled himself, he burst into tears and told me he just couldn’t bear the thought of having

no lips to whistle with, ever again.

* * * * *

When the Corps brought the map to my father and delivered a warning that the river

would steal our land, this was not news. From the river my family lived, from the river my

family sustained itself. That the waters would consume us, that there was so much river in all

directions just a short distance from where our homes sheltered us, was no news. My family

lived in this parish through many decades since its settling and knew the river well. The majority

of the parish’s population was my kinfolk – aunts, uncles, and cousins whose lineage could be
traced back through many generations to common ancestors. I guess in truth a lot of them

weren’t related to me by law, but we claimed each other anyway.

Standing there that last night, at the French doors, in the relative warmth of an October

night breeze, my spine tingled with the thought of those many people, my neighbors. Were any

of them at their windows, breathing in the love of our land, our people, our heritage? Thanking

God for providing such a fertile land? No richer land could be had and we all knew it. If it

weren’t for The Great Mississippi River we would not have been so blessed. And if it weren’t

for The Great Mississippi River and her power to take away all that she gave, we probably would

have been working a different land, one that didn’t so often get washed away in the spring. We

probably wouldn’t have lost scores of crops to great floods. We probably wouldn’t have lost

countless animals when they couldn’t find their way to high ground before paths became

treacherous with murky floodwaters higher than a man’s head. Instead, we’d have probably been

working a land closer to New Orleans. Maybe. A land of debutantes and balls and mint juleps.

And maybe the Corps of Engineers wouldn’t have had to warn us that we were going to

lose our land to The Great Mississippi, that the river’s two giant curves only a mile apart would

meet when the river decided to permanently adjust itself onto the shortest path south. Valerie

would help her do just that, and the Corps of Engineers would do nothing to help.

We knew that Valerie would drop at least a foot of rain on us in the first hours, and as she

continued inland she’d release so much more that creeks and streams and rivers north of us

would overflow their banks. All lands would be saturated and all waters would flow south

directly over our little letter ‘O’ of an existence.
The Great Mississippi River would break her levee in many places, but one in particular –

at the base of that first big curve. This was what the Corps of Engineers would not prevent. Nor

would the Corps yet again help us to rebuild the levees and reclaim our homeland.

“Nature has to take her course. We can’t prevent it any longer,” the men from the Corps

told my father and my grandfather at the kitchen table. They wanted us out. They knew we

couldn’t survive once that happened, so we’d have to go. Even the tall stilts upon which our

homes were built would not protect our dwellings. When we heard the news, I knew my father’s

thoughts were on the new chapel the family had started to construct that spring, of how my

mother’s name had found its way etched into a platform on which a wooden Pieta would lay. In

memory of my beloved Ariat.

That day when the Corps gave us their word of warning, the dignified old patriarch that

was my grandfather just sat there, unflinchingly. His head, browned from decades under the sun,

hung a tad lower than usual, but I was probably the only one that noticed. I knew him that well.

Because I loved him that well.

To take my grandfather away from this land would be the death of his soul, and the

weight of that prospect presided over much of my mind that night, the night before the end of life

as we knew it. My grandfather’s love of the peninsula was greater than that of any man in the

parish. And as the patriarch of our family, great was his distress about the loss of our ability to

provide for ourselves without that land.

Some of my oldest memories are of my grandfather and the life he lived, like when he

went out with my brothers and my father to retrieve logs lost by Northern loggers. PawPaw

directed our men on how to rope the logs and corral them into the shallows, where they strapped
them together like a raft and floated them to the sawmill. In this way the men earned a few

pennies for each log.

When the logs weren’t running, the men folk caught river sardines. We call the northeast

part of our peninsula parish Sardine Point because of the proliferation of freshwater sardines, a

type of mullet fish about ten to twelve inches long. We sold them as bait for crabs.

In the early fall, when the logs weren’t to be had and sardines weren’t running, the men

harvested sugar cane, and when there were no logs, sardines, or sugar cane, they hunted rabbits,

squirrels and deer, farmed the land for vegetables and fruits, bred the animals, and traded in any

way they could. Everyone had a job, everyone contributed, and everything was shared. And

somehow everything was fun. As a young girl my responsibilities included washing dishes,

picking vegetables, cutting grass, collecting pecans, and feeding the animals, but I didn’t know

these activities were jobs until I reached the fourth grade, when a Highlander told me I should

make my father give me an allowance (whatever that was) for all the jobs I did. But that’s just

how we all lived in the parish. Most of us, anyway. Some, like the Duchandes, had quite a bit

more. Some, like a few of my many cousins, had much less.

Economic equilibrium drew together our assets, so we did what we had to do for the

benefit of the whole, like when the first pigs of the year were slaughtered, once the weather

turned cool enough to cook pork. The neediest family was always afforded what remained of the

seasons’ cochon de lait (roasted piglet). We were family and we were happy. Yet, on the high

ground, just beyond the land that would become an island once the river permanently rejoined

itself, lived the source of my discontent – a land where mint juleps christened Saturday

afternoons.

* * * * *
A lightening bolt jolted me from my personal elegy – more proof that the storm fully

intended to make its way along its predestined course. If only I could sleep, then dawn would

come and along with it the thought-consuming duties we knew all too well. The packing and the

boarding up of windows and doors, on the off chance that some of the houses would be spared.

No hurricane party for Valerie. Only work and subsequent refuge inland.

Earlier in the evening, word came that the Louisiana shrimp trawlers fled the coast for

Galveston Bay and Mobile Bay, hoping to save their boats, their livelihoods. Our family would

flee northward toward Alexandria, with Valerie chasing us like a rabid dog, but by the time she

caught up with us the majority of her power would have dissipated. Water feeds hurricanes and

land drains them of their power – Valerie ate ravenously while drawing closer, and closer still.

Her wind had noticeably strengthened in just the two hours since everyone else in the family had

retired for the evening. And the wind turned sour.

With each passing minute the animals grew more wary of the elements. My favorite

gelding called to me from the barn. Morgans express themselves with about a thousand different

voices. That night, he thought something’s going on here. What’s happening?

Then came the high-pitched shrill of Itsy, my prized filly. Her mom died from an

aneurysm shortly after the heavy labor she endured to birth Itsy. God knew Itsy was special, and

He knew her mom, Lady Cognac, wouldn’t survive the birthing. And I think God also knew that

Itsy would not have survived if Lady hadn’t birthed her early. That was why God let Itsy be born

premature, and that’s why Itsy has always been so little.

What would happen to her? What torment would Valerie craft for my equine family? We

would have to let them loose to fend for themselves during the storm. Valerie would bring them

certain death if left inside the barn. At the top of a slight incline and well drained, even if the
rickety structure survived, the raging winds and lightening and thunder would drive the animals

mad. They would hurt themselves gravely, desperate to get away from the deafening sounds of

this October hurricane, The Storm of 1927.
Chapter 3

My husband was the first child of a third-generation South Louisiana family from France. Tres

(sounds like tray) is French for very, or quite, and it’s Spanish for three - but Tres Duchande was

not very or quite like the other Duchandes. I had been Joie Duchande. Mrs. Dominique Robert

Duchande, III. I, all by myself, cut off that part of my life. For an all-too-brief moment my life

had changed drastically. But then I returned, right back where I’d started, most notably

evidenced (to my family, anyway) by my mucking my own barn rather than directing the many

groomsmen of the Double-D stables – the Dominique Duchande Ranch. The home Tres built for

us and our expected family backed up to DDR, and we shared their barn facilities.

Mucking stalls again was fine with me. Horses love it when you take care of them, and

they know that shoveling their manure means a person cares for them – shoveling excrement

somehow communicates the same feelings as grooming. PawPaw taught me that the biggest

compliment a horse can give a human is to treat him like another horse. I thought of PawPaw

often when I groomed Itsy, the only horse I could bring myself to love since childhood, when I

lost Patches. When I’d rub or scratch her withers or shoulder, she’d loop her head around to

muzzle me and massage my leg and my back.
Tres grew up on his father’s ranch, two miles from my home on the peninsula, and I don’t

remember ever not knowing him. Looking back, my adult romance with Tres started the summer

of my eighteenth birthday. I worked at a dining hall in Baton Rouge, and he and his buddies

from Louisiana State Agricultural and Mechanical University were having a few drinks to

celebrate their offers to clerk at the major Baton Rouge and New Orleans law firms.

Tres paid special attention to me that night, even though I was wearing my maid-waitress

uniform. Every time I brought a fresh round of beer he found something to say to me, something

to ask about: What are you studying? How are your grandfather’s lung treatments going? I

heard your new stud-horse is a handful… It was like that until closing time. Most of his friends

had already gone, and I was certain Tres would hang around until the very end and ask me to go

have a nightcap with him at his club. Instead, I got a super-sized tip. One more thing to remind

me of my place in his world.

Later that summer, only a few days before my birthday, I saw him at a party in a private

club in Baton Rouge, where I served food and drinks, one of the many jobs I took so I could pay

for my board and books and schooling in Hammond. I didn’t want him to see me so I avoided

him. He was with a blonde deb from nearby Plaquemine, the strikingly beautiful Renee Wilbert,

and, intimidated though I was, I was giddy and nervous to see him, just like when I was twelve

and we first tipped hats as competitors in a local Hunter-Jumper show. I showed in the Junior

Hunter classes, but Tres was fifteen and competed as an adult, already a champion rider in the

East Coast Jumper Classics. He was quite impressive – a celebrity in the horse community – so

I, along with all the other little-girl wanna-be’s, glowed and panted from the tops of our lungs

when near him.
Long before the party in Baton Rouge, I had resigned myself to the truth that I would see

him seldom. I no longer visited his ranch with my grandfather and his wares, we both sacrificed

the show ring for the classroom, and our customary childhood afternoons of riding and picnics

and laughter transmuted themselves into endless hours of study. The liaisons of our childhood

and adolescence had come to an end.

Seeing Tres with Renee gave me heightened strength and conviction to avoid him without

a great deal of effort. Miss Wilbert was not very likeable; then again, I wouldn’t have known

what to say to Tres anyway. Since we were all grown up I never did know what to say when he

was around. So calm and cool and collected, and so very, very charming, around him I always

felt like my brain went on holiday and took my tongue along with it.

And my preference to not share the company of Renee was well founded. The Wilberts

were a wealthy Plaquemine family, and at a school gathering years earlier, my friend Margaret

introduced me to Renee. Margaret told her I was from The Point, to which Renee extended a

hand and offered, “Oh, how I sometimes envy your lives down there in the seclusion of The

Point. Why, I bet your kinfolk just relish in their peaceful quiet lives. Of course, I could never

live there, with nothing to entertain myself. Surely, though, that’s just what I hear so interests all

you folk, never having to deal with the things the rest of us here have to deal with.”

Sharp spines found their mark. We had grown up slowly in our parish, a marshy land

filled with evenings of animal and insect concertos, mornings of dense fogs, and late afternoons

of playtime – hide-and-go-seek with brothers and sisters and cousins, or chase-and-tag with the

animals, always under the scrutiny of MawMaw, crochet in her lap, rocking in her squeaky old

chair on her back porch, telling us to quiet down and be nice to each other and watch to not put

somebody’s eye out with those Spanish Daggers (swords from a spherical bush formed by a
multitude of long needle-tipped, sharp-edged swords that protrude from the center like a

porcupine).

So, no, at the private club in Baton Rouge I didn’t care to hear Renee’s gratuitous

philosophizing of us “people from The Point.”

* * * * *

It happened that the first time Tres came to call on me as an adult was the day of my

eighteenth birthday. He knew that I was back in town from school, home to see my grandfather,

who was suffering from tuberculosis. The middle of the semester and my birthday, there I was,

back in the parish.

When all three of my older brothers fetched me from the barn that day, saying Tres was

there to see me, I didn’t know what to think or say. At first I figured they were playing a joke,

but then I realized all three, Jean (the oldest, named after our founding grandfather), Francis (the

second oldest, his name means Frenchman), and Beaufort (he hated his name because it was the

name of a man from Europe that learned how to measure strong winds and waves, and we always

teased him and blamed hurricanes on him because we said his name put a mojo on us, and the

man’s first name was Francis, but he lived in Great Britain, so he wasn’t even a Frenchman, but

my mother and father didn’t know that back when they named their children), stood there with

tight lips and arms folded over their chests. (Joey didn’t have a meaning behind his name; I

thought maybe they ran out of interesting boy names by then. I liked to think that they chose my

name for obvious reasons.)

With the fastest sprint manageable, I made it to the barn doors and peeked through the

crack. Sure enough, harnessed at our back porch was a carriage in tow by a horse bearing the

Double D brand.
Panic set in when a quick survey disclosed my choice to wear a floral print, rice-bag shift

that morning, and efforts to smooth its wrinkles revealed black filth under my nails. A touch to

my hair bun made known a glob of mud caked into the knot. I hoped it was mud, not muck.

A bit of deep breathing calmed me and, once straightened, my back brought height and

confidence to my departure from our weathered gray barn, out to see what brought Dominique

Duchande, III, to call on the youngest Fryoux daughter on Sardine Point. “I, I’m uh, I. I thought

I’d stop by because Father needs some help to start our two-year-olds.”

By the age of eighteen my reputation for gentling colts far surpassed those of older

cowboys who in no time at all turned out horses whose spirits were in fact broken. They used

buckin’ bronco machismo and brute force to dominate the animal, to compel him to surrender his

will. It was a method designed to assure success in gaining complete and total control. The old

cowboys were resolute in their viewpoint that horse must understand that man is God and

Master. They’d rope them, tie up one of their hooves under their body, and run them until the

poor animals had only two choices – resist and die, or submit and live. Sometimes the cowboys

had to hog-tie them just to drive home their point, but in time they threw on a saddle and

mounted up. By and large the horses got their second wind by then, and commenced hopping

and jumping and bucking, twisting and thrashing their bodies in unnatural spinal contortions –

anything to get the evil humans off their backs.

As though the animals couldn’t be miserable enough with what they had already suffered,

just for good measure the cowboys buried pointy spurs deep into their ribs, terrifying them until

their eyes rolled back into their heads and their lungs verged on bursting right open, shocked

with the pain that comes with torn flesh.
True, after such a breaking, the horses could be ridden. They could be ridden and spurred

and whipped and hog-tied again if need be, but the hog-tying wouldn’t be necessary because the

horses could no longer think for themselves. Their spirit was broken, their souls chained in

submission to the evil one. He’d behave. He’d not have a horse’s life, but he would behave.

* * * * *

Still conscious of my black nails and mud bun, my first words to Tres probably seemed to

mock him. “I, uh, sure, uh, come sit down for coffee.”

I struggled to find something to say, hoping a few intelligent words would find their way

through my lips, maybe a comment about his colts, anything to break the silence, but I felt like a

bad romance novel: My thoughts were kidnapped by his eyes, his lips, and hair, all of him.

Mostly, though, I was puzzled as to why Tres had stuttered in the same way I had.

I waved a finger toward the steps up to our back door, and watched his gaze follow. His

eyes were the oddest shade of bright green, sort of like a green apple, except more crystalline-

like. It wasn’t a color I’d ever seen in anybody’s eyes, and I remember teasing him about it when

we were kids. The black of his pupils recessed like a Black Hole, deep into his head, and the

contrast made it easy to see exactly what he was looking at, wherever he looked.

About halfway up the steps I turned back to see him chastising himself about the stutter,

shaking his head. It was a comforting thought, to remember how well I knew Tres. His chin

almost touched his chest, but I could still see the lip-biting grimace and red cheeks of his

childhood.

If I did say something while walking up those stairs, I don’t remember it, but somehow

we made it through those climbing and coffee-making minutes, and relaxed into our natural,

lifelong talk about horse shows and colts. Then came the question.
“A while back, at the club in Baton Rouge, is there some reason why you avoided me?”

My chin on my chest, I found no answer on my shoes. Shrugging my shoulders, all I

could do was show my palms to heaven. Smooth, Joie.