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BORNE FROM THE CUTOFF - 1

BORNE FROM THE CUTOFF

Prologue One of them would die this night, a near decapitation; the other hung by the neck the following day. Charlie didn't know Francis prior to that dreadful night, and Francis knew nothing of Charlie or his 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 this day was their proximity to the woods when lightning 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 crept through fractures in the half-inch by four-inch wallboards of our home. My ancestors built our house generations ago, settled in the mire of Deep South delta, the very fabric of our heritage. Ours was a land where canopies of Live Oaks the age of my ancestors dwarfed our rooftops, and the crisp pineyness of Cypress wafted through a latticework of unhurried bayous. All this would soon liquefy and flow in great, discombobulated heaps into distant swamps, where it would rot without the faintest recollection of its bearing on the lives of those who cherished it. On that last night in our homeland, the disquieted ghost of a breeze that traveled with the waters of The Great Mississippi River rambled through the quiet of my bedroom, not exactly sure where to rest. It billowed the French-door shears the way slow soap bubbles fatten then delicately burst, poof, and the mighty limbs of our old oaks whispered their surrender to the gods

BORNE FROM THE CUTOFF - 2 in a delicate sashay against the roof, swishing like a lady's party petticoats. The lull of their prayer, raindrops chiming our tin roof, the mysterious song of my horses the delta heralding a syrupy trionfonte that articulated the exquisiteness of our land and lives. Most nights, the g'lerrrrl'ps of tree frogs and winding whir of cicadas harmonized to the syncopated rhythms of brown crickets and the chorus of my beloved equine. But the waltz of our land was agitated that last night and my family found no comfort in its refrain. Hurricane Valerie, no more than a hundred and fifty miles off the coast of Grand Isle (a gulf islet barely eighty miles south of our home), was warning us that she would mark our lives. And all of God's creatures knew it, each fretting and fidgeting more by the minute. The cattle had long ago migrated to a common area, incessant cackling from the hen house persisted for hours, and other insects and animals would soon follow suit, Mother Nature's warning system alerting us through voice and body. It was late October and we had already dismissed as preposterous any suggestion of yet another hurricane. Each season, we begin the name of the first big storm with an A 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 persisted in that belief through and after she passed over the Florida Keys and into the Gulf of Mexico, five days prior to her arrival. But she kept coming, kept growing. For almost two weeks she'd been creeping toward Louisiana, her path never veering from its direct route to our home. I minced a flap of lip skin with my right canine, had to find a way to distract my thoughts. Valerie was not just another hurricane; she was the hurricane. Maybe not for many, but for my family she was because our peninsula could not stand yet another with her power and

BORNE FROM THE CUTOFF - 3 ferocity. The surrounding parishes would survive and in time fully recover, but the land upon which my ancestors lived and regenerated would not.

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Book One

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

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Chapter 1

My father and my brothers, and before them my ancient grandfather and his ancestors a hundred years back, 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. But our warning was clear. Get out. Many months prior to Valerie, the Army Corps of Engineers brought my father a map and showed us how the river encircled our land. The point on the river before the first great curve of the loop that surrounded us (where the river still ran south) and the last great curve (where it turned true south again), almost touched each other, but east of those points, the O of the river delineated our existence. The river's first turn was only a mile or so across land from the final, a configuration that 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 victors be my three older brothers, paddling with the swift current, zooming down and around the fifteen-mile boundary of our land? Or perhaps me and little brother Joey, running as fast as our seven- and five-year-old legs might carry us, scratching and tearing our way through the one-mile stretch of thicket at the mouth of our peninsula.

BORNE FROM THE CUTOFF - 6 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, just as 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. A marbled ceiling and thick vapors from the river forced out salty droplets on foreheads and upper lips, and after what seemed an eternity, we finished our last chore. By then our teeth chattered with anxiousness to carry out the plan we'd labored over for weeks it seemed, though two days was an eternity back then. All morning, Joey and I had egged-on our brothers, babbling on about their mislaid confidence, challenging them to yet another contest they knew they'd win. As always, they chided us for even the suggestion that they could lose, but we were relentless and badgered them until they succumbed. We all climbed into our flat-bottom bateau, and within minutes Joey and I hopped out at the up-river drop-off spot, at the southernmost point on 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, our hair whipping 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,

BORNE FROM THE CUTOFF - 7 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, his eyes dancing through the broken sunlight like delirious marionettes. 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. One late summer day 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 his brothers and Cousin Alphonse, with his we-don't-know-what kind of dog, Raymond, to a pirogue race. The Catahoula is indigenous to Louisiana. It is a prime hunting breed and our State dog, 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 PawPaw stored under his house. 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 showdown commenced at Sardine Point, 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.

BORNE FROM THE CUTOFF - 8 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 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 to minimize 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. He was under the umbrella of trees that spread over the river's edge, and stood to reach for a limb. The boat pitched and Joey jumped for the branch, where he hung and watched as his boat rotated belly-up beneath him. Hound struggled to keep his nose above the waterline as dog-neck-deep water gurgled his baying while his feet sank into the slimy river 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, so they scrambled to save their friend and his hound.

BORNE FROM THE CUTOFF - 9 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 a recitation expounding upon the details of 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 haunting brown water, the image of Great 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

BORNE FROM THE CUTOFF - 10 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 bayous and rivers north of us would overflow. The Great Mississippi River would break her levee in many places, but one in particular at the base of that first big curve. All lands would be saturated and all waters would

BORNE FROM THE CUTOFF - 11 flow south directly over our little letter O of an existence. 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. 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. 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 who noticed. I knew him that well. Because I loved him that well. To remove grandfather from his land would be the death of his soul, and the weight of that outcome 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. In part, the land was my grandfather, and my grandfather our sustenance. He was the power that suctioned life and breath into our souls as the land filled our days and our bellies. His was the life we all wanted to live, and his duty was to assure we wanted just that. His was to teach.

BORNE FROM THE CUTOFF - 12 PawPaw taught my brothers and my father to retrieve logs lost by Northern loggers. He directed them on how to rope the logs and corral them into the shallows where they strapped them together to form a raft they then floated to the sawmill. In this way the men earned a few pennies for each log. When the logs weren't running, the menfolk 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, such as 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 we slaughtered the first pigs of the year, 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

BORNE FROM THE CUTOFF - 13 itself, lived the source of my discontent a land where mint juleps christened Saturday afternoons in totally incongruous contrast to the typical Southern manner. * * * * *

A lightning 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. In the early evening before the storm, 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, Valerie a rabid dog chasing us, but by the time she caught up with us, the majority of her power would have dissipated. Open 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 my family had retired for the evening. And the wind turned sour. 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.

BORNE FROM THE CUTOFF - 14 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 lightning and thunder would drive the animals mad. They would hurt themselves gravely, desperate to escape from the deafening sounds of this October hurricane, The Storm of 1927.

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