Authors: V. C. Andrews
Copyright (c) 1996
"You've got to let go of innocence," Mama
One spring morning I had come running up to the gallery where she sat weaving palmetto hats to sell to the tourists. In my hands I cupped a dead baby blue jay. I thought it had fallen from the nest, but Mama said its mother most likely threw it out.
I shook my head. I was only seven. It was inconceivable that a mother of any kind could cast one of its offspring out of the nest.
"No, Mama. It must have tried to fly and fell," I insisted.
She put down her palmetto leaves and looked at me with that soft, sad expression in her dark onyx eyes that brought tears to my own eyes. Her gaze went to the baby bird and then she shook her head.
"It's too small to have tried to fly, Gabriel. It was sickly and either died or would have died. The mother knew what was best."
I, too, gazed down at the diminutive creature, its eyes glued shut, its tiny beak slightly open, its tiny claws tightly closed.
"How can it be best to throw your baby out?" I asked angrily.
"She had other babies to care for, Gabriel honey, strong, healthy ones who needed her attention and the food she brought. If she spent time worrying over one that was going to die anyway, one of the healthy ones would get sick and die."
I shook my head. I wouldn't believe it.
"It's not a decision she sits around munching over, Gabriel, no. It comes from instinct. She just knows what's necessary. It's how she makes sure her good babies will survive and have a chance in that jungle you love so much."
"Is she sad about it?" I asked, hopefully.
"I suppose, but there's nothing she can do about it. Understand?"
"No," I said. "Maybe if she tried harder, this baby would live, too."
Mama sighed deeply and that's when she told me about innocence.
I didn't know what she meant then. I was too young to measure the world in terms of innocence. To me, waking up every day was still like ripping off the wrapping paper to get at the wonderful gifts that awaited as soon as I finished my breakfast and shot out the screen door, bounded down the steps to our front gallery, and turned around the corner of the house toward the swamp and the canals and all my animals. Sickness and death, violence and cruelty, were not permitted entry to this world. If something died, it was because its time had come fairly. Hope struggled to survive within me.
"Can't you bring the baby bird back to life, Mama?" I asked. "Can't you give it some herbal drink with a eye dropper or sprinkle some magic powder over it? Can't you?"
Mama was a
a healer whose hands did magical things. What she knew had been passed down to her from her mother and her grandmother and her grandmother's mother. She took the fire out of burns, blew smoke into the ear of a child and chased out the ache, put warm palmetto leaves on old people and helped them to stand and walk and move their arms freely. Evil spirits were afraid of her. She could sprinkle holy water on the steps of a house and keep the devil out. Surely she could stir life back into a creature as small as the bird in my hands.
"No, honey, I can't bring back the dead," she told me. "Once you go through that doorway, it locks forever and ever behind you." She saw the
disappointment in my face, however, and added, "But this baby bird will grow up in a better world."
How could there be a better world? I still wondered. My world was full of colors and sunshine, beautiful flowers with wonderful scents, magnificent birds that glided through the air as lightly and easily as dreams, delicious flavors in the food Mama made, fluffy white clouds that tickled my imagination so I could see them as camels or whales or even cotton candy.
"What'cha got there, Gabriel?" Daddy asked as he came out of the shack house he had built for us just before I was born. Although it was still morning, he had a bottle of beer in his hand. Sometimes that's all he had for breakfast. His dark brown hair was unbrushed, the long strands over his forehead and just parted enough for his beautiful emerald eyes to peer through. He wore only his pants, no shirt, no shoes or hip boots. A trail of curly brown hair left his belly button and shot up to his chest where it exploded into a V-shaped matting. My Daddy was tall and strong with long arms that rippled with muscles whenever he pulled on something or lifted something. Mama once told me he had wrestled an alligator for a two-dollar bet. She said that's how foolish he was, but I thought it meant he was the strongest daddy in the world.
"A dead baby blue jay," Mama answered for me.
"So?" he said. "What'cha going do with it, Gabriel? Throw it in the gumbo?"
"I wanted Mama to bring it back to life," I explained. "She said its mother threw it out of the nest."
"Most like," Daddy said. He sucked on the neck of the beer bottle, drawing its contents down his throat as his Adam's apple bounced like a tiny rubber ball. "Just throw it away," Daddy said.
I looked horrified at Mama.
"Why don't you bury it in the backyard, Gabriel," she suggested softly.
"Yeah. Maybe we could have a service," Daddy said, and laughed.
"Could we, Mama?"
Daddy stopped laughing.
"Hey, child, that's just a dead bird. Ain't no person."
I didn't understand the difference. Something beautiful and precious was dead.
"I'll say some words over it for you," Mama offered. "I got to see this," Daddy said.
"Don't tease the child, Jack."
"Why not? She's got to grow up someday. Today's as good a day as any." He pointed his long right forefinger at me. "You should be up here helping your mama make them hats to sell and not be spending your time wandering through the field anyhow," he chastised. Then he offered, "There are snakes and bugs, snapping turtles and gators."
"I know there are, Daddy," I said, smiling. "I stepped on a snake this morning."
"What? What it look like?"
I told him.
"That's a damn cottonmouth. Poisonous as hell. You didn't step on it or you'd be as dead as that bird in your hands."
"Yes, I did, Daddy. I stepped on it and then I said, excuse me, Mr. Snake."
"Oh, and I suppose it just nodded and said, it's all right, Gabriel, huh?"
"It looked at me and then it went back to sleep," I said. "Christ, you hear what stories she's telling, Catherine?" "I believe her, Jack. She's special to the animals out there.
They know what's in her heart."
"Huh? What sort of Cajun voodoo nonsense you concocting, Catherine Landry? And now you got the child talking gibberish, too."
"It's not nonsense," she said, "And certainly not gibberish." She stood up. "Come on, Gabriel. I'll help you bury your bird," she said. "Maybe the creature should be pitied," she said, throwing an angry glance back at Daddy.
"Go ahead. Waste time worrying about some dead bird. See if I care," Daddy said, taking another swig of his beer. Then he dropped the empty bottle in the rain barrel. "I'm going to town," he called after us. "We're outta beer again."
"You're out of work, Jack Landry. That's why we're out of beer."
"Aaaa," he said, waving at us. He went back into the shack.
Mama got the spade and dug a small hole under a pecan tree for the baby bird because Mama thought it would always be a cool, shady spot. I put the baby bird in gently and then Mama covered her. She told me to put a stick in the ground to serve as its monument. Then she lowered her head and took my hand. I lowered my head too.
"Lord, have mercy on the innocent soul before you," she said, and crossed herself. I did, too.
We both said, "Amen."
Just as we looked up together, I saw a blue jay flit through the cypress trees and disappear in the direction of Graveyard Lake, a small brackish pond in the swamp that Daddy had named for its collection of floating, moss-strung dead cypress. Mama's gaze trailed after mine. She sighed. She still held on to my hand, but we didn't start back to the gallery and the work that had to be done.
"Being a mother, any kind of mother, is very hard, Gabriel," she said. "You don't just give birth to a baby. You give birth to worry and pain, hope and joy, tears and laughter."
"I would never throw out one of my babies," I vowed, refusing to relinquish my hold on that innocence Mama feared would pull me down with it.
"I hope you never have to even think of such a thing, honey, but if you do, remember the blue jay and make the choice that's best for your child and not for you."
I stared up at her. Mama was a wealth of wisdom, most of which was years and years beyond me. But she had the eyes of a fortune-teller. She could look into the darkness of tomorrow and see some of what was to come.
I shuddered a bit even though it was a warm spring day. Mama was looking deep into the swamp, into the beyond, and what she saw made her hold more firmly to my hand.
And then, as if it had heard and had seen everything, a blue jay I imagined to be the mother started to sing its own dirge. Mama smiled at me.
"Your friend is thanking you," she said. "Come on. Help me weave a bit."
We turned away, and nervous, but secure because Mama still held on to me, I took my small steps toward tomorrow.
My Own Eden
The sound of the screen door being slammed
sharply at my family's shack house ricocheted like a gunshot through the willow trees and cottonwood, quickening my footsteps. I was almost home from school. Part of the way I had walked with Evelyn Thibodeau and Yvette Livaudis, the only two girls in my class who cared to talk to me at all. Most of the time we had all been speaking at once. Our
excitement boiled over like an unwatched pot of milk. It was our last year. Graduation loomed around the corner with all its promises and terrors hanging like so much Spanish moss.
Evelyn was going to marry Claude LeJeune, who had his own shrimp boat, and Yvette was going to Shreveport to live with her aunt and uncle on their sugar plantation. Everyone understood she would eventually marry the foreman, Philippe Jourdain, with whom she had carried on a letter correspondence all year. They had really seen each other only twice and he was nearly fifteen years older, but Yvette was quite convinced that this should be her destiny. Philippe was a Cajun, and Yvette, like most of us, would marry no one else. We were descendants of the French Arcadians who had migrated to Louisiana and we cherished our heritage.
It was 1944. The Second World War still raged and young, eligible Cajun men were still scarce, even though most farmers and fishermen had exemptions. Evelyn and Yvette were always chiding me for not paying attention to Nicolas Paxton, who was going to inherit his father's department store someday. He was overweight and had flat feet, so he would never be drafted.
"He's always been very fond of you," Yvette said, "and he's sure to ask you to marry him if you gave him the time of day. You won't be poor, that's for sure,
she said with a wink.
"I don't know which I would hate most," I replied. "Waking up in the morning and seeing Nicolas beside me or being shut up in that department store all day saying, 'Can I help you, monsieur? Can I help you, madame?"'
"Well, you've turned away every other possible beau. What are you going to do after graduation, Gabriel, weave split-oak baskets and palmetto hats with your mother and sell gumbo to tourists forever and ever?" Evelyn asked disdainfully.
"I don't know. Maybe," I said, smiling, which only infuriated my sole two friends more.
It was a very warm late spring day. The sky was nearly cloudless, the blue the color of faded dungarees. Gray squirrels with springs in their little legs leapt from one branch to another, and during the rare moments when we were all quiet, I could hear woodpeckers drumming on the oak and pecan trees. It was too glorious a day to get upset over anything anyone said to me.
"But don't you want to get married and have children and a home of your own?" Yvette demanded as if it were an affront to them that I wasn't engaged or promised.
I imagine I do."
"You imagine? You don't know?" Her lips moved to twist into a grotesque mockery. "She imagines."
"I suppose I do," I said, committing myself as much as I could. My friends, as well as all the other students at school who knew me, thought I was born a bit strange because my mother was a spiritual healer. It was true that things that annoyed them didn't bother me. They were always fuming and cursing over something some boy said or some girl did. Truly, most of the time I didn't even notice. I knew they had nicknamed me
La Rule au Nature!,
the Nature Girl, and many exaggerated stories about me, telling each other that I slept with alligators, rode on the backs of snapping turtles, and never was bitten by mosquitoes. I was rarely bitten, that was true, but it was because of the lotion Mama concocted and not because of some magic.
When I was a little girl, boys tried to frighten me by putting snakes in my desk. The girls around me would scream and back away, while I calmly picked up the snake and set it free outside the building. Even my teachers refused to touch them. Most snakes were curious and gentle, and even the poisonous ones weren't nasty to you if you let them be. To me, that seemed to be the simplest rule to go by: Live and let live. I didn't try to talk Yvette out of marrying a man so much older, for example. If that was what she wanted, I was happy for her. But neither she nor Evelyn could treat me the same way. Because I didn't think like they did and do the things they wanted to do, I was foolish or stubborn, even stupid.
Except for the time Nicolas Paxton invited me to a
fais do do
at the town dance hall, I had never been invited to a formal party. Other boys had asked me for dates, but I had always said no. I had no interest in being with them, not even any curiosity about it. I looked at them, listened to them, and immediately understood that I would not enjoy being with them. I was always polite in refusing. A few persisted, demanding to know why I turned them down. I told them. "I don't think I would enjoy myself. Thank you."
The truth was a shoe that almost never fit gracefully on a twisted foot. It only made them angrier and soon they were spreading stories about me, the worst being that I made love with animals in the swamp and didn't care to be around men. More than once Daddy got into a fight at one of the zydeco bars because someone passed a remark about me. He usually won the fight, but still came home angry and ranted and raved about the shack, bawling out Mama for putting "highfalutin" ideas in my head about love and romance.
"And you," he would shout, pointing his longer forefinger at me, the nail black with grime, "instead of playing with birds and turtles, you should be flittin' your eyes and turnin' your shoulders at some rich buck. That pretty face and body you've been blessed with is the cheese for the trap!"
The very idea of being flirtatious and conniving with a man made my stomach bubble. Why let someone believe you wanted something you really didn't? It wasn't fair to him and it certainly wasn't fair to myself.
However, even though I never told my two girlfriends or even Mama for that matter, I did think about love and romance; and if believing something magical had to happen between me and a man was "highfalutin," then Daddy was right. I didn't want people to think I was a snob, but if that was the price I had to pay to believe in what I believed, then I would pay it.
Everything in Nature seemed perfect to me. The creatures that mated and raised and protected their offspring together were designed to be together. Something important fit. Surely it had to be the same way for human beings, too, I thought.
"I can't do that, Daddy," I wailed.
"I can't do that, Daddy," he mimicked. Liquor loosened his tongue. Whenever he returned from the zydeco bars, which were nothing more than shacks near the river, he was usually meaner than a trapped raccoon. I had never been in a zydeco bar, but I knew the word meant vegetables, all mixed up. Often I heard the African-Cajun music on the radio, but I knew that more took place in those places than just listening to music.
Of course, I burst into tears when Daddy ridiculed me, and that set Mama on him. The fury would be in her eyes. Daddy would put his arms up as if he expected lightning to come from those dazzling black pupils. It sobered him quickly and he either fled upstairs or out to his fishing shack in the swamp.
My biggest problem was understanding why Mama and Daddy married and had me. They were beautiful people. Daddy, especially when he cleaned up and dressed, was about as striking a man as I had ever seen. His complexion was always caramel because of his time in the sun, and that darkness brought out the splendor of his vibrant emerald eyes. Except for when he was swimming in beer or whiskey, he stood tall and flu in as an oak tree. His shoulders looked strong enough to hold a house, and there were stories about him lifting the back end of an automobile to get it out of a rut.
Mama wasn't tall, but she had presence. Usually she wore her hair pinned up, but when she let it flow freely around her shoulders, she looked like a cherub. Her hair was the color of hay and she had a light complexion. Her eyes weren't unusually big, but when she fixed them angrily on Daddy, they seemed to grow wider and darker like two beacons drawing closer and closer. Daddy couldn't look at her directly when she interrogated him about things he had done with our money. He would put up his hand and plead, "Don't look at me that way, Catherine." It was as if her eyes burned through the armor of his lies and seared his heart. He always confessed and promised to repent. In the end she took mercy on him and let him slip away on his magic carpet of promises for better tomorrows.
As I grew older, Mama and Daddy grew further apart. Their bickering became more frequent and more bitter, their animosity sharp and needling. It hurt to see them so angry at each other. As a child, I recalled them sitting together on the gallery in the evening, Daddy holding her in his arms and Mama humming some Cajun melody. I remember how Mama's eyes clung worshipfully to him.
Our world seemed perfect then. Daddy had built us the house and was doing well with his oyster fishing and frequent small carpentry jobs. He wasn't a guide for rich Creole hunters yet, so we didn't argue about the slaughter of beautiful animals. We always appeared to have more than we needed during those earlier days. People would give us gifts in repayment for the healing Mama performed or the rituals she conducted, too.
I know Daddy believed he was blessed and protected because of Mama's powers. He once told me his luck changed after he married her. But he came to believe that that same spiritual protection would carry over when he indulged in backroom gambling, and that, according to Mama, was the start of his downfall.
What I wondered now was, how could two people who had fallen so deeply in love fall so quickly out of it? I didn't want to ask Mama because I knew it would make her sad, but I couldn't keep the question locked up forever. After a particularly bad time when Daddy came home so drunk he fell off the gallery and cracked his head on a rock, I sat with Mama while she fumed and asked her.
"If you have the power to see through the darkness for others, why couldn't you have seen for yourself, Mama?"
She gazed at me a long moment before she replied.
"There's no young man you've looked at who has made something tingle inside you?"
"No, Mama," I said.
She thought for another long moment and then nodded.
"Maybe that's good." Then she sighed deeply and looked into the darkness of the oak and cypress trees across the way. "Just because I was handed down the gift of spiritual healing and became a
doesn't mean I'm not a woman first," she said. "The first time I set eyes on Jack Landry, I thought I had seen a young god come walking out of the swamp. He looked like someone Nature herself had taken special time to mold.
"It wasn't a tingling that started within me, it was a raging flood of passion so strong, I thought my heart would burst. I sensed that when he set eyes on me he liked what he saw, and that stirred me even more. Something happens when the woman in you takes a front seat, Gabriel. You stop thinking; you just depend on your feelings to make decisions.
"You remember I told you about the shoemaker who worked so hard for everyone else, he had no shoes for himself?"
"Yes, Mama. I remember."
"Well, that was me. I couldn't see what would happen to me the next hour, much less over the next ten years. Jack Landry was all I wanted to see, and he was . . ." She smiled and sat back. "Very charming in his simple way. He was good at spinning tales and making promises. And he was always showing of for me. I remember the Daisys' shingling party. After the roof was raised, there was a picnic and games. Your father wrestled three men at the same time and whipped them all, just because I was watching. Everyone knew it. They said, 'You put the life in that man, Catherine.' Then he took to saying it, and I came to believe it.
"You're old enough for me to tell you your father was a wonderful lover. We had a few good and wonderful years together before things started to go sour." She sighed deeply again. "Beware of promises, Gabriel, even the ones you make yourself. Promises are like spiderwebs we weave to trap our own dreams, but dreams have a way of thinning out until you're left with nothing but the web."
I listened, but I didn't understand all of it, for I thought if Mama with all her wisdom could make a mistake in love, what chance did I have?
I had been thinking deeply about this after I left Evelyn and Yvette. Their questions had stirred up the same old questions about myself.
Then I heard the screen door slam a second time, this time followed by Mama's angry screams.
"You don't come back here until you return that money, Jack Landry, hear? That was Gabriel's dowry money and you know'd it, Jack. I want every penny replaced! Hear? Jack?"
I broke into a trot and came around the bend in time to see Daddy stomping through the tall grass, his hip boots glistening in the afternoon sun, his hair wild and his arms swinging. Mama was standing on the gallery, her arms folded over her bosom, glaring after him. She didn't see me coming and pivoted furiously on her moccasins to charge back into the shack.
Daddy began to pace back and forth on our small dock, raging into the wind, his arms pumping the air as he complained to his invisible audience of sympathizers. I hesitated on the walkway and decided to speak with him first. He stopped his raging when he saw me approaching.
"She send you out here? Did she?" he demanded.
"No, Daddy. I just came home from school and heard the commotion. I haven't spoken to Mama yet. What's wrong now?"
"Aaaa," he said, waving at me and then turning away. He stood there with his hands on his hips, his back to me. His shoulders dipped as if he carried a cypress log on them.
"I heard her shout something about money," I said.
He spun around, his face red, but the corners of his mouth white with anger.
"I had a chance to make us a bundle," he explained. "A good chance. This city fella comes along selling this miracle tonic water, see? It comes from New York City! New York City!" he
emphasized with his arms out.
"What's it supposed to do, Daddy?"
"Make you younger, take all the aches and pains out, get rid of the gray in your hair. Women especially can rub some of it into their face and hands and wrinkles disappear. If you got loose teeth, it makes 'em tight again. I seen the woman he was with. She said she was well into her sixties, but she looked no more than twenty-five. So I run back to the shack and I dig out the bundle your mother's kept hidden from me. Thinks I don't know what she's doin' with all the loose change . . . Anyway, I go back and buy up all the tonic the man has. Then I come back and tell your mother all she got to do is tell her customers what this tonic does and they'll buy it at twice the price. Everyone believes what she says, right? We make twice the money, and quickly!"
"Aaaa." He waved at the shack and then bit down on his lower lip. "She goes and tastes it and says it's nothing but ginger, cinnamon, and a lot of salt. She says it ain't worth the bottle it's in and she couldn't tell anyone to buy it for any purpose. I swear . . ."
"Why didn't you bring home one bottle first and ask her to look at that before you bought all of it, Daddy?"
He glared at me.
"If you ain't birds of a feather. That's what she said, too. Then she starts that ranting and raving. I went back looking for the man, a course, but he and his lady friend are long gone. I was just trying to get us a bundle," he wailed.
"I know you were, Daddy. You wouldn't just give away our money."
"See? How come you understand and she don't?" "Maybe because you've done things like this many times before, Daddy," I said calmly.
He raised his eyebrows.
"Mary and Joseph. A man can't live with two women nagging him to death. He needs breathing room so he can think and come up with good plans." He looked back at the house. "You got any money?"
"I have two dollars," I said.
"Well, give it to me and I'll try to double it at
he said. That was a card game that was a cross between poker and bridge. Mama said she had fewer hairs on her head than the number of times Daddy had stuffed the pot, which was what the loser did.
"Mama hates when you gamble with our money, Daddy. We have bills to pay and cotton jaune to buy for the weaving and--"
"Just give it over, will ya?"
Daddy always brushed aside problems as if they were lint not worth noticing.
I dug the two dollars out of my pocketbook and handed it to him. He took it and shoved it into his pocket and then stepped into the pirogue.
"Only two more days of school for me, Daddy," I said. "Sunday's graduation. Don't forget."