Friday, April 21, 2017

Ȃmes en Peine

Loy saw her in the cemetery just outside of Serpentville, and the sight of her stirred his soul.
Dressed in his clean khakis, his brogues, polished to a mirror shine, and his fedora, which he wore, turned down and cocked at an angle, he was on his way to town for a few of Joe's cold beers. When he saw the girl, he stopped and stared. He had not planned on cutting through the cemetery, but now it seemed like a good idea.
The girl helped an age-splotched old man whitewash a tomb. Loy weaved around the graves until he could read the tombstone they worked on: ETHEL ROZAS, nee juin 13, 1892, morte novembre 13, 1950: femme, mere, grandmere, personne. The girl kneeled in the grass next to the tombstone and scrubbed out the letters with a small brush. Her light brown hair, pulled back into a bun at the base of her neck, gleamed in the sunlight. The lime mixture she used streaked her face and arms white. The old man busied himself pulling weeds from around the slab.
Loy inched closer and stood off to the side a bit, about three graves removed and watched. She blew at a loose lock of hair that had fallen across her eyes and looked up, right at Loy. Startled, she blinked and then stared right back into his eyes, a question in the look. She nodded and returned to her job. The old man, who caught the direction of her gaze, looked up at Loy. He stood, using the tombstone for support, and brushed dirt from his knees.
"Puis-je vous aider?" he questioned, using the formal Cajun.
Loy took his eyes off the girl and met the old man's gaze. It was an honest gaze, no fear, or distrust.
"Non, merci vous,” Loy answered using formal Cajun in return. "I was just amazed at how devoted you are toward your jobs. Most people see cleaning graves as a chore." Loy had no one, dead or alive, that he cared for enough to work so diligently. He did not understand why people cleaned the graves. The dead would never appreciate it. Unless, of course, people cleaned the graves for the living—a status symbol of sorts. I am better than you are because my dead rest in cleaner, whiter graves than yours.
The girl looked up then as if she could read his mind. She frowned. He noticed that she had the strangest colored eyes, grayish-green.
"That's where my wife lies, bless her soul," the old man said, laying an age-splotched hand tenderly on the tomb's face. "She was a good woman—a good wife and mother."
"And a good person." Loy added, unable to control himself. The old man frowned and looked at the girl as if he needed a translation, but she was staring at Loy.
"You forgot, grandmother," she said in American. Her voice was musical, her tone mocking. The old man frowned.
"What did you say?"
"I said he forgot to say Memere was a good grandmother." She talked to the old man, but she looked at Loy, before nodding at the tombstone.
"Yes, she was," the old man said softly.
An awkward silence followed. Loy glanced up at the sky, so clear and blue that it seemed to go on forever—straight into the heavens—a beautiful day, perfect for being outdoors. The cemetery backed up to a cotton field. In the distance, he could see a group of pickers slowly bend and straighten over the mature plants as if they were performing some sort of ritualistic dance. A blue jay chattered loudly in one of the cottonwoods that lined either side of the cemetery. Then he was silent. A small breeze rustled the dry cotton plants, and he heard the clatter of the empty bolls sounding like the rattle of bones. He looked down at the girl; she was staring at him.
"Une âme en peine," she said. "A lost soul wandering around the cemetery."
"What?"
"They say that these sudden breezes are troubled souls looking for a place to settle. They say if you breathe in during one of those breezes that the soul enters your body and settles there. They take over your soul." She paused. "Did you breathe in?"
"Who are they?"
"They are the old and the wise, like Granpere, here." She nodded at the old man, and a wisp of her brown hair fell across her forehead. She swept it away with the back of her lime-coated hand that left another white streak across her cheek. She had delicate hands with long tapered fingers that looked ghostly covered in white as they were.
The old man grinned at his granddaughter.
"Ah," he said. "You're making fun of me, are you Enna?" He grinned wider, exposing a set of stained false teeth. Enna shook her head.
"Don't you deny it," the old man joked. "I can tell." He reached down, placed a hand on her head, and gently shoved. She ducked and laughed.
"I would never make fun of you, Granpere. You are too special." Her eyes sparkled.
The old man turned to Loy.
"She's just like her grandmother, her—gives with one hand and takes with the other—the only two people who could ever do that to me." The old man bent slowly and sat down on the slab next to his granddaughter. An old pickup truck entered the cemetery and a group of people poured out next to a dirty gray tomb. The clang of tools and buckets sounded loud as they began their work.
"I remember once," the old man continued. "When I'd just met Ethel—I was working in the sweet potato fields then, crating them. She was doing the same about three rows away from me. Her and this colored girl were singing." The old man paused and stared up into the blue sky. "I still remember the song: an old spiritual called 'Dry Bones.'"
"I remember that song," Enna broke in. She used to sing it with me all the time:
'The toe bone's connected to the foot bone,
the foot bone's connected to the anklebone,
the ankle bone's connected to the leg bone,
the leg bone's connected to the knee bone,
the knee bone's connected to the thighbone.
Rise up and hear the word of the Lord.'"
"That's it," the old man said. "That's what her and that colored girl were doing, singing and being playful, making up words like lip bones and ear bones and heart bones to make up this story about a guy who placed his lip bones to this woman's lip bones, and they kept connecting bones until they connect the hip bones. This old colored man suddenly jumps up in the middle of the field and starts yelling and screaming. I still remember his words: 'Lord, bring down your wrath on these two sinful women. They've taken a song of the Lord and sullied it. May the holy wrath of God strike them where they stand.' The old preacher—that's what he was, a preacher—raised his two arms up to the heavens, and damn if we didn't get a couple of dust tornadoes go off at that very moment all around us. Scared the hell out of everybody in that field, especially Ethel and that colored girl. They fell to their knees, clasped their hands together, and started praying for all they were worth." The old man gently placed his age-splotched hand on the tombstone.
"I had been on my knees sorting potatoes, so I stood up, taller than that old preacher and went stand next to Ethel and that other girl. 'Ladies,' I said in a loud voice, trying to sound like that preacher fellow. 'The Lord is not a weak man. The Lord is not an insensitive man. The Lord is not a dumb man. The Lord,' I said, looking straight into Ethel's gray-green eyes, 'has got a sense of humor, ladies. The Lord knows how to laugh.' Then Ethel did something that touched my heart. Even today, when I think about it, it touches my heart. She gave me her hand—a small hand, kind of dirty, stained black with potato milk. She put it in mine, and I helped her stand. She glanced at the preacher fellow, and then looked up into that blue sky. 'Thank you, Lord,' she said just loud enough for the group of workers gathered around us to hear. 'Thank you, Lord, for sending me this handsome savior.' She squeezed my hand and fell on her knees—right back to sorting potatoes. The rest of the workers in the field did the same, even the old preacher." The old man looked over at his granddaughter. "That's how she was, though. Always handing out and taking away. I knew that day that I was going to marry her. I knew it for sure because she had taken away my heart and, in return, she gave me the most fantastic feeling I had ever experienced. And years later, after we had been married for some time, she told me that she knew it that day, too. She knew that she was going to marry me, and she knew that I knew it, too."
The girl placed her white hand in her grandfather's and smiled at him.
Loy felt awkward. He took a couple of steps back. He felt as if he were not part of the scene anymore—as if he were outside somewhere peeping into someone's window. He heard a far-off shout and was surprised to see the cotton pickers already on the cemetery side of the field. He took another step back.
"Where are you going?" Enna asked.
Loy thought she was still talking to the old man, so he didn't answer her, and she repeated the question, her grayish-green eyes staring straight into his.
"I…I don't know," he stuttered. He had cut through the cemetery because he had seen this beautiful girl, and now, he could not even remember where he had been headed.
"Well, if you're not headed anywhere, and you're not afraid to get a little whitewash on your clothes and hands, you can help us out here. We still have two more to do after we finish Granmere's grave."
"Enna," the old man reproached. "Maybe the man has some place he needs to be."
"Then let him be someplace, Granpere. I'm only asking for his help if he is free to give it."
"Still and all, Enna."
"It's okay," Loy said, and they both looked up at him. "I would be happy to help you."
"Excuse me, sir,” the old man said. "We don't know your name even."
"Loy. Loy Lafleur," he said, taking off his Fedora and bowing in their direction. A wisp of his heavily oiled hair broke free and fell across his forehead, and he quickly tucked it back up and replaced his hat. The girl smiled at him.
The old man extended his dirt-stained hand.
"How do you do, Monsieur Lafleur? My name is Estus Rozas, and this is my granddaughter, Enna Bontemps." Enna extended a small white hand; Loy shook it. Her hand was warm and soft to the touch, but her handshake was firm and authoritative. After she released his hand, Loy looked down at his own, stained white where hers had been. Enna grinned, pulled a clean brush from a brown grocery sack, and handed it to him.
"Here you go," she said, her grayish-green eyes sparkling. She nodded at a tin bucket sitting next to the grave filled with a thick broth of lime and water. "And there's the bucket. I'm almost done with the front of the tombstone. You can start whitewashing the back while I finish up."
Loy took the brush and the bucket and kneeled behind the tombstone. As he worked, he occasionally glanced at the girl. He estimated her age at 19 or 20, maybe less; he wasn't sure. She worked easily, carefully as if what she was doing was of the utmost importance. He studied her. He was reminded of something from his past, but he couldn't quite place it. He searched his mind as he worked.
Loy was an orphan, born and abandoned as an infant in New York City. Then the orphanage sent him and a trainload of other orphans to Louisiana for placement in good Catholic homes. The man, Pierre Lafleur, who adopted Loy, treated him like a work animal. Pierre fed, clothed, and gave him medicine when he was sick, but he would have done the same for any of the animals that contributed to the farm. Pierre believed that everything on the farm had a purpose, and what didn't was disposed of. One foggy morning he systematically killed a brood of puppies with a ballpeen hammer. When Loy asked why, Pierre said that one dog on the farm was all that he needed. Anymore would take away from the farm rather than add to it. Loy had been six years old then.
Three years later, Loy was a contributor to the farm--he plowed, planted, and harvested the cotton. He did the same work as Pierre and the other boys in the family. For his efforts, he received food, clothing, and shelter—no love, no respect, no comfort.
One morning, about two months after his ninth birthday, Loy escaped. He ran until, exhausted, he fell asleep in an empty drainage ditch next to a cotton field. The next morning, he kept walking, following the dusty graveled and dirt roads that crisscrossed the South Louisiana countryside. That evening, he stopped outside a large whitewashed farmhouse. The sun had just disappeared behind a pecan grove near the house, and a single lighted window faced the road on which he stood. A woman sat in a straight-backed chair before a mirror and slowly, lovingly, ran a brush through her long black hair. Loy had never seen hair that long in his entire nine years of living. He stood, rooted to the spot, and could not have moved even if he had too. He never heard the man who grabbed him.
"Ah, hah," the man said holding on tight as Loy kicked and squirmed. "Damn if I didn't catch me a peeping tom."
"I'm not peeping. I'm just walking on the road. That's all,"
"I'm going to let you go in a second or two if you stop squirming. Now, I got a shotgun about two steps away, leaning on that fence post right there." He turned Loy's body a little, so he could see the shotgun right where he said it was. "If you run, I'll shoot you. I won't try to kill you, but who knows what'll happen. The choice is yours." He slowly released his grip on Loy. "Now tell me, what are you doing out here staring at my wife?"
"I wasn't staring," Loy said, facing his abductor for the first time. He was a small wiry man, about forty or fifty years old; it was impossible to tell just looking at him. The man had a face the color of leather and probably just as tough, as far as Loy could tell. The face was wrinkled and bewhiskered. It seemed like an honest face. "Okay, I was staring, but only because I've never seen hair that long before."
The man gazed at the window. His face softened.
"She does have long hair at that." He turned and faced Loy. "What you doing for supper? Got any plans?"
"No, sir."
"Then why don't you join us?"
Loy ate supper with them, and before the evening was done, he had told them all about his adopted father and the abuse he received from him. The man, Hinclay Hebert and his wife, Francis Marie, opened up their home to him, and they became more family to him than his adopted family—more family to him than his real family, which had abandoned him nine years before. Although Hinclay was very careful to treat him as a farmhand, Loy understood that underneath it all there was tenderness, maybe even love. At night, after working all day in Hinclay's cotton fields, Loy would bath in the washtub and sit down to Francis Marie's dinner. After dinner, he and Hinclay would watch her comb her hair. It was a performance. First, she would slowly uncoil it from the top of her head and let it fall back behind her, draping the back of the chair. Then she would take both hands and slowly, lovingly, run her fingers through every inch of hair; she did this fifteen times, every time. Then she would pick up the soft-bristled brush Hinclay had given her for their third anniversary, and she would brush until the hair shone raven black and rippled against the brush like water against a shore. She worked as if what she was doing was of the utmost importance. At bedtime, she coiled the hair atop her head again.
Francis Marie died when Loy was 20; her dark hair had turned shiny silver almost overnight, it seemed. One evening, she sat before the mirror brushing her hair, and she fell face forward. The doctor said she had a stroke. Three weeks later, Hinclay took his own life; he hung himself from a rafter in the barn. A son showed up from somewhere up north, sold the farm, and disappeared. 
Loy felt betrayed.
"A penny for your thoughts," Enna said, stirring him out of his revelry.
"I was just remembering a woman I knew a long time ago. You remind me of her a little, the way you clean the letters on the tombstone."
"Is she special to you?"
Loy thought a few moments before answering.
"She died fourteen years ago. She was a good person."
A breeze rustled the cottonwoods.
"Don't breathe," Enna said.
"You said there were two more graves to do?"
'What's the matter? Are you tired already? You haven't even begun."
Loy smiled.
"Which two?"
"Those two just behind Granpere. My mother and my father."
"I'm sorry."
"They died when I was just two."
"Why? How?"
Loy noticed that the old man had stopped what he was doing and was staring at his granddaughter.
"Granpere and Granmere told me that they died in a horrible accident. But that was only to spare me. As soon as I could read, I found an old copy of the Ellisonville Gazette that dated back to the day my parents died. The article said that the deaths were murder/suicide. My mother shot my father and then killed herself."
 "Mon Cher," the old man said, his voice soft and concerned. "It was so long ago."
"Yes, Granpere. It was so long ago."
Loy told her about being abandoned; about being adopted and abused; about the disappointment he felt when he realized that he didn't mean enough to Hinclay to prevent his death. He didn't understand why he told her all this, but she listened intently, frozen with her hand on the tombstone.
In the alley between the cotton field and the cemetery, a woman dragged her heavy cotton sack and broke into song:
"Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child 
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
Far, far away from home."
All three of them stared at the woman as she alternately sang a line and hauled on her heavy burlap sack. When she situated herself in her row, she stopped singing. Everything turned quiet again.
"After I found out the truth about what happened to my parents," Enna said breaking the silence. "I was depressed for days. One day, Granmere called me into the sitting room. 'What she did,' she said speaking of my mother, 'hadn't a thing to do with you. She was sick, honey. She saw a problem, and this was her solution. We look back on it and say, how can it be? Why did it have to be that way? But we're asking those questions with our hearts—not with our minds. She wasn't asking questions, Enna. She was saying this is the only way it can be.' I asked Granmere why Momma didn't kill me, too. 'Because you were with me,' she answered. 'Only because you were with me, honey.'" Enna stood and dropped the little brush she'd been working with in the grocery bag. The group who had been working on the grave on the other side of the cemetery threw their tools into the back of the pickup and piled in afterward. They circled the cemetery leaving a trail of white dust in their wake.
"Look at us," Enna said. "We sound like we're at a funeral wake for heavens sake."
"We are with the dead, so we remember," the old man said. "There is nothing wrong with that."
"Why don't we remember the nice times, Granpere? Like the time you and Granmere took me to the fair in Ellisonville."
The old man grinned as he recalled.
"The band played…it was the Ellisonville Playboys. They played 'Jolie Blonde' and you danced round and round and round tracing little circles in the dust with your bare feet."
"And then Granmere joined me and took my hand, and we spun round and round and round until we couldn't stand up anymore, we were so dizzy, and we both fell sitting down in the dust. Remember that, Granpere? You thought we were crazy."
"Yes, I remember. Your granmere put out her hand, I took it, and she pulled me down between you two. I was so mad, for a second, until I looked into her eyes, and I saw the playfulness there. And we all laughed for a long time while the people danced around us kicking up dust in our faces. How old were you?"
"I was ten, Granpere. When we left the fair, we were white as ghosts from being covered with dust." The old man and the girl grinned knowingly at each other. Again, Loy felt as if he were on the outside watching a slice of life through a lighted window. As if reading his mind, Enna turned to him. "Do you have a moment like that?"
"No, I'm not much of a dancer."
"It doesn't have to be dancing—a moment of pure abandonment—of pure happiness."
Loy thought for a moment. He looked up into the sky. Far off, over the cotton field he watched as a huge white cloud slowly transformed itself. It looked a lot like a man, but the arms were slowly disappearing into what could have been a body. He wasn't sure what it would turn out to be, but he knew it was changing. It had no choice; it was subject to the wind. A long black car whipped into the cemetery and pulled up about ten graves away. The dust rose behind the car, clouded up, and slowly drifted down, covering car and graves. Loy smelled the dust in the air. A man in a business suit climbed out, stumped cowboy boots on the ground, and strode over to a large marble grave. A small woman dressed in a short blue skirt and blouse, climbed out of the passenger side carrying a vase filled with flowers. She placed the flowers at the head of the grave next to the tall marble tombstone. The man stood at the foot of the grave and watched solemnly.
"Once," Loy said, "Frances Marie, my boss's wife, asked me if I would like to feel her hair—she had the longest hair I've ever seen. I ran my fingers through it." Loy closed his eyes as he remembered. "It felt like corn silk, but alive. It smelled like flowers, perfume, and bedrooms. I wanted to throw it up in the air and crawl under it and let it cover me, so I would be lost in its softness and its smell." Loy opened his eyes and blushed through his suntan when he saw the girl and her grandfather staring at him intently.
"How old were you?" Enna asked.
"Twelve."
Two more cars pulled into the cemetery. Loy recognized one of the occupants as Mrs. Drucilla Broussard, who lived about two miles from his shack. Mrs. Drucilla loved to bake bread, and it was a rare moment when Loy walked past her house without smelling fresh baked bread. Both cars stayed at the far end of the cemetery near the blacktop road.
"We're never going to finish these if we don't stop talking and start working," the old man said. He stood, pulled a hoe from the back of the old pickup truck parked on the edge of the dirt road, and began edging the two graves next to his dead wife's. Loy gave the front of the tombstone a coat of lime and started on the slab.
"Have you ever been very scared, Monsieur Lafleur?" Enna asked.
"Loy. Yes. Once, when I was walking through Johnson's Cemetery at night."
"The abandoned one."
"Uh-huh. I was walking through it, and I'm afraid I had been drinking a little, and I saw something white moving through the trees."
"Really?"
"Yes. So I ducked behind a grave, watched, and listened carefully. There was a whole line of them weaving in and out of the trees. I thought I had stumbled on some kind of ghost celebration. I knew I was in for it."
"What did you do?"
"What could I do? I stayed right where I was. I could hear them crashing through the trees, and it occurred to me that ghosts wouldn't be so noisy. So I crept forward until I could see fairly clearly through the little moonlight that filtered into the woods. My ghosts were of the four-footed variety. They were cows—Hank Miller's Holstein herd."
"I bet you were happy."
"Happy? Yeah, I was. In fact, I was so happy to be alive that I never heard the barn owl until it swooped down just above my head—probably after some mouse or something the cows had scared up. I fell to the ground and curled up in the fetal position and asked God to make it quick whatever it was he was going to do."
Enna laughed—a small musical explosion of joy.
"Did he?"
"You mean God? Yeah, he pounded some sense into my head and made me aware of how foolish I was. I stood up and ran out of that cemetery as fast as I could. I didn't stop until I reached home, breathing so fast and furious that I probably inhaled a truckload of your lost souls."
Several cars and trucks pulled into the cemetery, and Loy could see little groups of people busily cleaning and painting graves throughout the graveyard. He, the old man, and the girl intensified their efforts and fifteen minutes later, were putting up the tools.
The old man shook Loy's hand.
"Thank you, Monsieur Lafleur. Your help was really appreciated."
"I enjoyed the company, sir." Loy glanced at Enna. She blushed and turned away.
"Perhaps," the old man began, looking directly at his granddaughter. "Perhaps we could offer Monsieur Lafleur a meal for his efforts, Enna."
"Yes, of course. What a wonderful idea, Granpere." She turned to Loy. "How about it, Monsieur Lafleur? Would you be free for supper on Sunday?"
"Loy, and I would never pass up a free home cooked meal."
"Why don't you come early—sometime after mass? That way you can visit before we eat."
"I would love to."
They shook hands all around. Enna and her grandfather climbed into the pickup and left in a cloud of dust. Loy watched the pickup until it disappeared around a curve on the blacktop. Then he slowly made his way through the cemetery until he reached the edge, under the shade of the cottonwoods. He sat on a slab and stared out over the cotton field. The wind had broken the cloud up, and now it looked like one long string of small clouds.
"Sort of reminds me of your hair, Madame Francis." Loy gently patted the gray slab he sat on. The tombstone read, Francis Marie Hebert: nee 1897 morte 1955: La lumière qui allume la nuit. What do you think of Enna?" Loy watched the workers in the field empty their cotton sacks into a trailer. A man wearing a straw hat and overalls, weighed, and emptied the fat sacks and gave them back to the owners to start all over again.
"She's a good person Madame Francis. I feel it. I'm probably going to marry her." A breeze stirred the cottonwoods and Loy inhaled deeply.
"Sometimes, I feel just like those cotton pickers, Madame Francis, first up one row and down another until the load gets too heavy to carry. Then I got to empty it or get someone to help me carry the load. I think she and I can help each other. I think she and I were made to help each other." Loy stood and gazed at the tombstone a moment.
"That day I felt your hair, Madame Francis, was the closest I've been to anyone except maybe today. Remember afterwards, you took my hand in yours and squeezed it. You thanked me. It made my legs weak to think you got pleasure from the touch of my hand." Loy looked up into the sky again. The clouds had all but disappeared leaving behind it a clear blue that seemed to burn the eyes with its clarity.

"You know what," Loy said. "I think I'll go to town and pick up a little lime and a bucket. I bet you'd appreciate it if I cleaned up your grave a bit—spend some time on it, so I can remember."

___

My parents met in a cemetery while cleaning graves for All Souls Day. They loved telling the story to whomever would listen. I don't remember when I got the idea to write the story down. This is a fiction based on a true story. I hope you enjoy it. A version of this story appeared in The Journal of Kentucky Studies.

4 comments:

  1. I enjoyed this. It had such a reflective and slightly melancholy quality. I especially enjoyed the scary cows. That part gave me a grin.

    I've been enjoying your blog greatly.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you for allowing me to read your post. I enjoyed it very much and even more after I found how you developed the story. I am sure it brings a smile every time you share it. Good luck with your writings and everything Cajun!!
    Huffman Monk

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you, Huffman. You're right. Thanks for the good words.

      Delete

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