Friday, April 14, 2017

Un Petite Rien Tout Neuf (A Little Nothing Brand New)

We lived in a run-down shack, iron gray weatherworn boards, rusted tin roof, and sagging front porch, about two or three miles from Chataignier, a small community with about two hundred and fifty inhabitants. Every week, my father would make the trek to town to buy the necessities we needed to live on. Sometimes, he would walk. Other times, he would take the school bus to town. When he returned, he would always have a small treat for my sister and me. We would run behind him and in excited voices ask, "Qu'avez-vous acheté pour nous? (What have you bought for us?)" Always, he gave the same answer, "Un petite rien tout neuf (A little nothing brand new)." No matter how many times we heard him say it, we still laughed. Then he would stick his hands in his shirt pocket and pull out a couple of bonbons for us. It is one of the most pleasant memories I have of my father.

One day, however, my father varied the routine. When we asked him what he had bought for us, he answered, "Un serpent dans la poche (A snake in the pocket)." Of course, we didn't believe him, so, being quicker than my sister, I stuck my hand in his khaki shirt pocket and instead of a delicious bonbon, I grabbed a cold scaly snake. It coiled around my fingers, and I yelled in fright. On his way home, he had come upon a small Speckled King Snake, and decided that would be a good trick to play on my sister and me. Although my father was a notorious trickster, he often used his tricks to teach. After he had a good laugh, he pulled out the snake, and while it coiled around his arm and wrist, he told us all about it, how it was non-poisonous and ate poisonous snakes and mice. "Il est un ami de l'homme, ce serpent. (He is a friend of man, this snake)." After his lesson, he pulled out two bonbons from his other pocket.

Bayou Marron ran behind our house, about a half-mile away. Whenever the bayou was low enough, my father and I along with Mr. Aucoin and his son would seine sections of it. They would wade through muddy water, dragging the seine behind them across the bayou. Of course, the net would ensnare all sorts of bayou creatures, including the ones we would eat, catfish, gar, choupique, sac-a-lait, crappie, crawfish, turtles, frogs, and others. It would also snare those we would not eat, mostly snakes. The deadly moccasin was the one we feared the most because it was so poisonous. My father had a unique and dangerous method of killing them. He would grab them by the tail, spin them around over his head, and crack them as you would a whip. I was always amazed when he did this and enjoyed it almost as much as the bonbons he brought us.

When I asked him how he did it, he replied, “C’est facile (It’s easy).” He explained that the snake was at its most vulnerable when swimming. Grabbing it by the tail and swinging him around prevented it from sinking its fangs in him. Cracking it like a whip destroyed the intricate system of bones it had and rendered it useless.

Another method of catching food out of the bayou my father used was noodling, which was dangerous because he never knew if there might be a Moccasin waiting to strike. He was a master at this. He would wade in the bayou, the muddy water staining his khaki trousers a dark brown, and look for catfish holes or nests. When he found one, he would slowly stick his hand in the cave and feel around. If he felt a catfish, he would gently run two fingers over its bony head, and curve them behind the twin barbels located just behind its mouth. Then he would pull it out and dump it on the bank, where I would pick it up, using the same method he did, and place it in the large burlap sack I carried.

My father's proudest moment was when he noodled a nine-pound yellow cat. He had to use two hands to pull it out. He held it high above his head and gave out a shout of delight. Later, after he safely placed it in the burlap sack, he told me that as soon as he felt the catfish's head, he knew it was going to be the biggest he had ever caught by hand. "J'étais nerveux. J'avais peur de le perdre. (I was nervous. I was afraid to lose him.)." It became a story that he related to anyone who would listen.

A little nothing brand new was never "nothing" with my father, but it was always brand new whether it was a sweet bonbon, an experience, a trick, a lesson, or a story. The expression is one I have used often with my own children.

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