A loud and desperate rapping on our screen door echoed through the house and drew both my and Grandmere Catherine’s attention from our work. That night we were upstairs in the grenier, the loom room, weaving the cotton jaune into blankets we would sell at the stand in front of our house on weekends when the tourists came to the bayou. I held my breath. The knocking came again, louder and more frantic.
“Go down and see who’s there, Ruby,” Grandmere Catherine whispered loudly. “Quickly. And if it’s your Grandpere Jack soaked in that swamp whiskey again, shut the door as fast as you can,” she added, but something in the way her dark eyes widened said she knew this was someone else and something far more frightening and unpleasant.
A strong breeze had kicked up behind the thick layers of dark clouds that enclosed us like a shroud, hiding the quarter moon and stars in the April Louisiana sky. This year spring had been more like summer. The days and nights were so hot and humid I found mildew on my shoes in the morning. At noon the sun made the goldenrod glisten and drove the gnats and flies into a frenzy to find cool shade. On clear nights I could see where the swamp’s Golden Lady spiders had come out to erect their giant nets for their nightly catch of beetles and mosquitos. We had stretched fabric over our windows that kept out the insects but let in whatever cool breeze came up from the Gulf.
I hurried down the stairs and through the narrow hallway that ran straight from the rear of the house to the front. The sight of Theresa Rodrigues’s face with her nose against the screen stopped me in my tracks and turned my feet to lead. She looked as white as a water lily, her coffee black hair wild and her eyes full of terror.
“Where’s your grandmere?” she cried frantically.
I called out to my grandmother and then stepped up to the door. Theresa was a short, stout girl three years older than I. At eighteen, she was the oldest of five children. I knew her mother was about to have another. “What’s wrong, Theresa?” I asked, joining her on the galerie. “Is it your mother?”
Immediately, she burst into tears, her heavy bosom heaving and falling with the sobs, her face in her hands. I looked back into the house in time to see Grandmere Catherine come down the stairs, take one look at Theresa, and cross herself.
“Speak quickly, child,” Grandmere Catherine demanded, rushing up to the door.
“My mama . . . gave birth . . . to a dead baby,” Theresa wailed.
“Mon Dieu,” Grandmere Catherine said, and crossed herself once more. “I felt it,” she muttered, her eyes turned to me. I recalled the moments during our weaving when she had raised her gaze and had seemed to listen to the sounds of the night. The cry of a raccoon had sounded like the cry of a baby.
“My father sent me to fetch you,” Theresa moaned through her tears. Grandmere Catherine nodded and squeezed Theresa’s hand reassuringly.
“I’m coming right away.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Landry. Thank you,” Theresa said, and shot off the porch and into the night, leaving me confused and frightened. Grandmere Catherine was already gathering her things and filling a split-oak basket. Quickly, I went back inside.
“What does Mr. Rodrigues want, Grandmere? What can you do for them now?”
When Grandmere was summoned at night, it usually meant someone was very sick or in pain. No matter what it was, my stomach would tingle as if I had swallowed a dozen flies that buzzed around and around inside.
“Get the butane lantern,” she ordered instead of answering. I hurried to do so. Unlike the frantic Theresa Rodrigues whose terror had lit her way through the darkness, we would need the lantern to go from the front porch and over the marsh grass to the inky black gravel highway. To Grandmere the overcast night sky carried an ominous meaning, especially tonight. As soon as we stepped out and she looked up, she shook her head and muttered, “Not a good sign.”
Behind us and beside us, the swamp seemed to come alive with her dark words. Frogs croaked, night birds cawed, and gators slithered over the cool mud.
At fifteen I was already two inches taller than Grandmere Catherine who was barely five-feet-four in her moccasins. Diminutive in size, she was still the strongest woman I knew, for besides her wisdom and her grit, she carried the powers of a Traiteur, a treater; she was a spiritual healer, someone unafraid to do battle with evil, no matter how dark or insidious that evil was. Grandmere always seemed to have a solution, always seemed to reach back in her bag of cure-alls and rituals and manage to find the proper course of action. It was something unwritten, something handed down to her, and whatever was not handed down, she magically knew herself.
Grandmere was left-handed, which to all of us Cajuns meant she could have spiritual powers. But I thought her power came from her dark onyx eyes. She was never afraid of anything. Legend had it that one night in the swamp she had come face-to-face with the Grim Reaper himself and she’d stared down Death’s gaze until he realized she was no one to tangle with just yet.
People in the bayou came to her to cure their warts and their rheumatism. She had her secret medicines for colds and coughs and was said even to know a way to prevent aging, although she never used it because it would be against the natural order of things. Nature was sacred to Grandmere Catherine. She extracted all of her remedies from the plants and herbs, the trees and animals that lived near or in the swamps.
“Why are we going to the Rodrigues house, Grandmere? Isn’t it too late?”
“Couchemal,” she muttered, and mumbled a prayer under her breath. The way she prayed made my spine tingle and, despite the humidity, gave me a chill. I clenched my teeth together as hard as I could, hoping they wouldn’t chatter. I was determined to be as fearless as Grandmere, and most of the time I succeeded.
“I guess that you are old enough for me to tell you,” she said so quietly I had to strain to hear. “A couchemal is an evil spirit that lurks about when an unbaptized baby dies. If we don’t drive it away, it will haunt the family and bring them bad luck,” she said. “They should have called me as soon as Mrs. Rodrigues started her birthing. Especially on a night like this,” she added darkly.
In front of us, the glow of the butane lantern made the shadows dance and wiggle to what Grandpere Jack called “The Song of the Swamp,” a song not only made up of animal sounds, but also the peculiar low whistle that sometimes emerged from the twisted limbs and dangling Spanish moss we Cajuns called Spanish Beard when a breeze traveled through. I tried to stay as close to Grandmere as I could without knocking into her and my feet were moving as quickly as they could to keep up. Grandmere was so fixed on our destination, and on the astonishing task before us that she looked like she could walk through the pitch darkness.
In her split-oak basket, Grandmere carried a half-dozen small totems of the Virgin Mary, as well as a bottle of holy water and some assorted herbs and plants. The prayers and incantations she carried in her head.
“Grandmere,” I began. I needed to hear the sound of my own voice. “Qu’est-ce—”
“English,” she corrected quickly. “Speak only in English.” Grandmere always insisted we speak English, especially when we left the house, even though our Cajun language was French. “Someday you will leave this bayou,” she predicted, “and you will live in a world that maybe looks down on our Cajun language and ways.”
“Why would I leave the bayou, Grandmere?” I asked her. “And why would I stay with people who looked down on us?”
“You just will,” she replied in her usual cryptic manner. “You just will.”
“Grandmere,” I began again, “why would a spirit haunt the Rodrigueses anyway? What have they done?”
“They’ve done nothing. The baby was born dead. It came in the body of the infant, but the spirit was unbaptized and has no place to go, so it will haunt them and bring them bad luck.”
I looked back. Night fell like a leaden curtain behind us, pushing us forward. When we made the turn, I was happy to see the lighted windows of the Butes, our closest neighbor. The sight of it allowed me to pretend that everything was normal.
“Have you done this many times before, Grandmere?” I knew my grandmother was called to perform many rituals, from blessing a new house to bringing luck to a shrimp or oyster fisherman. Mothers of young brides unable to bear children called her to do whatever she could to make them fertile. More often than not, they became pregnant. I knew of all these things, but until tonight I had never heard of a couchemal.
“Unfortunately, many times,” she replied. “As did Traiteurs before me as far back as our days in the old country.”
“And did you always succeed in chasing away the evil spirit?”
“Always,” she replied with a tone of such confidence that I suddenly felt safe.
Grandmere Catherine and I lived alone in our toothpick-legged house with its tin roof and recessed galerie. We lived in Houma, Louisiana, which was in Terrebonne Parish. Folks said the parish was only two hours away from New Orleans by car, but I didn’t know if that was true since I had never been to New Orleans. I had never left the bayou.
Grandpere Jack had built our house himself more than thirty years ago when he and Grandmere Catherine had first been married. Like most Cajun homes, our house was set on posts to keep us above the crawling animals and give us some protection from the floods and dampness. Its walls were built out of cypress wood and its roof out of corrugated metal. Whenever it rained, the drops would tap our house like a drum. The rare stranger to come to our house was sometimes bothered by it, but we were as accustomed to the drumming as we were to the shrieks of the marsh hawks.
“Where does the spirit go when we drive it away?” I asked.
“Back to limbo where it can do good God-fearing folks no harm,” she replied.
We Cajuns, who were descendants of the Arcadians driven from Canada in the mid-1700s, believed in a spirituality that commingled Catholicism with pre-Christian folklore. We went to church and prayed to saints like Saint Medad, but we clung to our superstitions and age-old beliefs as firmly. Some, like Grandpere Jack, clung to them more. He was often involved in some activity to ward off bad luck and had an assortment of talismans like alligator teeth and dried deer ears to wear around his neck or carry on his belt at times. Grandmere said no man in the bayou needed them more than he did.
The gravel road stretched and turned ahead, but at the pace we were keeping, the Rodrigueses’ cypress wood house now bleached a gray-white patina, soon loomed before us. We heard the wailing coming from within and saw Mr. Rodrigues on the front galerie holding Theresa’s four-year-old brother in his arms. He sat in a split-oak rocking chair and stared into the night as though he had already seen the evil spirit. It chilled me even more, but I moved forward as quickly as Grandmere Catherine did. The moment he set eyes on her, his expression of sorrow and fear turned to one of hope. It felt good to see how much Grandmere was respected.
“Thanks for comin’ so fast, Mrs. Landry. Thanks for comin’,” he said, and rose quickly. “Theresa,” he cried, and Theresa emerged from the house to take her little brother from him. He opened the door for my grandmother, and after I set the lantern down, I followed her inside.
Grandmere Catherine had been to the Rodrigueses’ house before and went directly to Mrs. Rodrigues’s bedroom. She lay there, her eyes closed, her face ashen, her black hair spread out over the pillow. Grandmere took her hand and Mrs. Rodrigues looked up weakly. Grandmere Catherine fixed her gaze on Mrs. Rodrigues and stared hard as though searching for a sign. Mrs. Rodrigues struggled to raise herself.
“Rest, Delores,” Grandmere Catherine said. “I am here to help.”
“Yes,” Mrs. Rodrigues said in a loud whisper. She clutched Grandmere’s wrist. “I felt it, Catherine. I felt its heartbeat start and stop and then I felt the couchemal slip away. I felt it. . . .”
“Rest, Delores. I will do what has to be done,” Grandmere Catherine promised. She patted her hand and turned to me. She nodded slightly and I followed her out to the galerie, where Theresa and the other Rodrigues children waited wide-eyed.
Grandmere Catherine reached into her split-oak basket and plucked out one of her bottles of holy water. She opened it carefully and turned to me.
“Take the lantern and lead me around the house,” she said. “Every cistern, every pot with water in it, needs a drop or two of the holy water, Ruby. Make sure we don’t miss a one,” she warned. I nodded, my legs trembling, and we began our foray.
In the darkness, an owl hooted, but when we turned the corner of the house, I heard something slither through the grass. My heart was thumping so hard, I thought I’d drop the lantern. Would the evil spirit do something to try to stop us? As if to answer my question, something cool and wet slipped past me in the darkness and just grazed my left cheek. I gasped aloud. Grandmere Catherine turned to reassure me.
“The spirit is hiding in a cistern or a pot. It has to hide in water. Don’t be afraid,” she coached, and then stopped by a cistern used to gather rainwater from the roof of the Rodrigueses’ house. She opened her bottle and tipped it so as to spill only a drop or two into it and then closed her eyes and mumbled a prayer. We did the same thing at every barrel and every pot until we circled the house and returned to the front where Mr. Rodrigues, Theresa, and the other two children waited in anticipation.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Landry,” Mr. Rodrigues said, “but Theresa’s just told me the children have an old gumbo pot out back. It’s surely got some rainwater in it from the downpour late this afternoon.”
“Show me,” Grandmere ordered Theresa, who nodded and led the way. She was so nervous, she couldn’t find it at first
“We’ve got to find it,” Grandmere Catherine warned. Theresa began to cry.
“Take your time, Theresa,” I told her, and squeezed her arm gently to reassure her. She sucked in a deep breath and nodded. Then she bit down on her lower lip and concentrated until she remembered the exact location and took us to it. Grandmere knelt down and dropped the holy water in, whispering her prayer as she did so.
Perhaps it was my overworked imagination; perhaps not, but I thought I saw something pale gray, something that resembled a baby, fly up and away. I smothered a cry, afraid I would frighten Theresa even more. Grandmere Catherine stood up and we returned to the house to offer our final condolences. She set a totem of the Virgin Mary at the front door and told Mr. Rodrigues to be sure it remained there for forty days and forty nights. She gave him another one and told him to put it at the foot of his and his wife’s bed and leave it there just as long. Then we started back to our own home.
“Do you think you chased it off, Grandmere?” I asked when we were sufficiently away from the house and none of the Rodrigues family would hear.
“Yes,” she said. Then she turned to me and added, “I wish I had the power to chase away the evil spirit that dwells in your grandpere as easily. If I thought it would do any good, I’d bathe him in holy water. Goodness knows, he could use the washing anyway.”
I smiled, but my eyes soon filled with tears as well. For as long as I could remember, Grandpere Jack had lived apart from us, lived in his trapper’s shack in the swamp. Most of the time, Grandmere Catherine had only bad things to say about him and refused to set eyes on him whenever he did come around, but sometimes, her voice got softer, her eyes warmer, and she would wish he would do this or that to help himself or change his ways. She didn’t like me to go poling a pirogue through the swamps to visit him.
“God forbid you turn over that flimsy canoe or fall out. He’d probably be too soaked with whiskey to hear your cries for help and then there are the snakes and gators to contend with, Ruby. He ain’t worth the effort of the journey,” she’d mutter, but she never stopped me and even though she pretended not to care or want to know about him, I noticed she always managed to listen when I described one of my visits to Grandpere.
How many nights had I sat by my window and looked up at the moon peeking between two clouds and wished and prayed that somehow we could be a family. I had no mother and no father, but only Grandmere Catherine who had been and still was a mother to me. Grandmere always said Grandpere could barely care for himself, much less substitute as a father for me. Still, I dreamed. If they were together again . . . if we were all together in our house, we would be like a normal family. Perhaps then, Grandpere Jack wouldn’t drink and gamble. All of my friends at school had regular families, with brothers and sisters and two parents to come home to and love.
But my mother lay buried in the cemetery a half mile away and my father . . . my father was a blank face with no name, a stranger who had come passing through the bayou and met my mother at a fais dodo, a Cajun dance. According to Grandmere Catherine, the love they made so wildly and carefree that night resulted in my birth. What hurt me beside my mother’s tragic death was the realization that somewhere out there lived a man who never knew he had a daughter, had me. We would never set eyes on each other, never exchange a word. We wouldn’t even see each other’s shadows or silhouettes like two fishing boats passing in the night.
When I was a little girl I invented a game: the Daddy Game. I would study myself in the mirror and then try to imagine my facial characteristics on a man. I would sit at my drawing table and sketch his face. Conjuring the rest of him was harder. Sometimes I made him very tall, as tall as Grandpere Jack, and sometimes just an inch or so taller than I was. He was always a well-built, muscular man. I decided long ago that he must have been good-looking and very charming to have won my mother’s heart so quickly.
Some of the drawings became watercolor paintings. In one of them, I set my imaginary father in a fais dodo hall, leaning against a wall, smiling because he had first set eyes on my mother. He looked sexy and dangerous, just the way he must have looked to draw my beautiful mother to him. In another painting, I had him walking down a road, but turned to wave good-bye. I always thought there was a promise in his face in that picture, the promise of return.
Most of my paintings had a man in them that in my imagination was my father. He was either on a shrimp boat or poling a pirogue through one of the canals or across one of the ponds. Grandmere Catherine knew why the man was in my pictures. I saw how sad it made her, but I couldn’t help myself. Lately, she had urged me to paint swamp animals and birds more often than people.
On weekends, we would put some of my paintings out with our woven blankets, sheets, and towels, our split-oak baskets and palmetto hats. Grandmere would also put out her jars of herbal cures for headaches, insomnia, and coughs. Sometimes, we had a pickled snake or a large bullfrog in a jar because the tourists who drove by and stopped loved to buy them. Many loved to eat Grandmere’s gumbo or jambalaya. She would ladle out small bowls of it and they would sit at the benches and tables in front of our house and enjoy a real Cajun lunch.
All in all, I suppose my life in the bayou wasn’t as bad as the lives some motherless and fatherless children led. Grandmere Catherine and I didn’t have many worldly goods, but we had our small safe home and we were able to get by with our loom work and handicrafts. From time to time, although admittedly not often enough, Grandpere Jack would drop by to give us part of what he made trapping muskrats, which was the main way he earned a living these days. Grandmere Catherine was too proud or too angry at him to accept it gracefully. Either I would take it or Grandpere would just leave it on the kitchen table.
“I don’t expect no thanks from her,” he would mutter to me, “but at least she could acknowledge I’m here leaving her the damn money. It’s hard earned, it is,” he would declare in a loud voice on the galerie steps. Grandmere Catherine would say nothing in reply, but usually keep on doing whatever she was doing inside.
“Thank you, Grandpere,” I would tell him.
“Ah, I don’t want your thanks. It’s not your thanks I’m asking for, Ruby. I just want someone to know I ain’t dead and buried or swallowed by a gator. Someone to at least have the decency to look at me,” he often moaned, still loud enough for Grandmere to hear.
Sometimes, she appeared in the doorway if he said something that got to her.
“Decency,” she cried from behind the screen door. “Did I hear you, Jack Landry, talk of decency?”
“Ah . . .” Grandpere Jack waved his long arm in her direction and turned away to return to the swamp.
“Wait, Grandpere,” I cried, running after him.
“Wait? For what? You ain’t seen stubborn until you’ve seen a Cajun woman with her mind made up. There’s nothin’ to wait for,” he declared, and walked on, his hip boots sucking through the spongelike grass and earth. Usually, he wore his red coat which was a cross between a vest and a fireman’s raincoat, with huge sewn in pockets that circled around behind from two sides. They had slit openings and were called rat pockets, for that was where he put his muskrats.
Whenever he charged off in anger, his long, stark white hair would fly up and around his head and look like white flames. He was a dark-skinned man. The Landrys were said to have Indian blood. But he had emerald green eyes that twinkled with an impish charm when he was sober and in a good mood. Tall and lanky and strong enough to wrestle with a gator, Grandpere Jack was something of a legend in the bayou. Few men lived off the swamp as well as he did.
But Grandmere Catherine was down on the Landrys and often brought me to tears when she cursed the day she’d married Grandpere.
“Let it be a lesson to you, Ruby,” she told me one day. “A lesson as to how the heart can trick and confuse the mind. The heart wants what the heart wants. But before you give yourself to a man, be sure you have a good idea as to where he’s going to take you. Sometimes, the best way to see the future, is to look at the past,” Grandmere advised. “I should have listened to what everyone told me about the Landrys. They’re so full of bad blood . . . they’ve been bad since the first Landrys settled here. It wasn’t long before signs were posted in these parts saying, No Landrys Allowed. How’s that for bad and how’s that for listening to your young heart instead of older wisdom?”
“But surely, you must have loved Grandpere once. You must have seen something good in him,” I insisted.
“I saw what I wanted to see,” she replied. She was stubborn when it came to him, but for reasons I still didn’t understand. That day I must have felt a streak of contrariness or bravery, because I tried to probe at the past.
“Grandmere, why did he move away? Was it just because of his drinking, because I think he would stop if he lived with us again?”
Her eyes cut sharply toward me. “No, it’s not just because of his drinking.” She was quiet a moment. “Although that’s good enough a reason.”
“Is it because of the way he gambles away his money?”
“Gambling ain’t the worse of it,” she snapped in a voice that said I should let the matter drop. But for some reason I couldn’t.
“Then what is, Grandmere? What did he do that was so terrible?”
Her face darkened and then softened a bit. “It’s between him and me,” she said. “It ain’t for you to know. You’re too young to understand it all, Ruby. If Grandpere Jack was meant to live with us . . . things would have been different,” she insisted and left me as confused and frustrated as ever.
Grandmere Catherine had such wisdom and such power. Why couldn’t she do something to make us a family again? Why couldn’t she forgive Grandpere and use her power to change him so that he could live with us once more? Why couldn’t we be a real family?
No matter what Grandpere Jack told me and other people, no matter how much he swore, ranted, and raved, I knew he had to be a lonely man living by himself in the swamp. Few people visited him and his home was really no more than a shack. It sat six feet off the marsh on pilings. He had a cistern to collect rainwater and butane lanterns for lights. It had a wood heater for burning scrap lumber and driftwood. At night he would sit on his galerie and play mournful tunes on his accordion and drink his rotgut whiskey.
He wasn’t really happy and neither was Grandmere Catherine. Here we were returning from the Rodrigues home after chasing off an evil spirit and we couldn’t chase off the evil spirits that dwelt in the shadows of our own home. In my heart I thought Grandmere Catherine was like the shoemaker without any shoes. She can do so much good for others, but she seemed incapable of doing the same sort of things for herself.
Was that the destiny of a Traiteur? A price she had to pay to have the power?
Would it be my destiny as well: to help others but be unable to help myself?
The bayou was a world filled with many mysterious things. Every journey into it, revealed something surprising. A secret until that moment not discovered. But the secrets held in our own hearts were the secrets I longed to know the most.
• • •
Just before we reached home, Grandmere Catherine said, “There’s someone at the house.” With a definite note of disapproval, she added, “It’s that Tate boy again.”
Paul was sitting on the galerie steps playing his harmonica, his motor scooter set against the cypress stump. The moment he set eyes on our lantern, he stopped playing and stood up to greet us.
Paul was the seventeen-year-old son of Octavious Tate, one of the richest men in Houma. The Tates owned a shrimp cannery and lived in a big house. They had a pleasure boat and expensive cars. Paul had two younger sisters, Jeanne, who was in my class at school, and Toby, who was two years younger. Paul and I had known each other all our lives, but just recently had begun to spend more time together. I knew his parents weren’t happy about it. Paul’s father had more than one run-in with Grandpere Jack and disliked the Landrys.
“Everything all right, Ruby?” Paul asked quickly as we drew closer. He wore a light blue cotton polo shirt, khaki pants, and leather boots laced tightly beneath them. Tonight he looked taller and wider to me, and older, too.
“Grandmere and I went to see the Rodrigues family. Mrs. Rodrigues’s baby was born dead,” I told him.
“Oh, that’s horrible,” Paul said softly. Of all the boys I knew at school, Paul seemed the most sincere and the most mature, although, one of the shyest. He was certainly one of the handsomest with his cerulean blue eyes and thick, chatin hair, which was what the Cajuns called brown mixed with blond. “Good evening, Mrs. Landry,” he said to Grandmere Catherine.
She flashed her gaze on him with that look of suspicion she had ever since the first time Paul had walked me home from school. Now that he was coming around more often, she was scrutinizing him even more closely, which was something I found embarrassing. Paul seemed a little amused, but a little afraid of her as well. Most folks believed in Grandmere’s prophetic and mystical powers.
“Evening,” she said slowly. “Might be a downpour yet tonight,” she predicted. “You shouldn’t be motoring about with that flimsy thing.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Paul said.
Grandmere Catherine shifted her eyes to me. “We got to finish the weavin’ we started,” she reminded me.
“Yes, Grandmere. I’ll be right along.”
She looked at Paul again and then went inside.
“Is your grandmother very upset about losing the Rodrigues baby?” he asked.
“She wasn’t called to help deliver it,” I replied, and I told him why she had been summoned and what we had done. He listened with interest and then shook his head.
“My father doesn’t believe in any of that. He says superstitions and folklore are what keeps the Cajuns backward and makes other folks think we’re ignorant. But I don’t agree,” he added quickly.
“Grandmere Catherine is far from ignorant,” I added, not hiding my indignation. “It’s ignorant not to take precautions against evil spirits and bad luck.”
Paul nodded. “Did you . . . see anything?” he asked.
“I felt it fly by my face,” I said, placing my hand on my cheek. “It touched me here. And then I thought I saw it leave.”
Paul released a low whistle.
“You must have been very brave,” he said.
“Only because I was with Grandmere Catherine,” I confessed.
“I wish I had gotten here earlier and been with you . . . to make sure nothing bad happened to you,” he added. I felt myself blush at his desire to protect me.
“I’m all right, but I’m glad it’s over,” I admitted. Paul laughed.
In the dim illumination of our galerie light, his face looked softer, his eyes even warmer. We hadn’t done much more than hold hands and kiss a half-dozen times, only twice on the lips, but the memory of those kisses made my heart flutter now when I looked at him and stood so closely to him. The breeze gently brushed aside some strands of hair that had fallen over his forehead. Behind the house, the water from the swamps lapped against the shore and a night bird flapped its wings above us, invisible against the dark sky.
“I was disappointed when I came by and you weren’t home,” he said. “I was just about to leave when I saw the light of your lantern.”
“I’m glad you waited,” I replied, and his smile widened. “But I can’t invite you in because Grandmere wants us to finish the blankets we’ll put up for sale tomorrow. She thinks we’ll be busy this weekend and she’s usually right. She always remembers which weekends were busier than others the year before. No one has a better memory for those things,” I added.
“I got to work in the cannery all day tomorrow, but maybe I can come by tomorrow night after dinner and we can walk to town to get a cup of crushed ice,” Paul suggested.
“I’d like that,” I said. Paul stepped closer to me and fixed his gaze on my face. We drank each other in for a moment before he worked up enough courage to say what he really had come to say. “What I really want to do is take you to the fais dodo next Saturday night,” he declared quickly.
I had never been out on a real date before. Just the thought of it filled me with excitement. Most girls my age would be going to the fais dodo with their families and dance with boys they met there, but to be picked up and escorted and to dance only with Paul all night. . . that sent my mind reeling.
“I’ll have to ask Grandmere Catherine,” I said, quickly adding, “but I’d like that very much.”
“Good. Well,” he said, backing up toward his motor scooter, “I guess I better be going before that downpour comes/’ He didn’t take his eyes off me as he stepped away and he caught his heel on a root. It sat him down firmly.
“Are you all right?” I cried, rushing to him. He laughed, embarrassed.
“I’m fine, except for a wet rear end,” he added, and laughed. He reached up to take my hand and stand, and when he did, we were only inches apart. Slowly, a millimeter at a time, our lips drew closer and closer until they met. It was a short kiss, but a firmer and more confident one on both our parts. I had gone up on my toes to bring my lips to his and my breasts grazed his chest. The unexpected contact with the electricity of our kiss sent a wave of warm, pleasant excitement down my spine.
“Ruby,” he said, bursting with emotion now. “You’re the prettiest and nicest girl in the whole bayou.”
“Oh, no, I’m not, Paul. I can’t be. There are so many prettier girls, girls who have expensive clothes and expensive jewelry and—”
“I don’t care if they have the biggest diamonds and dresses from Paris. Nothing could make them prettier than you,” he blurted out. I knew he wouldn’t have had the courage to say these things if we weren’t standing in the shadows and I couldn’t see him as clearly. I was sure his face was crimson.
“Ruby!” my grandmother called from a window. “I don’t want to stay up all night finishing this.”
“I’m coming, Grandmere. Good night, Paul,” I said, and then I leaned forward to peck him on the lips once more before I turned and left him standing in the dark. I heard him start his motor scooter and drive off and then I hurried up to the grenier to help Grandmere Catherine.
For a long moment, she didn’t speak. She worked and kept her eyes fixed on the loom. Then she shifted her gaze to me and pursed her lips the way she often did when she was thinking deeply.
“The Tate boy’s been coming around to see you a great deal, lately, hasn’t he?”
“And what do his parents think of that?” she asked, cutting right to the heart of things as always.
“I don’t know, Grandmere,” I said, looking down.
“I think you do, Ruby.”
“Paul likes me and I like him,” I said quickly. “What his parents think isn’t important.”
“He’s grown a great deal this year, he’s a man. And you’re no longer a little girl, Ruby. You’ve grown, too. I see the way you two look at each other. I know that look too well and what it can lead to,” she added.
“It won’t lead to anything bad. Paul’s the nicest boy in school,” I insisted. She nodded but kept her dark eyes on me. “Stop making me feel naughty, Grandmere. I haven’t done anything to make you ashamed of me.”
“Not yet,” she said, “but you got Landry in you and the blood has a way of corrupting. I seen it in your mother, I don’t want to see it in you.”
My chin began to quiver.
“I’m not saying these things to hurt you, child. I’m saying them to prevent your being hurt,” she said, reaching out to put her hand over mine.
“Can’t I love someone purely and nicely, Grandmere? Or am I cursed because of Grandpere Jack’s blood in my veins? What about your blood? Won’t it give me the wisdom I need to keep myself from getting in trouble?” I demanded. She shook her head and smiled.
“It didn’t prevent me from getting in trouble, I’m afraid. I married him and lived with him once,” she said, and then sighed. “But you might be right; you might be stronger and wiser in some ways. You’re certainly a lot brighter than I was when I was your age, and far more talented. Why your drawings and paintings—”
“Oh, no, Grandmere, I’m—”
“Yes, you are, Ruby. You’re talented. Someday someone will see that talent and offer you a lot of money for it,” she prophesied. “I just don’t want you to do anything to ruin your chance to get out of here, child, to rise above the swamp and the bayou.”
“Is it so bad here, Grandmere?”
“It is for you, child.”
“But why, Grandmere?”
“It just is,” she said, and began her weaving again, again leaving me stranded in a sea of mystery.
“Paul has asked me to go with him to the fais dodo a week from Saturday. I want to go with him very much, Grandmere,” I added.
“Will his parents let him do that?” she asked quickly.
“I don’t know. Paul thinks so, I guess. Can we invite him to dinner Sunday night, Grandmere? Can we?”
“I never turned anyone away from my dinner table,” Grandmere said, “but don’t plan on going to the dance. I know the Tate family and I don’t want to see you hurt.”
“Oh, I won’t be, Grandmere,” I said, nearly bouncing in my seat with excitement. “Then Paul can come to dinner?”
“I said I wouldn’t throw him out,” she replied.
“Oh, Grandmere, thank you. Thank you.” I threw my arms around her. She shook her head.
“If we go on like this, we’ll be working all night, Ruby,” she said, but kissed my cheek. “My little Ruby, my darling girl, growing into a woman so quickly I better not blink or I’ll miss it,” she said. We hugged again and then went back to work, my hands moving with a new energy, my heart filled with a new joy, despite Grandmere Catherine’s ominous warnings.