“You can’t ignore us again, Mr. Fryoux.”
PawPaw had remained on his hands and knees, pulling weeds when the car of two representatives of the United States Army Corps of Engineers clanked up near his garden. When he stood to face them, the tall one demanded, “You have to leave this place.”
The shorter, thick-necked corpsman added, “We can’t keep rebuilding the same levees over and over.”
Joie stood with MawMaw at the stove, holding her hand as they watched men they didn’t know pronounce a sentence upon them. She looked out into the woods her forefathers settled, here, in the mire of Deep South delta, the very fabric of her heritage. A canopy of Live Oaks the age of her ancestors dwarfed the house, and the crisp pineyness of cypress wafted over a latticework of unhurried bayous and through the windows. This land was their home—beloved fishing holes, wilderness trails, and moss-draped trees where the qui'lerrrrl'ps of tree frogs and winding whir of cicadas harmonized to the rhythm of brown crickets and the chorus of Joie’s beloved equine… it made them the we that they were.
MawMaw waved them up the tall row of steps to the kitchen, saying, “Come sit,” then busied herself with serving coffee while the corpsmen spread out an official map larger than her kitchen table. They pushed aside her cups of café au lait.
“From here—” the tall corpsman pointed at the spot where the Mississippi River ran true south before a great curve, “—to here.” His finger crawled around the edge of a great O, where the river almost touched itself before turning south again. East of those points, the river separated over a hundred Fryoux’ from the rest of the world. But spring waters often swelled the river to overflowing, breaking bits and pieces of levee and drowning their land.
“We’ve told you—nature has to take her course!” the short corpsman barked. “This is where we’ll build the new levee.” His stubby finger cut across the mouth of the Fryoux peninsula. “Don’t you understand? These flimsy house stilts won’t hold up in the middle of a river.”
If waters liquefied this lush land and carried it in great, discombobulated heaps into distant swamps to rot without the faintest recollection of its bearing on the lives of those who cherished it, the collective mind and soul of Joie’s entire people would meet its demise. PawPaw had taught his family to love their land in the way they loved their lives. Would they now fear the river like a dying man who fears his closing day, with no degree of control, waiting for last visits, the ultimate decree, one final labored breath?
In all her years, Joie had never heard anyone speak so harshly to her grandfather, yet the corpsmen wore blank faces, sitting there straight-backed in their crisp uniforms as though they visited royalty, not a rickety home where, at nighttime, passersby could see the slivers of light that crept through fissures in its weathered half-inch by four-inch wallboards. The only new structure on the peninsula was a chapel they had started building that spring, and Daddy had already etched Mother’s name into a platform upon which a wooden pietà would lay: In memory of our beloved Ariat. Joie wanted to slap the men. They’d obliterate an entire culture! Why wasn’t PawPaw fighting them?
Her shoulders rounded over. The dignified old patriarch, who just sat there, unflinchingly, could do nothing. PawPaw’s head, browned from long decades under the sun, hung a tad lower than usual, but Joie was the only one who noticed. She knew him that well. Because she loved him that well.
PawPaw certainly wondered how future generations would learn that obstacles were made for overcoming if he, their leader, couldn’t overcome this final, greatest obstacle to their very future. How would they feed themselves? Would another familial graveyard be abandoned, same as PawPaw’s ancestors’ thrice before?
The family had settled in these woods to remain safe, but now the whole clan would lose their homes while the nouveau riche remained dry on the highlands—even their animals would be safe on that land they had stolen from PawPaw’s father. Joie could only imagine how her dear grandfather’s gut would wrench when he saw the Highlanders’ livestock grazing safely on high land while his extended family slinked away—how he would see himself as a failure after all the bigotry and injustice he had survived at the hand of the Highlanders; how, in the end, he would have failed at the one most foundational duties of the patriarchy—this would be the cruelest of blows.
The tall corpsman finally stood, said, “Keep the map,” and they walked out. “We won’t come tell you again,” the other warned over a shoulder.
Joie and MawMaw remained silent and motionless as PawPaw placed a thumb on the map to cover the peninsula and stare at the result. Then he folded the map, took it outside, and put a match to it.
* * * * *
The prospect of PawPaw losing the family’s last bit of land sent a shiver up Joie’s spine as she stood at her French doors looking out into black skies six months later. Please, dear God, You wouldn’t wipe out a culture that wouldn’t, couldn’t, exist anywhere else, would You?
She strained to see the barn that was home to her beloved Itsy. It might be the last night she could see its silhouette in the moonlight, though the far-reaching clouds of a massive storm were already nipping at its glow. Hurricane Valerie was coming.
She filed away her memory of how, when she mucked Itsy’s stall and rubbed her withers, the mare looped her head around to nuzzle and massage Joie’s legs and back. PawPaw was right—there was nothing like a beloved horse treating you like another of his own species.
She smothered the memory of how Tres had understood that, how he loved horses nearly as much as she did. How he had even helped her muck the barn once (though he rushed home to bathe so he could avoid his mother’s lecture about getting dirty from common labor). What had she been thinking… the idea of a Highlander marrying a Lowlander… ludicrous.
A sudden longing tightened her throat. He was barely a mile away… Maybe she could take a quick gallop and catch a glimpse of him at his bedroom window, staring out into the black. She pinched herself back to reality. Seeing his mother’s monstrous, hilltop house on their way out in the morning would be more than enough. They’d probably already evacuated, anyway… left the staff to batten up the mansion, and even their fancy horses’ shiny, lacquered stables. They were probably sipping digestif up in Natchez by now.
When she noticed a dim blush above the trees, she shook her head, glanced once more at Itsy’s home, and closed her French doors. It was time.
Our livelihood is but a peninsula, our lives its slaves.
The childhood memory of the only cross words Joie ever heard between her daddy, Jules, and mamma, Ariat, still haunts her. The family midwifing duties called upon Ariat. She was driving away in her calash, Jules repeating, “No, the rain’s comin’.”
Ariat countering, “So is the baby.”
Joie and her brothers looked back and forth from their mother’s smile to their father’s reddening cheeks.
“Wait, I’ll drive you!”
“No, you feed the children.” She tapped the long-reins on her horse. “Getty-up.”
Joie cried, “Mommmyyyy!”
But her mother only waved goodbye. “Toots, go nap. Be a good ‘tite fille.”
“Don’t leave meeee!” She ran after her mother.
But her father yanked her back by the collar. “Go do like your momma said! Pretty little girls don’t whine!”
Joie frowned. She wasn’t whining. Little babies whined, and she wasn’t a little baby. She already knew her numbers to ten in English and French, and could sing the alphabet song and Frere Jacques, too!
Jules dragged her up the tall steps. His tight fist pounded open the door and a long finger pointed to the bed with his wife’s new quilt.
Joie ran and jumped up into her mother’s deep moss mattress. Dear God, make her safe. She made pretty pictures in her mind. She’d bring her mother some lavender water hyacinths that float on Grande Bayou and look like the lace doilies she makes.
Bayou Paul swelled. The mare strained against her collar. Her feet slipped on soggy leaves. The carriage and the brown mare and Ariat along with them slid ever so slowly and gracefully off the slick planks and into a churning river that most times was barely a creek.
Though Joie would dream that scene over and over again for years to come, that first time, Jules woke her from her nap and latched onto her like a buoy, then rocked back and forth, rubbing away the tear-soaked hair stuck to her forehead and cheeks. Then he tore free. He raised the lantern. His face was wet. Mommy wasn’t coming back; it wasn’t just a dream that first time.
In the years to come, Joie wouldn’t recall her father’s hugs or kisses prior to or since that day. She was never Daddy’s little girl. She had to bend her neck back as far as it could go just to see the face of the giant man. He rose before the rooster, and other than on the Lord’s Day, his wife, three older sons, Joie, and a tiny Joey still in diapers, saw him only at mealtime, churchtime, choretime, and bedtime. On the Lord’s Day—when Ariat was alive—the family awoke to the thick, warm aromas of dark roux, caramelized onions with green peppers, celery, and garlic from the family garden, and the sound of cracked corn Jules pulverized in the hand mill latched onto a corner of the kitchen table. Before Church, they ate cornbread he iced with honey from hives so close to the cane fields that it was dark and sweet as molasses, and they drowned large chunks in bowls of coffee-milk. After Church, the aromas of the morning’s cooking watered their mouths and they all sat for a dinner comprised of the bounties of their land—its deer, squirrels, rabbits, and fruits of the waters Jules boiled with the staples of their garden or simmered in roux gravies and stews.
When Ariat was alive, she soaked lost bread, Painperdeau, in eggs, cream, and sugar, then fried it for breakfast in butter from their own cow. For dinner and supper, she made her own versions of gumbo, stew, rémoulade, and étouffée, and on Sundays, she rested and allowed her husband to pamper her.
After Ariat died, MawMaw prepared their meals. After Ariat died, her children were never again chased out of the kitchen with threats to be tickled or kissed to death. After Ariat died, they never again fell asleep in the arms of pure love and drifted into slumber alive with dreams of their ancient land.
The part of Joie that revolved around her mother was suddenly gone, poof. All she had left was the man who showed her how she could be happy again, the man whose hugs and kisses filled the void, the man who showed her where to find joy again: PawPaw. When hauling trash for one of the Highlander families, he snagged a Buster Brown painting book with dogs as big as ponies and rearing horses with rivers of black mane. Joie had no paints to color in the incomplete pictures, but that didn’t matter. What mattered were the horses and Mary Jane, Buster’s sweetheart. Next time Joie was in town with her father, she saw shoes that looked just like Mary Jane’s at Hebert’s—the cobbler’s shop where PawPaw had begged for his betrothed’s continued affections after Highlanders stole his family’s land. Jumping up and down with the tiny tip of her finger pressed against the window, she begged, “Daddy, look… ooooh, Daddy, pleeeease can I have some?”
Without even looking at his daughter, he stated, “No,” in the impassive voice he had developed since his wife’s death. “Need boots where we live.”
Each time Joie looked at her father, she saw the stern, angry face he had shot at her mother when she drove off against his wishes. When Joie looked at her older brothers, her resentment that they didn’t cry now tempered her love. She wanted little to do with boys so eager to move on without their mother, like her father.
That awful day when her mother didn’t come home, Joie had taken little brother Joey with her to live at MawMaw and PawPaw’s. When their father eventually noticed them missing, he sent all three older boys to find their younger siblings, where they sat on PawPaw’s lap at his kitchen table. The boys yanked their arms and dragged them home.
When everyone went to bed that night, Joie woke Joey, again snuck over to MawMaw and PawPaw’s, and lifted her brother into their bed before she crept up as they slept. But Jules didn’t fetch them again.