also published as
Most people know who they are - at the very least they know their own name. I was two people, with two different names. Bonnibelle Sarvaunt and Carin Collene DeVillier. I knew myself as Bonnie Sarvaunt, the niece of the elderly couple who raised me, or rather, allowed me to grow up in their home. The two people who hid the truth of my identity from the world. And from me.
When I was fifteen, and opened the gift delivered to me by The Man, I learned that I was two people. And one of me was dead.
The gift was a black metal box with a handle on the lid, latched with a tiny lock. The key was taped to the lid, the tape sealed with the signature of The Man. Until I opened it, the box hadn't been opened in thirteen years. It had once belonged to my mother. My real mother.
Inside was a sheaf of papers, including two birth certificates dated one year apart, and a death certificate... for me. It was the beginning of the mystery that drove me, the secret that obsessed me for so long. The secret for which so many died.
Yet, even before the gift of the box, I had always known I was different. Fair haired and pale complexioned in a world of dark hair and eyes and olive skin. Too tall in the midst of a short, stocky people. Anglo in a Cajun domain.
Yet, it wasn't only the physical differences, it was other things that set me apart. Mainly, my love of this magical, watery land.
I was born knowin' the magic of the south Louisiana landscape. Magic that comes from earth and storm, the sound of rain on a tin roof. The magic of migrating birds and mating alligators and the danger of poisonous snakes. The fierceness of survival in a world that gives no quarter.
A magic ignored or discounted or even complained about by others. A magic which, it seemed, only I could see.
The magic of bogs and swamp and quicksand, and rain from a clear blue sky. The beauty and mystery of the bayou. In reality or on my canvases, this mystery and magic was the cadence and rhythm of creation, constantly renewed in the depths of my twin beings. Bonnibelle and Carin Collene.
I was different in other things as well. Little things that set me apart from the human world in which I lived. The piano lessons twice a week in town with a retired music teacher. Ballet, art, languages and speech lessons. Science and history and math. My schooling was private. All of it. With one tutor or another and no other children to distract or disrupt or to play with.
And when I turned fifteen - the year I received the box - I began lessons in finance and stock management with the Vice President of the LaRoque National Bank. My education was the only evidence of money in the dirt poor town of Khoury, Louisiana. A shabby, faded, backwater place peopled by old, grizzled, timeworn Cajuns, a place where unemployment often reached 50 percent. Where the US government was the biggest provider, issuing Social Security and welfare checks on a regular basis.
Not that I lived rich. I didn't. On the surface, I lived just as poor as the next family. Poorer than some. There were no new clothes at Christmas or birthdays unless Tante Ilene made them herself. No new shoes or hat at Easter. Nothing to make me stand out as different.
Yet I was. I knew it.
If for no other reason than The Man. The Man came to see me twice a year, driving down the potholed ruts of the drive in winter, in the wet and cold of January second; motoring up to the dock in the humid heat of late summer, on August tenth.
He brought me an allowance each time he came. The extravagant sum of one thousand dollars twice a year, to be spent any way I wished. Not on clothes or videos or music. But on canvases and oil paints and expensive brushes from France. Oh yes. I was different. I knew it.
We lived on the Bayou Negre in the summer months, away from town and away from our three bedroom mobile home. Throughout the steamy heat of summer we stayed in a three room shanty on creosoted pilings. No air conditioning. No electricity. And a toilet out back.
My room was the loft, the roof so low at the sides I had to duck beneath the rafters when I grew too tall. A small space under the low pitched roof beams, barely ten by twelve and broiling hot under the tin roofing. But all mine.
The ladder up was a flimsy thing, too brittle for Tee Dom to risk his bulk on. Too steep for Tante Ilene's gouty knees.
Unlike my trailer room which they entered at their leisure, and where my treasures were always under the scrutiny of the old couple's rheumy eyes, the loft room was totally private. It was here that I worked my art. Here where the scenes in my mind found life, becoming paintings and drawings, visions of the dark water and mist of the swamp and the magic of bayou which I so loved.
If I had nothing else in my life, I had my art. It filled up the dark places in my soul. Like the mystery of my life, the world I painted was a hidden place, full of secrets and shadows and unexpected beauty. Or sudden death.
It hadn't rained in weeks and the heat was more than oppressive, it was dangerous. The local news carried by KMK in Khoury, reported that the water level in the bayou was down, domestic violence was up, and the Khoury Clinic was full of heat stroke cases. It was the driest summer in years.
The locals scanned the sky for rain, muttering about drought and withered cane crops and dried out rice fields. Muttering as the sky stayed clear and blue and the heat remained intense. And after weeks of worry on the part of farmers and complaints on the part of freshwater fishermen, rain was finally coming. Maybe today. Maybe tomorrow. Until then, the normally wet world would remain parched and pungent.
Even the swamp was drying out as the water level dropped, a thick scum of green algae sliding down the trunks of trees and cypress knees and settling into the muck of rotting flora, silt and eroded topsoil. The stink of the swamp was a heavy sour miasma, rank with the scents of earth, and mold, and stagnant water. Alligators stayed beneath the black water in the midday heat. Snakes clung to the shadows and nooks and burrows in the dry, cracked ground. Nutria - nine pound water rats with razor sharp teeth - were being driven from their no longer watery swamp homes in search of food. I had shot two the day before with a twenty gauge shotgun while Tante Ilene and I made soap on the outside cookstove.
We weren't low on soap, but Tante Ilene was set in her ways. We made soap twice a year, regardless of supply, chamomile in February, oatmeal in August. And if the weather wasn't cooperative, well, a little heat or cold never hurt anybody - that was Tante Ilene's philosophy, and at twenty one years, I still did as she wished. My sunburned neck and lye blistered hands disagreed, but then minor discomforts were inconsequential to the people who raised me. A pinched leaf from our aloe plant was a cure-all for most minor skin complaints. Even lye burns. And it was true... we had never run out of soap.
It wasn't difficult to make soap, just time consuming.
Tante Ilene always saved her bacon grease in a three pound coffee can until the coagulated stuff reached nearly to the top; about a three to six month process. The day before the soap making began, Tante Ilene lit up the propane cookstove outside the shanty and heated water, sitting the grease can in the center of the water when it reached a strong boil.
Ten minutes later, the grease had melted through, making it easy to see old food particles and trash. Using padded gloves, Tante Ilene lifted out the grease can and set it overnight in an ice chest filled with ice. This was all the warning I ever had that my plans for the next day were to be canceled. Tante Ilene had never wasted words on something so obvious.
In the morning, she scraped off the purified grease and discarded the rubbish that had filtered through to the bottom. Over the cookstove, my job was to heat a quart of water to a slow simmer and add one can of lye. This was the dangerous part of making soap. The part where, if you weren't careful, you were likely to get burned. If you let the water get too hot before adding the lye it would boil over or spit at you. If you let your mind wander or if you were angry at having to change the days itenerary, you often sported a burn thereafter to remind you to pay attention. I had never yet made soap without getting burned.
When Tante Ilene determined that the lye and water had reached the right consistency, she poured in the purified grease and stirred the mixture until it turned the rich brown shade of raw honey. When the color was perfect, I scooped in the cooked oatmeal, slow spoonful by slow spoonful, as Tante Ilene stirred. This thick mixture was then dipped into muffin tins and put aside to set. Only a few hours of hot, sticky work in the sun, but enough to spoil my schedule.
Making soap wasn't the way I had wanted to spend my last fully sunny day. I had plans for that day. Big plans. Plans interrupted by soap recipes and burned grease and a hot flame. And Tante Ilene blithely ignored the irritation that caused me to splatter and spill and grumble all day long.
A day late, I was finally in position, deep in the bayou. On the first day in weeks that rain was expected. Waiting out the afternoon, hoping the clouds would hold off. Hoping the rain which we needed so badly would hold off just a little longer. And hoping that when it finally came, it would be the slow rain we needed and not a howling storm to catch me unprepared on the bayou water.
So far, the sky was cloudless and still, sweltering hot and dripping with humidity as only Louisiana can be in August. The aluminum of Tee Dom's johnboat was blistering to the touch, the ribbed, backless seat a torture to muscles held stationary too long.
Slowly, I put down the book that had kept me company throughout the long afternoon, eased my legs out along the floor of the boat, extended my arms toward my toes and flexed my fingers. I stretched my back, curving my body forward and holding the position till the burn of tight muscles forced me to slowly release the tension. I repeated the stretch. Next I tightened my thighs, held and repeated. Then my arms and hands. Then my calves and finally my buttocks where they rested on the seat of the boat. The stretch relaxed me, yet was done so slowly, with so little actual movement, that it hadn't startled the two egrets fishing in shallow water only feet away.
Still moving slowly, as if my hands were only leaves brushed by the breeze, I found the aloe leaf pinched from Tante Ilene's massive aloe plant. Massaged the open end once more over the lye burn on my right thumb knuckle. The gel instantly eased the day old sting. I sipped a bit of tepid water from a capped plastic cup, a 7-11 memento that had once held cooler refreshment.
For two hours I sat, reading a paperback copy of Momo by Emile Ajar, that I had ordered from a French publisher. Except for turning pages I scarcely moved, dripping with sweat as dusk approached, and with it, the return of the egrets. Almost a thousand of the snowy white birds nested in this bend of the bayou, and at dusk, in a thunder of wings and raucous cries, they would all return to the rookery for the night. A huge screaming, shrieking, writhing, joyous cloud beating the air with living wings.
My old camera and my new 35mm Nikon were ready, both fitted with special attachments and 70 - 150mm focal length lenses. The cameras were chunky looking things, each with bulky exposure units on either side. The new Nikon had a specially fitted motor drive for speed filming. All new equipment in the hopes that I could finally capture the bird's reappearance.
No time would be wasted changing film during the precious seconds of the return. I'd had a photographer in town specially wind my film for me, giving me nearly a hundred exposures in each camera.
The boat thumped beneath me as something large swam under the shallow draft bottom. Alligator?
I touched the .20 gauge stored in the side pocket running along the port side of the boat. The metal was scorching hot in the late-day sun, and I hoped I wouldn't have to use it. Nothing like a shotgun blast to scatter the wildlife to the four winds.
I had chosen my location last week after two previous attempts to film the egrets' return had ended in failure. Hidden between the immense trunk of a fallen chenier - Cajun for a storm battered oak - and the smaller trunks of the dead oak's seedlings, I would likely not be noticed - that is if I could only hold still an hour or so longer.
The old chenier had lain in the black water for as long as I could remember, the odd shaped boat tie screwed into its slimy rotting bark inches below the surface. Now, with the drought, the boat tie was above the water line, its triangular anodized shape easily available, the bark dried and cracked and falling away.
The tripods for the cameras were leveled on the bark of the chenier. I would be uncomfortable, sitting in the boat, leaning my arms on the tree to take the pictures, my body twisted to accommodate the shots I was hoping to take. The chenier itself, however, would carry at least some of my weight, easing my back. I hoped I had thought of everything.
Twenty or so egrets, white feathered wings stroking strongly to slow their decent, landed early, beating the rush. The birds separated into pairs and settled into mounded nests or valleys between mounds. The occasional lone bird kept watch perched up higher on a sturdy branch, one seemingly shoved into a mound for just that purpose.
My presence caused no alarm, the leafy protection of oak shielding me even from the sky.
I didn't film it, this beautiful display of white bodies beating the air. I held still for the pilgrimage to come. I merely stored the paperback in the side pocket of the boat and stretched again.
The sun dropped slowly, a scarlet ball in a plum colored sky. The air changed texture, becoming lighter, softer, not merely cooler. The water grew even blacker. Shadows took on depth and vibrancy.
I slipped off the sunglasses that had protected my eyes throughout the afternoon, tucking them into the mesh bag I always carried. Slowly I stretched, taking longer this time to pull through the motion. Flexed my fingers. Bent over the cameras. And waited.
And the egrets came. By the hundreds.
The air was suddenly crowded and close, filled with the screams of a thousand birds rocking on the artificial breeze of their collected wings. Dipping and soaring and banking and breaking and a hundred near misses, far fewer collisions. They settled into the trees, onto the mound, all around me, up high and down low. Fluttering white bodies against the green-black of foliage. Alligators thrashed and roared, catching the unwary, disappearing without a trace. Feeding in the black water. A rain of white feathers settled around me, onto me, feathering my camouflage in the copse of young oaks.
The boat rocked beneath me as alligators fed.
I started with the old camera and black and white film, because it was familiar against my face, the worn leather of the case as comfortable as an old shoe. Almost instantly, I abandoned it as too slow, nearly knocking the old camera and its tripod into the black water, luckily catching its unbalanced weight on the strap around my wrist. Seizing the Nikon in shaking fingers, bending my face to the viewfinder, I settled to work with the 35mm clicking as fast as the motor driven shutter would move, adjusting the settings as the light changed.
Egrets were tinted flamingo pink and dusty white and gray, and the communal mound of nests writhed with the pecks, stabs, and mock fights over territory and mates. Wings thrashed the shadows. The noise was incredible, the thunder of wings and bellow of alligators, the raucous chorus of birds.
Mosquitoes swarmed, disturbed by the screaming birds, thousands upon thousands, seeking a blood meal. Even their slight buzz seemed amplified in my ears.
I switched back and forth between cameras, ignoring the cramps in my fingers and calves and back. I ignored the alligators feeding on careless egrets, thrashing in the water around me, bumping the boat bottom like a hollow drum.
The water reddened as the sun sank, a scarlet ball bleeding into the bayou. Foliage blackened on the shore, birds flew into dark silhouette against the vermilion sky and ruby tinted water. Scarlet sparkles, like precious gems flung from the bayou scattered and rippled in the dying light, tossed from the struggles of alligators and prey. Nature painted the scene around me in harsh and glorious color I'd never be able to reproduce.
Long before full dark I was nearly out of film. But I stayed on, hidden and still, watching the birds settle for the night.
I had saved half a dozen shots for time exposures, hoping the almost full moon would be free of clouds. Sitting on the hard boat seat, I adjusted the shutter speeds down to bulb, a term which meant I would have full manual control. I could leave the shutter open for a full minute. Then for a minute, fifteen seconds, followed by a minute, thirty seconds. Bracketing the shots for the best light as I photographed the bayou moon and black water.
I smiled and sighed, remembering the rush as wings whipped the air. Persistent mosquitoes buzzed and landed, delicate little wings and minuscule legs touching my skin before they flew away, frustrated. A layer of poison between them and a delicious bloody supper.
Again I stretched and sipped my water. Patient. Waiting.
An hour after sunset, the moon broke through the tops of the trees, lighting the world with a silver gray light. Adjusting the settings for each shot, I took my last six of the sleeping mound and moon-touched water, clicks and whirrs of the slow moving shutter lost
in the night. I finished just as the front, which promised long overdue rain, began scudding the black sky with clouds.
Slowly I settled into the boat bottom, feeling the creak in muscles unmoved in hours. There was a sting in one calf, charley-horse coming on. Rubbing it gently, I blinked into the night. Brushed away the mosquitoes still buzzing around my ears. Scratched a few bites where the mosquito repellent had not covered me sufficiently, or the mosquito had been hungry enough to risk the quick nibble. And remembering how to breathe, I grinned. I had done it. It had taken a month in preparation and timing and planning. But I finally had the egrets' nightly return on film.
I covered my eyes with my palms. My heart beat unsteadily for a long stretch before it smoothed out. I laughed softly.
As silently as possible, I stowed the cameras and tripods, and untied the aluminum johnboat from the boat tie screwed into the fallen chenier. Slipping the oars into the makeshift oar locks, I moved down the black water of Bayou Negre toward home.
Only when I was far from the egret's nesting ground did I unlock and secure the oars, just as Tee Dom had shown me the first time he had brought me here so long ago. By moonlight, I wrapped the starter rope around the old Evenrude engine, flipped the switch and pumped gas through the gas line. The engine started on the first pull, shattering the silence with its roar and fuming breath. I reached home just before eleven pm.
I cut the twenty horse power motor, gliding up to the dock in a silence I couldn't appreciate for the ringing in my ears, and secured the johnboat under the dock. The water level was higher already as rain upstream ran toward the Gulf, preceding the storm front. It was always sudden, this swelling of the waters. Dangerous for the unknowing and the foolish.
Picking up the mesh bag that held my supplies, draping the camera straps aver my shoulder, and cradling the .20 gauge shotgun beneath my arm, I climbed the makeshift ladder to the dock and entered the shanty which had been my summer home for as long as I could remember. Tante Ilene rocked slowly on the uneven floor boards in her place beside the long table. A hurricane lamp lit the right side of her face, leaving the left in shadows. She didn't speak.
Hanging the mesh bag and ungainly cameras on the ladder that led to my loft room, I broke open the shotgun, removed the shells, and placed it on the gun rack below Tee Dom's .30 gauge, locating the wooden supports by feel in the total black near the door. Aware of the long day in every slight pull of muscle and the stink of sweat that hung around me like an odorous mist, I longed for the hot shower I couldn't have. Not in the bayou, where our water came from a spring and was carried in by the bucketful. Tonight, even a cold shower would have been welcome. Instead I went to the pie safe for my dinner.
The shanty lacked modern amenities, but was well equipped with worn, but useful antiques. Up north, the pie safe alone would have sold for several hundred dollars and graced the kitchen or breakfast room wall of a rich collector's home. It would have sat in a prominent place, doors open to display crockery and pottery and hand made stone ware dishes. Here the pie safe was shoved in a tight corner behind the back screen door, hidden in the darkness. It was crammed with Melmac and chipped china and jelly jar glasses, and my supper wrapped in a reused piece of aluminum foil.
As I moved in the lightless kitchen, finding stainless steel tableware and a plate, and filling a glass with spring water, I could feel Tante Ilene's eyes on me. Eventually, she would speak, and I would answer. Some inane and useless comment from us both. It was what passed for conversation in the Sarvaunt household.
" You see in de dark too good, girl."
So it would be sooner than usual tonight. "Yes Ma'am." I drank down the cold spring water and refilled the glass. "Where's Tee Dom?"
I looked up from the cold etoufee' and rice, surprised. Tee Dom was a night owl, like me. The rocker squeaked rhythmically across the hollow floor boards, a deep sound like a primitive drum. Tante Ilene was crocheting another afghan, her nimble fingers moving through the delicate and intricate motions with no conscious effort.
"Hem an' Mishu Pilchard goin' to slaughter a hog in de mornin', befo' de sun rise. You lef' gas in de boat?"
Tante Ilene grunted.
"Is he going to help smoke it too?" If so, I'd be stuck in the shanty all day. Thunder rumbled in the distance. Tree frogs suddenly became raucous and bull frogs added a bass note. Crickets sang tenor. Rain was coming.
"Yah. Yo' wan' take him, you can keep de boat. He leaving at for'."
"For' t'irty," Tee Dom bellowed from the black hole of his bedroom.
"I'll take him."
The formalities were fulfilled, conversational requirements satisfied. There would be silence in the shanty till four. Tante Ilene grunted again and I swung a leg up onto the bottom ladder rung, carrying my dinner and an aluminum bucket of cold spring water up to the loft.
Lighting the hurricane lamp, a chipped cut-crystal edition I had picked up in a junk shop, I turned down the wick to a faint glow, stripped off my sweaty tee shirt and shorts. Water left from the day before had heated under the tin roof all day. It was warm and I soaped as well as I could, the scent of Tante Ilene's chamomile soap a delicate perfume to my sweaty body. A cold spring water rinse revived my tired mind and revitalized me. Although I had scarcely moved for the greater part of the afternoon, sitting still for hours had created its own form of exhaustion.
A cool night breeze blew through the open shutters of the window beneath the eaves, cooling me further. I pulled a short cotton shift over my head and sat in front of my easel. It was too cloudy for me to work on the night view of the bayou that snaked around the shanty and the old chenier that seemed to anchor the water in place. I turned my back on the scene outside the window.
Opening Titanium White and Ivory Black and Green Earth, I squeezed out a small, pea shaped smudge of each, and with a tiny palette knife, a metal blade made for mixing, I mixed the shade I called Bayou Moon. Sometimes I added a bit of linseed oil to thin the paint color, but tonight, with the rain smell in the air and lightning flickering its white strobe through the window, I used thick, undiluted paint and the mixing blade to apply it with a heavy hand.
This was the magic I was born knowing. The magic that soothed my soul. The magic that, if ignored too long, began to die within me like a beast in agony. The magic of oils and shadow and perspective. The magic of shape and form and texture. The magic of my art.
I had taken lessons all my life, learning all that my teachers had to teach me and then surpassing them. And it was magic, the creating of something out of almost nothing. And I knew without being told that this magic of the brush and pigment was part of the secrets that surrounded me.
Quickly, by the soft light of the lamp, I added the strong highlights of the moon on black water to the canvases I had started in late July. Referring often to the black and white photos tacked long ago to the rafters around my makeshift easel, I added light to a black night scene, touching the blade edge along the chenier's limbs, the flat of the blade along the clouds and through the water.
The paint was still wet, and working the highlights into the black of the landscape was a simple matter. Often it took weeks for an oil to dry in the bayou, the damp air allowing me time to work and rework a scene.
Lightning struck nearby, shaking the shanty and filling the air with an ozone scent. Rain thundered in behind. The sound on the tin roof, only inches over my head, was a deep pitched roar enclosing the loft in an oasis of sound.
After an hour, I placed one canvas in the rack I had made between the joists and pulled the half finished egret scene out, placing it on the easel. Empty Nests was the working title: with the night scene fresh in my mind, I applied the highlights of "Bayou Moon" into the blackness with knife and brush.
At four am, as the long day finally began to settle across my shoulders like a meaty hand, I opened the gallon jug of mineral spirits and added a fresh amount to the cleaning glasses. These were tall jelly jars with screw on lids and a ball of window screen crumpled in each bottom. I tapped and lightly stroked the sable bristles onto the screening to release the paint. The mineral spirits quickly became cloudy. The second cleaning jar became less cloudy than the first, and when no more cloudy haze swirled up from its screening, I moved to the third. Only the slightest pale fog tinted the spirits as I closed off the last jar.
A metal garbage can, lined with a thick black Glad garbage bag, was the final part of my cleaning process. Holding the brush firmly, I snapped downward, letting gravity and inertia force the remaining spirits from the bristles. I had learned the hard way not to use a cloth to clean my brushes. Sable couldn't take a cleaning with cloth, and I had ruined a dozen expensive brushes before I hit upon my current method.
I didn't sleep. During the summer, I seldom slept at night, preferring naps in the bright of day when my eyes sought relief from light and my body grew drowsy from heat.
It was still dark as I dressed in jeans and fresh tee shirt, and gathered up my dirty clothes in a duffel. Scuffings and thumps came from down stairs, and the smell of propane, as Tante Ilene used the cookstove to fix black coffee and oatmeal, our usual breakfast when it rained. I braided my hair and climbed down the ladder, hanging the canvas duffel beside the mesh bag which held the cameras and mosquito repellent and water bottle from the day before. The rain had died outside, it was silent in the shanty.
Tee Dom, a massive short man, emerged from the back bedroom and hung his own duffel of dirty clothes over the ladder rung. Throughout the summer months, whenever I went to town, I took our dirty clothes and dropped them off at the Khoury Washerette. Three hours later, the clothes were ready for the trip back up Bayou Negre to the Sarvaunt shanty.
For the Sarvaunts, the service was free. I had painted a portrait of Eloise Deen, the proprietor of the washerette. It had pleased her so much, she offered free laundry for two years as payment. Eloise was portly, gray, and had bags under her eyes plump enough to support the blue orbs like pillows. The portrait showed a thinner, younger, smoother Eloise than she had seen in the mirror in a decade. Maybe two.
We ate in silence, Tante Ilene, Tee Dom and I, gathered around the long table that served as work table, dining table, and occasional foot prop. The coffee was so strong it could peel the enamel off my teeth, and the oatmeal was diluted with reconstituted powdered milk. A ghastly mixture, but it was sweet. Tante Ilene believed a bowl of oatmeal was properly served with three tablespoons of cane sugar. It was the only way I knew how to eat it.
"De Man. He come tomorr'," Tee Dom said.
I paused, spoon half way to my mouth. A small electric shock passed through my upper body. The Man was my mother's lawyer, the executrix of her estate and the administrator of my trust fund. The keeper of the secrets. I smiled and finished the bowl of oatmeal, nodding slowly. Eventually I answered. "Yes Sir." I had always wondered how much the Sarvaunts knew about my real history. Whenever I asked they ignored me. I no longer bothered.
Tee Dom nodded with me, then sucked the last of his coffee out of the bottom of the cup, a syrupy, wet sound, loud in the silence. "Le's go, girl."
Rain drops again pelted on the tin roof, a sharp sound, like a snare drum, as we slipped into rain slickers. Thick yellow plastic so old they were cracked and stained, the rain slickers nevertheless still kept out the rain. The clips were ancient, stiff aluminum instead of modern plastic; they snapped into place with loud clicks.
We stored our supplies in the johnboat, added a tarp to keep the boat bottom free of water, and Tee Dom started the Evenrude. It was recalcitrant in the damp air and required three tugs before it finally turned over and spluttered to life.
Mishu Pilchard had a covered lean-to where local men gathered to slaughter animals, smoke them, and get drunk on his homemade brew. The men would need the lean-to today.
Fat splats of rain beat against the slickers, the tarp, and marred the smooth surface of the bayou. Black rings on black water, almost invisible in the darkness.
I had better eyes than Tee Dom - I had better vision than most people, especially at night - so I took the tiller and glided the johnboat out into the bayou and downstream toward the Pilchard Place.
We passed the Roberts Place, the Terrell Place, the abandoned Plauche Place, and the Fiongas Place. Lights were on in about half of them.
Father Alcede was drinking coffee on his covered porch, the plain windows of the Holy Ghost Church of the Madonna, to his left, dark. The good father would most likely be at the pig slaughter later today, partaking of Mishu Pilchard's free brew. Father Alcede preached against sex, drugs, movies, cable TV, Rock and Roll, and the evils of New York and Los Angeles with great frequency. But never against the evils of drink. Most sermons, in fact, were delivered with his strong voice liberally coated with alcohol. However, no matter how drunk he was, he never failed to stir the congregation of the Holy Ghost Church of the Madonna into a frenzy. Tee Dom and Tante Ilene never missed a meeting.
I had stopped going to church regularly the day The Man gave me the box that held my secrets. Secrets that Tee Dom and Tante Ilene refused to explain away. Refused even to talk about. Perhaps refusing to go to church was the simple adolescent rebellion that Miss Taussig, one of my tutors, proclaimed it was, but to me it was more. If the people who raised me were going to hide my past from me, I wasn't going to give them anything of myself. Adolescent rebellion be damned.
The black box given to me by The Man contained the memorabilia of my mother's life and the clue to the secrets in my own. Amongst the ticket stubs and receipts and mementos, there were several official pieces of paper. Two birth certificates, one for Bonnibelle Sarvaunt and one for Carin Colleen DeVillier. The babies were born almost one year apart. There was a marriage license for Marie L. Smith and William Marc DeVillier. And there was a certificate of death for both Marie DeVillier and for Bonnibelle Sarvaunt. Me.
I could have looked at this information in a thousand different ways. My death certificate could have been in error. Or it could be a case of mistaken identity - one child declared dead when it was really the other. Or Bonnibelle Sarvaunt and her mother, Elizabeth, might both really be dead, while the DeVillier's might both really still be alive, living under the Sarvaunt's assumed identities. I had no death certificate for Elizabeth Sarvaunt, the mother I had never known.
There was no way for me to know unless my aunt and uncle finally opened up and shared the story. The years of silence and frustration and taken their toll on our relationship.
Father Alcede lifted his cup and nodded his head. We nodded back. Bayou dwellers were seldom more demonstrative, at least not from a distance. Or when they were sober. By day's end, it would be a different matter entirely as old men, flush with liquor, took their leave of one another. Then it would be traditional French exuberance and back slapping and massive hugs.
The sun had tinted the sky overhead a faint gray by the time we reached the Pilchard dock. As usual, Tee Dom was the first man there, ready to help Mishu Pilchard start the coals and sharpen his knives and open his moonshine. For his help, Tee Dom always took home an extra portion of the meat. And got started early on the shine.
Michu Pilchard was one of a handful of men always referred to by the honorific Michu - the Cajun version of Monsieur. The few so blessed had land, power, age, and money. Lots of it by Cajun standards.
I pushed off from the dock and raced the hard rain to the Khoury Public Landing. I beat the deluge by minutes, for once letting Elred help me dock the johnboat and unload. Elred was always at the Public landing, running the small park for Khoury Township. He seldom, however, unbent from the high prominence of his trusted position to help a patron dock or unload. I was the exception. Elred was always available to assist me in any way I desired, and he hoped to one day arrange for me to desire him. It wasn't likely.
Elred also ran the local bait and tackle shop, occasionally running errands for the rich fishermen who tried the waters. It was rumored that he also ran a little moonshine and marijuana on the side for the local boys who needed transportation for their wares. He was taciturn, closemouthed, and meaner than a papa gator in mating season. Elred would shoot his own mother for a fiver. At least he was predictable.
He carried my dirty laundry up to the parking lot, no doubt fantasizing about the contents of the laundry bag. If Elred was envisioning lace and satin and merry-widows, he was far from the plain white cotton truth.
Tee Dom's truck started with an unmuffled roar, drowning Elred's final words. I waggled my fingers at him and drove off into the deluge. Elred was a pitiful figure reflected in the rear-view, standing in the pouring rain, staring at my retreating laundry in the back of the pickup.
It was barely dawn when I got to the three bedroom trailer we Sarvaunts call home. I turned the air conditioner to high, lit the natural gas hot water heater and stripped off my clothes. I kept half my clothes in the trailer so when I came to town I'd have something to wear.
While the water heated for my first real bath in days, I beat up an egg and fried french toast from the meager food supplies I kept in the fridge. The milk was a bit sour, but anything was better than the powdered stuff we drank on the bayou.
There were fresh mouse droppings along the counter top, so after I ate, I set traps and washed dishes. This was routine for me. At least once a week I came into Khoury, got a hot shower, dropped off the laundry, picked up the mail, bought groceries, and ran errands. It was a responsibility I accepted the summer I turned twelve.
I always used my own money for groceries and supplies, giving the receipts to Tante Ilene for reimbursement when I got back to the shanty. No receipt, no cash, no excuses. I only forgot the receipts once.
I washed my hair in the shower and shaved what little body hair I possessed. There was a black mold growing up the fake tile corners, but housekeeping was Tante Ilene's provenance. According to her, I didn't know what clean was.
After a three hour nap - I seldom needed much more - I dressed and closed up the trailer, shutting off the air conditioner, the water heater, and tossing out two dead mice which had found the baited traps as I slept. Before I left, I reset the spring loaded traps, smearing on a mixture of peanut butter and Cheeze-whizz.
Eloise was open for business when I dropped off the laundry, sitting on a three foot tall square stool behind the counter, making change for the washing machines and folding clothes. The portrait I had painted of her hung on the wall behind the register. She had framed it in gilt with three color matting so heavy it looked like a shadow box.
Leon Harless was loading his wife's dainties into the dryer, keeping one eye on Eloise as he worked. The first time Leon saw the portrait over the counter, he had asked Eloise where her pretty daughter lived. Eloise had chased him from the washerette with a hot iron causing him to leave the family clothing behind. Leon had learned how to keep his mouth shut since.
"Bonnie," Eloise's face wreathed itself in a smile so big that the pouches beneath her eyes nearly met her brows. "You look pretty as a picture. Come here, girl." She folded me in her ample arms, against her ample bust and hugged me. Hugs were uncommon experiences in my life, so rare that I had to stop and think about where my arms would go, left up, right down, and where my face would end up. But I had decided that I rather liked hugs, and wanted to develop a proficiency with the skill.
"Hello Eloise," I said, my mouth pressed against her well padded shoulder. "You look right nice yourself. You on a diet Eloise? I swear you look like you lost at least ten pounds."
"Now Bonnie, your know better than to swear," but her pleasure at my comment was obvious. "Father Alcede and your aunt and uncle, I know taught you better."
I grinned at her. "This is the last month of free laundry Eloise, and it's a big load this time I'm afraid." I heaved the damp duffels onto the counter. They landed with a squishy thump. The tarp from the johnboat, which Elred had tucked around the duffels had blown off as I slept. The clothes were soaked.
"La child, look at all this. And it's wet too."
"Got caught in the rain this morning in the back of the pickup. You want me to pay you something on it anyway?"
"Of course not." Eloise paused in her sorting of Tee Dom's gardening clothes. "A bargain is a bargain. Besides," She glanced back at the portrait, "it's been worth every load. I do believe that business has gone up since the portrait was hung."
Business had gone up, but only because the White Star Laundromat on the other side of town went out of business. I was smart enough not to say so.
"I'll be back in about three hours. That long enough?"
"I'll have them ready for you in two, child."
I smiled. "Thanks Eloise," and headed for the door.
My next stop was the drug store on Main Street. The pharmacist was a photography buff, and had taught me all I knew about cameras and film. Doctor Boddie had a photography studio and dark room set up in back for the rare citizen who wanted a family portrait and had the cash to pay for one. Even Boddie's cut rate prices were high in Khoury. Ever since the LaFargue Refinery shut down in 'seventy eight, the median income was too low to support luxuries like family photographs.
Still, there was the occasional need. Business had actually boomed during the Middle East War as hopeful local girls sent letters 'To Any Soldier'. One girl had actually received a proposal from the experience and went around in a delighted daze until she discovered her soldier fiancee was already married.
I waited while Doctor Boddie finished up with Miz Lawas. She was complaining - again - about the fact that her blood pressure medicine didn't seem to be working. She felt the same whether she took it or not.
Doctor Boddie was explaining - again - that she couldn't and wouldn't be able to tell the difference until she quit taking it altogether and stroked out. Then she'd end up in a home like her sister. Miz Lawas grumbled, but paid the fee, collected her pills, and grumbled on out the door. It was the same argument every time she came into the drug store, an exchange unchanged for the last ten years.
While they argued, I spun the paperback display, searching for any novel I might have missed. I had learned about the world outside Khoury and the people who inhabited it through books, magazines, and the occasional film. Studying the way the rest of the world interacted, the way they lived. It wasn't the same as living out there, but it was the only vista allowed me. There was nothing new in yet and I sighed. The Emile Ajar novel was the last new book I had, and though it had won awards in France when it came out in 1975, it wouldn't last forever.
Boddie looked up and clapped his hands together once. "Bonnie. Wha' I can do fo' you t'day?" He braced himself on the pharmacy counter. It was an old fashioned, family owned store, not a big national chain, and Boddie was on the same level as the customers instead of on a raised platform. Boddie ran the store alone ever since his daughter took off for college and never came back home. That was before I was born.
"Got some film for you Boddie."
The druggist's eyes opened wide. "You go' de egrets comin' in? Down in the de bayou wha' ya tol' me 'bout?"
For answer, I cocked a brow at him and handed over both cameras. Boddie had loaded the cameras for me with surplus 400 film, and removal would have to be done in the darkroom. There was no special Kodak casing to protect this film from light.
"Good enou'. You use all hunner'?"
"In both cameras. You think you can have them ready for me day after tomorrow?"
"Sho' I can. But it goin' to cost yo'." Boddie's brows went up. "Yo' got de cash fo' dis?" There was no such thing as credit in Khoury. Not with the economy so bad.
I never bragged about my allowance, and I never carried large amounts of cash around, but Boddie knew I always paid cash for everything. It must have been going to cost a bundle if he had to ask. "I think I can manage."
"Den I can have dem for yo' day f'om tomorr'"
"Thanks Boddie." I backed slowly down the aisle, my sneakers squeaking occasionally on the waxed tile floor. "And Boddie, the last six or so in the Nikon are all time lapse. Full night."
"Okay yeah. I push it for you. Develop at eight hunner', 'stead of four hunner'. Increase de negative contras'. I do dem same size a' las' bunch?"
I nodded. The light had been poor on the bayou, and pushing the developing process would serve to uprate the film's effective speed. "Thanks, Boddie. That'll be fine." I had my hand on the "out" door. If I stayed too long, Boddie would start into Cajun jokes and I'd never get out of there.
"Yo' wan' take yo' aunt her medicine?"
I stopped. "Medicine?"
"It near 'bout time for her bloo' press' medicine. Her call in fo' it las' week"
"Blood pressure medicine." Tante Ilene was on blood pressure medicine? "Sure. I'll take it." The Sarvaunts never took medicine. Except for Mishu Pilchard's shine.
I walked back up the aisle and took the paper bag. A large plastic bottle was inside. "Can I pay for it when I pick up the film?" I backed slowly up the aisle again.
"Yeah sure okay. Bonnie I tell you de one 'bout - "
The door opened behind me, letting in damp air and one of the Boudreaux boys. There were six last time I heard, and they all looked so much alike that no one bothered to learn their names, even in a town where children were a rarity. The town of Khoury had emptied of its young people when the last refinery shut down in the seventies. Those who wanted to work had packed up and moved, following the jobs to other parts of the south. Their departure left Khoury composed of the old, the decrepit, and the lazy. I took my chance and slipped out onto the sidewalk.
There was still a misty rain, the kind that evaporates as fast as it falls in the summer heat. The slicker would have been an encumbrance. Moisture dampened my tee shirt and re-wet my braid. I'd have curls for tomorrow. For The Man.
The pills rattled in the plastic pill bottle as I climbed into the pickup. Tante Ilene was on blood pressure medicine.... Secrets. My whole life was secrets.
Driving around to service windows, I paid the electric bill and natural gas bill before I bought groceries. Canned goods and dried, boxed and bagged. Nothing fresh. Tee Dom raided his half acre garden for fresh foods daily, and we ate what was available. Popcorn rice was on sale, and I hefted one of the twenty pound bags onto the grocery cart's bottom rack. The pills rattled in the child seat with the shock of the weight. Secrets. What else did I not know?
I stowed the groceries in the back of the pickup and secured the tarp over them with bungee cords, leaving room for the laundry. The tarp kept them dry as I ran several errands, and then visited with Eloise while she folded our clothes. The well- padded woman talked of soap operas, TV stars, and her favorite recipes for an hour as the sky continued to pour an inconstant rain. She hugged me again as I left. A typical run into town... except for the pills still rattling in their bottle.
The trip back up the bayou was no trouble, even with the intermittent rain and the rare buffeting breeze. The trick was to place everything in the bottom of the boat with care, keeping the weight evenly balanced.
I munched a Dairy Queen burger and fries and drained a large Coke on the way back, delighting in the fast food taste and the greasy film that coated my lips.
Even with the bottle of pills and Tante Ilene's health preying on my mind, an occasional electric flush of excitement whispered in my veins as I maneuvered the johnboat through the mist, over the dark water. A visit from The Man always did that to me. It was a twice yearly contact with the outside world. And this particular visit was especially significant.
Khoury was an isolated town, off the main roads, located down in the toe of the boot that was Louisiana. There were no roads passing through Khoury. Any further south and you'd hit the Gulf of Mexico. State road number 1372 moved south from Houma and dead ended in Khoury. We had no movie houses - they had been boarded over ten years earlier; no cable - the cable company cut its service when it couldn't make a profit; no arts, no entertainment, no news.
If you needed a cop, there was only the LaRoque Sheriff's department to call, and a forty minute wait on average. But then Khoury had no crime. The criminals left when the money did, in the 'seventies. An entire generation of youth followed soon after.
And if you needed an ambulance, good luck. There was a saying in Khoury. If you could survive the hour-long wait for an ambulance, you probably didn't need one anyway.
As far as I was concerned, Khoury was the end of the world. Yet, because of the specifications of the small trust fund set up by my mother, I stayed on in Khoury. My little world for twenty one years.
I licked my fingers clean, swallowing the last salt, fat and ketchup. Fast food was my weakness. I prayed daily for the local Dairy Queen's financial success.
There wasn't much to do in Khoury, and no one to do it with. Needless to say, The Man's visits were the high points of my year.
The Man was Mr. Alex Duhon, a lawyer who practiced in LaRoque. He controlled my education, my access to the outside world, my allowance, and my future. He also controlled my trust fund in accordance with my mother's wishes, making investments with the funds entrusted to him for my benefit. And this year I would learn who I really was and who my mother was. All the details about my past. This year Mr. Duhon would explain the contents of the little black metal box he had given me six years ago.
I had tried to show him the contents of the box on two previous visits, offering up the sheaf of papers that proclaimed a mystery waiting to be solved. Both times he had refused to even look at the papers, saying he had strict orders to answer no questions until August Tenth the year Bonnibelle Sarvaunt would have turned twenty one had she really lived. This year.
My hand was sticky on the tiller, making it difficult to steer the boat through the turn into Bayou Negre. Bayou water was always black except after a rain when silt and mud painted the surface a swirling brown, like today. Yet even after a rain, the Bayou Negre was blacker than the water it poured into. No one had ever explained it to me, but for some reason, even the mud was darker here.
Twenty minutes later I pulled up at the Sarvaunt Shanty. I had always called the small house The Sarvaunt Shanty instead of the more pretentious "Place". The title simply fit better.
Tante Ilene met me at the dock as the roar of the twenty horse power engine died away with the fumes. Reaching down, she held out her hands and I handed the groceries up to her. When the water level was higher, it wasn't much of a stretch; I could tie up the johnboat and simply off-load the supplies. After the dry summer, there was a three and a half foot difference between water level and dock.
Once the johnboat was empty I put my foot on the lowest rung of the makeshift ladder and started up.
"Yo' goin' ge' Tee Dom."
It wasn't a question, and I knew Tee Dom was most likely ready to come home, but I climbed up anyway. When I stood on the dock, my face half a foot above Tante Ilene's, I handed her the paper bag and her blood pressure medicine. The pills jostled in the plastic bottle, an abrupt sound like a dropped baby's rattle.
Her face underwent the most imperceptible change. A slight tightening of the loose skin around her mouth. A faint narrowing of her black eyes. Nothing more. Her hand closed over the bag and with a single quick motion she shoved it into a pocket of her skirt. "Yo' goin' ge' Tee Dom."
"How long have you been on blood pressure medication Tante Ilene?"
"Yo' goin' get Tee Dom," she said stiffly, even managing to pronounce a final consonant in her agitation.
"How long, Tante Ilene?"
"Yo' go." She flapped her fingers at me, waving me away as if I was a bird raiding in Tee Dom's garden.
"How did you call in for a prescription renewal?" We didn't have a phone on the bayou. Neither did our neighbors.
"Yo' go." She was emphatic this time, her eyes focused on the johnboat below us.
Her eyes widened and for once met mine. They glittered like moonlight on bayou water, black-on-black. I had never said no before. I was almost as surprised as she, but I managed not to show it.
"Not until you answer me, Tante Ilene," I said softly.
A silence stretched between us. I was so close I could smell the onions she had chopped for supper. I wondered fleetingly what it would feel like to hug Tante Ilene. Except for the rare moment when I helped her into or out of the boat, we never touched. It was an odd thought.
I was curious what Tante Ilene would do about my small refusal, my minor rebellion. She looked away, twisting her hands in her pockets. The stiff paper bag full of pills crinkled. Rain pattered down on us. A turtle splashed.
"Two year ago my bloo' press' go high - two fo'ty on top one twen'y. De med'cine keep it down." Her lips pressed together a moment, releasing the words reluctantly. "Miz Bourque call for me."
Three entire sentences. I couldn't remember the last time she volunteered three sentences to me, and she wasn't finished.
"I... 'spose pick dem up... when Tee Dom and I go to town nex' week."
She looked deeply into my face and I had the sudden impression she was seeing me for the first time in years. For a moment, she looked surprised. Her lips pursed, and her usual stern expression took its place on her features.
"You don' tell Tee Dom. No hes bizness."
I was so startled that I agreed. "Yes Ma'am."
Tante Ilene nodded her head once, sharply. "Yo' goin' ge' Tee Dom, now." She turned and went into the shanty, leaving me staring at the empty space where she had been.
· END OF CHAPTER ONE ·
Excerpt from the book
FALSE TRUTHS by Gwen Hunter
To purchase FALSE TRUTHS direct from Bella
Gwen Hunters books have been sold in the USA, Italy, France, Germany, Holland, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Finland, and the UK, where her best seller STOLEN CHILDREN (the UK title for the novel BETRAYAL) won the W.H. Smith award for best first novel. Gwen's latest book, SHADOW VALLEY, is a lead title from MIRA BOOKS. Look for it in book stores January, 2005.