ROYALS IN THE WILD
The green in Pointe Coupee Parish needs a special name. It’s deep and everywhere, persistent through space and season. It’s wet, as much as a color can be wet. When it rains here you don’t even notice, because the swamps seem to come up into the air so it seems like you’re swimming all the time, even while you’re dreaming, you’re swimming through water and green, forever waiting for the moment when you will touch dry land.
The cemeteries here are of a different sort. When you put the dead in the ground—the shifting, watery, layers of mud we call ground—they don’t stay put for long. Here comes a heavy rain, and there go the dead, shifting with the mud into other graves or further down into the greedy earth or, in violent weather, up out the ground altogether. This is an unwelcome sight, especially on moonlit nights when the rain leaves behind a thick fog and makes the Spanish moss and cypress branches so heavy with moisture they droop imposing over all life below them.
The cheap coffins, those for the passed whose family could not afford proper houses for the living let alone the dead, don’t hold in the mud and moisture. They come up, askew and battered, letting out the remains, skeletal and undignified, rainwater flooding out empty eye sockets. My grandmaman would tell me that this was the dead’s way of saying what we were giving them was not good enough, so we had better try again. After my grandmaman told me of the shifting soil, I used to wake up thrashing in bed, dreaming of the earth opening up in a black hole that breathed in rows of graves and then spread toward our town, threatening to take our cabin into the yawning ground.
When the Union soldiers fought a battle near here, they buried their dead in the wet muck. Anyone who has tried to dig a grave in these parts knows that the water seeps in as fast as you can dig it. But the soldiers were tired, so they covered their dead in shallow swamp graves. That night, as they rested around the campfire, the sky opened up with one of the brief, terrific thunderstorms only the Louisiana summer can summon. The fire fizzled, and they saw the ground begin to move. When lightning strikes a cypress branch in the swamp, sending it crashing into the water, the swamp ignites in a supernatural green that spreads outwards from the fallen limb, illuminating everything in a momentary, blinding, glow. Only then does the swamp allow you to see it, know its every nook and cranny, glimpse into its dark recesses. They call that la feu feuille. When the lighting shone up that swamp, and the soldiers saw their dead brothers coming back up out of the ground, they ran like mad men, stumbling in the dark and rain, falling to the gators. The storm that night did more to the Union than the rebels could have done in ten battles.
It didn’t take our people too long to figure out that if you wanted to bury the dead, bury them proper, they needed real houses, made of stone and marble, not wood and dirt. The cemeteries sprouted up around the city and the outlying parishes like stone flowers, dotting the landscape with tombs of marble, brick, and plaster. Those tombs cost more, so families learned to make do by letting the Louisiana sun work its magic on the brick and stone, decomposing the lost ones and making room for the next souls leaving this world.
It was when multiple kin died at once, like when the yellow fever swept through town late summer, that burying became difficult. The wealthy boarded up their houses and fled the lowlands, away from the wetness and the disease. Those left behind tried to protect their children, but August took away so many young. My grandmaman used to say grave rent went high every August and the grave robbers cashed in every September.
August was also the time men’s minds weren’t right. My husband always said that the city folk should have their guns taken away during the hot summers. He said there was too much excitement in New Orleans, too many smells and sounds and movement, not like in the country, where you had more time and room to think things through. I said I don’t know. Country has its crazy just like the city has its crazy, and all crazy needs is a gun and a reason. And August, with the disease and the heat, usually gives somebody a reason.
At least now the dead stay buried. Today you can walk through the cemeteries and you know without reading a thing who was who. Who was having ballroom dances and who was king of Carnival, rows and rows of the resting dead, secure in their tombs and their legacies. We have our own smaller cemetery here in the Parish. It’s worn down but it’s ours. My grandmaman is in a vault just on the southeastern corner of the plot. The stone has all but chipped away, exposing the plaster and the brick, but you know her grave from twenty plots away by the rum and cigarettes and beads, offerings from people who know her name and came to pay their respects. I will be in the tomb just next to it, with my mama and my papa. They cleared room for me a long time ago.
Sometimes my maman used to call us the forgotten people. She said we come from a time nobody remembers but in fairy tales, and it’s true that sometimes I feel like a statue in a museum with the world spinning by while I sit still. When the tourists wander down False River, with their rucksacks and thick socks, looking for the real Louisiana they say, they take pictures of me on my porch. I used to smile and wave, but now I pretend like I don’t see them or their cameras because they seem to like it better that way. When they are done with their pictures I say welcome to Point Coupee Parish and I sell them a quilt. Some quilts tell the stories of the Creole people and some tell the stories the Creole people tell about themselves, because those are two different things.
My people kept coming up and up from New Orleans, past Baton Rouge, away from the coast into the belly of Louisiana until they finally settled, or hid or reinvented, however you want to call it, in Pointe Coupee. As the war with the North approached, and more colored Creoles were pushed out of New Orleans, the Parish grew and they lived like royals in the wild. I am the last one of my line left here in Point Coupee Parish, and I will leave soon too. My final quilt will be ready by the time the man comes and these will be the last stories I tell. I cannot put words on paper so well, but the fabric of these blankets, these colors and the pictures I make with my wrinkled hands, will last just as long.
Out of all of the women in my family, my grandmaman Dora grew up most completely in the grip of the spirit. Dora had her first vision a few weeks after Christmas, when all the townspeople came together for the Papegai. Every year, the women sewed a cow made of hay and cloth and dirt, the town butcher divided cuts of meat with red paint, and the men raised it on a tall pole. The children and slaves of the village lined up to take shots from the same old rusty musket. They aimed for the prime cuts, and if they shot true, they would enjoy the taste of the real cow the elders bought just north of the Parish.
That night, Dora watched with glee late into the night as man after man took aim at the stuffed cow flailing wildly up on the pole, right up until my great grandmaman told her to go on home and get to bed. A group of white men, strangers traveling to Baton Rouge, stopped Dora on the road, and she came home the next morning with her face bloodied and her dress torn. The family did not discuss it, but cleaned her up and went on with their living. Soon after, at the dinner table, Dora dropped her fork and raised her hand to trace something in the air. It was crawling on the wall of the kitchen nook where they ate, leaving a trail of sweat beads in the cracks of the log cabin walls. At first the creature was brown and knotted like wood, so it looked as if the walls themselves were slithering toward heaven. Then it turned black, gold smoke emanating from its tail. It peeled away from the wall and floated over the table, tilting its belly upwards, sweating toward the ceiling. It had one eye and no mouth, only two dark nostrils emanating that same sweet-smelling gold smoke. It paused and coiled over Dora’s head before vanishing out the cabin window. It was Zombi, life itself, transmitter of spirit.
My grandmaman described the vision to me when I was a child, and I remember how it gave me nightmares. Not nightmares of the normal childish sort. These dreams were thick with awe and even hope, terrifying but intoxicating too. My sister, god rest her soul, said she would wake in the middle of the night in the cot we shared and hear me tossing and moaning. I would lie and tell her I couldn’t remember what I was dreaming of. I was jealous of my dreams, protective. I did not want to share them with anyone, because if they brought knowledge or power it should be mine alone, earned through a childhood of night sweats.
The snake my grandmaman described was not the snake that led Adam and Eve astray in the Garden of Eden. It did not speak or communicate in any other sense. It was merely present. But its presence had a weight to it. This snake had intuition about this world and the next, and brought us closer to what had passed and what was to come. My grandmaman told me that as it left and the last of the smoke cleared the room, only then was she able to breathe again. And as she took that breath, she told me years later, she felt every fiber in her body strengthen, as if someone had built tiny reinforcements in her tissues, even lining the walls of her heart.
My grandmaman grew into a powerful woman. Women came from all over to see her about their sick children and wandering husbands. Sometimes white women from New Orleans’s finest families trekked all the way to the Parish in search of roots that would prevent them from bringing another life into their great cruel houses. During the day they lived beautiful lives. At night they crept through the swamps to beg mercy from my grandmaman.
When I was still very young I waited until my parents and sisters had gone to sleep, and I snuck out of the cabin through the kitchen window, like Zombi, and walked in the dark to where I knew my grandmaman would be at work under the moon. I came to a clearing in the swamp where I saw our neighbors, men and women I knew, gathered around a beautiful black chest. I sat behind a charred tree downed by lightning and looked through a hole in the trunk, smelling the burnt wood as I watched.
My grandmaman stood near the chest with her eyes closed and her chin tilted toward the sky. Shreds of clothing, dolls, and other trinkets writhed in the flames of a fire before her. The men and women I saw around the fire were faces I knew from church and the market. But their features were different now. Like they were looking at something that was not there. Eyes wide open, staring at the fire, pupils large and lips moving in silence. Beyond the fire was a small goat hanging from tree branches, throat slit, blood pouring into a trough on the ground below. A woman I had never seen cupped the blood in her hands and carried it around the circle. It dripped through the cracks of her fingers as she walked, leaving patterns of droplets on the dirt that shimmered in the firelight.
My grandmaman began to sing; the words I did not understand but the melody I felt I had heard before, maybe in my dreams. She untied her robe and let it fall to the ground, moving her feet from one side to the other as the crowd murmured with her. They too began to undress, and I looked away as the men removed their pants and danced close to the women. Some of the women had swollen bellies, shiny with taut skin that they rubbed as they danced. The murmurs grew into shrieks as they moved naked around the fire. My grandmaman dropped to her knees next to the trunk and lay her head on its black shining surface. The box looked as if it was sweating from the fire, nearly bulging from the inside. I know you might not believe me, seeing this as I did with a child’s eyes, but that box then began to shiver, then quake, then jump, rising off the ground in violent jerks as they danced.
My grandmaman climbed upon the chest, planting her bare aging feet on its lid while it rattled beneath her. Her head rolled and bobbed on her chest and she writhed from feet to head in the pattern of a snake. Out of the fire came a flame in the shape of Li Grand Zombi. Its skin glistened, melding with my grandmaman’s sweat in a scaly fleshy glow. A man came closer to the log behind which I hid, his nakedness swaying before me as he danced wildly with his face to the sky. The lightning struck right behind me then, and as I turned for one brief moment I could see the green glow spread far and deep through the swamp waters, illuminating everything for one bright moment. I ran back to the cabin where my parents slept their calm Catholic sleep, leaving the firelight behind me.
When I was a child, I often heard papa telling my mother that grandmaman would bring shame on our family. When my father was not around, though, mama pulled roots from our garden and sent me with packages wrapped in brown paper to my grandmaman’s cabin in the back of our land, and there she taught me some of what she knew.
My mother grew into a woman in the decades before the war with the North, and she saw troubled times for our family. No one knew for sure who mama’s father was, but my aunt told me that my mother’s skin was so light, and her eyes so fierce, most were sure that she was the legacy of a blue-eyed Cajun who had passed through the Parish one summer. He had brought fighting cocks and gathered the village men during the day to watch and drink and gamble. At night my grandmaman cooked him supper and asked him to tell her the Acadian tales she remembered hearing from the Cajun children of her youth. In the spring my mama came, skin near lily white and pale eyes shining like fire.
Mama had eight sisters to compete with for suitors, so when a strong young man named Fanchon came to Point Coupee from New Orleans, she took notice. Fanchon built a distillery near False River, along with a one-room cabin for himself. During the day he worked and at night he strolled the town with his fretless mountain banjo, singing songs of love and rebellion to any girl who would pause to listen. He was short and broad-shouldered, nearly square and solid on the ground. He seemed to joke more than fight and his eyes were the lightest color mama had seen on a dark-skinned man.
They took strolls on country roads with grandmaman walking behind, giving them enough space to talk but not enough to touch, and after courting through the summer they planned to marry. The night before the wedding, grandmaman woke screaming in her sleep. When my mother came to her bedside, grandmaman gripped her tight and forbade her from marrying Fanchon. Mama soothed her back to sleep and crept out of the cabin early in the morning to Fanchon’s cabin. They rode to a priest in the next Parish and returned as husband and wife. Within a week she had bruises on her arms, then on her legs, then her face. She vanished from Parish life, only appearing for ghostly moments on the front porch of the cabin beyond the distillery, while Fanchon continued to tour the town with his mountain banjo, singing to girls and drinking with men. Grandmaman went into the woods more often, conducting her ceremonies with a meaner passion.
Those years just before the war, the enchantment of life for Creoles in New Orleans had begun to fade. The whites looked with suspicion on the free coloreds around them, even those that owned slaves themselves. More colored Creoles moved outside New Orleans to live quieter lives in the country. But when the war came, the fear crept throughout Louisiana. Free coloreds hung from trees and burned alive in their back swamp cabins. Mama taught at a school for colored children, instructing them as best she could while men died by the hundreds outside school walls. Fanchon sold his drink to passing soldiers but just as often they took it without payment. When he saw soldiers coming he hid my mother in the cobwebs under the porch, and after they left, his face red with humiliation, he beat her hard.
The peace that came was even worse than war. Freed slaves wandered the villages, looking for work. The whites in New Orleans, bitter and scared, boycotted colored businesses and the distillery fell into disrepair. Fanchon traveled miles on foot for a few hours’ wages doing odd jobs, coming home sullen, embarrassed, angry. My mother twice lost her babies before they came to term but I survived. The night I came screaming into the world a fire burned the distillery to the ground. Whether it was from Fanchon’s carelessness or the white sheets no one ever knew. The air, normally thick and wet and slow, was unseasonably cold then, and grandmaman shut herself in her cabin for a week after my birth, smoke stealing out from between the logs, calling on Zombi for help.
Radicals from the north agitated for a new state constitution, one that did right by the freed men. The week the new assembly was to convene, rumblings of resistance were everywhere. The state was under martial law, with northern soldiers at every corner, but in every household rebels drank and nursed their wounds and dreamed of an uprising. One August day, Fanchon was called on to paint the statehouse in preparation for the constitutional assembly. Halfway to New Orleans, he doubled over on the road with terrible stomach pains. He stumbled home and collapsed on the bed in fevered sweats and shivers, lifting himself only to vomit in a tin bucket or gasp for water like a man possessed. My mother tried her best to take care of both him and me, still new to the world, and he cursed her for her distractions. The day the assembly was to start he woke early in the morning with the color returned to his face and calm in his stomach. He felt strong, he said, stronger than usual even. He gathered his painting supplies into his cart and again set out on the long journey into New Orleans.
By the time he reached the statehouse the assembly had convened. He didn’t notice the silence that had fallen over the city. He began with the gate, which was peeling from age and the passing of bullets. Inside, past the statue of Commander Jackson and through the windows shattered by war and neglect, Fanchon could see the radical republicans sitting around a long table in the central hall. He was shocked to see that some of the men sitting at that table, and others standing, talking and debating, stabbing their fingers at manuscripts, looked like him. He did his work slowly so that he could watch them, and, as he made his way down the fence toward the building, maybe hear the secrets of justice on their lips.
As he finished the last pole of the fence and turned to begin the walls of the statehouse, he heard the faint sounds of a horn band floating down the street. A black marching band was touring the city, celebrating the coming constitution with excited, trembling songs. Fanchon whistled with the music, painting faster as the band rounded the street corner and neared the statehouse. He could see the pipers and the trombones and hear the bang of the drums from the rear of the parade. The statesmen came out to cheer the band, and Fanchon joined, raising his paintbrush in the air. When the shots began Fanchon saw the musicians start to crumple, eyes wide and knees buckling, mouths still on their instruments, knuckles white around drum sticks. One by one they fell, revealing a band of white men standing behind them, and the bullets continued to come. Fanchon dropped his paintbrush and ran into the building where he huddled under the windows alongside the colored women and children who had gathered to watch the band play.
The fire started in the corner of the convention hall and within minutes the smoke was too thick to breathe. Fanchon ran upstairs toward the air of the second floor. He grabbed a screaming woman and held her in front of him to ward off bullets. In the corner they cowered as the smoke thickened and the building shook. Gradually the shots slowed, and then stopped. He crawled toward the window to peek outside, pausing to untie the dead woman’s apron. Huddled near the floor, his head down and eyes closed in fear, Fanchon waved his white flag above the window frame. Silence. The building would collapse soon. Several had already jumped from second-floor windows. Some met bullet holes before they hit the ground. Others lay broken on the grass. Hopeful, he stood and waved his white flag out the window with all his might. The bullet felt warm, not really painful, and on his chest the red blossomed over the cloth in the most beautiful pattern he had ever seen. The blood curled on his painter’s suit like a fleur de lis before wrapping itself into the form of a snake. He died with terror in his eyes.
The city remained under martial law for weeks after the assault. Newspapermen glorified Fanchon as a simple workingman martyred by madmen, a symbol for the new South. His name rumbled out of the mouths of black leaders and white radicals all through the country. Every day mama received visitors from across the state carrying their condolences, and the house piled up with flowers and meats and candies. Even our neighbors stopped by to offer comfort and praise. It was as if the rest of the town had forgot Fanchon’s character, or as if there was an unspoken agreement, never broken except by my grandmaman who told me only truths years later, not to mention what Fanchon really was.
I think often of what my grandmaman told me about that day. One of those men playing their instruments lived to describe to her that scene. He would always remember, he said, amid all the screams and sudden death, the faces of the white men who directed their bullets into the building, bullets that took out paint and wood and glass in order to burrow their way into flesh. These men, he told grandmaman, had hair so white on faces so young. Hair that stood out on all ends like a wild fire, circling in on faces void of wrinkles, casting jagged shadows over pale, empty eyes, shadows that looked like scales on their white skin.
A year after Fanchon’s death my mother married the man I think of as my true father, Martin, a Union soldier who stayed behind when the rest returned north. He was a much quieter man than Fanchon, and he walked into a house that, as far as he knew, was full of the ghost of a slaughtered saint. I don’t know if mama ever told Martin the truth about Fanchon, or whether she let him believe he had big shoes to fill. If she did leave Fanchon’s ghost unsullied, I don’t blame her for it. It was about time for her to receive the love of a good man, and Martin did not mind trying hard to please her.
Martin died when I was thirteen in a railyard explosion, and I missed his quiet presence every day after that. My brothers worked in the cane fields for thirty cents a day, and I brought in some money tailoring out of mama’s home. We got by out in our Parish, but in the city, things turned ugly for the Creole people when the northerners left. The Night Riders came, and then the White Liners, and finally the Klu Klux Klan. More and more of our people moved deeper into the state until they camped at Point Coupee Parish.
We stopped assembling at church, for the Night Riders didn’t believe we were worshipping and not scheming. Instead we met on Sunday mornings in small prayer groups, a different house every time. Back then most families still had private altars in their homes. The wealthy had crosses of glistening gold and candles eternally lit. The poor had crosses bent from tin, shined until nearly worn through. We had a tiny painted wooden statue of the Virgin Mary in our altar. Her nose and mouth was chipped, and I still remember watching her lopsided, vacant-eyed smile over breakfast.
When I was sixteen I married a fisherman who grew up just outside of Point Coupee. He was shy, spoke softly and looked at the ground a lot, and I liked that. We lived on a houseboat on the river where he could gather crab, crawfish, gator, anything that swam or crept by. When the season changed and we needed to move downriver he would call for the tugboat to drag us along nice and slow to a new spot. When mama died we moved back into my childhood home. He left every day to go fishing, and I raised our children in a quiet spot in an increasingly unquiet world. My husband started coughing one day when the children were still young, and he never stopped. He never complained once, just coughed and coughed when he got up every morning to wade his way through those muddy waters. He died on the rocking chair on our front porch. He said he wanted to have a vision of the cypress trees imprinted on his eyelids when he closed them for the last time.
When our kin die we weave bracelets from their hair to stay close to them. We wear white and play music so they go into the afterlife smiling, not in a haunting mood. We leave rum and tobacco on their graves to keep them satisfied. You can bury your dead and your mistakes along with them and try to move on, like most of us do, but sometimes the dead will refuse to cooperate. I imagine this whole country has dead beneath it, waiting for a chance to reassert themselves, waiting for a chance to make sure they will not be forgotten, to take up our places. That is why we tread lightly, and whisper, and feint at the moon in a storm when sometimes we would rather curl up underneath it, soak up the rain and sink into the mud, and become one with those who came before us.
I’m alone now. My children and my children’s children have gone far from Point Coupee Parish. My daughter, she went to New York where she works at a factory sewing dresses. She met a nice young man whose people are from Haiti. They married and live in Brooklyn raising a little girl of their own. They say sometimes it gets rough there, nasty at night. The Polish don’t like the Jewish and the Jewish don’t like the blacks and nobody likes the Irish or Italians. I tell her—she’s light-skinned, like me—I tell her if people bug you about what you are you just say you’re Creole. Now days, when people say Creole, you know they mean colored Creole. It’s probably the only word I heard that means colored and means it in a proud way. When some Creoles say they are all white Creole I laugh. That’s like saying you’ve been swimming for hundreds of years and haven’t gotten wet.
My son also left Louisiana, chased a skirt all the way to California, where they had a house full of babies and grew oranges in endless rows. Most of their children died or scattered, but a few still take the time to write to their grandmaman in Point Coupee Parish. My grandson, he’s stationed in France where he’s been since the end of the war. The Kaiser fell, and there’s been peace in Europe for nearly two years now. My grandson writes me on postcards with drawings of French ladies holding dainty umbrellas. He says our people are coming over to Paris to play Dixie jazz and the French people go crazy for it. He says the musicians come in through the front door, just like the patrons, and they blow their horns into the early morning, and when they’re done they go to parties at French apartments and drink French wine and speak with French women about music and art and America. He says Paris is not so different from New Orleans, or at least not so different as New Orleans is from the rest of America, but he says the Parisians are a strange kind. They act as if the war never happened, or at the very least as if it was a play they watched in between parties.
When the man comes for me I know I will not be forgotten, because I will lie with my mama and papa in the marble house built for my people. On the graves are piles of honeysuckle and flowering quince and all kinds of other flowers, some that grow wild around the Parish, and some carried here from far off. The petals of flowers lain before the tomb play with the soil, making it soft and dark. Wandering lines of white conch shell and broken glass and beads adorn the grave beds. They don’t do so much of that anymore, but I’ve told my children to tell their children’s children that when they come to visit their great grandmaman in Point Coupee Parish, don’t be afraid to break a glass or two for me.
Crystal Galyean’s writing has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Fiddleblack, HeadStuff, and the Village Voice.