The Opening of the Bayou Saint John
By Shawn Scarber
8 February 2016
It's usually the midwife who leaves the letter. I find it scrawled on the faded front page of the Times-Picayune, or written on The Arlington's fine stationary, or scribbled on the back of a receipt from Antoine's. I'm not sure why the authors won’t use a fresh sheet of paper. I guess it's the nature of my service. Nothing comes to me fresh. The letter's never addressed. The author doesn't want to know my name. Those from outside the city, the real Crescent City, don't want to think about what I do, until they need me. If they do talk about me, then I am the bayou woman, or the woman in the boat, or the thing that takes the ordures away to the luminous ones. There are no words on these letters. There's a date and a time. The date is never far off, usually it's the day I receive the letter, or a couple of days after. But the requested time is always at night and always in the latest hours.
The letters arrive in my lamp box. The lamp box won’t accept the type of letters one finds in a postal box. No, these letters don't require a stamp and they'll never leave the city. The lamp box has a singular purpose. Hung under the Orleans Avenue Bridge that crosses the Bayou St. John, it's as black as coal and the letters that arrive there are from desperate women seeking a second chance. I only open the lamp box at twilight. There's no point checking it earlier. Today it gives me a single letter. It's as though the lamp box knows to only schedule one journey a night. Such an enchantment wouldn't surprise me.
I read my letter. Its message is drawn on the back of a cloth cottonseed bag. For a change, it's not the date, but a sketched picture. With much care and beauty, with the clumsy tools of thick chalk and charcoal, some poor soul has drawn for me the moon. It floats wide and bright and on its surface I see every mountain and crater, and around it float the clouds of night, and below it’s a view of the city from my bridge over the bayou. If I'm not mistaken from the position and phase of the moon, the letter means for me to meet my artist tonight, near the eleventh hour. I turn in my letters to the master, every one. They account for my services. They are how I shall claim my final reward. But I will not turn this one over. This one I'll save in my private trunk, with all the other treasures I keep for when my service is complete.
My gondola swims through bayou waters like a swamp moccasin, lacquered black as deep night, with red velvet seats and comfortable pillows. Minor enchantments keep the rats, roaches, and biting flies away. Because my cargo isn't always fresh, the passenger cabin is perfumed with roses. Lanterns hang at the Risso and Ferro lighting both my path and wake in the blue light of fairy fire.
As I near my bridge, I see a woman in a sharecropper's dress, her hair disciplined under a scarf tied like a bonnet, and in her arms held to her chest in the unmistakable embrace of a loving mother is the stillborn gift. She sees me and I know what she's thinking. Not because I've any art in clairvoyance, but because I've been in this spot, meeting this same type of woman, for so, so many years.
She wonders, in that first moment she sees me, if she's made the right choice. This is a decision she's fought for. A husband, father, or lover has probably lectured her, yelled at her, beaten her, and then pleaded for her to change her mind. A member of her family, likely an aunt or a sister with strong religious convictions has told her the sin of this choice, the evil of this path, and the hellfire awaiting any woman who would consider my boat an option. Her whole culture and community has roared up upon her like a hurricane wave from the ocean and in her time of greatest mourning it has doused her in torrential waves of rebuke, scorn, and judgment. Yet here she stands. A countrywoman, a creature born in a barn, condemned to work the field until her fingers can no longer feel the cotton she plucks from the hard shell. That is her home nation. Coming to the Crescent City to seek out the woman on the bayou is a betrayal to that nation, but when she sees me pull the gondola to the walkway under the bridge, she doesn't run, but stays still like a rabbit, holding the gift, and searching my empty eyes. These frightened women, they are the only ones with the strength to meet my gaze.
I anchor the gondola with my pole and hold out my arms to accept the swaddled gift. The woman doesn't move, until she speaks, and then her breathing is fast, as though she hasn't breathed for days.
"I come to understand from what some folk say, that if I want, I can go with you." Her voice is lilting and her cadence rhythmic. "I brought paper bills. I know you like coin, but paper bills is all I could find."
"You've confused me for someone else, my love. Your gift is payment enough. Keep your tender," I say. "It's true, if you wish to accompany me and your gift, you're welcome. I must warn you, though, what you see may be difficult. More than one woman has leapt from my boat believing she will recover what was lost. I will give you three chances to abandon this journey. You may take them and their consequences will be yours. If you stay to the end, you must promise me you will not leave the boat."
She says nothing for a time, and I find that comforting. It means she thinks on what I've said. The drowned and devoured tended to answer quickly, without thought.
She nods once, and I offer her my hand, and guide her to the passenger seat.
The journey from the bridge is easy for the gondola. The bayou is straight and wide. The water flows from Lake Pontchartrain to the city, and tonight the moon is as bright and alive as my passenger had captured it in her message.
"Your letter," I say. "It was drawn by you?"
"Yes, ma'am," she says. "I never learned no reading or no writing. My daddy learned me to sum, you know for the farming, and my grand learned me to memory all four of the gospels when I was a little girl, but when I take to the sending messages, it's easier I put the pictures in my head down. Folks say I can make a picture like one of them cameras, they says maybe I gots a fairy's glamour in me somewhere, but I think that's just porch talk."
"You draw beautifully," I say.
I cannot see her face, but I think she smiles.
Life along the bayou does not die at night. The ports and portals of the Crescent City are open to many worlds, and it's not unusual to see the Fae walk among the mortal. On this particular night, there's a dance in a courtyard near a home built by the settlers who flew the first flag of the seven to fly over the city. The attendants of the dance gather in the yard under gaslit chandeliers hung from trees as tall as the mechanical cranes that move cargo on and off steamboats in the harbor. As they pass into and out of the courtyard's gate, the celebrants are changed from humans, elves, and goblins, into wolves, sheep, and bears. They waltz on hind legs.
"I never been to no ball," my passenger says. "All them, even as animals, is more beautiful than me."
"Untrue," I say. "The elves and goblins are glamoured. They are eternally beautiful to the eye of the beholder. The humans are simply in finer attire. Should I stop here? You could enter through the gate, turn into someone new, someone different. As long as you don't pass back through the gate, you can stay in the form of a beast. You could be a wolf, or a cat, or even a bear. Shall I stop?"
She bows her head to the gift swaddled in her arms and says, "No ma'am. It's best we move on through."
"Are you certain?" I ask. "Turning into a beast isn't your only option. If I stop here, and you attend the ball, there's a chance you could walk back through the gate and discover you're no longer a sharecropper. Maybe your clothes will turn from sweat-stained rags to shiny silk or satin. At the ball, you may meet a baron or a prince. He'll adore you, and steal you away to his castle, where you will never want for anything ever again."
When she glances up, there's hurt building in her tense eyes.
"No prince or baron can return to me what I want," she says. "I won't go to no ball, and I won't change to no beast or beauty. I got my path decided."
"I understand," I say. "But know this. We won't return to the bridge on this bayou. Additionally, I've never seen this ball before and though I cannot swear it, I doubt it will ever be seen again. This is your last opportunity."
She nods and says, "My mind is made."
As we continue past the ball we arrive at the St. Louis Cemetery where the caskets are placed in cement tombs that must rest above the ground or they'll sink so far into the earth that they'll eventually fall into the underground river and wash out to the lake. The monuments jut from the ground on all sides of the bayou like horse teeth in dark fields, and upon the smallest tombs sit children of all ages and in all the various periods of dress from the time of the first settlers to today. When the children see her, they hold out their arms, and in their own tongues they whisper my passenger’s true name, repeatedly.
"What cruelty is this?" she asks. "Don't they know I'll never hear that word from mine? Don't they know what that stirs in me? Are these ghosts of children or are they real?"
"They're not cruel," I say. "These are the forgotten children. Sons and daughters of Cain. It’s said that God has a place in heaven for every child who dies, but this isn't true. 'Tis above as it is below', and if a child is unloved by his mother and father here, so is he unloved in heaven. There is no room for imperfection in the throne room of God, and there is none so imperfect as an unloved child. They are the monsters of the Earth, the sowers of hate, the enforces of cruelty, it’s them to thank for plagues, and it’s them to blame for the God’s harsh judgment."
She gazes again at the gift and shakes her head. "It was for that I wanted a boy or a girl. I'd a thought for what love was. I'd heard some stories, fairytales, and in them was this idea of love. I wanted, when my time came, I wanted that I would love."
She laughs, and its sound is both terse and hollow, and then she says, "My own grand slapped me three times when I told her I would never strike my child. She called me a liar, she told me only the devil never hit a child, because the devil don't like fear. But I don't know why the fear's so important. It's in every part of me. I eat, drink, and when I can sleep, I sleep in a cold puddle of it. I know I could have loved. I know I could."
"Of course you can," I say. "I can stop the boat here and you can go into the cemetery. You'll find a thousand souls desperate to be loved. You could pour forth a fountain of unending love and these children will take it. They'll take more than any mortal child ever could. They'll whisper your name for all eternity."
Silence rests between my passenger and myself, but the bayou and its offerings don't relent. She covers her ears and says, "No, no, we must not dally. For all the love I give, will it ever quench their thirst?"
"No," I say. "I'm afraid not, but you'll always be needed and you'll always be wanted. You'll not die alone and you'll not suffer the sadness you feel now."
"No, no bayou woman," she says. "I don't mean to misspeak my place, but I think you can't know the weight of my sadness. It's heavy enough to rip from my soul, and fall through Earth, and then through heaven, and right through the heart of God, like that arrow loosed from Nimrod's bow. Don’t stop. Please, please continue."
She hugs the swaddled cloth to her chest and rocks until we pass beyond the graveyard. The whispering voices of the ghost children blend into the soft music of the wind flowing through the cattails. My passenger sobs. I do not have tears, but I carry a handkerchief. I offer it to her.
"I cannot," she says. The piece of cloth is likely finer than any clothing she owns.
The gondola arrives in the final section of the Crescent City, the cathedral district. Here the spires of temples and churches reach into the night's sky like the claws of some starving beast, grasping for what little sustenance God will feed it. A crowd has gathered outside the great doors of The Holy Trinity Cathedral of All Saints and in the church's yard they have built a tower of old broken furniture, dirty rags, and rotting wood. A stake extends from the wood and tied to the stake is a woman close in age to my passenger. The crowd screams out, "Burn the sinner, burn the witch, send her to Hell, the filthy bitch."
"What're they doing?" she asks.
I don't answer. There's no point. It's clear what they plan. I know my passenger must speak because she needs to hear herself question the spectacle.
"Is there nothing you can do?" she asks.
"I am doing all that I am able, at the moment."
"They'll kill that woman," she says.
"Maybe she deserves it," I say. "Maybe she's done something wretched and terrible like dined on fish on Monday morning instead of Friday. Maybe she went to confession and mispronounced the name of God's mother. Maybe when the parson's sister asked for sugar, she gave her salt."
Now her face is a mask of scorn and indignation as she says, "Beg your pardon. I know you are a thing made, like a machine or like Adam, created from mud and breath. I can't believe even a thing like you wouldn't know this is wrong. Is it because of your mast—"
"No," I say. "I've allowed you to join me on the journey, I've answered your questions, and I've shown you many paths, but you shall not mention my master. In the Crescent City we are all servants. Even these people about to commit a barbaric act. The woman tied to the stake, she too is the master's servant. And you, my love. You're as much the master's servant as I. Don't question the springs and gears, only be glad the clock does tick."
She watches as the pile is lit. As the orange light of the blaze reflects off the bayou, she mutters, "Just wish there was something I could do."
"Oh, there is. I could stop the boat and you could join the crowd. Your voice could blend into their voices and together you could call down the holiest spirit of them all, the spirit of righteous indignation, and that righteousness will fill you with a fire so powerful your mind will grow numb to empathy and sorrow. All who you have hated for the injustice they have done to you could eventually find their way to that stake. They too could lick the cleansing flames. That is an option. I could stop the boat, if you like."
"No, no bayou woman," she says, barely in a whisper, "don't stop, do not, but please tell me we're reaching the end soon. I have reached the place where my daddy's beatings take me. That place where I don't feel nothing and I can be all, completely alone. If we don't arrive soon, I'm sure I won't ever come back."
"We are close now," I say.
I row along the bayou until it opens to the wide Lake Pontchartrain. I anchor my boat to the roots of the lake grass that grows in the murky depths. A paddleboat chugs to the canal leading to Lake Borgne and in the far distance the gaslights from the only bridge leading into the heart of the Crescent City reflect off the water.
"What now?" my passenger asks.
"When they reach toward the boat, you're to put your stillborn into the lake. No matter what you see, you mustn't go in the water. No matter what you've heard, there's no life for you there. Do you understand?"
"I need to hear that you understand," I say. "What you release this night is no longer yours. You are giving it a new life, but not one you can ever be a part of."
"I understand," she says. "But you don't have some other offer? Some other path? Some choice?"
"None that you would want to take," I say.
After a few minutes the sound of water lapping against the gondola is joined by a chorus of soft voices. The chorus volume increases from a light whisper to a choir of men and women singing, "A-a-a-men. A-a-a-men, amen, amen, and amen. Glory, glory, days. A-a-men. Glory, glory, days."
As this song builds, under the dark water, bright beings lit by luminous skin gather near the shore. They've come as family, as friends, holding the hands of their children, some of them are young, and some of them are old, and they have the eyes of frogs, the mouths of fish, and feet like fins. There's happiness to their song and the way they swim in one another's company. They are a congregation held together by love.
Around the boat they form a half circle, like an audience about to bear witness to the holy word of God from a traveling evangelist. They finish their chorus of song and let it die down to a light hum, and a young couple swims together to the boat. A young male and a young female. They have no child with them. They hug one another, and this gets a few cheers and shouted hallelujahs! from the crowd, but then they turn to the boat and offer up their hands to the surface.
My passenger glances up at me, there are tears in her eyes, and though I've no gift for seeing such things, I'm certain there are tears in her heart. I nod to her.
She rocks her swaddled gift once, twice, three times more, brings its tiny head to her trembling lips, and in a whisper so faint I barely hear it, says, "Goodbye."
She leans over the gondola and hands the stillborn to the luminous beings in the water. They accept the gift, remove the swaddling that floats away like a puff of smoke, and each takes turn breathing into the dead baby's mouth. After a few tries, the baby twitches. Then its arms and legs kick. Its skin fades from a chalky gray to a bright, shining green. The couple passes the squirming child between them, holding it to their bare skin, kissing it on its tiny head.
"She's alive," my passenger says. "She's alive."
And she turns to me to give me the expression that so many other women have in the past. I admit that there have been times I've let a woman go without warning. It's petty of me, but if she was especially cruel or judgmental towards me, I'd let her jump into that water and I'd watch as the lake people devoured her flesh.
I don't allow it this time. I grab the sharecropper by her dress and hold her. She fights to break away from my grip, but I am no woman. I may appear as a woman. Many a man has foolishly approached me as though I am eligible for their affections. But I am a thing. I am made of the swamps and dead sparrows and all the sorrows that wash up on the bank of the Mississippi. I know a thing or two about holding onto rage, and holding onto a powerful sadness, and so I grasp this woman despite the fact it breaks every sparrow heart that's ever beat inside me until she has fallen to the boat, covered her eyes, and cried out all of her tears.
When all the luminous families and friends have returned to their city at the bottom of the lake, I row the gondola to the head of the bayou. The first stop before entering the Crescent City is the road to the countryside. I pull my boat over and give my passenger two paths.
"This road will take you to the place where you came from," I say. "The place that gave you your sorrow. You may leave the boat now, take that road to your destination, and live your life as a woman who has survived this night. You say you want to give love. Well, there will be plenty of chances for you to give that love if you take this path. Or you can stay in the boat, take this gondola’s rod from me, and then return to the Crescent City to discover what the master with the skull’s face and the big top hat will make of you."
My passenger doesn't say a word. She gathers her skirting, and without taking the offer of my burden, steps from the gondola to the road. I watch her march, almost run down the dirt path with her skirts held tight in her hands. The moon hangs high and bright, as beautiful as the image in her letter, and its reflection lights her path.
I return to my quarters, my master’s servants feed me, bathe and perfume me, and before I retire to the dream world to meet with him, I open the window to my apartment. It overlooks the entire city, and in the distance slithers the mighty Mississippi, and along with the wind I hear the joyous singing of the luminous lake people, celebrating the birth of a brand new baby girl.
I wonder what fate awaits her mother. Before I drift to sleep, I think on the night I made the choice to remain on the boat. What would my life be, had I taken the country road?