I suppose I have avoided this chair long enough. Not sure why my move to New Orleans has provided such writer’s block (am I willing to take ownership of this?), but it has and I am nervously hopeful that the imbalance has shifted.
I won’t dilly-dally with what I’m here for — I feel like lamenting is less entertaining than it once was to me; a feeling I suppose is due to the sadness in the news, it seems to keep us from spending too much time on our own comparative trivial pursuits. This is a story I wrote for an invited submission, but was not selected for; a story that didn’t make it. I could go on about the bout of disappointment I faced, but that doesn’t really serve a purpose. I will say, though I was sad when I figured out my work hadn’t been chosen, I was considerably less sad when I realized that meant I’d get to spend more time with Evalynda Cane. Her character came to me in bits, and when I was done with “Arbres Gelés”I found myself a few words over the allotted word count and very upset that I didn’t have the time to know more about her.
Of course, that all changed. Writing is sort of amazing in that way….we can change the narrative whenever we want. (Wait, is that life too?!) I am repeatedly convinced that each closed-door is an opportunity knockin’, y’all. I have sat for months in observation of life in Louisiana, reading short southern stories here and there for inspiration, listening to people talk about what food their family makes for this or that occasion; I have vividly imagined myself gliding over the swamp in a small pirogue, in search of something and nothing. I have dug in the tiniest crevices of my mind to find the right way to tell Stories from Bayou Cane and The Lost Pine Girl (working title.) Evalynda is my vessel for this endeavor, and I’m excited to share her with y’all today.
I have absolutely no idea where this story will land in the collection of shorts, but I at least wanted to share a bite of what I’ve been working on.
This is the FULL version, published for the first time, of “Arbres Gelés”. Please enjoy.
“Arbres Gelés” (Frozen Trees)
Evalynda Cane was busy filling her pirogue with things she would need for a day on the water when a cool gust surprised her and chilled her to the bone. “Get outta here old woman, mean ol ting,” she mumbled, mentally locating her Orisha beads, “just in case she come.” It was dead of August, a time when very often little rain makes its way to the musty Louisiana swamps, let alone cool weather. Thick fog had spread itself through the mossy limbs, wedged its heaviness between the cracks of the floating homes on Bayou Cane. Evalynda peered at the steam billowing off of her cup of hot coffee and was soon unable to differentiate where that ended and cool fog began. “Bette fine that knit too,” referring to her Granmè Bertilde’s shawl.
Granmè had left her “Evie” everything she owned in the world: the house, the pirogue, that old dog, what clothes hung in the closet, what food was left in the icebox. There was a car, but that drowned one day during a hurricane. Evie clung to these possessions, unable to shake the feeling of Bertilde’s touch that lingered in the house. Unable to accept the death of her Granmè, Evie set up her body in the guest room, the one that faced the bayou, oiled her down real good and used good wrap on her; a weekly ritual now, and she looked decent considering a year had passed, not too watery yet. She burned sage and other herbs in prayer over her every day, never feeling peace or freedom from the grip of grief. She prayed old prayers from the worn book on the nightstand; it had been handed down, written, and rewritten by all the women in the Cane family. Granmè Bertilde, who did most of the rearing, taught her to speak and sing the lines in the book to perfection, but never told her what they meant. Chants lifted up so loudly the house would rattle and the wind would whip. Evie spent days and months in prayer and song after she passed, in hopes it would stir Granmè’s soul and breathe life back to her body. That was the old way and that was all she knew. “Every day I see you die, Bertilde. Why’d’ya show me these tings?” Evie often spoken aloud in her home, expecting an eventual response from her grandmother.
Mighty strange things began to happen the day Granmè died, none of which Evie could reason or explain. During the days of mourning, cypress knees shook loose, floated up from their ancient roots and turned to amber mush in the hand. Soft, white rain fell from the sky and piled up on the marsh, cooling the land like winter. That was just the first month or two. Eventually, hunters found gators floating belly up, full of, “unspeakable dead things.” Next was what felt like a plague of coiled rattlers, dead and dried in patches of burnt swamp. Six months after Granmè’s passing, egrets lined the edge of the porch, silent and still for hours, gawking at her window; the next day, a large, white gator disjointed and bound by sticky spider webs lay in the pirogue. All these things, stirred by the passing of Bertilde Cane.
Evie let the gator rot in the front yard as a sign to the spirits that seemed to be testing her. She’d read about that in the bedside book too.
What few neighbors, the ones that had always passed by with stale biscuits, thick cut bacon, and molasses to share stopped coming; the smell of the house was off-putting, what with the body and the gator and all of the other dead, even to the occasional suitor vying for Evie. Yep, those men stopped coming down too. No-one came to this corner of this swamp no more.
The cool of the present morning was unsettling to Evie but she carried on anyway. Food supply was low and she needed a small gator or gar. This task felt like a breeze to her by now after years of practice, the familiar voice of Granmè whispering how to catch and kill the gator, skin it right then cook and eat every part so, “nothing go to waste and dat dress stay on ya hip.” Evie made the rice days ago, the roux the night before, and could taste the gumbo on her tongue already. “Some shrimp sho’ would be good, Poboy, I know.” Poboy hadn’t always been the dog’s name, but Evie had trouble pronouncing some of the old Creole words and settled on a food she’d tried once, a gift from a white woman who came to Granmè for blessings. Poboy normally joined Evie on these outings, but today he refused to get off the porch. “Ol lazy ass dog, when you get so ol? Bon rien!” she hollered at him as she pushed off in her boat, laughing at his droopy eyes. “His tail tucked tight, why though?” she thought, sucking misplaced cold through her teeth.
As she floated further away, Evie paused to drink it in. “A house all my own,” she thought, smirking. Breeze caressed her collar-bone and she imagined the icy chill of Granmè Bertilde’s hand floating down her back as she braided her long hair, like so many times in her life. “But never alone.” She smiled at the thought, sunlight bursting through the fog, illuminating her house, causing tears to well and burn her eyes. “She wit me now, I feel it,” she said to the trees around her, “she always wit me.”
Evie wound her way through the familiar route, searching for a gator, deeper and deeper than she’d ever been before, and for what felt like dizzying hours. Her stomach rumbled and she knew it was far past supper time. “I guess we callin’ it,” she said to the trees, feeling defeated. “You think I know how to do dis by nah. Dis may be the day she get me.” Evie dipped her paddle down to push off a cypress knee and it snapped like a twig, instantly dissolving before her eyes, leaving her stranded with nothing to push her but the wind. “Wind, is you listenin’? Get me back t’m’house!” she murmured to the now bending, tangled looking trees. Evie took these trips silently, only whispering to the trees and animals she would encounter, as to not disturb the spirits sleeping around her. Her family always believed the swamp was full of spirits and things that could clamp their teeth around your soul and never let loose.
“WIND DO YOU HEAR ME?” she screamed, and with it, the whole swamp grew silent; empty as Evie’s mind the day Granmè died. A frightening cold gust blew past her, drawing Evie board-straight with pure fear, a world instantly frozen. A crisp snapping and cracking ripped through the swamp, an eachoing sound she would never forget. The rip of it would ring in Evie’s ears for the rest of her life, lost and wandering in a foreign arctic, barefoot and dragging her empty pirogue behind her.
Some say you can still see Evalynda Cane walking through the swamp, hungry and tired. They tell her eyes have been hollowed out from weeping and that old dog, Poboy, follows behind her. They say his poor body looks chewed up and that a big white gator walks on its hind feet behind them, snapping ever so often at Evalynda’s heels. “She put a cunja on dat whole place, Bertilde did,” says Renee Desplat. Desplat, among other brave women, have gone looking for what is now known to be the Cane Sisters Book of Song, and claim to have spoken to Evie’s spirit as they floated through what is now referred to as the Arbres Gelés. Desplat says that Evie “wept for Granmè Bertilde’s body, that is wayward in the afterlife without liberation.” Others say she sings about a day that will come, “when the winds will rip up the water and dry out the land; when the trees will become bare and the whole swamp will become pointed like daggers, crossing closer to the sun and colder somehow, like mountains.” That’s what they say.
“I wait for dis day,” Evie whispers to the trees and those that are listening. “Though it never come, and now, she’s always beside me.”
……more to come. thanks for reading!