The dinosaurs died. Mountains bulged and seaways closed. The Mississippi River clutched a fistful of brimming earth and carved through the newborn continent to an ancient bay on the Gulf of Mexico. Only the fine-grained sand, silt, and clay remained when the Mississippi opened its fingers and spread out Louisiana.
Flowering plants and trees took root, and figs and magnolias emerged. Fertile prairie sprawled out to brackish lakes and freshwater marshes laced with cheniers and bayous. A muddy coastline invited mollusks and crustaceans to collect and thrive. Herons came and spoonbills. Terrapin, alligators, flounder, ducks, and deer. Attakapas Indians came. Jean Lafitte, Jim Bowie, trappers, hunters, farmers, and families. Oil rigs and salt mines.
And on a hot September afternoon in 1951, Nelson Lemoine approached the front steps of a small wooden home on the bank of a shaded bayou and prepared to ask Etienne Landry for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Nelson was less nervous about the coming conversation than he was about the big snake he’d seen resting in the cool, dry dust under those same steps just three days before.
Nelson Lemoine hated water moccasins more than anything he had ever hated in his seventy-four years on this earth. The damn things were fat and mean, and they hid around waiting to strike. Damp, dark soil under a pile of cut limbs offered as likely a place as any for an evil creature to bide its time. Standing as far back as he could from the stack of wood, Nelson poked around with his shovel. Nothing. His attention turned to the shovel blade, which he sharpened methodically and meticulously on the back steps after each day of work. He flicked a clean bandana from his back pocket and wiped it carefully across the blade to remove the dirt. It was late afternoon, and the cicadas were beginning their evening chorus—a dry, bristly drone that had lulled to sleep three generations of babies on the property, including his own. He had married into the land he was tending, a bitter reminder of his father’s failure to acquire anything of value during his life.
It would be three years this October that he’d been clearing the debris from the hurricane. He and Vergie lost nineteen trees in the storm. Nearly every water oak had fallen. Cedar, pine, hackberry, sweet gum—some of them over a hundred years old—spilled like matchsticks across the four acres from the house to the bank of the bayou. The live oaks, with roots that matched their mammoth limbs, had easily endured the torrential gusts, as did most of the cypress trees and the massive wild pecan that he leaned against while he pulled off his boot and shook the dirt out. The house had been spared, and Nelson and his wife, Vergie, were unharmed. The morning after the storm Nelson had fueled up his chainsaw, started up his tractor, and began to work. If it hadn’t been for the hernia surgery in January, he would have been finished by now.
Nelson dragged and pulled the branches, one after another, on to an ever-growing heap. Tomorrow morning he would set the stack on fire and watch it burn while he sipped hot coffee straight from the thermos. He would need his grandson’s help again to manage the heavier limbs, but except for the handful of times that Brady had come over to lend a hand, Nelson had cleared it all himself, right up to the ridge he was standing on. Palmetto palms and Chinese tallow trees lined the barbed wire fence that separated his property from the neighbor’s cow pasture. Poison ivy vines as thick as ropes climbed up the few remaining older trees that lined the edge of the bayou, and a tangle of wild blackberry and muscadine vines held their domain like primitive flora in the clay-rich soil.
Nelson had his back to the house, piling up the stack of branches for the fire, so he didn’t see his wife tramping toward him from their back yard, didn’t hear the rustling of her thick legs through the tall grass. She called out before she reached him. "You coming in for supper?"
Her voice startled him, and he hoped she hadn’t seen him jump at the sound of it. Vergie Landry Lemoine never missed anything, though, and she would insist that his hearing was going—a fact he hotly denied. He kicked a stray limb against the pile and, with deliberate calm, poured himself a glass of water from the cooler. He was not a man who would yell to be heard.
He turned and watched Vergie trudge toward him through the pasture. She was perspiring from the effort. "Didn’t hear me coming, did you?" She stopped and frowned, raising her right arm straight out. A chubby finger took aim at the woodpile. "You’re stacking too close to that pecan tree. You’re gonna burn it down."
"I know what I’m doing." Nelson turned back to his work and waited for her next round of disapproval. He had cleared and mowed and cared for the property for fifty-three years while she sat watching TV in the house and gained weight eating junk food. He could forgive it all if she wasn’t so damn critical. It was after they were married that he learned she didn’t come from very strong stock. Her father dropped dead at the age of forty-six, somewhere out here when it was still heavily wooded. Died of a heart attack while he was training his hunting dogs. Nelson and Vergie had been newlyweds at the time, living in a rent house in town while they cleared the acre behind her parents to build their home. Two years later, almost to the day, Vergie’s mother walked out there before sunrise and shot herself with a pistol her husband had won in a Bourré game. The shot had wakened Nelson, sleeping next to Vergie in their newly built house. He wasn’t surprised when he walked out back to the woods and spotted her body in the milky beam of his flashlight. By then, Kathy, their oldest, had been born, and Ruth was on the way. Finally, David came along, and to Vergie’s delight, his hair was as bright red as her father’s had been. Vergie stayed busy with the kids, and Nelson began to spend his free time working their acre into immaculate order. He grew tomatoes and okra, persimmons and Satsuma oranges. He built bluebird boxes and purple martin houses. When Vergie’s only sister died just months after Nelson retired from the post office, he and Vergie inherited the remainder of the property. That same year, his in-laws’ house was sold and moved by barge down the river. For days after, Vergie had paced over the bare earth that had defined her childhood home, head down and crying into a Kleenex.
"I said are you coming in for supper?"
Vergie stood there, swatting at the mosquitoes humming around her damp, thinning hair. Perspiration stained her yellow blouse, and her heavy breasts rose and fell from the exertion. Her feet, wide as stumps, resisted the confines of the cheap sneakers she insisted on wearing. Sometimes, the sight of her would dissolve his mean streak and leave him with a cutting ache for her—for both of them, growing old and sorry for it. Nelson blinked back the stinging in his eyes. He was opening his mouth to reply when he spotted, about two feet away from her right foot, the dark, sinister curve, heavy as an arm, and the vague crossband pattern, lying in wait beneath the mound of debris.
"Snake! Snake! Move now! Move, dammit!"
Nelson would later try to recall exactly what went wrong, but his memory allowed merely the clarity of his own foolish actions. He reached for the shovel, flailing in his panic and knocking it over with his fingertips. His left boot caught under a stray limb in the pile. Both arms, outstretched helplessly, led his fall into the woodpile, and he bounced down the mound of jagged limbs, his right knee digging into the razor-sharp blade of the shovel that had dropped before him to the ground. He remembered the pain, remembered landing face down to rest alongside the blackened, arched branch that had so cleverly pretended to be the cottonmouth moccasin he so despised. He remembered Vergie hovering over him as blood soaked his khaki work pants, her face, pale and clammy, beading in perspiration. Lips lined in tight, white skin.
"Vergie. Your nitroglycerin." Had he actually spoken it? Vergie. Your nitroglycerin.
Vergie’s voice was shrill and desperate. "Oh, God! Nelson! I’m going to call Brady!" Darkness closed around her face.
Nelson opened his eyes as a half-moon began to rise in the twilight sky and the cicadas ceased their singing. He used the shovel first to raise himself and then as a crutch to try a few throbbing steps. He made it past the patch of hardened dirt where Vergie’s grandparents’ home once stood. Where they had skinned catfish caught fresh in the bayou and fried it up for Saturday night card games. David still had the collection of buffalo nickels he had unearthed there as a child.
A brown cottontail rabbit jumped from the tall switchgrass ahead of Nelson’s path and zig-zagged out of sight. The bullfrogs took up where the cicadas left off. Nelson Lemoine, who had shouldered four coffins during his marriage, carried three babies to bed, and held his wife up to walk after by-pass surgery, hobbled across the property toward the house. Perhaps if the pain had not been so great, Nelson might have wondered why the windows were still dark.
He found her body near the gate to the back yard, in the spot where he used to cut sugarcane for the children. She had fallen on her side; her left arm was over her head like a crumpled sidestroke. Vergie, who had cooked his breakfast for the last fifty-three years. Had bounced checks in their bank account. Had taught him to make gumbo. Her lips were blue. One sneaker had slipped from her heel and held on to her foot at the toe.
Nelson dropped alongside his wife and sobbed. A light wind blowing in from the southeast stirred halfheartedly through the leaves. A screech owl began her airborne hunt for prey, flying erratically along the edge of the open field. Polaris glittered in the darkening sky as the moon continued to climb, while it settled above the trees, spilling light across the property and casting shadows as black as bears.
The moon’s silhouette cloaked Nelson’s side of the earth in darkness then crept around the planet as the hours passed. Nelson and his children and grandchildren gathered, grieved, slept. And while a new dawn was rising on the property, the night sky was shrouding continents almost half way across the world.
Viewed from distant satellites, the earth’s surface at night is dotted with electric lights collected brightly along rivers and coastlines, outlining landmasses and tracing the inclination of humans from the earliest cultures to settle along global waterways. European seaboards, the Japanese Archipelago, and the eastern U.S. coast are vivid clusters of light, while coniferous forests and interior jungles and deserts remain dim. And the Nile River, the birthplace of ancient civilizations, from the Aswan Dam to the Mediterranean Sea, appears in the blackness as a thin, silver thread, snaking brilliantly across an otherwise darkened expanse.
Return to Volume 2.6
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