Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Landry 05 Tarnished Gold

V. C. Andrews

  Tarnished Gold

  Landry #5

  V.C. Andrews

  Copyright (c) 1996

  ISBN: 067183210




  "You've got to let go of innocence," Mama

  once told me, "or it will take you down with it when it sinks like some old rotted shrimp boat in the canal." One spring morning I had come running up to the gallery where she sat weaving palmetto hats to sell to the tourists. In my hands I cupped a dead baby blue jay. I thought it had fallen from the nest, but Mama said its mother most likely threw it out.

  I shook my head. I was only seven. It was inconceivable that a mother of any kind could cast one of its offspring out of the nest.

  "No, Mama. It must have tried to fly and fell," I insisted.

  She put down her palmetto leaves and looked at me with that soft, sad expression in her dark onyx eyes that brought tears to my own eyes. Her gaze went to the baby bird and then she shook her head.

  "It's too small to have tried to fly, Gabriel. It was sickly and either died or would have died. The mother knew what was best."

  I, too, gazed down at the diminutive creature, its eyes glued shut, its tiny beak slightly open, its tiny claws tightly closed.

  "How can it be best to throw your baby out?" I asked angrily.

  "She had other babies to care for, Gabriel honey, strong, healthy ones who needed her attention and the food she brought. If she spent time worrying over one that was going to die anyway, one of the healthy ones would get sick and die."

  I shook my head. I wouldn't believe it.

  "It's not a decision she sits around munching over, Gabriel, no. It comes from instinct. She just knows what's necessary. It's how she makes sure her good babies will survive and have a chance in that jungle you love so much."

  "Is she sad about it?" I asked, hopefully.

  "I suppose, but there's nothing she can do about it. Understand?"

  "No," I said. "Maybe if she tried harder, this baby would live, too."

  Mama sighed deeply and that's when she told me about innocence.

  I didn't know what she meant then. I was too young to measure the world in terms of innocence. To me, waking up every day was still like ripping off the wrapping paper to get at the wonderful gifts that awaited as soon as I finished my breakfast and shot out the screen door, bounded down the steps to our front gallery, and turned around the corner of the house toward the swamp and the canals and all my animals. Sickness and death, violence and cruelty, were not permitted entry to this world. If something died, it was because its time had come fairly. Hope struggled to survive within me.

  "Can't you bring the baby bird back to life, Mama?" I asked. "Can't you give it some herbal drink with a eye dropper or sprinkle some magic powder over it? Can't you?"

  Mama was a traiteur, a healer whose hands did magical things. What she knew had been passed down to her from her mother and her grandmother and her grandmother's mother. She took the fire out of burns, blew smoke into the ear of a child and chased out the ache, put warm palmetto leaves on old people and helped them to stand and walk and move their arms freely. Evil spirits were afraid of her. She could sprinkle holy water on the steps of a house and keep the devil out. Surely she could stir life back into a creature as small as the bird in my hands.

  "No, honey, I can't bring back the dead," she told me. "Once you go through that doorway, it locks forever and ever behind you." She saw the

  disappointment in my face, however, and added, "But this baby bird will grow up in a better world."

  How could there be a better world? I still wondered. My world was full of colors and sunshine, beautiful flowers with wonderful scents, magnificent birds that glided through the air as lightly and easily as dreams, delicious flavors in the food Mama made, fluffy white clouds that tickled my imagination so I could see them as camels or whales or even cotton candy.

  "What'cha got there, Gabriel?" Daddy asked as he came out of the shack house he had built for us just before I was born. Although it was still morning, he had a bottle of beer in his hand. Sometimes that's all he had for breakfast. His dark brown hair was unbrushed, the long strands over his forehead and just parted enough for his beautiful emerald eyes to peer through. He wore only his pants, no shirt, no shoes or hip boots. A trail of curly brown hair left his belly button and shot up to his chest where it exploded into a V-shaped matting. My Daddy was tall and strong with long arms that rippled with muscles whenever he pulled on something or lifted something. Mama once told me he had wrestled an alligator for a two-dollar bet. She said that's how foolish he was, but I thought it meant he was the strongest daddy in the world.

  "A dead baby blue jay," Mama answered for me.

  "So?" he said. "What'cha going do with it, Gabriel? Throw it in the gumbo?"


  Daddy laughed.

  "I wanted Mama to bring it back to life," I explained. "She said its mother threw it out of the nest."

  "Most like," Daddy said. He sucked on the neck of the beer bottle, drawing its contents down his throat as his Adam's apple bounced like a tiny rubber ball. "Just throw it away," Daddy said.

  I looked horrified at Mama.

  "Why don't you bury it in the backyard, Gabriel," she suggested softly.

  "Yeah. Maybe we could have a service," Daddy said, and laughed.

  "Could we, Mama?"

  Daddy stopped laughing.

  "Hey, child, that's just a dead bird. Ain't no person."

  I didn't understand the difference. Something beautiful and precious was dead.

  "I'll say some words over it for you," Mama offered. "I got to see this," Daddy said.

  "Don't tease the child, Jack."

  "Why not? She's got to grow up someday. Today's as good a day as any." He pointed his long right forefinger at me. "You should be up here helping your mama make them hats to sell and not be spending your time wandering through the field anyhow," he chastised. Then he offered, "There are snakes and bugs, snapping turtles and gators."

  "I know there are, Daddy," I said, smiling. "I stepped on a snake this morning."

  "What? What it look like?"

  I told him.

  "That's a damn cottonmouth. Poisonous as hell. You didn't step on it or you'd be as dead as that bird in your hands."

  "Yes, I did, Daddy. I stepped on it and then I said, excuse me, Mr. Snake."

  "Oh, and I suppose it just nodded and said, it's all right, Gabriel, huh?"

  "It looked at me and then it went back to sleep," I said. "Christ, you hear what stories she's telling, Catherine?" "I believe her, Jack. She's special to the animals out there.

  They know what's in her heart."

  "Huh? What sort of Cajun voodoo nonsense you concocting, Catherine Landry? And now you got the child talking gibberish, too."

  "It's not nonsense," she said, "And certainly not gibberish." She stood up. "Come on, Gabriel. I'll help you bury your bird," she said. "Maybe the creature should be pitied," she said, throwing an angry glance back at Daddy.

  "Go ahead. Waste time worrying about some dead bird. See if I care," Daddy said, taking another swig of his beer. Then he dropped the empty bottle in the rain barrel. "I'm going to town," he called after us. "We're outta beer again."

  "You're out of work, Jack Landry. That's why we're out of beer."

  "Aaaa," he said, waving at us. He went back into the shack.

  Mama got the spade and dug a small hole under a pecan tree for the baby bird because Mama thought it would always be a cool, shady spot. I put the baby bird in gently and then Mama covered her. She told me to put a stick in the ground to serve as its monument. Then she lowered her head and took my hand. I lowered
my head too.

  "Lord, have mercy on the innocent soul before you," she said, and crossed herself. I did, too.

  We both said, "Amen."

  Just as we looked up together, I saw a blue jay flit through the cypress trees and disappear in the direction of Graveyard Lake, a small brackish pond in the swamp that Daddy had named for its collection of floating, moss-strung dead cypress. Mama's gaze trailed after mine. She sighed. She still held on to my hand, but we didn't start back to the gallery and the work that had to be done.

  "Being a mother, any kind of mother, is very hard, Gabriel," she said. "You don't just give birth to a baby. You give birth to worry and pain, hope and joy, tears and laughter."

  "I would never throw out one of my babies," I vowed, refusing to relinquish my hold on that innocence Mama feared would pull me down with it.

  "I hope you never have to even think of such a thing, honey, but if you do, remember the blue jay and make the choice that's best for your child and not for you."

  I stared up at her. Mama was a wealth of wisdom, most of which was years and years beyond me. But she had the eyes of a fortune-teller. She could look into the darkness of tomorrow and see some of what was to come.

  I shuddered a bit even though it was a warm spring day. Mama was looking deep into the swamp, into the beyond, and what she saw made her hold more firmly to my hand.

  And then, as if it had heard and had seen everything, a blue jay I imagined to be the mother started to sing its own dirge. Mama smiled at me.

  "Your friend is thanking you," she said. "Come on. Help me weave a bit."

  We turned away, and nervous, but secure because Mama still held on to me, I took my small steps toward tomorrow.


  My Own Eden


  The sound of the screen door being slammed

  sharply at my family's shack house ricocheted like a gunshot through the willow trees and cottonwood, quickening my footsteps. I was almost home from school. Part of the way I had walked with Evelyn Thibodeau and Yvette Livaudis, the only two girls in my class who cared to talk to me at all. Most of the time we had all been speaking at once. Our

  excitement boiled over like an unwatched pot of milk. It was our last year. Graduation loomed around the corner with all its promises and terrors hanging like so much Spanish moss.

  Evelyn was going to marry Claude LeJeune, who had his own shrimp boat, and Yvette was going to Shreveport to live with her aunt and uncle on their sugar plantation. Everyone understood she would eventually marry the foreman, Philippe Jourdain, with whom she had carried on a letter correspondence all year. They had really seen each other only twice and he was nearly fifteen years older, but Yvette was quite convinced that this should be her destiny. Philippe was a Cajun, and Yvette, like most of us, would marry no one else. We were descendants of the French Arcadians who had migrated to Louisiana and we cherished our heritage.

  It was 1944. The Second World War still raged and young, eligible Cajun men were still scarce, even though most farmers and fishermen had exemptions. Evelyn and Yvette were always chiding me for not paying attention to Nicolas Paxton, who was going to inherit his father's department store someday. He was overweight and had flat feet, so he would never be drafted.

  "He's always been very fond of you," Yvette said, "and he's sure to ask you to marry him if you gave him the time of day. You won't be poor, that's for sure, n'est-ce pas?" she said with a wink.

  "I don't know which I would hate most," I replied. "Waking up in the morning and seeing Nicolas beside me or being shut up in that department store all day saying, 'Can I help you, monsieur? Can I help you, madame?"'

  "Well, you've turned away every other possible beau. What are you going to do after graduation, Gabriel, weave split-oak baskets and palmetto hats with your mother and sell gumbo to tourists forever and ever?" Evelyn asked disdainfully.

  "I don't know. Maybe," I said, smiling, which only infuriated my sole two friends more.

  It was a very warm late spring day. The sky was nearly cloudless, the blue the color of faded dungarees. Gray squirrels with springs in their little legs leapt from one branch to another, and during the rare moments when we were all quiet, I could hear woodpeckers drumming on the oak and pecan trees. It was too glorious a day to get upset over anything anyone said to me.

  "But don't you want to get married and have children and a home of your own?" Yvette demanded as if it were an affront to them that I wasn't engaged or promised.

  "Oui. I imagine I do."

  "You imagine? You don't know?" Her lips moved to twist into a grotesque mockery. "She imagines."

  "I suppose I do," I said, committing myself as much as I could. My friends, as well as all the other students at school who knew me, thought I was born a bit strange because my mother was a spiritual healer. It was true that things that annoyed them didn't bother me. They were always fuming and cursing over something some boy said or some girl did. Truly, most of the time I didn't even notice. I knew they had nicknamed me La Rule au Nature!, the Nature Girl, and many exaggerated stories about me, telling each other that I slept with alligators, rode on the backs of snapping turtles, and never was bitten by mosquitoes. I was rarely bitten, that was true, but it was because of the lotion Mama concocted and not because of some magic.

  When I was a little girl, boys tried to frighten me by putting snakes in my desk. The girls around me would scream and back away, while I calmly picked up the snake and set it free outside the building. Even my teachers refused to touch them. Most snakes were curious and gentle, and even the poisonous ones weren't nasty to you if you let them be. To me, that seemed to be the simplest rule to go by: Live and let live. I didn't try to talk Yvette out of marrying a man so much older, for example. If that was what she wanted, I was happy for her. But neither she nor Evelyn could treat me the same way. Because I didn't think like they did and do the things they wanted to do, I was foolish or stubborn, even stupid.

  Except for the time Nicolas Paxton invited me to a fais do do at the town dance hall, I had never been invited to a formal party. Other boys had asked me for dates, but I had always said no. I had no interest in being with them, not even any curiosity about it. I looked at them, listened to them, and immediately understood that I would not enjoy being with them. I was always polite in refusing. A few persisted, demanding to know why I turned them down. I told them. "I don't think I would enjoy myself. Thank you."

  The truth was a shoe that almost never fit gracefully on a twisted foot. It only made them angrier and soon they were spreading stories about me, the worst being that I made love with animals in the swamp and didn't care to be around men. More than once Daddy got into a fight at one of the zydeco bars because someone passed a remark about me. He usually won the fight, but still came home angry and ranted and raved about the shack, bawling out Mama for putting "highfalutin" ideas in my head about love and romance.

  "And you," he would shout, pointing his longer forefinger at me, the nail black with grime, "instead of playing with birds and turtles, you should be flittin' your eyes and turnin' your shoulders at some rich buck. That pretty face and body you've been blessed with is the cheese for the trap!"

  The very idea of being flirtatious and conniving with a man made my stomach bubble. Why let someone believe you wanted something you really didn't? It wasn't fair to him and it certainly wasn't fair to myself.

  However, even though I never told my two girlfriends or even Mama for that matter, I did think about love and romance; and if believing something magical had to happen between me and a man was "highfalutin," then Daddy was right. I didn't want people to think I was a snob, but if that was the price I had to pay to believe in what I believed, then I would pay it.

  Everything in Nature seemed perfect to me. The creatures that mated and raised and protected their offspring together were designed to be together. Something important fit. Surely it had to be the same way for human beings, too, I thought.

  "I can't do
that, Daddy," I wailed.

  "I can't do that, Daddy," he mimicked. Liquor loosened his tongue. Whenever he returned from the zydeco bars, which were nothing more than shacks near the river, he was usually meaner than a trapped raccoon. I had never been in a zydeco bar, but I knew the word meant vegetables, all mixed up. Often I heard the African-Cajun music on the radio, but I knew that more took place in those places than just listening to music.

  Of course, I burst into tears when Daddy ridiculed me, and that set Mama on him. The fury would be in her eyes. Daddy would put his arms up as if he expected lightning to come from those dazzling black pupils. It sobered him quickly and he either fled upstairs or out to his fishing shack in the swamp.

  My biggest problem was understanding why Mama and Daddy married and had me. They were beautiful people. Daddy, especially when he cleaned up and dressed, was about as striking a man as I had ever seen. His complexion was always caramel because of his time in the sun, and that darkness brought out the splendor of his vibrant emerald eyes. Except for when he was swimming in beer or whiskey, he stood tall and flu in as an oak tree. His shoulders looked strong enough to hold a house, and there were stories about him lifting the back end of an automobile to get it out of a rut.

  Mama wasn't tall, but she had presence. Usually she wore her hair pinned up, but when she let it flow freely around her shoulders, she looked like a cherub. Her hair was the color of hay and she had a light complexion. Her eyes weren't unusually big, but when she fixed them angrily on Daddy, they seemed to grow wider and darker like two beacons drawing closer and closer. Daddy couldn't look at her directly when she interrogated him about things he had done with our money. He would put up his hand and plead, "Don't look at me that way, Catherine." It was as if her eyes burned through the armor of his lies and seared his heart. He always confessed and promised to repent. In the end she took mercy on him and let him slip away on his magic carpet of promises for better tomorrows.

  As I grew older, Mama and Daddy grew further apart. Their bickering became more frequent and more bitter, their animosity sharp and needling. It hurt to see them so angry at each other. As a child, I recalled them sitting together on the gallery in the evening, Daddy holding her in his arms and Mama humming some Cajun melody. I remember how Mama's eyes clung worshipfully to him.