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Landry 05 Tarnished Gold, Page 2

V. C. Andrews

  Our world seemed perfect then. Daddy had built us the house and was doing well with his oyster fishing and frequent small carpentry jobs. He wasn't a guide for rich Creole hunters yet, so we didn't argue about the slaughter of beautiful animals. We always appeared to have more than we needed during those earlier days. People would give us gifts in repayment for the healing Mama performed or the rituals she conducted, too.

  I know Daddy believed he was blessed and protected because of Mama's powers. He once told me his luck changed after he married her. But he came to believe that that same spiritual protection would carry over when he indulged in backroom gambling, and that, according to Mama, was the start of his downfall.

  What I wondered now was, how could two people who had fallen so deeply in love fall so quickly out of it? I didn't want to ask Mama because I knew it would make her sad, but I couldn't keep the question locked up forever. After a particularly bad time when Daddy came home so drunk he fell off the gallery and cracked his head on a rock, I sat with Mama while she fumed and asked her.

  "If you have the power to see through the darkness for others, why couldn't you have seen for yourself, Mama?"

  She gazed at me a long moment before she replied.

  "There's no young man you've looked at who has made something tingle inside you?"

  "No, Mama," I said.

  She thought for another long moment and then nodded.

  "Maybe that's good." Then she sighed deeply and looked into the darkness of the oak and cypress trees across the way. "Just because I was handed down the gift of spiritual healing and became a traiteur doesn't mean I'm not a woman first," she said. "The first time I set eyes on Jack Landry, I thought I had seen a young god come walking out of the swamp. He looked like someone Nature herself had taken special time to mold.

  "It wasn't a tingling that started within me, it was a raging flood of passion so strong, I thought my heart would burst. I sensed that when he set eyes on me he liked what he saw, and that stirred me even more. Something happens when the woman in you takes a front seat, Gabriel. You stop thinking; you just depend on your feelings to make decisions.

  "You remember I told you about the shoemaker who worked so hard for everyone else, he had no shoes for himself?"

  "Yes, Mama. I remember."

  "Well, that was me. I couldn't see what would happen to me the next hour, much less over the next ten years. Jack Landry was all I wanted to see, and he was . . ." She smiled and sat back. "Very charming in his simple way. He was good at spinning tales and making promises. And he was always showing of for me. I remember the Daisys' shingling party. After the roof was raised, there was a picnic and games. Your father wrestled three men at the same time and whipped them all, just because I was watching. Everyone knew it. They said, 'You put the life in that man, Catherine.' Then he took to saying it, and I came to believe it.

  "You're old enough for me to tell you your father was a wonderful lover. We had a few good and wonderful years together before things started to go sour." She sighed deeply again. "Beware of promises, Gabriel, even the ones you make yourself. Promises are like spiderwebs we weave to trap our own dreams, but dreams have a way of thinning out until you're left with nothing but the web."

  I listened, but I didn't understand all of it, for I thought if Mama with all her wisdom could make a mistake in love, what chance did I have?

  I had been thinking deeply about this after I left Evelyn and Yvette. Their questions had stirred up the same old questions about myself.

  Then I heard the screen door slam a second time, this time followed by Mama's angry screams.

  "You don't come back here until you return that money, Jack Landry, hear? That was Gabriel's dowry money and you know'd it, Jack. I want every penny replaced! Hear? Jack?"

  I broke into a trot and came around the bend in time to see Daddy stomping through the tall grass, his hip boots glistening in the afternoon sun, his hair wild and his arms swinging. Mama was standing on the gallery, her arms folded over her bosom, glaring after him. She didn't see me coming and pivoted furiously on her moccasins to charge back into the shack.

  Daddy began to pace back and forth on our small dock, raging into the wind, his arms pumping the air as he complained to his invisible audience of sympathizers. I hesitated on the walkway and decided to speak with him first. He stopped his raging when he saw me approaching.

  "She send you out here? Did she?" he demanded.

  "No, Daddy. I just came home from school and heard the commotion. I haven't spoken to Mama yet. What's wrong now?"

  "Aaaa," he said, waving at me and then turning away. He stood there with his hands on his hips, his back to me. His shoulders dipped as if he carried a cypress log on them.

  "I heard her shout something about money," I said.

  He spun around, his face red, but the corners of his mouth white with anger.

  "I had a chance to make us a bundle," he explained. "A good chance. This city fella comes along selling this miracle tonic water, see? It comes from New York City! New York City!" he

  emphasized with his arms out.

  "What's it supposed to do, Daddy?"

  "Make you younger, take all the aches and pains out, get rid of the gray in your hair. Women especially can rub some of it into their face and hands and wrinkles disappear. If you got loose teeth, it makes 'em tight again. I seen the woman he was with. She said she was well into her sixties, but she looked no more than twenty-five. So I run back to the shack and I dig out the bundle your mother's kept hidden from me. Thinks I don't know what she's doin' with all the loose change . . . Anyway, I go back and buy up all the tonic the man has. Then I come back and tell your mother all she got to do is tell her customers what this tonic does and they'll buy it at twice the price. Everyone believes what she says, right? We make twice the money, and quickly!"

  "What happened?"

  "Aaaa." He waved at the shack and then bit down on his lower lip. "She goes and tastes it and says it's nothing but ginger, cinnamon, and a lot of salt. She says it ain't worth the bottle it's in and she couldn't tell anyone to buy it for any purpose. I swear . . ."

  "Why didn't you bring home one bottle first and ask her to look at that before you bought all of it, Daddy?"

  He glared at me.

  "If you ain't birds of a feather. That's what she said, too. Then she starts that ranting and raving. I went back looking for the man, a course, but he and his lady friend are long gone. I was just trying to get us a bundle," he wailed.

  "I know you were, Daddy. You wouldn't just give away our money."

  "See? How come you understand and she don't?" "Maybe because you've done things like this many times before, Daddy," I said calmly.

  He raised his eyebrows.

  "Mary and Joseph. A man can't live with two women nagging him to death. He needs breathing room so he can think and come up with good plans." He looked back at the house. "You got any money?"

  "I have two dollars," I said.

  "Well, give it to me and I'll try to double it at bourre," he said. That was a card game that was a cross between poker and bridge. Mama said she had fewer hairs on her head than the number of times Daddy had stuffed the pot, which was what the loser did.

  "Mama hates when you gamble with our money, Daddy. We have bills to pay and cotton jaune to buy for the weaving and--"

  "Just give it over, will ya?"

  Daddy always brushed aside problems as if they were lint not worth noticing.

  I dug the two dollars out of my pocketbook and handed it to him. He took it and shoved it into his pocket and then stepped into the pirogue.

  "Only two more days of school for me, Daddy," I said. "Sunday's graduation. Don't forget."

  "How could I forget? Your mother jabbers about it all day." He gazed at the shack again. "Don't know why she's so upset about the dowry money. You ain't got no beau lined up. You keep listening to that woman, you'll end up some spinster weaving hats and blankets to keep alive. Hear?"
/>   I nodded and smiled.

  "Aaaa," he said, pushing away from the dock. "What's the sense of talking? No one listens. That woman," he said, glaring at the house. I watched him pole the pirogue through the dusty shadows. Before I turned, I saw him reach into his back pocket and come up with a small bottle of whiskey. He emptied the bottle and then threw it over the water. It hit with a splash and glittered for a moment before it disappeared, just like Daddy as he went around a bend of flowering honeysuckle.

  Mama was sitting at the kitchen table, her head in her hands, when I entered the house. I put my books down quickly and went to her.

  "It'll be all right, Mama. I don't need that money just yet."

  She looked up, her face so full of fatigue, she looked years older. I felt like I, too, could get a glimpse of the future, but I didn't like it. It was as if a cold hand had clutched my heart.

  "It's gone," she moaned. "Just like everything else that man touches." She smiled and brushed back some loose strands of my hair. "I only want you to have better," she said.

  "I'm fine, Mama. Really."

  She laughed and shook her head.

  "I do believe you think so," she said, and sighed so deeply, I thought she had drawn up the last pail of strength from the deep well of her soul. "Well, any real good man who falls in love with you and wants you for his wife won't care about no dowry money, I suppose. He'll see the dowry's in you, in your goodness and your beauty. It's more than any man deserves."

  "I'm not any more beautiful than other girls, Mama."

  "Sure you are, Gabriel. The wonder is you don't notice or parade with arrogance." She looked around, resembling someone who was lost for a moment, someone who forgot who she was and where she was. "I ain't even started the roux for tonight's dinner, that man got me so mad."

  "That's all right, Mama. I'll do it," I said. Every woman in the bayou had her own touch when it came to preparing the sauce we used with our fish or fowl. Mama's specialty, the one she taught me, was gumbo made with file, a powder she said came from the Choctaw Indians, made from ground-up sassafras leaves. It was guaranteed to clear the sinuses.

  "You go out to the gallery and sit awhile. Go on," I insisted.

  "That man," she said, "stirs the thunder in me."

  Finally she gave in and went out to sit on her rocker. With summer on our doorstep, the sun was still quite high in the late afternoon. Sometimes we would have a cool breeze come up from the Gulf and there was enough shade on the gallery this time of day to make it tolerable, but after I set the roux to simmering, I decided I would go for a swim.

  "Smells good," Mama said when I came out. "That man don't deserve a good meal tonight and probably won't get one. Where'd he tell you he was going?" she asked, her eyes narrowing with suspicion. She was worried about what he would do next. I didn't want to tell her he had taken my two dollars and headed for a card table at some zydeco bar where he could easily get into a fight. But instead of lying, I just left out information.

  "He went poling downstream, Mama."

  "Humf," she said, and rocked harder. "Come home drunk as a skunk, that's what he'll do. Probably fall on his face out here and sleep on the gallery floor all night. Won't be the first time."

  "Don't worry, Mama. We'll be fine," I said, and squeezed her hand.

  "Just a few days until you graduate," she said. "Imagine that. Something good to celebrate for a change," she added. She leaned over to kiss my cheek and then sat back, finally noticing the towel in my hand.

  "What are you going to do, Gabriel?"

  "I'm just going for a dip in the pond, Mama," I said. "Be careful, hear?"

  "Yes, Mama."

  I bounced down the stairs and went down to the dock where my pirogue was tied. Daddy had built it for me when I was only eight. At eight I was already a good swimmer and soon to become very good at poling through the canals. In the beginning Daddy thought it was amusing. He would brag about his nine-, ten-year-old daughter who could wind her way around the trickiest bends and through the narrowest canals better than most fishermen.

  When I was younger, I kept pretty close to home, but as I grew older and stronger, I ventured farther and farther out in the swamps until I knew as much about them as Daddy did, and even found places he hadn't. My favorite was a small pond about a quarter mile east of our house. I found it by venturing through some overgrown cypress. All of a sudden it was there, quiet, peaceful, secluded, with a large rock in the middle upon which I would sun myself.

  This time of the day the sun would seep through the thick moss, oak, and cypress leaves and cast a veil of soft sunshine over the tea-colored water, which this afternoon was remarkably clear. I could see small rocks and plants, turtles and bream. The frogs grew louder as the sun dipped behind the tall trees, serenading me with their croaking. Nutrias scurried in and out of their dome houses along the banks of the pond, and as usual a pair of egrets paraded on the big rock, even as I drew closer to it.

  The mistress of the pond was a dark blue heron who had made her nest in a gnarled oak tree on the north side. She and I had gotten to know each other well and I had even succeeded in having her land on the rock while I was there. She kept her distance in the beginning, strutting carefully along the edges and watching me every moment. I spoke softly to her, but hardly moved, and in time she grew close enough for me to reach out and touch her if I wanted. I never did because I knew that would spook her. It was just an unwritten agreement between us. She would trust me as long as I didn't violate the trust. It was enough to see her so close and watch her swoop down from her nest, gliding gracefully over what had become our pond.

  This afternoon when I poled my way to the pond, I saw her nestled comfortably in her nest. A school of bream were in a feeding frenzy among the cattails and lily pads. There was a gentle but constant breeze threading through the swamp and lifting the bed of moss on the dead cypress trees. The sun was at that point where its rays washed over the big rock. Here all my troubles and worries, my fears and dark thoughts, were chased from my heart. No one shouted, no one cried. There were no threats or complaints, except the complaints of egrets when marsh hawks came too close to their bed of eggs.

  I fastened my pirogue to the branch that stuck up near the rock and then I stripped off my dress, unfastened my bra, and stepped out of my panties. Leaving my clothing in a neat pile in the canoe, I took my towel and stepped onto the rock to spread the towel and lie down. Everything in nature was unclothed; it seemed right for me to be so, too. Nudity gave me a sense of freedom and I loved feeling the sun everywhere on my body. I put my hands behind my head and smiled at the rays that kissed my cheeks and caressed my breasts. When I got too warm, I dove into the pond and swam in circles around the rock. Then, dripping, but cool and refreshed, I returned to lie a little longer before returning home to have what I expected would be a dinner attended only by Mama and myself. For now, I didn't want to think about it.

  I had almost drifted into sleep when I heard the distinct sound of a splash and opened my eyes. At first I saw nothing, and then he was there, gazing up at me from his pirogue and smiling widely. I recognized him immediately as Monsieur Tate, the owner of the biggest cannery in Houma. He was a man in his late twenties, married without children as yet. Daddy had worked for him on two occasions. He was a handsome man, slim, tall, with chatlin hair, which was what we Cajuns called blond mixed with brown. I had never seen him in anything but a jacket and tie.

  Mr. Tate had been fishing and wore only a Tshirt and dungarees right now.

  I gasped and pulled the towel out from beneath me to wrap myself in it. My heart throbbed in triple time as I held my breath. A nearly paralyzing numbness gripped me.

  "You're about the prettiest creature I've ever seen in this swamp," he said. I felt my face fill with blood and my neck redden. I shrank into a tighter ball, but he simply gazed around. "Didn't think anyone else knew about this pond. I caught the biggest sac-au-lait here,"

  "I didn't know anyone knew about this
pond either," I said, nearly in tears.

  "That's all right. No harm done. Skinny-dipping isn't bad. I haven't done it in a long while, but it sure looks inviting here."

  I waited, expecting he would just turn around and pole his way out, but he stood there, smiling.

  "Out, oui," he said, "it seems like a very good idea." He pulled his T-shirt over his head and began to unfasten his pants. I stared in disbelief. A few moments later, he was naked and unashamed of what I saw. He laughed and dove into the pond.

  "Beautiful!" he cried. "Come on in."

  "No, monsieur. I have to go home," I said.

  "Oh, nonsense. Come on. I don't bite."

  My blue heron, disturbed by Monsieur Tate's presence, swept down over the water and then over the trees and away, an omen I should have given more of my attention.

  "No," I said, and began to inch my way toward the edge of the rock and my pirogue. He saw where I was going and what I wanted to do and swam to my canoe before I got to it. He unfastened it and started to swim back toward his own.

  "Monsieur!" I cried. "What are you doing?" He laughed and tied my canoe to his.

  "Now you have to swim," he said. "Come on. Dive in."

  I shook my head. "Bring back my pirogue."

  He behaved as if he couldn't hear me, swimming round the canoes and then to the rock. I backed away as he boosted himself up and onto it.

  "It feels good to be in Nature, to be au naturel, n'est-ce pas, Gabriel?"

  "Please, monsieur," I said.

  "Don't be frightened," he said, and squatted down beside me. Then he lay back on the rock, putting his hands behind his head the way I had had my own. My heart was pounding. Here he was a married man, sprawled naked next to me. "Oh, that feels so good," he said. "How long have you been coming here?"

  I was sitting with my knees pulled up, the towel wrapped tightly around my shoulders. Could he not see how embarrassed I was? He behaved as though we were having a quiet conversation at a Sunday school picnic, but my abdomen felt like a hollowed-out cave.