Devil’s Breath and Mardi Gras

The wind blew in the window over me through the window. The juicy, rain-loaded wind blew off the ocean and over the land. We depended on that wind. It made our part of the continent livable on an otherwise inhospitable world. I lay sprawled out on the floor, not far from the adults, and let it cool me.

“They yond it ‘Chuck,’” Mom said.

“What? Chuck?” Aunt Magritte asked. “What so you talk about?”

“The wind. The folk on the other side of the delta. Such’s they yond it. Such’s it’s name.”

“Chuck…,” Magritte’s friend, En Muller Kertek echoed. “Why so?”

Mom shrugged.

Xavi watched over En Muller Kertek’s daughter, Columbine Muller Devi, outside. Columbine, a few years younger than Xavi, sat delighted while she and Xavi drew pictures. Columbine must have been three, maybe four years old. I stayed still and quiet in the same room as Mom, Aunt Magritte and En Muller Kertek. I listened to them as I pretended to read my book.

“Sam Oconosto Techee, at the restaurant, that so he yonds it,” Mom said. “He’s from there. When he talks about the drought he says, ‘Chuck went gone.’ People in the country lived hard because of the drought. They don’t say the word drought. Ever notice such? The country folk use euphemisms for drought.”

“Yeah, I’m like that, so I am,” En Muller Kertek said.

Columbine came into the room with a drawing to show her mother. “Look Momma,” Columbine said. “Look.”

“You have drawn a drawing, sweet,” En Muller Kertek said. “Look at all the colors. Stay with Xavi, sweet, and use more color.”

“‘Chuck got lost for ten years,’” Mom said in a growl, an imitation of Sam Oconosto Techee. She gesture like Sam, with her arms over her head, and shouted, “‘Ten years. That’s a long time when young.’” She coughed from making her voice so low and rough.

“Kev,” Mom said, no longer using her Sam imitation. “He likes to tell me how the southern wind died off on his eighteenth birthday. Kev said, he did, that, ‘I guess the two events are correlated.’” Mom poured a bit more wine into Mit En’s glass.

“I just looked at him when he said such,” Mom said.

“Kev just laughs,” Mom continue. “‘They’re not,’ he said. ‘Mere taunt,’ he said. Then he talked about about his birthday not being a causation. What so? ‘There’s no way that the anniversary of my birth can cause wind patterns to change or vice versa. You know that, don’t you, Tennessee? Not correlated. No causation. But they are coeval.’ Always the same thing, the same taunt. He’s not human, sometimes.” Mom pantomimed a baffled shrug.

“Now so,” Mom continued. “Each time I glare at Kev and tell him, ‘Please, no, Kev.’

“What so?” Aunt Magritte asked. “What so did he mean?”

“My dad yonded the drought wind Devil’s Breath,” En Muller Kertek said with her eyes closed. She slumped in the chair and her long dark curly hair fell over the back of the chair.

Mom sighed. “Yes. We did, so, too. The olders told me Devil’s Breath could suck moisture out from a sealed bottle. I yonded it a blast furnace. It dried everything. Remember the smoke? When so everything dried, the grass and trees turned in fire. The wind turned fire in an inferno. A tornado of fire. Devil’s Breath became as a squall of death that rolled flames across everything.”

They sat quiet for a moment.

“How many people died?” En Muller Kertek asked.

“By fire or starvation or disease?”

“Well, everything.”

“Everyone lost someone,” Mom said. “I don’t want to think about it. I cease, now so.”

Aunt Magritte got up and looked out on Xavi and Columbine behind the house, “Halt now. I’m tired of talking about it, too.”

Mom sighed.

“You know how Jac describes Sam Oconosto Techee?” En Muller Kertek said. “Short, round and brown.”

Aunt Magritte laughed.

“That’s Sam, so,” Mom said.

“He wasn’t always that way,” En Muller Kertek said.

En Muller Kertek opened her eyes and straightened in her chair. She shook her head to get her hair to fall behind her shoulders.

“You know how Sam met Ella, now so?” En Muller Kertek asked. “You know how so Sam came to be with Ella?”

“No, not in any way,” Mom answered.

“You know Sam and his brothers dug wells while during the drought, don’t you?”

“What do you mean?” Mom asked.

“They deepened wells as for food. They dug wells deeper in return as for food. They brought home food here and there doing so.”

“They dug wells, huh?”

“Yes,” En Muller Kertek said. “People paid as in food, so. Sam, he stayed healthy. All through the dry years, so. And he got strong, doing all the work, despite the drought.”

“He can sling heaviness, he can,” Aunt Magritte added.

En Muller Kertek’s daughter, Columbine, emerged into the room again and came over to her mother. “Momma, I hunger.”

“Can you wait, dear?” Mit En asked.

“I hunger,” Columbine said more urgently. She began to sob.

“Xavi,” En Muller Kertek said, loud enough for Xavi to hear her.

Xavi came running in. “Yes, Mit En?”

“Be a help, Xavi. Find something for Columbine to eat, as a please.”

Xavi herded the tearful Columbine into the kitchen.

“Okay…. Yes,” En Muller Kertek continued. “Sam and Ella. Of course, the drought ended. It took ten years, but it ended. One week the Devil’s Breath stopped. Devil’s Breath blew hard and then it didn’t. Gone. No one knew for whether it stopped for a time, or a little while. After few days wait, the southern winds in came, and the storms then began. And the storms kept coming in. And coming. One storm would come in, then another one come in right after it. And the hurricanes, too. The hurricanes brought in rain by bucket-loads.”

“‘We went as from the Sahara to Noah’s Flood,’” Mom said. “Everyone should have stopped praying for rain. Please, I thought, stop praying for rain.”

“Yeah, damn so. Stop praying for rain. Indeed. Because ten years of drought killed all ground cover. Then deluge came, so. The drought turned all such bare ground into mud. ‘Hip deep, goddamn mud,’” En Muller Kertek said in her own imitation of Sam. “We went away from coughing dust to scraping off mud. We had no money. I lost a shoe in such shit. Goddamn mud. The countryside became a sea of mud, so.”

“Geh-dom mooddeh.” Mom did another Sam imitation. Mom knew accents better than Mit En did.

“Okay…. Yeah. Like such. As of…. Truth…. So, Ella Mezmaiska Lovejoy’s family owned a farm about a half-hour walk down the road out from Sam’s. Ella was younger than Sam, little. The families knew one another, but not much. During when the drought the Techee boys kept the Lovejoys well dug deep enough Ella’s family had water.”

“So, Ella Mezmaiska Lovejoy met Sam and Sam dug her, well,” Aunt Magritte asked. “Or little?”

“What? No,” En continued. “Her family’s well. He did not dig her. I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe they knew each. Perhaps not. After the well digging is when Sam first met Ella Mezmaiska Lovejoy face to face. Well after the wells, I say. When he first, you can say, noticed her. That’s what I am telling you about.”

“So now,” Aunt Magritte interrupted. “Sam’s family knew Ella Mezmaiska Lovejoy’s family. Sam help Ella’s family as with their well. Sam didn’t know Ella. Right.”

“What? No. Not that. Maybe. Perhaps, by chance, he knew her. I don’t know. Okay…. Listen, you two. Listen. After the drought, every landscape transformed to mud. Sam walked to town along past the Lovejoy’s and, when he got to the Lovejoy’s, he saw Ella Mezmaiska Lovejoy. Ella stood in the middle of the gravel road. Between the road and her house the ditches and drive had been worked into a mud pit. She stood there. She couldn’t figure out how to get home without ruining her clothes.

“Sam’s legs was filthy. His trip to town caked him with mud away from the knees down.” En Muller Kertek then did her Sam voice again “‘I carry you across such mud if you want.’

“You know Ella Mezmaiska Lovejoy, so. She spun angry. She whirled around and turned on Sam.” En Muller Kertek switch to her Ella voice and snarled, “‘Do I look so helpless? Do I look such I need you?’”

En Muller Kertek laughed. “You know, now so, Sam looked at her and said, ‘Your clothes are clean. I have mud on me out from waist down. I carry you across the road. You stay clean. I don’t get more than dirty-dirty-dirty I am already.’”

“Did you get a transcript as of the encounter?” Aunt Magritte asked. “You seem to know quite such a bit of what, exactly, they said.”

“Transcript? What’s a transcript? Speak English, will you? You and your old fashion words. Stop and listen, will you? Try? Please? So…. Sam told Ella Mezmaiska Lovejoy that he was dirty-dirty and could carry her. Ella realized how impolite she had been. ‘My wrong. I rude you, so,’ she said to him. Then the two of them, each, they stood there. Sam looked at Ella and Ella looked back. Ella spoke, ‘Well, how so we do this? Do I jump on your back?’

“With no warning Sam walked close over and scooped Ella Mezmaiska Lovejoy up in his arms. Sam stomped through mud and carried her to firm ground on the across side of the mud.

“Sam had wrestled against with his brothers. This Ella girl, she didn’t feel any such like his brothers. No. His brothers had hard muscles, elbows and knees. All pointy hard things. Ella Mezmaiska Lovejoy, she felt soft. That softness awoke something out from within him that he had never experienced so. He felt it down low, deep behind that area that the olders told him to keep private. And she smelled good. Sam gazed into her eyes. Her eyes got the unique sensation boiling. Then he looked down at the front of her dress and saw a little of the divide between her breasts. Not much, but enough for Sam. He stood there with her in his arms, and stared at that divide. Transfixed.”

“En…, Little pitchers have bigs ears.” Mom looked over at me. “Pierrot, go settle Columbine. Confirm she… confirm she is content, so. They’re outside, now. Play with Columbine. Help us so.”

As I plodded out the door I could hear Xavi singing.

Ring-a-round the rosies,
A pocket full of posies,
Ashes to ashes,
We all fall down.

“PAY-ro,” Columbine exclaimed when she saw me. “Look. Sausage. Cheese.”

“I fed her as Mit En asked so,” Xavi said.

“That’s our sausage,” I said. “My mom bought it.”

“I have a dog,” Columbine told me.

Several listless minutes passed. I saw our wooden bucket. I grabbed it and began beating it like a drum. “Mardi Gras,” I whooped. “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die,” I sang. I bang on my make-shift drum and imitated the gunnies most folks liked. I tried hard to match the rolling beat.

Columbine stood and danced slightly out of time in her awkward toddler way. My beating of the drum and her dancing never were in sync, but close enough.

“Wait,” I abruptly stopped playing my improvised drum. I ran into our house and returned with a wooden box stained with years of Mardi Gras color.

“What’s that?” Columbine asked.

“We can’t play as with those,” Xavi protested.

What’s that?” Columbine asked again.

I opened the lid and pulled out a smaller round cardboard box. I lifted the lid, sneaked a peek inside and did not let Columbine see. I teased her with with a pantomimed expression of delight, my eyes wide with effected excitement and my mouth pursed in an overly emoted conspiratorial grin.

“We’ll get in trouble,” Xavi said sternly.

“We’ll just draw as with it. So now, we won’t throw it, no.” I had seen the adults use the colored flour in two ways. They made rangoli images of flowers and crosses and hearts and intricate patterns on the ground. And they threw it at each other in the final hours of Mardi Gras.

They even let the children take part in the throwing. My friends and I mixed the powder with water and effectively squirted it further than we could throw it.

Xavi and Columbine had been drawing. I thought we could use the powder to draw, just like the adults did, designs on the ground.

“PAY-ro, puh-LEEZE,” Columbine pleaded. “That?”

I let Columbine see the contents of the container, a bright blue powder.

“Mardi Gras,” Columbine exclaimed and clapped.

“Pierrot….”

I placed the opened box of blue on the ground. I removed more small containers from the box and lined them next to each other, opened on the ground. Green, red, yellow, purple, and orange.

Columbine lunged for the colors and flung them about. She quickly grabbed box after box and slung their contents at Xavi and me. Xavi and I, we scrambled to prevent Columbine from tossing any more color into the air. She only flung the contents of three boxes, but the mess that three boxes of Mardi Gras color make is amazing.

I remember the vivid image of a grinning toddler, Columbine, giggling with evil delight. The Mardi Gras powder unevenly covered her in the blue, green, and orange tints. Her eyes and teeth shone as white islands in the splashed color. A faint moist halo around her mouth made the color near her lips darker than the rest.

Xavi and I got blamed for the mess. En Muller Kertek never brought Columbine to visit again.

#

After Sam’s transfixation with the divide between Ella Mezmaiska Lovejoy’s breasts, Sam showed up often at Ella Mezmaiska Lovejoy’s house to talk to her. All of a sudden, Sam wanted a lot of talking. When Sam and Ella talked they also took long walks, hand in hand, and disappeared into the trees where no one could see them. Ella’s father, he teased Ella whenever he saw Sam at the door. ‘Sammy-wammy is here.’”

Sam made an earnest confession of his love for Ella. Ella Mezmaiska Lovejoy insisted they couldn’t marry.

“You can’t eat love,” Ella Mezmaiska Lovejoy told a disappointed Sam. The rains had come. But by that time even the seed had been eaten. Farmers scrambled to muster enough to plant.

A determined Sam rode with a trader to Aoustin on the other side of the delta. He worked on the bayou as a dock monkey, loading and unloading the boats for riverlings.

Sam, a strong farm boy who worked hard, got a lot of work as a dock monkey. He lived cheap. Any coins he spent had fingernail marks on them where he tried to keep them from slipping away. He kept a bank book with a record of all his deposits and watched in satisfaction as the numbers in that book slowly grew. He wondered how long it would take to have enough money for Ella to marry him.

Sam asked Ella to wait for him. Ella did. Ella Mezmaiska Lovejoy left her family’s farm and worked as a cook in a tavern that her great uncle owned in a small town in the southeastern Delta. She turned away all entreaties of the young men who came in.

Sam wrote Ella, often, and told her they would get married. He would marry her and buy her a restaurant. Ella wrote him back, “Buy the restaurant, then let’s see.” No restaurant, no Ella Mezmaiska Lovejoy.

Eventually, Sam bought a building. That building, unused for years, had been a restaurant before the drought. He worked for eight hours on the docks, then worked another eight hours reclaiming the restaurant and getting it ready. Sam slept little during that time. When finished, he put a hand-painted sign over the door. Sam and Ella’s.

He returned to the southeastern Delta triumphant and strode confidently into Ella’s uncle’s restaurant.

“I asked Ella to marry me so and she said she would. I happied. She happied. We married and I took Ella to Aoustin.”

Ella Mezmaiska Lovejoy cried the first time she saw the restaurant. “What is it such you’ve done to me?” she wailed. “You told me a restaurant, not a storage shed.”

“Ella,” Sam said, “happied not.”

#

When I ate at Sam and Ella’s, Ella Mezmaiska Lovejoy moored herself in the kitchen. Infrequently she stood in the door from the kitchen and looked out into the small dining room.

With washed out, freckled skin and faded hair, she looked like an European from the Earth movies. Her face, blocky in shape, always held the same heaviness. Ella wore loose clothes and an apron that made her exact size a mystery. Even so, I could tell she was a not a wispy woman. I could not imagine Sam, or anyone, being able to scoop up Ella in his arms.

When Ella Mezmaiska Lovejoy came out of the kitchen and looked over the diners, her look of disappointment bordered on despair. Ella stood briefly in the dining room before she silently retreated to isolation in the kitchen.

#

“After the drought, everyone’s having youngs,” Mom said. “I know not why Sam and Ella have not.” Kev sat in a chair, listening to her. He sat, legs crossed tight, and he looked past Mom to a blank space on the wall.

“Maybe they can’t,” Kev answered.

“Fecund. Absolutely fecund,” Mom said. “Such’s people now after the drought. The dam has burst, so. The years of struggle and the drought saw few babies.”

“Ha!” Kev made that odd interjection of his. “I guess all that pent-up fertility now bears fruit. The streets are lousy with drool-soaked toddlers and mothers hushing babies hoarse from their constant howling.”

“Now so,” Mom protested. “I didn’t say such.”

Kev blinked, then looked over at me. “Yes, fecund. Absolutely, positively, fecund. How does it feel, Pierrot, to be the product of a dam burst?”

I stood there, confused.

“Well,” Kev remarked, “It’s rare for the young to so outnumber the old. We live in a strange time. Can you imagine how it will be in ten, twenty years?”

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