To Swallow the Seeds and Then
To Swallow the Seeds and Then
I think now, that we let them convince us into what we became. As all things, condemned to rise from our own waste. Aware of our own immeasurably slow decay, the impartiality of the space around us. Yet still, wildly gathering the scattered bits of what once made sense, weaving spools of broken thread with bleeding fingers. We reap the harvest from the soil that we have poisoned.
It is not a time that I can fathom: the days of my Mama, and of Miss Expedite (still Madame back then), of her boy, not yet a photograph. Things I’d never given weight to. I was but a child when she told me those stories, picking the nettles off my socks on her front porch as we drank warm lemonade. Those memories were not mine. I did not want them to be: I had my own tales to weave across the vast expanse of the bayou. And the relevance of recollection is slim in the eyes of the child.
She insists that it was better back then, they all do. There were rules. Beginnings and endings and in betweens, says Alice. There were ins and outs, things to pick up and things to be left alone. The way that things should be, says Alice, when I ask if things were really different at all.
They say the heat was milder then, the smooth flanks of the levees kept the wind and the water at bay. They tell us- Miss Expedite and those who remember- that the Mississippi ran as thick and white as a cataract, and the strength of the spray could tear the wings from black dragonflies.
Streams swelled against the heather and through the milkweeds like varicose veins. Rain came strong and crisp as a whip, and the fabric of the night sky was shredded with stars. The tides, says Expedite, breathed even back then. And the earth slept soundly beneath the uneasy stirring of mankind.
There was a rhythm to things, she says. People back then knew not to touch the things they couldn’t tame. Miss Expedite’s boy was still around, and my Mama too. They peeled blue radishes together on the porch in the evenings, watching the working girls come down from Riverbend, weaving words in the dusky air as they whispered and chattered. Fireflies sprinkled the swamp like broken glass, and children came with mason jars and paper cups to catch them.
Mama Lanuit was the town’s oldest florist back then, and a dear friend of my Mama’s, I’m told. She was the last who lived among the mangroves, before they’d softened and drowned beneath the rising waters. She taught the girls to weave gris-gris from the winter reeds, and to hang paper lanterns through the autumn nights. Rings of salt blistered the earth round every house and vials of jimson and honey stained the windowsills with sulphur. These were sober times, matte and neutral days and nights that people closed their windows to, waiting for the howling of the wind to subside.
And then the strange days began. In hushed, prophetic tones, Old Expedite tells me these stories until they become a pale part of me, like scars I cant quite place. The summer never came, and with each passing day, the heat hung heavy and dark over Baton Rouge, as though soaking up the soot and ash of dying brushfires.
It was the first of many unsettling and inexpicably enchanting events, though it gave one the impression that the slow and steady decay of our city had preceded its very inception.
They tell us that the water became saturated with filmy, opalescent strings of halite, which floated about like bits of skin come in from the ocean. The water wasn’t safe to drink, the sand bruised with burnt gasoline. Snow fell on the bayou once, and Miss Expedite swears she thought the moths had all caught into the boughs of the willow trees, shedding the powder from their wings. The animals grew sick and strange. By the next blood moon, the fruit bats were swollen with the contents of amberjack carcasses, split against the levee. They ceased to hunt, their purple bellies hanging like figs from the willow trees at night- mercury poisoning, they said. And the mosquitoes had their day.
It was things come to tell us we hadn’t done right by each other, said old Expedite. We had forgotten the rites, had forgotten to bring white lilies to the tombs of our dead. Everything was all wrong, and the poplars began to wilt in the blooming heat of summer.
It wasn’t just Miss Expedite and the others (though they preferred their own explanations to the intermittent headlines and mid-afternoon CNN reports). The sky was eroding, they told us, the water rising. New Orleans and our little house at the lip of the bayou, become a lesson to the rest of the world.
I don’t remember much about the storm. Like old Expedite’s memories, that time doesn’t feel much my own. Mama hadn’t been well for quite some time by then. Daddy had fixed her a canopy with some blue tarpaulin, and sent me to bring her hotcakes and lemon tea at noon. Though it was the hottest summer, she took it without ice. She was so frail you could almost see the underside of her skin, wet and trembling beneath the soft blue light of the tarp. She grew little hairs along her arm, like the fibers of molding fabric, glowing with a sort of intimacy that made me avert my eyes. Expedite came by with salts and soft prayers. My mama, she said, was suffering the pains of our desecrated land.
The rains picked up on August 19th, dragging the gossamer skins of dead fish down Avenue Esplanade. Daddy spent the nights in our flooded basement, catching drowned rats with empty gin bottles and swearing at Mama’s veils and scarves as they swirled about his legs. We’d seen the news. Gulfport was supposed to be hit first, hardest, but the sirens went off along the levee by the second day. “Ain’t you somethin’” he said, when I asked him, “shouldn’t we go?” Daddy brought up the rest of the tarpaulin, nailing it along the windowframes. He pulled up the rabbit traps from the backyard, and brought the chickens up into the attic. And all the while, the wind snapped branches like taut nerves, the rains beat down our gutters, and our neighbors left, one by one. I knew Daddy wouldn’t go, and Mama seemed to know nothing of the storm, the moons of her eyes drinking in the blue of the tarp around her.
The walls of our house began to yawn, the waters of the Mississippi drooling in through the spaces in the tin roof. It swelled and swelled, the summer heat hissing above the cool water that pooled around our ankles, until the rooftop blew off like the lid of a boiling kettle. I can’t remember how, or for how long, but Daddy and I found the top of the tool shed floating on by, and sat on the rusted shingles, lighting sparklers and smoke shooters into the heavy sky.
Nothing was the same after that. In the two or three days that Daddy and I spent on the tool shed, I saw the broken bits of our little town beneath the gossamer skins of seawater. We made paddles of palm fronds and severed branches, using the tops of neighbors’ houses and skeletal church spires to mark our path across the thickness of silt and mud. It occurs to me now that it was this sight, etched like graphite into the folds of my memory, which forever dimmed the light behind my eyes: the bones of my entire childhood laid bare and bloated beneath the water, the glaring fragility of the very foundations of our lives.
The others, it seemed, had lived the storm as a cold and sharp catastrophe- an isolated incident, perhaps a long time coming, yet distinct in time and memory. I believe now that the water itself did not bear destruction, but instead, afforded the lucidity with which to measure the imperceptible pace of steady decomposition. In the time that it took us to reach the FEMA response center at the Louisiana superdome, I found that our city, dismantled and submerged, had been tarnished and broken long before the storm. Corroded pipelines and burnt branches, splintered doorframes, searing pain and hatred spraypainted over every surface- all unchanged beneath the film of rainwater.
Whether by the steady sigh of carbon dioxide or the malignant darkness within our own hearts and minds, our poisons have been permeating the fabric of our very existences: the elixir of life is nothing but decay.
We reached the central business district at dawn on the third day. We’d eaten nothing but alpine lilies and the meadowlarks that Daddy shot down with his gun. When we arrived within sight of the dome, we tethered the roof of the tool shed, now soft and heavy with moss, to a willow tree, and Daddy gave me the last of the sparklers to set off into the pale morning sky. They sent out a dory from the back of the dome- three young men with northern accents and plastic gloves, breathily exclaiming their incredulity at our survival. They gave us mothbitten blankets and limp biscuits, apologetically explaining to Daddy and I that the severity of the storm had hindered the movement of supplies across state lines. The bleachers of the dome had been sprinkled with sawdust, and each row of seats displaced a number. We slept there, thousands of us, huddled beneath the broken floodlights and the shadows of helicopters above. Mama, I am told, was led away to the helicopter pad, taken inland and across the Mississippi. We didn’t see her much after that. Daddy and I lived in the dome for two weeks, as our town was bled out of water and debris.
We were taken home by old army trucks, dark, musty vans that leaked gasoline from their bowels and coughed up clouds of smoke and exhaust. Ours was crowded- in addition to the people of our town, the residents of Gulfport were to take up temporary residence in the bayou: the draining of their town was to take another two months. The sky was peppered with rain and whispered the whole way home, out of respect for the sound. Old Expedite was there- found on the lip of her chimney by a Fema copter merely hours after the storm, she attributed her survival to phantom forces and faith. She spoke in soft tones with the other old ones- of fate, of consequence, of the future of our town. I couldn’t see her face through the thick brackish darkness, but it seemed to me that, as we stepped out into the bleached bareness of the winter sun, that something had been drained from behind her eyes.
I know now that it was I who had been changed, that the rush of water had left a yawning space within me, that the stagnant water had rotten away at the saccharine veil before my eyes. The seraphic being that old Expedite had been to me had drowned with the silt of the flood, and I grew to despise the remains of that woman, for all that they were and purported to be.
The water steadily receded, spring rolled out over the riverbanks, and I spent days in Mama’s old garden, pulling at the petals of wildflowers and filling the pages of my notebooks with the blood and bile of adolescence. May was a month shrouded in mist- the pale sunshine of spring wore down the dew drops like the grease of melted butter, splitting the stems of tall ferns and wildflowers. The grasses fanned out like damp feathers, and between the winter branches were the pale, waxed tepals of mountain lilies. The birds and the squirrels return from the far side of the Mississippi, and the houses of those who had never returned softened into the wilderness.
The men of the town drew up the blueprints for city centers, swimming pools, sidewalks and playgrounds- dreams were drafted once more, the spectral reminders of nature’s impartiality effaced from memory. Their faith in the materialization of a wish was restored- the possibility of taming chaos with coherence. New homes were eventually erected, city gardens tamed and then forgotten, park benches rebuilt and repainted. Turpentine and balmy ocean air swept through the air, babies were born and young couples began to fall in love again.
I saw old Expedite often through the camellias that grew between our gardens. It seemed to me that as the ghosts of darker days ceased to stir beneath our town, the sight of her stirred those specters to life within me. She came, for Mama she claimed, and sat at our kitchen table weaving tales and painting omens in tea leaves. She began to disgust me- the whites of her eyes, wet and yellowed like the gossamer belly of a gutted fish, the way the flesh around her face seemed to collapse on itself, the gelatinous spittle that gathered in the corners of her mouth. She spoke of her impending death like something that didn’t already shimmer across her face. I shuddered at her presence, spending the entirety of her evening visits in the attic, filling out college applications.
Over time, I began to forget that she had ever existed at all- the memory of her distilled into the earth like the remnants of those who had never returned.
They say that there are few water marks around now, perhaps a couple in the lower 9th ward, one or two kept healthy by the scribbling of eager teenagers. I took some friends to Mardi Gras, my last year in college, but that was no homecoming- just drunken rides down Bourbon Street in the convertible I’d just bought. I haven’t been back since the move to Seattle- Pierre and I are saving up for next summer’s trip to France, and the bathroom renovation plans that I’ve been working on since we bought the our little apartment in the bay. I hadn’t thought of old Expedite, of the hurricane and home in years. But in the past couple of years, since I started celebrating birthdays with red wine and lies about my age, that I awaken every so often with a hot, acidic pain in the spaces between my joints. It rains often in Seattle, and I’m told arthritis is exacerbated by ambient moisture. In any event, I’ve got to do calisthenics to ease the viscous spittle between skin and bone. The plastic crunch of cartilage is unnerving, but as the day wears on it goes away. In that space of time, I’ve got to fight the familiar smell of damp earth and rotted leaves that slips in beneath the windowsill- it seems to exacerbate the pain somehow.