Gris-Gris Daughter (Prologue)

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Gris-Gris Daughter


The black and white photo I held in my hand with my arm fully extended in front of me was 47 years old. Tattered edges, watermarks and a crease diagonally across the middle spoke as much toward its translation as the subject matter - three smiling individuals standing before a farmhouse. I lowered the photo and took several steps forward until I was sure I found the exact spot where my grandmother had stood so many years ago. This was some of the rich soil from which I sprang, or rather some of the gravel eventually chewed into a finer grit by the forces of God and nature. It's a humble business becoming dirt.

The farmhouse depicted in the photo had suffered neglect. Shutters skewed. Clapboard siding slipped to reveal tar paper high up on the second story. I tried to envision my grandmother living happily here, if only for a few weeks. Cottonwood saplings had grown helter skelter veiling the covered porches and their sagging screens while the larger trees dappled everything with cotton. I imagined her brushing it away with a broom, humming gently to herself, not all that much younger than I am now. But older in the harsh ways of the world.

The front field still bore evidence of the alfalfa that had been cultivated there years ago. The coops were ghosts of rusted wire and overgrown weeds. A grand place once, no one had boarded the windows and taken a last look back before leaving for good. Instead they had all gone to earth before it, and it seemed appropriate that the house meet its fate with eyes wide open, and that this is where Grandpa King, Danny and myself had come for closure.

After my college graduation we - granddaughter, son and husband - made the journey from Bethel, Texas to Krotz Springs, Louisiana to say our final goodbyes to a grandmother, a mother and a wife. Each of us now stood gazing reverentially in different directions with separate thoughts on our minds. Whatever the three of us may have expected, the extinct farm where we found her, while desolate, wasn't sad. The Achafalaya River ran swiftly by, and the breeze carried a coolness up from its banks. All the harsher smells of a farm had long since settled into a rich, ancient humus. Combined with subtle sugar cane carried from a far off on the breeze the odor made my eyelids heavy. It seemed a sweet place to sleep.

Grandpa King caught my attention and pointed toward the house with his chin. I glanced again at the photo that had been in my possession for the last fifteen years. None of us had known the young woman of seventeen represented in it or her temporary custodians smiling broadly on either side of her, but it was the way my grandmother had wanted to be remembered.

The three steps leading up to the porch felt solid but creaked with my weight. Careful not to catch my sleeve on the torn screen door I stepped past before letting it slam behind me. A few green, metallic flies buzzed suddenly in the heavy silence that quickly returned. I twisted the knob and let the front door fall open. Dust motes danced in the glinting sun that poured into the room from behind me, and my nose turned at the smell of old glue, mildew and leather that reminded me of unsaddling a horse after a long ride. My grandmother's description of the place, after all these years, was right as rain. The dining room table was gone, only four heavy indentations in the carpet were left. But the hutch against the back wall and below the bannister was still there and still encrusted with black and white photos like barnacles clinging to the hull of an oil freighter.

Early pictures had been lined up and taped to the glass cabinet doors with care. Later pictures, when space became scarce, were tacked cattywampus and overlapping around the edges. Almost every surface of the old wood was covered. There were hundreds of pictures, but I knew what to look for and after a moment located it - an exposed section of ornate facia just beside the upper hinge of the rightmost door. And above that a terribly tattered photo was thum-tacked into the seasoned wood of the hutch, a picture of a man leaning on a rail and of a small boy perched atop it.

Of all the pictures displayed it was the only one of which I was familiar. On the same day my grandmother had given me the photo of herself, she had made great efforts to keep this one to herself. I had only just caught a glimpse of the grinning boy before she shuffled it back into her dog-eared journal. I don't know exactly why, but I had expected to find it back in its place. I suppose in the same way that my current gesture was healing for me, replacing the photo of the grinning boy must have been healing for her.

One last time I turned the photo over in my hands, the photo that had unknowingly served as a gothic anthem for three generations of women. Twice its title had been scribed and crossed out: Our new daughter, July 1963; gris-gris daughter. I pulled a brass tack from the wood with my fingernail and returned the picture, finally putting the curse to rest. The old couple and the young, smiling version of my grandmother looked as though they had never left. It seemed too simple of a ceremony, but it was after all only a picture, and no one in it was yet alive. After a few more minutes, Danny's soft rap at the door finally drew me away.

The graves were manicured patches of bright green with wildflowers still blooming atop the three slight mounds situated on a gentle slope running down toward the river. They were the only things maintained on the whole place. Yet we would have never known where to find them if it hadn't of been for bumping into the gentleman that kept them. A handsome black man in his sixties, he introduced himself as Isaiah, and explained he had been the eggman after the Tully's had given up on the coops over forty years ago. By the glisten in his eye and hitch in his voice we knew he must have been more than that. And indeed he later shared with me his part in the story, the story that became my story and all the rest.

Ruth and Lester Tully's stones were there, simple with clear lettering. Isaiah's uncle had made them and Isaiah had planted them. But it was the third stone that we all, each in our own way, were drawn to. Even more simple than the other two, it said only, "Elise Rabideau, Daughter of the King."

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