Shadows on the Teche

FrontShadows150Felecia LeBlanc, in the summer-house behind The Shadows, watched the Louisiana Bayou Teche flow by, carrying her memories and anticipations. Teche meant snake. The bayou was named by the Indians for its writhing curves. The summer-house was supposed to be haunted. As a child she’d heard that, but how or why she never knew. The swollen red water and the summer-house held many associations. On these steps, she and Etienne had decided to marry when they were older. And right out there Blaze Devalcourt came down the bayou paddling that log pirogue he’d hollowed out himself.

Those years ago when she and Etienne told Blaze their marriage plans he’d laughed. Then, shaking the coal-black hair out of his eyes he invited them for an engagement boat ride.

Delighted, she and Etienne had scrambled into his small unsteady log canoe. Sure enough, in the exact center of the bayou, the crude boat overturned.

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CHAPTER ONE

Felecia LeBlanc, in the summerhouse behind The Shadows, watched the Louisiana Bayou Teche flow by, carrying her memories and anticipations. Teche meant snake. The bayou was named by the Indians for its writhing curves. The summerhouse was supposed to be haunted. As a child she’d heard that, but how or why she never knew. The swollen red water and the summerhouse held many associations. On these steps, she and Etienne had decided to marry when they were older. And right out there Blaze Devalcourt came down the bayou paddling that log pirogue he’d hollowed out himself.

Those years ago when she and Etienne told Blaze their marriage plans he’d laughed. Then, shaking the coal-black hair out of his eyes he invited them for an engagement boat ride.

Delighted, she and Etienne had scrambled into his small unsteady log canoe. Sure enough, in the exact center of the bayou, the crude boat overturned.

Felecia, coming up furious as a cat, yelling and hitting about wildly, knew Blaze tipped over his pirogue on purpose. But Etienne only laughed lazily – laughter, which to her further fury joined Blaze’s hooting and hollering. She’d hated them both. Even now those memories were razor-fresh.

What was Blaze like now? So long since she’d heard of him. And Etienne – there had to be an awfully good reason he hadn’t met her airplane. He was supposed to be with her now. She twisted on the stone steps knowing she had no choice but to curb her impatience.

The sunlight now was fading, night rising from the ground. Deep shadows from the trees met and blended. Rosy clouds edged the leaves in pink, and moss swayed in the trees. Tiny gurgles of water floated from the small fountain splashing by the statues on the garden side of the house. In her imagination she visited those statues, one for each of the four seasons. She saw again the rare white Lady Hume camellia bush growing in this garden first created by Mary Conrad Weeks, that long-ago Civil War lady who had owned this house as a widow.

She’d get up in a few minutes and visit the garden she told herself. But first she’d watch the slow water in the bayou. The circles that unseen fish made on its smooth surface.

It was a long return journey she’d made from Nova Scotia, Canada, to this summerhouse in New Iberia, Louisiana. Long, in more than pure physical distance. This was a crossroads in her life. No requirement now to stay in Nova Scotia. She was free to face the past, to make a new future. A child when she left Louisiana, she was a woman now returning to her old home area and her childhood love, Etienne. Or rather, trying to return. Where was he? Surely he’d know how awkward she’d feel. Surely if he really tried, he could’ve managed something beyond allowing Aunt Victoria to meet her today.

But it was no wonder she was tired, disoriented, and now blaming Etienne when she shouldn’t. This day had been interminable. If ever someone needed to sit quietly and gather herself together, she was that person. Aunt Victoria, handing her a key to the Shadows, had surely manufactured this errand and sent her to get a letter from the study. She’d intuitively guessed her niece’s need for aloneness and had recalled Felicia’s love for the unusual museum-house that was The Shadows.

In a moment she’d go to the study, Felecia told herself watching the water as if hypnotized. What was she looking for? Waiting for?

A strange feeling crawled over her. An uneasy sensation of movement just out of sight, made her turn slowly from the bayou and stare at the back of the house. Three dormer windows on the third floor stared back with uncurtained clarity. Did the ghost of Mary Conrad Weeks look out now, as she must have during the Civil War, exiled to the attic while the damn Yankees lived, rough and crude, in her cherished house?

Long white curtains were slightly parted in the bedrooms on the second floor. How many people, Felecia wondered, had stood behind them and spied out. The green shutters covering the windows on the ground floor made looking out easy, but looking in impossible.

The empty house made her uncomfortable; it should have people living in it not be given over entirely to exhibition. Maybe the house was angry because all the people had left; it had no one to look after, or watch over.

She turned back to the bayou. Thoughts came of Grandmother Sheldrake and she was sad. The old lady, ailing for a long time, had been, what many would call a burden to Felecia, especially towards the end.  But Grandmother Sheldrake had needed her, and Felecia knew she was a person who needed to be needed.    Now there was Aunt Victoria, unhealthy-looking today at the airport, not at all like her pictures.

She held her breath, watching sleek, shiny nutria on the banks of the bayou. She hadn’t seen one before, but she recognized it from having read a description. Exactly like a huge rat, she watched as it lazily scratched itself before grubbing again in the grass for food. The shiny black nutria was fat with a long skinny tail. The very picture of a gigantic rat. She watched, fascinated, and thought of her father, long ago trapping muskrats. These nutria from South America lived in the Louisiana bayous and were trapped for their fur.

The nutria slid into the water. Superimposed over the ripples was a scene from her past. Mother lay cold and still in the parlor, her hands folded over a waxy, white lily.

Aristocratic, thin-lipped Grandmother had arrived from Nova Scotia that afternoon, brought to slow-moving Bayou Teche by Aunt Victoria, Mother’s only sister. There had been the two children and now there was one. Aunt Victoria’s eyes were red. Her face was as pale as the one at rest in the shadowy parlor. But the just-met grandmother’s cool blue eyes held no tears as she shook Felecia’s hand. Her narrow lips had thinned into disappearance as she surveyed the poverty of her daughter’s Cajun household and her only granddaughter that she’d refused to acknowledge.

Beyond a cool nod and a crisp, “How do you do,” she’d no words or looks for the French-speaking Cajun relatives with their swarming families of eight, ten and twelve children. Then Felecia remembered there was a loud crash out back at the small dock on the bayou. Father came rushing in, straight from his swamp and the primitive trapper’s hut on its edge.

He hadn’t wanted to trap that season. Said no muskrats or new trapping areas were worth one sigh from his pretty wife’s lips. He said, when she was better, maybe next year, they would all go to the swamp camp, isolated, yet weirdly beautiful. Mother and Felecia would stretch the raw muskrat skins that he’d bring home everyday.

“Where is she?” Father had cried, his face a white grotesque mask under the swamp dirt. His torn khaki shirt and trousers reeked of animal blood and his own sweat. “Where is my darling, my little wife? She’d only bad ill, isn’t she? … isn’t she?”

His haunted black eyes still asked the agonizing question. As deep in their depths grief and guilt fought a losing battle, Felecia saw that he knew the answer. As he stared blindly, she saw the light go out of her father’s kind, life-loving eyes. He had grabbed her clumsily in a hug that crushed and hurt, crying, “My poor little child. What shall we do?”

Her Canadian-English grandmother had the answer. Grandmother would take Felecia home to cool, clean, orderly Nova Scotia for a visit while her father went back to the mosquito-infested swamps for the end of the fur season.

Felecia gradually became aware of noises behind her. Then, before she could whirl about, a low, drawly voice said, “I wondered who was trespassing here. I should have known.”

She spun with a scream.

His hair was still coal black. And it still fell in his eyes. She’d forgotten Blaze’s eyes were so blue and stared intently. He was huge, standing over her in the fading light. He’d grown tall and muscular.

“You’re Blaze Devalcourt,” she said when she could speak, and was annoyed at the breathy, little-girl sound of her voice

“You’re Felecia DeBlanc. One day I paddled my log pirogue down that bayou especially to see you.”

“Yes, and dumped me into the water!” Still breathlessly, she laughed. “I was a drowned rat when I went in the house. Aunt Victoria had a fit.” Abruptly she asked, “How are you? It’s a surprise to see you again.”

Felecia watched a little apprehensively as Blaze calmly seated himself beside her on the stone steps. He should be wearing heavy cowboy boots with his hands tucked into a wide, vulgarly jeweled belt, she thought. But he was dressed plainly in a tan, open-necked shirt tucked into casual, tight-fitting jeans. Maybe the arrogance came from the way he held his broad shoulders. Or the sure way he moved. In the late afternoon light, Blaze’s face was razor-sharp, hard, alert. Yet, in some absurd way, his presence made her feel safer.

“Etienne asked me to look after you. He’s got one of his ever-lasting snafus at the sugar plantation. Also, he didn’t know for sure when you were coming.” His gaze on her face was sure and direct, almost like a touch, she thought.

“Yes, I decided on the spur of the moment to leave Nova Scotia and called Aunt Victoria. There didn’t seem much point to staying in Canada once Grandmother … once Grandmother …” Tears swam suddenly in her eyes. She hadn’t yet cried. It was all expected and arranged for. Grandmother Sheldrake had even planned her own funeral.  Why was she crying now? This was ridiculous. Felecia sniffed and looked for the shiny nutria. But it was still under water.

“If it would help to talk about it, I could listen.” His voice at her side was quiet and strong. He wasn’t at all as she remembered.

“There’s really nothing to talk about. Grandmother was prepared. But I wasn’t. Her death just seemed sudden somehow.”

“Like you and Etienne. That was a little sudden, wasn’t it?” The kindness had gone out of his tones. “We’ve been best friends all these years, and I didn’t know he was writing to you.” An aggravated, slightly injured quality implied she’d stolen Etienne away.

“We’ve written for several years.” Felecia could hear herself sounding defensive. “Etienne writes beautiful letters; we got to know each other through our writing. When I was cooped up with Grandmother all those years his letters were all that kept me going. They gave me something to look forward to,” she cried passionately.

Blaze moved closer in the dimness, examining her face. Felecia looked away at the bayou and the bamboo at its edge. She examined the thick moss-grown oak limb that curved to the bayou, the moss touching the water and turning with the slight current.

Blaze moved abruptly. “Etienne is one Cajun who learned American ways. He’ll own this entire parish, and the next one too, before he’s finished. Now he’s going into sugar. It takes a lot of capital to go into sugar:  land, machinery, equipment. And it takes luck, getting the right weather, staying on top of everything.”

His tone was so accusatory, she couldn’t help but wonder if he thought she had designs on Etienne and his plantations. “We never wrote about money,” she burst out fiercely, “only about what he was doing and what we were like. Our desire was to know each other through our writing. Etienne writes beautiful letters – they’re poetry.” She looked at him scornfully. What would this man know of poetry?

Blaze only reply was a neutral, “I’m sure they are.” Searching his face, she saw different messages, felt traces of frustrated anger stirring like the moss below them barely touching the muddy bayou water.

“I want to see the garden before it’s black night,” she said, preparing to rise.

Yet Blaze stood before she could and reached a hand that looked hard and strong. Unaccountably she hesitated a fraction of a second before delivering herself into his warm clasp. Once on her feet she hesitated again, fighting a strange impulse to throw herself against that broad chest and cry and cry until all the tears were gone.

There were lights in the house – one in the middle of the back veranda behind the dining room while another glowed from the stairwell. The house was a picture post card, she thought, and really did look as if people still lived in it.

Disdaining the gravel path of stones and broken oyster shells, she led the way over the soft, green grass that glowed in the open where the little remaining daylight touched it.

Monkey-grass borders gently curved around flowerbeds filled with sweet William and yellow and red sharp-pointed Shasta daisies that looked like zinnias. An ancient three-foot-tall olive oil jar was filled with purple-black petunias. The gurgling of the fountain was sweet, cool and unbelievably restful. The falling water seemed to whisper an invitation to stop and rest for a while. To learn the message of its serene sounds.

There was a wrought-iron bench by the fountain. Without a word, Blaze dropped onto it.

Felecia went to the statue of Spring and touched the tender marble face. The marble was cold, yet with a life of its own somehow – not human, not superhuman, just different. Spring smiled, as if knowing the flowers she carried would never fade.

Caught in some strange homecoming ceremonial act, Felecia moved along the uneven redbrick walkway to stand before the statue of Fall. She trailed her fingertips over his marble lips wondering what it would be like to kiss this frozen, handsome young man. She could throw herself on his shoulder and cry all she wanted. He’d never mind, or change expression – or hold her in warm, alive arms either.

Involuntarily, she glanced back at Blaze. She had spent too much time alone these past years; it was making her odd. Thankfully, Blaze, lounging on the iron bench, was watching the fountain, not her.

Still following the red square brick walkway and the unexpected impulse to visit each statue, she came to Winter. Winter was an alone, cold, old man, huddled in his stone cloak. She smoothed a hand over the back of his head, wondering if we carry around our own winter, our own buried dreams and hopes. Was this what she was doing in Louisiana, following something that could only be a dream?

If Aunt Victoria could actually meet her at the airport and Blaze could search her out at The Shadows, where was Etienne?  Had Etienne suddenly grown feet as cold as these statues?

As she walked to Summer, she tried to remember Etienne as a boy. But somehow, now, in the garden, she couldn’t. With his letters it was easy.

Summer, a mature woman, strong and fruitful, carried herself proudly, generously. Felecia touched her cheek in acknowledgment and walked back to Blaze.

“All these years I never realized it. These statues don’t follow the logical order of Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter. I wonder why?”  She walked over to the fountain and sat down on the iron bench by Blaze. But keeping a careful distance. “I wonder what inhabitant of the house first placed the statues in this odd order, and why?”

Blaze, slapping at a mosquito, said dryly, “There’s one thing about you that hasn’t changed a bit. You’re still crazy about this house.”

“Yes,” Felecia agreed, thinking that she should find Aunt Victoria’s letter and go.  But it was pleasant in the garden. She didn’t want to leave. She could stay a little while longer. “The house was always beautiful to me, even as a small child, like a dream made real. And with Aunt Victoria being the administrator, I spent a lot of time here. I always loved the bamboo in front closing out the world. The Shadows appears better for the visitors with the bamboo and vines cleared away, now that it’s a National Trust. But I wish it were still the same.”

Her voice was low and musing as she sat beside Blaze. She could feel her nervousness and knew she talked too much. And yet, it was so restful here. Easy to return to childhood fantasies and dreams.

“I used to make up stories about this house and its people. The first David Weeks, seven feet tall, with his land grant from the Spanish government. I thought of him building this house for his wife, Mary Clara – she was a Conrad before she got married. David Weeks worked so hard with the architects to get everything perfect for her. He fell ill overseeing its building and had to go north for his health. All the time dreaming of his home back here and his wife alone. She loved to read. Just before David Weeks died – still away from home in the cold north – he sent her a rosewood bookcase for her sitting room. He had built her a small sitting room just off their big master bedroom, where she now slept alone. She must have been lonely when he died, even if she did remarry later and bring someone else to live in the house.”

Felecia mused, eyes on the murmuring fountain, not Blaze, “I wonder who she thought of during those long months of the Civil War? You know, she was locked alone in the attic by the Yankees.”

“I was wrong.” Blaze said coldly, his voice rough and harsh. “Perhaps you and Etienne suit each other perfectly. You can dream of long-ago plantation life. Etienne can slave his life away to get one for you.”

Her arm was back before she knew it. Her hand moved through the air towards Blaze’s face. She felt betrayed. Hit in the stomach. Fighting for control, her halted fingers curved into a claw. What gave him the right to treat her this way? Nothing. She wanted to rake her nails across his presumptuous face. She’d fix that handsome face. Her body was tense, strained. The muscles in her arms ached.

Blaze grabbed her right wrist, and she jabbed, cruel and sudden, at his face with her left hand.

Like a powerful cat, he twisted away. But one fingernail caught his neck and she held it there, deep in his flesh, tearing. All restraint was gone, the few remaining traces thrown to the wind, building on their own wild freedom. She was again a fighting tomboy, heedless, willful. And exultant, rejoicing in using, full out, every atom of strength she could muster.

“You are despicable!” Her voice was clear, hard and even, she was glad to notice, even while she struggled.

His right hand held her wrist tighter. How dare he hold her this way? He was hurting her. She bent her head and sank her teeth into his hand.

“You little witch, we can’t have that.” His tones were as cold as her own. Yet seemed to come from a long way off through cool, green water. Blaze twisted his arm free and pulled cruelly at her hair.

Now they faced each other, wild-eyed, panting, breathing in gulps.

In the dimness, his blue eyes appeared black, his face cool marble. For a long moment, she poised on a thin dangerous edge. Her mouth was half opened, the breath rushing through.  She could cry or fight. Which would it be?

His head darted down like a tiger. His mouth came against hers, hard, cruel, hurting. She tried twisting her head, but there was nowhere to go. Blaze’s hand, wide spread, covered the back of her head, holding it.

She tried to push away his mouth with her lips. That didn’t work, so she went limp in the old childhood trick of playing possum. Her head sagged.

Still his mouth followed her, then it began to move gently, insistently, caressingly. The kiss went on and on and on. She had the wild feeling there was nothing in the world but this mouth. It would never leave her until she responded. She could stay like a statue forever, and he would kiss her forever, moving his warm mouth on hers, pushing her lips apart.

Then it didn’t matter, nothing mattered. For her well-disciplined body betrayed her. Her lips began pressing back. Her arms curved up, pulling him closer, tighter. To be held like this, close and drowning, warm and safe was all she wanted.

When, after what seemed forever they pulled apart, Felecia was too horrified to feel ashamed. Shame would come later. She’d never kissed a man like this in her life. Or slapped one. Or bitten one. Nothing, except the undeniable fact of its happening, could have made her believe she was capable of this incredible display of violent emotions. What had Grandmother’s death unloosed? And what, after her years in the frozen North, was now melting? She couldn’t think about that.

Felecia wiped the back of her hand across her mouth. Moving trembling fingers she straightened her hair, then her blouse. She tried to speak but felt her chin quiver and closed her lips, still holding them carefully.

“Well, well.” Blaze’s voice gave nothing away. His face was entirely in the shadows. Somehow, sometime full darkness had arrived. What light there was fell on her face, in her eyes. In her heightened sensitivity, the light was a tangible thing. Moving without thought or words, she took three quick steps to the square pool, bent down and dipped her hands into the cool water. She held her wet palms against her hot face.

She wished she were anywhere but here. She thought of making excuses. Shudders and tremors kept coming from unknown, hidden places deep inside her.

“If it were possible to apologize for my behavior, I would” she said. “It was childish. I behaved inexcusably just now. I’d like it if we’d both agree to forget this ever happened.” She took a deep breath, noticing that Blaze still hadn’t made a sound. “If I were to make an excuse, I could only say I’ve been under a lot of strain lately. Perhaps more than I realized. I’m going into The Shadows now to get a letter for Aunt Victoria. I’ll say good night.”

Felecia was pleased at how well she said the words and how adequate and dismissing they sounded. She ignored Blaze’s out flung hand and his indistinct murmur or two. Quickly, she moved away from him, starting down the path toward The Shadows.

His deep voice spoke a louder “Good night,” and then, “I’ll call you tomorrow.”  She did not reply.

Great story. I loved the wonderful info about bayous and crawfish, the details on flowers and birds, the whole area’s lore, the tempestuous feelings between Blaze and Felecia – lots of suspense, her ‘unknowing’ until the end. Lisette