She came up out of the mud where the Mississippi River washes the continent’s silt into the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi Sound was her place of birth, her embryo, her mama’s womb. She knew the familiar cadence of languages mixed as in a boiling pot. There was the French providing spice, the savory meats of English and the Spanish paella blended to a sound so sweet and soft. A person didn’t have to understand the words, not if she was in tune with this small world and its past. Just listen to inflection, follow the pattern, the hand gestures and facial expressions.
Go sit on the dock at her grandfather’s wharf, pretend to check your crab traps, pretend to watch the boats go past and listen to the old men. There they sit in the shade, Jax beer in hand, talking quietly amongst themselves, a chuckle here, an occasional outburst of laughter there. Their bellies evince years of fried food and pie consumption; a life, if not well-lived, certainly appreciatory of the simple goodness their world provides. Their hands are large and calloused, their eyes deep and tender. They speak of fish and boats and family. They don’t know it, but they speak of love. They offer favors and shake on it. Using few words, they offer comfort when needed, giving each other a pat on the back and maybe slipping a handful of neatly folded bills when necessary. It will come back around.
Find a corner in the kitchen and allow yourself to be forgotten. What you witness will be much the same. Women sit around the table smoking cigarettes and talking about the children or the neighbors. Or the men on the wharf, their husbands. A grandchild wanders in and is offered a bowl of warm blackberry jam and homemade vanilla ice cream—a reward for picking the blackberries. She is sent away to enjoy her treat on the shady porch. The women carry on with their gossip.
This is the world she returns to in her mind, the world that haunts her and follows her no matter where in the real and present world she might find herself. When she drives up the interstate in Texas, filled with thoughts of traffic, errands, politics, work, suddenly she is back on the bayou watching the shrimp boats go out at dusk. The briny, humid air is the embryonic fluid that kept her buoyant and thriving and she feels it draw her home. Ghosts follow her everywhere. The ghosts of those who came before, whose DNA she shares. They are trying to tell her a story. They want her to understand that she is here now, doing this because they were there then and because of the choices they made.
And what of the others? The ones who came long before the grandparents and great-grandparents? They also haunt this woman, this woman who came from the very chemistry of this American sea that curls into the continent like a bowl being protected in the arms of some great god. She sometimes looks over her shoulder to see a woman, her bare feet, sand encrusted, her skirt hem stiff from sun and salt water. How did she get off the island, ghost or not? How is it that she is here, this Marie, wandering through an air- conditioned grocery store complete with piped in Musak and computerized cash registers? Is she covetous of this new century or disdainful? And why is she so restless that she must follow this descendant, this Elizabeth, who seems so untethered herself?
Elizabeth sees the past through a filter. It appears to be idyllic. Oh, but it was tough! And her ancestors must have been fierce to survive the weather, geography and the culture!
Elizabeth is a child and she dives down for starfish and seahorses. She races along the beach, bare feet pounding hard packed wet sand. She plays and explores. Time is meaningless. Farther up the island, the sea oats dance in the breeze where the sand is dry and deep and thick. It’s hot too but her bare feet are tough and capable. Her thighs are capable too as she marches through deep sand as other children might march through snow drifts. Over on the gulf side of the island, the wind always blows. It whips her hair into her face, slapping sand and salt about. She watches the waves and she can see them all the way to the horizon, so much bigger on this side. It’s wilder over here and exciting. On this side, it is much easier to believe that she is alone, a lone remnant of humanity. This is her origin story.