Folks where I come from do not think it right for a woman to have a life of adventure. Hell, folks where I come from do not think it even possiblefor a woman to have a life of adventure. If you asked them they would tell you that a woman's life ought to be a quiet one, wrapped around her man, their children together, the family. Well . . . it is all those things and more. It is the narrow journey we each take to become who we are.
I was born in the Atchafalaya Basin of Louisiana in 1861. May. The nearest town to us was Sonnier's Landing which was not a town at all but a place where the steamboat the Borealis Rexput in once a month for lumber. Everything else was swamp.
I was a fully grown woman before I learned to read or write. When I was young there was no place for me to go to get my schooling. And later on, when we moved to town, I was needed to work. Times were hard and we were poor. Being poor put a fire in our bellies. We just did not quite know what for.
On May 23, 1881, I killed a man. It was in self-defense. I was not brought to trial because of it. I did not go to jail. But he is dead just the same. I do not feel bad for what I did. He was a low-life murdering son of a bitch and in bad need of killing. Just maybe not from me. I was twenty then. I was full of piss and vinegar. I wanted all of life there was and pretty much figured I was sure to get it if I worked it just right. I am old now. I am near eighty-three. I know better, but it took a while. This is the story of how that came about. It is how I came to be. It is my own narrow journey.
My papa, Achille Trosclair, was a trapper. My mama Bernice helped him some, but most of her time was tied up with the raising of us children. There was eleven of us, ten girls and one boy, that being my brother Baptiste who was born deaf. Muskrat was Papa's biggest money maker. Muskrat trapping is hard work. You got to set your traps out, then quick, you got to check them else some gator will check them for you. In a good year papa cleared enough so there were two, maybe three hogs to butcher in the fall and enough store-bought cloth to make us all one new dress apiece, as there was never enough dry land for Mama to grow her own cotton. In a bad year we made do with chickens and fish and shrimp and let down hems. I was sixteen years old before I owned a brand new pair of shoes. I was nearly fifteen before I had a dress that went past my knees.
I do remembe that much about my papa. I recall he wore a big mustache that kindly wrapped around the corners of his mouth. He clipped his toenails on the front porch with a pair of sewing shears. He played the accordion. He liked to look at the stars. I am told he was a dreamer.
Mama did the raising of us. Papa was hardly there long enough to lend much of a hand, what with his trapping and all. That is not to say we did not love him or he us. Lord knows, he was easier on us than Mama when it came to work. But God help the child who thought to back-talk him. The only whipping I ever remember getting from Papa was for sassing, but I deserved it. I have always had a sharp tongue. I do not know where I got it from. It sure was not from Papa. My papa was the most kind and gentle man I ever knew. He hated seeing anything hurt, be it man or beast. Many a time I have seen him up all night nursing a sick owl or bottle feeding a baby raccoon whose mama might have fallen prey to one of his traps. If there was drop of meanness in him, I never saw it. The meanness came from Mama's side of the family. Many of them were first class sons of bitches.
Along about the time I was six or perhaps wven my papa's health went into a sharp decline. He put the rusty end of a fish hook through his foot and died of lock-jaw inside of two weeks. Mama was twenty-seven years old. She was left with a mule, a dry cow, a pack of noisy dogs, and eleven children. Mama took Papa's taking dead as a slap in the face. I do not think she ever forgave him for doing her that away. Mama was hard like that.
After Papa died we went to live with our grandpa, Paw Paw Robichaux, over in Breaux Bridge. Back in those days our paw paw was a man of some repute. Perhaps you have heard of him? Aladors Robichaux, the famous alligator wrestler and boudin king? He also did occasional odd jobs for snake and other serpaent handlers when the work was available. By the time we met up with him there was not much call for alligator wrestling, times being what they were, but he still made the best boudin in all of south Louisiana. On Saturdays people would line up ten deep outside his house, some from as far off as Opelousas and Ville Platte, just to buy a pound of his famous boudin. It finally got to where he had to take and put up an iron fence with sharp spikes on top to try and corral the mob so they would not block the traffic in the road. And to think he made it all right there in his kitchen! You do not see that much anymore. Things have gone commercial. It was once remarked that Aladors Robichaux's boudin could take the white off a strong man's teeth and put hair on his tongue all at the same time. Hot damn! That was some powerful stuff!
Paw Paw Robichaux was a kindly man. When Papa died, some of them Trosclairs offered to take different ones of us in, but Mama said "no." She did not want us separated. But Paw Paw took us all. He said we had a home with him as long as we liked, the only thing he could not do was clothe and feed us as times were hard and boudin was a seasonal business.
Because I was a middle child in a large family, I had a tendency to feel underloved and over looked. I can not ever remember a time when I felt I was truly prized. I believe most middle children enjoy fostering such notions. Being in the middle is dull. A middle child does not get the same adulation and encouragement as the oldest child. A middle child by birth does not inspire unswerving confidence in the future, nor does he provide rock solid stability for the here and now with his continued presence. Nobody wants to cuddle and pet a middle child. There are too many little ones needing that. A pat on the head and the fast shuffle is about the best you can hope for. So you seek ways to set yourself apart from the rest of the pack in hopes that one day someone willl sit up and take notice.
My sister, Alyce, who preceded me by some ten months, was herself a middle child. She rose to the surface on her looks. Alyce was a beauty: dark wavy hair, dark eyes, and the tiniest hands and feet you ever did see. Folks put a great deal of stock in hands and feet in the olden days. Not only was Alyce tiny and beautiful, she had about her an air of habitual distraction that is so often admired in truly beautiful women. It is almost as if constant confusion is a kind of mysterious crown that gives them that final element of unworldliness. Truth be known, Alyce would have been hard pressed to count much beyond ten without first removing both her shoes and stockings. But then beautiful women are seldom asked to count.
I, on the other hand, was plain. Not plain enough to be called downright ugly. Just moderately plain, say in the order of an unpainted fence or the underside of a flat rock. Plain enough to get lost in a crowd of two or perhaps three. I was also scrawny---which is a good deal different than tiny. My hair was kind of a muddy brown. And it was frizzy. I also possessed a razor tongue and was known as a habitual troublemaker. But what I lacked in looks and charm I more than made up for in ambition. For as long as I can remember I knew I had been cut out for something better than the middle. The first hint of which side of the middle my future lay came when I was nine years old.
We had moved to town by then and were living with my paw paw in a little white shotgun house that he had built some forty years earlier for my late grandma. It got done while she was expecting her third child, shortly after she told Paw Paw she was sick and tired of living in a made over duck blind with him and four hunting dogs and threatened to leave him and the dogs and the babies. Next door to them lived a rather large contingent of Bertrand/Cormiers with all manner of Bertrands and Cormiers and Comeauxs and Duplechains residing with them. Theirs was a large family---seven girls and two boys. We ourselves numbered close to thirteen head, that is if you count Mama and Paw Paw Robichaux. And since both families ran high to female, we were naturally drawn to one another in our daily play. We all got along fine together with the exception of me and their second oldest girl, Berthaleen, who was very tall and chinless and the only girl I knew who was uglier than me. Her real name was Aldophina after her third cousin, Aldophina Duplechain Cormier. Berthaleen hated the name Aldophina. Naturally I called her Aldophina every chance I got.
Six feet tall. You do not see many six foot tall eleven year olds. Especially in a town the size of Breaux Bridge. Berthaleen was something of a curiosity. She had had rheumatic fever when she was seven or eight and had to stay in bed for nearly a year sucking ice and living off soft food. And when she got out she was spoilt rotten and stretched long like a hide that has been left out to dry in the rain. They say it was strictly glandular, something to do with the high fever and all. I guess that is what also gave her limp hair and ropey spit. It collected in the corners of her jaws when she talked so that when you got her good and wound up, you had yourself a foot, maybe two feet of spit hanging there like a wad of string in her mouth.
Berthaleen always had to have things her way. And when she did not get it she would pitch such a hissy fit folks generally gave in to her. Mama said we had to be nice to her even though she was despisable on account of her being a semi-invalid for so long. While part of me wanted to listen and be good, another part imagined smearing boogers on her spectacles and applying various instruments of torture to her long clammy body. Well sir, it all came to a head one blistering July day.
We had set out to be good. Everybody was in hight spirits. But by ten o'clock the temperature was hovering close to ninety and everybody was feeling rank and smelling sour. All we wanted to do was fight.
The dust lay flat in the streets. There had not been a wagon or a horse to brave the heat since around nine that morning. Chickens walked around with their wings poking out, panting like dogs. Paw Paw's hounds hugged the underneath of the porch, wallowing in holes only a dog can find, grinning at us while we fussed and squabbled.
We had been squeezed, wedged, and then forcibly introduced into a patch of shade no bigger than a pea patch under the Cormier's chinaberry tree. We had run out of all the usual games to play and were engaged in a vicious battle of petty bickering over whose turn it was to pick the next game. Berthaleen took a willow switch and rapped it sharply on her mama's porch rocker. She said there was only one fair way to decide. So we all got in a circle and made fists and counted potatoes till Berthaleen finally won out over my sister Clovina. This did not surprise me. Berthaleen was a flagrant cheater. I had long since been eliminated from the running, having lost out somewhere in the third round. Up till then I had thought of three as my lucky number, and since I was of an age where I liked to look for signs and omens in the things around me, I took it as a sign that things would be moving rapidly downhill.
Berthaleen chose to play "Impossible Task." That was a game where a person who was fairly competent in reading and writing writes down on little strips of paper impossible tasks that are to be performed by the other players. The slips were folded and put into a hat and held over the players heads where upon they each have to feel around and choose a slip and then try and perform the task. I asked who was to choose the tasks and write them down.
Berthatleen said since none of us Trosclairs could write a lick, she would. so then I asked who was going to read them if the person who picked the task could not read it themselves. And Berthaleen said she would.
I said, "How can we be sure you are not making up something other than what is really on that paper?"
"I am as good as my word," she said.
"I have never been impressed by your goodliness or your word," said I.
"I am incapable of lying," she said.
"How is that?" said I.
"The hand of God Himself has been laid upon me. Don't you know I have received the last rites twice? Virtue is my by-word. Truth is my creed."
I said to her, "I would sooner take the word of a long-eared jack-ass."
"I nearly had a presentation by the Blessed Virgin Mother Herself the last time," said Berthaleen. "Not many of the Trosclair bunch can say that, I bet."
Well, she had me there. It is difficult to scoff in the face of such power. But I was still skeptical of her sincerity and decided to test the waters at some distance before plunging headlong into her game. I had been raised to allow for the worst in people and would not be crossed without peril.
My brother Baptiste, who was born deaf but could read lips if you talked real real slow, went first. His task was to walk the length of Celin Falcon's picket fence backwards and with his eyes closed. He accomplished this in nothing flat. Baptiste had the agility of a young cat and would have made a fine high-wire artist or perhaps a roofer.
Evelyn Cormier was next. She had to eat dirt, which just about killed her. Especially when we told her the dirt came from the hog pen and she would most likely get a tapeworm.
Next came my sister Alyce, then Blanche Cormier, and so on and so forth till I was the only one left. My tongue was thick. My hands were sweaty. I could feel my heart beating in my chest, fixing to jump out like a perch on a line. I had waited patiently through eighteen impossible tasks, each one of increasing difficulty, each one building upon the next, waiting and waiting and waiting while the inborn competitiveness of my Robichaux side rose like flames of fire in my veins. I was so hungry for a win that when my name was called I left the sanctifying coolness of the chinaberry shade and took the Cormier's porch at a gallop, upsetting two of Madame Cormier's potted begonias and nearly sending the carriage with my baby sister Louise to certain doom at the bottom of the steps.
I hoped my task had something to do with spitting. Nobody had done a spitting task yet. Spitting was something of a natural gift with me, just as singing or dancing or calculating ciphers is to others. As a baby, Mama said I used to spit at admiring ladies who would chance to lean down and pinch my cheeks or pat my little arm. They made that mistake only once. After that they steered clear and left me alone. The summer of my seventh year, not long after Papa died, I took the spitting title away from Clarence "Bon Ton" Melancon, the local champion for the previous five years. He was a big boy of thirteen and chewed tobacco. But it was shelled peas that were used in the contest, and I won by three-quarters of an inch. It was on a Tuesday, which is the third day of the week, the third of March, and that is what put me on to the number three.
The folded slips of paper had been placed in one of Grady Cormier's old straw hats. There must have been about a dozen slips left. Berthaleen held the hat up so high that I had to stand on my toes to reach inside. I ran my fingers through them all, felt around each one, and waited for a sign to tell me which one to pick. When I heard Mama's little bantam rooster, 'Ti Boy, crowing in our chicken yard, I knew the slip under my fingers was the right one. I handed it to Berthaleen, quivering from all the pent up excitement. This is it, I told myself. This is the moment. This is my lucky day. And I looked up at Berthaleen, and slowly the realization of my grievous error washed over me in waves of nausea and bitter disappointment.
It was part of her cur nature to keep us hanging on tenterhooks. She read it to herself. She turned the paper this way and that. She held it up to the light as if to check for tampering of some kind. Then she smiled and read it to the rest of us.
"This here task," she said, "is for our little friend . . . Lucie." She purred the words much the way a cat is likely to whilst he rubs on your leg. I am not fond of cats myself, though I do not hold withthe notion that they are evil demons from hell as some do. Neither do they suck the breath out of babies asleep in their cribs. But they do produce hairballs and will shred your furniture no matter how much you try and get them to stop. They do not take to training easily.
Berthaleen's crowing would have continued had everyone not tired of her bait and hollered for her to get on with the reading.
"It says here that the bearer of this slip is to choose which ever hand he or she does not use to eat with and write down their name legibly three times on a piece of paper. And it don't say nothing about a 'X.' Now, Lucie, go to it!"
Even if she hadn't called my name I would have known that last part was meant for me on account of how she looked at me kindly mean and know-it-all like. She knew good and well I could not write my name. It did not matter if I was using my right hand, left hand, or both my feet.
"I want somebody else to read that paper," I said.
"How come?" asked Berthaleen.
"You are making it up," said I.
"You are saying I am a liar?" said Berthaleen.
"I am saying I want somebody else to read the paper."
Berthaleen said, "You are saying the word of an annointed person is not good enough for you?"
I told her, "I am saying that the taste of truth is not one that is familiar to your mouth, and I want somebody else to read the goddamn slip of paper!"
Then she said, "Don't you cuss on my mama's porch!"
And I said, "I want another reader."
"Lucie Trosclair, you are the ugliest girl I know and you are ignorant and illiterate to boot!" said Berthaleen.
"I am going home," I said.
"And your paw paw is half-cracked!"
"Don't you slur the good name of Aladors Robichaux!"
"And your mama takes in ironing and that don't make her much better than a house nigger, so there!"
Well sir, that did it. I made a grab for the slip of paper, and she jumped back and commenced to ranting and raving and hollering like a banshee. It was entertaining for a while, but there was no pleasure in the way her words had stung me. Trash! That I understood. Ugly. I knew that all too well. But ignorant and illiterate was phraseology whose usage I was still unfamiliar. All I understood was that I suddenly felt dirty and ashamed of who I was. This was a feeling I would become increasingly acquainted with as time went by.
Berthaleen was well along into a hysterical hissy fit when I decided to put an end to this and split my knuckle on her two bucked front teeth. Blood flew everywhere, but a wall of fire would not have kept me from her. I caught her by surprise. And it took her a few minutes to pull herself up to a sitting position. But when she and all her chinless sisters saw the teeth and blood all over the front of her dress, they commenced to let out with a string of shrieks that rent the air like a clap of blue thunder. There was not a thing to do but throw the bucket of mop water that was sitting by the side of the steps on them.
Somebody ran off and told their mama, and we all had to go home, and my mama made me go and cut a willow shoot and then gave my legs a good switching. Afterwards she made me march right back over and apologize, which I did. I told Madame Cormier that I was sorry about her two potted begonias I knocked over and about fussing and making noise and throwing mop water on her porch. But I would not say I was sorry for hitting Berthaleen.
I went to bed without supper that night. For the next week I hugged the cow lot and the back steps lest Berthaleen find out my whereabouts and further inflict her awful brand of cruelty upon my bruised soul. I felt marked for life as surely as Cain had been marked by the hand of God. Now not only was I poor and fatherless and plain---I was ignorant illiterate trash as well! Upon reflection of my past transgressions, I could not for the life of me understand what horrible crime I had committed to deserve such a fate.
After a while my silence must have become noticeable, for late one afternoon Paw Paw called me to the garden to help him spread chicken manure. Paw Paw never let anybody help him spread manure. The exact distribution of the black and white droppings to each row of vegetables took on an almost mystical experience for my paw paw. Turnips needed more than okra. Corn needed less than tomatoes. Each their own amount of attention and nurturing. Each in their own time. He treated people pretty much the same way.
"Cher, bebe,"he said to me, "how come your lip is hanging out so far? I could ride me to town and back on that thing, yeah."
I shrugged my shoulders and watched him work the manure into the dirt around the base of a row of tomatoes. "Paw Paw," I said, "you ever been called trash?"
"Poo-yi, cher. Your old paw paw been called lots worse than that. What somebody calls you don't mean nothing."
I watched him move to the next tomato. "Are we then?" I asked him. "Are we trash?"
"Lucie, you cannot go around wearing your feelings on your sleeve. Always somebody looking to knock them off."
I nodded, and we moved on to the peppers. Paw Paw hummed a little tune to them as he brushed clean their leaves. Nothing grows good with a dirty face, he would say.
After a while he said to me, "You know, child, my papa was a treater. Did I ever tell you that?"
"Yessir. Lots of times," I said. But he just kept on talking.
"People used to come from miles around to our place on Bayou Lafourche just to have him take off the gris-gris. My papa, he was plenty smart, yeah. He could fix the sun stroke, asthma,la tete ouverte---what you call the open head. One time I seen him cure a horse of distemper. Cure him, I tell you. Made him breath smoke from a fire he made in a whisky barrel then run him so as to blow him out. Monsieur le docteur. Oh, Lucie, he was a fine gentleman and much admired by everybody around. When I told him I want to go, me, with the traveling show and wrestle them big gators, he said to me, he said, 'Well,son, I got to tell you the truth. I'm getting old. I can't hardly work like I used to. And to be honest, with all them girl children I got and you being the only boy, I was kindly hoping one day you would take over my business from me. But son, you nearly grown, you. You got to do what you think is best. And if you think wrestling them gators is what it will take to make you a man, I say go to it. But before you got I just want to give you three pieces of advice: number one, don't never dig in the ground on Good Friday---else the ground will bleed---in fact, just to be safe don't start nothing on a Friday; number two, don't spit too high in the air---it most likely will fall back in your face; and number three, excuses are like three peckered goats---everybody's got one.'
"Lucie, them first tow have stead me good all these years. The last one . . . well, I never did get a good purchase on that one, but my papa, he was a funny man that away. He always left you a little something to chew on."
"So did you go?"
"Well, yeah. Of course I went. I wrestled them big gators. I got to be a pretty big noise on the wrestling circuit. Sure, there was some talk on why I wasn't following my papa in the healing business: how I was no account, how it broke the old man's heart me running off that away. But when I heard such talk I just closed my eyes and listened to my Papa's word."
"Don't dig in the ground on Good Friday," I offered, "don't spit too high in the air, and excuses are like three peckered goats."
"That's right," said Paw Paw, pleased that I had apparently learned the three great secrets of the universe. "What I am trying to tell you, cher,is don't make too much of what somebody else says about you or what you choose to do with yourself. How much drawing and holding power does somebody else's opinion have anyhow? What is chicken shit to some is life giving food to others."
We sat there in the dirt for a minute or so looking at one another. Nobody saying anything. Try as I might I could not make the leap from agricultural time tables, to spitting altitudes, to goat genitalia, to my glaring inadequacies. Yet I refused to admit to my paw paw I did not understand. At the tender age of nine further explanation would have been too painful. It was kind of like having six toes. Sometimes it is best to keep you shoes on.
So I said nothing, waiting perhaps for the Spirt to move me or at least point the way.
"Paw Paw, I want to go to school," I told him. I could feel the breath coming from me hard.
"Now, Lucie, you know we cannot afford to let you do that. Who is going to help your poor mama with all them children, huh?"
"But, Paw Paw," I said, "Berthaleen can read."
Paw Paw just sat there in the dirt staring at me, till there was nowhere for me to look but his eyes. "This place we are at right now," he finally said, "this place ain't the world,cher. Not by a long shot. This is only the edge."
"But, Paw Paw," I began.
"No. Let me finish. Lucie,cher,most of us, we spend our whole lives looking for our place, fairly certain we are cut out for something approaching the good life if only we could just overcome that one thing that keeps us from grabbing holt of happiness. For some folks it is love. For others it is money. For still others it is power. Take out the fat and boil it all boils down to the same thing: failure. Inside each one of us we got every kind of failure, every kind of heartache, every kind of might have been. But for all the failure we got, the thing that really holds us back is the waste of promise."
"Paw Paw, she can read!"
Read? It did not matter. The talk ended there. Paw Paw could not see this sudden fascination I had with the written word, and I, for the life of me, could not puzzle out the twists and turns of his wrestling philosopy. He went to picking stink bugs off the squash plants. I went back to the house. We both felt shaky.
I am told that in all known societies on the face of the earth there are certain rites of passage unique to them and their people. In your more civilized cultures these rituals often take on a religious connection such as conformation into the Christian church or being bar mitzvahed into being a full fledged Jew. In your less civilized cultures it sometimes marks the time a body passes from being a youth to being recognized as a fully grown adult, a place where an individual is invested with the rights and obligations that are customarily withheld from the younger or less hardy of the pack. But whichever way you look at it, the event itself involves passing through an ordeal of some variety. Might be through an act of bravery in which a large animal is slaughtered. Might be through an ordeal of such severity that a vision appearing is all that allows the initiate to make that final step towards redemption. Might be something as simple as picking stink bugs off squash plants. Regardless of the procedure, you can almost always count on there being some blood letting, the possibility of permanent mutilation, and the ability to withstand having the hell scared out of you. Then and only then are you allowed to join the company of the living.
I often think of my paw paw and Berthaleen and the days that followed. They were to be a dry run for the journey I was to take. Along the way I would follow my paw paw's advice the best I could. Like his father's before, it stead me good. But on May 23, 1881, I did not think of it. I did not think of stink bugs or ignorance or illiteracy or chicken shit needing to be spread. On May 23 all I thought about was killing a man, for it marked the day my rite of passage was completed. And kill the sorry son of a bitch I did.
The Narrow Journey - Chapter Five "Charles"
Crossing Abbey Road 1994