She was Cajun.  She wasn’t born in Louisiana.   She wasn’t a true blue Acadian.  But her roots—her family origins—were Cajun, French Creole.  And if you want to know about her you need to know something about her mother, her grandmother—what her father was like.

Her mother’s name was Valerie.  Her father’s, Robert.  They were married in the winter of 1918, about the time David Threnody was born.  The French ancestry comes from her father.  Her mother was German, at least on her maternal grandfather’s side.  Her mother’s mother—Bridgette—black, but with mixed blood.  The father, Bethany’s maternal great-grandfather—a white scalawag from Missouri, who with the help of exploitive carpet-baggers made his money on land speculation in Southwestern Louisiana, on ruined sugar cane plantations, before he disappeared North again after the Reconstruction, leaving Bridgette to be raised by her mother, a daughter of slaves who believed in the promises of Northern reformers after the Civil War, the promises of a man, a stranger, an educated man, who told her she deserved more than what her freed parents could offer, banking on her fears, the fears instilled in her by god-fearing, poor people, who rightly distrusted the new freedoms promised them.  She settled in Orange, Texas in the mid 1880’s, never married and raising her illegitimate daughter working as a cook for a white family.  Bridgette married young, her first marriage to Francis Duvette in 1898, a barber from Bayou La Batre—Valerie their second child.

Robert Labeau was firstborn, a birth certificate from 1895 listing his parents from New Orleans, from an ancestry rich in French Creole blood, originally from Haiti, but also mixed with Anglo-Saxon heritage, and there are rumors, shadowy records, that his father was arrested, tried and executed for killing a white man in a duel over a tryst with the man’s wife.  His mother escaping the city and settling with kin (some of them with white ancestry, Cajun) in Port Arthur, Texas, where a young Robert was raised and learned the trade of a blacksmith—shoeing horses.  He inherited a parcel of land in Sabine County, from his mother’s uncle, where he built the house where Bethany was born.

So I will assume it.  I will assume her voice in what follows, as a way of telling it, telling her story and what she came from.  The research what enables this—family records, transcripts of interviews with friends and family, the voice of David—this what enables her voice to tell it the way that she does.  In the fiction of it.  In the lack of suspense of what you already know happens.  How David Threnody comes to know her.  How he sees her for the first time—bathing in a pool…

 

I was born in June.  In the summer of 1923.  I was born in the summer, but conceived in the fall, and this—this is where my life begins.  In the conception, the conception that birthed my world.  For you can go no deeper than your birth, no deeper than that first song you sing to the world, but you can—you can go deeper if you imagine, if you believe.  If you believe that all you have is your soul…  I dreamed of it long before I saw him with my own eyes, before he saw my nakedness with his eyes.  I dreamed the dark man—the baptism which gave honor to him.  I dreamed the man he saw at a crossroads, at a crossroads in Mississippi—my lover, my dark lover—and so I knew of the negotiation long before he knew he was negotiating.  He was no stranger to me.  And his eyes, his eyes upon me—my nakedness—this ordained in my birth, my worship to the creation, and the lord of it…  I was conceived of earth and my body is earth.  My eyes opened in the womb, in placental blood and semen, and out of this mixture was made the dirt of my flesh.  In honor of him and the proclivities, the powers of seduction he gave unto me…  I am the daughter of devils and conceived as such.  My shape, my form—the image of fallen angels and all their lost beauty.  I am good, pleasing the eye, and I was made for him—my lover.  I was what he asked for in dreams.  I was the answer to his name.  And in his talks with God I hinted to his nature all that his flesh wanted and yearned for in seminal dreams… I was born a woman to a man asleep.  And when he awakened…  he found me…  

 

This how she tells you it, tells you this in the way that she does.  For she is hidden in not hiding.  She is revealed by being veiled.  And she not evil, an incarnation of evil.  This too easy—too simple to say.  She was a woman born, and nothing more.  Given the power by believing in her power.  And only an inexperienced and weak-willed man having a woman talk like this.  Only a man who has surrendered being a man seeing a woman as this.  Painting a coy portrait.  A Mona Lisa smile…  Because what she says is not what she said.  They are a man’s words on a seed planted in fear, lacking an understanding in how the seed was planted.  They are the fanatic words of a battle lost before it is even fought.  And a false knowledge of enemy poised as a friend, the history there…  But I must say them.  I must say these words that I have her say to begin her character.  To draw the first sketches of an artist’s wife, and what she came from.  David Threnody’s wife.  I must use these words as a muse, and more of them will follow.  To build an idea.  A conception of what happened.  Why David killed for her.  Why he had her first husband killed as a symbol of all her former lovers, and why her son rose up against him.  Why the child they had together, their firstborn, tried to kill his father.  But this later, and for now only more musings.  More musings of the muse, and the liberty I take with them.  To capture the fever, the fever of a love turned cold, fruitless, and the possibilities as to why.

She was born in June.  The year 1923.  Bethany Marie Labeau.  And the muse begins with her birth—her conception.  The story behind it.  The story of her baptismal.  How she told it to David in their bed.  And the fevered imaginations it inspired in him.  The songs he wrote as a man because of her whispers, her whispers in his ear. What he tried to grab hold of—not to capture, not to hold—but to embrace what he wanted to exist.  Soft flesh, warm, and not an idea, but actual—real.  He wanted her to be real to him

And maybe David Threnody had the idea of her before he knew she even existed.  Boyish dreams he talked to, expecting an answer.  Those dreams of a boy still unanswered in the man—an idea.  The idea of a woman.  This too a dialectic.  Opposing dilemmas on what to love, what to hate.  Fears and doubts.  Revelations and assurances.  And so maybe he got what he wanted—he wanted a bad woman to be good to him.  He wanted a good woman to be bad to him.  Unsure of which force to awaken.  And he walked it, those dark sides of the road, along that long road from hell that leads to the light.  And since he wanted both he became both—his woman a mirror of both.  When he wanted to be a devil he was a devil.  When he wanted to act as a saint he received his patron blessings.  His life partly in shadows.  His contritions enlightened with tears.  But all this still—an idea.  And ideas become nightmares, or hopeful schemes.  Raw existence is a barren desert, a white and endless room, the furniture of which, like the mirage of an oasis and the dancing around of dried bones—architecture of the interior decorator—you.  You furnish your existence with so many ideas, so many hopes and fears, ministering angels and monsters.  And sometimes you feel lucky and blessed.  Other times cursed.  These too manifestations.  Ideas of your existence, and the nothingness you begin with—you.  You create your world, out of how you perceive it.  What you perceive not real, but how you perceive it, in your mind’s eye.  And the stone you skip across the water goes on forever because you never threw it, only the idea that you did makes it sink.  Maybe David just began with a stone—a natural stone.  And he chiseled away at it—the jagged edges—making contours and curves—polished smooth.  He sculpted a woman.  The idea of sculpture taking away so to see what you’re left with.  And like Pygmalion of old he needed a name.  A name for his woman.  So that when he called to her she would answer.  She would know how to answer.  And this was love—David’s idea of love—he created it.  By taking away to see what he was left with.  The opposite of beginning with nothing.  For his woman began with everything.  And only time.  Pressure and time.  Would reveal what remained.

Bethany Labeau’s grandmother, her mother’s mother—Bridgette—was a whore.  Not in the professional since.  Just a barfly.  She gave up her husband, her children, for the bars of East Texas.  She divorced her second husband and lived with her son (Bethany’s uncle, though the same age as she, in fact slightly younger) in what’s now the 9th ward (what’s left of it after Hurricane Katrina).  This soon after the war ended.  When David came home after the war.  When he settled in New Orleans.  And so I’ll make it like a recording—her voice—Bethany’s grandmother.  I place it here like it was dictation.  The shorthand of my imagination.  The sound of it like it’s playing on an old phonograph, telling the story of what she came from.  And handicapped only slightly from her COPD, the consequence of years of chain-smoking, her voice as grating as the subject of her words:

 

I always wake up cursing.  You don’t want to be the one waking me.  I’ll curse ya two ways from Sunday, and it’ll take ya a month of Sundays to say your Hail Mary’s for every name I call ya…  Ask her—she knows.  When she was a child she used to wake me.  Maybe that’s why she’s my favorite, my favorite granddaughter.  Because I called her every name in the book, every name under heaven, and some not even known to us down here on earth…  Maybe it’s my fault.  Or maybe it was fate.  Hell if I know.  Maybe what’s in you is your fate.  And I have a temper.

‘Spose it’s true though.  All that you have inside of you is all that you are and what happens to you.  I mean what if I had been different.  Maybe I wouldn’t have met the men that I met.  Wouldn’t have loved some of them, and hated some of them.  I could even look the same—what I’ve seen in the mirror all these years.  Just a slightly different temperament. A slightly different way with my words.  What I like now, what I have an affinity for, all jumbled up and reversed.  I mean what if I didn’t wake up cursing?  What if instead I smiled, just smiled to a new day, and had kind words for it?  What if instead I just yawned?  And I guess I can’t really pinpoint it—the hour and the day when I lost my first husband’s love.  I know the day he took the children.  When I came home the next day—he knowing I’d been with another man.  And I can’t say it all happened that day.  There wasn’t just one defining moment.  Because I remember what led up to it.  Prior arguments.  Where I lost my temper.  And said things. Done things Things I knew hurt him.

He wasn’t from France, but everyone called him Frenchie.  He was from Bayou La Batre—a shrimpin’ town.  Round the turn of the century he moved further west along the Gulf Coast and became a barber.  God knows why.  He wasn’t that good at it.  I let him cut my hair once.  Just once.  And after that he stuck to man’s hair.  We met at a church pot-luck.  I’ve never much set foot in a church and probably never will again, but some of my girlfriends from the bars told me if I wanted to find a good man I should go to one.  I’d just got beat up bad by a man.  That’s why my girlfriends recommended it.  And I only went to one, one church meet and greet, but I can’t say the men are any better there than what you find in bars.  Honest-wise at least.  He was a horny old devil—my old man, my first husband.  Maybe that’s why he got the name Frenchie.  Not on account he was from France or even been to France, but because of his lovin’ ways—the old skunk.  Sometimes even I had to go tell him to just masturbate, especially after he knocked me up three times.  His damn thang got me into whole loads of trouble.  And after tryin’ the married life for a spell, well, I figured my bar gals had it wrong and they had it right.  You might find a good man at church, a man that don’t beat ya at least, but a good man just gets you children, children a bad man don’t want.

Seems like as you get older hopes just get replaced with regrets.  Seems like if it’s just fate it wouldn’t be like that, but it is.  And you can say one thing leads to another, and I suppose it does.  But what about that one thing—that first thing—you?  What made you you—that leads to all these other things, these other things that happen?  Maybe if I’d had a better father, one that didn’t run off when I was child—maybe that would have made who I am different—I don’t know.  I’ve had a temper as long as I can remember.  Maybe I inherited it.  I inherited from him—my daddy that run off.  And seems a shame when your inheritance just becomes a hand-me-down that don’t do anybody no good.  I see it in her—Bethany—my granddaughter.  Her mother ain’t a lot like me, but she is.  And I don’t know.  I don’t know how that happens and who you should blame for it.  Seems like you get stuck with a bunch a things about yourself that you can’t change.  And they hurt you.  They cause you pain.  The worst of it—the worst pain of it—when you judge yourself for it.  When you don’t like those things about yourself you just sorta got stuck with.  Bad blood that bleeds ya.  Bleeds ya ‘til you’re dry.  And it don’t seem really fair—does it?  Don’t seem like you should be responsible for it if it’s just fate.

Wish there was something I could do about it—my temper.  Wish I could control it some way, but I can’t.  It’s just a part of me I gotta live with I guess.  And I’m too old now to change or even waste my time with it.  But it don’t change the regrets no ways neither.  That’s something I gotta live with now…

And maybe it’s funny how the record skips.  This imagined old phonograph recording of Bethany’s grandmother.  How maybe if it was replaced with Bethany’s voice it wouldn’t sound much different.  When she was born in 1923, in the town of Hemphill, Texas, her grandmother lived in a cabin her father built on the land they owned there in Sabine County.  She was already into her forties, but she hadn’t married or divorced her second husband yet.  She hadn’t had the son she lived with in the 9th Ward yet.  She hadn’t done some of the things she’d come to regret yet.  Some of them had already happened.  Like abandoning her three children from her first marriage to Frenchie Duvette for numerous superficial encounters with other men in the bars of East Texas.  But some of them hadn’t happened yet.  It wasn’t in her voice yet.  You didn’t hear it in her voice.  Maybe Bethany had to be born.  She had to be conceived for it to happen.  For it to come into her voice.  And this is what happened.  This is what happened the day Bethany Labeau was born…

 

She was christened with it.  Rooster’s blood.  That damn rooster that woke me.  I still remember it.  Looking out that window—looking out that one window in a one room country shack I came to live in after I got too old for the bars.  After my body was too old for it.  Valerie convincing her husband he needed to be good to me though I hadn’t been no good to her, abandoning her when she was only five years old…  He was a quiet man—Robert—didn’t say much.  He made his money as a mechanic, after his trade of shoeing horses got replaced with automobiles.  Two jobs really—he worked night shift at a power plant.  Never had a day off as long as I knowed him, and though he was twenty years younger than me he looked like he could be my father, suffering from diabetes though none of us knowed it then—knowed what that was—from not eating all day and having his meals at night.  Bethany sometimes staying up with him before he went to his job at the power plant—buttering his bread.  That’s what he ate—a whole loaf of buttered bread.  He worked in the garage he owned during the day, taking a cat nap in off hours of the afternoon and staying up all night working as a maintenance man at the power plant—a new thing then, most homes still without electricity.  That one room shack I stayed in, the one he built from scraps with his own two hands—without electricity, without water…  Can’t say it really bothered me none.  I was used to hardships, used to hard livin’, but that damn rooster—that damn rooster woke me up cursin’ every mornin’.  And that’s what I saw—out that window—the day Bethany was born.  That damn rooster a-crowin’ on top of a cow’s back.

A strange sight to see really.  A strange thing to look out at wakin’ up.  A rooster standin’ on a cow’s back.  Just as strange as that mid-wife.  That old black woman Valerie hired for the birthin’…  I ain’t never dabbled in it.  That’s where she ain’t like me—dabbling in that voodoo witchcraft.  Tossin’ chicken bones and such to see the eyes of the future.  Can’t say I really believed in no God so I guess you could say I didn’t believe in the Devil neither.  Never did like rules much, and both have rules to follow I ‘spose.  Either way you’re servin’ something, and after seein’ what happened to my mother I never wanted to be no one’s servant.  Them’s man’s rules.  Rules made be men.  A woman’s got no place in them.  But she wanted her.  She wanted that mid-wife to birth her first child.  Out of fear.  Out of hope—who knows.  Maybe she figured somethin’ had her back.  She wanted somethin’ givin’ her protection, and I ‘spose she figured she needed the earth, somethin’ from earth protectin’ her birth, the birth of her first child…  I never worshiped nothin’ ‘cept what came out of my own mind, but maybe I can see why she did it.  Maybe creation needs creation.  Needs its assurance.  You don’t know nothin’ ‘cept what you came from, and I guess Valerie just wanted that blessing—the earth’s blessing, for what she was bringing to it, what she was bearing forth out of it.  But it still seems like fool’s superstitions to me, and ain’t no rooster, nor its blood, gonna protect ya from what the earth does to ya.

But that’s how Bethany came into the world—bathed in a pool of rooster’s blood.  And spit rum.  Blessings of protection given from cola nuts tossed like dice.  Lots of chantin’ and prayin’.  The blood ‘sposed to soak up bad vibes.  And I guess that cow didn’t make it neither.  Robert butchered it that day for a celebration feast…  And that’s what happened.  It was the summer, June 1923.  The last day I woke up cursin’ to a rooster’s crowin’.  That’s how I remember the day my granddaughter, Bethany, was born.  And I ain’t gonna make no judgment of it.  Good or bad.  It’s just what happened.  The judgments will just have to wait, but I’m not goin’ to do no waitin’ on ‘em.  That’s just a man’s thing again.  Maybe tomorrow I’ll feel different, but I don’t guess I will.  All I know about tomorrow is I won’t hear no rooster.  I’ll have new things to wake up to and curse…

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