“Do you love him?”

“I don’t know…  He makes me laugh.”

They’re sitting over coffee.  This on the morning she walks home alone from Sissy’s house, where Denny is staying as part of his business arrangement, after the ride she took with him, over to Louisiana, to Lake Charles and Holly Beach, where they walk in the sand and watch the moon rise over the Gulf.  Valerie has a pot of gumbo simmering.  She started it the night before, started the roux, letting it thicken as she waited on her daughter, as she cut and diced the other ingredients.

“Well… laughter goes a long way.”  Valerie holds her cup of chicory coffee in both hands, steam rising from it.  She looks into her daughter’s eyes, remembering the look she sees in them, a look she’s had the morning after making love—a lidded expression, a noncommittal defiance in the contentment there, hiding the glow.  “You know I should probably tell you now why.  Why Jeremy Bloodwood’s mother never took a liking to you.  It wasn’t the make-up you put on him when you was both thirteen.  It goes way back before that.  To when we was girls.”

“I thought she didn’t like me because you never took me to church.”

“Oh hell no…  that ain’t it.  Though she’d like you to believe that.  She’d like her church friends to believe that, but even some of them know…  No, it was before I married your father, around Easter 1917, that first Sunday after the full moon following a Spring Equinox—that’s how Easter falls you know—and it goes back to what I found out that Mardi Gras—what she did…”

“I didn’t know you knew her back then.”

“Oh yes… we was friends growing up.  It was only when we started chasin’ boys we weren’t girlfriends no more.  Your Papa Frenchie raised us in the same church, the only black folks church there was back then.  Your grandma was still runnin’ round—she hadn’t come back yet.  She didn’t settle with us ‘til the year you were born…  I always thought they’d get back together—Frenchie and Bridgette—that’s a little girl’s dream ‘bout her parents I guess.  Maybe if she hadn’t married that Warren Bloodwood and got involved with Sissy and Wishbone Walker they’d a got back together.  Who knows?  Maybe they still will.  I ‘spose Frenchie still has eyes for her, even after marryin’ and getting divorced from that woman in Port Arthur…  Love’s a strange thing, child.  It don’t make any more sense when you’s older…  No, Cecily and I goes way back.  It goes back to that Mardi Gras season back then—what she did to get voted queen of our little krewe here in Hemphill.  How she got to wear the dressings of the Big Chief’s bride of our little Indian tribe and got’s to parade in it…”

Bethany’s eyes are wide open now.  She thinking of the Mardi Gras just passed.  The music in the streets during the annual parades.  What she’d heard about New Orleans and how the black folks celebrated it there—wanting to see it.  And Denny talking about it on their ride.  How he’d seen Zulu.  How he promised to take her there to see it.  The skeletons that walked the graves Mardi Gras morning.

“You’re getting to be a woman now I ‘spose.  So you should know it.  It ain’t beauty that always wins.  Nor goodness or truth—bein’ the best at things.  You see, Cecily Bloodwood didn’t get voted queen of our Mardi Gras because she was the prettiest girl—the most charming of the young girls vying for it.  If that was true I would’ve won—he, he!  No, even in small towns like here it ain’t always about honesty and truthfulness—bein’ a good neighbor to your peoples as it were.  Because I found out what she done, and I went to the preacher with it the day after—that Ash Wednesday.  It just took forty days and forty nights for the truth to come out.  When what was rumored was exposed.  How she paid our esteemed reverend fifty dollars.  How she had her father pay him—seein’ how he was the judge of our little Mardi Gras court, our little pagan celebration—he, he!  You see, that’s how she got voted queen, and not cuz of her good looks…”

“You mean she paid him to win?  A supposed man of God?”

“Yes, child!  Don’t act so sheltered and naïve!  You’ve been with a man now so you should know.  You should know and not be disillusioned by it—that’s for children—not for a girl growin’ to be a woman…  You need to know how this here world works.  How bein’ good and the best at somethin’ ain’t always rewarded, when money, or even somethin’ else, grants favors—your so-called reputation among folks…  I ain’t what you call a God-fearin’ woman.  I look to the trees, these woods around here for my peace when I’m troubled.  When I feel the wind blowin’ through them, and see their leaves fall…  But that don’t mean I don’t see lies from the truth.  Maybe that’s evil’s best trick.  And if there is a Devil his best lie is lettin’ you see the lies of the people of God.  So you’s don’t believe.  Like how’s I felt after I learned ‘bout our reverend takin’ the money.  How I exposed it that Easter Sunday and shamed Cecily Bloodwood.  That’s why she don’t like you.  Not cuz of anything you done to her son…  But that’s people for you, child.  God’s people.  Sinners.  Whatever…  Just cuz you see a lie don’t make it all a lie.  Though it seems that way sometimes.  And there’s a war goin’ on now.  People fightin’ and dyin’.  All for an idea.  Control over knowledge.  And maybe knowledge is just God’s mysteries slowly revealed.  What all that scientific learning is about…  Don’t be deceived.  Don’t be deceived by deception.  Thinkin’ it’s all a deception.  You got to discern, child.  Just like you gotta discern ‘bout this man you been with.  And what you’re  gonna do when the man you’re supposed to marry comes home…”