Just because a woman is good at something doesn't necessarily mean it's what she should do in life. If that were the case, most of the women in the Belle family would be hookers. It is common knowledge that Belle women make hard men melt like butter in a pan. They are equally adept at reversing the process.
The Belles live in a house that sits on a bluff overlooking the river. It has the look of a place whose owners grew bored with their money long ago. Honeysuckle vines wind around the columns like thread on a spool, and roses, wild as weeds, scratch at the paint like chiggers. It's a mystery where the lawn ends and the cemetery begins. The Belles are of the mind that dead people make the best neighbors.
Several years back, in an effort to turn our boring little town into a tourist trap, the historical society put up a brass plaque outside the Belles' gate declaring the old house an historic site.
Bellereve, the plaque reads, was built in 1851 by Colonel Bedford Braxton Belle for his bride, Musette. During the War Between the States it was used as a hospital for soldiers of both armies who were wounded at the battle of Fort Donelson.
History, of course, is never real. People either glorify it or horrify it. Or at the very least color it. What the sign doesn't say is that the fingerprints of slaves are baked into the brick and that when the rain sets in, no matter how many times they plaster and paint, the blood of soldiers seeps through the ceiling and watery red drops drip from the chandelier like tears.
Nor does the sign say that Musette was Cajun French and the second wife of Bedford Braxton Belle. The first Mrs. Belle was neither dead nor divorced, but Musette had a way about her that made a man forget his wife -- and forget to breathe.
Musette had black hair and black eyes and could read the future better than most men could read the newspaper. And if she didn't like what she saw, she set out to change it.
"L'avenir n'est pas taillé dans la pierre," she'd say, as she slowly turned over the cards, "seulement votre épitaphe."
Loosely translated it means: "The future isn't carved in stone, only your epitaph."
They say Musette could dip her hand in the river and foretell the exact day it would freeze. She could lay her hand over a baby's heart and see his life as if he'd already lived it. Musette predicted fires, floods and tornadoes, and a month before Yankee soldiers marched across the Tennessee state line, she made the servants tear every sheet, petticoat, and pillowcase in the house into strips and roll them into bandages.
Despite her flawless track record, Bedford Braxton Belle wouldn't listen when she told him hard liquor would be the death of him. You can lead a horse to water, but a jackass takes his whiskey straight up. Musette lost her husband at the Battle of Franklin when a Union soldier shot him dead while he was drunkenly relieving himself under a persimmon tree. We rest easy knowing he didn't feel a thing.
Braxton Belle's life didn't bear enough fruit to fill a Dixie cup. But few men rise to the occasion. Most leave nothing more to show for their time on this earth than a stone to mark where their bones are buried. Musette wore black for the rest of her life, but then black was always her best color. And not a day passed that she didn't brush the leaves from Braxton's grave and kiss his granite marker. History may sweep aside the ordinary man, but women have a memory like flypaper.
Women love who they love, there is no rhyme or reason. Musette never loved another man; however, she didn't object to men loving her. They say she welcomed more men into her harbor than the Statue of Liberty. Despite the fact that every wife, widow, and spinster in town prayed for her early demise, Musette lived to be an old woman and died in her sleep. They buried her body in the cemetery next to the house overlooking the river, but her spirit lingers like a lover's perfume.
Musette's grave is marked with a white marble likeness of her that is so real, if you stare too long, you'll swear her head turns your way and her stone breast rises and falls. Naked as a jaybird, she stares a man straight in the eyes with a look on her face that is far from pious. On either side of her, fully robed angels, hands folded in prayer, gaze longingly toward heaven as if to say, "Lord, help us."
One man's art is another man's ache, and Musette continues to be as big a pain in the ass dead as she was alive. For over a hundred years the aesthetically challenged have frigidly fought to have Musette removed -- or at the very least, covered.
But money beats morality like paper beats rock. When an art professor from Nashville scrubbed the moss off the base and found "Rodin" carved into the stone, the balance of power shifted. The historical society immediately threw up a brass plaque declaring Musette an historic monument. Now scholars come from miles around to debate whether she is indeed an authentic Rodin of Paris, or an authentic Bodin from Memphis, whose family has been carving top-notch tombstones for as far back as anyone can remember.
Wherever the truth lies -- and around these parts truth reclines on a regular basis -- many a young man has familiarized himself with the female anatomy while studying the statue of Musette Belle, just as quite a few of their ancestors learned from studying the real thing. Even in death Musette continues to shock the good citizens of Leaper's Fork, and her descendants are doing their best to carry on her legacy.
Musette begat Solange, who begat Charlotte and Odette, who begat Angela, who begat Dixie. If there is one thing Belle women are fond of, it is begetting.
Some women barter their bodies like whores with wedding bands. Some use sex like a sword. But some women can touch a man and heal like Jesus. The man who sees sunrise from a Belle woman's bed will swear he's been born again.
Copyright © 2005 by Paula Wall