THE UNNATURAL HISTORY OF CYPRESS PARISH
By ELISE BLACKWELL
UNBRIDLED BOOKS Copyright © 2007 Elise Blackwell
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-1-932961-31-7
The strange and wet spring I turned seventeen and crossed the marshy border that separates all that is good and bad of boyhood from all that is good and bad of manhood, three men tried to kill my father. Then water and the actions of men washed away almost everything I knew.
The first incident rose like steam from nowhere but the damp ground and was over before it had time to worry anyone other than me.
My father, William Proby, had worked in logging since he was thirteen years old, when the lumber company showed up with a dollar for any young man willing to lay track and fell the backwoods he'd crawled out of. My father had started as a water boy and then, through brains and sweat labor and some said cunning if not treachery, moved into skilled positions. He'd thought and muscled his way from locomotive engineer to loader operator to drum puller to skidder foreman to camp foreman. Then, a scant few years before the spring in which three men sought to halt his rise, he was made superintendent of the town of Cypress.
Though he could not have known it would be Cypress-and indeed Cypress had not existed on the map or anywhere else before the lumber company thought it up and made it a place-becoming company-town superintendent had been my father's plan since he was that thirteen-year-old water boy.
There weremen in Cypress with more education, men who'd matriculated in social strata that my father would never touch: the town's doctor and dentist, of course, and even Gaspar Anderson, the painter who roomed parts of the year with the Washburn women. But no one in town ranked higher than my father. No one was over him, not since he had taken care of the constable. Charles Segrist didn't really count. Everyone knew that, as company representative, Mr. Segrist limited his Cypress rounds to a few days a week, preferring to spend most of his time in New Orleans, where, as he put it, his true interests lay.
One Saturday early in the new year, I was riding the rails with my father on a gas-motored cart adapted to stay on the tracks by the addition of flanges to the inner walls of its four wheels. From a distance, my father was still larger than life to me, but, sitting side by side, I could remember that I had already grown taller than his six feet even, though he could still take me in boxing, arm wrestling, and nearly every other physical feat save running. Aging had taken more than a little of his speed.
Anyone could see, though, even when he was seated, that my father was strong. He was a man to decide things quickly, a man to reckon with. His feet were always right under him, his body forward, his head at the very top of his neck, ready to strike.
We were riding the rails, checking in on the Negro crews. The last stop of the morning was Rabbit's crew, which was digging ditch for a skidder line on a new plot.
Rabbit and my father had become something akin to friends during our first week in Cypress. The town constable, a blunt-looking man known to be slow to move but quick to temper, had quarreled with Rabbit over the constable's efforts to arrest Rabbit's brother Ernest for selling gin in the tunk he ran down in the Negro quarter.
My father ordinarily took a dim view of bootlegging, a view that only darkened after my Uncle Walter was killed by a man who ran liquor from the coast up to New Orleans. But his attitude was somewhat softer concerning liquor and black men, who, he said, could more understandably take to drink because they had nothing to work toward, no way to rise without leaving their home, not even through brains and sweat labor.
Rabbit and the constable-some said just Rabbit and others said only the constable-had exchanged shots in the street, right down from the Washburn women's boardinghouse. Rabbit had run into the woods south of town, where the constable had been afraid to chase him, he'd said, given that the woods ran right alongside the Negro quarter. "You know how people stick beside their own kind," he'd said by way of explanation.
Upon hearing the constable's version, my father had gone in after Rabbit himself. The two had come back to town in under an hour, Rabbit agreeing to be locked in the jail. Within a few days, though, my father had convinced the lumber company that Cypress had little or more likely no need for a superintendent and a constable both. And once the constable was out of the picture and soon enough out of town, my father released Rabbit and placed him on the crew he now oversaw. My father told my mother that he didn't know if he was madder at the constable for being scared of the woods or for escalating a situation that should have been kept small. "Man's an idiot," he'd said and shook his head while he was smiling.
I never found out what my father had said to Rabbit in the woods. I'd wanted to ask at the time and for a long while afterward, but I understood that my father was the sort of man who told you what he wanted you to know and didn't appreciate any questions that went beyond that.
We maneuvered the gasoline-powered cart in fairly close to where the crew was digging before climbing down and continuing on foot. The morning chill had evaporated, leaving a day that was unusually hot for late winter. Shade was better than no shade, but even in the curved world made by the wood's canopy, the air felt like warm, damp wool. It was loud with insects low to the ground and with the birds overhead.
Rabbit approached with steps that took him as much side to side as forward due to his short, bowed legs. But he was a big man on top of them, with a round chest and an unusually large head. I didn't know why he was called Rabbit, but I knew it had nothing to do with how he looked or moved.
"One of the men was just carrying on," Rabbit started up, "in some detail about how when he married his wife, she could pee through the eye of a needle but now she can't even hit a wash bucket without splashing."
While my father laughed, Rabbit shot me an eye. "But perhaps I shouldn't be repeating such tales in front of your boy," he said. "A fine boy, too, taller every day from the looks of things. What you going to make out of him, Mr. Proby?"
My father nodded with something that struck me as closer to ordinary satisfaction than any real pride and gave the answer he always gave: "Louis will be a doctor."
"I'll be learning anatomy," I said, "and from the sound of your man's story, he could use to study some too."
Though my delivery was stiff-I wasn't used to talking with grown men and certainly unaccustomed to offering humor-my father and Rabbit appeared to find my comment funny enough. Both laughed hard, Rabbit even rubbing the side of his sizable belly. But Rabbit stopped his laugh in the middle of his throat, dampening it to a low growl and then cutting it off altogether. He moved closer, almost into us, and whispered to my father that one of the men, the one with the blue bandana hanging from his jumper, had brought a gun on the job and bragged that he was going to use it on the superintendent.
My father smiled and nodded, as though he had just been told another connubial joke. Then he cracked all the knuckles of his right hand, working one finger at a time, base to tip, and started over toward the men.
I moved to follow, but Rabbit pressed a large palm flat against my chest. The dampness of his hand soaked into my shirt, its warmth spreading like a stain. I could smell his sweat, more bitter than sharp, like the rind rather than the flesh of a lemon.
Rabbit shook his head, almost with just his eyes. "Your father knows what to do. Let him handle his business."
The large man let me edge a few inches to one side so that I could see around him, but he stayed close, his hand ready to stall me again. And then he asked me question after question about my mother, sisters, and my little brother, whose name was Powell but whom everyone called Pal.
I murmured the answers with all the politeness I could muster but without much concentration. "Just fine," I said. "Yes, Luta's still crazy for basketball, playing it or watching it, but especially playing it." "Emily sure is as pretty as ever and, yes, sweet as sugar, too." "No, he still won't dress his own game, says his stomach won't take it."
As I muttered my responses in turn with Rabbit's questions, I watched and listened to my father make his way down the line of working men. He paused before each, commenting on the fine work of one, the marriage of another's daughter, the well-being of the next man's wife or fiancée.
"If you ask me," said Rabbit, "a boy's old enough to hunt, a boy's old enough to skin."
I had to look directly at him then and laugh, because that was the same thought I'd been keeping to myself for a good year or more. "I'll agree with you there," I said.
When I put my eyes back to my father, he was standing right in front of the man with the blue bandana, just one step up the ditch grade, making a remark about the shovel the man was using, asking to see it, looking with concern at its handle as he took it from the man's hands.
Then, cottonmouth fast, he swung full force and hit the man across the side of his face with the flat of the shovel. The man did not raise a hand, nor did he duck or reel back. He dropped straight, face down in the ditch water. A spotted salamander skittered away as my father reached under the injured man's jumper, swiftly removed the revolver as though he'd known just where it was hidden, and tucked it under his own shirt. None of the men reacted.
Rabbit stopped interviewing me then, and together we watched my father continue down the line, spending a particularly long time congratulating one older man on the acceptance of his grandson into a Negro divinity school up north.
Before he walked over to pull the fallen man's face from the brackish water, Rabbit smiled at me and said, "I told you he knew what to do."
My father did not pay the would-be assailant another look on his way back to the cart. As we followed the tracks home through stands of hardwood and then pine, all he said was, "Don't mention any of that business to your mother."
* * *
My early training in science would, as you'd expect, include lectures on the importance of scientific method, of developing and testing hypotheses, of experiment as the crucial successor to observation if not sometimes its antecedent.
Yet I have kept into my deep old age-at first in a desk drawer, later in a thoughtless cardboard box on the shelf of a seldom-used closet, and now on the corner of the work desk made from a single cypress plank-my notebooks on the natural history of Cypress Parish, begun the year before the great flood.
During spans of my life, I have gone a decade or more without leafing through them. At other ages, I read through most of the entries at least every year or two, laughing at my youthful attempts at accuracy through thoroughness, as though quantity could substitute for wisdom, an avalanche of fact and physical description for the profundity of the single telling detail, every aspect of a thing's appearance for its essence.
My entry on the armadillo dwelled, for three paragraphs, on the animal's hoof-like footprints. It mentions that the front foot is four-toed but fails to describe its awkward delicacy in contrast to the more plodding five-toed back foot. I troubled myself to mention, perhaps because at the time I thought the observation original, that the insect-eater was the only local animal to dishevel ant hills. I didn't mention, because I didn't yet know, that the armadillo is the culprit behind the tenacious prevalence of leprosy in Louisiana and eastern Texas.
More egregious, the entry mentioned the animal's peculiar shell only in passing and failed to suggest its function-protection-at all. I missed the point. Perhaps the whole project had missed the point. The flood would hide the natural world only by water. Over months, that water would be sucked into the earth or spill back into the river that had carried it or roll over the plane of sunken earth to add harmlessly to the volume of the Gulf of Mexico. Some of the species of tree and amphibian and moss and bayou snake that I labored to describe are today endangered. But even today, no plant or animal named in my notebooks belongs only to the past.
It is the other world, with its precise and unrepeatable con- figuration of human relationships and man-made things, that I pain myself to remember because I failed to record it, even to myself, as significant. It is the human world that was proved ephemeral by the shimmering sea that had been land.
* * *
We were still living in a yellow-brown house on block ten of Cypress's numbered grid of streets. Majestic Mustard was what the paint can named the color. It was the finest house we had ever lived in, but we were poised to move into one even bigger and better.
From the year I was born until the day we moved to Cypress, my family lived in logging camps. Most of the time, we lived in one cabin or another, though for a stretch we lived in a converted passenger car parked on a side track. After my father made camp superintendent, we most often managed to get two cabins, which my father set twelve or so feet apart and connected with scrap lumber into a three-room house, one room a kitchen to which my father would attach a small porch for washing. Clean water-water to fill the basin and drinking pail-had to be carried, a hundred feet when we were lucky, five hundred feet at other times, though finding dirty water was never a problem in our part of the country.
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