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In a voice that shifts from first to third person, Shelton Gerard Lafleur, an accomplished folk artist in his 70s, tells the oddly redemptive story of his life, one marked by a crippling fall from a tree at age eight. Before then, Shelton understood his mother to be the sweet, sickly white woman who spent most of her days in bed. What we come to learn is that the young black boy was purchased by a wealthy white man, Edward Soniat, to keep his dying daughter company. When Shelton falls from the tree, he's spirited to an orphanage, while the woman he believes to be his mother is told he's dead. Taking a vow of silence in the Depression-era institution, Shelton endures the abuse of the other boys, secure in his belief that he'll one day be returned to his family. But Miss Genevieve, the Soniats' nursemaid, has other plans. At 13, Shelton finds a patron of sorts in Minou Parrian, Miss Genevieve's son-in- law, a painter who pretends to be blind while sketching tourists in the French Quarter. Minou teaches Shelton his craft, both the art of drawing and the trickery of exploiting handicaps. The hyped-up drama of the novel comes from a sudden reversal, when Minou and Shelton change their roles as protector and protected. While Shelton finds strength and forgiveness with the revelation of his true parentage, Minou sets off on a mission of murderous revenge.
The self-conscious play of imagery (light/dark, blindness/sight) is just one obvious aspect of Brown's overwrought and formulaic prose; his relentless sense of woe and despair is another. Retro southern fiction: Faulkner by way of the creative writing department.
WATCH NOW. It's my hands that speak, not my voice. Just picture a child who, lacking words for his thoughts, flits and flutters his moth-soft fingers before your eyes and asks you to see. This is what happened to me, the child's hands say. I'll show you.
Of course I'm not a child but an old man, and a frightful-looking one at that, more skeleton than skin, face like a weatherworn stone, my body casting the shadow of some half-starved animal on the verge of collapse. You'd guess, just looking at me, I was eighty-five or ninety. You'd guess I was about to slip, in a single shallow breath, straight from this world to the next. Maybe you'd even swear you'd seen the likes of me on the porch outside some falling-down old folks' home, my body bound to a creaking cane rocker, spit dinging to the corners of my mouth.
No, that's not me, though it might as well be. The fact is, I'm only seventy. I just look older. I feel older.
Even so, inside this body there's a child's story stirring, wanting to break free. Watch, my hands say, and I'll show you the story of that child, a child made strange and silent by circumstance, a beautiful dark star of a child who sixty-two years ago dropped to the ground as though he'd fallen from the sky.
In truth, the fall was from the great swaying branches and thick rustling leaves of a single tar-patched and withered Audubon Park oak. As he fell, the child's body crashed from branch to branch, and for those quick few moments he didn't know up from down and could hardly tell which limbs were his own and which the tree's, feeling only the sharp kick and swish and wallop of tumbling, a tumbling that would leave his body bruised andbroken and wrecked.
Sixty-two years later and the ruin of that child's body, now an old man's, remains. With the passing of one slow year to another, one creeping day to the next, that body grows more burdensome and debilitating and frail, as though the fall from the oak occurred not just once but again and again, each fall worse than the one before it-swifter, more painful, more difficult to endure.
Even my dreams, though they've got a lifetime from which to take their stories, have now become dreams of falling. Mornings I wake, as often as not, with the sensation that I've just landed there in that bed after plummeting through the air, my body pressed so deep into the mattress that it seems buried in the earth. I feel chilled and nearly take myself for dead. I run my hands across my arms for warmth and wonder how it is I've sprouted these two frail twigs, so coarse and insubstantial. They hang down from my shoulders as if some farmer has stuck them there to scare the dimwitted crows from his corn.
How, I ask myself, do this sunken chest and bent back manage to contain a beating heart, the same one that pumped inside a young man, a child, an infant? Such a change seems so improbable, so devastating. Sometimes it feels as though my body has set about becoming the tree that, sixty-two years ago, it found itself falling from. Skin of bark and hair of moss-I practically scare myself.
But my hands. Watch as I raise them up, as I place them in view of my swimming and searching eyes. See the fingers swollen out to their knotty, arthritic joints. See how the nails have gone cloudy and cracked. See how the crescent-shaped blisters bubble out at the base of each thumb and jagged creases cut through the palms as though my fingers have just peeled open, after years and years, from the clenched fists they first formed.
You'd never guess that these hands have provided, through my long life, a measure of strength that my body has otherwise lacked. They've put food on my table, earned me a livelihood as real and true as any man has a right to expect. They've offered themselves in forgiveness and friendship and longing.
They've done more, though. They have. Keep looking and you'll see how they've waved grace over from its hiding place, waved and waved until something has finally swooped down as if from heaven or shot up from the ground like a pale new shoot. You'll see how each time I waved, there grace was, found where and when it was least expected.
Look: There's Minou Parrain, come to save the child.
Look: There's Edward Soniat, there's his frail daughter Margaret.
There's Genevieve Simmons, small and scared and terrifying.
There's proud Isabel and shy Adrienne.
There's Olivia and Elise, just children.
They've all got a gift for the child, don't they? They've all got a place in shaping the child's life, waving and waving to grace for the child's sake, for their own.
Who's going to save the child's life? Who's going to save his own? Who'll take the broken wings the child's limbs have be come and show him the when and where and what-for of setting them in motion?
Well, it's been grace, nothing more or less, that has made its great good appearance before my eyes, taking on the most surprising of shapes. And I've made of it only a single request-that I be allowed, when my voice can't or won't, to speak. Time and again, grace has answered. Time and again, it's said yes.
Go on, it says now. Tell your story while there's time.
I will, I answer. I will.
And so my hands start their trembling, start their shaking, and speak.
Copyright ) 1996 John Gregory Brown