Elita backed out of Rat Snake Slough and headed across open water to a slip of land she hoped was Tadpole Island.
After paddling the pirogue into the shallows, Elita jumped out, secured her ride, and headed toward a large clearing. She found a worn tree stump to sit on while studying her homemade map and tried to reassure herself that she wasn’t lost. Maybe it had been five years since she’d been here, but she’d spent her first seventeen years on the Caddo. Mathematical probability was in her favor.
“What’cha doin’ here, Girl?”
Her insides froze. She rose slowly, bringing her gaze to rest on a stringy-haired stranger standing fifteen feet away at the edge of the clearing.
He stood about six feet two, roughly eight inches taller than Elita. A barrel chest, thick waist, and wide hips rested on tapering legs that looked like they should snap in two under the weight of the body they supported. The stranger’s arms appeared too short for the rest of him, as if God had made them for someone else, but stuck them on this fellow at the last minute. No chin to speak of, his woolly dark eyebrows combined to crawl across his forehead. The man’s hands were massive, or at least they looked that way to Elita. That could’ve been because of the shotgun they caressed.
His navy blue tee shirt and rolled-up jeans were stained, but not dirty. An oval white patch containing a silhouette of a dog decorated his black cap. His clean-shaven, round face served as a pale canvas to black eyes that turned down at the corners.
“Why you messin’ around here?” he asked again.
“I was headed for Moccasin Bayou, but took a wrong turn someplace.”
He eyed her up and down before resting the shotgun in his left arm like a mother cradling her child. “Sorry about ya ma.” He shifted the shotgun to his other arm. “How’d she die?”
“A car accident.” Elita took two steps toward the man. “Jax Boudreaux, is that you?”
He nodded. “She were a good woman. Gave me four peach fried pies once. Peach is my favorite.”
Jax’s sudden appearance surprised her. The Boudreaux family kept mostly to themselves, especially Jax, the youngest of the clan. Rumor had it his mother was a quadroon, meaning she was one-fourth Negro, the offspring of a mulatto voodoo priestess from New Orleans and a white sailor. Elita understood how a person of mixed blood would shy away from some of the townsfolk, if you’d call LaSalle, Louisiana, with its population of 682 souls, a town.
Having grown up in Louisiana during the ‘50s and early ‘60s, Elita recalled that the public water fountains, restrooms, and doors into the town’s only grocery store had signs hanging over them that read Whites Only or Colored. She figured if people were only one-eighth Negro like Jax, they’d be considered white. But it didn’t work that way in the Deep South. If you carried any Negro blood, you were viewed to be a Colored, arithmetic be damned. After the passage of the Civil Rights Act in ’64, the signs came down. But signs are easier changed than minds.
Jax’s older half-brother, Luther, shared the same daddy, but not the same mother. Thus, Luther was viewed as being white. Nobody paid him much mind unless they wanted to hear the latest gossip or buy a mess of catfish for supper. Uncle Matt claimed Luther’s two talents in life were spreading rumors and catching fish.
“What brings you to Tadpole Island, Jax? You got trotlines set out around here?”
He shook his head. “The Caddo talks to me. She told me you were here.”
“I wish she’d talk to me and tell me how I got lost.”
“The Caddo’s mad at you cause you and your ma up and left her.”
Elita didn’t mean to laugh. She did that sometimes when she got nervous.
Jax’s face darkened. “It’s not funny, Girl. The Caddo can be real hurtful to those who upset her. You should know that better than most.”
His insinuation was less than subtle.
“My daddy loved this place. His death was an accident, pure and simple.”
“There ain’t no accidents in the Caddo.” Jax studied the sky. “Dark’s coming on fast. The loup-garou will be prowling soon.”
She hadn’t heard the term loup-garou since leaving the Caddo, but every child raised on the bayou knew about them. Some folks called them werewolves, while others referred to them as rougarous or shapeshifters. Half-human, half-wolf. Whatever the term, they were the most feared of all the creatures rumored to haunt the swamps of Louisiana. Like the werewolf, a loup-garou couldn’t be killed with regular bullets. And when one bit you and tasted your blood, you became one of them.
Even as a child, Elita had never believed in the tales of the Cajun werewolf. Still, the thought of navigating the bayous alone at night made her feel uneasy.
“You’d best come with me, Girl, before the loup-garou finds you here.”
Dammit. She’d only been home a week and already managed to get herself into a bind reminiscent of her early teenage years spent on the Caddo. Why hadn’t she listened to Nettie? Her father had spoken the truth—Elita was jackass stubborn. She was also a twenty-two-year-old educated woman who wouldn’t be intimidated by ancient tales of imaginary swamp monsters. But Shotgun Jax and the alligators that navigated the murky waters of Caddo Lake were not fantasy.
In her haste to make it to Moccasin Bayou, she’d forgotten to get a lantern or a flashlight. Alligators didn’t worry her in the daylight, but at night they could be mistaken for a submerged log. In the dark, she might paddle right over the top of a gator. An angry alligator could flip a pirogue over with one swish of its mighty tail.
“We need to git.” He glanced around the clearing. “We need to leave before it’s too late.”
Jax’s nervousness was catching. You’d think an anxious man holding a gun would be worrisome enough, but no. Her annoyingly inquisitive brain kept wondering what could make a man who knew the Caddo as well as Jax did, a man protected by a double-barreled and no doubt loaded shotgun, so anxious.
She decided to take her chances with the gators. “I can’t leave my grandpa’s pirogue here, so I’ll just drift on home before it gets good dark. It was nice seeing—”
“Be quiet, Girl!” Jax took a couple of steps toward the lake. “You hear that?”
“I don’t hear anything.”
“That’s cause the Caddo won’t talk to you, but I hear. He’ll be here . . . soon.”
Elita’s scalp tingled, never a good sign. She’d almost decided Jax was hallucinating when she heard the sound of a boat motor.
“A Mercury engine. 135 horsepower.” Jax shook his head. “You shouldn’t have come here, Girl. You shouldn’t have come.” He stomped off toward the woods.
She watched Jax’s retreat until the underbrush and fading light swallowed him. The precariousness of the situation settled in her chest. Alone, Elita would face the menace that had sent Jax and his shotgun fleeing. Her mind swirled. Should she jump in the pirogue and paddle as fast as possible toward Rat Snake Slough? She couldn’t out-paddle a motorboat, so she might as well get ready for the unknown coming around the west end of the island.
Elita picked up a sturdy limb. Her father had dubbed her Warrior Girl of the Caddo for a reason. This would not be her first fight.
Free ebook through April 29th
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross established the five steps of grieving while working with hospitalized terminally ill patients. She studied the patients’ emotions as they faced their deaths. But through the years her steps have been used for loved ones left behind and every loss we face.
In this time of shelter-in-place we each have many losses to grieve. Interpersonal interaction, income, relationships, trust in our leaders, maybe even doubts about our higher powers.
Dr. Ross had much to grieve throughout her lifetime. She was born as the runt of identical triplets beginning her life weaker and sicker than her siblings and peers. Elizabeth’s greatest desire was to be a scientist, but her strict father did not believe in education for girls and women. After leaving home she worked her way through higher education to become a medical doctor. She married Dr. Emanuel Ross who happily accepted her ambitions. Just when Elizabeth was accepted into a pediatric residency, she realized she was pregnant and thus was denied the position. She miscarried, her first of two. She was left with neither child nor career.
Eventually she was accepted into a psychiatry residency. She and Ross had two children but divorced after twenty-one-years of marriage. She suffered a series of strokes and spent the last seven years of her life bedridden. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross had an incredible career and helped millions of people during her lifetime and beyond, especially through her internationally best-selling book, On Death and Dying (1969). She is quoted as saying “A life well grieved, is a life well lived.”
From my life-experiences I have come to believe and embrace her words. As a Licensed Clinical Social Worker treating women in substance abuse recovery, I used Dr. Ross’ five steps of grieving to help my clients let go of their pasts and move forward. I’ve taught the grieving process to my family, my friends, and anyone who will listen because I know its worth. Usually we experience grief every day, but our psyche goes through the process within seconds, so we don’t notice. What’s important is that when we’re facing loss, we recognize grief, work through it, and come out on the other side with a healthy emotional outlook.
Here’s how it works: Remember when you were able to leave home to keep an important appointment and you couldn’t find your car keys?
Everyone grieves differently, there is no specific timing for each step, and we can bounce back and forth through the steps. Remember these points:
Your psyche will grieve whether you want it to or not, crying can be spontaneous no matter where you are or what you’re doing. But there is a way to help the process along. Be aware of your feelings. Release your feelings by accepting them and letting them pass through your body. It will only take seconds and the more you release them the faster you’ll heal. If you suppress your emotions, they’ll eventually burst out when you’re not expecting them.
The gift of the final acceptance is that you will be able to move on with your life. You’ll be able to set goals from the perspective of your new circumstances.
We’re all anxious and grieving our current situation. We’ll all go through the grieving process as we wait this out. Everyone of every age. Be patient with yourself and others, especially children.
Please take time each day to be aware of your losses (write them down, journal about them, talk with a trusted confidant). Determine which step(s) you’re in for each, then let those emotions move through your body. End with deep relaxing breaths and thoughts of gratitude for what you have.
We’ll get through this together and we’ll all know that a life well grieved, is a life well lived.
In selecting a short sample of my book Harbored Secrets, I mulled it over and over. I finally decided to share my character Didier Platt’s poem. He is striving to build a life for himself and his family by homesteading in the north eastern Montana prairies. My character is driven by loss and hardness. He writes this in his loneliness after the death of his wife and son.
The pictures are of the old Montana homestead along the Milk River my grandpa Yeats had. He used to write poetry that was published in the Havre newspaper. The pictures were taken on his place.
The man that was me wrote the unbidden,
The rhythm wouldn’t, couldn’t stay hidden.
Words flowed from exhaustion buried in he,
Earned by him doing what never should be.
His daughters sent away on rails of iron,
As he watched, hidden behind the grain tower,
Choking back bile in a throat way tight,
‘til the last of the train was lost to sight.
Unending grief, and he cursed at his trials
as his wagon rolled the childless miles,
moved by a team simply given their head
by a man with a spirit totally dead.
Finally, his fields, the ones of his own,
appeared in the dusk looking darker of tone.
Hues of caramel touched his over ripe grain.
He needed to harvest ‘ere the next rain.
But now he had time, he would hurry no more.
He’d gather the crop to calm his heart sore.
A house he’d rebuild, and find a new wife,
to sire sons and put an end to the strife.
He guided the team past his house all burned,
And away from the charred chimney he turned.
But magnet of sorrow it drew him once more,
And forced him to write of a lad and a war.
Mortar shells blew holes in houses of stone.
He ran and he ran, terrified and alone.
He fell near rubble, the church o’ his youth?
He saw the lone cross, a symbol of truth.
Oh God let this be your heavenly sign,
spare my family, they’re all that is mine.
Finally he reached the house he called home.
Part of the roof blown down on the loam.
Inside his mother and sister lay entwine
hugging in death as if they were fine.
The pool of blood that ran below them
was darker, far darker than ink from his pen.
Parts of his father scattered the ground.
The lad that was still wanders around
inside the heart of the man, that was me.
Harbored Secrets will be free on Kindle downloads on April 1 2020.
PS a note from the author in today’s Covid 19 world: Here is an email I wrote to my buddies after I got home today from the grocery store.
Needed groceries. Left off my hearing aides and glasses so I’d have enough room behind my ears for my cute little homemade mask and for my cute little 1920s style Cloche hat. I wore a slick coat. Felt pure criminal. I put on my plastic gloves, entered the grocery store and selected all kinds of stuff. The deeper into the store I got, the hotter that hat and coat were and I couldn’t breath through the damned cute mask. I finally got to the check out line and the pesky card reading machine kept asking me to reenter my code numbers for my debit card. Then it shut my card off. ??? The young clerk, terrified to raise her voice above a whisper, kept repeating redo and I kept saying huh? Had to be the gloves. I don’t carry another credit card, its safe in my drawer at home. I also never write checks so my check book was safe in my desk. Well f-blank oh dear. Yep, I had to go home and get my check blanks and went back to the gracious store and paid for my groceries that will certainly not taste as good as they should.
By Betty Kuffel
When you lie in bed worrying about things out of your control and unable to sleep, consider the concepts of stress reduction in the book Why Zebras Don’t get Ulcers by Robert M. Sapolsky. The acclaimed Stanford University professor of biology and neurology is a wizard at explaining how stress can make you sick and what you can do to understand and calm the physiological symptoms.
If you begin writing a list of topics that stress you, Dr. Sapolsky says to stop and think like a zebra. They survive frequent acute physical distresses and react quickly to save their lives. We, too, have the ability to adapt suddenly in emergencies, but are challenged by sustained chronic concerns about food, lodging, and money, etc. In humans, the real problem occurs with social and psychological disruptions. That is where we are right now, enclosed for safety from an encroaching disease that can be fatal and dealing with many unknowns.
In the midst of disruption of our plans, lives, jobs and writing, we need to focus on what is important, living wisely and calming our stresses. What does that mean?
We have all experienced life stresses that resolved, and balance returned. A place of balance is what we seek during this period of disruption during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Human stressors can be anticipatory, worrying about things out of our control. When zebras are stressed, it is abrupt, they see trouble and react. They don’t stand around worrying about what might happen in the future like humans.
When the stress response spikes, heart rate surges and blood pressures rise. If stress hormones persist too long, they can make you sick. Insomnia, upset stomach, elevated blood sugar, depression, headaches and inability to focus on meaningful tasks. A chronic stress response reduces immunity, something you do not want to happen at this time in your life with the pandemic.
What are we to do? Take control and take advantage of this time to accomplish some tasks you didn’t have time for in the past and in the process, improve your health with daily exercise and keep a journal with concepts you may use in future writing.
We can take advantage of our hours at home by using habits of ultra-successful people Like Billionaires Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. Here are some:
Reduce stress in the face of many unknowns. Don’t dwell on things out of your control. React like a zebra.