Stolen Children – beginning

posted by amber


Petit Thibideau, September 12, Winkletown (Choromos), Louisiana

            Crouching behind a screen of scrubby willow bushes, Petit watched three young boys, maybe two years old, as they shuttled back and forth in a complicated game, bringing scraps of sawn wood, sticks and rocks to a man who stacked and interlocked them into a fantastic structure.  Whenever the tower threatened to topple, one of the children appeared with a stick just in time to create a brace.   Yet, aside from the occasional laugh of delight from the little boys, the entire process was conducted in silence.  The man made not even a gesture to indicate what he wanted.

            Petit could have watched for hours, just as she had as a girl, spying on her cousins while they built forts in this antebellum ruin, using waste wood scavenged from Mr. Prince’s warehouse.  Later, when she was fourteen, she’d spied on her ‘Nonc Martin, the one her father called ‘the leech,’ who’d squatted here for almost a year beneath the radar of nearly everyone in Winkletown.  When no one else was here, this old house had been her secret place, where she often came to be alone, to imagine a different life.

            She was old enough now not to be skulking around like a young girl, yet here she was.  She was here because at breakfast that morning, the sun just rising and the day already starting to heat, Pére had remarked, “Those new people down at the big house, ain’t they made a nice job of the place?  But they’re very private.”  He wasn’t speaking to her.  He had yet to speak to her in the six days since she’d phoned her parents from the bus depot in St. Xavier, waiting on the cracked and littered sidewalk without so much as a suitcase, waiting for them to come and take her home.

This morning Pére had pretended to be speaking to Maman, but Petit knew he was giving her a message – stay away from that place – and Maman knew it too.  Annoyed with him for his stubbornness in not talking to his daughter, Maman scraped her chair back and stomped off the porch and into the house.  Petit, as soon as Pére headed upstream to work at the warehouse, headed down the familiar bayou-side trail, inhaling the rich odors of sassafras and rot, to the very place he’d warned her about, curious to see the people who’d made him change his mind.  “I should burn this house to the ground.  That’s the last time anyone’s gonna talk me into letting them stay here,” he’d said when he found her partying with ‘Nonc Martin and his friends.  ‘Nonc Martin had been gone by sundown.  She’d taken off the next morning.

            Walking beside the bayou now was like undoing everything which had happened to her in the last four years.   Nothing seemed to have changed – pecan hulls crunched beneath her feet, crickets chirped in the underbrush, dew-spangled spider webs glistened in the morning sun.  However, her private path into the woods didn’t seem as hidden as it once was – someone must be using it.

            Petit took a last look at the bayou, where a heron slowly lifted into the air, its feet dabbling in the water until it gained enough height, then she left the main trail and took her old path around to the back of the house, stopping behind the thicket of pale green willow where she’d traditionally hidden.  The willows were bigger now, but so was she.  Immediately, she saw that this tenancy was far more than the squatting ‘Nonc Martin had done.  The terrace, free of the weeds which once poked through the paving stones, was lined with benches and brightened by cascades of blue and red flowers in ceramic planters.  The French doors into the kitchen, formerly broken and buckled, had been repaired or replaced; the stone walls and slate roof of the house had been scraped free of moss and ferns.  The balcony, which had been a Swiss cheese of rotting wood to be negotiated gingerly if she wanted to sit at the edge like an undiscovered Juliet, was rebuilt in gleaming cedar, probably from Mr. Prince’s warehouse.

            As amazing as the house’s revitalization was, Petit was more fascinated by the people on the terrace, the silent children and the oddly passive man who, without speaking, managed to convey to the children what was needed to continue building.  Did all small children play this quietly?  She had no idea.  She was the youngest in her family.  Although she was an aunt now, she doubted if she’d have been invited home to any holiday gathering to meet her new nieces and nephews, even if they had known where she’d been these past years, nor had her brother or sisters visited since her less than prodigal return.

            Children hadn’t much interested her before, but she was now eager to learn whatever she could about them in the short time she had left before she would have one of her own.

            Angry voices preceded the arrival of two women on the other side of the terrace.  One short and pillowy, the other tall and gaunt, all sharp angles.  Petit recognized by their brightly patterned skirts and long dark braids that they were members of the Gypsy band who frequently camped in an inaccessible corner of Mr. Prince’s land.

            “Where is she?” the tall one demanded, but the man didn’t respond, or even react.

            “Forget him.  That’s the dummy,” the other one said, and turned to rap sharply on the French doors.  A woman with honey-brown skin, a friendly expression and a smear of flour across one cheek answered the door.  She appeared about the same age as Petit’s mother, old enough to be a grandmother.  Two young boys clung to her apron.

            “Dulce!” the taller Gypsy woman snapped.  “We told you not to let Nepata visit.  It’s too far, and too dangerous for her to cross the bayou.”

            Dulce’s eyes widened with surprise.  She scanned the group on the terrace, then spoke in a soft, accented voice, “She’s not here, Jonica.  The children know they should tell me if they see her.  If I find her, I’ll take her right home.”

            “Well, she’s been missing for two hours,” the Gypsy woman retorted, hostility in her voice, an evil scowl creasing her face.

            Petit heard a tiny giggle behind her, barely louder than a sparrow’s chirp.  The children on the terrace had been grinning, now they laughed, and began to run toward Petit’s willow hiding place.  The man made a sound half way between a shout and a cough; his expression grew slightly more cheerful.

            The two Gypsy women ran after the children and Petit realized she was about to become more than an observer to the scene.  She turned, intending to hurry back down her path, but the girl who’d giggled, laughing still, stopped her in her tracks.  She was hardly more than a baby, with curly black hair and a sweet heart-shaped face.  Her little dress clung to her little body, soaking wet.

            “Nepata!  Nepata!” the women were shouting, one cross, the other furious.

            Nepata stopped laughing and turned to toddle deeper into the bushes.  Petit didn’t blame her.  But where would she go?  They’d said she crossed the bayou, yet there was no bridge – she must have swum across.  But it was deep and choked with weeds; alligators and water moccasins lurked there.  Petit herself wouldn’t swim in the bayou.  Unthinkable to imagine that this tiny sprite had done so.

            Petit ran after Nepata and soon caught her, pulling the small wet body tight against her chest.  The child weighed no more than a Sunday ham.  She didn’t struggle.

            “I’ve got her!” Petit called out, and headed to the terrace.  She didn’t want to turn the child over to the tall, angry woman but she needn’t have worried.  That woman stood back, face full of thunder, while the shorter Gypsy took her and fussed over her, saying, “My shey.  My poor shey.  Don’t scare us like that.”

            Without a word to the woman in the apron, the Gypsy with Nepata headed along the path which led to a small dock on the bayou, where Petit assumed there was a waiting pirogue.  The other woman, however, had plenty of words.  “You tell them to stop calling her!  It’s not right.  They’ll get her drowned or killed.  Make them tell her to stay home.  Me jostumal!  I’ll talk to Yuray again and he’ll make you leave this place.  Prastlo sheka!”

            Throwing down dry leaves from her skirt pocket and backing down the path while making arcane hand signals, she finally left.  The woman by the French doors put a hand to her forehead and closed her eyes, breathing deeply for a moment, slowly shaking her head, then she walked out onto the terrace and sat beside the man.  The two boys were still hanging onto her apron.  She said to one of them, “Mauro, you and Cândido go help Rosie finish the cookies.”

            Mauro nodded in the woman’s direction, not looking directly at her.  His eyes were an odd, milky color.  He took the other boy’s hand and turned it over and wrote with his finger on Cândido’s palm, whereupon the other boy nodded, then turned and pulled Mauro into the house.  The woman, meanwhile, traced a message into the man’s palm, something which made him moan and frown.  “Bini, Jimmy, Stephen,” she said, and the three small boys gathered at her knee, two dark heads of hair like tangled wool and one dark but cut short and neatly parted.  “I want you to tell Nepata she can’t come here anymore.”

            “No, we like Nepata!” one of them protested, the other two and the man nodding.

            “If she comes again, I will never give you cookies ever again, and I won’t let you play outside for a long time.  I want you to tell her right now that she can’t come here again.”

            “But Tia Dulce-”

            “Tell her now!  Then you go up to the nursery and think about how you’d feel if Nepata got eaten by an alligator.”

            They were quiet for a minute, frowning in concentration.  “Did you do it,” the woman asked.

            “Yes, Tia Dulce,” the three boys responded simultaneously, then trudged into the house, followed by the man.

            Petit stood at the edge of the terrace, wondering what sort of strange community she’d stumbled into.  She didn’t know if she should stay or go.  “You might as well sit,” the woman said.  “I’m Dulce.  What’s your name?”

            “Petit.  Petit Thibideau.”  She sat on one of the stone benches.  Gardenias cascading from the planters filled the air with a cloying sweetness.

            Dulce kneaded her forehead, adding to the flour frosting her honey brown skin.  “You’re Tib’s youngest daughter, aren’t you?  The one who’s been living on the street.  So, you’ve come home.”

            “Yeah.  I guess you can see why.”  Petit patted her bulging belly.

            “Por certo.  When are you due?”

            “Just over a month to go.  What … what was all that?”

            “Didn’t your father tell you about us?”

            Petit stayed silent for a moment.  A fish eagle flew low over the terrace en route to the bayou, the passage of its black shadow across the terrace simultaneous with the sound of air scratching through its wing feathers.  “Pére isn’t talking to me.”
            “Bem, come inside and have some cookies.  I’ll tell you as much as I can.”