ne month after a girl your age dies in the hospital from an illness that is never clearly explained, you wake up with a welt on your stomach. It resembles the burn your sister, Nouvelle, got when you spilled coffee on the back of her hand. It could be anything, and at first, half asleep, you are only curious. You pull up your gown, examining yourself in the mirror. The red mark shows boldly against your skin, and makes the rest of you seem smooth and delicate.
Behind you, Nouvelle yawns in the exaggerated way that reveals she’s been wide awake for a while. She’s always wide awake. Nouvelle was born with her eyes open, which shocked and disgusted everyone in the delivery room—or so your mother’s sister, Tante Lucette, had told you. Some believe this means a child will remember her birth. Nouvelle cannot say for sure. And you, two years older, do not remember enough to test her.
“What’s wrong?” she asks you now.
As you’ve done many times in recent mornings, you recall the girl in your grade and her sudden disappearance. You stop admiring yourself and immediately begin to worry about being poisoned or infected. You bite your fingertips to check for numbness, hold a hand to your forehead to gauge your temperature. You do feel warm. You turn and reveal your stomach to Nouvelle. She squints at it. “Something bit you?” she asks.
“Could be anything,” you tell her. “Could be serious.”
Nouvelle nods and briskly swipes her hair back from either side of her face, the way other people roll up their sleeves. She stares at you, awaiting instructions. You climb back into bed and tell her to bring you the manual. In this small black notebook, you’ve recorded and illustrated each type of plant, insect, or reptile you’ve ever heard of or encountered. You categorize them—the benign, the deadly, the unpredictable—shading their evanescent three-part bodies, star-shaped blossoms, leaves rimmed in red. You’ve also copied recipes for remedies. Each time you visit the traiteuse, you try to remember the taste and texture of everything she gives you. When you come home, you write down as much as you can: her words, the slow, wing-like gestures of her hands, her ablutions and her prayers and her mysterious incantations.
You long to become an expert. You practice all the time on Nouvelle and on yourself, and on Cousin, the man who always eats more than his portion of Sunday supper. “Sit down, Cousin,” you’d order him. Then you’d carefully place your hands on his knee. “I feel the sickness leaving your body, leaving your knee joint.”
“That’s good, chère,” Cousin would say, as you made the sign of the cross three times over his kneecap. “This time, for sure,” he’d say, smiling. “I feel it for sure. I feel it starting to heal.” But then he’d stand, and his leg would be just like before, refusing to bend and shorter than the other.
This morning, Nouvelle is the one practicing the techniques of the traiteuse. Your mother flings open the door, where you lie in bed, Nouvelle slowly waving an old catalogue over your face and softly repeating: The pain is leaving you.
“What is this?” your mother demands. “You want to miss the bus? You want to walk yourselves to school?”
You show her the bite. She examines it with a half-second glance. “That’s nothing,” she says. “And stop touching it.” She tells you to hurry up and get dressed, because as you know, Mr. Hernandez doesn’t hold the bus for people who lie around nursing their imaginary wounds.
At school, you stare at the dead girl’s empty desk, where her name card, CHARLINE, used to be. You reach under your blouse and feel the bite, burning under your shirt and probably getting worse. You learn nothing all day, distracted by your dread. You humiliate yourself twice by misspelling words and getting sent to the back of the spelling line. Tumultuous. Gloat. Normally, you could spell them without a second thought.
While you wait outside after school for Mr. Hernandez to pull the bus up to the curb, you hear other fourth-graders talking about the late-season hurricane, predicted to arrive in two days. You’ve survived them lots of times, you remind yourself.
Your world is full of deadly creatures—venomous snakes, alligators; even tiny insects can wreak havoc—mosquitos, fire ants. Everything grows thick. The grass reluctantly bends beneath your feet; the mud clings to your soles. The canal runs high with murky water, and when you and Nouvelle creep to its bank, you see a family of snapping turtles baring their shells on the dry rocks. Everything, the air and the soil, is porous and full of water.
Some, like your mother, are never bothered or surprised by anything that crawls into their homes at night or peers back at them through the darkness. They trade stories about near-death encounters—stepping just shy of a rattlesnake, falling into a summer fever that lasted weeks. Tante Lucette is fond of telling these stories. “Oh yes,” she repeats, nodding vigorously as her listeners plead disbelief. “Like that,” she says and brushes her palms across each other (for something always happens suddenly in Tante Lucette’s stories; someone is always saved or flees just in time).
Last time you went to the traiteuse, in the heat of mid-August, Tante Lucette took you. Your mother doesn’t trust the traiteuse, and it spoils the treatment if she’s in the room with that look on her face. Her barely disguised doubt.
In the parlor, after Tante Lucette placed an offering of lemon cake on the table, the traiteuse asked for your symptoms. Your aunt explained: she has been like this all week, tired and complaining of headaches.
Where does it hurt? she asked you.
Here, you pointed to the crown of your head, your voice suddenly weak and timid, because her eyes were searching, and because she spoke to you only in French, as if you were grown.
She nodded. She drinks the water? she asked.
Yes, Tante Lucette confirmed.
And her appetite?
Her appetite is poor. But that’s nothing new. She eats like this—and Tante Lucette imitated your way of examining food, carefully sorting the edible from the not.
The traiteuse left for a moment and came back with a glass. Drink all of it, she told you. It looked like water, but you tasted something different. Already you felt it doing its work, driving the ache from your skull. Then you felt the hands on your head, holding it evenly and firmly. You felt cool fingertips pressing into your scalp. The pain is leaving you, she said. She repeated it, low and steady. Whether it was a command or an observation, you didn’t know.
Driving home, Tante Lucette gripped the steering wheel and stared hard at the road. When she pulled the car into the drive, Nouvelle was already outside, your mother in the doorway. Waiting for your return. And maybe, you thought, looking for a sign of how you’d been changed.
At home after school, you return to bed; you hold your hands to your own forehead and place ice cubes over your stomach, enduring the burning coldness. On the floor, Nouvelle peruses the manual, calling out the names of insects and the symptoms of their venom.
“Who left this mess on the table?” your mother calls. She makes you get out of bed again, gather your schoolbooks and take them into your bedroom. Then, despite your condition, she sends you outside.
You fume under the century plant, furiously turning pages of your assigned chapter in Stories from Louisiana History. Gradually, you turn them more slowly, paying closer attention to the words on the page, and soon you forget your anger. You follow the adventures of the first explorers who, just as you suspected, survived only through sacrifice and invention. They built water vessels out of almost nothing. They made sails from their shirts and ropes from their horses’ bridles and manes. They slept in the swamp while a thousand blood-red eyes, belonging to creatures they couldn’t name, floated in the darkness.
You hurry inside for the manual, open it to a new page and record: shirt sails, horse manes, under a growing list of materials that may, in certain situations, be just what you need.
Later that night, you write practice sentences at the kitchen table. You read each sentence silently to yourself before adding a period at the end. You work below the silent clock with an old cabin, a cluster of flowers, and one perfectly shaped pine tree painted on its face. On the opposite wall is a portrait of an angel, hands clasped, wingtips floating behind her; below, the school photos of you and Nouvelle in your white shirts and navy cardigans. Next to you, your mother enters her accounts on a small spiral notepad. She is selling pieces of land bit by bit, recording each plot and price. “And what will you do when it’s gone?” Tante Lucette had asked her once. “Something,” your mother had answered. “I’ll find something.” Then she noticed you still in the kitchen and sent you to wash up for supper.
When you finish your sentences, your mother reads them over, pointing at mistakes. At last, she nods. Good. And both of you slide your work aside. She pulls the cards off the shelf for a game of bataille. You admire the way she fans them from one palm to another like a steady patter of rain, preparing to begin.
You’ve always wished your mother, who is so deft with the cards, would learn to read fortunes. You want her to tell your future, holding nothing back. You want all of it confirmed, your luck and your losses. You haven’t asked her, though. You can imagine her shaking her head, incredulous again that you, superstitious girl, are her daughter. That you long to convert each game into a prophesy.
The next morning, after you and Nouvelle have swept and scrubbed the kitchen and screamed after your mother made you redo each spot you missed, you run outside with your history textbook and read the next chapter—journal entries the explorers kept during their travels.
We had nothing to eat but the fruit of the prickly pear, they wrote. They marched all day and crossed a river forty paces wide, the water rising from their knees to their waists to their necks, water so cold and high, they had to climb trees and sleep in the branches. They fought alligators, rattlesnakes, and mosquitos so thick the air was dark with them. If they survived at all, they had to learn new ways of existing. One became a trader along the gulf coast, carrying sea snails and shells and other things he gathered. One collected flints and reeds to make arrows and knives, selling what he killed.
Your eyes drift up from the page and you wonder, if you’d been there, what would you have done? Even if you learned how to make a knife, could you kill an animal? You don’t even like to watch your mother wring a chicken’s neck, and you hate those vicious chickens. You doubt you could plunge a knife into a living thing. Instead, you imagine slashing thick reeds and wedging the blades into steep rocks for hand holds. Your knives would not be deadly, but they would still be useful. You write: shells, flint, sea snails.
When you look up again, you see your mother carrying her kerosene lamps out of the shed. “Get your sister,” she says. “We’re leaving for the grocery as soon as I find batteries for the radio.”
Before you start calling for her, Nouvelle comes back trailing a clover chain, a skill she just mastered and one that no longer interests you. She sits beside you and listens while you read from the book and tell her what the explorers had learned as they journeyed through high waters. Things like: a man of middle height is at great disadvantage in such countries.
“Let me see your bite,” Nouvelle says, interrupting you. You pull up your shirt and both of you examine the mark again. It looks different, the edges bleeding faintly under the skin. “Is it worse?” she asks. You feel no itching or pain, but say nothing. You don’t want to push your luck.
Before you leave for St. Joseph’s on Sunday morning, you help Nouvelle clip a handkerchief to her head and you fix your own hat with pins. You follow your mother and Tante Lucette into the church, genuflecting behind them. Father Wassler has only just begun his homily when you start feeling faint, fanning yourself with pages of the hymnal, opening and shutting the book vigorously in front of your face. Your mother snatches it from you. “Enough,” she hisses. “Go on.”
On the front steps, you sit with your head between your knees. The live oak rustles in the warm air, and next to it, the willow’s branches sway and shift like watchful phantoms. You can still hear Father Wassler talking about All Saints’ Day and how any one of our lost ones might be among the holiest in heaven.
After the service, while your mother and Tante Lucette are still talking outside, you and Nouvelle wander the paths of the graveyard. Nouvelle is talking all the way, telling you about the nightmare she had last night, the one she always has before a hurricane. This time, the water ran so high that ocean animals swam alongside her, and she kicked her legs and collided with a tentacle. She swam all the way to New Orleans, clinging to uprooted coffins speeding like canoes down the flooded streets.
At your grandmother’s grave, the flowers from last week are still alive. You rearrange them, and Nouvelle leaves a few clovers she picked. On the way back, you pass Charline’s freshly turned plot of earth. Nouvelle stops talking and the two of you stand there and stare at her tombstone, all three of her names, the year of her birth and the year you write at the top of all your tests. Her school photo rests on the stone. In it, she wears the same blouse and navy sweater you and Nouvelle wear, her dark hair curling around her face. She smiles at something to the side.
You try to remember what you know about Charline. Very few things. She was a poor speller. She had two older brothers. She played basketball better than most kids in your grade.
“What happened?” Nouvelle asks. All you know is that Charline’s desk has been empty since early September. When she’d pushed up the too-loose sleeves of her sweater, you’d seen pinpoints of red and purple on her skin, a strange rash along both of her arms. You signed a get-well card with everyone else in your class, and at the end of the month, you went to her funeral.
Nouvelle repeats her question. You grab her hand and run back to the dwindling crowd, where your mother and Tante Lucette have been looking for you and scold you for keeping them waiting. Overhead, the sky is losing light and the wind smells like water.
That night, the hurricane arrives as predicted. You fear the wind will tear the house down. You shake holy water on Nouvelle and your mother, a precaution you always take during the storms. “What are you doing?” your mother snaps. “You want to ruin my transistor?”
But still, she lets you stay up much later than usual. Nouvelle presses her face to the small window in the door, searching for the eye. On the roof, the rain sounds like everything shattering. You remember things you’ve heard about how strong the winds can be—strong enough to drive a straw through a tree, strong enough . . .
Your mother sits calmly at the table with her kerosene lamp and radio. Nouvelle climbs into the chair beside her and rests her head on the table, sleepy despite the fury outside. “You, too,” your mother says. “Come sit with us.” Her tone is softer, like the voice she used at the funeral, when Charline’s mother, in her neat black dress, had asked, “What am I going to do?” And you heard her answer, “You’re doing better than I would be.” You remember again the way Charline’s older brothers stood next to each other, wearing suits that made them look very tall and thin. They followed the pallbearers down the aisle. They sat straight in the front pew. They stood by the door after the service, and it wasn’t until you were almost outside that you saw the most terrible part. One of the brothers had lifted his hands, and he was reaching for someone. You saw him fall forward into her arms, you watched his face collapse. “Come,” your mother had said, guiding you forward. You passed quietly, within arm’s reach of him and too quickly for you to touch him, as you wanted suddenly to do.
“Here, chère,” your mother says now. She’s cut the deck in half. “Take one. And stop frowning. The world is not ending tonight.”
Nouvelle, as she does when you least expect it, has fallen asleep. You wonder if she’s caught in the same familiar nightmare, rushing down flooded streets. But she looks serene, her brow a line, her mouth just barely closed. Her shoulders faintly rise and fall with breath. Maybe she’s come to a part she hasn’t seen yet. Maybe the water buoys her and the wind is gentle.
You take your cards and lay down the first one. As you do, you wonder when Nouvelle will discover what she’s expected to know. You wonder if she sees it right now, and if when you wake in the morning, the rain still beating on the roof, your sister will tell you of the very moment she opened her eyes and set sight on the world.
Enjoy this story? Subscribe to the Oxford American.