The Secret of Bayou Teche
by Ron Hobbs, Apr 28, 1999
Jerome untied the pirogue and picked his way out a few feet from the banks of the Atchafalaya. The morning sun reflected off the river and a solitary black nutrea rat skimmed waters creating a wide, silvery wake. It had been a long time since Jerome had crossed these waters, almost eight years, when he was ten.
As he eased upstream near the bank of the slow moving river, he was careful not to disturb Dewey Hebert’s trotlines. Jerome knew that they were Dewey’s by the distinctive knotting on the low-lying branches from which they hung. Since the lines were freshly baited, he also knew that Dewey had already been there this morning and by now was probably at Stella’s shack having breakfast. Jerome followed the lines to the end and then cut east across the main channel and headed for the big cypress tree on the opposite shore that marked the entrance to Bayou Teche. It would be an easy trip this morning as there was no wind, and the river seemed in no hurry to get to the Gulf.
As he made his way across the river his thoughts turned to the first time he had tried to navigate the channel by himself. The river had turned mean on him halfway to the cypress tree and pushed his pirogue down near Morgan City. He could have wound up in Terrebonne Parish had it not been that Dewey Hebert saw the spinning pirogue and went after it. Dewey threw a line from his dilapidated old Sportfisher and dragged the boy onboard. When they finally tied up at the Front Street Pier, Dewey said, “I tole everybody and now I'm tolling you, if the birds don’t fly, don’t cross the river. Now why don’t you open that cabinet and brought me some whiskey?”
But this morning, the river was no threat. Cormorants lazed around in the sky; two old pelicans stood sleeping on a rock, and the trees were full with flocks of chattering passerines. "Watch the birds, chere they gonna tole you lots of things."
He recalled a summer of alligators and birds, cottonmouths and little armadillos that scampered across the marsh. But most of all he remembered Old Slug, for it was he who had brought him together with Dewey and Stella. And had it not been for Old Slug, the boy would never have learned the secret of Bayou Teche.
Old Slug was an ancient swamp turtle with a huge scarred shell. Jerome had put some of those scars on Old Slug himself. When the boy first saw the turtle in the bayou he had the notion that he would kill it and had raised up his lemonwood bow and taken aim at the turtle. The arrow was intended to lodge perfectly into the neck area between the plates, but he missed his shot and it glanced harmlessly off the shell. Time and again the boy would shoot at the turtle, but he never succeeded in hitting his mark.
At first Slug would lumber off his rock and dig his way down into the mud when he was hit. Later on he merely pulled his head into his shell and sat there, and, finally, he just looked around and let the arrows glance off his back. Sometimes he would open his mouth" and emit a sort of hiss. After weeks of shooting and missing, Jerome began to feel ashamed of himself. He reasoned, the way a small boy will, that the turtle was invincible. Thus Jerome began to deify the turtle and, with the firm resolve of his full ten years, swore that he would atone for his sins.
On subsequent visits to Bayou Teche, Jerome brought gifts to Old Slug. The first gift was a bunch of bananas and some peonies that he had taken from Mrs. Pierron's yard. The boy waded over to Slug's island and lay the bananas in a row before the turtle and arranged the flowers in a semi-circle. Slug didn't move, just looked at the boy and blinked his eyes, and the next time Jerome came to the bayou the bananas had shrunk and turned black and the flowers had wilted away. Each time he returned to the island he brought gifts, but finally concluded that his efforts were misplaced and that he should try something else, though he wasn't sure what.
One afternoon while he was trying to think of something he could do for Old Slug, he passed the time playing with some small stones, moving them around on the ground. After a while he began to notice a design appearing with his placements of the stones, and it was then that he decided to build an altar to the old turtle. The task that he had set for himself took fire, and the boy began going into the bayou every day to work on the placement of the stones. He was using some big rocks now and it was hard work getting them to look just right and, as it was already late into July, Jerome felt an urgency to complete his task before school started.
One morning he arrived at the bayou just at sunrise and Old Slug wasn't on his rock. The boy looked everyplace for the turtle, but couldn't find him, not even in his favorite mudhole. He was almost beside himself with worry when something even more troublesome caught his eye. The stones! Somebody had been messing around with the stones! In shock he stood in front of the rocks shaking his head. As he stood there he experienced both fear and anger; someone had entered his world and he had been seen.
Upon examining the stones, however, Jerome began to calm down a little. He noted that this violation was no ordinary act of vandalism. The stones had not actually been wrecked or thrown about—they'd been deliberately and carefully arranged in a particular pattern. The boy studied the placement for some time, and then it suddenly dawned on him that he was looking at a map! As soon as he realized that, he was able to read the stones. Running to his pirogue he splashed noisily through the water, paddled out to the entrance of Bayou Teche, passed the cypress tree and then spun the boat around. This time he entered through an opening to the southeast side of the cypress tree. Not ten minutes later he saw a bateau tied up to an old wooden floating dock and behind the dock, on a slight rise, stood a rickety old house built up on stilts. There was a woman standing in the yard. That woman was Stella Arceneau.
Jerome tied off his pirogue and walked up to the woman. He stared up into her face. He was afraid, but he found his voice, "Where's my turtle?"
Stella Arceneau smiled and pointed a direction with her chin. The boy ran to where she pointed and there from the rise, through the hanging moss, he could see the island, and there, on his high flat rock, was Old Slug basking in the morning sun. Jerome walked back to Stella and said, "You know."
"Yes, child," Stella answered, "I know. Go back to work on the rocks now. I'll show you how to get to the island from here, then you come back for supper."
When Jerome came back to eat he was somehow not surprised to see Dewey Hebert's old Sportfisher tied up at the floating dock. Dewey and Stella were speaking French when the boy came into the house, but they quickly changed to Cajun-English for his sake.
Sometimes, Jerome noticed, Dewey and Stella would dispense with the spoken word altogether and communicate solely by sign and gesture. In general conversation these gestures merely decorated their words, adding emphasis or stressing a firmly held opinion. The simpler signs could be used to express wants and needs, direction and time and, by these means, Jerome figured, whenever they went hunting or fishing, information could be passed without scaring away the game. This communication incorporated the who, when, what, where signs, but they also included signs of quite a different order. These particular signs and gestures were neither alphabetic staccatos of dancing fingers nor elaborate pictures drawn into the air. They were graceful subtleties, usually made with the hands or the head. Jerome did not immediately understand the content of these signs, but he sensed their importance and, as he began to get a feel for them, he tried to incorporate what he was learning into the placement of the stones.
In the weeks to follow Dewey, Stella and Jerome became inseparable. They hunted and fished and cooked together. They caulked the old boat and did chores around the house. And every day Jerome would work on his rocks. He would move one stone, or even a whole series of stones, just ever so slightly and then walk back and study the effects of the alteration. He studied them from every available angle. He'd climb high into one of the trees to evaluate his work from above. He worked in this manner for some time and began to get discouraged. It seemed like he was going in circles. The stones were fascinating in their way, but what are those things to a turtle, and what would it matter?
One night when he was sitting with Stella and Dewey around the kitchen table, Stella made a remarkable sign. Of course, Dewey understood it and responded, but Jerome was at a loss. He signed back as best he knew, but Stella quickly discounted the boy's effort. Jerome signed again and Stella waved him off again. Finally Dewey interceded with a gesture that somehow placated Stella. At first Jerome felt that Stella was being mean or stubborn, but when he looked at her, she was very calm and extremely beautiful. There was a brief silence, and then suddenly a great roar and din entered the shack from the swamp—the sounds of animals and birds mixed with those of insects and the clamoring leaves of the trees! When every creature in the bayou had made its presence known, a silence descended, a silence the likes of which Jerome had never experienced.
After some time had passed immersed in this pervasive silence, another sound emerged that caused the boy to listen with all of his attention. Unmistakably it was the sound of the moon and the stars moving across the night sky! Never before had he heard such music, but as soon as his eyes grew wide with wonder, the music abruptly stopped.
Dewey saw what had happened and spoke to the boy in words, “Don’t get carried away, chere. The gates of heaven swing both ways. That’s some finebusiness music. Try again.”
The next day when Jerome went to work on the rocks, it was if he were seeing them for the first time, and he set to work with joy in his heart. Thanks to the contact with the music, Jerome realized he could now begin to distinguish between the world at large and the large world within. Stella and Dewey had somehow demonstrated to him that both of these worlds were dependent upon and interrelated with the other and that, if a man lived right (as Dewey said), he could create for himself a sort of dual citizenship. Jerome took that to mean being a citizen of Louisiana and also being a citizen of Bayou Teche, the one contained in the other.
He watched the birds feeding on the ground and he watched them as they flew up into the air. Clearly, the birds belonged to both the world of the earth and to the world of the sky. When Old Slug was on his island, he belonged to the earth, but when he was swimming around in the bayou, he was a citizen of the water. It was all like Dewey said. There were worlds within worlds. But most people lived only “in one sorry-assed world,” and whether they carried on in French or they carried on in English, it’s all carrying on just the same and doesn’t amount to a hill of red beans.
When he’d positioned the final stone in its place, he did not look at his handiwork from either the east or the west, nor did he climb high up into the trees to examine it from above. He sat there and simply beheld the rocks as they began to hum a sure and piercing melody. It was like the music of the stars, a sound within sounds, a music you heard only when you were living right—that is, in two worlds at once.
Dewey and Stella appeared and the both of them listened to the humming rocks. “That’s some stack of rock, boy. They tole a finebusiness story,” Dewey said.
Old Slug lumbered down off his rock and made his way over to Jerome. As the sun moved lower in the sky, the island was bathed in its rich, golden glow. Finally, Slug moved to the southern slope of the island, crawled down into the water, looked back over at his friends and then dug himself into the mud.
“You got school tomorrow,” Stella said, “and it’s a long way back to Patterson. You’ll be lucky to make it back by sundown.”
No sooner had school begun than economic woes arose along with other complicated family matters beyond Jerome’s control and he had to go back to Tennessee and, later, to Southern Illinois where he finished high school. One night Old Slug appeared to Jerome in a dream, and when the boy awoke he understood that Old Slug was gone forever. Although he wept, he was comforted by a familiar silence, and he heard the distant hum of a sure and piercing melody.
Jerome entered the familiar channel and was nearing Stella’s floating dock. He saw three boats tied up there—Stella’s bateau, Dewey’s Sportfisher and a new white fiberglass job with a Johnson-25 strapped to the transom.
“Hey chere! Come on up here, boy. You’re late!” Dewey hollered from the shore.
Jerome ran his pirogue right up into Stella’s yard and leaped into Dewey’s arms. Stella hurried over and, in an uncharacteristic move, kissed Jerome’s hair. After a moment, Stella spoke, “Jerome, this here’s Mr. Whitney Stone.”
Jerome looked up and studied Mr. Stone. He was older than Dewey or Stella and he looked decidedly out of place in the swamp with his pressed dress slacks, white shirt and panama hat. Stella was not one to tolerate visitors lightly, so whoever Mr. Stone was, he had to be somebody important. Jerome extended his hand.
“Ah,” said Mr. Stone. “The lad who constructed the runes!”
Jerome looked puzzled, not understanding the word, and Mr. Stone appended, “the cairns.” And finally, “The pile of rocks on the turtle’s island.”
“Oh yeah, me!” Jerome answered, finalizing the handshake.
After touring the bayou and paying a visit to the island, they all went into the house and set about cramming eight years of conversation into a few hours. Mr. Stone would speak occasionally, but mostly he seemed relaxed and content to let the old friends catch up on the broad details and trivial specifics of their long separation. By sundown, they had come full circle in their talks. The moon began to cast a wide silver glow over the bayou and then, to Jerome’s astonishment, Mr. Stone made one of Stella’s signs!
Jerome took his elbows off the table. Dewey and Stella became very attentive to Mr. Stone. The sounds of the bayou flooded into the shack from the open doors and windows, and then it happened again—the music! Mr. Stone looked at Jerome, who had no problem looking back while staying in touch with the music. To Mr. Stone’s delight, the young man opened his hand like a flower coming into blossom in the morning sun, and then closed it, touched it to his heart and returned it, palm down, upon the table.
When at last it was time to let the music go, Stella simply got up and went into the other room and brought back some cigarettes. They sat and smoked for a while until Stella broke the silence. “What it is, Whitney? Or should I ask, what is it now?”
“There’s trouble,” Mr. Stone said matter-of-factly. I was at a meeting in Baton Rouge yesterday and the oil companies are exercising their option on this part of the bayou. All of the old trees have to be cut down, and all of the area from the house to the island to the levee will be dredged to make the channel deep enough to float a drilling platform.”
Jerome’s eyes began to well up at what he was hearing and Mr. Stone’s eyes lept into his, “It can’t be helped boy! And by God you’d better understand that right now. Not even I can do anything about it.”
Dewey rose from his chair and produced a pint of Jack Daniels from his hip pocket and put it on the table. “This be some finebusiness whisky. Got me some glasses, Stella. We gonna set here and drink it up and I’m gonna tole you a story, ma cheres amis, a story!”
In short order, Dewey’s quick-witted fabrication began to transform the somber events into a bayou fete. There were alligators talking to possums, and snakes plotting graphic assaults on armadillos that bordered on the pornographic. Even Stella and Mr. Stone were laughing. At the end of the tale, Mr. Stone said, “Well, Dewey, I never I could never get that quirk out of you and now I have to say that I’m glad I failed.”
“Ah, Whitney,” Dewey said, “I’ve been knowing for a long time that if I don’t sip some whiskey and tole some stories, that old Dewey Hebert would explode, just flat out bust! I had to save that for myself.”
Mr. Stone spoke further in some detail to Stella. She did not express her appreciation for his kind words, nor did she flinch at his admonitions. She merely looked Whitney Stone in the face and pointed with her chin towards Jerome.
Sensing her concern, Jerome blurted out, “I’ll be okay, Stella! It’s you he’s trying to help. I’ll be okay, won’t I, Mr. Stone? Tell her!”
“Stella,” Mr. Stone slowly measured out her name. “You did good by the boy and so will I, but he’s a young man now and has to go his own way. We all have to go soon, go our own ways into the worlds within worlds and the bayou, as we’ve known it, will never be the same.”
Jerome paddled away from Bayou Teche knowing it was for the last time. In the middle of the river he turned the pirogue around to take one long look at the old cypress tree, letting the small boat drift in the slow-moving current. In the distance he could see the running lights on Dewey’s old Sportfisher headed for Morgan City, and he heard the purr of Mr. Stone’s Johnson-25. He looked about at the grand expanse of the Atchafalaya Basin canopied by a million stars. He felt his body grow large and as luminous as the silver moon.
“What a piece of work,” Jerome said aloud. “What a finebusiness piece of work.”