Come here, cher, and I tell you a story.
One time there is a girl lives out in the swamp. Her skin and hair are white like the feathers of a white egret and her eyes are pink like a possum’s nose. When she is a baby, the loup-garous find her floating on the bayou in an old pirogue and take her to Tante Eulalie.
Tante Eulalie does not howl and grow hair on her body when the moon is full like the loup-garous. But she hide in the swamp same as they do, and they are all friends together. She take piquons out of the loup-garous’ feet and bullets out of their hairy shoulders and dose their rheumatism and their mange. In return, the loup-garous build her a cabin out of cypress and palmetto leaves and bring her rice and indigo dye from town. On moonlit nights, she play her fiddle at the loup-garous’ ball. The loup-garous love Tante Eulalie, but the girl love her most of all.
Yes, the girl is me. Who else around here has white skin and hair and pink eyes, eh? Hush now, and listen.
Tante Eulalie, she like my own mother, her. She name me Cadence and tell me stories—all the stories I tell you, cher. When we sit spinning or weaving, she tell me about when she was a young girl, living with her pap and her good maman and her six brothers and three sisters near the little town of Pierreville. She tell me about her cousin Belda Guidry, the prettiest girl in the parish.
Now, when Belda is fifteen, there are twenty young men all crazy to marry her. She can’t make up her mind, her, so her old pap make a test for the young men, to see which will make the best son-in-law. He make them plow the swamp and sow it with dried chilies and bring them to harvest. And when they done that, they have to catch the oldest, meanest ’gator in Bayou Teche and make a gumbo out of him.
I thought Tante Eulalie was making it all up out of her head, but she swore it was true. It was Ganelon Fuselier who won Belda, and Tante Eulalie was godmother to their second child, Denise.
Ganie cheated, of course. Nobody can pass a test like that without cheating some. Seemed to me like cheating was a way of life in Pierreville. The wonder was how the folks getting cheated never learned to be less trustful. I thought if I ever went to Pierreville, and Ganie Fuselier or Old Savoie tell me the sky is blue, I’d go outside and check. And if Murderes Petitpas came knocking at my door, I’d slip out the back.
Tante Eulalie’s best stories were about Young Murderes Petitpas, who was like the grasshopper because he’d always rather fiddle than work, though ’Dres was too smart to get caught out in the cold. How smart was he? Well, I tell you the story of ’Dres and the Fiddle, and you can judge for yourself.
Once there’s this old man called Old Boudreaux. He has a fiddle, and this fiddle is the sweetest fiddle anybody ever hear. His old pap make it himself, back in eighteen-something, and when Old Boudreaux play, the dead get up and dance. Now, Young ’Dres think it’s a shame that the best fiddler in St. Mary’s parish—that is, Young ’Dres himself—shouldn’t have the best fiddle—that is, Old Boudreaux’s Pap’s fiddle. So Young ’Dres go to Old Boudreaux and he say, “Old Boudreaux, I’m afraid for your soul.”
Old Boudreaux say: “What you talking about, boy?”
Young ’Dres say: “Last night when you were playing ‘Jolie Blonde,’ I see a little red devil creep out of the f-holes and commence to dancing on your fingerboard. The faster he dance, the faster you play, and he laugh like mad and wave his forked tail so I was scared half to death.”
“Go to bed, ’Dres Petitpas,” say Old Boudreaux. “I don’t believe that for a minute.”
“It’s as true as I’m standing here,” say Young ’Dres. “I got the second sight, me, so I see things other people don’t.”
“Hmpf,” say Old Boudreaux, and he start back in the house.
“Wait,” say Young ’Dres. “You bring your fiddle here, and I go prove it to you.”
Of course, Old Boudreaux say no. But Young ’Dres got a way with him, and everybody know Old Boudreaux ain’t got no more sense than a possum. So Old Boudreaux fetch his fiddle.
When Young ’Dres see it, he commence to moan and wring his bandana. “Mother Mary preserve me!” he say. “Can’t you see its red eyes twinkling in the f-holes? Can’t you smell the sulfur? You got to exercise that devil, Old Boudreaux, or you go fiddle yourself right down to hell.”
Old Boudreaux nearly drop his fiddle, he so scared. He don’t dare look in the f-holes, but he don’t have to, because as soon as Young ’Dres name that devil, there’s a terrible stink of sulfur everywhere.
“Holy Mother save me!” Old Boudreaux cry. “My fiddle is possessed! What am I going to do, ’Dres Petitpas? I don’t want to fiddle myself down to hell.”
“Well, I go tell you, Old Boudreaux, but you ain’t going to like it.”
“I’ll like it, I promise. Just tell me what to do!”
“You give the fiddle to me, and I exercise that devil for you.”
Old Boudreaux so scared, he hand his pap’s fiddle right over to Young ’Dres. What’s more, he tell him to keep it, because Old Boudreaux never go touch it again without thinking he smell sulfur. And that’s how ’Dres Petitpas get the sweetest fiddle in the parish for nothing more than the cost of the bandana he crush the rotten egg in that make Old Boudreaux believe his fiddle is haunted.
Yes, that Young ’Dres make me laugh, him. But Tante Eulalie shake her head and say, “You go ahead and laugh, ’tit chou. Just remember that people like ’Dres Petitpas are better to hear about than have dealings with, eh? You ever meet a bon rien like that—all smiling and full of big talk—you run as fast and as far as you can go.”
That was Tante Eulalie. Always looking out for me, teaching me what I need to know to live in the world. By the time I could walk, I knew to keep out of the sun and stay away from traps and logs with eyes. When I grew older, Tante Eulalie taught me to spin cotton and weave cloth and dye it blue with indigo. She taught me how to make medicine from peppergrass and elderberry bark and prickly pear leaves, and some little magic gris-gris for dirty wounds and warts and aching joints. Best of all, she taught me how to dance.
Tante Eulalie loved to play the fiddle, and she played most nights after supper was cleared away. The music she played was bouncing music, swaying music, twirl around until you fall music, and when I was very little, that’s all I did. Then Tante Eulalie took me to the loup-garous’ ball, where I learned the two-step and the waltz.
I took to it like a mallard to open water. Once I learned the steps, I danced all the time. I danced with the loup-garous and I danced by myself. I danced when I swept and I danced when I cooked. I danced to Tante Eulalie’s fiddling and I danced to the fiddling of the crickets. Tante Eulalie laughed at me—said I’d wear myself out. But I didn’t.
Then came a winter when the leaves were blasted with cold and ice skimmed the surface of the bayou. Long about Advent-time, Tante Eulalie caught a cough. I made her prickly pear leaf syrup and willow bark tea for the fever, and hung a gris-gris for strength around her neck. But it didn’t do no good. At the dark of the year, she asked me to bring her the cypress wood box from under her bed. I opened it for her, and she pulled out three pieces of lace and a gold ring and put them in my hand.
“These are all I have to leave you,” she said. “These, and my fiddle. I hope you find good use for them someday.”
Not long after that, the Bon Dieu called her. Her friends the loup-garous came and buried her under the big live oak behind the cabin and howled her funeral mass. I was sixteen years old now, more or less, and that was the end of my girlhood.
That was the end of my dancing, too, for a time. When I saw Tante Eulalie’s fiddle lying silent across her cane-bottomed chair, I fell into sadness like a deep river. Day in and day out, I lay in a nest of nutria skins next the fire and watched the flames burn low and thought how nobody would know or notice if I lived or died.
Some time passes, I don’t know how much, and then somebody knock at the door. I don’t answer, but he come in anyway. It is Ulysse, the youngest of the loup-garous. I like Ulysse. He is quiet and skinny and he bring me peanut butter and white bread in a printed paper wrapper, and when we dance at the loup-garous’ ball, everybody stop and watch us. Still, I wish he would go away.
Ulysse sniff around a little, then he dig me out of my nest and give me a shake. “You in a bad way, chère,” he say. “If Tante Eulalie see how you carry on, she pass you one big slap, for sure.”
“Good,” I say. “I like that fine. At least she be here to slap me.”
Not much Ulysse can say to that, I think, and maybe he will go away now and let me be sad by myself. But he has another idea, him. He sniff around again and start to clucking like an old hen. “This place worse than a hog pen,” he say. “Tante Eulalie see the state her cabin is in, she die all over again.” He pick her fiddle and bow up off her chair. “Where she keep these at?”
To see Ulysse holding Tante Eulalie’s fiddle give me the first real feeling I have since it seems like forever. I get mad, me, so mad I go right up to Ulysse, who is bigger than me by a head, who has wild, dark hair and long teeth and sharp nails even when the moon is dark, and I hit him in the stomach.
“Tiens, chère! What is this? Why you hit your friend Ulysse?”
“Why? Because you touch Tante Eulalie’s fiddle. Put it down, you, or I make you.”
“Put it up, then,” he say, “instead of curling up like a crawfish in winter.”
I take the fiddle like it was an egg, and hang it on its hook over Tante Eulalie’s bed. And then I start to cry, with Ulysse holding my shoulders and licking my hair like a wolf lick her cub till I am calm again.
After that, I clean the cabin and make myself a gumbo. I string Tante Eulalie’s big loom with thread she spun and dyed, and I weave a length of pale blue cloth. When the water rise to the edge of the porch and the nights get shorter, I set lines to catch fish, and make my garden with the seeds Tante Eulalie saved. The loup-garous still knock on my door, and I treat them for mange and rheumatism and broken bones, as Tante Eulalie always did. But I don’t dance at their balls. I take my pirogue out at sunset and paddle between the big cypress trees and listen to the frogs sing of love and the roaring of the ’gators as they fight for their mates.
One night, paddling far from home, I see lights that are not the pale feu follets that dance in the swamp at night. They are yellow lights, lantern lights, and they tell me I have come to a farm. I am a little afraid, for Tante Eulalie used to warn me about letting people see me.
“You know how ducks carry on when a strange bird land in their water?” she say. “The good people of Pierreville, they see that white hair and those pink eyes, and they peck at you till there’s nothing left but two-three white feathers.”
I do not want to be pecked, me, so I start to paddle away.
And then I hear the music.
I turn back with a sweep of my paddle and drift clear. I see a wharf and a cabin and an outhouse and a hog pen, and a big barn built on high ground away from the water. The barn doors are open, and they spill yellow light out over a pack of buggies and horses and even cars—only cars I’ve seen outside the magazines Ulysse sometimes bring. I don’t care about the cars, though, for I am caught by the fiddle music that spills out brighter than the lantern light, brighter than anything in the world since Tante Eulalie left it.
I paddle toward the music like a moth to a lit candle, not caring that fire burns and ducks peck and the people of Pierreville don’t like strangers. But I am not stupid like Old Boudreaux. I am careful to hide my pirogue behind a buttonbush and I don’t come out in the open. I stalk the music softly, softly, like a bobcat, and I find a place behind the barn where I think nobody will come. And I dance. I dance the two-step with my brown striped shawl, tears wet on my face because Tante Eulalie is dead, because I am dancing alone in the dark, because the fiddle is crying and I cannot help but cry, too.
The moon rise, the crickets go to bed. The fiddler play and I dance as if the dawn will never come. I guess I keep dancing when the music stop, because next thing I know, there’s a shout behind me. When I open my eyes, the sky is pale and gray and there’s a knot of men behind the barn with their mouths gaping like black holes in their faces.
One of them step forward. He is tall, broad-shouldered, and thick, and he wear a wide-brimmed hat pulled down low over his eyes, glittering in its shadow like the eyes of a snake in a hole. I throw my shawl around my shoulders and turn to run.
As soon as I move, all the men gasp and step back. I think that a little fear make ducks mean, but a lot of fear make them run. I give a hoot like a swamp owl, hold my shawl out like wings, and scoot low and fast into the cypress grove.
Behind me, there is shouting and lights bobbing here and there like lightning bugs. I creep to my pirogue and paddle away quiet as a watersnake, keeping to the shadows. I am very pleased with myself, me. I think the men of Pierreville are as stupid as Old Boudreaux to be frightened by a small girl in a striped shawl. Maybe soon I will go and hear the music again.
Next night, Ulysse come knocking at my door. He sit down at the table and I give him coffee and then I go to my wheel and set it spinning.
“I hear tell of a thing,” Ulysse say over the whirr of the wheel. “It make me think.”
I smile a little. “Think?” I say. “That is a piece of news. You tell your friends? Old Placide, he be surprised.”
Ulysse shakes his head. “This is serious, Cadence. Up and down the bayou, everybody is talking about the haunt that bust up the Doucet fais-do-do.”
I look down at the pale brown thread running though my fingers, fine and even as Tante Eulalie’s. “There weren’t no haunts at the Doucet fais-do-do, Ulysse.”
“I know that. The Doucets say different. They say they see a girl turn into a swamp owl and fly away. What you say to that, hien?”
“I say they drink too much beer, them.”
He bring his heavy black eyebrows together. “Why you go forget everything Tante Eulalie tell you, Cadence, and make a nine-days’ wonder with your foolishness?”
“Don’t scold, Ulysse. The people of Pierreville for sure got more important things to talk about than me.”
“Maybe so, maybe not,” Ulysse say darkly. “What you doing at the Doucets’?”
“Dancing,” I say, still teasing. “Who is the fiddler, Ulysse? He play mighty fine.”
Ulysse is still not smiling. “He is a bon rien, Cadence, a bad man. Shake hands with Murderes Petitpas, you go count your fingers after.”
I almost let the wheel stop, I’m so surprised. “You go to bed, Ulysse. Tante Eulalie make ’Dres Petitpas up out of her head. “
“He’s real, all right. Everybody say he sell his soul to the devil so he can play better than any human man. Then he fiddle the devil out of hell and keep him dancing all day and night until his hoofs split in two and the devil give ’Dres his soul back so he can stop dancing. ’Dres Petitpas is the big bull on the hill, and mean, mean. You stay away from him, you.”
I maybe like Ulysse, but I don’t like him telling me what to do—Ulysse, who eats rabbits raw and howls at the moon when it’s full. I pinch the thread too tight and it breaks in two.
“Eh, Cadence,” he say, “you going to hit me again? Ain’t going to change what I say, but go ahead if it make you feel better.”
I don’t hit him, but I am maybe not very kind to him, and he leaves looking like a beaten dog. I hear howling, later, that I think is Ulysse, and I am a little sorry, but not too much.
Still, I do not go out again to dance. Not because Ulysse tell me, but because I am not a couyon like Old Boudreaux.
Two, maybe three nights after, I hear a thump against my porch and the sounds of somebody tying up a pirogue and climbing out. Not Ulysse—somebody heavier. Old Placide, maybe. I am already up and looking for my jar of fly blister for his rheumatism when there’s a knock on the door.
I open it. I do not see Old Placide. I see a big man with a belly like a barrel, a big-brimmed hat, and a heavy black mustache. I try to shut the door, but ’Dres Petitpas shoves it back easy, and walks past me like he’s at home. Then he sit down at my table with his hat pulled down to his snake-bright eyes and his hands spread on his thighs.
“Hey there, chère,” he say, and smiles real friendly. His teeth are yellow and flat.
I stand by the door, thinking whether I will run away or not. Running away is maybe safer, but then ’Dres Petitpas is alone in my cabin, and I don’t want that.
He eyes me like he knows just what I’m thinking. “I go tell you a story. You stand by the door if you want, but I think you be more comfortable sitting down.”
I hate to do anything he tell me to, but I hate worse looking foolish. I close the door and sit by the fire with my hands on my lap. I do not give him coffee.
“Well,” he say, “this is the way it is. I am a good fiddler, me, maybe the best fiddler on the bayous. Maybe the best fiddler in the world. Ain’t nobody in St. Mary’s parish dance or court or marry or christen a baby without me. But St. Mary’s parish is a small place, eh? I am too big for St. Mary’s. I have an idea to go to New Orleans, fiddle on the radio, make my fortune, buy a white house with columns on the front.”
He lift his hands, his fingers square at the tips, his nails trimmed short and black with dirt, and he laugh. It is not a good laugh.
“You maybe don’t know, little swamp owl girl, these hands are like gold. I fiddle the devil out of hell once and I fiddle him down again. I will make those cuyons in New Orleans lie down and lick my bare feets.”
He glances at me for a reaction, but I just sit there. Tante Eulalie is right. Close to, ’Dres Petitpas is not funny at all. He want what he want, and he don’t care what he has to do to get it. He can’t trick me, because I know what he is. What he go do, I wonder, when he finds that out?
As if he hear my thoughts, ’Dres Petitpas frown. He look around the cabin, and his eyes light on Tante Eulalie’s fiddle hung on the wall. He get up and take it down, and run his thumb over the strings. They twang dully. “Good thing you loosen the strings,” he say. “Keep the neck from warping, eh? Nice little fiddle. You play?”
I don’t remember getting up, but I am standing with my hands twisted in my skirts. “No,” I say as lightly as I can. “Stupid old thing. I don’t know why I don’t throw it into the bayou.”
“You won’t mind if I tune her, then.” He brings the fiddle to the table and starts to tighten the strings. I sit down again. “One day,” he say, picking up the story. “One day, my five sons Clopha and Aristile and ’Tit Paul and Louis and Télémaque come to me. Clopha is in love, him, and he ask my blessing to marry Marie Eymard.
“Now, I got nothing against marriage. My wife Octavie and me been married together twenty-two years, still in love like two doves. My sons are good boys, smart boys. Clopha can read anything you put in front of him—writing, printing, it don’t matter. And young Louis can add up numbers fast as I can play my fiddle. But they got no sense about women. So I tell Clopha I will choose a wife for him, if he want one. And when the time come, I’ll choose wives for the other boys, too. Wives are too important a matter to be left to young men.
“‘My foot!’ Clopha say. ‘I go marry Marie without your blessing, then.’
“‘You go do more than that,’ I tell him. ‘You go marry with my curse. Remember, I got the devil on a string. My curse is something to fear. And you see if Marie Eymard go marry together with you when she find out you don’t bring her so much as a stick of furniture or a woven blanket or a chicken to start life with.’
“Well, you think that be the end of it. But my sons are hardheaded boys. They argue this way and that. And then I have an idea, me, how I can shut their mouths for once and all. I offer my sons a bet.”
He stop and hold the fiddle up to his ear and pluck teach string in turn, listening intently. “Better,” he say. He set the fiddle on the table, pull a lump of rosin from his pocket, and goes to work on the bow.
“The bet,” he say, “is this. I will fiddle and my sons will dance. If I stop fiddling before they all stop dancing, I go bless their marriages and play at their weddings. If not, Clopha and Louis come to New Orleans with me to read anything that needs to be read, and Aristile, ’Tit Paul, and Télémaque go tend the shrimp boats and help Octavie with the hogs and the chickens and the cotton.”
’Dres Petitpas grin under his moustache. “It is a good bet I make, eh? I cannot lose.
“Well, my sons go off behind the hog pen and talk for a while, and when they come back, they tell me that they will take my bet—on two conditions. One, they will dance one after another, so I must fiddle out five in a row. Two, I will provide a partner for them—one partner, who must dance as long as I fiddle.
“Now I am proud of my five sons, because they are smart as well as strong. They know I can play the sun up and down the sky. They know I can play until the cows come home and long after the chickens come to roost. They know nobody human can dance as long as I can play.” He looks away from the bow and straight at me. “They don’t know you.”
I turn my head away. I don’t know how long I can dance. All night, for sure, then paddle home after and dance in the cabin while I do my chores. Maybe the next night, too. I might could do what I guess ’Dres Petitpas wants. But I won’t. I won’t show my face to the people of Pierreville, my white face and pink eyes and white, white hair. I won’t go among the ducks and risk their pecking—not for anybody and for sure not for ’Dres Petitpas.
“I see you at the Doucet fais-do-do,” he say. “I see you dance like a leaf in the wind, like no human girl I ever seen. I go to a man I know, a hairy, sharp-tooth man, and he tell me about a little swamp owl girl who dance all night long at the loup-garous’ ball. I think this girl go make a good partner for my boys. What you say, hien? You come dance with my five strong sons?”
My heart is sick inside me, but I can’t be angry at the loup-garou who betrayed me. ’Dres Petitpas is a hard man to say no to. But I do. I say, “No.”
“I don’t ask you to dance for nothing,” ’Dres Petitpas coaxes me. “I go give you land to raise cotton on and a mule to plow it with.”
“You greedy girl, you,” he says, like it’s a compliment. “How you like to marry one of my sons, then? Any one you like. Then you be important lady, nobody dare call you swamp owl girl or little white slug.”
I jump up and go for him, so angry the blood burns like ice in my veins. I stop when I see him raise Tante Eulalie’s fiddle over his head by the neck.
“Listen, chère. You don’t help me, I take this fiddle and make kindling out of it, and I break that loom and that wheel, and then I burn this cabin to ash. What you say, chère: yes or no? Say ‘yes’ now, and we have a deal. You help me win my bet and I give you land and a mule and a husband to keep you warm. That is not so bad a bargain, hien?”
It stick in my throat, but I have no choice. “Yes,” I say.
“That’s good,” Murderes Petitpas say, and he tuck Tante Eulalie’s fiddle under his chin and draw the bow across the strings. It sounds a note, strong and sweet. “The contest is set for Saturday night—that’s three nights from now. We start after supper, end when the boys get tired. Make a real fais-do-do, eh? Put the children down to sleep?” He make the fiddle laugh, a skip of notes. “Might could take two-three days. You understand?”
I understand very well, but I can’t help trying to find a way out. “I do not know if I can dance for three days and nights.”
“I say you can, and I say you will. I got your fiddle, me.”
“I cannot dance in the sun.”
A discord sounds across the strings. “Little white slug don’t like sun, eh? No matter. We make the dance in Doucet’s barn. You know where it at already.” Tante Eulalie’s fiddle mocks me with one of the tunes he played that night. Despite myself, my feet begin to move. He grin a ’gator’s grin. “You a dancing fool, chère. I win my bet, my sons learn who’s boss, and I go be a rich man on the radio.”
He’s fiddling as he speaks and moving towards the door. I’m dancing because I can’t help it, with tears of rage stinging the back of my nose and blurring my eyes. I don’t let them fall till he’s gone, though. I have that much pride.
The rest of that night is black, black, and the next two days, too. There are knocks at my door, but I do not answer them. I am too busy thinking how I will make Murderes Petitpas sorry he mess with me. I take my piece of blue cloth off the loom and sew a dancing dress for myself, with Tante Eulalie’s lace to the neck and cuffs. Early the third morning, I make a gris-gris with Tante Eulalie’s gold ring. I sleep and wash myself and put on the dress and braid my hair in a tail down my back and hang the gris-gris around my neck. Then I get in my pirogue and paddle through the maze of the swamp to the warm lights of the Doucet’s farm
It is very strange to tie my pirogue to the wharf and walk up to the barn in the open. Under my feet, the dirt is warm and smooth, and the air smells of flowers and spices and cooking meat. The barn doors are open and the lantern light shines yellow on the long tables set up outside and the good people of Pierreville swarming around with plates and forks, scooping jambalaya and gumbo, dirty rice and fried okra, red beans and grits from the dishes and pots.
At first they don’t see me and then they do, and all the gumbo ya-ya of talk stops dead. I walk toward them through a quiet like the swamp at sunset. My heart beats so hard under my blue dress that I think everybody must see it, but I keep my chin up. The people are afraid, too. I can smell it on them, see it in their flickering eyes that will not meet mine, hear it in their whispers: Haunt. Devil. Look at her eyes—like fireballs. Unnatural.
A woman steps in front of me. She is wiry and faded, with white-streaked hair in stiff curls around her ears and a flowery dress made up of store-bought calico. “I am Octavie Petitpas,” she says, her voice tight with fear. “You come to dance with my sons?”
I see ’Dres Petitpas grinning his yellow-tooth grin over her head. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Your partner’s here, boys,” ’Dres Petitpas shouts. “Time to dance!”
He turn to five men standing in an uneven line—his five sons. I guess the first must be Clopha the reader, thin as his father is wide, with lines of worry across his forehead. Aristile and ’Tit Paul are big like their father, with trapped, angry eyes. Louis is a little older than me, with a mustache thin as winter grass. Télémaque is still a boy, all knees and elbows.
I walk up to Clopha and hold out my hand. He look at it, then takes it with a sigh. His hand is cold as deep water.
We all troop into the Doucet’s barn, Clopha and me and ’Dres and every soul from St. Mary’s Parish who can find a place to stand. ’Dres climbs up on a trestle table, swings his fiddle to his shoulder, and starts to play “Jolie Blonde.” He’s grinning under his black mustache and stamping with his foot to show he is having a good time, if nobody else is.
Clopha and I start to dance. I know right away that he will not last long. He has already lost the bet in his heart, him, already lost his Marie, who I can see watching us, her hands to her mouth and tears wetting her cheeks like a heavy rain. It is hard work dancing with Clopha. I think his father trick him so often that he is like Old Boudreaux, who doesn’t know how to win. This makes Clopha heavy and slow. I have to set the pace, change directions, twirl under his lax arm without help or signal. He plods through five, six, seven tunes, and then he stumbles and falls to his knees, shaking his head heavily until Marie Eymard come and help him up with a glare that would burn me black, if it could.
Then it is Aristile’s turn.
Aristile is strong, him, and he is on fire to beat me. My head barely reaches his heart, and he crushes me to him as if to smother me. Half the time, I’m dancing on tiptoe. The other, I’m thrown here and there by his powerful arms, my shoulders aching as he puts me through my paces like a mule. It’s wrestling, not dancing, but I dance with wolves, me, and I am stronger than I look. Six songs, seven, eight, nine, and then the tunes all run together under our flying feet. I do not even notice that Aristile has fallen until I find myself dancing alone. Then I blink at the sun pouring in through the barn door while two men carry Aristile to a long bench along the wall. I see a girl in pink kneel beside him with a cup and a cloth for his red face, and then I go up to ’Tit Paul and the music carries us away.
‘Tit Paul is even more angry than his brother, and bigger and taller. He cheats. When we spin, he loosens his grip on my waist and wrist, hoping to send me flying into the crowd. I cling to him like a crab, pinching his shirt, his cuff, his thick, sweaty wrist. The dance is a war between us, each song a battle, even the waltzes. I win them all, and also the war, when ’Tit Paul trips over his own dragging feet and falls full length in the dust, barrel chest heaving, teeth bared like a mink. I feel no pity for him. I think some day ’Tit Paul will find a way to shove his father’s curse back into his throat.
The music doesn’t stop, so I don’t either, two-stepping alone as men carry ’Tit Paul to the bench where he, too, is comforted by a dark-haired girl. Through the barn doors, I see that it is dark again outside. I have danced, as ’Dres Petitpas has fiddled, for a night and a day. I am a little tired.
I dance up to Louis and hold out my hand.
Louis, who understands numbers, dances carefully, making me do all the work of turning, twisting, threading the needles he makes with his arms. From time to time, he speeds up suddenly, stumbles in my way so I must skip to keep from falling, throws me off balance whenever he can. After a time, his father sees what he’s up to and shouts at him, and the spirit goes out of Louis like water draining out the hole in a bucket. There is a girl to give him water and soft words when he falls, too, a thin child with her hair in braids. I feel no pity for Louis, either, who is sly enough to beat his father at his own game when he’s older.
It’s light again by now, and I have danced for two nights and a day. I feel that my body is not my own but tied by the ears to Murderes Petitpas’s fiddle bow. As long as he plays, I will dance, though my feet bleed into the barn floor and my eyes sting with the dust. ’Dres launches into “La Two-Step Petitpas,” and I dance up to Télémaque who is still a child, and all I think when I hold out my hand is how glad I am Octavie gave her husband no more sons.
Télémaque, like me, is stronger than he looks. He has watched me dance with his four brothers, and he has learned that I cannot be tripped and I cannot be flung. He gives me a sad, sweet smile and limps as he dances, like he’s a poor cripple boy I’d be ashamed to beat. I think it is a trick lower than any of Louis’s, and I turn my face from him and let myself be lost in the stream of music. The bow of ’Dres Petitpas lifts my feet; his fingers guide my arms; his notes swirl me up and down and around as a paddle swirls the waters of the bayou. Around me, I feel something like a thunderstorm building, clouds piling, uneasy with lightning, the air growing thicker and thicker until I gasp for breath, dancing in the middle of the Doucets’ barn with Télémaque limp at my bleeding feet and Murderes Petitpas triumphant on his table and his neighbors around us, growling and muttering.
“The last one down!” he crows. “What you say now, Octavie?”
Octavie Petitpas steps out from the boiling cloud of people, and if she looked worn before, now she is gray as death.
“I say you are a fine fiddler, Murderes Petitpas. There ain’t a man in the whole of Louisiana, maybe even the world, could do what you done. Or would want to.”
“I am a fine fiddler,” ’Dres say. “Still, I can’t win my bet without my little owl girl, eh?” He waves his bow arm toward the five brothers sitting on the bench with their gray-faced sweethearts. “There they are, girl. Take your pick, you. Any one you want for your husband, and land and a mule, just like I promised. Murderes Petitpas, he keep his word, hien?”
I touch Tante Eulalie’s lace at my neck for luck, and the little bulge of the gris-gris hanging between my breasts and I say, “I do not want your land or your mule, ’Dres Petitpas. I do not want to marry any of your five sons. They have sweethearts of their own, them, nice Cajun girls with black eyes and rosy cheeks who will give them nice black-eyed babies.”
An astonished wind of whispers blows through the crowd.
I go on. “I make you a bet now, Murderes Petitpas. I bet I can dance longer than you can. Dance with me, and if I win, you will give your blessing on your sons’ marriages and return what you stole from me.”
His eyes narrow under his broad-brimmed hat and his fingers grip the neck of his fiddle. “No,” he say. “I make no more bets, me. I have what I want. I will not dance with you.”
“If you do not dance, Murderes Petitpas, everybody will think you are afraid of a little white-skin, pink-eye swamp girl, with her bare feets all bloody. What you afraid of, hien? You, who fiddle the devil out of hell and back down again?”
“I ain’t afraid,” say ’Dres through his flat yellow teeth. “I just ain’t interested. You don’t want to marry together with one of my sons, you go away back to the swamp. We got no further business together.”
Louis gets to his feet and limps up beside me. “I say you do, Pap. If you win, you get my word I don’t go run away first chance I see.”
“And my word I don’t go with him,” says Télémaque, joining him.
Aristile comes up on the other side of me. “And mine.”
“And mine,” says ’Tit Paul.
“And you got my word not to make your life a living hell for taking my sons from me out of pure cussedness,” says Octavie.
’Dres Petitpas look down on the pack of us. His face is red as fire and his eyes glow hot as coals. “I see you boys still got some learning to do. I take your bet, swamp owl girl. You bring up a fiddler to play for us, and I dance the sun around again.”
Everybody get real quiet, and Octavie say, “’Dres, you know there ain’t no other fiddler in St. Mary’s parish.”
“That’s it, then. I don’t dance without music. The bet’s off.”
Someone in the crowd laughs. I’d laugh myself if this was a story I was hearing, about Young ’Dres Petitpas and how he owns all the music in St. Mary’s parish.
Then another voice speaks out of the crowd. “I will play for this dance,” says my friend Ulysse.
I spin around to see him in a store-bought suit, with his wild, black hair all slicked down with oil, looking innocent as a puppy in a basket.
“I have an accordion,” he say, and gives me a sharp-toothed smile, and I know, just then, that I love him.
Another man turn up with a washboard and a spoon, and he and Ulysse jump up on the table as ’Dres Petitpas climb down. Ulysse strikes up a tune I’ve heard a thousand times: “T’es Petite et T’es Mignonne,” which is Tante Eulalie’s special tune for me. It gives my weary feet courage, and I dance up to Murderes Petitpas and take hold of his hand.
That is when the good people of Pierreville discover that Murderes Petitpas cannot dance. He has two left feet and he can’t keep time, and he may know what a Window or a Cajun Cuddle or a Windmill look like, but he for sure don’t know how to do one. We stumble and fumble this way and that around the floor while the storm breaks at last in a gale of laughter. I laugh, too, in spite of the pain in my feet, like dancing on nails or needles. I don’t care if he falls first or I do. I’ve won already, me. The good people of Pierreville have seen ’Dres Petitpas for what he is. His sons will marry whoever they want, and he will not dare say a word against it.
Scree, scraw goes the accordion; thunk-whoosh goes the washboard, with Ulysse’s hoarse voice wailing above it all, and I’m dancing like the midges above the water at dusk, with ’Dres stumbling after me. Somehow my feet don’t hurt so much now, and my legs are light, and I enjoy myself. It is still dark outside the barn when ’Dres falls to his knees and bends his head.
As the accordion wheezes into silence, Octavie runs to her husband and puts her arms around his shoulders. His sons are kissing their sweethearts, and everybody’s talking and fetching more food and slapping Ulysse and the washboard player on the back and pretending that I don’t exist.
I step up to Octavie and I say, “Miz Petitpas, I’ll take my fiddle now, my Tante Eulalie’s fiddle your husband took from me.”
She look up and say, “Eulalie? Old Eulalie Favrot, that run away to the swamp? You kin to Eulalie Favrot?”
I nod. “Tante Eulalie take me in when I’m a baby, raise me like her own.”
Octavie wave to an ancient lady in a faded homespun dress. “Tante Belda, you come here. This here’s Eulalie Favrot’s girl she raised. What you think of that?”
The ancient lady bring her face, wrinkled as wet cloth, right up to my lace collar so she can squint at it better. “That ’Lalie’s wedding lace,” she say. “I know it anywhere, me. How she keeping, girl?”
“She catch a cough this winter and die.”
“I sure am sorry to hear that,” the ancient lady say. “‘Lalie is my cousin, godmother to my girl, Denise. She marry Hercule Favrot back in the ’teens sometime. Poor Hercule. He lose his shrimp boat and his nets to ’Dres Petitpas because of some couyon bet they make. Hercule take to drink, him, beat ’Lalie half to death. One morning she find him floating in the duck pond, dead as a gutted fish. ’Lalie go away after the funeral, nobody know where. She never have no children.”
“She have me,” I say. “Can I have her fiddle back now?”
Someone brings me a plate of food while I wait, but I am too tired to eat. My legs shake and my feet burn and sting. I think maybe I should sit down, but I can’t move my legs, and how will I get home before light? I feel the tears rise in my eyes, and then there is an arm around my waist and a voice in my ear.
“Cadence, chère,” Ulysse says. “Miz Petitpas bring your fiddle. Take it, you, and I carry you home to sleep.”
The plate disappears from my hands and Tante Eulalie’s fiddle and bow appear in its place. Ulysse pick me up in his arms like I’m a little child, and I put my head against the tight weave of his store-bought suit and let him carry me out of the Doucets’ barn.
The moon’s getting low, and there’s a chill in the air says dawn isn’t far away. Ulysse sets me in my pirogue, crawls in after, casts off, and starts to paddle. I see the Doucets’ wharf get small behind us, and the people of Pierreville standing there, watching us go. The ancient lady that once was the prettiest girl in the parish waves her handkerchief to us as we slip among the cypress trees and the lights of the Doucets’ farm disappear behind Spanish moss and leaves.
We do not speak as we glide through the waterways. The music echoes in my ears, accordion and washboard and fiddle all together as they play them at the loup-garous’ ball. I hum a little, quietly. The sun rises and Ulysse throw me his jacket to put over my head. When we get to my cabin, Ulysse carries me and my fiddle inside and closes the door.
Not long after, we are married together, Ulysse and me, with Tante Eulalie’s gold ring. We still live in the swamp, but we visit Pierreville to hear the gossip and go to a fais-do-do now and then. Ulysse always brings his accordion and plays if they ask him. But I keep my dancing for the loup-garous’ ball and for my husband in our own cabin. We dance to the music of our voices singing and the fiddling of our eldest daughter, ’Tit ’Lalie.
And Murderes Petitpas?
Old ’Dres Petitpas fiddles no more, him. He say he fiddle himself dry in those two days and two nights. He won’t go out into the swamp either, but sits on his front porch and sorts eggs from Octavie’s chickens and tells his grandchildren big stories about what a fine fiddler he used to be. Aristile has got Old Boudreaux’s fiddle now, and you can hear him playing with his wife’s brother and two cousins on the radio. But Aristile Petitpas ain’t the only fiddler in St. Mary’s parish, not by a long shot. There’s plenty of fiddlers around these days, and singers and accordion players and guitar players. They play Cajun and zydeco, waltzes and two-steps and the new jitterbugs, and they play them real fine. But there’s none them can fiddle the devil out of hell, like ’Dres Petitpas did one time.