Cajun History

Chita: A Memory of Last Island – 2.II

 

“Chita:  A Memory of Last Island:  A Novelete” by Lafcadio Hearn
Originally published April 1888 in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine

 

 

Last Island, located in the Gulf of Mexico south of Dulac, Louisiana, was a popular resort for rich Southerners in the 1800s.
The Last Island Village included a resort hotel, several gambling establishments, and approximately one hundred houses.   In the Fall of 1856, a hurricane hit Last Island—not a building was left standing and over 200 people died in the storm.  Last Island and the hurricane are described in Lafcadio Hearn’s novella, Chita: A Memory of Last Island.

 

II. — OUT OF THE SEA’S STRENGTH

II.

Before a little waxen image of the Mother and Child,—an odd little Virgin with an Indian face, brought home by Feliu as a gift after one of his Mexican voyages,—Carmen Viosca had burned candles and prayed; sometimes telling her beads; sometimes murmuring the litanies she knew by heart; sometimes also reading from a prayer-book worn and greasy as a long-used pack of cards. It was particularly stained at one page, a page on which her tears had fallen many a lonely night—a page with a clumsy wood-cut representing a celestial lamp, a symbolic radiance, shining through darkness, and on either side a kneeling angel with folded wings. And beneath this rudely wrought symbol of the Perpetual Calm appeared in big coarse type the title of a prayer that has been offered up through many a century, doubtless, by wives of Spanish mariners,—Contra las Tempestades.

Once she became very much frightened. After a partial lull the storm had suddenly redoubled its force: the ground shook; the house quivered and creaked; the wind brayed and screamed and pushed and scuffled at the door; and the water, which had been whipping in through every crevice, all at once rose over the threshold and flooded the dwelling. Carmen dipped her finger in the water and tasted it. It was salt!

And none of Feliu’s boats had yet come in;—doubtless they had been driven into some far-away bayous by the storm. The only boat at the settlement, the Carmencita, had been almost wrecked by running upon a snag three days before;—there was at least a fortnight’s work for the ship-carpenter of Dead Cypress Point. And Feliu was sleeping as if nothing unusual had happened—the heavy sleep of a sailor, heedless of commotions and voices. And his men, Miguel and Mateo, were at the other end of the chénière.

With a scream Carmen aroused Feliu. He raised himself upon his elbow, rubbed his eyes, and asked her, with exasperating calmness, “Que tienes? que tienes?” (What ails thee?)

—”Oh, Feliu! the sea is coming upon us!” she answered, in the same tongue. But she screamed out a word inspired by her fear: she did not cry, “Se nos viene el mar encima!” but “Se nos viene LA ALTURA!”—the name that conveys the terrible thought of depth swallowed up in height,—the height of the high sea.

“No lo creo!” muttered Feliu, looking at the floor; then in a quiet, deep voice he said, pointing to an oar in the corner of the room, “Echame ese remo.”

She gave it to him. Still reclining upon one elbow, Feliu measured the depth of the water with his thumb-nail upon the blade of the oar, and then bade Carmen light his pipe for him. His calmness reassured her. For half an hour more, undismayed by the clamoring of the wind or the calling of the sea, Feliu silently smoked his pipe and watched his oar. The water rose a little higher, and he made another mark;—then it climbed a little more, but not so rapidly; and he smiled at Carmen as he made a third mark. “Como creia!” he exclaimed, “no hay porque asustarse: el agua baja!” And as Carmen would have continued to pray, he rebuked her fears, and bade her try to obtain some rest:  “Basta ya de plegarios, querida!—vete y duerme.” His tone, though kindly, was imperative; and Carmen, accustomed to obey him, laid herself down by his side, and soon, for very weariness, slept.

It was a feverish sleep, nevertheless, shattered at brief intervals by terrible sounds,—sounds magnified by her nervous condition—a sleep visited by dreams that mingled in a strange way with the impressions of the storm, and more than once made her heart stop, and start again at its own stopping. One of these fancies she never could forget—a dream about little Concha,—Conchita, her first-born, who now slept far away in the old churchyard at Barcelona. She had tried to become resigned,—not to think. But the child would come back night after night, though the earth lay heavy upon her—night after night, through long distances of Time and Space. Oh! the fancied clinging of infant-lips!—the thrilling touch of little ghostly hands!—those phantom-caresses that torture mothers’ hearts! . . . . Night after night, through many a month of pain. Then for a time the gentle presence ceased to haunt her,—seemed to have lain down to sleep forever under the high bright grass and yellow flowers. Why did it return, that night of all nights, to kiss her, to cling to her, to nestle in her arms? . . . .

For in her dream she thought herself still kneeling before the waxen Image, while the terrors of the tempest were ever deepening about her,—raving of winds and booming of waters and a shaking of the land. And before her, even as she prayed her dream-prayer, the waxen Virgin became tall as a woman, and taller,—rising to the roof and smiling as she grew. Then Carmen would have cried out for fear, but that something smothered her voice,—paralyzed her tongue. And the Virgin silently stooped above her, and placed in her arms the Child,—the brown Child with the Indian face. And the Child whitened in her hands and changed,—seeming as it changed to send a sharp pain through her heart: an old pain linked somehow with memories of bright windy Spanish hills and summer-scent of olive groves and all the luminous Past;—it looked into her face with the soft dark gaze, with the unforgotten smile of . . . . dead Conchita!

And Carmen wished to thank the smiling Virgin for that priceless bliss, and lifted up her eyes; but the sickness of ghostly fear returned upon her when she looked; for now the Mother seemed as a woman long dead, and the smile was the smile of fleshlessness, and the places of the eyes were voids and darknesses . . . . And the sea sent up so vast a roar that the dwelling rocked.

Carmen started from sleep to find her heart throbbing so that the couch shook with it. Night was growing gray; the door had just been opened and slammed again. Through the rain-whipped panes she discerned the passing shape of Feliu, making for the beach—a broad and bearded silhouette, bending against the wind. Still the waxen Virgin smiled her Mexican smile,—but now she was only seven inches high; and her bead-glass eyes seemed to twinkle with kindliness while the flame of the last expiring taper struggled wildly for life in the earthen socket at her feet.