Cajun History

Chita: A Memory of Last Island – 2.III

 

“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

III.

Rain and a blind sky and a bursting sea.  Feliu and his men, Miguel and Mateo, looked out upon the thundering and flashing of the monstrous tide. The wind had fallen, and the gray air was full of gulls. Behind the chénière, back to the cloudy line of low woods many miles away, stretched a wash of lead-colored water, with a green point piercing it here and there—elbow-bushes or wild cane tall enough to keep their heads above the flood. But the inundation was visibly decreasing;—with the passing of each hour more and more green patches and points had been showing themselves: by degrees the course of the bayou had become defined—two parallel winding lines of dwarf-timber and bushy shrubs traversing the water toward the distant cypress-swamps. Before the chénière all the shell-beach slope was piled with wreck—uptorn trees with the foliage still fresh upon them, splintered timbers of mysterious origin, and logs in multitude, scarred with gashes of the axe. Feliu and his comrades had saved wood enough to build a little town,—working up to their waists in the surf, with ropes, poles, and boat-hooks. The whole sea was full of flotsam. Voto á Cristo!—what a wrecking there must have been! And to think the Carmencita could not be taken out!

They had seen other luggers making eastward during the morning—could recognize some by their sails, others by their gait,—exaggerated in their struggle with the pitching of the sea: the San Pablo, the Gasparina, the Enriqueta, the Agueda, the Constanza. Ugly water, yes!—but what a chance for wreckers! . . . . Some great ship must have gone to pieces;—scores of casks were rolling in the trough,—casks of wine. Perhaps it was the Manila,—perhaps the Nautilus!

A dead cow floated near enough for Mateo to throw his rope over one horn; and they all helped to get it out. It was a milch cow of some expensive breed; and the owner’s brand had been burned upon the horns:—a monographic combination of the letters A and P. Feliu said he knew that brand: Old-man Preaulx, of Belle-Isle, who kept a sort of dairy at Last Island during the summer season, used to mark all his cows that way. Strange!

But, as they worked on, they began to see stranger things,—white dead faces and dead hands, which did not look like the hands or the faces of drowned sailors: the ebb was beginning to run strongly, and these were passing out with it on the other side of the mouth of the bayou;—perhaps they had been washed into the marsh during the night, when the great rush of the sea came. Then the three men left the water, and retired to higher ground to scan the furrowed Gulf;—their practised eyes began to search the courses of the sea-currents,—keen as the gaze of birds that watch the wake of the plough. And soon the casks and the drift were forgotten; for it seemed to them that the tide was heavy with human dead—passing out, processionally, to the great open. Very far, where the huge pitching of the swells was diminished by distance into a mere fluttering of ripples, the water appeared as if sprinkled with them;—they vanished and became visible again at irregular intervals, here and there—floating most thickly eastward,—tossing, swaying patches of white or pink or blue or black, each with its tiny speck of flesh-color showing as the sea lifted or lowered the body. Nearer to shore there were few; but of these two were close enough to be almost recognizable: Miguel first discerned them. They were rising and falling where the water was deepest—well out in front of the mouth of the bayou, beyond the flooded sand-bars, and moving toward the shell-reef westward. They were drifting almost side by side. One was that of a negro, apparently well attired, and wearing a white apron;—the other seemed to be a young colored girl, clad in a blue dress; she was floating upon her face; they could observe that she had nearly straight hair, braided and tied with a red ribbon. These were evidently house-servants,—slaves. But from whence? Nothing could be learned until the luggers should return; and none of them was yet in sight. Still Feliu was not anxious as to the fate of his boats, manned by the best sailors of the coast. Rarely are these Louisiana fishermen lost in sudden storms; even when to other eyes the appearances are most pacific and the skies most splendidly blue, they divine some far-off danger, like the gulls; and like the gulls also, you see their light vessels fleeing landward. These men seem living barometers, exquisitely sensitive to all the invisible changes of atmospheric expansion and compression; they are not easily caught in those awful dead calms which suddenly paralyze the wings of a bark, and hold her helpless in their charmed circle, as in a nightmare, until the blackness overtakes her, and the long-sleeping sea leaps up foaming to devour her.

—”Carajo!”

The word all at once bursts from Feliu’s mouth, with that peculiar guttural snarl of the “r” betokening strong excitement,—while he points to something rocking in the ebb, beyond the foaming of the shell-reef, under a circling of gulls. More dead? Yes—but something too that lives and moves, like a quivering speck of gold; and Mateo also perceives it, a gleam of bright hair,—and Miguel likewise, after a moment’s gazing. A living child;—a lifeless mother. Pobrecita! No boat within reach, and only a mighty surf-wrestler could hope to swim thither and return!

But already, without a word, brown Feliu has stripped for the struggle;—another second, and he is shooting through the surf, head and hands tunnelling the foam-hills. . . . One—two—three lines passed!—four!—that is where they first begin to crumble white from the summit,—five!—that he can ride fearlessly! . . . . Then swiftly, easily, he advances, with a long, powerful breast-stroke,—keeping his bearded head well up to watch for drift,—seeming to slide with a swing from swell to swell,—ascending, sinking,—alternately presenting breast or shoulder to the wave; always diminishing more and more to the eyes of Mateo and Miguel,—till he becomes a moving speck, occasionally hard to follow through the confusion of heaping waters . . . . You are not afraid of the sharks, Feliu!—no: they are afraid of you; right and left they slunk away from your coming that morning you swam for life in West-Indian waters, with your knife in your teeth, while the balls of the Cuban coast-guard were purring all around you. That day the swarming sea was warm,—warm like soup—and clear, with an emerald flash in every ripple,—not opaque and clamorous like the Gulf to-day . . . . Miguel and his comrade are anxious. Ropes are unrolled and interknotted into a line. Miguel remains on the beach; but Mateo, bearing the end of the line, fights his way out,—swimming and wading by turns, to the further sand-bar, where the water is shallow enough to stand in,—if you know how to jump when the breaker comes.

But Feliu, nearing the flooded shell-bank, watches the white flashings,—knows when the time comes to keep flat and take a long, long breath. One heavy volleying of foam,—darkness and hissing as of a steam-burst; a vibrant lifting up; a rush into light,—and again the volleying and the seething darkness. Once more,—and the fight is won! He feels the upcoming chill of deeper water,—sees before him the green quaking of unbroken swells,—and far beyond him Mateo leaping on the bar,—and beside him, almost within arm’s reach, a great billiard-table swaying, and a dead woman clinging there, and . . . . the child.

A moment more, and Feliu has lifted himself beside the waifs . . . . How fast the dead woman clings, as if with the one power which is strong as death,—the desperate force of love! Not in vain; for the frail creature bound to the mother’s corpse with a silken scarf has still the strength to cry out:—“Maman! maman!” But time is life now; and the tiny hands must be pulled away from the fair dead neck, and the scarf taken to bind the infant firmly to Feliu’s broad shoulders,—quickly, roughly; for the ebb will not wait . . . .

And now Feliu has a burden; but his style of swimming has totally changed;—he rises from the water like a Triton, and his powerful arms seem to spin in circles, like the spokes of a flying wheel. For now is the wrestle indeed!—after each passing swell comes a prodigious pulling from beneath,—the sea clutching for its prey.  But the reef is gained, is passed;—the wild horses of the deep seem to know the swimmer who has learned to ride them so well. And still the brown arms spin in an ever-nearing mist of spray; and the outer sand-bar is not far off,—and there is shouting Mateo, leaping in the surf, swinging something about his head, as a vaquero swings his noose! . . . . Sough! splash!—it struggles in the trough beside Feliu, and the sinewy hand descends upon it. Tiene!—tira, Miguel! And their feet touch land again! . . . .

She is very cold, the child, and very still, with eyes closed.

—”Esta muerta, Feliu?” asks Mateo.

—”No!” the panting swimmer makes answer, emerging, while the waves reach whitely up the sand as in pursuit,—”no; vive! —respira todavía!”

Behind him the deep lifts up its million hands, and thunders as in acclaim.