Cajun History

Chita: A Memory of Last Island – 3.I

 

“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.

 

III. — THE SHADOW OF THE TIDE.

I.

Carmen found that her little pet had been taught how to pray; for each night and morning when the devout woman began to make her orisons, the child would kneel beside her, with little hands joined, and in a voice sweet and clear murmur something she had learned by heart. Much as this pleased Carmen, it seemed to her that the child’s prayers could not be wholly valid unless uttered in Spanish;—for Spanish was heaven’s own tongue,—la lengua de Dios, el idioma de Dios; and she resolved to teach her to say the Salve Maria and the Padre Nuestro in Castilian,—also her own favorite prayer to the Virgin, beginning with the words, “Madre santisima, toda dulce y hermosa.” . . . .

So Conchita—for a new name had been given to her with that terrible sea-christening—received her first lessons in Spanish; and she proved a most intelligent pupil. Before long she could prattle to Feliu;—she would watch for his return of evenings, and announce his coming with “Aqui viene mi papacito!”—she learned, too, from Carmen, many little caresses of speech to greet him with. Feliu’s was not a joyous nature; he had his dark hours, his sombre days; yet it was rarely that he felt too sullen to yield to the little one’s petting, when she would leap up to reach his neck and to coax his kiss, with—”Dame un beso, papa!—asi;—y otro! otro! otro!” He grew to love her like his own;—was she not indeed his own, since he had won her from death? And none had yet come to dispute his claim. More and more, with the passing of weeks, months, seasons, she became a portion of his life—a part of all that he wrought for. At the first, he had had a half-formed hope that the little one might be reclaimed by relatives generous and rich enough to insist upon his acceptance of a handsome compensation; and Carmen could have found consolation in a pleasant visit to Barceloneta. But now he felt that nothing within ordinary possibility could atone for her loss; and with the unconscious selfishness of affection, he commenced to dread her identification as a great calamity.

It was evident that she had been brought up nicely. She had pretty prim ways of drinking and eating, queer little fashions of sitting in company, and of addressing people. She had peculiar notions about colors in dress, about wearing her hair; and she seemed to have already imbibed a small quantity of social prejudices not altogether in harmony with the republicanism of Viosca’s Point. Occasional swarthy visitors,—men of the Manilla settlements,—she spoke of contemptuously as nègues-marrons; and once she shocked Carmen inexpressibly by stopping in the middle of her evening prayer, declaring that she wanted to say her prayers to a white Virgin; Carmen’s Señora de Guadalupe was only a negra! Then, for the first time, Carmen spoke so crossly to the child as to frighten her. But the pious woman’s heart smote her the next moment for that first harsh word;—and she caressed the motherless one, consoled her, cheered her, and at last explained to her—I know not how—something very wonderful about the little figurine, something that made Chita’s eyes big with awe. Thereafter she always regarded the Virgin of Wax as an object mysterious and holy.

And, one by one, most of Chita’s little eccentricities were gradually eliminated from her developing life and thought. More rapidly than ordinary children, because singularly intelligent, she learned to adapt herself to all the changes of her new environment,—retaining only that indescribable something which to an experienced eye tells of hereditary refinement of habit and of mind:—a natural grace, a thorough-bred ease and elegance of movement, a quickness and delicacy of perception.

She became strong again and active—active enough to play a great deal on the beach, when the sun was not too fierce; and Carmen made a canvas bonnet to shield her head and face. Never had she been allowed to play so much in the sun before; and it seemed to do her good, though her little bare feet and hands became brown as copper. At first, it must be confessed, she worried her foster-mother a great deal by various queer misfortunes and extraordinary freaks;—getting bitten by crabs, falling into the bayou while in pursuit of “fiddlers,” or losing herself at the conclusion of desperate efforts to run races at night with the moon, or to walk to the “end of the world.” If she could only once get to the edge of the sky, she said, she “could climb up.” She wanted to see the stars, which were the souls of good little children; and she knew that God would let her climb up. “Just what I am afraid of!”—thought Carmen to herself;—”He might let her climb up,—a little ghost!” But one day naughty Chita received a terrible lesson,—a lasting lesson,—which taught her the value of obedience.

She had been particularly cautioned not to venture into a certain part of the swamp in the rear of the grove, where the weeds were very tall; for Carmen was afraid some snake might bite the child.  But Chita’s bird-bright eye had discerned a gleam of white in that direction; and she wanted to know what it was. The white could only be seen from one point, behind the furthest house, where the ground was high. “Never go there,” said Carmen; “there is a Dead Man there,—will bite you!” And yet, one day, while Carmen was very busy indeed, Chita went there.

In the early days of the settlement, a Spanish fisherman had died; and his comrades had built him a little tomb with the surplus of the same bricks and other material brought down the bayou for the construction of Viosca’s cottages. But no one, except perhaps some wandering duck hunter, had approached the sepulchre for years. High weeds and grasses wrestled together all about it, and rendered it totally invisible from the surrounding level of the marsh.

Fiddlers swarmed away as Chita advanced over the moist soil, each uplifting its single huge claw as it sidled off;—then frogs began to leap before her as she reached the thicker grass;—and long-legged brown insects sprang showering to right and left as she parted the tufts of the thickening verdure. As she went on, the bitter-weeds disappeared;—jointed grasses and sinewy dark plants of a taller growth rose above her head: she was almost deafened by the storm of insect shrilling, and the mosquitoes became very wicked. All at once something long and black and heavy wriggled almost from under her naked feet,—squirming so horribly that for a minute or two she could not move for fright. But it slunk away somewhere, and hid itself; the weeds it had shaken ceased to tremble in its wake; and her courage returned. She felt such an exquisite and fearful pleasure in the gratification of that naughty curiosity! Then, quite unexpectedly—oh! what a start it gave her!—the solitary white object burst upon her view, leprous and ghastly as the sudden yawn of a cotton-mouth. Tombs ruin soon in Louisiana;—the one Chita looked upon seemed ready to topple down. There was a great ragged hole at one end, where wind and rain, and perhaps also the burrowing of crawfish and of worms, had loosened the bricks, and caused them to slide out of place. It seemed very black inside; but Chita wanted to know what was there. She pushed her way through a gap in the thin and rotten line of pickets, and through some tall weeds with big coarse pink flowers;—then she crouched down on hands and knees before the black hole, and peered in. It was not so black inside as she had thought; for a sunbeam slanted down through a chink in the roof; and she could see!

A brown head—without hair, without eyes, but with teeth, ever so many teeth!—seemed to laugh at her; and close to it sat a Toad, the hugest she had ever seen; and the white skin of his throat kept puffing out and going in. And Chita screamed and screamed, and fled in wild terror,—screaming all the way, till Carmen ran out to meet her and carry her home. Even when safe in her adopted mother’s arms, she sobbed with fright. To the vivid fancy of the child there seemed to be some hideous relation between the staring reptile and the brown death’s-head, with its empty eyes, and its nightmare-smile.

The shock brought on a fever,—a fever that lasted several days, and left her very weak. But the experience taught her to obey, taught her that Carmen knew best what was for her good. It also caused her to think a great deal. Carmen had told her that the dead people never frightened good little girls who stayed at home.

—”Madrecita Carmen,” she asked, “is my mamma dead?”

—”Pobrecita! . . . . Yes, my angel. God called her to Him,—your darling mother.”

—”Madrecita,” she asked again,—her young eyes growing vast with horror,—”is my own mamma now like That?” . . . . She pointed toward the place of the white gleam, behind the great trees.

—”No, no, no! my darling!” screamed Carmen, appalled herself by the ghastly question,—”your mamma is with the dear, good, loving God, who lives in the beautiful sky,—above the clouds, my darling, beyond the sun!”

But Carmen’s kind eyes were full of tears; and the child read their meaning. He who teareth off the Mask of the Flesh had looked into her face one unutterable moment:—she had seen the brutal Truth, naked to the bone!

Yet there came to her a little thrill of consolation, caused by the words of the tender falsehood; for that which she had discerned by day could not explain to her that which she saw almost nightly in her slumber. The face, the voice, the form of her loving mother still lived somewhere,—could not have utterly passed away; since the sweet presence came to her in dreams, bending and smiling over her, caressing her, speaking to her,—sometimes gently chiding, but always chiding with a kiss. And then the child would laugh in her sleep, and prattle in Creole,—talking to the luminous shadow, telling the dead mother all the little deeds and thoughts of the day. . . . Why would God only let her come at night?

. . . . Her idea of God had been first defined by the sight of a quaint French picture of the Creation,—an engraving which represented a shoreless sea under a black sky, and out of the blackness a solemn and bearded gray head emerging, and a cloudy hand through which stars glimmered. God was like old Doctor de Coulanges, who used to visit the house, and talk in a voice like a low roll of thunder. . . . At a later day, when Chita had been told that God was “everywhere at the same time “—without and within, beneath and above all things,—this idea became somewhat changed. The awful bearded face, the huge shadowy hand, did not fade from her thought; but they became fantastically blended with the larger and vaguer notion of something that filled the world and reached to the stars,—something diaphanous and incomprehensible like the invisible air, omnipresent and everlasting like the high blue of heaven . . . .