Cajun History

Chita: A Memory of Last Island – 3.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.

 

III. — THE SHADOW OF THE TIDE.I

II.

. . . . She began to learn the life of the coast.

With her acquisition of another tongue, there came to her also the understanding of many things relating to the world of the sea She memorized with novel delight much that was told her day by day concerning the nature surrounding her,—many secrets of the air, many of those signs of heaven which the dwellers in cities cannot comprehend because the atmosphere is thickened and made stagnant above them—cannot even watch because the horizon is hidden from their eyes by walls, and by weary avenues of trees with whitewashed trunks. She learned, by listening, by asking, by observing also, how to know the signs that foretell wild weather:—tremendous sunsets, scuddings and bridgings of cloud,—sharpening and darkening of the sea-line, and halos about the moon, and the shriek of gulls flashing to land in level flight, out of a still transparent sky.

She learned where the sea-birds, with white bosoms and brown wings, made their hidden nests of sand,—and where the cranes waded for their prey,—and where the beautiful wild-ducks, plumaged in satiny lilac and silken green, found their food,—and where the best reeds grew to furnish stems for Feliu’s red-clay pipe,—and where the ruddy sea-beans were most often tossed upon the shore,—and how the gray pelicans fished all together, like men—moving in far-extending semicircles, beating the flood with their wings to drive the fish before them.

And from Carmen she learned the fables and the sayings of the sea,—the proverbs about its deafness, its avarice, its treachery, its terrific power,—especially one that haunted her for all time thereafter: Si quieres aprender á orar, entra en el mar (If thou wouldst learn to pray, go to the sea). She learned why the sea is salt,—how “the tears of women made the waves of the sea,”—and how the sea has “no friends,”—and how the cat’s eyes change with the tides.

What had she lost of life by her swift translation from the dusty existence of cities to the open immensity of nature’s freedom? What did she gain?

Doubtless she was saved from many of those little bitternesses and restraints and disappointments which all well-bred city children must suffer in the course of their training for the more or less factitious life of society:—obligations to remain very still with every nimble nerve quivering in dumb revolt;—the injustice of being found troublesome and being sent to bed early for the comfort of her elders,—the cruel necessity of straining her pretty eyes, for many long hours at a time, over grimy desks in gloomy school-rooms, though birds twittered and bright winds hummed in the trees without;—the austere constraint and heavy drowsiness of warm churches, filled with the droning echoes of a voice preaching incomprehensible things,—the progressively augmenting weariness of lessons in deportment, in dancing, in music, in the impossible art of keeping her dresses unruffled and unsoiled. Perhaps she never had any reason to regret all these.

She went to sleep and awakened with the wild birds;—her life remained as unfettered by formalities as her fine feet by shoes. Excepting Carmen’s old prayer-book,—in which she learned to read a little,—her childhood passed without books, without pictures, without dainties, without music, without theatrical amusements. But she saw and heard and felt much of that which, though old as the heavens and the earth, is yet eternally new and eternally young with the holiness of beauty,—eternally mystical and divine,—eternally weird,—the unveiled magnificence of Nature’s moods,—the perpetual poem hymned by wind and surge,—the everlasting splendor of the sky.

She saw the quivering pinkness of waters curled by the breath of the morning—under the deepening of the dawn—like a far fluttering and scattering of rose leaves of fire;—

Saw the shoreless, cloudless, marvellous double-circling azure of perfect summer days—twin glories of infinite deeps inter-reflected, while the Soul of the World lay still, suffused with a jewel-light, as of vaporized sapphire;—

Saw the Sea shift color,—”change sheets,”—when the viewless Wizard of the Wind breathed upon its face, and made it green;—

Saw the immeasurable panics,—noiseless, scintillant,—which silver, summer after summer, curved leagues of beach with bodies of little fish—the yearly massacre of migrating populations, nations of sea-trout, driven from their element by terror;—and the winnowing of shark-fins,—and the rushing of porpoises,—and the rising of the grande-écaille, like a pillar of flame,—and the diving and pitching and fighting of the frigates and the gulls,—and the armored hordes of crabs swarming out to clear the slope after the carnage and the gorging had been done;—

Saw the Dreams of the Sky,—scudding mockeries of ridged foam,—and shadowy stratification of capes and coasts and promontories long-drawn-out,—and imageries, multicolored, of mountain frondage, and sierras whitening above sierras,—and phantom islands ringed around with lagoons of glory;—

Saw the toppling and smouldering of cloud-worlds after the enormous conflagration of sunsets,—incandescence ruining into darkness; and after it a moving and climbing of stars among the blacknesses,—like searching lamps;—

Saw the deep kindle countless ghostly candles as for mysterious night-festival,—and a luminous billowing under a black sky, and effervescences of fire, and the twirling and crawling of phosphoric foam;—

Saw the mesmerism of the Moon;—saw the enchanted tides self-heaped in muttering obeisance before her.

Often she heard the Music of the Marsh through the night: an infinity of flutings and tinklings made by tiny amphibia,—like the low blowing of numberless little tin horns, the clanking of billions of little bells;—and, at intervals, profound tones, vibrant and heavy, as of a bass-viol—the orchestra of the great frogs! And interweaving with it all, one continuous shrilling,—keen as the steel speech of a saw,—the stridulous telegraphy of crickets.

But always,—always, dreaming or awake, she heard the huge blind Sea chanting that mystic and eternal hymn, which none may hear without awe, which no musician can learn;—

Heard the hoary Preacher,—El Pregonador,—preaching the ancient Word, the word “as a fire, and as a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces,”—the Elohim—Word of the Sea! . . . .

Unknowingly she came to know the immemorial sympathy of the mind with the Soul of the World,—the melancholy wrought by its moods of gray, the reverie responsive to its vagaries of mist, the exhilaration of its vast exultings—days of windy joy, hours of transfigured light.

She felt,—even without knowing it,—the weight of the Silences, the solemnities of sky and sea in these low regions where all things seem to dream—waters and grasses with their momentary wavings,—woods gray-webbed with mosses that drip and drool,—horizons with their delusions of vapor,—cranes meditating in their marshes,—kites floating in the high blue. . . . Even the children were singularly quiet; and their play less noisy—though she could not have learned the difference—than the play of city children. Hour after hour, the women sewed or wove in silence. And the brown men,—always barefooted, always wearing rough blue shirts,—seemed, when they lounged about the wharf on idle days, as if they had told each other long ago all they knew or could ever know, and had nothing more to say. They would stare at the flickering of the current, at the drifting of clouds and buzzards:—seldom looking at each other, and always turning their black eyes again, in a weary way, to sky or sea. Even thus one sees the horses and the cattle of the coast, seeking the beach to escape the whizzing flies,—all watch the long waves rolling in, and sometimes turn their heads a moment to look at one another, but always look back to the waves again, as if wondering at a mystery. . . .

How often she herself had wondered—wondered at the multiform changes of each swell as it came in—transformations of tint, of shape, of motion, that seemed to betoken a life infinitely more subtle than the strange cold life of lizards and of fishes,—and sinister, and spectral. Then they all appeared to move in order,—according to one law or impulse;—each had its own voice, yet all sang one and the same everlasting song. Vaguely, as she watched them and listened to them, there came to her the idea of a unity of will in their motion, a unity of menace in their utterance—the idea of one monstrous and complex life! The sea lived: it could crawl backward and forward; it could speak!—it only feigned deafness and sightlessness for some malevolent end. Thenceforward she feared to find herself alone with it. Was it not at her that it strove to rush, muttering, and showing all its white teeth, . . . . just because it knew that she was all by herself? . . . . Si quieres aprender á orar, entra en el mar! . . . . And Concha had well learned to pray. But the sea seemed to her the one Power which God could not make to obey Him as He pleased. Saying the creed one day, she repeated very slowly the opening words,—”Creo en un Dios, padre todopoderoso, Criador del cielo y de la tierra,”—and paused and thought. Creator of Heaven and Earth? “Madrecita Carmen,” she asked,—”quien entonces hizó el mar?” (who then made the sea?).

—”Dios, mi querida,” answered Carmen.—”God, my darling. . . . All things were made by Him” (todas las cosas fueron hechas por Él).

Even the wicked Sea! And He had said unto it: “Thus far, and no farther.” . . . . Was that why it had not overtaken and devoured her when she ran back in fear from the sudden reaching out of its waves? Thus far. . . .? But there were times when it disobeyed,—when it rushed further, shaking the world! Was it because God was then asleep—could not hear, did not see, until too late?

And the tumultuous ocean terrified her more and more: it filled her sleep with enormous nightmare;—it came upon her in dreams, mountain-shadowing,—holding her with its spell, smothering her power of outcry, heaping itself monstrously to the stars.

Carmen became alarmed;—she feared that the nervous and delicate child might die in one of those moaning dreams out of which she had to arouse her, night after night. But Feliu, answering her anxiety with one of his favorite proverbs, suggested a heroic remedy:—

—”The world is like the sea: those who do not know how to swim in it are drowned;—and the sea is like the world,” he added. . . . “Chita must learn to swim!”

And he found the time to teach her. Each morning, at sunrise, he took her into the water. She was less terrified the first time than Carmen thought she would be;—she seemed to feel confidence in Feliu; although she screamed piteously before her first ducking at his hands. His teaching was not gentle. He would carry her out, perched upon his shoulder, until the water rose to his own neck; and there he would throw her from him, and let her struggle to reach him again as best she could. The first few mornings she had to be pulled out almost at once; but after that Feliu showed her less mercy, and helped her only when he saw she was really in danger. He attempted no other instruction until she had learned that in order to save herself from being half choked by the salt-water, she must not scream; and by the time she became habituated to these austere experiences, she had already learned by instinct alone how to keep herself afloat for a while, how to paddle a little with her hands. Then he commenced to train her to use them,—to lift them well out and throw them forward as if reaching, to dip them as the blade of an oar is dipped at an angle, without loud splashing;—and he showed her also how to use her feet. She learned rapidly and astonishingly well. In less than two months Feliu felt really proud at the progress made by his tiny pupil: it was a delight to watch her lifting her slender arms above the water in swift, easy curves, with the same fine grace that marked all her other natural motions. Later on he taught her not to fear the sea even when it growled a little,—how to ride a swell, how to face a breaker, how to dive. She only needed practice thereafter; and Carmen, who could also swim, finding the child’s health improving marvellously under this new discipline, took good care that Chita should practise whenever the mornings were not too cold, or the water too rough.

With the first thrill of delight at finding herself able to glide over the water unassisted, the child’s superstitious terror of the sea passed away. Even for the adult there are few physical joys keener than the exultation of the swimmer;—how much greater the same glee as newly felt by an imaginative child,—a child, whose vivid fancy can lend unutterable value to the most insignificant trifles, can transform a weed-patch to an Eden! . . . . Of her own accord she would ask for her morning bath, as soon as she opened her eyes;—it even required some severity to prevent her from remaining in the water too long. The sea appeared to her as something that had become tame for her sake, something that loved her in a huge rough way;—a tremendous playmate, whom she no longer feared to see come bounding and barking to lick her feet. And, little by little, she also learned the wonderful healing and caressing power of the monster, whose cool embrace at once dispelled all drowsiness, feverishness, weariness,—even after the sultriest nights when the air had seemed to burn, and the mosquitoes had filled the chamber with a sound as of water boiling in many kettles. And on mornings when the sea was in too wicked a humor to be played with, how she felt the loss of her loved sport, and prayed for calm! Her delicate constitution changed;—the soft, pale flesh became firm and brown, the meagre limbs rounded into robust symmetry, the thin cheeks grew peachy with richer life;—for the strength of the sea had entered into her; the sharp breath of the sea had renewed and brightened her young blood. . . .

. . . . Thou primordial Sea, the awfulness of whose antiquity hath stricken all mythology dumb;—thou most wrinkled living Sea, the millions of whose years outnumber even the multitude of thy hoary motions;—thou omniform and most mysterious Sea, mother of the monsters and the gods,—whence thine eternal youth? Still do thy waters hold the infinite thrill of that Spirit which brooded above their face in the Beginning!—still is thy quickening breath an elixir unto them that flee to thee for life,—like the breath of young girls, like the breath of children, prescribed for the senescent by magicians of old,—prescribed unto weazened elders in the books of the Wizards.