Losing Home

March 25, 2009

Roger Emile Stouff

I am thankful my father is not here to see it: The loss of home.
†† As much so as the little wooden house on the Rez Ė with its green drop lap siding, open carport and corrugated tin roof Ė home was that little cove out near the lake. It had been so for eight millennia.

†† But itís going away now. Vanishing, and one day it wonít be there anymore. I hope I am not alive to see it. I hope I never have to bear pain any greater than this.
†† I grew up there, of course. In a little wooden bateau, a dozen feet long and born two years earlier than me. It, too, is ailing, and the mutual descent of the two leaves me desperately clinging for intangible cords to yesteryear.
†† He put me in that little boat when I was old enough, but as far as I can remember I was always there. On the bench seat, making the ride from behind the little green house all the way to Grand Avoille Cove. Co'ktangi ha'ne hetci'nsh. The pond-lily worship place. When I was old enough, heíd let me slip over the side of the boat and wade along the hard-packed clamshell bottom. Once the place stretched dozens of yards out into the cove, and Chitimacha from across the nation would gather there. Chiefs and nobles were buried there, their bones picked clean of flesh by the medicine men and buried separately in split cane baskets. It was a place of power, as tangible and palatable as the water lapping at the bone-white shell at its margins.
†† I would wade around it, and pick up pieces of pottery with my toes, retrieve them by hand and show them to my father. They were sometimes marked. Today I know some of the names that anthropologists have given the designs: Pontchartrain check-stamped. Manchac incised. Some even bore the thumb and fingerprints of their makers, fired into the clay for perpetuity.
†† Elsewhere, the cove ran four, sometimes five feet deep. The flat-topped lily, the grand avoille, grew in abundance there, and droplets of rainwater would bead on their pie-plate surfaces, perfect gems. Their yellow flowers would rise on spindly necks, open their petals to the sun and shine like tiny fires.
†† And the fish we caught there! I believe I caught more fish in Grand Avoille Cove and Lake Fausse Pointe during the first half of my life than I shall ever see in the entirety of the second. He would paddle with one hand, cast with the other, and laugh in delight with every little bream and lunker largemouth bass. Yet even the fishing was not the essence of my love of the place. It was the power. Sweeping, undulating and cyclonic, the power saturated and uplifted us both.
†† The cove was larger, before the levee was built. The levee dissected it. The portion to the northeast side is nearly gone, just a flat puddle full of aquatic growth. In my portion of the cove, the lilies and the hydrillia made excellent cover for fish and kept the cove fresh, clean and thriving.
†† Then, about two decades ago, it was like someone threw a switch: The cove, and later the lake, stopped thriving. The fish diminished greatly. A few years later the lilies faded, then the hydrillia and finally we started turning up mud with the boat prop as we went through. It was clear: Grand Avoille Cove and the lake were silting up, cut off from the natural flows by the levee.
†† Home. It began to die then, but I go back, year after year. Sometimes there are a few fish. Most times not. Saturday the boat engine kicked up more mud than ever, and tapped on sunken debris as I went through, even though the water was high enough to be up into the woods at the shoreline. The bottom is coming up to meet the surface. A cancer, the siltation is claiming the life of home.
†† I cannot bear it. Can you imagine what it means to me? My heart and soul are there. Everywhere I look, I see myself, at different ages, with and later without my father, in this boat and that. I have always been there, but one day, soon, it will leave me, and I will be desolate. Lost.
†† I dreamed once that, when my father left this world, his spirit rose from the ambulance that was rushing in vain to the hospital emergency room, and he ascended into the sky. But I dreamed he made an astral trek to the cove, there in the darkness, and hovered over it for a time, bidding farewell to home. And then, like a will oí the wisp, he went on to the great mystery, with his ancestors.
†† Dreams, Black Elk noted, are sometimes wiser than waking. Can you begin to imagine the pain in my heart? Itís just a place, to most of you that even know of the cove. Perhaps remembered as a great fishing spot, or a beautiful part of the state. But I am tethered to it. An umbilical runs between us. At any time, no matter where I am, I can close my eyes and face Grand Avoille Cove by instinct, feel it out there, draw on its power. That power comes from deep inside the earth, from the radiating sunlight, from the whispering trees and the supercharged air.
†† Every year, it grows more thin. Can you imagine the loss? For eight thousand years Iíve been there, through the hot blood of grandfathers and grandmothers. I had thought once I would like to be cremated and have my ashes spread over Grand Avoille Cove, but I fear now it wonít be there to accept my remains, receive back all the power Iíve soaked from it over a lifetime.
†† Home. My mother and father gave me life, but everything I am was made there. Every moment of wonder of a rain shower in an unclouded sky; each restful gaze at a patch of irises along the black waterís edge, and all the memories of a childhood fabricated there.
†† Iím thankful my father isnít here to bear the loss. Or my grandfather.
†† Here is yet another legacy left to me: Regret. I must witness what none of my ancestors could have even imagined: The line of trees across the lake, visible from Charenton Beach, formerly the village Amaítpan naímu, when once you couldnít see to the other side; the emasculation of Co'ktangi, and the loss of so much of what made us Chitimacha, people of water, people of the lake.
†† So I left the cove that morning, wishing I had the courage to never come back, but who can leave a loved one dying and not be at their side? I pulled the starter rope once, the engine fired faithfully, but I quickly shut it down. I thought I heard something. Looking up, I wasnít sure what it was. The birds there can cast their voices far, and the bouncing cries between the cypresses and tupelo can almost sound like words. Many times I swore there were other people down the canal I was fishing, but found only an old heron. And sometimes I donít know if Iím hearing my grandmotherís stories reverberating in some corner, some crevice or niche, of my memory. But for a split second, I thought I heard Ustupu just before the outboard rumbled to life.
†† The Indian boy was betrayed by his aunt, tricked into committing a heinous crime. His six hunting dogs were all turned to fire, and together with Ustupu they ascended into the skies. They say that sometimes a Chitimacha can hear him up there, calling his great dogs back to him for eternity:
†† Cins-kut! Tep-kani, apuk (Come!) Kuc! Kapainch! Neka!, Ku-tep! Apuk! Apuk! Come back! Come back!
†† They say only a Chitimacha can call Ustupu down from his banishment, but if he does, he will remain on earth as a killer of all Indians. No one remembers the words to call Ustupu or send him back.
†† With another pull, the engine roared to life. I idled out of the cove, and the motor skeg bumped ancient logs as I went.
†† Like the boy, I am betrayed. All my blood are betrayed. Sometimes, when I float on the thin, dying surface of Coíktangi in a nearly half-century old wooden bateau, I wonder Ė if I knew the words to call down the boy and his six great dogs Ė what I might do.