Whistle-Blower and Whisperer
I looked up from my homework and caught Vicky glaring at me. She had such a mean look that it nearly scared me to death. I blinked and swallowed hard. My sister’s a monster. She tells on me and gets me in trouble. Why does she hate me? How I miss Papa who was so nice to me. I used to nag him to buy me toys he could never afford and somehow he’d buy them. That upset Maman, and they’d end up fighting. I miss how Papa would cuddle and make me feel safe. Ever since we moved to California, with Papa still in New Brunswick, I’ve been having nightmares, feeling something awful is going to happen any moment.
“Hey, that’s my pencil, Violette! Rends-le-moi! Here’s yours. Stop taking without asking!”
Violette and Victoria are doing homework at the dining table, side by side, while their mother breastfeeds baby Max in the bedroom. All’s quiet now in the trenches between sisters, the only sound being their scratching pencils, along with desert winds rustling palmtrees and the distant rumblings of thunder. Then Vicky breaks the silence:
“You could thank me, Violette, for sharpening your pencil.”
“Why should I? You’re so bossy! Did you hear that? It’s getting closer!”
“Violette, don’t lollygag. Finish your homework.”
“Maman! Maman!J’ai peur!”
Just then the doorbell rings, making both girls jump in their seats. Who would be out and about in this storm? At the same time, more in response to Violette’s outcry of fear than to answer the doorbell, their mother stepped out of the bedroom, holding baby Max.
“Maman, I’m okay. J’y vais!” I love to answer the doorbell, and fearless now, I rushed to open the front door.
“Wait, Violette, ask who it is!”
In a flash I turned on my heels, dashing back to the table.
“Violette, what are you doing? Open the door. I need to talk to Eugénie about Max.”
I sat down and muttered to myself “no way,” sticking myself like a tack to my seat, looking down at my homework.
“I’ll open the door, Maman.”
In no time, Victoria greeted the lady with a warm smile.
“Oh, Sweetie, let me give you a kiss!”
Mme Vidocq bent down for the bise, while complimenting in French Vicky’s new eye glasses, handing her a chocolate, Victoria’s favorite treat.
Oh, brother, what a pair of troublemakers – my sister and Mme Vidocq! Of course, there’s never a treat for me. Mme Vidocq’s mean to me, really mean. No lie! She hurts me, but no one believes me. I know what she’s really like, but not Vicky and not Maman. Vicky’s not really a bad person. I can trust her, but she’s bossy and always finding fault with me. I don’t get it. Why does Vicky like Mme Vidocq? I think it’s because the babysitter treats Vicky very, very nice, but it’s all phoney baloney. I know the real Mme Vidocq and can’t trust her, but both Maman and Vicky think she’s so good! They only see the baloney, not the bully. That’s kinda funny but not really funny, since Mme Vidocq likes to hurt people in secret and get away with it. She’s sneaky and smart how she gets away with it. No one believes what I say about her. It worries me. One day, she might hurt Max.
Why can’t I hide my feelings like Mme Vidocq? Why do I always have to show everything I feel and say what I think? Anyway, I don’t really want to change. Not really. It’s better to do things my way and not play games, the way Mme Vidocq plays games. She pretends she’s nicer than she is. It’s all an act. Sometimes I try to pretend I’m nicer, but then no one believes me. They’re right. It’s phoney baloney and not worth faking. We’re all unique, but Mme Vidocq acts too nice to be honest, and I’m too honest to be nice. That’s why we can’t be nice to each other.
Vicky and Violette arrived in Palm Springs two years ago, when Vicky was 7 and Violette 5, fleeing with their mother a wicked family feud in New Brunswick -- three Acadian refugees in the dry desert. Dry? Not this evening. The ubiquitous Washingtonia fan palms sway, waves of heavy raindrops lashing against them. Thunder still rumbles in the distance. A couple of miles away, swelling streams rush down rocky canyons off the eastern slopes of Mt. San Jacinto, disappearing into parched gravel. Throughout the vast valley floor, a network of hot springs nourish palms, mesquite, willows and smoketrees. The Cahuilla Indians had named these sacred springs Sec he or “boiling water.” Later, exploring Spaniards passed through, renaming the same healing springs Agua Caliente.
It’s not what most people picture when they imagine a desert. There’s abundant life here, sustenance, and the promise of longevity. In this region called Agua Caliente, the Cahuilla Indians not only enjoyed long life with curative springs, but they could also hunt game and fowl, gather dates, wild fruit, seeds and acorns to make flour and tortillas; they even produced candy from mesquite beans.
Palm Springs, a desert oasis, must endure temperature swings that vacillate night and day, and those swings are most pronounced between two seasons – icy winter days and scorching summers that never seem to end, when highs range from 101 to 120 degrees. When Vicky and Violette first moved to Palm Springs, they told their mother that the landscape looked like another planet, more lunar in appearance than terrestrial – cloudless skies, blinding sunshine, endless stretches of sand, jagged mountain peaks -- nothing like the marshy, wooded, verdant Mother Earth of their native New Brunswick.
In fact, Violette hates the oven-like heat and complains every day about it. On the other hand, Vicky never complained about the desert climate, having found comfort right away, surrounded by the towering mountains that shelter and protect her family from all harm. This otherworldly place takes Vicky’s breath away and soothes her each and every day, making her whisper back to the Protectors that only she can see and hear. Of course she dare not tell anyone what she sees and hears, only whispering back to the Protectors when she’s alone. Otherwise, people would think she’s crazy. Right? Too bad. Vicky’s visions, if only known to the world, would make a world of difference.
“J’ai fini, Maman!”
“Enfin, Violette. Please put away your homework and help Vicky set the table.”
Mme Vidocq rose to leave.
“My, it’s so nice and warm in your unit, Marguerite, but I must go now; it stopped raining.”
“Would you like to stay for supper, Eugénie? We’re having pasta, salad, cottage cheese, and for dessert, homemade blueberry pie, la recette I used back home in New Brunswick.”
“Let me see,” Mme Vidocq mused. “I’m passionately fond of blueberries. You Canadians know how to prepare them every which way. I never used to eat blueberries back in France. Non, I really must go. I have supper prepared at home.” Mme Vidocq gave a deep and pathetic sigh.
Violette understood the sigh perfectly.
“Non,” said Violette. “You mustn’t give in to her, Maman, or I’ll scream. She always barges in on us at supper time!”
“Violette, you’re being rude. Apologize. Don’t you realize you make everything harder for yourself by your attitude?”
“But it’s the truth, Maman. I won’t apologize.”
Mme Vidocq sighed. “I know you well, dear Violette. You must be hungry and tired. That makes you belligerent and uncooperative. I’m leaving now, so you can enjoy family time together.” Continuing in French, Eugénie turned to Marguerite to add, “I’ve only been in the neighborhood six months, and I never expected to like any of my neighbors at all, until I met four Acadians right next door. It’s been a blessing. A demain et bon appétit.”
Acadia? Where’s that? It’s the former French name (Acadie) for Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in Canada, but Acadia covered, and still covers, more French-speaking populations than that, with unclear territorial boundaries that stitch together a patchwork of Canadian Maritime Provinces, including Prince Edward Island (Île Saint-Jean), Newfoundland, eastern Québec, even cross-stitching into U.S. territory, the state of Maine all the way to the Kennebec River. Much contested in an endless tug of war between the French and British colonial powers, both France and Great Britain fought hard to control the strategic mouth of the St. Lawrence River. In the end, France lost the prize big time, ending its administrative presence in North America and vast resources across the continent, in the aftermath of the French and Indian War.
But what does Acadie mean? That’s a hard one. We’re not sure. It’s probably based on an Indian word. However, just like the fuzzy territorial boundaries mapping Acadia today, as in the past, the name origin is still disputed. One school of thought claims a classical source -- Arcadia, with an “r.” This source is based on the Greek mythological hunter Arcas who taught humanity the arts of weaving and baking bread. So far, so good. During the European Renaissance, however, the same mythological Arcadia morphed into something idyllic – an unspoiled, harmonious wilderness. That doesn’t quite jive with harsh Canadian winters. Maybe the idyllic name was a real estate gimmick to draw French settlers. In contrast, Arcadia was also the fun home of Pan, the naughty Greek god who loved to frolic. In fact, he looked like a satyr, half-man, half-goat. You get the picture. He was the god of everything wild and untamed – a real party animal. Why would French pioneers stoop to such a level? Well, maybe they wanted to keep their spirits up.
Here’s another possibility. In the Algonquian language of the Mi’kmaq (Micmac) Algatig (Acadie) means “the camp.” That’s logical that French pioneers would call their settlement an encampment, while respectfully borrowing an Indian word. In addition, the root of the anglicized “quoddy” is another possibility, also derived from the Mi’kmaq, the word being kadil or cadie, “place, region,” perhaps to describe a good fishing spot with plenty of pollock or herring or cod. The exact origin of “quoddy” is not clear. One would need to do more linguistical research. In any case, excellent fishing in Canadian waters did entice boatloads of French settlers into North America. These natural resources influenced settlement locations for England, France and the Netherlands. The French -- and later the English and the Dutch -- were drawn to the North Atlantic coast due to abundant fish and furs. The Dutch, English, and French were also interested in locating and controlling the fabled Northwest Passage -- a water route that would lead through North America to Asia. No such route existed, but the search led to exploration of the Hudson, St. Lawrence River, the Great Lakes, and the James River.
“Why did you take so long doing your homework, Violette? After we finish the dishes, we won’t have any free time to relax. We’ll have to take a shower and go straight to bed.”
“I was fuming about Mme Vidocq and couldn’t focus.”
“Violette, don’t take everything so personally. Chill and use moderation.”
“Look who’s talking about moderation. Every time we walk to the store, you gawk at the mountains and won’t answer my questions. It’s like talking to a zombie. That’s goofy. If you keep daydreaming in public, people will start talking about you behind your back. Watch out, Vicky.”
Half listening, her mind slipping into another dimension,Vicky slid her fingertips under her frames, rubbing her eyelids till they swelled and turned red.
“Hey, are you crying? It wasn’t nice to call you goofy, but I don’t want people to get the wrong idea. You’re not goofy, you’re bossy, but you care about me, and I trust you. Hey, Earth to Vicky. Are you there?”
At last Vicky looked at Violette, pushing her glasses in a characteristic gesture. “Everything’s fine.”
“I’m glad to hear it, but maybe both of us could use moderation; it’s never easy.”
“I know moving to the desert was hardest on you, especially without Papa. I miss him too, but we had to go, and you know why.”
The dishes done, they scurried off to take a shower. Vicky slipped her hand in Violette’s. The gesture warmed Violette. She could feel the tense knot begin to loosen: “Vicky loves me, no matter what I say,” she thought.