Chapter 21: The Hurricane
Clara: -January 1907-
We approached the house but Ezra didn’t release my hand as we came into view of my family. I tugged at his arm, desperate for him to release me before they saw us together but it didn’t take me long to figure out his intentions.
“Ezra, please,” I begged, hoping that they wouldn’t see us. I turned the other way, pulling him with me. They would never let me see him again if we admitted any intentions beyond friendship.
“Clara stop,” he said, letting go. “I want to be with you and your family needs to know. I need you in my life, and I know that you need me too. We need to do this properly.” I tugged his arm and pulled him behind a tree, safe from the view of my parents. I knew he was confident but I hadn’t expected him to do something so rash.
“You could have at least talked to me about this first!” I scolded him like he was a child.
His face soured. “No amount of talking would convince you to tell them and you know it. We’ll be keeping secrets for the rest of our lives.”
“They will never approve of us.”
I had never said it out loud until then. He shrunk back before giving me a look of disgust.
“Then what was all of this about? How long were you going to let it continue before you told me it was for nothing? Were you just stringing me along until I fell so in love with you my heart would break when you told me you didn’t want me?”
I didn’t answer, but I felt the hot moisture on my cheeks at his words, and as the tears fell his face softened into an expression of pity and guilt.
“But, I do want you! I’m just afraid,” I confessed, backing away before he could touch me. The moment with my mother, and fighting with Ezra...It was too much to handle at once.
“Afraid of what? Being happy for once?” he asked. His tone was sarcastic and laced with hurt.
“My parents took away half of William’s inheritance when he married Adeline because she was below his station. I don’t see them being so generous with mine if I pursue a relationship with you. They will never allow it. They will disown me.” I choked on the words as they fell from my mouth.
He could’ve been dramatic and offended. I would have been. But he wasn’t.
“I want to make a big romantic gesture, Clara, and tell you to give it all up for me. But that wouldn’t be fair.” Tears welled in his eyes as if he knew I’d give up on us. “All I can do is love you and promise to keep loving you.”
I was already an emotional mess but hearing him say he loved me caused more messy crying. “And I love you,” I said, leaning in to hug him. Ezra cradled me in his arms as we remained still. In the end, it was up to me. He was warm and safe, and at that moment I no longer cared if someone saw us. He hadn’t made me choose between him and my family, and it made me want him more.
“It isn’t like I’m close to my family anyway,” I started to say, but he pulled away slightly to look me in the eye.
“No, but they are still your family. Don’t give them up for me.”
“I am not giving them up for you. I’m just not giving up someone that makes me happy, and it’s up to them to accept that or not.” We both hesitated for a moment. He wiped my tears away and straightened up. I took his hand and led him through the lawn.
Emma was the first to notice us walking hand in hand across the marshy grass. I was grateful that she kept it to herself but her eyes widened, not necessarily in shock but because she knew the conversation we were about to have. My hand grew clammy and my lungs ached. I didn’t know if Ezra was as nervous as I was but he didn’t show it. He walked with confidence beside me, ready to take on the slew of insults my family would throw at him.
In my entire life, I’d never handled confrontation with grace. I was too emotional, quick to judge, and prone to holding grudges. My thoughts were best represented in my diary, not in my head. They were a jumbled mess in my head. It didn’t matter how much I prepared myself to act rationally. The moment I heard my brothers were giggling about something I felt angry at them again. The walk across the yard was likely only a few minutes, but it felt like a stifling few hours as I tried to brace myself for their rejection. I silently pleaded with myself not to lash out, not to push them away further, but it seemed nearly impossible when my mother turned around and her smile dropped into a stoic frown. It only took me a few seconds to think that would have happened whether Ezra was holding my hand or not.
“Clara, what are you doing?”
When my mother spoke, it caused my father to turn around. He was expressionless as if seeing Ezra and me together was not a shock.
“Children, go inside,” my mother ordered my siblings. It felt like Ezra and I’s hand holding had become a plague that everyone needed to stay away from.
My father looked Ezra in the eye. “I knew something was not right when you kept disappearing. I hired you to help me with the chores not to galavant on my property being dishonest with my daughter.”
“Sir, I-” but Ezra was cut off before he had a chance to say anything.
“I think you need to get off of my property right now and not come back, son,” my father said, barely raising his voice. He hardly lifted a finger. My mother sat beside him, stern in her expression. Was she daring me to say something?
“If he leaves, I am also leaving,” I stated firmly. My toes curled in my shoes and if I had a blanket I would’ve squeezed it in my hands.
“Clara, why must you always make a spectacle for every little thing?” my mother asked. A single hair fell out of her bun and she gracefully pushed it back, not even bothering to look me in the eye. They weren’t taking us seriously.
“Let’s go, Ezra.” The melancholy glance I sent my mother must’ve done something because she stood, almost appalled that I’d dare to actually leave with Ezra.
“Clara, really? And ruin your sister?”
“Maybe if you’d pay attention you’d realize that Emma doesn’t want to get married! Ezra makes me feel wanted and loved. None of you even know I exist.” I had not meant to say that out loud. I’d never seen my mother so hurt in my entire life. She sat back down. “You all mock me behind my back, none of you understand me or listen to me. Emma is the only one who bothers to talk to me and even then, it was only after her accident.”
My mother stared at the ground and for a moment I wasn’t sure if she’d reply. “If you felt this strongly, why were you never honest with me?” My father took her hand.
“I didn’t think you’d care.”
My father clicked his tongue in disappointment. “So you thought you’d find the attention you so desperately crave from the first man who shows it to you, then?” my father asked sternly. I could feel his anger seething. No, not anger. Disappointment. “You said we didn’t bring you out enough and perhaps it’s true if you let yourself stoop so low as to lie and sneak around with the stablehand!”
“It’s not like that!” I pleaded. It was true, I’d not met many men in my life but I’d not fallen for Ezra because he was the first man to show me any real romantic attention. I’d genuinely fallen for him. The image of the rude, intolerant man I once thought he was was virtually nonexistent to me now.
“I’m sure it’s not!” bellowed my father. He stood from the chair and slammed his fist against the table. I’d never seen him so angry in my life.
“William, please,” my mother implored. Her words seemed to calm him and he sat back down. She looked at me. “I don’t approve of this. But I do not doubt that if you walk away right now, you won’t come back. And contrary to what you believe, Clara, I do care. We all do.”
“This will cause a scandal for this family.”
I scoffed. “We aren’t asking for your blessing to marry yet, we just want your blessing to be together!” I pleaded. Ezra had not formally proposed, he just wanted to be honest with them.
“I understand that Clara, but we need to think about the future. If this...relationship works between the two of you then there will be a scandal.”
“I just want to be happy,” I said, defeated. Ezra squeezed my hand. I knew he meant well, but I suddenly wanted to be alone.
“Absolutely not, Renée, what are you thinking?” My father asked, pacing around the table. I had not expected him to react well, but he was angrier and more embittered than I could’ve imagined.
She ignored him. “I’d rather the knowledge of this relationship stay within our family. If it becomes something more, well, then we’ll consider the repercussions. It would be better than an elopement and never seeing you again,” my mother said, defeated. “Now Clara, come with me. Your father and Ezra have some things to talk about.” She took my wrist in her hands, and though her words were calm her actions were not. I still wasn’t sure exactly what had just happened. Did she give us her approval? Would my father kill Ezra and hide his body in the barn? She led me through the parlor and up the stairs, yanking me like I was a toddler until we were in her bedroom.
She shuffled through the drawers in her room, leaving me in the doorway awkward and upset. “Don’t think I approve of this decision. Of all the things you could’ve done, Clara,” she said, her displeasure evident. “But I don’t want you thinking for one more second that I don’t care about you.” She pulled a piece of paper from the drawer and guided me to her desk. It didn’t matter how strong I tried to be or where else my mind was at that time. I cried, finally hearing the words I’d been dying to hear from her. Just to know that I wasn’t a regret in her life or a stain on the family.
“I have not been the best either,” I admitted through tears. She sat beside me on the bed and wrapped her arms around me. I was surrounded by her warmth and her scent, and it was a different kind of safety. A mother’s love, something I’d desperately wanted for so long.
“If you marry him, it would be wise not to stay in St. Martinville. We know too many people and it,” she paused for a moment to gather her thoughts. “It just would not be good for our family.”
It was hard to hear, but I understood.
“Now,” she said, taking the paper from her desk. “Elijah may have written to me and told me what you were doing in New Orleans,” she said, glancing at me to see my reaction.
“Did you love him?” I asked.
She held the paper with both hands and sighed. But it wasn’t an expression of annoyance or impatience. She was sad. “Yes, I loved him. I still love him. But I love your father too, and I had to take care of my mother. I couldn’t just leave her here and move back to New Orleans. Your father has been a great husband and father. I know he’s angry at you now but he’ll come down from it. In time,” she said softly.
“What did Elijah say?”
“He told me about your inquiries into The Painted Ribbon, my mother’s shop. The building is mine. It passed to me when she died.” Our eyes met. “I’d like to give you the deed to the property. If you and Ezra decide to get married, which I highly suggest you do now that you’ve decided to tell us, it’s yours. Live in it, start a business with your husband, do whatever you want with it.” She handed me the property deed.
“You don’t want it?” I asked, almost in a whisper. I’d gone from feeling frightened and ashamed to elated and excited for the future.
“My relationship with her is complicated, Clara. I know you don’t understand but that is how it is and I wish you’d accept that. You should have it, not me.”
For once, I did not argue. “Thank you, mamma. Really, thank you.”
She took a few strands of my hair in her hands and gave a melancholic smile before standing. “We should go back and see if your father and Ezra have come to an agreement.”
We stood and watched each other, awkward and uncertain. Our relationship had been clouded by negativity for so long we hardly knew how to act around each other anymore.
I hugged her. “Thank you, momma.”
“I love you, Clara. I really do.”
“I love you too.”
The moment was short but sweeter than I could’ve imagined even half an hour before. We took our time going downstairs, not wanting to interrupt Ezra and my father, if they were both still alive. Before my feet touched the parlor floor I heard them...laughing. Were they having a civil conversation? I snuck to the door and listened through the walls as much as I could.
“Come, Clara,” my mother ordered, back to being stern. I followed and we walked out but I suddenly felt shy when I saw Ezra smiling.
“Ezra, Mrs. Deveaux and I have something we should discuss with you together. Clara, you may join us later,” my father instructed.
I wasn’t nervous anymore. I squeezed Ezra’s hand and crept away, periodically looking back as my parents talked to him. I didn’t know if he was who I’d marry, but I certainly hoped so. I got to the edge of the property and my feet carried me on their own, sloshing through the wet grass and onto the gravel pathway toward my grandmother’s house. At least, where it used to be. I could breathe again, the fresh air filling my senses, my steps crunching beneath the rocks. The tightness in my stomach eased, my body no longer felt as tense. I slowed to a steady walk and took the deed to The Painted Ribbon out of my pocket. A letter from my mother slipped out. I held onto it, eager to read her words with The Live Oak.
August 16, 1906
It filled me with such joy to see you hug your grandmother today. I don’t know how to phrase this without breaking your heart but I will try. The hug you two shared will be the last, and I implore you to let me explain why. You must understand, I love my mother dearly. When her memories began to fade I took care of her, and I made sure all of you knew her and enjoyed your time together. The last few years have not been kind to her. She’s forgotten almost all of us, even me. I do not blame her for this, it is not her fault. I want to write this down for you before too much time passes and I too forget. Something remarkable happened at your grandmother’s today. For the first time in years, she remembered who I was.
Renée: -August 1906-
“Here, momma,” Renée said, wrapping a shawl around Elise’s arms. It wasn’t cold in the house but Elise had gotten more sensitive to it whether it was summer or winter. Elise pulled the shawl tighter around her arms, despondent and confused. But for a second, recognition lit in her eyes.
“Darling Renée, thank you,” she said. Renée lost her balance and sat on the couch beside her mother’s chair.
“Yes it’s me, mom,” she said, taking Elise’s hand. It had been so long since Elise had said her name, Renée had almost forgotten what it sounded like.
“A storm is coming,” Elise said, her gaze drifting to the window.
Renée could hardly speak, she couldn’t believe what was happening. “Yes, it is going to be bad. Possibly even a hurricane.”
Elise smiled. “My mind has been so fuzzy lately. I can’t seem to remember anything.”
Renée felt hot tears well in her eyes. “I know, momma. I know.” Renée could hardly keep still in her seat. Would she remember the kids? She tried to act as naturally as possible. “We should get Clara and head back to the house, I’m sure everyone would love to talk to you again.”
“Leave me here, sweetheart. Take care of your children. You have done enough for me, and I’m ready to be with God and your father.”
“I’m not leaving you here, you would be in danger.”
“Please,” Elise pleaded. “Leave me here.”
She started slipping away again.
“Momma? Momma, please!” Renée pleaded but it was no use. Elise’s mind had gone back to where it had been for such a long time. Renée hoped more than anything, that Elise’s thoughts were good ones.
“I don’t want to leave you,” Renée cried, cradling her mother’s hand against her cheek. “I love you.” Time slowed to a halt as Renée cried. She didn’t know how many years of pent up emotions forced themselves out but she couldn’t help it.
“I want you to be with daddy again,” Renée whispered. She tightened the shawl around Elise’s shoulders.
“I love you, momma,” Renée said, kissing her mother’s cheek. “Be at peace with God.”
Renée waited for a while, desperate to stop crying. Taking a deep breath and wiping the tears from her eyes, she stood and walked to the window. Clara was leaning over the veranda into the rain. The storm had already started.
“Clara, come in here please!”
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