Chapter 6: The Tree By the River
Elise: - January 1861-
Elise stood in front of Caroline’s former house, now occupied by strangers. Caroline’s husband had provided a large, brick home with two obnoxious columns holding the front. Despite Caroline’s love for a big yard and small foliage, the city home was greeted by the sidewalk without a single tree in sight. Maybe she’d finally get the home she wanted in Chicago….
At the thought, Elise was overcome with melancholy and turned away with tear-brimmed eyes. Three long months she’d been apart from her best friend, and struggled to accept that this was only the beginning. With heavy feet, she continued walking to the tree near the river’s edge at Jackson Square. Each step drug against the old bricks of New Orleans’s pavements. Her shoes splashed against each grout line, and her senses were filled with the sound of steamboat whistles near the docks and hooves pattering against the street. Smoke from the chimneys clouded the air and smog-filled her lungs. It masked the repugnant stench of the city, and she inhaled the smoldering air willingly. Each step in the grout splashed brown liquid on the bottom of her dress. The rest of the dress, not muddled in water, resembled jade and accentuated the vibrancy of her eyes. Her shawl, barring the cold air from her shoulders was a deep green, and she shuddered as the chilled humid wind pierced through. She pulled at the shawl for comfort but all it did was plunge her into a sense of solitude. Though the street was bustling with people, she hardly looked at anyone, paying mere polite smiles to passersby. When she wandered down to the water, she finally noticed the shining azure sky. She tightened the cloak around her shoulders in an attempt to block the humid cold from touching her skin and she snuggled against the nearest tree. It worked because before long she drifted to sleep.
When she opened her eyes the chilled air caressed her face, sending a slight tremble through her body. And there, intently reading next to her was René. They had met at the spot for months, waiting for each other, delivering letters, and writing notes to one another. The approval of their courtship blossomed into a romance that neither of them imagined. His words occupied her thoughts and she dreamt of their moments alone. Without making a sound she snuck a glance at him, hoping he wouldn’t notice she was awake yet. His black hair was longer now, draping below his collar, slightly curly and full. His face was cleanly shaven, revealing an appealing jaw, meeting his lips that were currently mouthing the words on the page of his book. The soft brown of his eyes subtly reflected the sunlight. He let out a long, deep exhale of bliss and rose his eyes from the page. He immediately felt her gaze and they locked eyes. A smile covered his face, and as it did, he closed the book and moved over to her. He gently placed a hand on her cheek as their lips met. They shared several soft kisses before he gave his full attention to her.
“What’s troubling you?”
Her eyes were a staggering green, and the deep, blue sky echoed them, illuminating her face with each bright ray of sun. The mesh of colors produced a resplendent backdrop for her bright hair. As he brushed it from her face, his fingers twisted several strands, and he held it as she spoke.
“How did you know?” She let him twirl her hair.
He laughed softly, and responded, “I’ve been courting you for months, and couldn’t take my eyes off of you for months before that. I’ve memorized your face. Something’s wrong.”
“I miss Caroline. Except for my time with you, I feel so lonely lately. I’ve lost my best friend. Sometimes I worry that I will never see her again. I miss her advice, and most of all, her company. And my parents can’t seem to stay in the same room for more than five minutes without quarreling.”
He observed her sympathetically but said nothing.
“I’m just down and I’d prefer not to go home,” she admitted, shifting to rest her head on his shoulder. He could tell that she no longer wanted to discuss it, and he changed the subject.
“Are you cold?”
She nuzzled closer to him. “Not anymore.”
“I desperately wish you didn’t have to go home. I’d sit out here like this all day if we could. I was so happy to see you there, sleeping,” he said, letting out a small laugh. “You’re so beautiful.”
She chuckled at his words. They sat in silence for some time, enjoying the cool weather. The steamboats’ paddle wheels stirred the water below, resonating a light, soothing sound. She was nearly approaching sleep again when she heard him.
“Elise?” he asked, moving his body.
“I could stay like this with you forever,” she said, lifting her head and turning to face him. He sat up a little taller, and his face flushed with a rosy, pink color. She smiled at the sight.
“Elise, I love you,” he breathed. It was almost a whisper.
“René, I love you so much.” She leaned in to kiss him. He showered her face in kisses, pushing aside any lingering sense of modesty, not caring whatsoever if anyone saw them.
“There is nothing more I want out of life than to spend my mornings next to you.”
She blushed at his words, and they silently embraced one another as the bright blue sky transformed into muted hues of orange and red. Though they were sitting, René shifted and pulled open her fingers, placing a small ring in her palm. It was simple but elegant. She looked at him and the wind gently blew her hair, revealing her exuberant expression. She knew what was happening.
“I said that I wanted to spend my mornings and nights with you. I sincerely mean that Elise,” he paused. “And it would honor me if you would be my wife,” he said. “If you wouldn’t mind my constant banter and wit for the rest of your days,” he added. She snickered at his words, and let him slip the ring onto her finger.
“It would be my pleasure, René Pellerin.”
Clara: - September 1906-
I was sitting at my desk reading my grandmother’s letter to Caroline as she explained the details of her then-pending wedding. I excitedly anticipated a wedding that was long past. I felt a tinge of a chilled breeze creep in through the open window. It was finally September. My favorite month of the year. The Louisiana heat had receded, giving way to the cool breezes of Autumn instead. I glanced out of the window to the front yard and looked to the large oak and pecan trees that inhabited the field, eager to see their leaves fade into mixtures of red, orange, and brown. But, their leaves were still green and instead of an array of colors, pecans littered the grass. Louisiana never did follow a traditional pattern of seasons, and as much as I wished for darkening trees and large piles of autumn leaves, the pecans were right on schedule. I watched as Emma bounced through the field, placing the loose nuts in her basket. Even from the window, I saw her blonde ringlets bounce in unison with her vivacious movements. I envied her spark, but I appreciated her spirit, particularly after we’d just lost our grandmother. As I closed my eyes and enjoyed the gust of wind, my thoughts crept back to the letter. I couldn’t help but think about my mother, who had been reluctant to even look at the trunk or anything I had found. Did she know about the letters in the attic? What about the ones in the floorboards? I folded Elise’s letter to Caroline and placed a few of the unsent letters in my bag before going downstairs. There was my mother, quietly sewing in the corner chair in the parlor next to the open window. She’d pulled her hair into her usual bun but something was different. Strands fell gently into her face and rocked with each movement of the chair. Her hair was always so tightly wound that I didn’t even know that she could look so beautiful. Perhaps the thought was cruel, but it was true. She looked graceful, and at that moment I saw my grandmother in her. The instant she heard me, her face tightened, and her stern, sour look covered it once more.
“Clara?” I heard a slight surprise in her voice. I’ll admit, it was saddening. I wasn’t used to being so distant from her. She set down her project and gave me her full attention as I walked closer, taking the letters out of my bag.
“I found these at grandma’s,” I said, handing her Elise’s letter to Caroline. It was a useless venture, and she’d made it clear that she wanted nothing to do with them but I couldn’t help it. Her expression transformed into one of pain. She opened it and began reading, only to stop before she’d reached the middle of the letter.
“Why are you showing me this? I told you I’ve seen it all.” She handed the letter back to me without making eye contact. I took it from her hands and stared at it.
“Aren’t you curious? I find it difficult to believe that you’ve read all of these,” I said as I fumbled in the bag to take one of the letters I’d found beneath the floorboards.
Initially, she refused to take one of the hidden letters but I held one in front of her until she did. She opened it and read Elise’s letter to René about her birth. She read it in its entirety, and I fully expected her to ask me questions. Instead, she thrust the letter back into my hands.
“Clara, stop. I am not interested.”
She stormed out of the room without saying another word, leaving me alone and bewildered. Something else was going on here. What happened that made her so reluctant? I put the letter back into the bag and left the room in a silent state. I had no destination and found myself walking out the front door with no conscious movement guiding me. The sky was a bright blue without any clouds, which was a welcome change from the raging storms that had hit so frequently. The white picket fence that encircled the house had been repaired, and it felt homely. Safe, even. My father and brothers were making an awful amount of noise chopping wood from the branches that fell during the hurricane. I anticipated seeing Emma by the pecan trees as she was before, but she was on the swing sulking alone. I took a seat at her side. Emma’s hair was no longer bouncing and fell flat, her bright green eyes dulled. What had changed in only a few minutes?
“What’s the matter, Emma?”
Though I was curious, I was not genuine and did not truly believe she was unhappy, rather being dramatic as she commonly was. I did the same thing, after all. It was when I heard the tone in her voice that my intentions changed. She let out a long, dramatic sigh and threw her hands up and slammed them back down into her lap, picking at her fingers. She avoided my gaze.
“It’s just daddy. He wants nothing to do with me,” she groaned, looking at the men of our family laugh and joke while working. “Evidently I’m not fit to help them.”
“That’s a rather big claim, Emma. Why do you think that?” I curiously asked.
“I am the same age as Harvey. The same! We were birthed at the same time! And he gets to help. He’s included.” There was a hint of jealousy in her voice. Not light envy. Bitter jealousy. An emotion I knew all too well. I reviewed her expensive, elaborate gown, adorned with jewels and articulate embroidery, and tried to imagine her helping them in the field. Why did she care?
“Since when do you want to help the boys anyway? You would ruin your dress,” I said, playfully grabbing one of her ribbons. She didn’t respond well and pulled the ribbons out of my hand so forcefully they burned.
“ I don’t appreciate feeling useless, Clara! And you’re no better than them.”
Emma gathered up the dress, removed herself from the swing, and disappeared into the house within a matter of seconds. I almost giggled at her dramatics but couldn’t help but sympathize, recalling the brief conversation with my dad weeks prior. I pushed my feet on the ground and felt the swing move, pushing more wind onto my face and sending my dress wildly around my ankles. I carelessly watched them work until I saw another emerge from the barn. Ezra walked to my father and shook his hand before each of my brothers followed. My father shook his hand as a son of his own, and my brothers embraced him like family. Though they’d all have shown me and Emma affection, their interaction with him was different, and then the jealousy crept over me. It was not necessarily aimed at Ezra, but I envied the bond between men. Something Emma and I were never a part of. It was then that I understood exactly what she was trying to tell me. Why she felt unincluded. I rose from the swing and found myself marching over to my father and brothers.
“Careful Clara, you don’t want to get that lovely dress dirty,” Benjamin joked, wiping his soiled hands on his overalls. Harvey laughed with him, and I felt a tinge of anger. I ignored them and approached my father, who was busy chopping wood and hadn’t even acknowledged my approach.
“Dad, please. Let Emma help you. She’s sulking.” I pointed toward the house.
My dad looked at me and scowled. “Clara, we’re busy. We don’t need you girls here making a mess and making it difficult.” He walked past me and grabbed another large branch. Making a mess? My brothers heard his tone of voice and understood that the fun was over. I stomped after him.
“You’re making us feel useless. How do you think it feels for us to see you all here, laughing to your heart’s content while we sit and watch?!” I hollered. I was actively ignored by him and my brothers. Ezra eyed me somewhat sympathetically but kept quiet as well.
“Aren’t you listening?” I asked, feeling indignant. He looked at me as if I was the most vexing creature on the planet. He brushed his dirt-stained blonde hair from his face and scratched his beard before looking directly at me.
“Clara, you know damn well why you aren’t in the field. This type of work is not for you girls. Emma will get over it. You will get over it. Now please, leave us to our work, and go help your mother inside. I am sure there are plenty of things your mother needs your help with, considering you’ve ignored her for weeks,” he sharply scolded, swinging the axe to the wood. Feeling belittled, I stormed through the grass past my brothers and Ezra and found myself walking toward the coolie near the edge of the property. Despite my dramatic exit from the field, I’d hoped someone would follow me. I wanted someone to chase me and comfort me, make me feel wanted and appreciated. But nobody did. I sat near the edge of the coolie and listened to the birds, and let the cool September air blanket me as I drifted to sleep.