Chapter 8: Ezra LaBarre
Clara: - September 1906-
I felt the cool September breeze touch my skin as I awoke. The sky was tinged with orange, but the dark clouds and black sky were dominant in my vision. I slipped on something light and wrapped myself in a thin sweater, but I knew that it wouldn’t help much against the biting humidity. Though it was only the beginning of Autumn, the early morning air was brisk, and each gust sent a chill through my body. I took my diary and chose a book, stuffing them both in my bag, hoping for enough sunlight to read. I silently crept downstairs and saw no one else awake. Despite my mother’s orders to not walk to my grandmother’s house, I did anyway. I was so filled with anger and bitterness that I had no sense of direction, and my emotions guided me instead.
There were few things better than an interesting novel and complete solitude. That attitude had gotten me in trouble on several occasions but it was true. I walked slowly down the pathway, listening to the crunch of the dirt beneath my feet and the sounds of the morning birds for what felt like hours, reading each page of my favorite book, The Time Machine, and taking in every word for what must’ve been the tenth time.
It sounds plausible enough tonight, but wait until tomorrow. Wait for the common sense of the morning.
H. G. Wells was right, of course. For me, early mornings were the best part of the day, when one felt the light of the new day and the dark of the night before. I continued strolling toward my tree, and it was not until thick smoke filled my lungs that my eyes left the book. I did nothing but stare at it in a trance before noticing a man knocking pieces off of the house and throwing the debris into a fire. Without thinking, I dropped the book and the bag into the dewed grass and sprinted toward him, my dress catching every droplet of water and each spec of mud. The damp soil and wet grass stuck to my shoes and ankles as I lunged at the stranger in a blind rage. The fire towered over us, and it roared when he threw more wooden planks into the flames. He didn’t hear my loud voice at first, and it wasn’t until I was merely a couple of steps behind him that he heard my screaming.
“What do you think you’re doing?!” I hollered, very rudely grabbing his shoulder and yanking him around. Though I was being incredibly improper, I didn’t care. Who was this man, and what was he doing to my grandmother’s house? My stomach knotted and twisted violently as I watched as pieces of the house burned to nothing but ashes. The man was dumbfounded by my touch and stumbled sideways before looking at me. His face turned to mine and I immediately recognized the staggering blue eyes.
Why was he appearing everywhere? We both stood in place and stared at one another with only the roaring sound of the fire to drown the otherwise deafening silence. I took the wood from his hands and threw it back to the porch of the house before he could even respond. He continued to stare at me in disbelief. Or perhaps disgust. I was too angry to care which one it was.
“What?” I bellowed, addressing his stare.
“What is your problem?”
I was taken aback by his question. My problem?
“You’re ripping my grandmother’s house apart and burning the pieces! And you’re asking me what my problem is?” I felt my arms raise and set on my hips. I was astounded at his nerve, and kept my eyes on his, judgingly piercing my gaze into his blue eyes.
“I’m only doing as I was told. You can discuss it with your mother!” he said, visibly exasperated. Those words stung.
The fire spat loudly behind us, and small embers flecked into the grass and air above, creating bright orange hues that coalesced with the newly risen sun.
“Yes, discuss it with her,” he said, turning his back to me.
My rage turned to disappointment. “Why?”
“I don’t know, Clara. Ask her.”
He was tired of my presence but I couldn’t help but question him. He walked away from me and picked up the scraps of wood I’d thrown. He prepared to throw them back in the fire when I stopped him.
“Please, stop!” I shouted. He looked at me, vexed.
“Will you please leave me alone?” he pleaded, holding onto the wooden planks. Though he was frustrated with me, he didn’t throw them into the raging flames.
“If you stop!” I said, viciously taking the wood from his hands. I threw the planks on the ground. I felt like a toddler throwing a tantrum.
He wiped his hands on his overalls and looked at me with the most intense expression I’d ever seen from him in our short acquaintance. “This is my job. Unlike you, I don’t have money pouring into my pockets every day.” He didn’t apologize. I stared at him, nearly glaring.
“What is the problem? This house is destroyed anyway. Your mother just wants it cleared,” he said, still standing empty-handed. I thought long and hard about what I wanted to say to him. He annoyed me, and he didn’t need an explanation. Much to my surprise, the words fell from my mouth without my consent.
“Follow me,” I said, waving my arm for him to follow. I picked up my book and the bag that I’d dropped before I walked to the live oak, periodically looking back to ensure he was behind me. He was, but I continued to glance in his direction.
“What, Clara?” he asked, glowering. When I permitted him to use my first name I hadn’t expected him to say it like that.
“Just sit down. God knows how long you’ve been out here.” I tried to sound concerned but my intentions were purely selfish. I led him to the tree, and he sat next to me, his face contorted into disgust.
“This is my favorite tree,” I told him, placing the book in the bag and setting them down.
“I haven’t touched the damned tree,” he blankly stated.
“Let me start from the beginning.” For reasons unknown, I felt like I owed him an explanation for my behavior. “It’s been so long since I’ve spoken to my grandmother,” I told him, almost pleading.
“What does that have to do with you yanking me around and being rude?”
I huffed. “Will you just listen, please? I am trying to be the bigger person and explain why I was rude!”
He paused, clearly surprised that I’d been so honest. “I thought she only died last month?” His tone was soft and some of the frustration disappeared. I sensed genuine curiosity.
“She did,” I answered. “But her mind has been gone for years. Five at least. I don’t remember. It happened slowly. The thing is,” I paused. He looked at me, sensing my hesitation.
“I haven’t told this to anyone,” I confessed. I didn’t know why I was telling him at all.
“You brought it up.”
“When she died, I was distraught, of course, but I hadn’t spoken to her in such a long time and she’d been lost to me for years. But, Ezra…” I paused again. He continued to look at me with curiosity and yearned to know more. I didn’t know why, but I found comfort in telling him.
“When we cleared the debris, I found a trunk. It was full of letters, photographs, and years of her diaries. I’m learning about her. Everyday,” I confided. I found myself telling him about the contents of the trunk, telling him everything about my grandmother. As I spoke of her life, I wondered how much of it was true, for when reading someone’s diary, one is only as informed as the writer wants you to be. I refused to believe that my mother read everything in the trunk.
“When I saw you burning the house I took my anger out on you. For my incensed outburst, I humbly apologize. Sometimes I feel like she’s my only real friend,” I told him, dropping my gaze to my lap. “Quite embarrassing, really.” After I said the words I realized how lonely I was. It was easy to enjoy peaceful solitude, and even easier to let it twist into willing isolation.
When he didn’t say anything I looked at him to see why. “I’m sorry I yelled at you. I can admit that it was wrong of me, and I should not have blamed you. I am often quick to jump to conclusions. It is a fault of mine. My mother told me I have too much pride.” His face was sympathetic. It was awkward for me to apologize. But I knew it wasn’t his fault.
“I didn’t know,” he said, scooting closer to me.
“I know you didn’t. Accusing you was not my intention. I panicked.”
We sat in silence for several moments until I had enough courage to ask him about my mother. “Did my mother really ask you to burn the house?”
He nodded. “She said it was a burden and an eyesore.”
His body visibly cringed as he said it as if having an entirely new opinion on the matter. It was disappointing. I felt like I had lost all sense of who my mother was. I wanted to know why she seemed to resent my grandmother so ardently, and I wondered what happened between them that caused such a deep rift. As the thought lingered in my mind, the reality of my relationship with my mother hung over me like a thick cloud of melancholia. Sensing the shift in my mood, he promptly changed the subject.
“Tell me more about the tree.”
He scooted even closer to me, and I smelled the smoky scent that stuck on his skin. It surprised me how easy it was to tell him my personal feelings, and the solace it brought as he listened intently. Nobody else had cared enough, and for the first time in a long time, I knew that someone was listening to me. It had been a long time since I’d spoken so much. I was rambling and felt my face flush when he smiled at something I’d said. It was probably just the heat. The sun was bright now. I noticed the chain peeking through his pocket and asked him for the time. He pulled the pocket watch out of his bottom pocket and checked.
“It’s nearly ten o’clock.”
“Oh my, we’ve been here since sunrise.” I slung the bag around my shoulder. “I need to go,” I claimed out of nowhere. He followed my lead and we stood in unison.
“May I walk you home? I know you’re fond of reading,” he said, eyeing my worn copy of The Time Machine. “But…”
I graciously accepted his offer and we left the tree together.
“Ezra, I’ve told you all about me,” I said, hinting. He smiled. What a nice smile, I thought. What is wrong with me, followed that thought.
“I’m not interesting,” he said, boyishly shoving his hands into his pockets as we walked. I noticed that our pace slowed, and I wished, at that moment, that we could stop time. He was easy to talk to, and I suddenly wanted to know more about him.
“Go on,” I pushed. His lips creased into what was maybe another smile, I couldn’t tell.
“I already told you about my dad, so it’s just me and my mom. She’s wonderful, you know. Adores you.” Adores me? I asked in my head. “She was so disappointed when you left the other day but I knew you had to, early. I’d spent enough time speaking with your parents to know their temperament. Particularly your mother,” he said, dramatically cringing. “What a cold woman.”
I nodded in agreement. She was indeed a cold woman. As he said it, I recalled the bright, spirited nature of my grandmother’s words and wondered how she raised such a serious, calculating daughter.
“If I am being honest, I’m too distracted trying to earn money to have much of a social life or have time for activities. Not to mention I want to, uh,” he paused and looked at me, refusing to continue.
“What is it?”
He visibly hesitated. “I want to paint.”
I smiled widely. “You’re a painter?”
“Yes,” he said with a slight grin. “I don’t know if you noticed, we have several pieces of artwork in my house.” I tried to recall the artwork on the walls but my mind drew up a blank. Changing the subject, he continued his previous statement, “My mom works tirelessly taking care of the neighbor’s children. Thankfully they’re relatively wealthy people but nothing like your family. But you’ve got no young children to care for. My mother hasn’t got any real skills. I don’t know if that’s unkind to say, but it’s true. She married so young and never really needed them. My parents tried to have more children but ended up with only me. I think my mom enjoys babysitting children because she couldn’t have more than one. I am decent with a brush and paint but I’m nothing close to a professional or a skilled craftsman. I could never get the proper training.” He shrunk a little as he spoke. I continued to look at him, eager to know more. I wanted him to touch my hair again.
“I don’t like snobs,” he said with a slight chuckle. “I despise rich people.” When he did his eyes widened, as if he’d sworn. “I’m sorry...That’s not to imply you or your family!”
“I knew you didn’t like me,” I said. “I never gave our wealth a second thought until you mentioned it. I don’t even look at my house the same anymore.”
He slouched and his pace slowed to a halt. I followed suit and looked back at him.
“I’m sorry for my rudeness when you came to the house. I was jealous, and I judged you. The moment I saw your dress soaked from the rain I knew you were from Deveaux Grove and I was so incredibly jealous, Clara.”
His hands slid out of his pockets and covered his face for a brief moment as if covering his shame.
“I was a snob,” I said. He tried to stop me by insisting that I wasn’t, but I interrupted him.
“No, honestly, I was. I only came to the house because it was the first one I saw. My house was too far, and I had valuable letters in my bag that I wanted to keep dry. I didn’t want to knock. I was content standing on your porch until the rain crept on me. Your mother was so welcoming, and mine is always so serious and severe. I think I’ve seen her smile once in my life. Your mother was surprisingly pleasant. But the only thing I could focus on was how small your house was. Your entire house can fit inside our parlor.” I paused for a moment and thought about what I’d said before continuing. “Perhaps that is an exaggeration. It was the only thing I could think about. I tried so hard to concentrate on your mother’s kindness. She lent me a dress, and the first thing I noticed was how lacking it was of adornments. And no, I did not notice what I imagine are beautiful works of art on your walls because I was too self-absorbed. The rain bellowed on the roof the entire night, and I couldn’t sleep. The minute you questioned me about sleeping in a large, brick house I realized how right you were about me. Though you didn’t say it, I knew you were not fond of me from the beginning. I knew I was being a snob but I couldn’t help it. You didn’t judge me wrongly, Ezra. I was a snob, and I am sorry.”
We looked at each other in silence as we took in what I’d just told him.
“The first time I came to your house to ask for a job I stared at the house for a long time. While your father was obliging and offering me a well-paying job, still I was envious and angry at you and your siblings for having such an easy life. But I was desperate for the money. I saw you all as emotionless, rich children who never cared for anything or anyone. It wasn’t until I spoke with you by the coolie that I let myself admit that you were people and not just money. I let myself get to know your brothers. They’re funny.”
When we reached my house I was overcome with a sense of dread and I wasn’t sure if it was the vision of seeing my family or leaving Ezra. It had taken mere hours of actual conversation for me to realize that he was extremely pleasant. He was a gentleman.
“Thank you for walking me home.”
“I’m happy I was there when you arrived and I’m sorry about the house. Please, do speak with your mother. I’m in a tough position now, you see. I need to follow her orders to get paid, and as you now know, I need the money. Yet I find myself with a newfound loyalty to you,” he confessed. I felt my cheeks flush.
“I enjoyed our walk. I feel guilty that you’ve got to walk back home.”
He ruffled his hair. “I’d walk the path between our houses the entire day if it meant enjoying more conversation with you, Clara.”
Any warm feelings I had faded when I looked at the house again. The massive house, strong and resolute, appeared normal as if no hurricane had just passed only weeks ago. The white paint reflected the sunlight and to many, the house would’ve looked like a shining beacon. But now it seemed foreign to me and I dreaded stepping inside the walls that once filled me with comfort. I couldn’t explain why. My footsteps grew heavy, not out of dread but from anger. I stomped into the house, scanning each room for my mother. The staircase that greeted me from the doorway was still and quiet, and there was no movement from the doorway beside it. The ornate plaster molding along the ceiling was lightly dusted and fading, and the hardwood floor faintly squeaked as I moved. The house seemed like it wanted me out. After checking the dining room and the foyer I saw her. She was sitting peacefully in the parlor, glancing through the window with a copy of Great Expectations in her hands.
“Ah, Clara,” she said as I revealed myself. I didn’t respond.
“I saw you with the stablehand. I’m not sure you-”
“Stop.” As I said the words her back straightened and stiffened. “Why would you ask him to set fire to grandma’s house?”
Her face contorted into an expression of intense aggravation. I suspected she was taken aback by my interruption rather than the question. She had a way of belittling even the most intimidating of people, and I was far from intimidating. But at that moment I didn’t care at all. Whether she meant to or not, she hurt me and I couldn’t control the words that fell from my mouth no matter how much I wanted to. “You are well aware of how much it means to me,” I said without giving her enough time to speak.
She slammed the book shut and let it plop in her lap. “I might ask why you were at the property in the first place! I strictly forbade you from going back, particularly after last time.” She smacked her lips and eyed me judgingly. “Walking that distance alone, before the sun had even risen! Sneaking around! It’s disgraceful, Clara. And now you return there as if I didn’t specifically ask you not to?” She had a slight hint of disgust in her voice which fed my growing temper.
“I don’t care what you said!” I yelled. I moved closer and her face tightened at my tone and the volume of my voice.
“Is that so?” she challenged.
“How could you?” I pleaded. Much to my dismay, my voice cracked, and stubborn tears brimmed my eyes. “She’s not been dead a month and you’re already burning her things! Maybe if you gave a damn about your own mother you’d have cherished her belongings. But you don’t! What is wrong with you? Have you no compassion for anything or anyone besides yourself?”
She stood up and threw her book violently on the chair. I hadn’t seen such emotions come from her in a long time, if ever.
“Clara there are many things that you don’t understand and I don’t have the time to educate you on all of it!” she exclaimed, flinging her arms in the air. I knew she wanted me to back down but I couldn’t. I didn’t. I matched my face with hers, standing resolute to prevent her from towering over me.
“Well, of course not!” I answered, quite sarcastically. “You’ve never spoken about her! And she was unable to! That responsibility fell on you.”
I tried to stop myself from being crude but I couldn’t.
“There is nothing to tell, Clara! She forgot she had a daughter most days! She wasn’t ready for a child and she brought me into the world anyway! She was so selfish, Clara! I prevented you from creating too strong an attachment to her in fear that you would love her and she would forget about you as well! And what happened? She’d forgotten everybody and everything, including herself!” She was yelling, and as she finished the sentence her eyes brimmed with tears. I felt no sympathy. She didn’t understand my grandmother, Elise, my friend, the way I did.
“Are you even aware of what happened to her?” I asked, raging. My mother set a hand into the air as if to stop me from continuing. The motion ignited the fury within me and I lashed out once more.
“It’s your fault,” I accused. She froze in place, and her deep green eyes shot into mine. “She died because of you.” I strode angrily out of the room, leaving her to contemplate what I’d said. It wasn’t until I reached the staircase that I heard her collapse in a pool of tears and felt any remorse. I listened for several moments as her sobs turned into gasps for air. I stood behind the wall with my face in my hands, breathing deeply as I listened. My thoughts were stopped by my father’s voice. The tears that were brimming my eyes began to fall and didn’t stop. I listened to them and felt ill.
“Renee, darling, what’s the matter? What happened?” I heard him ask.
“I’m an abhorrent person, William. A horrid daughter and mother,” she replied, defeated.
“What are you talking about?”
She pulled away from him, revealing a tired face, remnant of tears. Her cheeks were flushed and her hair was unruly. She released it from the tight bun and as her slick black hair fell to her back. She looked young.
“I quarreled with Clara.”
William’s face relaxed. “Oh, darling is that all? You quarrel with her all the time.”
She sniffled. “No, it was different this time.” She pressed her dress down and sat up straight to face him, gaining composure. Her eyes drifted to the window in a consuming thought. “My mother forgot me at the docks once, when we lived in New Orleans. I remember it vividly.” William listened intently, though he was unsure where the conversation was going. She’d stopped crying now and her voice was clear.
“I must have been no older than six years old. It’s one of my first memories. Being so young I don’t recall what we were doing or why but I remember the feeling. I remember standing in a crowd, as my mother ran from me to the edge of the docks. She disappeared and I started crying. I thought she’d jump in the water and never come back. The noises around me were so loud, William. I was scared and alone. When I finally found her, she was on her knees with her eyes focused on the ships in the harbor, crying. She didn’t even look at me. She didn’t take my hand. She just walked away and I trailed after her. I called her but she never even acknowledged me. Whatever was in that harbor was more important than me. If I hadn’t followed her, I’m sure she’d have forgotten me and left me at the docks, alone,” she said, tears brimming again.
William took her hand and let out a sigh of sympathy. “I didn’t know that, Renée. I’m sorry.” He seemed unsure about what else to say and remained silent.
“Clara was right. I think I’d grown to despise her,” she confessed.
“But why?” William asked. Renée looked at him, confused at his question as if to ask, “Didn’t you hear what I just told you?”
“Was her forgetfulness such a burden to you that it caused you to detest your mother? Surely you’d learn to deal with that and grow used to it? How can you shun a mother who raised you? When your father died in the war, she raised you alone. Did you ever think that she had things happening that you didn’t know about, Renée? It is time to let go of this grudge. She’s passed now.” She seemed unmoved by his words.
“I took care of her for the last ten years, William. I did so much for her and she forgot who I was by the end of it. I walked there every day, sometimes taking the children. I made her breakfast, cleaned her laundry, kept her yard tidy, and even emptied her bedpan on occasion until she was a motionless mute. Did any of it have a purpose? She told me once that I was born at the wrong time. She tried to be a good mother at times, I know she did. And I believe that she thought that she was. But she seemed to blame me for everything, even if indirectly.”
“Born at the wrong time?” William asked, confused.
She remained silent for a moment. “I know that my father “died” in the war,” she said, emphasizing her doubt regarding his death. William said nothing. “But she never admitted to it. She never said to me, “your father died in the war.” She always avoided speaking about him. She never remarried. She remained alone her entire life and she was ridiculed for it. Naturally, I came to other conclusions and fabricated other possibilities. I often wondered if he left us and she was in denial. Perhaps he did pass away and she was too broken hearted to move on. Or, maybe, I was someone else’s child and she left him to hide her shame. Perhaps he left us. The only explanation she gave me was “the war.” What kind of explanation is that to give to your only child? I’m the one who concluded that he must’ve died fighting.” Tears fell quickly, and years of repressed feelings revealed themselves. Unable to continue, she wept into William’s arms.
What really happened? I asked myself.
I felt pain in my stomach at the sound of her tears. This was not the Elise whose words I’d read and vowed to find out the truth.