This was originally published at The Rumpus on May 27, 2016.
I shouldn’t have been surprised to discover, a lifetime later, that the tall boy had not been tall-tall, only above average, but when he surfaces in conversation, he remains “the tall boy with the recorder” among islanders. This happens less and less often. And now he is dead, our tall boy, who came to the island that was not always an island and now ceases to be an island at all, which is to say that he came before the relocation. We were his dissertation—our island before it winked from existence.
We are not so old, Mary Rose and I, who loved his giant frame when we were girls and had never seen such a boy on the island, with stone-cut cheekbones and hooded blue eyes and long blond hair which he was always tucking behind his ears. He did this when he was nervous, nodding his head and tucking his hair, as he listened to you. Ceaselessly polite. He came to us from the North. The progeny of Midwestern Vikings—he was like a corn stalk sprouted from the cement on the island.
He stayed with us in our stilted, salmon-colored home, my mother’s pride, which had been newly rebuilt after the big storm, and because my brother had left the year before to follow a musician up north and because my mother volunteered for everything, the tall boy and I shared a wall at night.
He asked my mother in our kitchen, “How does it feel to be sinking?”
“Like nothing,” she said. She picked up the coffee percolator from the stove with a dishrag. “It feels like aging.”
He wrote this down as she poured him coffee. He adjusted his recorder in her direction as she put the coffee can in the freezer.
“And how do you feel about the fact that nothing is being done?”
“Like aging,” she said and turned to face him, the freezer handle in her grip, and stacks of bagged, frozen shrimp in view. The edge of exasperation in her voice. “What is there to do?”
The island had been sinking for decades and the water rising. You could walk the island end-to-end in an hour then. The underwater docks resurfaced at low tide, and the bowl of our island, ringed by its grassy levee, filled with water when it rained. During floods, Guy Brasseaux operated the pump, which drained the island of rainwater.
As we sank, fault lines erupted in roads and sidewalks. Even the basketball court was rugged, so if the ball hit a crack wrong and went out of bounds, you got to throw-in, no forfeit. One got used to it.
But the tall boy came from a leveled place and tripped often. He spent a few months studying us before he returned to college. Some church women were angry when they spied the tall boy holding the recorder up to the tree to catch a birdsong or sitting on the shady side of the island store with a couple of drunkards, the recorder in his lap, as two men argued over the origin of the bayou’s name—a pidgin word from oak or dog.
Women came to my mother: He ought to help kids prep for SATs or do roof work for the elderly—this was domain of outsiders. My mother took them to our screened-in porch with tea. From our porch, you saw the east side of the island, the levee, the fishing boats tied to pilings of submerged docks.
My mother shrugged. “What should I do? I’m just the host. He says he’s here for oral history.”
The church pastor had been seduced, it seemed, by the tall boy’s proposal: documentation that might help the tribe gain federal recognition, and then, federal assistance.
Because the tall boy tripped often as he walked, the island kids, who made a game of following him around, would tease him. A manhunt ensued as soon as the island school let out. If this bothered the tall boy, you wouldn’t know it. He’d just smile, throw up his hands as if to say, ‘you got me,’ and then he’d ignore the kids and continue recording bullfrogs or taking notes on the activity outside the island store—two old men posted on opposite sides of a truck bed, talking in the old language. A blue Dodge that had been parked there for years. Cat’s claw vine climbed the deflated tires into the engine. The tall boy left his filled journals on the desk in his room.
The cat’s claw vine, native to the tropics of Central and South America, is a climbing vine named for the claw-like tendrils with which it adheres itself to trees. Below the plant’s foliage, one can see the three-pronged tendrils hooked into its host. An invasive species in Southeast Louisiana, the vine devours derelict houses. It is said that the vine can rip the roof from a house once overcome. When flowering on an abandoned building, it may seem as though the abundant saffron-colored flowers are the fruit of the structure, as if the house becomes food for the tenacious plant. Some locals believe it cures arthritis.
My mother warned the tall boy that Ed Fontenot, my grandfather, wouldn’t talk to him. Ed was not a talkative or even friendly man after his wife died. My mother told the tall boy—news to me—that Ed was in a lot of pain. He’d never spoken of it.
But the tall boy insisted: I want to paint a full picture, if I can, of life here.
Ed was a retired shrimper and fiddler in the island band at a time when there were dances every weekend. The tall boy went and knocked on Ed’s door.
“And who are you?” we heard Ed ask him. Ed asked the boy this every time Ed saw him, at least daily at the dinner table.
“Stop it, Ed,” my mother would say. “You know who he is.”
The tall boy laughed as he always did when an islander insulted him. He was so eager to please, to be agreeable, invisible, to take apart the island like a watch and see its composite parts. He did, however, ask us to keep the TV off and speak quietly when he was recording. Noise would disrupt the document.
While the tall boy interviewed Ed, every so often we heard the tall boy’s laughter burst from Ed’s room. My mother and I, corralled in the kitchen, shared a smile.
What did surprise us was the sound that came from Ed’s room, a squeal, followed by Ed’s plucking. I didn’t know he still had a fiddle. We heard Ed cursing and the tall boy pleading: “Come on, you got to. You’ve got to play.” We crept closer and sat on the living room carpet outside the door. My mother had her back to the wall. And he played: the fiddle’s rising and falling, a few strings awfully high, like an old man teetering to walk, and then Ed’s voice, the raspy instrument calling up the walls, the strange language, but light, how light it sounded, his foot keeping time on the floor, the laughter in his raspy voice, as he sang about I don’t know what, and my mother transfixed by the sound, somewhere else altogether.
The islanders have always been fishermen and shrimpers, but we had homesteads once, with enough land and gardens to feed whole families. Fur trappers too. Then the shrimp market collapsed with the advent of Asian imports, and we were easy to relocate—when there was no income for the government to compensate. It was the elderly who stayed last because they lived on government money, and when they took the elderly from the island, I’m told, it killed them. But people like my mother, who were young enough to work, moved to the mainland. She worked at a shrimp processing plant for a time. She kept two separate laundry baskets, one for the shrimp smell that would never lift from her clothes.
The tall boy recorded bugs ringing in the night, kids playing, my mother humming. He watched the men unload boats; he watched the ceremony of the priest putting on his robes; he watched boys fistfight after school, and when he was chastised by the teacher—why didn’t he do something?—the tall boy, for once, was confident. It’s not my place to intervene, he said.
The tall boy liked to think he was invisible, but he might have been the only person on the island in my mind, and sleeping in my brother’s room—where the slightest noise through the wall elicited the greatest joy. I determined to have sex with him. I was not a virgin, but I convinced myself that if I slept with him, it would wipe Emile Ross from my record. So, even to hear the tall boy turning in his sleep excited me; his snoring, his getting up to pee in the middle of the night. I would fill with panic if I heard him pass my room to the bathroom. Stricken, I couldn’t will myself up to meet him in the hall, and I would berate my cowardice in bed when I heard the click of his bedroom door.
It was Mary Rose who emboldened me. She’d caught him alone by the basketball court and invited him for dinner, which made action urgent because Mary Rose was prettier than me. Her popularity among the island boys was undisputed. All I had was the advantage of proximity.
So I was ready that night when he came back from Mary Rose’s house. I told him I would take him to the burial grounds, which were only visited at night, as was our custom. It could not wait until tomorrow, I said. Tonight was special. I took his hand and led him down the bayou, past the houses which were abandoned after the big storm, to the island’s southern edge, where the cypress trees were dying and one cypress, a miracle, still lived, but perched on its roots three feet above the ground.
“The middens,” I explained. “Shell middens marked the ancestral burial ground. The other trees don’t grow like this, you see?”
And he noted this. That part was true.
To lie underneath it, I told him, on the half moon was to receive the spirits’ blessings. I took his hand, a sweaty hand, to lead him, but he wouldn’t move.
He said, “I don’t think I should.”
But it’s for outsiders especially, I added. How else, did he think, he became one of us?
This was the extent of the plan. It ended there. I had no idea what to do with him once I pulled him under that tree, which was worse than I imagined, alive spider webs and ants, the ground muddy, our clothes quickly dampening.
We were beneath the tree, silent. His rigid body radiated unease, and it was clear he was not going to try anything. I was unsure it’d even crossed his mind, but he closed his eyes as if he were waiting, so I began to hum. I hummed the melody Ed played on his fiddle, the words I didn’t know, and I hummed louder, the lilting chorus. Lying there, I began to believe my own lies about spirits, and hummed louder and began to touch him, first his chest.
“Hum,” I said, and to my surprise, he did. I felt the vibration of his humming in his taut, swimmer’s stomach, until I could see he was ready. That he wanted to.
I have been married twice. I’ve lived in California, Montana, and I ended up on the same shore our island faced. When my mother got sick, I came back. There were other islanders left, and I fell in with Sammy, who’s younger than me, but remembers the tall boy. He was once a child who followed the tall boy around for the months the tall boy stayed.
I only slept with the tall boy that once, but I remember how shocking it was, that time, to feel how a man could know his way around my body, so meticulous and careful in his lovemaking. I would be heartbroken when he would not look at me the next day. It took him two days to ask me to sit with him on the levee and to explain that he was so grateful for that night, and that I would meet lots of other boys. It shouldn’t have happened. He hadn’t been himself. But he was grateful. He thought I was wonderful. Would I please not tell anyone what happened?
“Why would I?” I cried, and he put an arm around me. I could feel the lightness, the reticence even in his arm so as to not give me the wrong impression. I told him I loved him, and he looked terrified—his face drawn and pale, his mouth agape.
He was sorry, he said, slapping a mosquito on his arm. It was all his fault.
When it was time for relocation, there was some money from the government, and we knew that this small sum made it impossible to ask for more. I was in college then and didn’t think much about the island. I didn’t return to see the moving trucks assemble. I would study the offenses long after I could fight them.
Years passed before I took a skiff to where our houses had been and saw a colony of gulls roosting on the pilings that were once the legs of our homes. The storms had lifted the houses from them, and the bridge to the island ends in the water like you could drive into the past. The old oil drilling platforms are still there, those rusting dinosaurs, not far from where the island was. They will outlast everyone. We would swim to them as kids because the rigs were abandoned even then, as the drilling moved offshore, and we’d dive from the platform into the water or steal the crabs from pots that old men left there. As teens, we’d take someone’s boat to the old platform where we’d drink and smoke and look back at our island at night, our parents’ houses small and lit up in a row.
Heart failure is how he died, at fifty-six after he finished a running marathon. A blood clot is far more dangerous in the healthy, it seems.
Mary Rose had printed his obituary to show me—one afternoon in Sammy’s shop. Soren Lang is survived by his wife and three children, will be dearly missed by the faculty of UM.
Why withhold his name from the story? Because the tall boy became his name to us, when remembered, and so fits with the tradition. Or truly, because his name became a mantra, repeated until it was only a sound, one year when I fought my mother constantly and wanted only to get out on my own.
Soren’s dissertation did not become a book or help us gain federal recognition—that wouldn’t happen until one speaker of the language remained. But many of Soren’s recordings are online.
What is it like to be you? he was always asking, in his way, and it seemed a stupid question then. I didn’t know. I could lie better than I could tell the truth. I hadn’t left yet.
That people fade from collective memory seems as improbable as islands sinking. Improbable and then overnight, it happens. Oil rigs withstand storms that dissipate houses. Stories are lost. Graves, markers of life, flounder with them. Soren was looking at us like we were already dead. That’s why the elders disliked him. They knew what he was there for, no matter how he said it, and he was only the first. More came later, though I would never speak to them.
Rumpus original art by Cody Bubenik.