Hi friends. My kid is out of school this week, so my little family is off to the Ardennes, a picturesque area a few hours south of where we live. It’s like the Texas Hill Country of Belgium.
As a bit of a cop out, but also because I want to introduce you to two of my favorite characters, I’m including an excerpt from All Saints Day of the Dead, the second New Bayou Book. Amelia is a South Louisiana girl, freshly returned from two years in a convent up in Ohio . . . where she quit and returned home just before it was time to take her vows.
Amelia is talking with Constance, the second protagonist in the story. Constance flees West Virginia to escape from her abusive boyfriend . . . who follows her down to Louisiana, where she has sought refuge among her friends from a popular swamp pop band called (I couldn’t resist) The New Bayou Bandits.
“We raised German Shepherds,” Amelia was saying. They were sitting on the hood of Amelia’s Subaru in the unlit, empty parking area, passing a roach Tommy had given Amelia back and forth. The tall grass around them had a wet sheen. It wasn’t exactly quiet, but they were far enough away from the sounds of merrymaking at the campsite to hear each other.
“Really? You raised dogs?” Constance held some smoke, surprised she wasn’t coughing yet.
Amelia accepted the withering joint from Constance. “Yeah, that was our trade. Still is, I guess. Just not for me . . . but yeah, purebred German Shepherds.”
Constance was quiet for a while, thinking about it. “Why dogs?” she asked. “And why German Shepherds?”
Amelia shrugged. “I’m not sure,” she said. “It’s just what they did. Every convent or monastery has a trade, you know. Something. You have to make money some kinda way . . . you can’t just survive on tithings and donations.”
“But German Shepherds?” Constance said. “Isn’t that kind of . . . I don’t know, weird?”
“Right!” She could see Amelia smiling in the dark. “It’s totally weird.”
“And maybe . . . I don’t know.”
“Well, not racist,” Constance said. “Though I guess I was thinking about the whole purebred thing. So I guess the term would be, what, breedist?” Constance said.
“Yeah,” Amelia said, catching on. “It’s interesting how there’s so much interest in purity and pedigree and stuff. Good thing we don’t treat people like that.” She paused, thinking about it some more. “But these days so many people treat their animals like members of the family, I wonder if there’ll come a time when people will start going for the lesser breeds . . . the disadvantaged dogs.”
“Right,” Constance said. “I can see it now. ‘These privileged German Shepherds have benefited from systemic breedism for long enough! It’s time we put the mutts in charge!’”
“Yes! Doggie diversity!” Amelia said, laughing. “We must tear down these old systems of canine oppression and imperialism and invite all dogs to the communal bowl.”
They laughed and went on riffing on dog rights and breedism for a while, until the roach was more trouble than it was worth and Amelia flicked it away.
“So, why did you leave?” Constance asked.
Amelia thought about it for so long Constance had begun to think she wouldn’t answer. “Well, it wasn’t really up to me,” she said eventually.
“You like, did something?” Constance asked as delicately as she could. “Like, something wrong?”
When Amelia shook her head no, Constance was relieved, worried she had maybe pressed too much. “It wasn’t anything like that. Sister Catherine and the others . . . they just thought I wasn’t ready. That maybe it wasn’t the right path for me.”
“They can do that?” Constance asked. “Just like, kick you out?”
“They didn’t kick me out,” Amelia said, a little defensive. “They were just like, ‘we think you should go back home for a while and live. Pray on it.’”
Constance was incredulous. “Go home and pray about whether you should be in a convent, praying all the time?”
Amelia looked at her and smiled. “It wasn’t exactly like that. I guess you just had to be there.”
They both laughed, and Constance felt closer to Amelia all of a sudden. “Well anyway, I’m glad you’re here,” she said. She was just about to suggest they head back to the camp when Amelia spoke up, and even though she didn’t want to talk about her ordeal, Constance felt a sense of relief, knowing it was only a matter of time.
“What did he do?” Amelia asked.
Constance had already decided she wasn’t gonna get into it, but there was something about Amelia that was easy to trust. She turned her head to look her dead in the eye. “He did everything you hope never happens to you,” she said, and just left it at that. Amelia took her hand and held it. “I guess he was always disturbed,” Constance said. “I was just too clueless to see it.”
“It’s not your fault, honey.” Amelia squeezed her hand. “But you’re free of him now.”
Constance started to cry. She couldn’t help herself. “I don’t know if I’ll ever be free of him,” she said, and let her head rest on Amelia’s shoulder when she pulled her in for a hug.
After a while, the sounds of good times rolling in the distance got louder, and someone—Tommy, it sounded like maybe—screamed out, “Kick out the jams, motherfucker!”—followed by an awful crash of dissonant noise from every instrument in the Bandits’ camp. Accordion, fiddle, the ping of a triangle, augmented with yells and hollers—a disorganized racket that continued for maybe thirty seconds or so and then fell silent for a few seconds before a single, low rhythm on the fiddle emerged slowly. It went on for a while, just a single note like a metronome . . . bomp, bomp, bomp, bomp . . . until someone came in with a triangle . . . bomp, bomp, bomp-ting, bomp, bomp, bomp-ting, bomp . . . and then the band was off.
“I think that’s our cue,” Amelia said. “Let’s go get a beer and dance.” She slid off the hood of her car and waited for Constance. Then the two of them skipped off through the grass like schoolgirls without a care in the world, both of them in that moment working hard to convince themselves it was true.
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