Chapter Twenty - All Saints Day
This chapter contains explicit content.
Breakfast was a tense affair. Even on weekends, Emmanuel was usually gone by the time Caleb was up and dressed, and Caleb was already cranky from staying up too late and eating too many sweets. Having to eat breakfast in the dining room instead of the kitchen, on top of having his grandfather glowering at him from the head of the table, made Caleb turn away from his hot cereal with a mulish set to his mouth.
"You need to eat, peanut," Noel said and sliced open a biscuit to spread with butter and honey. "How about just this?"
Caleb turned away from the biscuit, too.
I gasped in exaggerated shock. "Caleb! You're saying no to Mrs. Bell's biscuits?"
He glowered at me, looking very much like Emmanuel. It was amazing, really, how the strong Thibodeaux features were passed down from father to son -- aside from the dark shade of brown to his hair, it seemed Grace had hardly left her imprint on him at all.
"Eat your breakfast, boy," Emmanuel growled. Noel gave him a look through narrowed eyes, and put the biscuit on Caleb's bread plate.
"You're not going to eat candy all day," he said. "We're all going to the cemetery this morning whether you've eaten breakfast or not, so just eat something healthy. You'll be happier."
Eyebrows still lowered, Caleb picked up the biscuit and took a tiny bite out of it, which he chewed as slowly as he could. Noel sighed but didn't press it.
When our three plates were empty -- and Caleb had eaten two bites of his biscuit and drunk a few sips of milk -- Willie brought out an armful of fresh bouquets, and we all walked through the garden to the path that led to the cemetery. Emmanuel went first, his expression grim and businesslike. Noel went second, a few bouquets tucked in the crook of his arm, his head down. Caleb and I brought up the rear, my slow pace matching his small stride.
Halfway to the cemetery, Caleb took my hand and looked up at me. "It's All Saints Day," I said. "It's the day we honor the people we love who have died."
He stopped walking, the thunderous look he'd been wearing all morning changing to something wary. I stopped too, still holding his hand. "Do you remember Uncle Noel talking to you about this before?" I said gently. "We're going to leave flowers for your mama and daddy, and for your grandma Fabienne, too."
He gave a cautious nod and we resumed walking. His hand clung to mine, and I wondered if he remembered taking this walk the previous March.
We came out of the trees to the family cemetery. The clearing looked serene and welcoming. The day was cool and clear, a sweet sort of autumn that I suspected was particular to the Deep South.
At the head of the path, both Emmanuel and Noel paused, then gave each other a quick glance and went to the different graves without a word.
I hesitated too, uncertain if I should intrude on Noel mourning his brother -- but then I felt how Caleb's hand trembled in mine, and said, "I'll walk with you, little man," and took him to his parents' graves.
Noel was still holding the bouquets, and he turned abruptly when he heard Caleb and I approach. "Hey, peanut," he said and hastily wiped his face with the heel of his hand. "Want to lay the flowers?"
Caleb nodded and let go of my hand, and carefully took the first bouquet that Noel handed to him. He hesitated and looked up at Noel.
"Whoever you want to give flowers first," Noel said gently. "Mommy or Daddy."
Caleb hesitated, then lay the flowers on his mother's side of the grave. Noel gave him the other bouquet and Caleb lay it on his father's. His shoulders hitched and he covered his face with his hands.
"Oh, peanut," Noel whispered and knelt beside him on the grass. "It's okay, Caleb. It's okay. I know you miss them. It's okay." He held Caleb tight, and Caleb wrapped his arms around Noel's neck.
It seemed like offering comfort would only be intruding, so I moved away and followed the path to look at the other graves. Closest to Simon and Grace's grave, of course, was Fabienne's, so I went past it, not wanting to disturb Emmanuel, and went instead to the ornate tomb at the furthest reach of the cemetery.
It belonged, of course, to Charlotte and Achille Thibodeaux. I knew their names and dates, but they seemed to be even more real and tragic to me now. Poor mad Charlotte, her story hushed up so she could be buried in sacred ground. I even felt for Achille, who apparently had been so traumatized by the death of his wife that he never married again, in an age when a second or third wife was more common than merely one.
Their names were cast into brass plates that had been attached to the wall of the tomb, the lettering faint from time and age. What I did not expect to find was a third name carved straight into the stone between them, simple and small: Michel Thibodeaux, August 18, 1740.
One date. A familiar one, matching the birth date of Achille's son, Maxim.
The story of Charlotte made more sense than it had before -- twins were not new to the Thibodeaux family with Noel and Simon, but while this time their mother had survived, one of the twins had not. Quite likely, it was part of what had driven Charlotte mad.
"I'm sorry, little fella," I murmured as I lightly touched the stone between Michel's name. I touched Charlotte's name plate, too. "And I'm sorry about you. I wish I knew how to help you be at peace." I glanced around, expecting to see a gray-faced figure standing beside me, but the cemetery’s occupants at rest.
Noel was talking gently to Caleb, so I began the walk back to them, but paused at Fabienne's grave where Emmanuel still stood. He had laid his bouquet on the flat, low tomb, but didn't seem to find any comfort in the gesture as he stood there, his hands shoved in his trouser pockets.
Emmanuel finally noticed me, cleared his throat, and said gruffly, "I expect you find this superstitious and absurd."
"I find it touching," I said.
He cleared his throat in response.
I said, "You must miss her very much."
"She was a silly little chit of a thing," he said. "I should have known she couldn't handle childbirth."
I kept my mouth closed and looked at the square headstone. Fabienne Leclerc Thibodeaux, it read, 1898-1918. Another familiar name and date from the family Bible.
To fill the silence, I said, "Noel is named for being a Christmas baby, of course. Is Simon named after someone?"
"My best friend when I was a boy," Emmanuel said. "He died at Amiens."
"I'm sorry," I said.
"It was war," he said. "We sacrificed ourselves for a greater good, something you of all people should understand."
"Right," I said, not wanting to get into it.
"That boy is going to turn my grandson into a fairy just like him," Emmanuel said and turned toward Grace and Simon's tomb.
Before he could take another step, I said, "Mr. Thibodeaux, leave them alone. They've lost the people they love most. It hasn't even been a year yet. They're allowed to grieve."
He narrowed his eyes at me.
"Grief is normal," I said. "It's hard as hell, sure, but it's part of living. Let yourself do it. It might make you feel better."
"I'm fine," he growled.
We glared at each other. There were a lot of things I wanted to say -- to tell him off for being a terrible father and taking out his grief on Noel, just to begin with -- but I was not entirely without sympathy, either. I said, "You've lost your son. You're allowed to mourn him, too."
"Fuck you, Carmichael," Emmanuel said, turning on his heel. I was glad to see that instead of disturbing Caleb and Noel, like I feared he would, he swept up the path back to the house like he couldn't be bothered with any of us.
I exhaled and went back to Noel and Caleb, who were now sitting on the flat top of Simon's grave, Caleb on Noel's knee. Caleb had wept himself out, and his head rested on Noel's chest as Noel stroked his cheek and his hair.
"Malcolm," Noel said when he saw me.
"How are we doing?" I said and searched for a pocket-handkerchief to wipe Caleb's tear-streaked face. I came up with a blunt pencil, my pocket-sketchbook, and my lighter. Noel gave me a slight smile and used his own handkerchief to clean Caleb up instead.
"We'll be all right," he said as Caleb blew his nose. "Ready to go back to the house?" Caleb held tighter to Noel, and Noel rubbed his back. "Maybe in a few minutes."
I nodded and moved down the tomb so I could see the headstones: Simon Christopher Thibodeaux, December 25, 1918, through March 10, 1951; and Grace Upshaw Thibodeaux, November 6, 1918, through March 10, 1951. They had both been so young, just like so many of the other graves here -- so many of the Thibodeaux brides had been just in their twenties, and the men --
I frowned, looking out at the tombs. If I understood the size and shapes, even as fashions changed, every one of them held only two people save for Charlotte, Achille, and their baby. Thibodeaux wives died young, I knew, but I hadn't comprended before that not one of the Thibodeaux husbands married again in their long, and apparently lonely, lives.
The curse. No matter how real it was or wasn't, the Thibodeaux men had believed it, and hadn't endangered another woman by publicly declaring their love. Even Emmanuel, for all his gruffness, hadn't sought out another wife.
He must have believed it, too.
I stowed this thought away to bring it up later with Noel, and lowered myself to the grave, too. I took out my sketchbook and pencil, and drew a quick sketch of the cemetery -- the iron fence, the sugar cane fields beyond, the flat Creole-style tombs -- until Caleb got up from Noel's knee and joined me, curious to see what I was drawing.
"It's so pretty here," I said. "I want to remember it when I'm far away."
He looked up at me, lips trembling again, and I said, "But that won't happen for a long time, little man. Not until you don't need me anymore."
Noel looked away at that. "We should go back."
"All right." I put my sketchbook away and when I got to my feet, Caleb took both our hands, and the three of us walked back to the house.
Mrs. Bell was in the vestibule when we returned from the cemetery, disguising her worry with dusting picture frames. "How are you, sugar?" she said as she ran her hand through Caleb's hair, and he put his arms around her waist and held her tight.
"A little overwhelmed," Noel said. “I think a mid-morning nap would do him well.”
Caleb scowled but yawned, and Mrs. Bell said, "How about you and I finish your breakfast first? I could fry up the leftover grits with some bacon." He accepted that and held up his arms, so she picked him up and took him to the kitchen.
I asked Noel, "Are you going into the city today?"
"Not today," Noel said. "Everything's closed but the cemeteries."
"Want to come on an adventure with me?"
He arched an eyebrow at me, but said, "Sure, all right." I got the spare keys to the pickup truck and we left the house. The Packard was gone from the carriage house -- Emmanuel must have sought his comfort about the day elsewhere. I hoped he was seeking comfort somewhere, anyway.
"Where are we going?" Noel said as I drove to the bayou road.
"This is going to sound strange," I said, "but I want to visit the slave cemetery."
"That's not strange." He looked out the window, and then said, "The school wants to make it into an historical landmark."
"Have you told Emmanuel?"
"Yes. He snorted and said it's their land to do with as they please." He tapped his fingers on his knee. "What are you hoping to see?"
"I don't know," I said. "I had a dream last night that I can't shake, and I feel like the cemetery will tell me something." He was still looking at me, so I added, "To explain it."
"If you want someone to psychoanalyze you, I'm sure Caleb's therapist can make some recommendations."
"I don't mean like that. It was too -- dreams only make sense when you're dreaming. This dream felt like a memory."
Noel studied me. "And you think the slave cemetery will have some answers."
"I hope so." We were deep in the woods now, the oaks and cypresses thick enough to make the mid-morning light muted and soft. I said, "Why is the slave cemetery so far away from the family one? Is that typical?"
"The slave cabins were near it," Noel said. "I assume the cemetery was built where the families could reach them easily. Why? Do you think it was something else?"
"I don't know," I said again. "Maybe. Or there were more reasons -- would the families have made the bottle-tree, for instance? Would they want to trap the spirits of their loved ones, or protect them?"
Noel frowned as he thought that over. "Malcolm? Did you see something in the bottles?"
"No," I said. "They were just bottles, as far as I could tell."
Noel frowned more and watched the road go by.
I found the faint, carved arrow that pointed to the cemetery road, and crawled the pickup truck down the increasingly narrow track until we reached the gateway stones. I parked the truck and turned off the engine.
We sat in silence. The meadow was quiet except for the soft clink from the bottle-tree.
I got out of the truck and through the gateway stones. "They used to grow sugar cane down here."
"Right up to the bayou," Noel said. He swung down from the truck, too. "They used every inch of land they could. We've still got old maps of the plantation somewhere."
I looked down the track at the way we had come. The trees were bigger now, of course, and the woods had gone wild, but I had seen this very road in my dream. I had seen Achille ride down this, taking my child away.
I said to Noel, "I dreamed I was a Negro woman with a little house right here. I had given birth to Achille's son, and when Achille came to see him he took the child with him."
Noel's face was serious. "Why would you dream something like that?"
"I don't know." I didn't know enough. I felt like I didn't know anything.
"Achille only had one son."
"Two," I said. "Maxim, your great-great-et cetera grandfather -- and his twin, Michel, who died at birth. His name is on the tomb with Charlotte and Achille."
"Fine," Noel said, "two sons, one of whom lived to adulthood. I know some of my other ancestors had quadroon or octaroon mistresses. Wealthy Creole young men often did. The children were acknowledged and their fathers paid for their upbringing, but they weren't taken away from their mothers."
"And they died out, too. They were those branches you told me about."
"Yes." He came to me and put a hand on my arm. "Malcolm, there's no house. There's never been a house out here."
I wanted to shake off his arm -- I was irritated in a way that felt hopeless to me, like knowing a truth you can neither explain nor prove. I said, "Something terrible happened here. It left its sorrow behind."
"Did you sleep at all last night?"
"Yes!" I snapped. "Enough to have that dream and I just want it to make sense!"
Noel held out his hand. "Give me the keys." Without argument, I put them in his hand. He put them in his pocket. His tone was gentle as he said, "You know this road. You've been here before. Of course it showed up in your dream. What it all means, I couldn't say, but your emotions have been high since last night and I think that affected your dreams."
"Rene once said old families have closets full of skeletons."
"We do," Noel said. "Plantation owners did terrible things. It’a a fact I’ve had to deal with all of my life." I don't know if it was the look on my face or the way my body trembled, but something made Noel put his arms around me and pull me to him. He pressed his lips to my hair. "Don't let it consume you, Malcolm. Don't become obsessed. I need you to be strong for Caleb. I need you to -- to be my friend."
"I'm your friend," I said, "I'll always be your friend," and my mouth found his.
Noel pulled away first. He held me at arm's length, the shoulders of my shirt bunched in his hands, his eyes wide and his brows furrowed and the color high in his cheeks.
I said, "I'm sorry, I know I shouldn't--"
Noel pushed me against the truck and when he kissed me, I didn't stop him.
Between kisses Noel whispered fiercely, "Don’t leave us. I need you. Don't leave."
"I won't." I pulled him tighter against me. "Not until you tell me to go."
"I won't," he said, "I won't," and we kissed again -- made even more desperate, I suspect, by the stolen kisses we'd had the night before. Everything that was fierce and possessive within me rose up and made itself known in my hands and mouth, and he kissed me back like it was all he wanted, all he had ever wanted, all he could ever want.
Again we pulled back from each other, but not far. Breathing hard, our hands shaking, we both smiled when our eyes met. Noel opened the door to the truck's cab and we both climbed inside.
I couldn't kiss him enough -- not his soft mouth, not his glorious body as he pulled off his button-down shirt -- and I couldn't stop smiling, either, as he knelt above me and I touched him. There were small scars of various age scattered over his skin, and I kissed them, as tenderly as I kissed the heartbeat I felt pounding in his chest and the trembling of his stomach.
We had more room to move in the truck than we'd had in the Jaguar, and so we lay down together easily, his body on top of mine, kissing and kissing until he whispered, "Does this hurt?"
"This doesn't hurt." Or at least, the usual ache receded in the face of This is Noel kissing me, Noel touching me. "Nothing hurts."
"Good," he whispered, "good," and unzipped my trousers. My hips arched up as he pushed down my trousers, and then he paused. He touched my bad hip, mapping out the scars with his fingertips.
I watched him, my chest still rapidly rising and falling, and I said, "We've both been through the shit. You know that."
"Yeah," he said, "I know." Not one for a lot of words when they weren't needed, he stooped again and kissed me, and wrapped his hand around my cock. I cried out, my lips open against his mouth, and he stroked me and teased me with kisses until I was rocking under him. I reached for him, desperate for his shaft in my fingers, and he arched up his hips with a soft, laughing, "Uh-uh."
"Bastard," I said and pulled our hips together, hard enough to make the air escape him with an, "Oof!" Ah, there it was -- a hard cock for me to rub with my palm as he shuddered against my chest.
"Malcolm," he gasped, "Malcolm," and knelt up enough to get his trousers low enough to be out of the way, so he could push his cock into the groove of my thigh. We found the right angle where he could push and I could pull, kissing, hard and soft and stealing each other's breath.
The cab of the truck was already warm from the afternoon sun, and only grew hotter as we jostled and gasped. Noel took his mouth away from mine, smiling faintly when I whined and tried to tug him back, and reached over my head so he could roll down the window and let in some air.
There was something about it all -- the gesture, the look on his face, the welcome weight of his body -- that made me pull him down and whisper against his mouth, "There's nobody like you, Noel Thibodeaux. Nobody."
Noel made a shivery sort of laugh, like it was startled out of him, and looked at me with eyes wide and full. He touched my cheek and kissed me, and made soft, throaty sounds as he pushed against me, his path made slick by sweat and spit and the liquid that beaded from both our cocks.
I could see the sweat dripping down Noel's face, the fine texture of his skin and every one of his thick, dark lashes. I could kiss underneath his jaw with my eyes open and see the way it made him squirm.
It was like being a kid again, frantically rutting against each other like this. Unlike when I was a kid, though, I knew exactly what I wanted and how to get it. I wrapped a hand around his cock and he pushed into my fist with a surprised grunt, and pressed one hand against the door for leverage. He gasped my name in a shuddering voice, his breath hot against my lips, and his soft sounds of release were all I could hear except for the watery sounds of the bayou.
I sacrificed my undershirt to clean up the mess from our stomachs and tossed it, balled-up, into the little space behind the seat. Noel lay on top of me -- already tensing, like any moment of happiness made him look over his shoulder, and I wrapped myself around him. "Hey. Relax for a few minutes."
He sighed but relaxed in my arms. I combed my fingers through his hair and drifted.
I don't know how much time passed before Noel said, his lips against my throat, "You know, I used to have a house of my own, right in the Quarter. Tiny little place. A hundred and fifty years old, one bedroom, one step above a shotgun shack. Everything was always breaking. But it was mine and I loved it. I could close the shutters and tune out everything, all the noise from the neighborhood, all the lights from the street, and just enjoy the silence. I liked my silence."
I didn't know how to respond to that, so I just went on playing with his hair. It was soft at the back of his neck, and his skin was dewy.
After a moment or two of him stroking my chest, he said, "We should get back," and pushed himself up. I pulled over my legs and righted myself as he did the same, and he got behind the steering wheel. He started the engine and turned the truck so it faced the road back to Fidele, his arm over the back of the seat.
I said, "You were going to say something last night, before Rene interrupted."
Noel didn't answer for a moment, concentrating on the road. "It's not important now."
"Tell me anyway."
He cleared his throat and shifted gears.
All right. He could keep his secrets. But the little story he had told me felt like something he had offered in exchange for something I had yet to give, and I wanted to give him -- something.
We were already back at Fidele when I realized this, pulling into the carriage house. Noel turned off the engine. We both sat there for a minute or two, looking out the doors at the big house.
I said, "I never cared much for silence. Big family, you know. Slamming doors, people calling back and forth. Music. Silence makes me feel like something's missing. But I like being quiet with you."
He smiled to himself, fidgeting with the keys.
I said, "So you need me, huh?"
"Shut up," he said, the smile still lurking on his lips, and reached over to give my head a gentle shove. I laughed, too happy not to.
>> Chapter Twenty-one