A December Day in Dixie
The train was an hour and a half late. I failed to hear any complaints on that score from the few passengers who disembarked with me at Cypress Junction at 6:30 a.m. and confronted an icy blast that would better have stayed where it came from. But there was Emile Sautier’s saloon just across the tracks, flaunting an alluring sign that offered to hungry wayfarers ham and eggs, fried chicken, oysters and delicious coffee at any hour.
Emile’s young wife was as fat and dirty as a little pig that has slept over time in an untidy sty. Possibly she had slept under the stove; the night must have been cold. She told us Emile had come home “boozy” the night before from town. She told it before his very face and he never said a word – only went ahead pouring coal-oil on the fire that wouldn’t burn. She wore over her calico dress a heavy cloth jacket with huge pearl buttons and enormous puffed sleeves, and a tattered black-white “nubia” twined about her head and shoulders as if she were contemplating a morning walk. It is impossible for me to know what her intentions were. She stood in the doorway with her little dirty, fat, ring-bedecked hands against the frame, seeming to guard the approach to an adjacent apartment in which there was a cooking stove, a bed and other articles of domestic convenience.
“Yas, he come home boozy, Emile, he don’ care, him; dat’s nuttin to him w’at happen’.”
In his indifference to fate, the youth had lost an eye, a summer or two ago, and now he was saving no coal-oil for the lamps.
We were clamoring for coffee. Any one of us was willing to forego the fried chicken, that was huddled outside under a slanting, icy board; or the oysters, that had never got off the train; or the ham that was grunting beneath the house; or the eggs, which were possibly out where the chicken was; but we did want coffee.
Emile made us plenty of it, black as ink, since no one cared for the condensed milk which he offered with the sugar.
We could hear the chattering of a cherub in the next room where the bed and cook stove were. And when the piggish little mother went in to dress it, what delicious prattle of Cadian French! what gurgling and suppressed laughter! One of my companions – there were three of us, two Natchitoches men and myself – one of them related an extraordinary experience which the infant had endured a month or two before. He had fallen into an old unused cistern a great distance from the house. In falling through the arms by some protecting limbs, and thus insecurely sustained he had called and wailed for two hours before help came.
“Yas,” said his mother who had come back into the room, “’is face was black like de stove w’en we fine ‘im. An’ de cistern was all fill’ up wid lizard’ an’ snake’. It was one big snake all curl’ up on de udder en’ de branch, lookin’ at ‘im de whole time.” His little swarthy, rosy moon-face beamed cheerfully at us from over his mother’s shoulder, and his black eyes glittered like a squirrel’s. I wondered how he had lived through those two hours of suffering and terror. But the little children’s world is so unreal, that no doubt it is often difficult for them to distinguish between the life of the imagination and of reality.
The earth was covered with two inches of snow, as white, as dazzling, as soft as northern snow and a hundred times more beautiful. Snow upon and beneath the moss-draped branches of the forests; snow along the bayou’s edges, powdering the low, pointed, thick palmetto growths; white snow and the fields and fields of white cotton bursting from dry bolls. The Natchitoches train sped leisurely through the white, still country, and I longed for some companion to sit beside me who would feel the marvelous and strange beauty of the scene as I did. My neighbor was a gentlemen of too practical a turn.
“Oh! the cotton and the snow!” I almost screamed as the first vision of a white cotton field appeared.
“Yes, the lazy rascals; won’t pick a lock of it; cotton at 4 cts, what’s the use they say.”
“What’s the use,” I agreed. How cold and inky black the negroes looked, standing in the white patches.
“Cotton’s in the fields all along here and down through the bayou Natchez country.”
“Oh! it isn’t earthly – it’s Fairyland!”
“Don’t know what the planters are going to do, unless they turn half the land into pasture and start raising cattle. What you going to do with that Cane river plantation of yours?”
“God knows. I wonder if it looks like this. Do you think they’ve picked the cotton – Do you think one could ever forget-“
Well some kind soul should have warned us not to go into Natchitoches town. The people were all stark mad. The snow had gone to their heads.
“Keep them curtains shut tight,” said the driver of the rumbling old hack. “They don’t know what they about; they jus’ as lief pelt you to death as not.”
The horses plunged in their break neck speed; the driver swore deep under his breath; pim! pam! the missles rained against the protecting curtains; the shrieks and yells outside were demoniac, blood curdling. – There was no court that day – the judges and lawyers were rolling in the snow with the boys and girls. There was no school that day; the professors at the Normal – those from the North-states, were showing off and getting the worst of it. The nuns up on the hill and their little charges were like march hares. Barred doors were no protection if an unguarded window had been forgotten. The sanctity of home and person was a myth to be demolished with pelting, melting, showering, suffocating snow.
But the next day the sun came out and the snow all went away, except where bits of it lay here and there in protected roof angles. The magnolia leaves gleamed and seemed to smile in the sunshine. Hardy rose-vines clinging to old stuccoed pillars plumed themselves and bristled their leaves with satisfaction. And the violets peeped out to see if it was all over.
“Ah! this is a southern day,” I uttered with deep gratification as I leisurely crossed the bridge afoot. A warm, gentle breeze was stirring. On the opposite side, a dear old lady was standing in her dear old doorway waiting for me.