Hello Lovely Readers!!
As promised, I am honored and proud to present my first novel, “Beneath the Willows” for your reading enjoyment. It’s been revised to the point of presentation, yet has NOT been professionally edited. Therefore, if you find a typo, or misplaced word…. well, that’s the way it is. Comments are welcomed and encouraged, an please LIKE and Share with others. Tales are meant to be shared, and I hope you find this one worthy of such an endeavor.
Beneath the Willows was inspired by an envelope, a family artifact left over from a passed down, now lost stamp collection I once had in my possession. The physical address simply states, “The Willows – Port Gibson, Mississippi.”
The Louisiana portion comes from the father’s side of the family, where a strong French connection with New Orleans continues from the 1700’s until this very day. Laiche` is my grandmothers maiden name, and while I’d always know it, I never realized the depth until doing research with Ancestry.
Finally, while family names are used in this story, this is a work of complete fiction, and all references to said families are fantasy and not to be considered real. Where possible, I used historically accurate places and people not associated with the characters. Also, this work is protected by Copyright © 2016 by Stephen R. Gann. No portion of this story may be used without the expressed, written consent by myself, the author.
Madame Olympe, for instance, was a real shop keeper in New Orleans, selling hats (chapeaux) to the wealthy elite of the city. I give credit for this information (and many of the historical references and dialect) to the book, “Social Life in Old New Orleans, Being Recollections of my Girlhood: Ripley, Eliza Moore Chinn McHatton, 1832-1912.”
There are many people I wish to thank and express gratitude for helping to bring this story into our reality, so I’ll simply say THANK YOU to everyone all at once. You know who you are, and when this book is officially published, I’ll put your names in the credits.
This book is dedicated to my son, Carson. You dared me to walk the walk, do as I preached and write a book. Without your challenge, I would have never felt inspired to complete this novel. Thank you.
Therefore, without further adieu, I present:
BENEATH THE WILLOWS – A Historical Romance by Stephen R. Gann
Beside still, dark waters of a lily pad pond, Tomas Laiche hid beneath the Willows. It wasn’t exactly hiding, because everyone knew he was there; more like avoiding the situation into which he’d been tossed. His mother played an important part, pulling him from the freedom he relished running his New Orleans shipping company and back into the plantation life from which he’d fled.
His father was dead, supposedly from heart failure, but Tomas knew better. No one found floating in a backwater bayou died from something so benign. His family plantation was on the brink of bankruptcy, both from bad luck and bad decisions. This left his aging mother to manage the vast holdings alone.
Well, he was about to tether his soul to a Louisiana sugar baron named Bourgeois. And while he might not be hiding, he damned sure was avoiding.
“Marse Tomas?” a woman called out from the direction of the Big House. Less than one hundred yards away, his mammy’s voice boomed as if she were right behind him.
“Damn that woman,” he muttered, leaning forward from the hand-made bench upon which he sat. Lovingly crafted by his father from the fallen boughs of an ancient cypress tree, it had always been his favorite thinking place since he was a child.
An equally ancient Willow tree draped its spindly limbs around Tomas and his bench like yellow-green hair from a wood sprite. Depending upon the season, the locks either sheltered the chair in cool, delightful shade, or highlighted it with colorful ribbons of leafy, free-spirited fronds.
He bent over and dug a moist, year-blackened pecan from the spongy soil beneath his feet. Rolling the nut in his hand, he tossed it toward the closest lily pad. It thumped and slid across the pads green surface, plopping into the water at the end of its journey.
The pond reflected truth, revealing the bench and Willow for what they were: a requirement of each, one defining the other; shared sentiments of both the bench and the Willow. Rarely clear enough to see into the depths, the pond waters soothed its visitors with soft ripples, croaking frogs and the occasional plopping splash of a hungry fish.
Azaleas, clematis, monkey grass and rushes enveloped the pond, holding it close like a protective mother. Three pecan trees draped their arching limbs over the water’s edge, dipping the trailing tips of Spanish moss into the darkened waters.
“Marse Tomas!” The voice was closer. “I knows you in there!”
Above it all was the song of the Cicada. An effervescent composition of buzzing – rising to a crescendo, then softening into silence. At times, the winds through the Willow branches was all that was heard, filling the pond with feelings of place and purpose. Then there would be silence, and all was quiet; only the shimmering of willow leaves – certainly not the bellowing of Mammies.
“I’m not coming out, May,” he said, calling back over his shoulder toward the approaching housekeeper.
“And I’m not hiding!” He pushed reddish brown bangs from the front of his eyes and tucked them under the brim of his gray, felt planters hat.
The willow branches rustled as May pushed her large body through, taking up position behind and to the side of Tomas. She crossed her arms across her white ruffled blouse and scowled.
“I ain’t never said you was.”
“Sure sounded like it,” Tomas said. He picked up another pecan lying at the toe of his black riding boots. He heaved the nut toward the farthest lily pad and missed – finding one of the dozen or so red-blossomed azaleas surrounding the pond. Two mockingbirds burst from the bush, crackling in protest as they sought shelter in a nearby tree.
“Them’s your words, not mine,” May said, watching the birds fly toward freedom.
Tomas shrugged and leaned back against the fan-shaped spokes of the cypress bench – feeling the hard, aged wood press against his spine. Nestled beneath the umbrella-like cascade of Willow fronds, the bench provided Tomas a perfect view of the oasis spread before him.
“Sides, Miss Mammie’s fit to be tied,” she said, shaking her head. Multi-colored beads dangling from her dark blue, turban-like tignon clicked together like rattling dice.
“You supposed to be dressed for Miss Marg’rite’s arrival.” She placed her hands on her hips, forcing her ankle-length blue skirt to billow outwards. Tomas grunted.
“Why you lurkin’ like some scared child? Ain’t like she gone bite-cha.”
“She might,” Tomas said, tossing another nut. The Pecan trees scattered around the plantation created a never ending supply for the squirrels, who deposited them in the grass beneath the bench.
“Besides,” he continued. “Who said I wanted to see Marguerite, anyway? Don’t I have a choice in the matter?”
He heard the beads rattle again, as the massive May shook her head. “Nope,” she stated. “You ain’t got no say atall, Marse Tomas. If Miss Mammie’s invited em, you gone be there.”
The rhythmic buzzing of Cicada’s filled the trees, urgently building, then fading into quiet. Tomas imagined the winged locusts descending upon May and carrying her off, perhaps dropping her into the nearby Mississippi River.
Faint hope in that happening, he thought. They’re probably scared of her, too. That made him laugh
He turned, scowling at the Negro housekeeper. She’d earned her freedom almost ten years ago, yet ever since he was a little boy, she’d ruled over him like HE was the slave and she the master. Well, mothered was more truthful. She treated Tomas like he was her own.
“May,” he said. “I’m twenty-nine-years old. One might think I could choose what I did with my life without being told.”
“What gaves you that idea?” She chuckled. “Since Marse Francois up an died, you ain’t got no choice.”
“You gotsta do whats good for tha Willows.”
Tomas sighed and looked toward an algae-stained marble statue across the small pond. Tucked between two blossoming azalea bushes, the stone boy held a tipped bucket streaming water into a marble, birdbath basin. Red petals from fallen blossoms floated in the water, bobbing over ripples formed by the tiny waterfall.
“I reckon,” he said, seeing his life trickle away like the bucket’s water. “That doesn’t mean I have to like it.”
How does it refill? He ran his fingers through his reddish brown bangs, lifting his wide brimmed hat as he did. He’d come to the pond for as long as he could remember, and not once had he asked that question of the fountain.
“Now I don’t blames ya,” May said. “The Willows ain’t New Orleans.” She brightened.
“But miss Marg’rite? She’s a gorgeous girl. All the folks say so.”
“She’s a witch,” Tomas said, turning to toss his final pecan. He aimed for the farthest pad and missed, landing it next to a partially submerged turtle, who ducked and swam into the depths of the pond. “I’m sure she hasn’t changed since the last time.”
“I don’t know ‘bout dat” May said, shaking her head, eyes watching where the pecan landed. “But your momma’s right fond of her.” May nodded. “Says she’s a God-fearin woman.”
“I’m sure it’s the other way around,” Tomas said, muttering under his breath.
May frowned and crossed her arms. “Now I ain’t gone hear no more lip from you, Marse Tomas.”
“You get yourself up to tha house and get ready, you hear me?”
Tomas grinned, his eyes twinkling like he’d heard a joke that no one else had. He stood and wiped his hands on the bright, green pantaloons he wore tucked into knee-high, black leather boots.
“Yes’um, massah,” he said, dipping his head like one of the field hands cutting sugar cane. “I’za be a comin right now!”
“Don’t you be sassin’ me, Tomas Jacques Laiche!” May said, her scowl growing deeper along with her voice. He knew that tone well, and when he was younger, it’d been followed by a switch across his backside.
“Go on, now,” she said, pointing a thick, dark finger toward the house. “Get!”
Tomas scurried from the lily pad pond as if he’d been swatted, bursting through the branches and hustling toward the house. Looking over his shoulder, he slowed to a walk. Straightening his dark green, knee-length planter’s coat, he brushed away any leaves that might have clung on his escape.
With a final adjustment to his gray hat, he tucked his bangs beneath the brim, smiled, shook his shoulders and sauntered toward the house.
He was ready.
He’d walked the path to the Big House from the grove so often, he no longer saw the beauty that made up the manicured grounds of the Willows Plantation. Having grown up here, the beauty was now background scenery, nothing more.
He didn’t see the fourteen billowing Willow trees guarding the grassy carriage path flowing from the river to the mansion’s front stairway. Groundskeepers kept the streaming limbs over the path cut high, so as to create a leafy-green tunnel which whispered shimmering welcomes when breezes rustled through the dancing fronds.
He didn’t see the white, Greek Revival mansion rising from the lawn. Three stories were supported by thick, round columns standing atop the roman-arched, brick wall of the first floor. Rose vines clambered up wooden trellises placed between the arches, coloring the foundation in shades of pink and red. A near perfect square, the house stood like a sparkling gem atop a field of floral green.
He didn’t see the four triangular dormers perched atop the gray slate roof, their green shuttered windows gazing toward the river – winking at riverboats steaming along the Mississippi’s tan, muddy waters.
Tomas noticed none of this these days.
What he did see, was his mother waiting at the top of the sweeping stairway. Her hands pressed firm against her slender waist, forcing her frilly, dark green hoop dress to swirl over the veranda like a French parasol.
A coachman in full green and white livery of the house waited at the base of the stairway, observing Tomas’s approach. Tomas stopped next to the Negro servant and glanced up at his glaring mother.
“How angry is she, Jim?” Tomas asked without looking at the servant. “Dare I venture upwards?”
“If you value your life you will, Marse Tomas,” Jim said, his eyes darting between Tomas and his mother. Tomas nodded, chuckling quietly before making the ascension.
“Glad it ain’t me,” Jim muttered.
Tomas stopped halfway and cocked his head at the comment. Smirking and shaking his head, he completed the climb to his glaring mother.
As Tomas arrived at the veranda, she tilted her head, eyes sweeping toward the distant levee.
“Good morning,” he said, bending down and kissing her on the now exposed cheek. “I hope the day finds you well?”
She pursed her lips and lifted her eyes to Tomas, though not until she offered a slight smile from her only son’s kiss.
“Finds me well?” she said, her tone saying the kiss did nothing to staunch her annoyance. “How well do you THINK I am, Tomas Jacques Laiche?!”
The second time his full name had been used. Was the entire household angry with him? He inspected the wooden decking of the veranda, noting two of the boards were beginning to lift.
“The entire Bourgeois family is coming for lunch,” she said. “Including that lovely daughter of theirs, and you go off to hide.”
Tomas grimaced, wincing at her biting tone. “I wasn’t hiding,” Tomas said, though not as powerfully as he would have liked.
He caught a glimpse of a doorman’s widened eyes. The man looked away when Tomas challenged his look.
“I had to think,” Tomas said, feeling as if he were twelve years old. Her looks were one thing, but the tone of her voice sunk him to childhood in an instant.
“Hopefully about your place at the Willows,” she said, her tone growing more intense; if that were possible. “You spend all of your time in New Orleans while the heart of what your father and I built is wilting away.” She sniffed, as the corners of her eyes filled with moisture.
“Ever since Francois passed, God rest his soul,” she said, crossing herself. “You’ve avoided me like I had the yellow fever.” Moisture turned to tears.
“Even when you DO come to visit, you hide away in some remote part of the property; thinking as you call it.”
Tomas met his mother’s eyes, feeling her anguish wash over him. A ploy to tug at my heart, he thought to himself. She was quite adept at it, and if she intended to make him feel guilty, it was working.
“Do you hate me that much, Tomas?”
Tears turned into all out sobs, and the French powders she used to color her face began running in drizzling streaks of black.
“Oh, mother,” Tomas said, pulling her dainty frame against his chest, her head resting just beneath his chin. Tomas wasn’t a massive man, standing just under five foot six inches. His mother, though, was much smaller at four foot eleven. She was like a child to him, though in stature only – especially now.
“It’s okay,” he said, patting the top of her head. “It’s okay. I’m here. I’ll be ready for their arrival.” She sniffed and nodded, glancing up with water-filled eyes.
“Thank you,” she sniffled. “I’m so glad. You’ve no idea how difficult it’s been with your father gone.” She sniffed three times, as if trying to stop the rain.
Pulling away, she gazed into his eyes as his hands rested atop her shoulders.
“The Willows is failing, Tomas,” Mammie said, sadness and sincerity filling her face. “I’m getting old, and with the two years of ruined crops, I can’t see it surviving much longer.” He nodded and sighed, cocking his head as she spoke.
“If we don’t keep up, we’ll lose everything we’ve worked so hard to build.”
“I know,” Tomas said.
“Do you?” She said, searching his eyes. “Do you, really?” Tomas looked toward the river, allowing the Willow trees to guide his view. “Your father and I built this plantation from cypress swamps more than thirty years ago.”
“This is our life’s work. You were born here, raised here.” She gently poked his chest, right atop his heart.
“You’re a part of the Willows, Tomas. It’s time you came home.”
“More and more companies are hiring us to ship their goods,” he said, gasping her hands in his as he turned to face her full on.
“We’re not just transporting our own sugar these days” he said. “We’re shipping cotton, timber, textiles. It’s 1853, and the South is blossoming.” He sighed and shook her head.
“We’re positioned to bloom with it, mother.”
“Riley Mac can run the Company,” she stated, shaking free from his grasp. For as far back as he could remember, his mother could change moods faster than a Gulf storm appeared from clear, blue skies.
“I need you here.”
He sighed again and shook his head. He loved the land, yet loved New Orleans more. The vibrancy of the growing city was like a cultural gumbo, filled with flavors, scents and tastes pouring into him like breath itself.
It was a delicate balance he walked, and if not for his father’s death, he’d not have come back to the plantation. For him, the Willows felt like the past, like chaining himself to an old, never-changing ideal. New Orleans was the ocean – open and free, even a little dangerous. It was dynamic.
“I’m here now,” Tomas said, turning his mother toward the door by placing a hand at her waist. “That will have to do.” She nodded.
“I suppose,” she said. She looked at him as they passed through the opened pair of green, cypress-wood doors and into the mansion’s foyer.
“Marguerite’s coming, so look your best for her, dear. She’s always adored you so.”
“Ah, so the truth of the matter comes out,” Tomas said, laughing. “Marry me off to Marguerite so I can be settled down, is that it?”
His mother gasped, as if she’d been caught in a monumental lie. She placed her hand over her heart.
“Why, Tomas!” she said, drawling the words like a young, Georgia Belle. “What-evah do you mean?” Laughing, Tomas kissed her cheek, then left to get changed.