Evangeline

    From an e-mail Doug wrote to his brother:

    Rat tales--thinking of the widow's walk, I should insert a story I haven't yet stapled to the Website, from down in Mississippi.

    We were driving along, looking for the river. (Big river, yeah, lots of water--seen it? Oh, heading that way? Terrific.) They have this big levee between you and the river. As it happens you can drive along the top of the levee.

    I've got this bubba image in mind of guys who'll shoot you for trespassing, guys who say words like "thirty-ought-six" and "strip and clean" all the time, but it turns out, at least from the people we chat with, that everybody down here is quite friendly, unsuspicious, and pretty unlikely to pull down anything double-barreled from a gun rack in the back of the cab and rehearse the phrase "Squeal like a pig."

    We climbed up on top of the levee, behind a post office, but there was no river on the other side, just a wooded area protected by a second levee, further over. So some guy in a drugstore told us how we could get to a better vantage to watch Big Muddy from.

    We headed up the road a ways and came to another one of those No Trespassing signs (but on the other side, it didn't say nothin'!), crossed a little railroad track or something and drove up a driveway onto an embankment. From here there was a dirt road that curved down under some trees where the river possibly was, and there was another road that headed off into a big loading area, and there was a middle road that steered up onto the back of a little mound, maybe a hundred yards long. Being a Taoist, I took the middle way.

    There were two people (and two cars) on the big mound. We parked the car a little ways from them and got out. "Let's ask them if we can go down to the river," I suggested. They were looking at us kinda funny. A man and a woman. There was no going back now. I switched the car off, opened the door and got out. The sun was heading downward in the sky.

    "Howdy!" I started, as I crunched along the gravel toward them. "We're not from around here." I figured go with the obvious.

    The guy laughed, a friendly laugh, and I knew we were going to be okay. "We were worried you were going to drive all the way over here," he said. "That would have scared away the cats." He gestured. The woman was feeding cats.

    "They're wild cats," she explained, in a low Southern voice. "I'm trying to get them to be more tame."

    We were standing on what we could see from here was an old piece of levee. It dead-ended a little ways up from us, sloping down into a yard filled with equipment, some old and rusty. The big yard we could have driven into belonged to a barge-loading station, so we were right at the river, could see it fine from where we were, even as far as Arkansas, on the other side, in the fading light.

    The woman was in a long black coat, loosish, that flapped a little in the evening gusts; a cowl hung down her back. Her hair was long, raven, a little wavy; her eyes were rimmed with kohl, or maybe it just seemed that way because they were so intense, black buttons peering right at you. It would have been hard to guess her age, but easy to still call her beautiful. Maybe the lines of a hard life hadn't dimmed her glow.

    We talked a little about the area, once they found what we were up there for. Ken and Alex got out of the car and came and chatted too, Ken more than Alex. The Civil War had been through here, more than a hundred years ago, and someone back in town had told us that there was a house along the river somewhere that still had a cannonball in it that had been fired by a Union gunboat on the river. "Yeah, that's my house," the river woman volunteered. "It's the only house in town still standing since then."

    The guy, who worked at the loading yard, affirmed what she said. They described the house together. We talked a little about the war, and it says something about our time that neither the Yankees nor the Southerners knew much about the battles that had raged through here, nor cared too much either. I had some vague notion that there had been a big siege of Vicksburg, further south from there, but that was the most any one of us knew. Except of course the house with the cannonball. "It's a big house," he said. "Real nice place."

    "Yeah," she said, "It's got a--one of those--what do you call those things up on the roof where there's a little railing and a--"

    "A widow's walk?" I suggested.

    "Yeah--that's it. It's got a widow's walk."

    I think Ken and I were both picking up on the vibe by now, though I don't know if anyone else was in on the joke. She was exactly the kind of woman who makes you believe in Southern voodoo, in ghosts and black magic and Southern plantation daughters who marry riverboat captains who never return, in old spirits left over from days when only the Indians lived here, when they built the mysterious mounds that dot the region. Burial sites? Hallowed ground?

    Maybe it was just the time of dusk, or maybe it was those kohl-rimmed eyes, but something about her said she knew more, that she was a siren who could bewitch you and take you home, and she'd go on living here long after you were gone, because she'd lived her since forever, the river's daughter really, not so different from Nausicaa, except the continent--she'd watched the thick undergrowth cleared, seen the cotton come and go, watched the riverboat gamblers and the TVA men, had a lover maybe in the Confederate army; she'd seen the last panthers disappear and watched the French and the Spanish explorers, and maybe they'd known her as an Indian princess then.

    And now she was here on the banks of the mighty Mississippi, taming her wild black cats, eyes glowing in the dusk.

    Talking to us.

    So it made perfect sense that her house would have a widow's walk. We had a good chuckle over it in the car on the way into town. Evangeline, the Mississippi Queen, in The Last Waltz.

    They were very friendly; showed us how to get to the river, and we did, down by the spooky branches and brambles, saw an old Confederate gunboat half-buried in the mud (okay, so it was a bright orange and white child's bath toy, but it was a boat), and then when we came back up to the levee, he even offered to take us around to the back end of the company's lot, past grain silos and piles of something we couldn't identify in the gloom, to an even better river overlook. Alex chided me later because "You didn't need to shake hands with him four times," but he was really wonderful and happy to help us. (He was probably in his fifties, had moved down there from Kansas City, very affable.)

    So of course that whole image is fiction. In fact, when we left--after it had gone completely dark--the guy was nice enough to let us follow his taillights into town. Which we never would have found otherwise. No, we would have been stuck out there in the Mississippi Delta night, with nary a guidepost to help us navigate across the river bottoms.

    And of course it helped that we were in Robert Johnson land, where crossroads and devils are part of the architecture. And there were a fair number of comments in our car about how we'd surprised them in a secret tryst up there on the levee, and he was going to lead us out into the middle of nowhere and kill us. We've all seen Mississippi Burning, right? There's such a rich mythology down there.

    But it was an experience to remember, even if it was a complete fabrication.

    Anyhow, that's one that hasn't made it onto the Website yet. One of these days, when I get around to updating . . .

    Oh, and it turns out that where we were, Friar's Point, actually was a key grouping area for the Union Army when they were trying to break Mississippi. They came down the river to about there, making occasional forays further south, and they came up the river from New Orleans to put the pinch on Vicksburg. From Friar's Point, and from across the river in Arkansas, the Union armies marched out through the rest of Mississippi to try and draw the Southern army away from Vicksburg.

    But I learned all that after the trip.

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