Shopping At Maison Blanche

Copyright 2005 by Bill Branley

(Note: This story originally appeared in SOUTHERN REVIVAL: Deep Magic For Hurricane Relief, 2005, edited by Tamara Sellman)

Miss Marie waited in the front yard for Gerard. There was no shade, so she spread her lace handkerchief over her eyes to get some relief from the sun. It was a fierce heat that had built up gradually, starting the day after the storm with ghostly columns of steam rising from every surface. Then the streets dried, the mud cracked up like pieces of a puzzle, and the yard turned to a fine powder that formed little clouds in the air at the slightest movement. Even by Louisiana standards it was hot; she couldn’t remember it ever being so hot. She carefully adjusted the white handkerchief so it covered her face. The filtered light came through and backlit her initials, M.P., for Marie Patine, embroidered into one corner in fancy script. She remembered getting the handkerchief, a gift for her First Communion sixty-two years ago. She rode the streetcar with her mother and shopped for the first time at Maison Blanche.

Where’s that Gerard? She sighed. My, he was a difficult nephew. Before the storm he had the nerve to insist that she ride to Baton Rouge with him. Who ever heard of going all the way to Baton Rouge to sit out a hurricane? 

“I was born in this house sixty-nine years ago and I haven’t left for no storm and I don’t intend to start,” she had told him on the phone. He was the son of her sister, Camille, who had briefly been a nun and then fled the convent and had five kids. There was no escaping that sentence; the Lord had had plans for her from the start. 

Marie struggled to keep herself awake. She thought if she could find just a little bit of water she would feel much better. She should have gone with Gerard. What an old fool I am! She touched the gash on her head. It was soft and frightening. They say you can only lose so much blood before you die; she wondered how much had already oozed from her head and dripped into the dirt. 

Gerard had been right. The storm was the big one, the one they always said would come and wipe out the parish. From her bedroom window she saw the water rise up of the canal. It charged like soldiers out of a trench with guns drawn and spirit voices raised in a blood-curdling rebel yell. The angry army of water came straight for the house, foaming and hurling itself onward. Her massive oak wardrobe, which had rested over the same piece of floor for all of her sixty-nine years–which had been assembled on that spot and was so heavy that not even her grandfather and his two brothers and the egg man could move it–was lifted miraculously into the air and flung against the opposite wall, where it crashed and turned and came to rest. As it did so, one of the ornate, hand-carved corners of the wardrobe sank a half-inch into her temple. Water rushed up to her chest and as she fell back her blood mixed with the water and her leg was caught and it twisted and sent pain streaking up to her waist. She pulled the leg free in spite of the pain and tried to wade toward the kitchen, but the kitchen moved away from her: the house was splitting in two. The sturdy Cajun cottage, built by her grandfather to withstand a hundred hurricanes, the place where her mother was born, the place where Marie was born and the place she inherited when her mother died because her father was already dead and she was the one sister who never married and was the old spinster, although everyone knew she hated that word and would never use it around her, that place, was now coming apart at the seams. The big surge. Her uncle had described what would happen: “the surge’ll come up the Mississippi River from the Gulf and will flow into every canal and every bayou and every little ditch and the water will be lifted right out like the hand of God come down and parted the seas.” Then she fainted.

Just before fainting, Marie looked back into her bedroom and saw that the wardrobe door had flung open and her clothes floated out: a yellow Easter dress, a business suit that she wore when she worked as a receptionist at the power company, a black funeral dress that she wore to the funerals of her parents and grandparents and all of their siblings, who seemed to die off slowly at first but then went in a stampede. Then other clothes came out of the wardrobe, the old hand-me-downs that had belonged to her mother and grandmother and some of her aunts and her older sisters. An old-fashioned coat with fur around the collar seemed to swim out on its own, a hat with a long feather popped out of its box, a treasure trove of Maison Blanche handkerchiefs escaped from their moth-balled prison. Marie felt wet blackness closing in on her. She was sure that she was near death because she was imagining the most amazing things. She saw her Ma’mere, her grandmother, climb out of the wardrobe wearing a dress that Marie had not seen in many years. Ma’mere stood above the water and looked down, disapprovingly, at Marie, who was terrified and wanted to hide. Then her Aunt Magda, her mother’s oldest sister, stuck her head through the opening and looked around as though peeking out of her coffin and her eyes came to rest on Marie, who was now collapsed in dirty water on the hallway floor. The storm water had barreled through her home like a crowd of rude visitors and now mingled with the water and mud beneath the raised, wooden house. All of this happened in a span of time that she could not measure, she only knew that as her eyes closed her dead relatives were looking at her with a very sad expression.

The water receded as quickly as it had come up. There was one pulverizing attack, followed by an immediate retreat that took with it trash cans, lumber, half the kitchen, the front door, the screen porch, the crepe myrtle by the porch, the pecan tree that was in the middle of the front yard, the garden fence that kept the nutria out, the two bicycles that Marie had not ridden in fifteen years, the lawnmower, the roof over the garage and the hose pipe that had rotted from disuse.

When Marie woke up she found herself on the concrete stoop that had led up to where there had been a kitchen door. Now the stoop was a little island in a sea of rubble. Some yards away from her, half of her home stood precariously upright, it’s innards exposed like a doll house. Her cotton dress was soaked with blood and her leg was blue and useless. Aunt Magda and Ma’mere stood not far away, surveying the ruins. Then they saw her.

“Are you ready to go, Marie? You’re always the last one ready,” said Aunt Magda.

“Where are we going?”

“Dear child, have you not been paying attention? We’re going to Maison Blanche, on Canal Street,” said Ma’mere. “I still say it’s the finest department store in New Orleans.”

“I have nothing to wear,” said Marie. 

“Correcting that problem is the purpose of our trip,” said Aunt Magda with her chin raised high.

“But I have no money,” said Marie.

“You don’t need money,” said Ma’mere. 

Marie stayed on the stoop for two days and watched the weather and the ground change from wet to dry and when it did she dragged herself to the spot in the front yard where the pecan tree had been. There was no sign of the tree. Even the fallen trunk was gone with the surge. She could see down her street and saw nothing but ruins where houses of her neighbors had been. She was sure that eventually Gerard would come for her. He would come back from Baton Rouge to check on her. If only she could hold out till then. 

“Are you ready, dear?” said Ma’mere.

“Where to now?” asked Marie, feeling very weak and frightened. Ma’mere wore a splendid white dress that shone brilliantly in the sun. Marie had seen the dress in a photograph taken when Ma’mere was only eighteen. How could she still fit into that dress? It was very confusing. 

Ma’mere and Magda shook their heads disapprovingly. “Some girls need a written invitation,” said Magda.

“That’s the younger gen’ration for you. Maison Blanche is going to close if you don’t hurry, Marie. Now let’s go.”

Marie smiled and squinted at her grandmother. “I’m coming Ma’mere. I’m coming now.”