It was dark. So dark the tops of the trees were invisible from the windows. Earlier a heavy mist concealed the reality of the moon and stars, their light refracted trough beads of water in the air as though someone had thrown a scarf over a lamp shade. But within what seemed mere moments, the mist gave way to dense black clouds; so, now the darkness consumed the night. If she had turned off the bedroom light she may have just barely been able to peer into the darkness, but she would not do that. It was story time.
The little faces peered at her expectantly as she closed the blinds and laid across the bottom of the bed facing the young faces of her grandchildren, her head resting the the palm of her hand as she propped upon her elbow. The little ones gathered the blankets close to their chins propping themselves upon the multitude of pillows like the royalty they were. The hot chocolate had long since settled and heavy eyelids fought to take over, but they would get their story.
Mam breathed, curled her arms beneath her head and considered for a moment. She smiled, remembering.
“When I was very young, perhaps no more than three or four, I lived with my Mama, my Daddy, and my little sister in the middle of a beautiful tamed wild country. South Louisiana!”
The littles’ eyes widened.
“For most folks, and for me too, South Louisiana conjures images of old world plantations, bayous, ancient oak trees dripping with Spanish moss, southern belles and southern gentlemen.”
“What’s a plantation, Mam?” the littlest asked.
“Farms really. A place where things like cotton were planted. Most of the time there were big giant houses on these farms. The houses are what people think about when they think of Southern Louisiana Plantations.”
“And in New Orleans, Louisiana’s most famous city, there are street performers playing jazz, beignets…”
“Yummy!” the littles exclaimed as they blew through the air pretending to blow powdered sugar from a doughnut before holding their breath to take a bite.
“Yes…and café au lait.” Mam laughed. “I love this part of Louisiana, but I want to tell you about the Bayou.“
She thought about the beauty of the swamps and bayous. It is a wild land she knew. She knew too, many have the notion we have somehow tamed the unruly swamps and fierce bayous. Ah, but what is life if not peppered with a few illusions here and there?
” Now, we did not really live in the swamp, or even on the bayou. We lived in a neighborhood with paved streets and this gave us a sense of security. We thought we were safe from the things living in the waters and the trees only a breath away. Things like gators.”
“But…there were deep ditches filled with dark murky water running just in front of our house and….” She paused. “I had heard tales of gators living in the culverts. I had even heard some pets were missing. You know, alligators are not discriminatory in regard to their meals. Perhaps, I thought, they could even eat small children!“
More wide eyes.
“So, one evening, my little sister (you know her as Aunt Melly) and I found ourselves alone at home. Melly was just a toddler. Mama had walked across the street to the neighbors to help her friend with some sewing.”
“Your mommy left you at home alone?” the oldest asked incredulously.
“Well, times were different then. It wasn’t uncommon in that day for children to be left alone briefly if a parent was close by. People looked out for one another. We felt completely safe…except for the gators.”
“And even though we were safe inside, Melly, being a mere baby, began crying for Mama. As the elder sister, I saw myself as the protector. Or perhaps Mama had asked me to look out for her. So I did.”
“I remember it as if it were yesterday. I guess we hadn’t lived there long, because in one of the bedrooms a metal bed-frame sat square in the middle of the room. Just the frame, no matress. In my mind that was the perfect protection. It was a ready-made fortress, so I helped Melly up and over the side rails, placing her in the center of the frame. “You stay right here.’ I said. ‘You’ll be safe inside here. I’m going to go get Mama and you can’t go outside. Remember now, don’t leave this spot and don’t go outside ‘cause a gator might get you.’
She looked at the littles, who were showing no signs of drowsy eyes.
“Aunt Melly was so tiny and just the right size for a perfect meal for a gator.”
“It was dark outside, much like tonight. We’d had our baths and I was wearing one of Mama’s nightgowns safety pinned to fit me. It was a silky pale blue and I thought it was pretty, so liked to wear it whenever Mama would let me.”
“I had made up my mind what I had to do. I had a plan. I was going to go get Mama from across the street. But to do that I had to cross the driveway across the ditch! The fact I was wearing a nightgown did not prevent me from walking out the front door and down the drive. I kept my eye out for alligators as I passed the ditches, holding my breath as I crossed the street. Before I knew it, I was standing at the neighbors back door looking up at a doorbell that was out of my reach.”
“I think I started to cry. But then there were headlights filling the rear brick wall of the carport and before I knew it a man stepped out of the car, scooped me into his arms and Mama was suddenly there at the door. “Look what I found,” the man said and handed me to Mama. We stood there a while with the neighbors and then Mama headed back across the street holding me in her arms. I wiggled out as soon as we crossed the threshold.”
“I ran to the bedroom. Melly was right where I had left her. We were safe, Mama was home, and none of us had been eaten by gators.”
Mam smiled, ready to answer a thousand questions, but the little eyes were heavy. So she carefully wiggled off the bed and made her way to turn off the light. But before she did, she turned and spoke softly.
“You know, sometimes, the greatest adventures can be found right in your own front yard!”