Having left her home early — which may or may not have had to do with avoiding her parents talking to her about Francis again — Helene was ready for some good news for once. A conversation with the pastor her father had mentioned seemed like as good of a help as any, though she did feel a little odd about putting so much hope in a complete stranger.
Nearing his house on the riverside of Carrollton, Helene straightened her navy skirt and cream blouse, internally bemoaning the tight space she’d squeezed into on the stagecoach there. Surely, she thought, with all the magik and Pégik gumption around the city, a less cramped and dusty option for getting to this town should be available.
Finally coming to a small porch of the house in the center of an intersection, she took a look at her travel-worn appearance and made some adjustments to her hair. Settling for something a bit less than perfection, Helene took a deep breath and knocked on the door.
Seconds later she heard footsteps and the door swung open, revealing a man slightly shorter than Helene who looked to be her parents’ age. With his hair clipped short, graying goatee, spectacles, and an air of curiosity, this man looked as much a scholar as he did a clergyman.
“May I help you?” he asked, holding the door open.
“Hi, yes, I’m Helene Larieux, daughter of Antoine and Carlota. Are you Pastor Otis?”
“That I am. What brings the daughter of Antoine Larieux to my parish?”
“My father said I should speak to you about your time preaching in the swamps.”
“Did he now? Well, I suppose you should come in.”
Beckoning Helene into the house, Pastor Otis looked around the street before closing the door with a resolute snap and ushered Helene ahead of him. He led her past the front parlour, which seemed unused but in pristine condition, and into his study.
Gesturing for her to take one of the seats in front of his desk, he moved to sit in the brown leather-backed chair on the other side. Seconds later they heard loud thumping footsteps and the chatter of children.
“You boys get in that room and stay away from here! You know better than disrupting my work!” the pastor bellowed from his seat shaking his head at the disturbance. “She should take them with her, she knows I don’t need them underfoot,” he muttered.
“If my wife were here she’d offer you a glass of water,” he continued shrugging, “but you’ve come while she’s out to market. She’ll be back soon.”
Uncertain of what to make of this pronouncement, and thirsty from her journey, Helene took a moment to gather her thoughts.
Carrying on oblivious to Helene’s discomfort, Pastor Otis asked, “Now what interest can a young lady like you have in swamps and sermons?”
“Well, sir, I’d like to learn how you kept your sermons a secret out there. I heard that the bavers kept searching for your church but could never find it. That the congregation sang hymns right under their noses.”
Giving Helene a once-over, Pastor Otis responded, “What use is there in learning my church’s secrets? Have you gotten mixed up with the bavers?”
“I haven’t, but there are some people I’d like to protect.”
Pastor Otis laughed, “Protection? If you seek protection for something, best you find a man to do it. Why, a pretty red bone like you must have plenty of gentlemen sniffing around. Best ask one of them for help.”
Shocked and revolted, Helene struggled for a response. She was saved from providing a careful rejoinder by the sound of the front door opening.
Hearing shuffling in the hallway, the pastor paused to peer out of the study’s open door, “Ida is that you? You sure took your time! Now, we have a visitor who has had no service. Hurry back here with some water.”
Thoroughly appalled by the man’s words and actions, Helene found herself struggling to keep a diplomatic face and follow through with her original plan. Just as she resigned to try a different tactic, a woman bearing a tray of two glasses and a metal water pitcher appeared in the doorway.
“Finally, woman. I told you this time of day wouldn’t suit for going to market, didn’t I? Visitors call at this time of day, even when I’m preparing my sermon.”
Ida continued past Pastor Otis, pouring two glasses of water before passing one to him and the other to Helene.
Thanking her softly, Helene took a big gulp of water, partially because of thirst and to cover her annoyance at the man’s treatment of the woman who had clearly just returned to the house. Ida still wore a light cloak and gloves as if she’d run from the kitchen with the tray as soon as she’d arrived.
“And check on the boys will you? Children should be seen, not heard and they don’t seem to know the difference yet.”
Ida nodded at the command, and as she turned out of the room Helene realized that the woman was several weeks pregnant. Her resolve to remain pleasant to Pastor Otis wavered even thinner.
“You see my wife has the right idea about protection. I provide and protect Ida and our family, and in turn she takes care of our smaller needs,” stated Pastor Otis, gesturing at Ida’s retreating figure with the water glass in his hand.
Having had enough of this man and his awful views, Helene took a deep breath to try one final time to get the information she needed. “Hmm, yes. You are certainly in control of your household and your church. Why, only someone as powerful as you are could command the swamp to keep your congregation safe from outside eyes.”
The pastor nodded in agreement, “Yes, many others tried and failed before me to keep church out there. Some tried to say we used magic,” he scoffed, rolling his eyes, “those are the sort of people who don’t have enough faith. Who seek easy answers to harder solutions. There is no such thing as magic, only people foolish enough to mess with things they have no business messing with.”
“Is that why you moved your church here, sir? To escape those rumors?”
“Ha! I moved it here because it was time to bring our worship out of the shadows. What bother have I got with bavers?”
“Surely, some of your church members…?”
Pastor Otis shrugged, “Of course, we lost some who have to hide away but here there are new people to take their place. Let the people hiding stay in the swamps playing their wood music in plain sight. As for me and mine, we can stand right in the sunlight.”
Taking the last swig from his glass, he said, “It’s time I ready my sermon for the week. I hope you have what you came here for?”
Knowing he didn’t care at all if he’d been helpful to her or not, Helene started to pull herself together. She took one last sip of water and stood up. “Yes, thank you for your time.”
Pastor Otis nodded, gesturing for her to proceed him and walking her to the door. Once they made it to the front porch, he bade her goodbye saying, “Thank you for coming by. The next time I see you, I hope that it’s in the company of your husband.”
Before Helene could respond, he’d closed the door and locked it.
Helene sighed and shook her head, wondering how Ida dealt with this sort of life. She walked a few streets considering what she gained from the conversation, besides judgment against the preacher. At least some of his former congregation had been hiding from bavers and may still be holding church in the swamps. What were the chances that she could find them and learn their secrets of staying hidden? Would they be any more forthcoming than Pastor Otis? She doubted this given that they were still trying to keep their location secret, especially if they also lived out there. What had Pastor Otis meant by saying they hid in plain sight? How was this possible without magic?
Deciding that it made more sense to try things out in person rather than just in her head, Helene made her way to a small grove of trees and bushes that made up the border around a large garden of a nearby resort. When she was sure that no one could see her, she Disapparated.
After spending the better half of two hours trying and failing to make ever expanding plots of land in her swamp clearing Unplottable, Helene had enough. She was frustrated with herself for not being able to sustain the illusion for very long, despite having more than enough strength to do so. She suspected that her agitation with Pastor Otis’ treatment of his wife and herself, growing stress to build a protective space for Marie and others, in addition to the humidity and swarming insects of the swamp, kept her from achieving her goals.
She’d decided to take a break sitting atop a hollow stump where she’d hidden various supplies, including fresh water, when she saw Francis’ lanky form making its way towards her.
Terrific, she thought, another person I don’t want to think about or speak to. Today is not going my way.
“Good day, Helene,” said Francis, dimples showing as he smiled down at her perch on the stump, “work weary already?”
Helene found the reservations she had about speaking to Francis after her conversation with her parents fade away upon glancing up at him. He was in pale linen breeches and a light blue button up shirt with rolled sleeves that showed off impressive biceps. Was it just her, or did his smile make the heat from the sun more intense?
Shaking off some of her worries, and maybe one or two butterflies, Helene let Francis pull her up to stand directly in front him.
“What’s wrong? You don’t seem yourself.”
“I just had a challenging encounter with that Pégik preacher, Pastor Otis. What an odious man.”
“Oh, really? I’ve never met him myself, but I figure anyone willing to help people fleeing bavers can’t be that bad.”
“Would that it were the case for Pastor Otis. I don’t know that he’s ever cared for others more than he does himself. Not one word that he shared was useful.”
“Truly? Tell me what happened, maybe there was something you missed.”
Helene recounted the tale, up to how the pastor expected his pregnant wife to do menial chores without any help. “So as you see he was no real help, unless you count his recommendation that I get a husband to be useful. I thought maybe there was something to do with illusionment but you see how that’s gone.”
“Ah, but needing a man is precisely your problem,” Francis joked. “If you had one, he would have solved all of your problems.”
The sour look Helene gave him had Francis laughing so loudly that birds in nearby trees flapped away from the commotion.
“Yea, because we see all the things men do just to make life better for someone else all the time, don’t we? Pastor Otis is highly respected in our community, but what has he done that has not also improved his status? He knows some of his congregation are still hiding somewhere out here, and how has he helped them?”
“Some men don’t deserve their praise, but you can’t judge us all by their actions. Look at me, or your dad. As soon as you told me what you wanted to build, I let you lead. Your father is doing work that women are usually called to do and is respected in magik and Pégik communities alike.”
“Funny, because I’d argue that it’s precisely because you are men that you can do what you’re doing without scrutiny. Sometimes people ask Papa to be their healer, not because of his years of healing — there are healers who have practiced for far longer than he has — but because they think a man’s advice is better than a woman’s. Meanwhile, I’m expected to get a husband, take on any needs he dictates, and have children that worship him and loathe me.”
Francis arched his eyebrow, saying to Helene in a somewhat incredulous tone, “Come now, you can’t believe that. Everyone favors you and what you’re trying to build. We have support from most of the elders.”
Helene crossed her arms, determined to make her point, “Do you think the elders would’ve given me help to go abroad if you hadn’t come along? They scorn any young woman with the grace to walk the street alone, let alone travel unescorted.”
Smiling and shaking his head, Francis returned, “But I did go with you, so why does it matter? And now you’re building your dream school. What does it matter that you needed a man to get started, that you needed me?”
“That’s just it. I shouldn’t need you to do what I want, to become who I want to be. People respect you for helping me, but these are mostly my plans. You’re free to take on any project that comes your way but I have nothing else. If I fail at this, I won’t be trusted to lead anything else.” Helene had found herself yelling at the start of this retort but by the last word all of her frustrated energy quickly dissipated.
Francis backed away from Helene. “I…Is that what you believe? That I can be fickle and move on to something besides the school? You resent my help?”
Helene shook her head, “No, you misunderstand me. I don’t resent you. I resent that you have to help in order for me to get support from others. I’d do this without anyone’s help if I could.”
Why couldn’t he see how unjust the world was for her? She could have brilliant ideas and make grand plans, and even gain the approval of some elders, yet, just like that odious Pastor Otis said, she’d be expected to put marriage and family life first. Francis would never have to face the same concerns, he could build up a life just as he’d like it without everyone expecting him to do so with a mate. Helene just wanted the same opportunities – to build something of her own and to be valued by the community just the same.
“Wow, and what if others believe the same as you, that we need a magic school? Would you refuse them the chance to offer what they’d like to offer to students?”
“Sure, I don’t assume that I recognize all of the students’ needs, but I should have final say as this is my establishment and I’ll always be tied to it. Others may make contributions without planning to stick around afterwards,” Helene responded in a perfunctory manner.
“You think that you’re the only one truly committed to this school? Why do you think I’ve been helping you so much? What have I done for you to believe that I won’t be around for long?” Francis yelled, shaking his head in disbelief.
“I don’t know, Francis. It’s not just you, I…I don’t really know who to trust, ok?” Helene entreated in a soothing voice, hoping to cool the conversation down, “Bavers are showing up everywhere, the Seers can’t tell us what their visions mean, the pastor everyone told me would have answers had nothing, and I never know what you’re thinking.”
Francis shook his head, dejected, “I’ve always been around for you. I knew the elders would balk at you going to Uagadou alone so I agreed to join you. What do you think that was for? A lark? To get away for awhile?”
“You can’t tell me it was only for the school. We both know that you didn’t want to be around your parents while they dealt with —” she stopped herself, choosing another complaint, “And while we were at Uagadou, I barely saw you outside of our few shared lessons. What do you think I’d get from that?”
“Ok, I did want to get away from my parents for some time but that was not THE reason I went with you. And you didn’t see me because you were also occupied. Do you have any notion how many times I came by your loft after classes, only to see that you were gone?”
Helene searched Francis’ eyes, trying to understand where this all was coming from. Had she misjudged him?
“You know what, maybe you’re right not to want my help,” shaking his head, Francis turned away from Helene. “Why’d I even come here? I’ll see you around.”
With that pronouncement, Francis turned on the spot and Disapparated with a snap that sounded like a door slamming closed.
Was Francis right? Had she been so preoccupied with her own lessons that she missed when he looked for her? She began to regret the way she’d thought of him and his commitment to building the school. Thinking about it now, the way she’d spoken some of her thoughts sounded quite harsh. She was nowhere near as distrustful as she sounded when talking to Francis. Why else would she look to strangers like Boaz and Rosalie for help? Or did her distrustful nature show when she spoke to them too?
Sighing with frustration and rubbing her watery eyes back to dryness, Helene stood, resolving to reconstruct the invisible barrier she created to keep Francis from disturbing her heart.
“Invisible barrier…” she murmured to herself, “aha!” Helene slowly drew her arms up then snapped her fingers above her head.
Some time later, Helene looked around the swamp with a small bit of pride. Instead of trying to make the land undetectable, she’d worked with the natural humidity and air pressure to push moving objects away. If her illusion set correctly, anyone who wandered here would feel the air subtly moving them back the way they came.
Deciding that was enough to expect from herself today, Helene turned on the spot…
And returned to the backyard of her home.
Helene tried to keep her face as straight as the clothing she’d just adjusted from her quick trip. She was in no mood to speak to her parents or Marie about Francis or their argument and she knew the wrong facial expression would be all the opening they needed.
Opening the door to the veranda, she found Marie and Boaz shifting potted plants from inside the house to line the space. When she got a closer look she could see the plants crawling into alignment by using their own tendrils to pull them to their desired spot.
Glancing over at a smiling Marie she signed, “I see you made a few friends.”
Smiling wider, Marie replied, “Isn’t it great? Francis told Boaz about me and they came over to see if I would be a good student for their building class. They said they’re going to teach at your school too. When can I come? I can already do so much!”
Dredging up a small smile for Marie, Helene answered, “We’re working on it, I promise.”
Carlota joined them on the back veranda, “Back home, I see. Maybe now I can convince Marie to wash up and sit for a bit before dinner.”
Seeing a look close to rebellion cross Marie’s face, Boaz caught the girl at her shoulders to remind her that builders needed discipline for good construction.
Nodding her head, Marie released her magik from the plants and reluctantly followed Carlota into the house.
Boaz turned to Helene, “You look a bit surprised to find me here. Did Francis never catch up with you? He seemed sure he could find you in the swamp.”
“Er, yea we talked. He didn’t mention that he spoke to you about becoming Marie’s teacher though — which is great. We, um, only spoke shortly about another subject before he left.”
“Hmm, that’s strange. He was practically whistling about how happy he was to share the news that I could teach Marie with you before he left…” Boaz paused when they caught Helene looking at the ground very intently. “Not that it matters. Er, how is it going at the swamp?”
“It’s…going, I guess? I got the air to cooperate as a wall of sorts before I left.”
“Are you not worried about the way wind tends to move to other locations at whim?”
“Of course I am,” Helene shrugged, “but I spoke to the ancestors and asked them to convince the air to sign the wind into an agreement to always form a wall there. I’ll see if it worked when I return tomorrow.”
“You also learn to call on your ancestors to work magik?” Boaz asked with a raised eyebrow.
“Yes, but mostly for magik asking nature to do something contrary to its usual state. We find that the ancestors have much stronger ties to the elements than the living do — maybe it’s because they’ve become something of an element themselves?”
“Interesting…” Boaz contemplated, “we also choose to call on the ancestors for certain magik, but we speak to nature ourselves. We spend a lot of time building relationships with the elements in training so that they tend to work with us when we call on them.”
Helene was intrigued. The peoples who had always lived in Louisiana had been on friendly enough terms with the Colored community but they never divulged much about their magik. She knew that Seers were so rare that the elders from both communities had encouraged them to work together, but that was not the case for any other magik specialty.
She wondered what spurred Boaz into sharing these details with her, perhaps this was information they wanted included for the school?
Ready to learn more, she asked, “So all of you can call on elements at will? They listen any time you beckon?”
Boaz chuckled, “Not really. We all have different relationships with each element – and like any relationship some are stronger than others. It mostly depends on which element speaks with you most in training. You learn to respect each other’s needs, you and the element.”
Helene nodded, “So your elemental relationship is with earth? Is that why you can get plants to walk?”
Boaz smiled, “Yes, but it doesn’t take much to get plants to move — they spend so much of their life still that they’re usually happy to get some action. It actually takes more effort to get them to listen to you once they’re in motion, which is why I thought this would be a good first lesson for Marie.”
“I take it that Francis told you all about her father’s situation?”
Boaz nodded, “That and the news about there being a magik user among the bavers. Troubling news, we’ll have to work hard to keep the school from being detected.”
“Have you heard of run ins with settler magik in this area before what happened with Mr. Louis?”
“Not really, which makes me believe that whoever it is must be from somewhere else. If so, they won’t care at all about who they take away. The sooner the school is built the better. Could I offer my assistance? I’m a strong builder and work quickly.”
“Of course! Thanks for offering.” Helene winced, reminded again of her argument with Francis, “I’m sorry I didn’t think of inviting you before. I just thought you may like to keep your abilities tied to your village.”
Boaz shrugged off Helene’s apology, stating, “The school, its students, and staff will become part of my village. It would actually be best for me to be part of its construction to maintain these bonds.”
“Yes, sorry again.” Helene sighed, “I seem to keep stumbling with involving people in the school. It’s what Francis and I argued about earlier actually. I think I’m holding it too close.”
Boaz shook their head, “That’s understandable, it’s an idea you started with and you have to see who is willing to build it with you. No apologies needed, just tell me what time you’re leaving for the swamp tomorrow — we can go together.”
Relieved, Helene shared her plans for the next day with Boaz, happy to have found someone who wasn’t offended by her handling of the school.
“Would you like to stay for dinner?”
“No thanks, I’ll just tell your mother and Marie goodnight before I head off. And…it’s none of my business,” Boaz added, cautiously, “but I have a feeling that you could resolve your issues with Francis from a chat like the one we just had.”
With that, Boaz gave Helene a light tap on her shoulder before entering the house.
Boaz was right. The longer she went without settling things with Francis, the worse any semblance of a relationship between the two would become. Turning, Helene headed back into the yard, through their gate and down the street towards Francis’ house.
Helene knocked on the front door, resolving not to think so hard about what she’d say when Francis opened it. She was about to knock again when the door opened and she met Mrs. Guillory’s eyes.
“Hi there Helene! What brings you by?”
“Hi Mrs. Guillory, I thought I’d stop by for a bit to talk to Francis. It shouldn’t be long, I know I’ve caught you near dinnertime.”
“Oh dear, well I guess I’ll disappoint you on two fronts. Francis is not here and dinner is nowhere near being cooked,” Mrs. Guillory laughed.
“Oh, sorry! I just want to clear up a misunderstanding Francis and I had earlier. Could you tell him I stopped by?”
“You know, Francis will probably be around soon looking for his dinner, like you mentioned. Why don’t you wait for him? Come on in.”
Deciding it best to follow the commands of her former teacher, Helene followed Mrs. Guillory into the house.
“It’s so nice to see you, Helene. I feel like I haven’t seen you much since you returned from Uagadou. I hope you don’t mind joining Opal and I, she stopped by for a visit.”
Helene walked into the living area to see the most fearsome elder in their community, Mrs. Opal Longtree. Mrs. Longtree was a ferocious older woman known for not sparing words or feelings, who often excused her lack of diplomacy by stating her age — 106 — as if it resolved any issues people may have with her treatment. But what made Mrs. Longtree most formidable was her feat of Obliviation some thirty years ago. Apparently, some city planners decided they would level Treme to build homes ‘for their people’ and Mrs. Longtree had Obliviated everyone involved so thoroughly they lost all memory of who they were and the idea that Treme existed. There were rumors that Mrs. Longtree was such an accomplished Obliviator that it was possible they all lived in a reality of her choosing. Most people laughed this possibility away, but it also led people to give Mrs. Longtree a wide berth — which she seemed to enjoy.
“Oh you’ve brought someone new into the conversation, Leona. And it’s the young lady we sent to the motherland. How are you?”
“I’m well, Mrs. Longtree, how have you been?”
“The same as ever. These fools do their best to stay out of sight, even when I have something to share with them. If they want to keep blundering their way through those iffy seer visions, it means naught to me. I hope you came here seeking wisdom?”
“She came seeking my son, who should be back any minute,” answered Mrs. Guillory, handing Helene some water before taking her seat beside Mrs. Longtree.
“Came seeking a man? A young one at that? No wisdom there,” Mrs. Longtree said, taking a long sip of her own drink. “Tell me, have the two of you settled how you’re building this school of yours yet?”
“No, mam, we’re still working through it. Francis came by the swamp to see if I learned anything from Pastor Otis and I…”
“Pastor Otis! That charlatan! Why would you speak to a phony like him?”
“My, uh, parents thought it would be a good idea.”
Mrs. Longtree gave the two of them a look, “I’d have thought Antoine and Carlota had better judgment than that. Did you get the information you sought?”
“No, mam. I…”
“Of course you didn’t,” Mrs. Longtree tsked shaking her head, “What did you think he could answer?”
“I wanted to know how his church went undetected in the swamps when he held it there. All he said was that I had no business worrying about building protections and that I should find a husband to protect me.”
Mrs. Guillory gasped at this recap while Mrs. Longtree snorted in derision.
“That man is very lucky that Ida has standing in this community. If it weren’t for her he wouldn’t have a church in the first place — it’s her family that encouraged people to stick around when he first started and couldn’t read his way through the good book, much less preach it. Now he’s got her trailing behind him like some maid, towing kids around like she isn’t competent on her own. She’s a great writer, you know.”
Both Helene and Mrs. Guillory shook their heads, enthralled in her story.
“Well, you wouldn’t the way she’s taken up for him,” Mrs. Longtree harrumphed. “I just hate to see it. I hope that baby she’s carrying is a girl, she’ll need help that he won’t let those boys give her. What else did that hound say?”
“Not much, really. I asked him about the church members who are hiding in the swamps and he didn’t seem bothered by it. Said something about them staying there with their wood music.”
“Wood music, huh?” started Mrs. Guillory, “There may be something to that, even Pégik music can carry messages that you don’t know are there. You know there’s usually someone from those Maroon families working a stall in the Square on Tuesdays. You have a bit of time, why don’t you see if you can catch them?”
Talking with Francis would have to wait, who knew when she’d have an opportunity to speak with swamp folk again? Besides, with any luck she could catch up with him during her walk back home. “Yes, of course! I can head there now. Thank you both for talking with me, this is the first good lead I’ve had for swamp protections in a while!”
“No need to thank us yet, girl,” answered Mrs. Longtree. “We don’t know if this will give you what you need yet. Do let us know how it goes.”
“I will,” Helene said, walking to the door and nodding back to the women, “see you soon.”
It was time for her to go to the market.
- No one knows why the ancestors bless women with the healing ability more than men. What is known is that there is rarely a community with magik that does not include at least one healer. In communities with few women, the healer is more likely to be a man.
- Healing, like all advanced magik, is tied to calling upon an ancestor for their insight and counsel. If your ancestral magik is tied to water then you are more proficient in healing issues related to bodily fluids, if earth, then tissue, etc.
- Few Healers live into extended magik age, as even deals through ancestors don’t negate the physical toll of hard to treat diseases.