Eliza Jane Clark came awake in the night. She glanced out the window and could sense dawn was approaching. As her bare feet hit the dirt floor of her family’s cabin in Louisiana’s No Man’s Land, she moved quickly. Slipping out of her bedclothes into a blouse and dress, she tiptoed over and took the clock off the mantel above the fireplace. The fire’s light gave enough light for her to see that the time was just after five o’clock. Sunrise that morning would be just before six, and she needed to be at the creek long before then.
Slipping to the door, she put on a jacket, unlatched the door, and went outside. That morning’s date was Thursday, April 6, 1849. Eliza was sure of the date because it was her sixteenth birthday.
As Eliza tiptoed outside on this cool morning, her eyes began to adjust to the darkness, and the awesome canopy of stars became clear in the sky above. As always, their brightness and clarity astounded her. She had observed the night sky all her life and never ceased to be amazed about their beauty. It seemed as if she could just reach up into the sky and touch them. With a shiver, she whispered, “Lord, lookin’ at that nighttime sky, I always know you’re up there.”
The morning was cold enough for her breath to vaporize as she spoke. In spite of the cool morning, being barefooted, Eliza didn’t feel chilled. Normally, outside in the dark, she would have put on some shoes, but because the weather was still too cold for snakes, she could walk the trail barefooted.
Eliza Clark, on this birthday morning, began walking the descending trail to Cherry Winche Creek. This beautiful, flowing stream, a quarter mile from her home, was the source of life for the families that lived along it. The creek supplied water for washing, swimming, and bathing.
The morning was completely quiet as she hurried toward the creek. A nearby noise startled her. She stopped completely still as she heard steps approaching from behind. In the darkness, she couldn’t make out what, or who, was coming.
Then she heard the voice of her younger brother, Elijah, “Sister, where you think you’re going?”
She breathed a sigh of relief as he ambled up and joined her. In his squeaky ten-year-old’s voice he added, “I heard you leave the house. Where are you headin’?”
Eliza didn’t answer, but that didn’t faze her brother, “Now, you know Poppa and Momma told you not to be sneakin’ off in the dark no more. ‘member what happened last time—“
Eliza cut him off, “If you’re goin’ with me to the creek, you’ll have to be quiet and keep your mouth shut.” She tried to act annoyed at her brother’s intrusion, but was actually glad to have him come along.
The land they were now crossing belonged to their family. Like most settlers in this part of the young state of Louisiana, the Clark family lived on a homestead—their tract was about two hundred acres. Most of this land was set among the tall longleaf pines that dominated the area. Her family’s home was built on the higher ground where these pines thrived. Towering and magnificent, these trees, also called long-straw pines, blocked out the sun and kept the ground beneath them clear of other trees and vegetation.
In daylight, Eliza loved how you could see for long distances under these pines. She had never traveled far from their shadow in her entire life.
Entering the edge of the swamp, the dirt beneath her feet turned to oozing mud. It felt good between her toes and made her glad to be alive.
Her dad had carefully chosen their home site on the higher pine grasslands that were always free from flooding. However, it was also essential to be near this ‘bottomland’ for year-round access to water and firewood, as well as to a steady supply of acorns and beech mast for their woods hogs.
Coming to the creek, she could hear the sound she loved dearly: the creek gurgling over the flattened log they used for washing clothes. Eliza called the sound of the water “swamp music” and its song always brought a peace to her heart.
They eased down the creek bank and sat on the edge of the log. Elijah nestled up close to his big sister and started to say something, but she put her hand on his shoulder and whispered, “Shh, it’s nearly time. Jes’ listen real close.”
Using a stick, she scraped the mud and creek sand off their feet. Eli said, “That mud and sand reminds me of momma’s sugar cookies.”
Finishing her scraping, Eliza said, “Well, I don’t hardly believe it’d taste the same!”
Pointing to their muddy feet, she spoke quietly, “Now, this here mud on our feet is Clark mud. It’s from land owned by Poppa and Momma that one day’ll belong to you and me. Let me put it the way Poppa says, ’This here land really belongs to God and he’s just loanin’ it to us for a while.’
“Eli, I once asked Poppa, ‘Do we have any papers proving we own this land?’ and he answered, ‘Honey, if you mean could I go to the courthouse in Alexandria and show you a piece of paper proving I own this land? The answer to that would be no—but this is our land. Our ancestors settled here generations ago. The Spanish, the French, and now the Americans, have all claimed to own the land, but the truth is, it belongs to us.’
“Then Poppa said something else: ‘Liza girl, I don’t know so much if we own this land or it’s more of this land owning us.’”
Elijah leaned his head on his big sister’s shoulder and said, “Eliza, in Ten Mile is where I plan to live out my whole life. How ‘bout you?”
“Eli, it ain’t never even entered my mind to live anywhere else. Why would a person want to live anywhere but in the freedom of the piney woods? This is our home and where God put us.”
Eli, who never met a silence he was comfortable with, then asked, “Eliza, would you rather be called a ‘Ten Miler’ or a ‘Redbone?’”
She looked annoyed at him, “Talk quieter. Now why’d you ask a question like that for?”
“Oh, I just heard Poppa and Momma laughing about it the other day.”
“Well, Eli I don’t mind if you call me either. I figure I’m both. A ‘Ten Miler’ is someone living in our area—along Ten Mile Creek or Cherry Winche Creek, or even along this side of the Calcasieu.
“Everyone I know in the Ten Mile area, also are called ‘Redbones.’ That’s just a name for our people. It’s what the outsiders often call us—Redbones. That ain’t never bothered me, does it bother you?”
“Not a bit. Don’t it have to do with our Indian blood?”
“I’ve always thought so. ‘ Red’ for our ‘Red Man’s blood.’”
Eli was ready to ask more, but Eliza said, “Eli, we gotta get quiet to listen. I tell you what, on our next trip to the Weeks home, you ask them. They are the experts on all things ‘Ten Mile.’”
He had one final question, “Why’d you come to the swamp this mornin’?”
“‘Cause it’s ‘whip-poor-will day.’ You probably don’t remember how ‘Ma’ always said this date, April 6, was ‘Whip-poor-will Day.’ She’d add, ‘If a girl hears the first one before mornin’ light and that call is answered by another nearby whip-poor-will, it means her future man will think of her today.’”
Elijah smirked, “You don’t believe that, do you?”
She replied, “Course not, but I still like to be in the woods on this morning to remember Ma.”
Eli said, “But Eliza, I thought there was a saying about the whip-poor-will’s call and death? When Ma died, didn’t a whip-poor-will call her soul away?”
Eliza answered angrily, “Eli, I don’t want to hear you say that agin!”
“But I was just asking—Isn’t it true?”
Sharply she replied, “Shh, get quiet. I’ll tell you ‘bout it some other time.”
He sat quietly, knowing his question had somehow touched a nerve. Even in the darkness, he could see a tear rolling down his sister’s cheek.
Eliza preferred to think about the romantic adage of the whip-poor-will’s call. As a child, she frowned at the thought of boys. Now, at age sixteen, that had long ago changed. Not only did she closely notice the boys—the boys had definitely taken a liking to her. There was no doubt she was a beautiful young woman and, although the attention somewhat embarrassed her, she liked the boy’s attention. In fact, in its own way, it filled her with joy.
“Filled with joy”—now that was a term that best described Eliza Jane Clark! She was a woods girl who found joy and laughter in the entire world around her in both nature and people. She had a natural curiosity that seemed unquenchable, always wanting to know about things, people, and nature. Sometimes her curiosity caused trouble—like her sneaking out of the house this morning—but this inquisitiveness was also an appealing quality that made folks naturally like her.
Breaking the silence again, Elijah asked her, “Why do you like whip-poor-wills?”
“Oh, they’re mysterious. I’ve only seen one in my whole life. They have big dark eyes that help them see how to fly at night.”
Eli said, “Robert Ray Thompson told me you have the darkest and prettiest eyes of any girl in Ten Mile.”
Eliza scowled, “I don’t really care nothing ‘bout what Robert Ray Thompson said.”
“Everybody says you’re gonna marry him one day.”
Eliza, threw her stick in the creek and said, “What everybody says don’t mean it’s goin’ to be so.”
“I heard Aunt Bertie say what a fine pair you’d make. She said that his family has the most livestock in the whole woods, and then momma said that he’d be a fine catch for you.”
“Well, I’m not trying to catch him—and he ain’t going to catch me either.”
Eli, not knowing to be quiet, continued, “So you’re here this morning to hear that whip-poor-will and know he’ll be thinking of you?”
“Eli, I don’t plan on marrying Robert Ray Thompson.”
Eli studied his sister, then said in admiration, “Your eyes are what folks say set you apart. Robert Ray told me that your long black hair and deep dark eyes are what he made him fall in love with you.”
“Eli, why don’t you just hush up and listen,” then she quickly added, “Did he really say that?”
But Eli took her first statement and hushed up. After he’d been quiet a few minutes, he drifted off to sleep and began snoring softly.
Eliza decided she would wake him when the first whip-poor-will sang. Several minutes later, she heard the call she’d come for. It came from the woods to the east. The sound was loud, clear, and urgently repeated a dozen times. It was a whip-poor-will! Each syllable was accented in a unique way: “Whip-poooor-will.” The sound was beautiful, lonesome, and haunting—all at the same time.
The accents were on the first and last syllables: WHIP poor WILL, WHIP poor WILL.
Eliza sat quietly as the bird called over and over. She’d always thought what a lonely call this bird had. It seemed to live in a solitary world. This bird was spread throughout the swamps, just like the Ten Milers—a people who were kin, yet each family living separate and isolated—never willing to be part of a village or town.
As Eliza listened to the lone whip-poor-will’s repeated calls for several minutes with no answer, she finally heard a reply—a long, long distance away. The returning call was faint, and at first, she wasn’t sure if she’d only imagined it. Then she heard the call for sure—another whip-poor-will was answering. Because of the great distance through the swamp, this returning call was much fainter, but it was all the nearby bird needed. The two whip-poor-wills—one close and the other far, far off—began calling back and forth in the quiet woods of Cherry Winche Swamp as the eastern light began to build through the silhouettes of the oak, beech, and hickory trees.
Eliza Clark, age sixteen on this day, leaned over and whispered to her sleeping brother, “Well, Eli, do you think my future husband’s thinking about me?” She sighed, “And jes’ where do you think he might be right now?”