The Wayfaring Stranger: Louisiana Journey Curt Iles
The following post contains the introduction and first two chapters of my upcoming novel. If you enjoy these, additional chapters are being posted weekly at http://awayfaringstranger.blogspot.com .
P.S. This is a draft. This means it is still in revision. It also means that your input and ideas are welcome and needed!
Introduction: “One day”
I’ve now lived for over half a century among the piney woods of Southwestern Louisiana. During these years, I’ve had countless conversations with friends who passionately stated, “If I could go back in time for one day—just one day, I would want to be transported to the 19th century and walk among the virgin longleaf pine forests of Louisiana.”
I remember my own great-grandmother, whom we affectionately called “Doten” describing the open pine forests of that time: “Baby, except in the creek bottoms where the oak and beech trees grew, all of the upland areas were covered in large tracts of majestic longleaf pines, or as we called them, ‘yellow pines’ My, my—the had no limbs for the first fifty feet or so and seemed to reach to heaven and their interlocking canopies kept out the sunlight as well as any underbrush. It was clear under the trees as far as you could see in every direction and a man could ride his horse at a gallop and only have to avoid the big trees.
Grandma Doten continued, “The carpet of pine straw was so thick under the trees that wagons would roll quietly along on the cushion of needles. Those big pines– they were always ‘singing’ as the wind blew in their tall tops.” Telling this, a far-off longing look in her eyes would seem to be seeing the long-gone virgin pines of her area. Then she would sing a line of the old song, “In the Pines”:
“In the pines, in the pines
Where the sun never shines,
And you shiver when the cold wind blows.”
Now, I’ve never fully recovered from her descriptions. Even though I’ll never walk under the virgin pine forests, The Wayfaring Stranger is my attempt to recreate on paper what my mind and heart have visualized since childhood.
So come join me as we travel to the Louisiana area called “Ten Mile”—deep in the piney woods of Central Louisiana. In my own journey to recreate this part of mid 19th century Louisiana, I fell in love with another faraway place: the rolling hills, bogs, and friendly people of Ireland. As we travel with Joseph Moore on his journey from treeless Ireland to the heart of the piney woods, I hope you’ll get glimpses of his homeland, the beautiful ‘land of forty shades of green.” Ireland—the land that in spite of its hardships and troubles during the years of this story never faded in the heart of any immigrant who left it behind. I hope The Wayfaring Stranger also takes you to this island nation, the home of multitudes of our ancestors—many of whom traveled to these piney woods and fell in love with them also.
Westport, County Mayo Ireland
“It is difficulties that show what men are.”
A journey is defined as traveling from one place to another—usually taking a rather long time; sometimes we call it a passage, which can mean progress from one stage to another.
Normally we consider a journey a trek of physical miles in moving from one place to another. However, the greatest journeys, as well as the greatest struggles, are always those on the inside of a man or woman—in their heart.
The Wayfaring Stranger is a journey of all of these components: a physical trip of thousands of miles, an accompanying struggle to overcome great adversity, and finally and most of all: a journey within the heart. It is the story of a man who faces the challenges, difficulties, and obstacles of life.
Come join Joseph Moore on this journey…
Chapter 1 – The Journey Begins
I am a poor Wayfaring Stranger,
Traveling through this world below
There is no sickness, toil, or danger
In that world to which I go.
I’m going home to see my Father,
I’m going home no more to roam.
I am just going over Jordan; I am just going over home.
-“The Wayfaring Stranger”
Traditional Irish Ballad
“I knew it would finally end this way—“
That was the thought burning in the mind of Joseph Moore as he lay hidden behind the stone wall. Breathing heavily with his heart pounding wildly, he tried to calm down as he listened for the sound of the tracking dogs. Once again, he felt the wound just below his right knee and withdrew his hand to see blood. He had just run a panic-filled mile frantically trying to escape the baying dogs and shouting men chasing him.
The dirt felt cool against his face as he lay on the ground. The sweat from fear and exertion ran down his cheek in a trickle onto the dirt. Wiping his face, Joseph watched nervously through a hole in the rock wall. He could see toward the west as he scanned carefully for any sign of the men and dogs. On a normal day the unique smell of the peaty dirt of western Ireland would have been something he enjoyed. But today was not a normal day. It was a day full of events that would change his life forever – if he survived it.
On this day, in the year 1849, Joseph Moore of the village of Westport, County Mayo, Ireland was a young man of sixteen. A tall thin teenager with sandy hair and a pleasant freckled ruddy face, he was dressed in homespun clothes and bare-footed. All in all, he was pretty non-descript among typical Irish teens in this famine-ravaged area.
He was pretty typical except for one detail – anyone who met him for the first time always commented on his intense deep green eyes. Those eyes smoldered with a fiery passion that was unforgettable when you looked into them. An older Irish lady had once commented to his mother, “My Lord, those green eyes will probably get him killed early in life. I’ve never in me’ life seen any quite like his emerald eyes.”
At the moment, those green ey
es were peering cautiously over the low stone wall as he heard the howling dog approaching. Shaking with the rush of adrenaline, he wondered if his life was to end at this young age. In the last four years he had seen plenty of death up close among both adults and children much younger than he. The failures of the potato crop had caused widespread famine and cost the lives of thousands throughout Ireland. Coupled with the desperate mass emigration of thousands who had left by boat, it seemed Ireland was now becoming barren of people.
The smell of the dirt beneath his face was a reminder of the scores of fresh graves he had helped dig only last week at a place called Doo Lough. That sad sight of the famine victims lying along the lonely lake pathway had not left his mind since. He could not even talk about it—and wondered if he would ever be able to.
Lying behind the stone wall, he thought, “I helped dig many of those shallow graves last week. I just wonder if f someone will be digging my own grave before this mess is over.”
Joseph dizzyingly thought back on the events of the day that had brought him to this terrifying moment: This normal March morning had begun innocently enough. There were always plenty of chores to do on the small Moore farm. What had earlier been a family of seven now consisted of only Joseph and an older married sister. Everyone was gone – his dad’s exile to Australia by the authorities, other family members who had emigrated to England or America, and the rest who were dead from starvation or the famine fever that had swept through during the worst days of the past four years.
When the trouble started on this particular spring morning he had been using the spade to heap the potato rows with more dirt. He had planted this spring’s crop early in hopes that the potato rot would not hit before the crop was ready. It was hoped that this year’s early crop might be disease-free. The cool breeze from the west had the smell of the nearby Atlantic Ocean. He had always loved that salty smell that stung your nostrils and made you feel a little more alive. The ocean smell always made him dream of being on the sea, a huge fantasy for a boy who had never traveled more than twenty miles from home.
As he shoveled, Joseph was just out of sight of the last possessions of his family farm: their small sheep herd: an old ram, two ewes, and two young lambs. They were grazing in the next field—hidden from view by a stone wall and grove of trees.
Along with the garden, these sheep were the livelihood of his sister, her family, and himself. So precious were they that each night they were brought into the one room of the dirt-floored family cottage. It might have seemed odd to a teenager in Dublin or London, but Joseph Moore had never known any other way of life than sharing a house with the family animals. Before they had sold their only pig to help pay last year’s rent, it had also been a nightly house guest. In a land of starvation, any food source had to be closely watched.
That was why this morning’s sound of bleating had filled him with fear. The dreadful sound was coming from the adjacent field. The fearful bleating of the sheep was joined by the barking and yelping of several dogs. Keeping his heavy spade in hand, Joseph rushed toward the sound of the animals. What he saw as he reached the stone wall sickened him. A pack of four dogs were attacking the sheep.
As is their nature, the sheep were all huddled up helplessly at a corner of the stone wall. The large dogs were attacking the sheep viciously. Blood poured from the neck and head of one of the ewes. A young lamb lay twitching in the convulsions of death beside its defenseless mother.
Joseph sprinted toward the dogs filled with sudden rage, shouting hoarsely and waving his spade. All but one of the dogs loped off when he came close. The one remaining dog, a big yellow hound, did not stop as it bit down on the neck of the other lamb. Angrily, Joseph struck the dog across the back with his spade. The snarling dog turned on the Irish teen and with lightning quick speed latched onto his right calf.
Letting out a painful yell and feeling a blind rage that he did not quite know whence it came, Joseph began viciously striking the dog on the head over and over. The dog quickly released its grip on his leg and fell to the ground yelping in pain.
It lay with blood pouring out of its mouth and one ear. Even after knowing he had hit the dog enough to kill it, he continued a steady rain of blows. It was as if all of the anger – from the heavy-handed abuse of the absentee landlords, the potato failure, the constant hunger and poverty, the unending deaths of family and friends – seemed to pour forth from Joseph and be directed at the body of the prone dog. He turned toward the other three dogs that were watching and lunged toward them. They ran off whimpering with their tails tucked between their legs, content that they’d seen enough and happy to escape.
The green eyes that neighbors always noticed were now filled with a burning passion and rage. Breathing heavily, the boy knelt down beside his dead sheep and the quivering dying dog. His right leg hurt badly from the dog bite and his only pair of pants was torn and bloody. He looked at the three dead sheep on the ground and tears filled his eyes as he realized what this loss meant for him, his sister and her family.
Kneeling over the sheep and dog, Joseph had no idea that an observer had watched the entire episode. This witness to the attack also knew who the dogs belonged to. They were the property of the English land agent, Smith, who oversaw all of the rental land east of Westport City. The dog killed by Joseph was his prize hound. The land Joseph and his sister’s family lived on was part of these land holdings. Neither of these two facts boded well for Joseph Moore. Put together they were serious trouble and he knew it.
The silent observer didn’t wait long to send word to Smith’s estate about the Irish peasant who had killed the Englishman’s best dog. As in any small rural town anywhere in the world, most of the village knew about the encounter by noon that day. Not only did the news of the killing spread, but also the echoing threat of Smith to kill the boy who had dared to kill his best hunting dog.
When a neighbor ran to tell Joseph’s older sister, Bridget, of this threat, terror filled her heart. Everyone knew that this wealthy English land agent meant what he said and was used to getting his way. It did not surprise her that the nobleman would place the life of a hunting dog above the life of a mere Irish peasant boy. She well remembered last year how Smith had allowed the public flogging of a salmon poacher caught trespassing on his private river. The resultant beating was so severe that the man nearly died. When townspeople complained of the brutality and public humiliation of the flogging, Smith’s icy comment was, “I bet the next man who thinks about trespassing will be reminded to stay out of my river.”
Recalling this, Bridget took her younger brother by the shoulders and said, “Brother, ye must go. Run for yer life. Only prison or worse awaits you here now. Go—Go now.” She tenderly kissed him and pushing him on his way cried, “God bless ye Joseph. May God lead ye away from this place.”
Her push was not one minute too soon. As he went out the back door, he saw the men approaching about two hundred yards away. There were four of them. He recognized Smith because of his fine clothing. On each side of him were British soldiers from the town. A fourth man dressed in civilian clothing cradled what appeared to be a shotgun. He also carried somethin
g else in his other hand that Joseph couldn’t quite make out. One of the soldiers was leading two dogs. Joseph knew they were the tracking dogs from the station. It looked as if these men were serious about finding him.
He ran quickly for the safety of the nearby three foot high stone wall. Reaching it he leaped over it and squatted down. Now hidden, he crouched and crawled along—out of sight of his pursuers. He soon reached the end of the stone wall where he saw that no cover existed past it.
Now watching over the wall, he saw the men pass up the house, ignoring Bridget who stood in the doorway. One of the men shouted something back at her but Joseph couldn’t make it out. But he could now see what the shotgun-toting man had in his other hand—it was a long crowbar. He also recognized him as the bailiff. When a landlord wanted to evict a tenant, the bailiff was in charge of the eviction. The crowbar was the tool used to knock down the entire stone cabin. It was called “tumbling down” and meant nearly certain starvation for the evicted family.
So now, filled with fear and adrenaline-charged, Joseph Moore lay half-hidden in the potato field watching the approaching men, seething with rage and fear knowing that the family cabin would probably be a pile of rubble by sunset. He could see the baying hounds, noses to the ground, moving step by step toward his hiding place.
He took a deep breath of the fresh Irish air. “I know I’ve got to run. To stay here will mean certain capture and probably death. They may shoot me, but they’ll have to hit a running target.” Watching their approach, he selected a small shrub by the side of the road the pursuers were coming down. Then he looked behind him at a grove of trees along another nearby stone wall. “When and if the dogs reach that point, I’m going to jump up and run for me life. If I can make it for the forty yards to those trees, I’ll be sheltered from the guns long enough to put some proper distance between me and them.”
He had selected the roadside shrub because he felt the pursuers were still out of shotgun range at that distance. He just hoped the soldiers with their side arms were slow and poor marksman.
For the first time in a long while, he prayed: “Lord, if you could, please turn that dog. I sure need a little help to get out of this one.”
But when the dogs were within about a hundred yards, they evidently picked up his scent for they yelped with a new intensity and began loping right toward his hiding place.
“Well, it’s now or never. Feet don’t fail me now!” With a yell that seemed to be a curious mixture of pent-up rage and extreme fear, he jumped up and started running. It so happened the men were looking back toward the house when he leaped up and made the first few steps. The recognizing barks of the dogs and Joseph’s own yell wheeled them quickly back around. He never knew if it was one or two shots he heard. It all happened very fast and he definitely wasn’t in any mood to look back. He heard the pellets whistle past him and felt a sting above his left elbow. In spite of the painful dog bite on his leg and the burning of the wound in his arm, he was making tracks for the cover of the trees. With great strides he was hurdling the potato rows he had been working earlier in the day.
In the coming years, after enough time had passed to dull the pain and allow some humor, Joseph would regale men sitting around the campfire with what he called “Me famous wild Irish potato run.” It was especially a favorite story of the young boys who loved hearing him tell it in his rich Irish brogue replete with his renditions of yelling, guns firing, and dog barking.
But there was nothing funny about it on that March afternoon in 1849. With the cover of the trees, Moore was now screened from the guns but he never even considered slowing down. He ran a long time, before the baying of the hound faded behind him. Finally he stopped, stooped over, placing his hands on his knees and trying to get air into his oxygen-starved lungs. Looking back, he saw his pursuers holding the dogs and watching him from a distance of a quarter mile. He heard Smith holler with cupped hands in a distinctly English accent, “You can run young ‘Erse’ but you can’t hide. We’ll get you tomorrow or the next day. It’s only a matter of time… Jest a matter of time.”
Chapter 2 The Swamp
Eliza Clark came stark awake in the night. Sitting up in bed, she looked out the window and could sense it was getting close to daylight. Life in the western Louisiana woods attuned a person’s inner clock to the time of day or night. Because the first quarter moon had set earlier in the night, she couldn’t use its position in the sky to know the time. However, she could sense that it was getting close to daylight.
She hopped out of bed and as her bare feet hit the dirt floor of her family’s cabin, she was fully awake. Slipping out of her bedclothes into a blouse and dress, she tiptoed to the fireplace in the house and took the clock off the cypress mantel above the fireplace. The fire was still burning and gave enough light for her to check the time. It was just after five o’clock. Sunrise that morning would be about fifteen minutes before six and she had to be at the creek before the sun came up.
Carefully placing the clock back on the mantel, she recalled that it was her mother’s most precious heirloom, brought from the east when her great grandparents first came to the piney woods of Louisiana. Slipping to the door, she pulled on her shoes, put on a jacket, unlatched the door, and was outside.
That morning’s date in the “No Man’s Land” area of Louisiana was Thursday, April 6, 1849. Eliza was sure of the date because of a calendar she kept on the kitchen wall. Many of the settlers in the area didn’t keep up with the day, date, or time. They simply lived by the sun, moon, and seasons. However, Eliza kept up with all of these things because she liked to know what the day and month was. And today was a very special day: It was her fifteenth birthday.
As Eliza tiptoed outside on that cool early April morning, her eyes began to adjust to the darkness and the awesome canopy of stars became clear in the sky above her. As always, the brightness and clarity of the stars took her breath away. She had observed the night sky for all of her life and it never ceased to amaze her at the stars in the black night. It was as if she could just reach up in the sky and grab one of the stars glowing above her. With a shiver, she whispered, “When I look at that night time sky, Lord I always know that you’re up there.”
It was cold enough that her breath vaporized as she spoke. Even though it was a cool morning and she was barefooted, she didn’t feel chilled at all. Most children and teens in this area didn’t wear shoes very often. Normally, outside in the dark, she would have put on some shoes, but due to the fact that the weather was too cold for snakes to be out, she could walk the trail barefooted not having to wonder if that dark stick ahead might really be a rattler or a moccasin.
Eliza Clark, on this her birthday morning, began walking to 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. It supplied water for washing, swimming, bathing, and sometimes for drinking if a drought made the well run low.
It was completely quiet on this morning as she hurried toward the creek. A noise behind her startled her. She stopped comp
letely still and heard steps approaching her. In the darkness she couldn’t make out what was coming and that alarmed her.
Then she heard the voice of her younger brother, Elijah. “Where do you think you’re going without me, sister?”
She breathed a sigh of relief when he ambled up and joined her journey toward the creek. In his squeaky ten-year old’s voice he added, “I know it’s your birthday today and you’re headed to the creek, but I’m goin’ with you.”
Eliza tried to act annoyed at the intrusion of her brother, but they both knew she was glad to see him.
The land she and Elijah were crossing belonged to their family. Like most of the settlers in this part of the still new 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 majestic 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 bushes. Just two months ago, during the late winter, the yearly burning of the woods had swept through this area. These fires were set so new grass would be available for the livestock that roamed these free range woods as well as to keep the undergrowth from taking over. As they walked along, you could still smell the burned odor where the grass and smaller dead trees had burned.
During daylight, Eliza loved how you could see for long distances under these pines. The thick pine straw that matted the ground was a wonderful place to lie down and look up into the tops of the tall, straight hundred foot tall trees. She had no idea how far this species of trees stretched in any direction, but she knew she’d never been out of them other than along the creek bottoms where this upland tree didn’t grow.
As she entered the edge of the swamp, the dirt beneath her feet now turned to oozing mud. It was always wet in the swamp in the spring. Even the cool mud 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 a steady supply of acorns and beech mast for their woods hogs.
As Eliza and her brother neared the bank of the creek, she saw fresh evidence of why settlers didn’t build right on the stream. A recent big rain had flooded all of the local streams for over a week. Everywhere where she now walked had been under water recently. In the dim daylight that was creeping into the swamp, she could see driftwood deposited over six foot high in a nearby beech tree. Even in the dark, her calloused feet could feel the sandy soil that had been washed clean of leaves and vegetation by the floodwaters.
Standing at the sandy creekbank she could hear Cherry Winche Creek gurgling over a fallen log. It was a sound she loved. Her people called it “the music of the swamp.”
She found a fallen log and they sat down in the dawning light. Elijah nestled up beside her and they sat together in the silence of the woods.
With a stick she scraped the mud and sand off her feet. The creek sand had coated the wet mud to make a sticky and grainy coating that reminded her of her mom’s sugar cookies.
Now Eliza Jane Clark didn’t need anyone around to carry on a conversation. She would gladly talk out loud, to God, or herself, but she was glad to have her younger brother with her.
Pointing to their muddy feet, she said, “Now, brother, this here mud on our feet is Clark mud. It’s from land owned by our daddy and momma that one day’ll belong to me, you, and our sisters. Well, let me correct myself, dad told me this here land here really belongs to God and He’s just loaning it to us. In fact I asked daddy if he had any papers from God, or the courthouse, proving me owned it. Daddy’s piercing glance told me that was a ticklish subject.
“Elijah, our daddy added, ‘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. It was settled by our ancestors generations ago. The Spanish, the French, and now the Americans, have all claimed it, but the truth is it belongs to us.’
“Brother, then daddy made a statement, ‘Eliza, girl, I don’t know so much if we own this land. It’s more of a matter that this land owns us.’
“So that’s always been my theme. In fact I’m going to find me a good beech tree near here and carve it in the bark: Clark land. We don’t own it. It owns us.” On this April morning, that statement echoed in her mind: “This land owns us!”
Elijah leaned his head on his big sister’s shoulder. “All I know is that this is where I want to live for the rest of my life. What about you, Eliza?”
“It’s 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? It’s our home and where we are welcome.”
They sat in silence for a few minutes. Elijah started to say something but his sister put her hand on his shoulder and whispered, “Shh, it’s nearly time. Just listen real close.”
Eliza Clark was in the woods early on this morning of April 6 because in addition to it being her birthday, it was special for another reason – Her grandmother “Ma”, now dead for over two years had always told her that this date was “whippoorwill day.” Ma had sworn to Eliza that you would always hear this bird that got its name from its lonely call, on this day at dawn. Nudging her with a smile, Grandmother Pearline Dial would wink, “If a girl hears the first one before the morning light and that call is answered by another nearby whippoorwill, it means one thing: her future man will think of her today.”
Whether Ma had been serious or not, Eliza liked to think that it might be true. When first told this whippoorwill adage as a child, she had made a bad face and grimaced at the thought of boys. But now at age fifteen, that had all changed. Not only had she begun to more closely notice the boys—the boys had definitely taken a liking to her. There was no doubt she had grown into a young woman and although the attention somewhat embarrassed her, she secretly liked it and the giddy feeling it gave her. So on this cool morning for whatever reasons, she intended to be the first soul in all of these woods to hear a whippoorwill. To have the best chance of hearing their lonely, repetitive call, you needed to be down in the swamp.
Elijah had stood the quiet for about as long as a ten year old could: “Liza girl, where do the whip poor wills go when they’re not in Louisiana?”
She whispered, “They’re a secretive bird. That’s one of the reasons I love them. You can‘t even hear them flying—they fly real quiet just like an owl. We don’t know much about them. They do pass through our area twice yearly—in the fall going south, and now when they’re coming back north. During their autumn visit, they don’t have a voice. But they make up for it when they return here in April. Ma always said that once you’d heard their call, you’ll never forget it till your dying day.”
Now Eliza, to her knowledge, had never seen a live whippoorwill. Her dad had once brought home a dead bird he’d found on the wagon road. He claimed it was a whippoorwill. It had a natural camouflage that blended seamlessly in with the ground or tree limb it perched on during the daytime hours. Being a night bird, it had huge dark eyes. Her dad had held the bird and said, “It’s got those big eyes to see the smallest bug in the dark. And lookee here at its mouth.” He pointed to a set of whisker-like bristles that protruded from each side of the wide oversize
d mouth. “That’s a shovel-like bug scoop. It’s an insect eating bird and those whiskers scoop them bugs right into that big mouth.” Eliza wasn’t sure where he dad had learned this, or if it was completely so, but she had exclaimed to her dad, “And just think, some people don’t believe in a God. Just seeing this bird and hearing about that, lets me know there’s a God in Heaven that made it and fills me with great joy.”
“Filled with joy” – now that was a term the neighbors used in describing Eliza Jane Clark! She was a country girl who found joy and laughter in all of the things around her in both nature and people. She had a natural curiosity that could not be quenched. She always wanted to know about things and how they worked. Sometimes this curiosity got her in trouble, but it was also an appealing quality that made others just naturally like her. The habits and actions of people also fascinated her and she had made a habit of “studying folks and their sure nuff peculiarities” as her mom called it.
If you’d seen her on this morning as she stood at Cherry Winche Creek, you’d agree that she was pretty but in a rough and winsome way. Her cotton dress was simple and the light jacket she wore over her blouse had seen better days. However, there was a beauty and dignity about her that let you know her greatest beauty came from who she was. Even in the coming light of this morning, it was easy to see that she was dark. Her Indian heritage was plain to see in her long black hair, bronze skin, high cheekbones, and most of all—deep expressive dark brown eyes.
All of the settlers in the Ten Mile area had dark brown eyes. It was part of their heritage. But Eliza’s eyes were set apart from the rest of them. Looking into them it seemed as if you could see into her very soul. Others commented that when she stared into your eyes, she was drinking in your inner most thoughts.
Eliza had once eavesdropped on the bedroom conversation of her mother and dad as they discussed her. She heard her mom comment, “Willard, that girl’s eyes nearly scare me. Sometimes when she stares at me, it’s as if she knows everything I’m thinking.” He had retorted, “Virginia, she’s just got your eyes. When I started courting you, my momma told me, “Son you be careful, that girl’s got ‘thieving eyes.’ She’ll take everything you have, including your heart. Mark my word. You be careful.’ ”
There had been a silence before her dad added, “She was right you know. You’ve taken everything I’ve got—and if I had more, I’d give it to you too.” Eliza had gone to sleep that night with the laughter of her parents. She slept well knowing she lived in a home where she was loved.
It had never occurred to her that her eyes were similar to the whippoorwills: large, dark, expressive. Always taking in everything around it and able to see the tiniest things that others missed. They were searching eyes—always looking deeply into the hearts of others. Seeing things in nature that most people walked by with no notice. Those eyes—they were something that set her apart from the other girls and attracted men to her.
There was another correlation with the mysterious usually unseen whippoorwill: Eliza lived among a people that were very similar to the habits of this bird. The settlers of the Ten Mile area were also isolated and reclusive. They were often heard about but seldom seen. They had chosen this very area of western Louisiana as their home because of its isolation and distance from government, laws, and the interference of civilization.
Elijah, with his head still on her shoulder, was softly snoring. She’d wake him later when the first whippoorwill sang. Nearby a redbird had begun to sing. It soon flew off and silence returned to the swamp.
A few moments later she heard it: the call she was awaiting. It came from the woods to the east. It was loud and clear and repeated with urgency a dozen times. It was a whippoorwill! Each syllable was accented in a unique way: “Whip-poooor- will.” It 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 again and again. She’d always thought what a lonely call this bird had. So often it seemed to live in a solitary world. Very seldom did another bird answer in close proximity. It seemed as if they were spread throughout the swamps, just like the people of the Cherry Winche and Ten Mile area—a people who were of the same kin yet each one separate and isolated.
As Eliza listened to the lone whippoorwill’s repeated calls for several minutes with no answer, she finally heard a reply – a long, long distance away. It was faint and at first she wasn’t sure if she’d only imagined it. But then she knew it for sure—another whippoorwill 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 whippoorwills—one close by and the other seemingly 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 oaks, beeches, and hickory trees.
Eliza Clark, age fifteen on this day in 1849, leaned over and whispered to her still sleeping brother, “Well, Eli do you think my future husband’s thinking about me? And where do you think he just might be right now?”