The West |

Emus On The Bayou

by Joan Tick drawings by Maude Black

I want to raise emus on the bayou—a place unchanged since Twain wrote about its uncommon and mysterious nature. I want to catch catfish at sundown to cook over a fire I built myself, which is a beautiful thing when I imagine what it looks like from afar. If you imagine what the campfire looks like from far away, the point from which I am picturing myself, it becomes a bright pulsating heart floating in the darkness of swamps. The emus are not far away with their occasional nighttime noises—guttural squeals and fluttering in the distance.

After dinner, I will sit by the fire for hours, flicking fish bones onto the ground where they will vanish by morning by way of insects, or rain; both of these things contribute to the constantly moving earth, here on the bayou. Here on the bayou, my emus are my life. And they will by yours, too. They provide our livelihood as locals and tourists come with children and cameras to happily pay the fee for touching a feather. “How do you think your husband will interpret this letter?” “I’m not done yet.” I found something extraordinary on the bayou (in my imagination, in my mind’s eye) that reminded me why I love it as much as I do. It started in a dream: I had a sister who was on her way to visit us. She owned a horse farm in a place where people typically own horse farms. She arrived early on a morning when the sunlight had mixed so unusually with the water that the air was full with green mist, bright as if florescent styrofoam had been grated into the air.

Splashes and neighs from down the river startled the wild birds and fish upstream and then we saw her and several brown horses swimming toward us. We were deeply concerned about the crocodiles. Just as we began to call out to her, we saw a family of crocodiles move in from our very shore and overtake two beautiful slick horses. The horses could not sustain the attacks on their necks and backs for long and soon all that was left from the commotion were the terrible screams of my sister at the loss of her horses and the other surviving horses desperately climbing ashore, where they fled in all directions deep within the trees. So stricken with grief was my sister that she let herself sink to the bottom of the river. I suspect the crocs got her too. I awake in the early morning, startled by how this morning resembles the one set in my dream. The murky colors that usually only move from light to dark are bright. The sky is open, the air thinner, and the emus dance about, eking out shrubs, lizards and bugs amidst the trees. “Don’t you think the letter should confront your husband’s release? “I’m not finished.” It may seem strange to think about it here, but on the bayou different rules apply to life. I walk over to the corral fence and look at our emus. We have fifteen and you can tell them apart. They vary in size a little, but mostly, they can be distinguished by their personalities. There is one in particular, named Larma, who is shy and has never grown accustomed to people. She has a half-appendage dangling from her inner left leg. It is indeed a third leg that had started to grow, but shriveled in its embryonic state. Larma seems conscious of her deformity, even ashamed and when the emus graze together, Larma isolates herself to a far end of the corral and sleeps alone while the other birds keep close, listening for the sounds of potential danger in a half sleep that is the sleep of animals.

Oh Larma, I always say. Get over it. But she falls into a greater depression as time goes by. This morning, after the dream, and in this new atmosphere on the bayou, I take Larma from the corral. She is flapping and fussing all around me, but I keep hold of her neck with a bridle and bring her to the shore. We stand there for some time, our feet sinking into the mud, until I finally see what I am looking for—the head of a crocodile slipping along like tangled driftwood. Larma senses its presence and begins flapping again. She even makes eye contact with me for a moment—the gaze of betrayal—before I push her in the water. I swing a long tree branch at her each time she tries to make her way back in. You awake to the sound of Larma’s cries, but it’s too late. The crocodile finds her in no time and leaves nothing but a pile of feathers spinning on the waves.

“I’m not sure what kind of code this is, but let’s revisit the facts.

You will be living together again after seven years. Have you forgiven him? Should you?” “As I was saying…” When you come out of the house and realize that Larma has been killed, you are devastated. The atmosphere is different—the air much thinner than usual. There is that green mist floating about (truly dazzling). But needless to say, you don’t care about that and you moan with anger and heartbreak. I quickly realize that I look like something to hate, standing here on the banks covered in gray water and mud, the tree branch in my hand like a fired gun. It seemed like the right thing to do for Larma, I say. If I just speak adamantly enough, I will convince you to adopt my logic. You don’t argue—only fall to the mud, onto creepy crawly things that make the earth ever moving. Oh, I say. Oh God, what have I done? “You haven’t done anything. That is one thing we have established over the years. Let’s not backtrack here. Stay focused. You need to think about yourself. What do you really want to say to him now? “I want to raise emus on the bayou and build a fire—a fire that from afar looks like a giant piece of burning coal from inside the earth, a bright heart...” “Why?” “I first encountered the idea when a friend of mine returned from the bayou and learned about its amazing history.” “Which bayou? There are many.” “The bayou that Mark Twain discusses.” “The Mississippi River?” “The bayou. If you don’t already know it, I can’t bring you up to speed.” In 1673 a merchant and a priest were on a bayou expedition with the merchant’s twelve year old son. Many places on the bayou have remained unchanged since that time. The light in these parts, however, shifts depending on the river’s mood, which I think you’re starting to understand by now. These men were traveling, fatigued and hungry, on a perfectly black night. The stars and moon were fixed on the glassy face of the river, which had put the boy in a kind of trance as they paddled forward.

The boy’s trance was interrupted when something black emerged from the water about twenty yards away. It was just a glimpse, a flash, a mass that had popped up and back down again. What the boy had seen seemed quite large, but blackness amidst blackness is difficult to discern, so the boy fixed his vision where the moon shone most brightly, hoping that whatever it was would make itself visible in that spot, or at least his peripheral vision could gain accuracy with the inclusion of this light, if the mass should reemerge in the darkness. The boy tried not to blink—spotting interesting creatures along the way had become the boy’s entertainment ritual. But this time there was fear in the boy’s heart. A small splash in the distance energized the boy’s pursuit, and there in the moonlight he saw something still indiscernible, but as large a horse. This is what he told his father and the priest, but it was a dark night and trying to discern blackness amidst blackness can play tricks on the eye. He refused their explanations: It was not a huge catfish, not a crocodile, not a piece of driftwood, and it was clearly alive and moving, although in the distance, alongside the canoe. A silence overcame the river, as if the river itself had stopped moving, and the men simultaneously ceased conversation to contemplate this bewildering change in the river’s natural ways, the ways they thought they knew well. At that moment, any sound previously gone unconsidered was deeply missed (the subtle wind, the water washing along the sides of the canoe, the occasional and distant cry of herons). Although they tried, there was nothing to hear or see. Suddenly the canoe was overturned with an incredible force. There was not even time to cry out. The merchant and the priest knew how to swim, but the boy did not. The men shouted and searched with near madness in that black current. Underwater, their arms flailed, searched blindly. In that timeless, lightless mass of water, the exhausted pair finally gave up and pulled the canoe ashore. The next morning, the mournful pair continued their journey. Before that incident the merchant had grown weary of his travels and was worried about the endurance of his son on such a journey. The very night the canoe mysteriously capsized, the father had decided to end the expedition, which was much needed for trading developments. But after the boy disappeared, the priest and merchant made a celestial promise to follow through in the name of the Virgin, and in the name of his lost son. Their expedition became a world renowned success—opening vital trading routes during the county’s early development. “Hmmm. That’s a lovely story about western encroachment on an already inhabited land…unless this is a representation of your husband’s encroachment on the safety of your psychological terrain?”


I see the boy being pulled down by the black thing that had overturned the canoe. It is a massive creature that has no single shape because it really is the river. It is one amorphous being for all that the river contains—mud, fish, snakes, turtles, newts, crocodiles, insects, the shapes (shifting as they do) from dreams, and now the boy. Make no mistake, however. It isn’t evil. A new and uncontained world was given to that boy. He grew gills, and speed, new eyes that could see through mud and to the moon. And now he is down there and knows three hundred years of secrets from both men and the river. He knows the darkness as if it were light. And there is no fear. “Are you frightened? Of what he is capable of doing, still?” “I am afraid that Larma did not become a part of the river creature. That she died painfully, betrayed by her keeper.” And here I stand on the banks with my small fire from the previous night still smoldering just a few paces away, which is not far away from the emu corral where Larma preferred solitude and where, now, the other emus are nowhere in sight. I am confused by my own actions. I might even be something to hate. You loved her deeply. “You aren’t ready for this.” “Perfectly ready, thank you. May I finish?” I want to build a telescope on our old wooden balcony so we can watch our emus up close, see into the heron nests that seem to teeter on treetops. But its mother has sewn so efficiently that no tantrums in weather can pull them loose. And near the water, our emus have their own patterns amongst the trees, under the makeshift shelters that I nail together. In their secret places, the emus lay eggs, beautiful and seemingly prehistoric. They glow against the drab, evening green. The sky slips forward, silent and white with clouds, like a wide but barren river moving over its dark and populous twin below. We can see through, and past those depths to the moon—get a glimpse of what the boy sees when he looks up.

I can see travelers making their way down the river and I estimate how much catfish to cook for our guests. Wearing cameras and hiking boots, they will swat at the mosquitoes that have grown tired of us. The people’s excitement for our home on the bayou fills the air with a new energy, making us hospitable and talkative. They hover over the corral fence, ask questions and desperately try to touch the emus, who shrink away from their odd smells and foodless hands. Somebody might even buy Larma from us, somebody eccentric who likes eccentric creatures, if you don’t mind letting her go from our wild place.

They move on. The last lights of their boat disappear behind a cluster of overgrown trees. I won’t mind sitting out here by myself after you have gone to bed, leaving me with my fire. In that kind of darkness, I love to imagine what it looks like from afar. “Don’t emus live in arid climates?” “They certainly do.”