Nestled deep in the swamp stood a house. The house was old, far older than folks might realize. The support beams sagged. Thick sweeps of moss hung from the eaves. The back porch had long since slipped into the boggy mud. While the primary resident was far too polite to ever tell mamma (again), the sitting room also slanted heavily, causing any vaguely circular object placed on it to immediately make a mad dash for the front door. No glass stood in any of the windows. And there were large patches in the roof that, even from a distance, it was quite obvious kept out precisely nothing.
It was home, and had housed the still proud Chasseur family for so many generations, that the family’s meager math skills were sorely tested with the counting of them. There was a small buzz of activity around the house’s only fireplace. The hearthstones had been sunk deep, deep into the mire around them. Great grandpappy had often boasted through a toothless grin that the whole house was built around that chimney; the hearth built on top of some ancient pillar now hidden under the crumbling house. Either way, the white stone had long trails of black soot lapping up the sides to disappear in the creaky stone tunnel, ushering away the smoke into the night air. The night bugs flew around the dirty figure singing quietly to himself.
“Uncle Henri!” a small voice called from the other room. The hunched figure muttering over the pot straightened and turned towards the voice with a broad smile splitting his face.
“Oh cher,” he cried. “What you doin’ up at dis hour?” he pronounced it nearly as ‘her’.
The small voice giggled, and whispered on in a conspiratorial whisper, “Nanna See is cursin’ up a storm somethin’ fierce, Uncle Henri. She sayin’ you done burned the stew again, an’ that yous gonna leave the shell in der too long and foul it up.”
A pale, dirty face with the most beautiful watery eyes that God had ever graced in a child, dipped into the light. She giggled again in that way she always did when causing some small degree of chaos. “Ain’t none of us ken sleep up der with her howlin’ after ya.”
Henri sighed in an overly dramatic way, placing hands on his hips. “Noémie, what did ya pa say bout tattlin’? You keep up with that, yous gonna be cuttin’ a switch before the sun peeps over dem trees. Now get back ta bed, scat! Yous know the floor too cold fer ya sickies! Soup will be along directly, its done. I ain’t got na bread, but we make due.”
The girl looked forlornly at Henri before nodding and sulking back upstairs. The one who had answered to Uncle Henri started to ladle the chunky stew, a color not unreminiscent of swamp water, into the wood bowl deep enough to nearly be a cauldron in its own right. Humming softly, he mounted the stairs himself, a stack of splintering bowls and spoons under his arm. One always had to mind the third and seventh stair in the old swamp house. The third because it was simply missing, and the seventh because, no matter how often it was nailed down or replaced, it always seemed to pop up along the left side. Normally, there were always folks in the house. Ma and Pa had themselves two children besides Henri, and Pa’s sister was still about. Henri’s brother, Francis, who was named for Pa’s younger brother, a brave man who’d left the family near twenty years before and had stopped sending letters nearly a decade ago, had himself a wife and three children of his own. Among them, Noémie was Henri’s favorite. Aunt Beatrice had her own kit, and their house wasn’t too far north from them. There had been more of them at one point, but a few years back, the rest had just stopped visiting or sending along word. There was a proud certainty in the house that these others were fine, but some general concern that they had forgotten Family Sundays.
The second floor of the dilapidated house was where the young and sick were always shepherded. Great grandpappy had always said that those who were frailest needed to be kept in the best air. Hence, the second floor. Past the broken banister was a large central room, broken only by sturdy blocks of wood holding up the roof. Night air came in through the window and roof alike. Night bugs making nests in the blankets of the ill. The noble soup bearer was greeted by a series of happy shouts and waves. They were a family of huggers, and had they been feeling more themselves, they likely would have leapt from their beds to wrap him in a series of tight embraces.
“How y’all are?” was their responding call. The fellow couldn’t wave for desire to not drop the stew. But he did offer a broad and happy smile to the crowd.
“Henri!” the voice of the man’s mother cut through the joy around her, which died off with good natured chuckles. “I know you w’rn’t born with sense God gave a squirrel, but I *know* you didn’t burn my dinner. Again!” There was no venom in her words, it was just her way. Too many children, and if you didn’t speak to them firmly, soon enough there was chaos in the house.
“Na, mama,” he said, tugging his forelock her direction once the soup was settled on a table that was surprisingly level, given the state of its fellows. “I stirred it the whole time, and set the pot just on the embers overnight. Just like yous said ta.”
She gave a withering glare for a moment before the pale figure nodded contently and crossed her thin arms across her chest. “Good. Glad ta see yous ain’t beyond learnin’.”
Henri, the noble soup bearer and wrestler of turtles, bowed his head her direction before gesturing to Noémie.
“Cher, you hand out the bowls,” he said with a smile. She immediately stamped a foot in protest.
“Uncle Henri, if ice hand out da bowls, den I gotta eat last. I never get a lump a meat when I go last,” she said, clearly unable to decide if she wants to fold her arm in indignance, or reach out to accept the immediately offered bowl her direction. Henri didn’t wait for her to settle on a choice before he gestured with the handle of the ladle towards the farthest cot, her father.
“Go on nao,” he said, gesturing a second time. She huffed, but did as she was hold. Her father accepted the bowl and spoon, giving his daughter a playful ruffle of her hair. Henri had seen her carried across his shoulders through the fields where the marshes dried out a bit. The sun had caught in her eyes, dew in her dimples. He’d never seen his brother so happy. Francis had always been a sullen figure, prone to sulking and fits of slothfulness. But since the day she’d been born? Since he had bundled her into his arms and strutted around the family home, just as proud as you please? Since that day, he’d never been without a smile. Henri’s heart could nearly break at remembering that day. Discretely, a tear is wiped away before Noémie can notice.
The ritual is repeated half a dozen times before the child was allowed to settle into a chair not far from Henri and dive into her stew. Once she was seen to, Henri hovered near his mother. She had a bowl of the soup settled in her lap. Gingerly, he helps her sit up, adjusting the pillow behind her shoulders so her neck didn’t have to crane at a sever angle to drink in the soup. She hadn’t been able to really feed herself of months now, and his father didn’t even have the energy to speak. He’d never been a verbose man, but as the years had worn on, it seemed his vocabulary and desire to exercise it diminished every season. These last few years, aside from headshakes and some grunts, he’d nearly given up on speaking to anyone at all.
“Yous a good boy, Henri,” she said, reaching up to pat his cheek with a gaunt hand that was always too cold. “Always was. Never gave me a lick a trouble. Is hard on ya sometimes ta make sure the mettle in ya is keen.”
Henri offered her a smile and nod, pulling up a stool to settle his weight on before scooping some of the stew onto a spoon and bringing it to her lips.
“Hush now, mama. I love you with my whole heart,” he said. She smiled before nodding and her lips parted to accept the soup. She recoiled a bit as she chewed, her brow furrowing immediately into a sign of disapproval bordering on disgust.
“Boy, you ain’t salted this atall!” she shrilled at him. Henri looked confused, scooping some of the soup onto the spoon and give it a try himself. It tasted… fine. His was never as good as his mothers. She was a mighty fine cook, everyone said.
“Its fine, momma,” he said. “I salted it. Give it another go.”
She resigned herself to the inferior meal, though she still scooted a bit closer to her son. Sometimes it was hard for folks to speak their feelings for fear of appearing weak. His mother was one such person. She patted his knee as if acknowledging her own failure before settling back to be fed her meal.
And so it went; one spoon for her, one spoon for him. She had never been a good eater, but he had devised this scheme once it became clear that was was more concerned that her son ate. Their bargain had been that she would eat precisely as much as he did, no more, no less. So they shared a meal.
“Ya know mama,” he said. “I been back ta town the other night. Cousin Thomas passed. Or seemed ta say he did.”
She gasped and covered her mouth, “How dare ya speak of so dark a topic over dinner. Who raised you, boy?”
He nodded sadly, spooning another bit of stew into her mouth. It was her turn, after all. “I’m sorry mama, I just feel so bad about it. I was just over an auntie’s house, and they was fine. Still under the weather, but this cold won’t kick. I’s gonna check on em tamarra. I’ll be sure ta leave extra soup with Noémie, and I’s sorry ta leave so soon after gettin’ back. I won’t be long.”
Granny See nodded after a moment. “You give Olivia ma love now. And don’t dally; I won’t abide you passin’ off yer chores ta Noémie, since she can’t seem ta say no ta you.”
Henri offered her a broad smile and nodded. He stood, straightening and picking up the wooden pot. He had a system with the girl, where she would collect up the dishes and bring them back down, and he in turn would give her some small treasure of the swamp. She was partial to flowers of a blue or purple hue, or wild honeycomb. He ruffled her hair, more gently than her father’s had, as he passed her by. They continued their quiet murmuring conversation as he slipped away. The pot was put back by the hearth, and he wrapped a mud soaked bit of dangling fabric around his shoulders. The spear he favored when hunting boar or gator was left by the door; ma didn’t like big weapons in the house. Boys always got to them and couldn’t be trusted not to break every little thing they crossed.
“Be good now,” he called to Noémie. She waved from the top of the stairs. By the time he was a half dozen steps away from the front porch, his ankles were lost in the muck. It was a full day’s walk to his Aunt’s home; his goal was to be there by midday. He’d never had much trouble walking through the night. Family came first, after all, and he wanted to make good time.
The house fell back in the darkness. Silent save for the buzz of flies and the quiet dribble of soup colliding at top speeds with the floor.