The Song Of The Bark
by Shome Dasgupta
There were no squirrels or egrets around when Fabienne and Foulon were taken by Lake Martin—so Verot had thought—perhaps there was one alligator, lazily wading that morning with one eye closed which entered his mind, just for a moment, but that was just a local rumor he had created in his own head, on that day of a certain spectacle of snow and ice causing such troubles for a city accustomed to the thickness of the sun. One day, it lasted. One day, all was gone for Verot.
Estranged since their birth, a rekindled relationship with his younger siblings eight months before a Louisiana blizzard. The twins welcomed their older brother, not knowing much—the parents didn’t talk too much about Verot, thinking that he had given up on them. It’s not so much that Verot had given up on them, but more so that he had lost his senses—living in a distorted reality where he had no family, just himself in a world, he felt, turned raised its shoulders so that he could no longer clasp and hug to feel any sort of sanity.
“We’re losing him, Alcindor,” Darbonne said. “Our son. We’re losing him, and I don’t know what to do. I am his mother, Alcindor.”
Their parents—Alcindor and Darbonne—tried their best to keep the family together, but realizing that Verot had wandered into a maze in his own mind, much like the trodden paths of the sugar cane fields near their home, they decided to start fresh, and so came Fabienne and Foulon, even though Verot was still around at the time, but soon after, so he became a ghost of a memory. No one knew where he had gone. Local talk—the whispers loud enough for Darbonne and Alcindor to hear—prated about his demise and possible location. Whether it was at the Chevron or Don’s Seafood Hut or at the ArtWalk down Jefferson Street on Saturday nights, there was always a talk, and with each turn of the tongue, Verot’s mother felt the pain of losing the soul of her son.
“Please be kind,” Darbonne said, walking into the lobby of La Fonda—one Friday night after Verot had left.
It was the first time they were going out to dine since Verot’s departure eight or so months earlier. Every now and then, a talk on the phone, or going to the grocery store at awkward hours, the drive-thru, yoga at home—they had lived a muted life, knowing that the town was talking about them—friends and strangers alike. Alcindor would arrive at his office early in the morning—around 4 AM, just so that he wouldn’t see anyone, and then he would leave late, after everyone had gone, and in between, quietly eating a sandwich at his desk. The only solace he found was talking to his clients who had no idea what he and his family were going through—relying on voices from around the world for a sense of belonging.
She knew they had been talking about them—her family, her son, though it had been almost close to a year, Lafayette gossip might have thinned out from time to time, but it never snapped and entering her own little world again, she realized, would thicken the talk again. She knew because she would have been doing the same if it wasn’t about her own family. The room was full of echoes—little space to navigate around, chatter and chatter. Frozen margaritas lifted in the air so that they didn’t spill against shuffled bodies. Alcindor didn’t want to attend. He knew what they would be walking into—thinking about all of the times he fueled the Lafayette gossip, whether true or otherwise. He knew better not to, and it wasn’t like he enjoyed it—he only took part in the conversation to reaffirm his companionship, to be a part of something, to fit in.
“Let’s stay home, Darb—there’s no need for this.”
“There is a need,” she replied, “we might as well get it over with anyway, and anyway, it’s our time to eat the burnt crust of the pan. We deserve it.”
When they pulled into the parking lot, they both sat in their Mercedes for eleven minutes, engine running. Darbonne had gotten out of the car before Alcindor, walking into the restaurant by herself, while Alcindor listened to the traffic on Johnston Street.
Her friends, both casual and closer, welcomed her—hugs, pats, kisses on the cheeks. Darbonne felt the betrayal and judgment—the façades and fronts with each person she met.
“Please be kind,” she said again.
That was all she could say, over and over, before finding a spot in the corner of the room, pulling out her phone and pretending to use it. Soon enough, Alcindor entered, also pretending to talk on the phone. He smiled and waved and laughed and nodded his head, as if he was having the most jovial conversation. They patted his back as he made his way and eventually found Darbonne, who was trying her best to keep her composure. They all stood and stared at them. Alcindor, usually quiet and peaceful in demeanor, even when faced with confrontational situations, couldn’t take it anymore.
“Stop,” he shouted. “Stop looking at us.”
This, of course, had caused the restaurant to hush, but only briefly, and the crowd went on about their business as Darbonne and Alcindor contemplated their existence in such a tiny world.
“Should we move?” Alcindor asked, later on that night, at home.
“What would that fix? The gossip, the talk—it’ll all still be there, whether we’re here or not.”
She watched the sitter, a childhood friend of Verot, drive off while cradling the newborns—their eyes closed. Alcindor had ventured off into his own dreams of a time when life was good, his own eyes closed as he stood outside on the back patio—a large oak before him. He opened his eyes—traces of the bark defined under the porch light. A shovel neatly tucked into the dirt, just a bit away from the garden, where he and Verot had buried their dog, Petite, a Catahoula which the family took in as a puppy—stray and gentle, Petite became the stronghold for them. Not only was it the last time that Alcindor saw Petite, but it was also the last time he saw his son before he took off into his own labyrinth, to return years later.
“She did real good, right, Dad,” Verot said, panting as he opened the dirt for Petite.
“Real good, son,” Alcindor replied.
“A real good pup, right, Dad.”
“A real good pup, son.”
The tears came down—Verot didn’t wipe his face. It had been a while since he had last cried, and the release felt refreshing. He put his head on Alcindor’s shoulder, heaving into the cloth of his shirt. He dug his face into the collar of his father’s neck.
“I’m real sorry, Dad,” Verot said, his voice muffled.
“What’s wrong, son? Why are you sorry? What’s wrong, son?”
“I know I’m not Petite.”
Alcindor wrapped his arm around Verot and pulled him in tight.
“I know I’m not the son you hoped for,” he stuttered, taking in deep breaths. “I’m a real mess up.”
“You’re no mess, son” Alcindor replied, himself, trying not to cry. The pain he felt in his son’s voice, knowing that he had done nothing wrong—knowing that his son’s anguish was far gone from any consolation he could provide.
“I’m so wrong,” Verot said.
He lifted his head and looked into his father’s eyes. Alcindor couldn’t get himself to look at Verot, not because he was ashamed or embarrassed, but because he knew if he did, he would break down as well. He looked at the oak and its bark, thinking how this tree had seen so much and how it knew the family more than the family knew itself. Just next to them lay Petite wrapped in her favorite blanket, a faded pink with the edges shredded and torn.
The crying entered silence, and Verot stared into Petite’s grave. He pictured himself cuddling with Petite inside of it.
“Son,” Alcindor said. “You’ve done no wrong, son. I love you.”
“I love you.”
Alcindor hadn’t heard Verot say those words since he was a child.
“Let’s get some help,” he said, rubbing his son’s back.
“It’s time,” he said.
A raccoon scurried over the fence as the sun came down—its twilight, creating a frame of faded solace, one that neither of them knew the importance of that moment together.
“I’m sorry,” Verot whispered.
“Don’t be, son.”
They buried Petite, and the next morning, Verot was gone, leaving all of his belongings.
“It’s time,” Alcindor whispered to himself, over and over again that day, realizing what his son had meant.
“Alci,” Darbonne said. “Alci. Alcindor.”
She called out his name until he was taken out of the past. He wiped his eyes and turned around.
“I miss him.”
Darbonne wrapped her arms around his waist.
“Every morning I walk into his room, just in case.”
They stood on the back patio—the moon in puzzle pieces cut from the branches of the oak, and that was their night.
With the arrival of the twins, Darbonne and Alcindor enjoyed a fresh start to a new life, though they continued to be haunted by Verot’s exit. Their children gave the parents a normal experience—the usual makings of a family with no worries other than that of scraped knees, tantrums, and running errands nonstop. They loved it. They became more accustomed to being a part of society again, and the whisperings about Verot had diminished, though sometimes they still reverberated in their ears on random nights when the children were out, and they had the night to themselves. They kept the friend circle tighter this time around, but all in all, they had become the past again, a time before Verot had become lost—a time when Alcindor and Darbonne could turn around and not worry about who would be standing there.
Fabienne and Foulon loved to be outside—it was a remnant of Verot, who had done the same when he was at home. It could be pouring down with gusty winds or it could be 100 degrees in a drenched air, there was no situation which kept the twins away from the outdoors. It was on such a day, one of a tropical storm, while they sat out on the porch swing and watched the rain come in sideways, they saw Verot walking down the street without a shirt. He wasn’t in a rush—he walked as if he was strolling around Girard Park in mid-April. When Fabienne and Foulon saw him down the road, they rushed over—Fabienne took off her coat and gave it to him. She saw his smile in the rain—a smile that Verot gave, feeling kindred with the siblings.
“Come over to our house,” Foulon shouted. “It’s just down there.”
He pointed behind himself, still facing Verot.
“Thank you,” Verot quietly replied, as if they were in church.
Though Fabienne and Foulon wanted to run back to the house, they slowly walked with Verot under the thunder. Verot his parents on the porch as they approached. He felt his mother’s gasp as she fell to her knees. He heard his father’s breath as he ran out in the rain.
“Home,” Verot said.
It didn’t take too long for Verot to become familiar with his younger siblings, who were all too welcoming, though, it did take him some time to reacquaint himself with his surroundings again, including his parents. Darbonne and Alcindor were gentle and caring, almost still in disbelief that his son had returned.
“It’s the family we never had,” Alcindor said. “I just washed his clothes.”
“I just fixed him a plate of spaghetti,” Darbonne said.
That first day that Verot returned, the day of storms and chaos, he found his room to be exactly the same as it was before.
“It never changed,” Verot said, in a thin, fragile voice.
“Let’s go see Petite,” Alcindor said.
Where was he all this time?
Verot visited the Chitimacha Tribe and learned their ways, finding peace with himself and the world inside of him.
“We were worried,” Darbonne said, “that—you know—.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
“We’re so happy you’re back,” Alcindor said. “I still look at you, and I still see you when you were as tall as my knees.”
“I still am, Dad,” Verot said.
He kissed his father on the cheek.
The moments Verot cherished the most was when he was with Fabienne and Foulon, particularly, when they played outside together—whether it was throwing the ball around or reading a book out loud or just staring at the sky, Verot found himself overwhelmed with happiness—an uncertain feeling. Though he was their older brother, the twins saw him as an uncle of some sort, and they smothered him with love, reminding him of how he loved the Catahoula.
“I had too, Dad,” Verot said one night—they stood in the backyard just as they had done the night he had departed.
“Fabienne and Foulon—I knew I couldn’t be around them—I didn’t want to ruin their worlds or show them the sadness and pain that I felt.”
“We could’ve figured it out, son,” Alcindor replied, “but I understand. We’re just glad that you’re here—that you’re back.”
“I love them, Dad.”
“They love you.”
“I did real good.”
“You did real good, son.”
A weary spectacle, indeed—that day Fabienne and Foulon were taken by Lake Martin. Lafayette Parish and its surrounding areas had shut down—icy roads, covered in snow and slush, a condition the Deep South only met as an erratic acquaintance. Verot sat out on the porch swing and watched a blackbird covered in snow fly and perch itself on a heavy branch. Fabienne and Foulon walked outside.
“Let’s go,” Verot said.
“Let’s go,” Verot said.
Verot had fond memories of visiting Lake Martin when he was a child—when he became lost in his own mind, those flashes of the lake were what helped him to return. All it took was a fishing pole, a book, and cooler full of Hi-C, and the day was his to remember. Verot wanted to give the same memories to his beloved siblings.
They took Alcindor’s F-150 and Verot drove slowly and the roads were still slick—there wasn’t too much traffic out and about, and they listened to 89.3 on the radio while he told Fabienne and Foulon about his previous visits to the lake when he was a child.
“Those days were golden,” Verot said, almost to himself more than to his siblings.
The drive, taking longer than usual, took about 45 minutes, and when they arrived at Lake Martin, it was bare—no one was there, and it all looked so gray to Verot.
“The woods have changed a bit,” he whispered.
They all hopped out of the truck, Fabienne and Foulon grabbing the cooler, Verot—the fishing poles and they made their way to a bit of land which jutted out into the water.
“This was where I sat—every time.”
He looked up at the white sun and breathed in the cold air.
“I’ll be right back,” he said, “I forgot the tackle box.”
A quiet splash, indeed—so there was silence.
As it happened and so it went, when Verot returned from the truck, Fabienne and Foulon were gone. The air pricked his skin as his breath shortened, his eyes large. It was silent that day, and there were no egrets and squirrels to be seen.
A shout and echo, and an echo and a shout.
Nothing at all for Verot.
And so the world blinded him as he fell to dirt.
It wasn’t until the next morning when he woke up—Fabienne and Foulon had found him on his side, still holding the tackle box in one hand and the fishing pole in the other. The siblings, drenched and shivering, were more worried about their elder brother than finding warmth for themselves. They had picked him up—a sibling at each end of his body, as if they were ridding a death, and put him inside the truck. Now, neither Fabienne nor Foulon knew how to drive, but they had visited the Kart Ranch several times and used those experiences to guide them out of Lake Martin and onto the side of the highway.
“Fabienne,” he gasped. “Foulon”
Repeating their names only to feel the skin of his mother press against his face, a soothing voice.
Verot saw flashes of his siblings as he closed his eyes.
Just across the Grand 16—Judice Inn, the family was there eating a late lunch, double cheeseburgers all around except for Verot who was snacking on a bag of Cajun Crawtator Zapp’s. The bulk of the customers had already left as it was the late afternoon, and the restaurant was down to a quiet murmur. There was laughing and there was smiling—shoulders brushing against each other, loving taps and shoves. The whole family. They were there.
Verot had made much progress, being able to situate himself in reality more and more each day since the morning when he thought Fabienne and Foulon were gone. Finding coping mechanisms for the tricks of the mind, help sought for both he and his parents who wanted to learn how to support him. Of course, the twins were a whole new world of energy, making Verot realize that voices in his head were far less important that the voices from his younger siblings.
As they left Judice Inn—the twins with their parents, and Verot, riding his bicycle down to Acadiana Comics—he went around to the back of the restaurant to take a quick look at the coulee. It was a shiny day. He peered over, leaning on the wired fence and saw a figure not too far off, just at the tip of the concrete where it descended down to the stream.
He paced from one end to the other—it was a pretty day outside, and he moved quickly, back and forth as if he was in trouble but he couldn’t do anything about it—as if he was tied down to a post. The sun shone down on him. Verot tiled his head in wonder.
He was mumbling and then shouting at times.
It was pretty outside, that day.
He started to bark as he paced, keeping his head up, projecting his voice. Verot listened to him. He continued to bark until he started to cough, and then he spat. Exhausted, he lay flat on the concrete with his face up toward the sky. Above, the bright white clouds were moving fast, dizzying. He was losing his breath. Verot looked back around—his family had left. He felt—briefly—a cold thin air.
The man prompted himself up, legs crossed—hands hanging over his knees. He stood. He peered over from where he stood at the top of the banks, barking again. The ditch was deep. The sun shone. Cars drove by, and it was a pretty day outside. Verot climbed over the wired fence and listened, faintly, a kitten’s song—a sad lullaby.
He leaned his head forward and tumbled over down into the coulee. And the barking stopped, only sounds of grunts before he reached the bottom, and there was silence. The cry of the kitten had stopped—after the silence, Verot walked down the concrete bank of the stream. He looked down and breathed in, feeling a muted world settle in—recognizing a friend in a stranger. There was Petite, a time ago. He knew what he saw, and he saw the kitten nestling itself against the neck of the man, licking his face as he smiled and gently barked, singing his own song, a song that Verot once chimed. It was a pretty day.
Shome Dasgupta is the author of The Seagull And The Urn (HarperCollins India) and most recently, Spectacles (Word West Press) and a poetry collection, Iron Oxide (Assure Press). Forthcoming novels include Cirrus Stratus (Spuyten Duyvil), Tentacles Numbing (Thirty West), and The Muu-Antiques (Malarkey Books). A prose collection, Histories Of Memories, will be published by Belle Point.Press. His writing has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, New Orleans Review, Hobart, American Book Review, Arkansas Review, Magma Poetry, and elsewhere. He is the series editor of the Wigleaf Top 50. He lives in Lafayette, LA and can be found at @laughingyeti.