Deep in the woods near a beautiful bayou in Louisiana, an old man forges through the trees as a stiff breeze whips his dark shroud back from his craggy face. He approaches a small manmade bridge over a beautiful green and shimmering lagoon. There he stands, statuesquely staring at his warped reflection, assessing that he had spent a dozen lifetimes making this decision. He leaned against the railings of the makeshift bridge and looked over at the rippling lagoon below, tingling with anticipation. Now was the moment of truth. So, without further hesitation, he let the golden ring slip through his fingers and splash into the water, watching it twinkle on its slow descent to the depths below.
He stood for a moment, enjoying the solace of the breeze and the tranquility of the lagoon beneath the tiny bridge. Soon, he heard the hooves of horses on the nearby road, so he gathered himself and made his way back through the wood to the bustling streets of New Orleans.
It wasn't long before he disappeared into the crowd of passersby, some afoot, some on horseback, some with horse and buggy, and some with gleaming Model T's and Roadsters all peppering the busy street. It was a picturesque Sunday morning, and most of the decent folks were in their Sunday best heading to church.
The Durant’s were no different. The well-off creole family of three consisting of Dr. Durrant, Mrs. Adele Durrant, and their handsome son Benjamin, were also in tow to Sunday service in the families model T. On the ride over, the Durrant’s passed the meagerly dressed, yet well-known and respected sharecropper Cecil Woods and his daughter Lillian who were afoot. They, too, were doing their Sunday duty.
The two families were in stark contrast, the Durrant's with their polished car and shoes, perfect hair, keen features, and fair creole complexions vs. the Woods family, coffee brown, bell-pepper nosed, and full-lipped, with barely scrubbed socks and mottled toe shoes.
The highly regarded Dr. Durrant was tall and handsome with salt and pepper hair that curled at his temples despite the pomade he piled on to keep it at bay. His wealth was generational, and he ran a cozy practice from his home and doubled as the creole’s choice for mortician on occasion. His wife, a trim and lovely green-eyed specimen, was statuesque and finely aged with a head full of hair she kept pinned neatly about her head. She wore the latest fashions, modern yet fashionable, and proudly lay her hand on her husband's lap as he drove down the road to the church. Passing the Wood’s family, who was afoot, turned her head for a moment, and she quickly averted her eyes, focusing on her husband's regal profile as he made his way down the bustling street. In the back sat Benjamin, a gorgeous spectacled 20-year-old carbon copy of his father.
The breeze slightly lifted Lillian’s skirt showing off her chocolate legs, and she didn’t flinch one iota; actually, she smiled a bit as the gentleman passing by took notice. Her smile detaching from her lips and moving to her eyes when her father gave her a freezing glance. She was 18 going on 25, gorgeously auburn with long legs and slight curves everywhere that mattered. She walked light and carefree, her smile beaming a few steps ahead of her, despite the frayed ribbons that tied back her worn yellow dress. Even with the dingy clothes she wore, which were still her best, the tattered ribbon did its part in pulling back the dress to show off the taper of her tiny waist. Her freshly pressed hair was lightly oiled and pinned neatly behind her ears with a coiled bang. Her father walked a bit behind her, whistling along the way, cane in one hand, bible in the other—his bible, worn from 1,000 prayers, and from playing coaster for his gin bottle every night.
The Durrant's filed out of their fancy car and one-by-one entered the Immaculate Heart Catholic Church with its towering cathedral ceilings and ornate stained glass, just as Cecil and Lillian stepped into Ebenezer Baptist's crumbling façade. The services began for both families, the sound of one bleeding into the other as they were just doors away from one another.
“You sangin’ the solo today Lillian?” asked Cecil of his daughter, knowing full well she ALWAYS sang the solo the first Sunday of the month.
“Yes sir,” replied Lillian, wishing she weren’t. She was over the tired hymns and really wished Bea would do the solo for a change. Bea was a know-it-all, goodie-two-shoes who had a decent enough voice and found much more pleasure in soloing hymns than Lillian. Lillian’s heart was torn between pretendin’ to love church and not wanting to disappoint her daddy. She’d rather be splashing in the bayou or sneakin’ to listen to blues outside the jook than to be singing another boring hymn at church … again. As they entered, Bea was on the third pew and stuck her tongue out at Lillian as she passed. Lillian wanted to pounce on her, but her father gave her a freezing glance that kept her in her place. She went up to the choir stand and sat as the pastor began service.
Meanwhile, across the way, at Immaculate Heart, Mrs. Adele Durrant begins slowly fanning herself to get a bit of relief from the layers of undergarments she was wearing and the lack of air circulating in the church. She readjusts her long skirt as she leans over and whispers in her husband's ear, “My lands! The noise from those so-called Christians across the street is positively off-putting. I dare say, there isn't even the tiniest shred of decorum in the entire building.”
Her husband, annoyed, leaned over and whispered back, “Adele, dear. Just focus on our service. We mustn't get distracted in the house of God.”
Taking no note of his words, she continued, “Well, I'm merely stating the obvious. It's nearly impossible to concentrate... well, with all that shouting, foot-stomping, and undignified dancing. It borders on blasphemy!”
“Adele. Please, my darling. The priest is literally speaking to us this moment about casting judgment,” replied Clyde, shifting his weight away from his wife to no avail; she continued yet again …
“But, darling...” this time Clyde cut her off, and his whisper loudened and drew attention to them as he said,
“Adele, let those people worship the Lord the way they see fit. And incidentally, our congregation may find our current repartee to be a might distracting!”
Adele was now annoyed and embarrassed as the eyes of the other parishioners met hers. Irritated, she shifted away from her husband, disappointed he didn’t side with her, again. An elderly lady of the congregation, sporting a ridiculous hat with feathers all about her head, took it upon herself to turn and shush the couple, embarrassing her further.
Adele soon locks eyes with her dear friend Mrs. Cora lee Batist, another black creole fair-skinned refined beauty much like herself. They exchange smiles and friendly nods, not paying attention to a word being spoken by the priest who was so old he looked like he could keel over any moment. Meanwhile, Benjamin’s eyes were growing heavy from the priest's droning monotonous repetition and the accompanying boring music, so his head began to bob up and down, eventually resting itself on his chest. His breathing deepened into a light snore. Abruptly, Benjamin caught a sharp elbow to the ribs from his mother as she cleared her throat and nudged him to get him to look at Cora’s freckle-faced daughter, Priscilla. Now the annoyance was written all over Benjamin’s face. It was bad enough he had to suffer through the dry service week after week, but the matchmaking had gotten out of hand lately between his mother and Ms. Cora Lee.
Moments later, a latecomer dressed in what looked to be her attire from a brothel the night before paraded down the aisle to the 2nd row, much to the horror of Cora Lee and Adele, who exchanged disapproving glances as she passed. Every fiber in Benjamin's body wanted to scream and run from the pews, but he remained seated and tried to pay attention so that his mother’s antics wouldn’t embarrass him any further.
Meanwhile, the service over at Ebenezer Baptist had reached a fever pitch. Following the scripture spouting sermon from the short and stout mustached pastor, Lillian’s solo turned into a full-fledged worship session, complete with shouting, stomping, and clapping. The congregation all stood to their feet and danced, and she belted out the hymn, taking it up an octave to a ground-shaking crescendo accompanied by a young organist who followed her lead. Her father looked on, pride turning into disapproval as the gospel tune had taken a bluesy turn before it ended. Despite Lillian’s departure from the “acceptable,” her performance left every chair unoccupied, as the entire congregation was on its feet and immersed in full praise.
After service ended, most of the congregation rushed over to Lillian to shake her hand and congratulate her on her performance. The parishioners spilling out into the bustling Louisiana Boardwalk and making their way back home. Cecil and Lillian still afoot walked, laughing, and talking down the boardwalk all smiles, but with rumbling tummies as the service had gone over an extra 40 minutes.
Around the same time, Mrs. Adele Durrant, Dr. Clyde Durrant, and their son Benjamin exit their prestigious Catholic church, nodding at the other parishioners on their way out.
The mid-day sun beaming over the churches as the congregations both ambled out of their entryways and down the steps to the sidewalk.
Dr. Durrant started the conversation on the walk over to their vehicle by saying, “Service today was very...” but was interrupted again by his wife.
“Clyde, darling, who could hear a word of the service on account of that God-forsaken ruckus going on across the street?”
Ben took it upon himself to interject jokingly, “I heard every word, and thankfully it wasn't as dry as last week.”
“Honestly, Benjamin Samuel Durrant,” replied his mother, in feigned disapproval of his statement.
His father continued, “I rarely complain of the length of service, but...”
“Well, it was hard to focus with that girl wearing her dress so low cut, “interjected Adele.
Benjamin and his father both roll their eyes, equally having their fill of Adele and her never-ending gossip about everyone in the church. They tuned her out in hopes that she would shut up… but she didn’t.
“She's pretty enough and all, but she's blacker than the ace of spades, and that ensemble was atrocious.” Adele raises her parasol to shade her fair skin as she continued down the boardwalk, at this point carrying on the conversation with herself. “And no nylons or stockings? I mean...the indecency. Whatever is the world coming to?”
No answer…she continued …
“And with regard to the service, I thought it was, well, it was just a tad...well, simply put, it was...”
“See dearest, even you have no words,” replied Dr. Durrant, he and Benjamin chuckling. Not realizing the very reason, his wife was speechless was because the site of Cecil Woods caught her breath in the back of her throat.
As they passed one another, Benjamin and Lillian locked eyes, sending tingles down Lillian’s spine, rushing blood to her cheeks and sparking a flutter in Benjamin’s chest. For the first time in what felt like forever, Adele Durrant is temporarily speechless as she and Cecil exchange awkward glances. Both families returning to their respective conversations moments after passing one another.
Finally, the Durrant’s reach their polished Model-T Ford, where Dr. Durrant pauses to open the door for his wife, helping her inside after Benjamin is seated in the back. As the vehicle canters by the Woods family, Adele Durrant gazes at them wistfully from the window.
Excited about the prospect of spending the afternoon frolicking in the lagoon, Lillian quickens the pace towards home, stopping for a moment when she realizes she has created a wide gap between her and her father. Thoughtfully, Lillian stops for a moment to pluck a flower from the field they are now passing. Turning for a moment he father’s eyes light up as she holds out the flower until he catches up. Once he is close enough, she pecks him on the cheek, oblivious to Adele’s prying eyes from the window of the car that just passed by.
Sympathetically, Lillian takes a moment to look over her father. He is moving slower than usual, which she finds a bit concerning. Discerning her unwanted attention to his limp, Cecil pridefully speeds up a bit, hoping that she doesn’t mention his leg again.
“How’s your leg, daddy?”
“Fine enough, I suppose. But all that praisin' the Lord has me a might hungry!”
“Me too, Daddy, so what's for supper?”
“Again?” Lillian responded, turning up her lip on one side. Beans were the absolute worst. Common though, as finances had become increasingly tight lately.
“Yes. Didn't Reverend just teach us 'bout bein' grateful?”
“Yes, sir,” Lillian replied with reluctance.
“Well, beans, it is then!”
Lillian turned up her nose as they round the corner, cutting through the woods to their tiny cabin that was tucked away on a slight incline. Once inside, Lillian puts away the family bible and removes her hat and shoes, wiggling her toes to remove the dust from the walk. Cecil walks over to light the wood stove under the cooking pot filled with soaking beans and turns to speak to her over his shoulder.
“It's a pretty enough day. Why don't you go on down to the lagoon for a swim and be fancy-free, whilst I whip us up the best beans your mouth don' ever tasted?”
“Thanks, Daddy,” she replied, smiling ear to ear.
“Ain't nothin'.” He replied beaming.
Lillian plants a kiss on her Daddy’s cheek grabs a piece of bread, and bolts out of the cabin door, running carefree towards the lagoon. Cecil lovingly watching on as if it is the last time he will ever lay eyes on her. Lillian was his world, ever since her mother passed, and sometimes he found it hard to let her go, even if it were just down to the bayou.
Lillian was a special girl, cheerful and full of light; she never met a stranger and prided herself on being oblivious to what others thought of her. School for a girl like her was a luxury, but Cecil saw fit that she stayed in although her heart had left her books long ago. Cecil wanted a different life for Lillian and had high hopes for her to go to college, but he knew her heart was filled with music. At times she could be so mature, holding things together around the farm, picking up the slack when he couldn’t physically take on all its responsibilities, but days like today, when Cecil looked at her, she was still his baby girl.
Meanwhile, as his father drove down the backroads, Benjamin stares out of the window as the wind tousles his curly hair away from his face. He sees an old man shrouded in black, walking down the road, and as they pass, the wind whips out his covering. Upon seeing the old man's face, Benjamin recalls meeting him as a boy outside their family home.
Benjamin replayed the day in his mind, clear as day, as they drove down the bumpy road. Ben was about 7 then, and remembered sitting on his swing in the tree in the front yard when the old man approached him and said, "Hey there, you Clyde's boy?"
“Yes,” Ben answered.
He remembered feeling chills down his spine and staring in shock as the man peeked out from the hood, more wrinkled than anyone he had ever seen in his 7 years.
“How old are you? You look near about old as Ms. Percy they buryin' today.”
“Old enough, I suppose,” the old man replied.
“Old enough to die?” Ben asked… more curious than afraid.
“You sure do a whole lot of supposin'… I suppose when I grow up, I am never gonna die.”
“Careful what you wish for, son. Good day.”
Benjamin remembered staring after the old man with a perplexed look as he walked down the road slow but steady. He wondered how a man that old could still even be alive…it was over 11 years since he had seen the old man… and yet there he was, moseying down the side of the road, sure and steady. Seeing the old man again after so many years, had Benjamin lost in thought until an interjection from his mother snapped him out of his reverie and back to the car ride.
“Benjamin, don’t slouch, you’ll curve your spine.”
His father pulled up to their stately home in New Orleans' prestigious parish, where the multi-racial creole community resides. The Durrant’s were unlike the Woods family. Cecil’s side of the family was the offspring of wealthy forefathers who were always free and never the descendants of slaves. And although Adele couldn’t quite say the same of her lineage, she regarded herself of the same caste due to outward appearances. After marriage, she reinvented herself abandoning her roots and her family that happened to be a few shades darker with a lesser pedigree. She had vehemently taken on the mindset that this contrived lineage made her better than the blacks on the bottom side of the bayou. However, to the white folks, they were just uppity niggers, and only a step above the sharecroppers who were direct descendants of the people the Durrant’s used to own.
It was a strange time, a time where light was alright, but if you were black, you had to step back. So, in other words, if you were a shade south of the color of a paper sack, and if you didn’t have ‘good hair,’ you weren’t even welcome in this part of town unless you were the help. And even the colored maids either platted their hair and tucked it beneath scarves, hats, or wraps, or ironed it out with a straightening comb and grease, sizzling their scalps in the process. The men wearing conks with pomade spackling their now straightened locks to the sides of their heads with parts on the side or in the center. It was a time when to be too black was a thing, and to be light-skinned and light-eyed with hair, a comb could slide through with ease, was preferred.
The family of three stepped through the doorway of their prestigious home, which doubled as a funeral parlor and doctor’s office. The walls were elegantly papered, and the ornately spindled stairway was covered in red plush carpeting. Golden sconces graced the wall with scatters of framed photographs strategically hung on the walls up the stairs. Passing through the hallway past the parlor, they were greeted by their servant Marian, a middle-aged dark-skinned woman from the other side of the bayou. Following suit to the times' expectations, Marian’s hair too was pressed and neatly coiled about her pudgy chocolate face. Marian gathered both Dr. Durant and Benjamin’s hats and Adele’s parasol, putting them away swiftly. The house was fragrant and smelled of roasted lamb, potatoes, and onions.
Before sitting, Adele began barking out orders at Marian, to which she promptly obliged. The last of these orders shocking Ben a bit as he was just ready to relax from the day of formalities and enjoy a good hot meal.
“Marian, we need the table set, dear. The Batists will be here shortly.”
“Yes, ma'am,” Marian replied.
“The Batists? Dinner? What?” replied Benjamin, frustrated. He had a mind to grab his plate and retire up to his room, but his mother would never allow it.
“Yes, the Batists,” replied his mother, tersely. She turned to her husband and said, “You'd think he'd be happy; their daughter Priscilla is quite lovely...”
“... and quite suitable,” Dr. Durrant interjected with a smile. It was unlike him to jump in on the matchmaking, so this annoyed Ben even further.
“Suitable for what?” asked Ben.
“You know full well what,” replied his mother.
KNOCK. KNOCK. The Batists had arrived sooner than anticipated. Adele takes a moment to straighten her dress to not appear rushed and then fusses over her son’s necktie.
I just loosened it, and now it was a noose again, Benjamin thought as his mother tugged at it and the lapels of his dress shirt.
“Behave!” Adele sternly said to him before plastering a phony smile on her face and sitting, appearing unbothered, as she motioned for Marian to open the door.
Marian swings open the door for the Batist family, and they file in, looking like carbon copies of Dr. & Mrs. Durrant, fair-skinned, multi-racial creoles of the upper crust high-society variety. While they made small talk as if they hadn’t just seen each other at service, Marian put the finishing touches on the table setting. Meanwhile, Benjamin averts his face to hide his annoyance at the display. He just wanted to eat. He was over this day, his mother, and the phony façade’ he had to put on whenever these pretentious people were around.
After more chit-chat than should be legal in Ben’s humble opinion, Marian finally disappeared into the kitchen, reemerging with a silver tray. Dinner is served.
“Good day, Benjamin,” Priscilla said, smiling at Ben, her eyes crinkling at the corners. She had a gap in her teeth and freckles. Her hair was a sandy color and was piled atop her head in an array of curls. She was pretty enough but definitely was not his type.
“Good day,” Ben replied with half a smile, walking over to slide back Priscilla's chair out of obligation while nodding hello to her parents. All are seated and served by Marian.
As Marian plated the Lamb, Adele continued with the boring conversation, “Priscilla, you sure have blossomed into such a fine young woman. I do so admire the work you've been doing with the youth ministry.”
“Why, thank you, Mrs. Durrant. I enjoy working with children.”
“Benjamin, did you hear that? She enjoys children.”
“Yes, mother,” replied Benjamin feeling hot under the collar. He loosened his tie again, his mother looking at him with cold eyes that said, HANDS OFF THE TIE!
Cora Lee chimed in, “Yes, we are so proud. Our Priscilla will be attending Loyola University in the fall.”
“How lovely,” replied Adele, smiling.
Harold then said, “So, Benjamin, your father tells me you will be attending Howard University School of Medicine as he did?”
“Perhaps,” replied Benjamin before stuffing his mouth full of lamb.
“Perhaps?” asked Harold, eyebrow raised. The two father’s next exchanging perplexed glances.
“Honestly, I have a love for music. The violin, actually. And I...”
“But of course, you do. I taught you to play myself, but that is a pastime, a hobby, not a profession for a boy with your upbringing,” replied his mother, raising an eyebrow, her smile covering clenched teeth. Ben was ruining everything.
“Mother, with all due respect, there are many musicians who make it their profession.”
The table became quiet, the awkward silence prompting Cora Lee to divert the conversation. She said, “Oh, Dr. Durrant, I've meant to schedule a time to see you about the pain in my ...”
Her husband soon silenced that attempt with, “Dear. Don't interrupt the boy. I need to know his intentions if he is interested in my daughter.”
“Interested? I'm ...” replied Ben, thoroughly outdone at this point, he had absolutely NO interest in their daughter, and this farce had gone too far.
“Son, mind your tone!” inserted Dr. Durrant.
“Benjamin, you'll outgrow that silly violin at some point, and you'll need...”
“Mother, what I need is everyone to stop speaking for me! Music can cure things medication never will...but you will never understand that. Actually, if you'll excuse me!”
Enough was enough; Benjamin couldn’t take it anymore. He sprung to his feet, dropping his napkin in his plate of food and grabbing his violin before bolting out the door, leaving the dinner guests and his parents aghast.
Benjamin decided to take a new path and cut through the backwoods. He began walking at first, then running violin in hand until he reached a clearing in the woods near a beautiful lagoon. There was a tiny bridge over it, and it was littered with lily pads, flowers, and trees sprouting up from its sparkling waters. He had never ventured this far into the woods and had no idea how beautiful it was. He found a shade tree and leaned against it sinking down to the ground slowly, closing his eyes, allowing the sun to seep into his skin. He took in a deep breath and exhaled sharply as he replayed the events that just occurred. This life couldn’t be all there was. Surely, God had a bigger plan for him than to live a phony pretentious existence like his parents. He opened his eyes, took his bow in hand, and began to play a beautiful melancholy melody on his violin.
Lilian emerges wearing a light-yellow dress with eyelet trim and a sashed waist near the lagoon’s edge on the other side of the clearing. She tosses a few pebbles into the water before sitting and placing her feet one by one into the water. Lillian overhears Benjamin's song and begins humming a complementary melody. The melody builds from soft and sweet to slow and sultry, Lillian's body and voice mimicking the notes as she makes her way closer to Benjamin. He opens his eyes, setting them on Lillian. The music intensifies to a joyful melody where she dances and kicks up her skirt. Mesmerized, Benjamin watches Lillian performs a soulful and beautiful song and dance. She ends the dance breathless and falls to the ground as he plays the final note.
As the music ceases, Lillian’s father comes through the woods to get her for dinner and is shocked to see the two of them together breathless on the ground.
“What's going on here?” Cecil asked incensed. His voice shocked the couple and sent both of them scrambling to their feet.
“Get on home, gal!” Cecil said to Lillian, all the while not taking his eyes off of Benjamin.
” Ain’t you, Dr. Durrant's boy?”
“Yes, sir,” Benjamin responded, intimidated.
“Well, you stay away from my daughter unless you want yo' pappy to have a new patient, you hear?” asked Cecil rhetorically.
“Yes...yes, sir,” replied Benjamin averting eye contact. He could only imagine what her father must think of him, especially given they were both sweaty and out of breath. He was embarrassed and wanted to explain himself but stood silently instead as Cecil turned to leave, cutting back through the woods to their shack.
Dr. Durrant and his wife are pacing the floor as Benjamin enters their home, dejected, and carrying his violin. They immediately start in on him the moment he comes in the door, his father leading the barrage.
“Do you enjoy embarrassing me?” asked Dr. Durrant.
“No, sir,” replied Benjamin sheepishly.
“We have one more chance to make a good impression with The Batists. Tomorrow evening, you will be a gentleman. You will do as I say. And you will repair the damage from today. Am I understood, Son?”
“Yes, sir,” Ben replied, deflated.
“And you will not need that anytime soon,” replied his mother reaching for the violin. Benjamin reluctantly hands it over. She looked pleased with herself for doing what she felt was best. Benjamin, on the other hand, looked at his mother with unveiled eyes, feeling almost sorry for her. How tiring it must be to always have to put on airs and live in her pretentious little societal bubble.
He resolved then and there that he would somehow make music with Lillian again no matter what. She had sparked something in him that gave him new hope for the possibility of a boundless life freer than the pretentious world he came from. Without uttering a single word, Lillian opened Benjamin's eyes to an expansive world where life didn’t feel cumbersome and where he could be himself, uninhibited and uncontrolled by his parent's ever-increasing demands. He knew this was the beginning of something bigger than he had ever imagined.