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Wild Swans

What would you do to find your true love?

Althea Thibodaux has dreams, and none of them involve her mother's plans to marry her off to a millionaire's son.

It isn't until she meets Mr. Lindt, a strange but kindly being posing as a human who inspires her to seek her true love, a man who awaits her in the future. 

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Patricia Snodgrass

Patricia Snodgrass lives in rural North East Texas with her husband of twenty years, their son two dogs and three cats. She holds a Master’s Degree from Texas A&M University, Texarkana. Patricia has published three other works, “Mercer’s Bayou,” “Marilyn” and “Destiny’s Mark.” She also contributed text and research to two comic art books. She has written numerous short stories, essays and book reviews. Glorious is her first Mundania book.

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Excerpt

Chapter One

Rapides Parish, Louisiana 1958

Ruby Thibodaux extracted the shotgun from the gun rack and emptied the shells. She stomped into the kitchen, cursing under her breath. Her sister, Cally, looked over the rim of her coffee cup, her expression unreadable.

“Who is it this time, Robbie or Jake?”

“Who do you think it is?” Ruby grumbled as she took a box of rock salt out of the pantry, then fished out some bacon rind from the grease can sitting on the stove. She stuffed both items down the business end of the shotgun’s barrel. “I peppered Robby Fray’s boy last month, good enough to set fire to his butt. His dad had the gall to come over afterwards, don’t you remember?”

“I do and you shot him too.”

“Damned right I did. If he causes any more trouble, I’ll shoot him again.”

Cally watched as her sister finished loading the weapon.

“You’re gonna ruin that shotgun stuffing it full of rock salt and bacon rind like that,” Cally observed after a lengthy pause. “Besides, what are you going to do if it goes off in your face?”

“It’s not.”

“I still think you should stop shooting boys who show up around here. Folks will think you’re unfriendly.”

“Would you rather I use real bullets?”

Cally set her cup down on the white and gray marbled Formica table. “If you’d just let Althie date like all the other girls, you wouldn’t have boys sniffing around like this.”

“If I let Althie do that she’d be knocked up in no time, just like most of the girls in this parish.”

“That’s hardly fair. Give the girl some credit for having good common sense.”

“It’s not her I don’t trust,” Ruby grunted as she stuffed more rock salt down the barrel.

“It’s the boys,” Cally said, her voice lowering. It’s the same argument, she thought. It’s always the same old tired, worn out argument.

“Boys and dirty old men,” Ruby acknowledged, her face crimson as she finished packing down the wadding. “God, what is wrong with the male species? Is sex all they think about?”

“I think the better question is what’s wrong with you.”

“You know the answer to that,” Ruby replied. She hefted the gun’s butt onto her scrawny hip, hiking up her floral skirt mid thigh. The pose might have been seductive if it weren’t for the permanent scowl on her face. Ruby’s expression reminded Cally of one of those fierce warrior statues she’d seen in Chinese travel magazines.

“That’s the point; nobody else does. Maybe folks’d be more sympathetic if you just told everyone about what happened to you,” Cally replied.

“Not on your life.” Ruby scowled deeper, her naturally large eyes bugging. “I’ll never make that mistake again.”

“It’s not like anyone can take Althie away from you now. She’s grown.”

“That’s beside the point.”

“I don’t know what you’re fussing for,” Cally said, breaking the silence that descended upon them. “Jake’s a good boy.”

“That may be so, but he’s not good enough for my Althea, and he knows it too. I’ve said it often enough.”

“And to his face,” Cally finished.

Ruby stalked back to the foyer with Cally following behind her. She stood against the wall, like a pioneer woman preparing to fight off a gang of robbers and glanced out the left side window once again. She used the gun barrel to move the thin white curtain further aside for a better view. “Althea doesn’t have a daddy to defend her honor. All she has is you and me. She deserves far better than what we got.”

“We do all right.”

Ruby continued to gaze out the window. “I know he’s out there, just beyond the tree line. Once he gets onto the lawn I’ll have a good shot.”

“You most certainly will not,” Cally stated. She moved to snatch the shotgun out of her sister’s hand, which led to a brief but spectacular scuffle. “Do you really want Sheriff Pickens back up here again?” Cally asked as Ruby yanked the gun from her sister’s grip.

Ruby did not relinquish the gun, despite Cally holding out her hand for it, but she did place the weapon’s butt gently on the floor. She looked out the window again. “He’s coming up to the gaslight,” Ruby said. “Look at that, just as bold a brass. You should let me pepper him good. It’s not like we don’t know what he wants.”

“You treat Althea like a dog in heat, bay-bay,” Cally remarked, “which is downright insulting if you ask me. It’s no wonder that she’s mad at you all the time. Besides, he’s down on the lawn and she’s upstairs. What could happen?”

“They’d talk,” Ruby stated as if that were a mortal sin. “They’d talk, and then they’d scheme and then the next thing you know she’d be pregnant with his bastard and he’d run off. And there’d be Althea, with her reputation ruined, and us with a baby to raise.”

“You know none of that’s gonna happen. Besides, you’ve already got her engaged to—what’s his name—Hank something...”

“Hank Cathar. And he comes from a good, solid, well off family.” Ruby scowled, the kitchen lights emphasizing her sharp angular face and frizzy black hair. “A very well off family, and I intend to make sure that this wedding goes off perfectly, and with my daughter unspoiled by some neighborhood river rat.”

Ruby got a firm grip on her shotgun with one hand and twisted the glass doorknob with the other. “Garson!” she shouted as she stepped onto the porch. She hefted the rifle onto her thin shoulder. “You’d better get on outta here, boy, before I put a load into your hind end.”

****

Althea sighed. She leaned against the balcony’s railing and gazed out across the darkened lawn. Her hair, soft reddish brown and somewhat less curly than her mother’s perpetual frizz, spilled over her shoulders. The straps on her sheer white nightgown had fallen down as well, and she left them dangling against the soft flesh of her upper arms, the way she’d seen Rita Hayworth do. Her small breasts puckered into a dainty cleavage as she leaned outward over the railing, resting her forearms, strong, lean and tanned a soft golden brown, upon the paint-peeled banister outlining the balcony.

Below her, the gas light spilled a soft warm yellow glow out onto the grass, reminding her of a fairy ring. A boy stood in that ring now, his hair a halo of reddish gold as he admired her from afar. She was a princess. She lived in a castle. She was unattainable. Her mother and official wicked witch as far as Althea was concerned, had seen to that.

Bobby’s Girl played on the radio sitting next to the balcony’s large French doors. She sighed. I want to be Jake’s girl, she thought. But I can’t. Mommy Dearest has other plans. Well, Althea thought, her jaw set, so do I. And none of them include her. She leaned farther over the balcony, partly to expose more cleavage, and partly to make sure he got the point.

She jerked her head towards the front door.

Jake moved away from the gaslight (and further still from the front porch) and stood where the edge of the lawn combined with elderly crepe myrtles and pines, delineating the glistening waters of Bayou Beauf. The moonlight traced his slim features, making him look more like a fairytale creature than before.

“Coward,” she called down. Jake shrugged, helplessly.

Althea would celebrate her eighteenth birthday by marrying a man whom she never met. Arranging a marriage for Althea was no secret. Ruby started looking for suitable partners when her daughter reached her fifteenth year. The last man Ruby brought home for her was ten years her senior. He was balding, with sweaty palms, and full lips that reminded Althea of a bloated catfish. Althea shrieked at the top of her lungs when she saw him. She ran to her room and bolted the door. She listened as Ruby and Cally sparred downstairs in the foyer, probably in full view of the man still standing on the threshold. Althea was never sure if he stayed or fled for his life, especially when Cally screamed at the top of her lungs that she’d call Child Welfare on her sister if she attempted to make a marriage out of that sordid deal. Ruby backed down, decreed firmly that Althea would go into a convent on her eighteenth birthday and that’d be an end to it.

Althea was relieved and thought the matter was dropped.

Ruby hadn’t said another word about prearranging a marriage until late this past May, when she sold the car, the remains of their meager valuables and keepsakes, and announced at suppertime that she’d found the perfect match for her little girl. He was young, she stated, handsome (like an Adonis!) Ruby exclaimed and best of all, the family was loaded.

Later that evening, Althea overheard her mother and aunt discussing this loudly while she eavesdropped against the kitchen door. Of course, Althea told herself, it’s not eavesdropping if the discussion in question was loud enough for everyone in Rapides Parish to hear. Most of the conversation was in Cajun French, but Althea got enough of the snippets of Cajun she knew grafted into the English they were shouting in, to figure out that her tante Cally was none too pleased about the arrangement.

Althea felt a chill, which had nothing to do with a faint breeze coming off the nearby bayou. It was eerie, hearing plans being laid out, and without her consent. Althea, as far as she was concerned was a participant only in a peripheral way. Althea wanted nothing to do with it.

And now, Jake was slinking back toward the woods, instead of stepping on the porch like a confident and righteous man ought to. A man like Humphrey Bogart or Cary Grant would never ever let some skinny putain of a mother stand in the way of true love, oh no. Bogie’d stomp up the steps, kick the door in and read her mother the riot act right before taking Althea away into a world of light and love where every day was a happy ending.

But then again, Althea reasoned, Mom was ornery enough to stand up to Bogart. And she would too, with that shotgun of hers punching him in the chest for emphasis.

One thing was certain, though. Ruby Marie Thibodaux had not one frightened bone in her body when it came to the men on the bayou; least of all, horny teenage boys, whom she detested most of all.

But wait, Althea’s heart hoped as she watched Jake slide back into the woods. Maybe he’s waiting for everyone to go to sleep. Maybe he’d bring a ladder and climb up onto the balcony and get me. We’d run off together, perhaps to Lafayette, or maybe up north to Shreveport, get married and live happily ever after without ever seeing Mom or Cally again. Maybe the two of us would have an eternity of happy ever afters.

That thought made her feel strange and bittersweet. Despite everything, she loved her mother dearly, and adored her aunt—her tante—Cally as well. How could she just abandon them?

She raised her hand, as if to signal Jake, and then let it drop. She could tell by the way he hid in amongst the tangle of sweet wild jasmine, red honeysuckle and cypress knees that he did not have the intestinal fortitude to take on the witch in the castle. Instead, he’d stand by and watch Althea be handed over to a man whom she’d never met.

Hank was a man who was (theoretically at least) young and handsome and well connected. After the wedding, Althea would be a lady of substance, residing in a fine house in New Orleans, or maybe even Paris, France. Or perhaps she could be wealthy enough to have both. After all, a lady has to go somewhere during hurricane season. She’d have tea with equally oppressed and equally wealthy high society ladies, take boating trips out on Lake Ponchatrain and fret over spoiled mosquito ridden children and whether or not the upstairs maid was making more than just the beds.

Everything was arranged as far as the wedding went; the dress was altered and the cake ordered, the caterers paid, the hall at the Grand Beauregard Cathedral was reserved. A small orchestra would play at the wedding and the reception afterwards. Ruby had taken out a substantial loan at the bank, nearly two thousand dollars, in order to make sure Althea was married in the most fashionable way possible. Of course nobody on the bayou would be invited. That would spoil the illusion of being a lady of means and substance, and Ruby couldn’t have that. So the bride’s section would be woefully small. However, Ruby told her daughter earlier that day that the groom’s section would take up most of the slack

As if hearing her thoughts, Jake moved closer to the house. Hope welled up within her. Could it be that Jake had finally grown the testicular equipment needed to defy Ruby Thibodaux? Moonlight filtered down on him making his already pale skin ethereal in the darkness. It was as if an elf from Lord of the Rings had stepped out of the forest and was gazing as longingly up at her as she looked down at him.

She straightened, her heart pounding, her mind made up. I’m going down there right now. I’m leaving with him. We’ll go away together where nobody has ever heard of us and—

Directly below her, she heard the front door slam open, heard her mother’s indignant shout, and Jake, taking his cue, slunk back into the woods. Althea sat down again, crestfallen. Once again, her knight refused to confront the angry witch.

Althea withdrew into her room, which was decorated in faded pink wallpaper with huge blue flowers. She tossed herself face first down on the bed and cried into her pillows. She grieved for herself, for being forced into a marriage to a boy she’d never met. She grieved because the boy she truly loved (or at least thought she did; these days Althea wasn’t quite so sure) didn’t have the courage to speak up. She wept, not only at the inability to captain her own destiny, but also for a vague indescribable feeling that lingered even after she laid her doubts about Jake to rest. She dozed for a while, letting the sadness and longing flow out of her like dank branch water.

It was hot and the air was heavy and profoundly humid. Outside the balcony an owl hooted its sad inquiry. It was late July and Althea felt wrung out and exhausted by heat and inner torment. Oh if she could only take a car ride down to town where she and Jake could be together for a short while, if nothing else to share an ice cream soda and maybe listen to Elvis on the jukebox.

But no, she couldn’t even do that. Ruby no longer owned a car. She’d sold it a few weeks ago to help pay for the wedding. It was too late to walk, and the air too hot and sticky anyway. So Althea lay on the bed, the sheets pressing hot and damp against her flesh, her breath a snotty rattling mess that echoed throughout the room. A dull longing in the pit of her stomach made her yearn for things that were forbidden and done in dark quiet places where nobody could see or know. What do I really want? She asked the darkness. What?

The darkness...

****

While Althea cried herself to sleep, Jake walked back to the boat docks, his hands in his pockets and his expression dour as he mooched his way back to the boat, thinking black thoughts. As he climbed into the boat and pushed away from the bank, something blacker than anything ever seen on Earth slipped out of the trees and glided across the lawn. It approached the gaslight and paused, as if observing the lamp spilling its golden fairy light upon the grass. The shadow moved forward, and as it passed, it absorbed the light. The grass froze as it moved past the plantation house and the grocery store and gas station, covering everything it touched in hoarfrost. The owl hooted again, and Jake, taken by a sudden chill, shivered as he sat in his boat, wondering where the light had gone.

****

The Eldred Plantation house, now known as the Bennet house because a wealthy land owner married Old Man Eldred’s daughter and later inherited the plantation, wasn’t one of those stately high columned mansions found in New Orleans or Baton Rouge. It was a practical house, made of shiplap and stone. It sat on land that once knew cotton and rice. The plantation had its own cotton gin, store and later on, gas station. Nearly all of that was gone now, devastated first by the Northern Incursion, and later by the Great Depression. All that remained of the plantation was the house and store, which Ruby and Cally tended.

The house was built low to the ground, much like its former inhabitants, who were of French and English descent. It once had a small flight of steps, but later a wraparound veranda was installed. It was wide and spacious, filled with chairs and tables where the current inhabitants spent much of their time gossiping about neighbors and the half humorous quandary that was Louisiana politics.

Someone once stated that Louisiana was half underwater and half under indictment. And in the summer of 1958 the only thing buzzing was the mosquitoes and Governor Long’s rumored dalliance with Blaze Starr, which was whispered about all the way down into the backwaters and bayous.

Althea pointed out at breakfast the next day that wealth and power were no indicators of morality and uprightness. Ruby, however, ignored her, telling her to mind her manners and pass the grits.

The house itself was constructed of heavy timbers and wrapped in shiplap. A single flying gable protruded from what had once been an attic. The balcony jutted like a bulldog with an extended under bite just beyond the gable.

The house had been divided into four apartments; two upstairs and two on the first floor. Mrs. Ramsay, an elderly school teacher originally from Alexandria, had moved into the lower right hand apartment three years ago. Cally lived in the apartment above her. Ruby and Althea lived in the upper left. The apartment across from Mrs. Ramsay was currently unoccupied.

Ruby was forewarned about a new tenant arriving this morning. A man. Mrs. Bristow assured her that this gentleman was quite elderly and wouldn’t be a bother. Ruby was impressed only of the prospect of getting another commission, but was not thrilled with the idea of having a rooster in the henhouse.

If Cally moved in with me after Althea moves to Vivian, then her apartment would be vacant and we could rent it out to someone else for the full going price instead of the pittance that Cally pays, Ruby reasoned. Mrs. Bristow will have another occupant and I would have another month’s commission as matron. She smiled thinly over the rim of her cup. Yes, she thought. That’d do fine.

“How about moving in with me?” Ruby asked as Cally joined her in the kitchen. “You know Althea’s bedroom will be empty in a few weeks and there’s really no need for us to have two apartments.”

“You’re not thinking about me,” Cally teased as she poured herself a cup of coffee. You’re thinking about making another commission.”

“The extra money wouldn’t hurt, especially now that I have to finish paying off Althea’s wedding.”

“You’re going through a great deal of fuss for nothing,” Cally said. “Althea doesn’t even know that boy from Vivian. And Jake is a good kid. You once said so yourself.”

“That’s before his balls dropped and he started taking too much interest in my Althea.”

“You’re wrong to do this to her, Sister.”

Ruby shot her a vicious glance. “It was your idea.”

“I said it in jest. I had no idea you’d take me seriously.” She paused, “Besides, I thought you were hell bent on sending her to that convent in Slidell. What made you change your mind?”

Ruby did not reply. Instead, she grabbed a washrag and scrubbed furiously at a stain on the countertop. Fussing cleaning Cally called it. Ruby hated it when Cally was right.

“How did you meet this family?” Cally asked, changing the subject. “It’s not like we run in the same social circles.”

Ruby’s face, usually lined and tense, relaxed. She gave up on the stain and sat down at the table. She poured herself a cup of coffee and stared into it as if trying to divine the future.

“Bette Poteet hosted the Olympian Ball this past January. I told her son Jessie, you know the one with the big Buick and the bad comb over? That one.” She paused for an instant and then continued. “I told him that I was interested in attending, and he said he’d be willing to escort me, for a price of course.”

“Oh my God,” Cally gasped. “That’s scandalous. Did he really do that?”

“Of course he did. What do you expect from men like him?” Ruby snapped. “So I promised him I would but after the dance, and he agreed. I spent two weeks pay on a ball gown, and I passed myself off as one of the Thibodaux from Slidell to those uppity northern Louisiana friends of theirs. Oh, I’m sure gossip was flung far and wide, but it doesn’t matter. I found my pigeon. He’s a handsome young man. His folks are oil people in Vivian. After a season of scheming and begging, they agreed to marry my Althie to their son.”

“And what about Jessie?”

“What do you think happened with Jessie,” Ruby snapped. “I left him stranded at the punch bowl. The nerve of that creature, thinking I would... Oh he’s still prattling around, wheezing and whining that I cheated him, even threatening to take what was offered, but he won’t. He’s a coward. And he won’t dare tell anyone about the bargain we made. Not if he wants his momma to find out what kind of weasel her son is. And believe me;” she said pausing at length, “his momma’s will is more important than my reputation.”

“You’re playing with fire again, Ruby. Look at the disaster that happened before. Do you honestly want that to happen again?”

Ruby shrugged and sipped her coffee. “That was a long time ago. I’ve wised up since then. Besides, it doesn’t matter does it? Althea has her Prince Charming waiting for her. In a few weeks time I can relax and stop worrying.”

“No, now you have finances to worry about,” Cally replied. “You’ve put up a huge loan at the bank. How are we going to be able to pay it off?

“That’s one of the reasons why I want you to come live with me. Mrs. Bristow has been very generous about letting you stay here with just the piddling amount you make at the store, but still.”

“And what if I said no? What if I said I want to get married myself?”

“You wouldn’t leave me, not after all these years.”

“I’m still young, Ruby. And I don’t want to be an old maid my whole life. Maybe I want a life of my own. Maybe a rich man of my own, have you ever thought about that?”

Ruby laughed out loud. “Fat chance.”

“Stranger things have happened,” Cally said evenly.

“Yes, to us, and those strange things are rarely ever good.”