Chapter One: Cocodrie, 1922
Dolores Couvillon stood under a clump of bright green willows at the edge of Bayou Cocodrie near a small gathering of townspeople. The grown-ups talked as restless children played with a baby water snake. The town waited for a stranger who was traveling around coastal Louisiana in a wooden oyster trawler, taking photographs of Cajun life. Dolores was interested in the man only because of his cameras. She had heard her father discussing cameras with some of the men. None of them had ever seen one. The men were suspicious of this stranger and his newfangled machine, but the thought of something that could stop time and break it into smaller pieces appealed to Dolores.
“Says he’s got five or six of them things. I don’t know why he’d be coming here. I don’t want no pictures of me, no,” her uncle had said.
Her father answered, “He says the Acadians are fearless to live in a place like this with storms and alligators and mosquitoes. Says we’re poets, too.”
“Poets?” her uncle laughed. “What the hell he mean by that?”
“Something about laughing in the face of death,” said her father.
Dolores wrapped her fingers around the long hair she held to her lips. The water lay still as glass until a breeze from the Gulf ruffled its surface, shafts of sunlight breaking up into tiny sparks. At her feet a recent catch of catfish, gaspergou, and buffalohead thrashed under the water waiting for the train to New Orleans, a few hours north. She wanted to let the fish go, but thought better of it.
The town was named Cocodrie, the French word for alligator. It was only a short ride in her Papa’s shrimp boat from there to the ocean. Crows and egrets called in the trees around her. A few houses lined the bayou to one side, and behind her other houses dotted the grassy areas between swamps. Chickens roamed free and a few creamy brown cows grazed with their calves.
Gray-green moss brushed Dolores’s bare arms. She wove a piece of moss into strands of her hair as dragonflies bumped the dark water, the sun glinting off their wings. She closed her eyes for a few moments and felt a sharp pain in her leg. She looked down, but the elephant ears and palmettos hid everything. It happened again, and this time she saw the pine cone graze her calf.
“Wake up, Didi! You asleep?” her sister, Marie, laughed. “Always dreaming, you. Life gonna pass you by, yeah, you keep your eyes closed.” Two other girls laughed with her. Dolores tried to ignore them and continued squinting out at the bayou.
At last the shape of a boat emerged from the center of a sunburst, and one of the boys yelled out, Le voilà! The motor of the wooden trawler gurgled as it pulled up to the dock of the town store. Then it cut off, and a tall man climbed out of the small cabin onto the deck. He wore mid-calf rubber boots, a straw hat with a wide black band, white baggy pants, and a faded button-down shirt. He had thick black eyebrows and a trim mustache.
Dolores moved closer as the man hopped onto the grayed cypress boards of the dock. The dock led to a roofed gallery that smelled of lye and lingering fish and was hung with nets and traps. One of her daddy’s cousins, Red, went around a pile of screened bait boxes to meet the stranger. “I’m Red. Those were my cousins you were visiting up in Dulac. What you got running this thing, boy?”
“It’s an automobile engine, sir.” The stranger reached out to return Red’s handshake. “From a wrecked Model T. It’s got one speed and no reverse, but it keeps going for me. Name’s Adrian Dozier.”
“That true, hein? Well, they’ll all have noisy engines soon enough, I think. Here, let me help you.” Red helped him unload a canvas duffel bag, a metal ice chest, and another bag covered in oilcloth.
Dozier gazed at the crowd milling about the dock. “Is this all for me?”
“Yes, sir, it is. You are our excitement this week. We thought you’d be hungry, so my wife, Estelle, fixed up some lunch at the house. Just up this way a bit.”
“That’s really nice of you. Thank you.” Dozier hoisted his bag more securely on his shoulder and stepped onto a dirt path that led away from the store. He smiled at Dolores as she stepped up beside him.
“Is it true you have a camera?” She brushed away a cloud of gnats suspended in the middle of the path. When the man looked at her, she gazed away beyond him at the bayou. Her family teased Dolores that her eyes could make people feel strange, they were so sad and brooding.
Marie stepped up and took her sister’s hand. “Didi, come away. Don’t bother this man.” She picked away the bits of moss from Dolores’s hair.
Dozier cleared his throat. “Yes, I do have a camera. Several, in fact. In this bag.” He lowered the bag to the ground. “Have you ever seen one?” He squatted down and reached in to retrieve a small rectangular leather case. People gathered around them, and children jumped up to get a better view. He opened the case, revealing a wood and metal object. When he pressed a metal lever, a cardboard bellows opened with a sigh.
The group reacted with surprise. One man said it was just like his accordion.
Dolores shook her head. “No, I’ve never seen one before. Is it true you can stop time with it?”
Red laughed. The group behind them moved in closer. “It’s not some kind of time machine, Dolores.”
“In a way, you can stop time. In fact, that’s how I got this camera.” Dozier spoke quietly, cradling the Kodak in his hands. “I found myself in Houston, Texas. I had a little extra cash, so I bought a watch. Now a watch, as you know, keeps time, and that’s what I thought I needed. But the next day I had a change of heart. I saw this camera in a store window, sold back the watch, and got the camera instead. An impractical choice, perhaps, but now here I am, and I’ve had some measure of success with it.”
“I’d like to try,” Dolores almost whispered.
“Well, you may, young lady, you may. Later on I’ll show you. I’ll show everybody.”
After lunch, Dolores watched as Dozier brought out his field camera and settled it into a tripod not far from where he’d come in. Three of Dolores’s young cousins stood around Dozier and posed for him. One of them pointed to the bayou. “Voyez, monsieur, l’oiseau là.” A blue heron stood motionless on the opposite shore next to a tupelo gum filled with long-necked white egrets. Through a break in the foliage the flat expanse of swamp stretched out toward the Gulf.
Dozier pointed the camera at some boats tied up near the store. “What is this boat for?” he asked the boy as Dolores walked up.
“This one is a skiff. You stand up and row with this joug here. It’s for the moss, you know, from the trees.” He pointed at some Spanish moss hanging from cypress trees behind them. “This other boat is a pirogue for fishing and hunting.”
A sail-powered lugger with trawling nets approached the dock in the distance. Other boats followed, gliding in as the sun illuminated the water on their big nets. A young man jumped to shore from the nearest boat to retrieve the line and tie up.
Dozier called to the older man on the boat. “Ça va, monsieur?”
The man took off a straw hat and wiped sweat off his forehead with his arm. He waved his hat to Dolores.
Dolores waved back at him. “Bonjour, Oncle Alphonse.”
Alphonse held the hat in one hand, eyeing Dozier as though trying to place him. “That a camera you got there, boy? You that friend of Red’s?”
“Papa!” one of the younger boys called up. “Il a fait mon portrait, Papa.”
“Ah, oui? You go on home, now, you hear me? Your maman know where you are?”
The boy remained.
“You got my boy’s picture with that? Why you want to do that for, hein?” He turned back to the boy, who stood still in the shadow of the trawl. “You hear me, boy. Go!”
Dozier said, “I’m sorry, sir, I meant no—” He took a few steps back from the boat and placed his hand on top of the camera, then smiled at Alphonse. “You’re not the first person to question what I’m up to with my camera. I assure you I intend no offense.”
“We got no need for some stranger making pictures here, no.” Alphonse continued his work with the oversized shrimp net, raising it up on a hoist to bake in the sun. “We do fine on our own, yeah.”
“Yes, sir,” said Dozier. “I understand. Did you have a good run?”
“Shit. They all backed up at that Grand Isle platform. They’s so many shrimp out here, man, we got the shrimp. The ice boats are backed up too. It’s like a battlefield out there, everybody fighting for shrimp. Nothing to fight about, though, plenty enough to go around.”
“That’s good. Plenty to go around. I’ll stay out of your way then, sir.” Dozier touched the brim of his white straw hat. “Let you get back to your work.” He gently picked up the camera and tripod and moved under a live oak tree, whose trunk stood thick as three large men.
The trees buzzed with the droning song of cicadas, rising from a low murmur to a shrill fast vibrato, passing the song on from one to another in a continuous drone. Dozier looked up at a large water bird flying overhead. Finally Dolores approached him and gazed at his camera. “What is it made of? It’s beautiful.”
“Yes, it is, isn’t it? This is a special one, called a ‘tropical camera.’ It’s made of teak wood, which is very durable in hot and humid climates like Louisiana.”
Dolores continued to stare at the camera, and Dozier gestured for her to come closer. “Here. Look through this opening. I like to show everyone what I do—it helps to repay you for welcoming me into your town. What’s your name? I remember you from this morning.” He adjusted the tripod so that she could look down more easily into the viewfinder.
“Now, you see I can tilt this way or that way”—he moved the front standard of the bellows—“or again in the back to affect the focus.”
Still she looked down into the reflective glass. “Does it always have to be on a stand, like so, or can you hold it too?”
He paused and stared at her. “My, you have good questions. How old are you, Dolores?”
“Thirteen years,” she answered.
“Ah. To answer your question, yes—in fact, here, I have a couple of other cameras in my bag. Let me show you.”
“I wish I could hold it,” she said, “and look up at the clouds.”
“Well, here’s one you can hold.” He took out a different camera. “This is the one I showed all of you this morning. It’s called a folding pocket camera because it folds up small. You can walk around with it easily.” Carefully he fitted the strap around her neck and put the camera into her hands. He opened the latch and unfolded the red bellows. “Look through there,” he said, pointing. “Turn this to focus. To make it more clear.”
She held the camera in her hands and pointed it in all directions, rarely removing her eye from the viewfinder.
“I have a simpler camera in my bag.” He pulled out another one. “It was my first camera a few years ago. It’s called a Brownie, and it’s really easy to use. Right now it doesn’t have any film in it, so you can’t take any pictures.” He helped her take the folding camera off her neck. “Now, when you look through this you’re going to see things upside down. You can hold it up this way or put it on its side. Hold it close to your body”—he demonstrated—“about at your waist, and look down into it.”
He put the Brownie into her hands. “It’s very light,” she said.
“Yes, the outside is cardboard. The new ones are metal, but I’ve had this one for a while.” Dolores handled the camera with great care, afraid of breaking it. “You don’t have to be so careful,” he said, “it’s a very sturdy camera. Try not to drop it, but go ahead, walk around.”
As she did so, Dozier looked through his field camera at her. She stopped and stared without blinking into the lens that he directed at her. She wondered what it felt like to be looking at herself through the machine.
He clicked the shutter and stood up. “For some reason it feels like you’re taking my picture instead of the other way around.”
She asked, “May I walk around with this?”
“Yes, yes, of course. Take your time. I’ll get it back from you later.”
She moved through the tall weeds and dirt toward the water, pausing at length every few moments, entranced. It was as though time did stop, but not in the way she had thought at first. It seemed to stop because the only thing she noticed or paid attention to was what she saw in the viewfinder. As she framed each tree or boat or person, her mind was calmed and emptied of all but one thing, the picture she saw in the square.
An hour later she brought the camera back and held it out to him.
“What did you think?” he asked her.
She wrinkled her brows and closed her eyes. “It stops the movement. And the noise. I can see little bit by little bit with it. It’s like the world slows down.”
“Yes. Yes. I thought the same thing when I was a boy.” He considered for a moment. “How about this? I’ll put some film in it for you, and you can take your own pictures while I’m here. Then I’ll take the film and have it processed and send the photos back to you. Would you like that?”
Dolores shaded her eyes from the setting sun to look at his face. “You mean put the pictures on paper?”
“Yes. The way it works is that the light hits the film and makes an image of what you see. Then you put the paper in some liquids to make the image come out. It’s as though the light comes into the lens and draws on the paper. Like drawing with light. I can do that at home, and I’ll send them to you, the ones you take.”
A lanky boy leaned against a nearby tree, smoking. Dozier gestured toward him. “He a friend of yours? He’s trying real hard not to be noticed.”
“That’s Earl,” said Dolores. When she turned to look at him, Earl walked away.
“Is he a bit protective of you? It’s okay. I just want him to know that I mean no harm.”
“I’ll tell him,” she said.
“It’s getting late now, the dance will be starting soon. We’ll do it in the morning, first light.” Dozier started packing up his things.
Dolores agreed, watching the camera disappear into his bag. She turned to walk home and caught up with Earl just past the tree. She told him what Dozier had said, then put her arm through his. They walked home together.
Later that evening, Earl and Dolores helped set up for the dance. They noticed Dozier walking along the bayou, smoking a cigarette. He came up to them a few moments later, coughing. “That crab pepper burns my throat,” he said.
Red called to him, “Hey, Dozier, come have a seat! We got some nice, hot crabs for you.” The tables were lined up under an ancient umbrella of live oak trees, trailing long strands of moss that trembled in the light of the kerosene lanterns. Dolores sat with Earl and let him crack the crab legs for her to eat.
The next morning Dozier spotted Dolores sitting in the grass next to the dock, where he’d set up the day before. The dawn was pink and gold behind them. She stood up and went to meet him. Shrimpers had started loading their boats for another day out in the Gulf.
“Ah, Dolores. You are an early bird. Hold on one minute. I’d like to get some of these boats while they’re getting ready to go out.” He started shooting as soon as he could get the camera out of the bag. Dolores followed him around the water’s edge until at least some of the boats had sailed for the day. Almost an hour passed before he took a break.
“You’ve been very patient, Dolores. Here’s the Brownie. I’ve already put film in it for you. Now, it will only take eight shots, so choose carefully.” He fingered the time-exposure lever. “There are only three things to adjust. This one I’ll set for you—just leave it alone, I’ll explain that another time. The next one you can move up and down in three different spots. You can open this hole to be bigger or smaller to let in different amounts of light. If something is in the shade, you want to open it here.” He pulled the lever up all the way, and the opening enlarged. “If it’s sunny, close it more, like this.”
Dolores’s hands trembled a little as she took the camera. She felt that something very important was happening to her.
“Okay, you see this little red window? It says ‘one.’ After you take your first picture, wind this little knob until it says ‘two.’ Then it’s ready for your next photo. Oh and this metal piece on the side slides down to take your picture.
“Keep it steady when you shoot. I’m going to set the opening for you now to medium. You can’t be too close or too far from something. Keep it about this distance.” He paced back and forth a few feet in front of her.
Four boys, too young to be working yet on the boats, came by dragging a barrel of oyster shells to dump on the huge pile at the churchyard. They set their load down to watch the stranger with the camera, and soon others joined them.
“You’ll be fine. Just keep her steady.”
Dozier had to chase off the boys, who had gathered around his field camera. Dolores left while Dozier was occupied.
Hours later, she was sitting on a stump in Earl’s backyard, with Earl and Earl’s daddy. She saw Dozier walk by and raised her arm to wave. He waved back. Earl and his daddy sat on a bench the honey color of polished cypress, irregularly shaped. They were whittling, quite focused on their work, the shavings dropping with regularity to the grass below. Dolores pointed the camera by turns at Earl’s hands and face, then his daddy’s, as though they were in conversation with her. She found it easier being with them, with the camera in her hands.
On the morning of Dozier’s departure, five days later, Dolores and her father stood with a small group who had gathered by the water to say good-bye to him. The air had been freshened by an early-morning rain. Although some of the people remained guarded and continued to be suspicious of him and his camera, he had made some friends. They brought dried shrimp and oysters, oranges and plums, holy cards for protection, a bandana, and, from Earl, a carving of a heron.
Dolores walked up to Dozier with her father. “Merci,” she said, and set the Brownie on top of his ice chest along with the two rolls of film she had used that week. She had completed one roll and gone back to him for another. He had shown her and her daddy how to reload the film safely.
Dozier squatted by the shore, tucking the final gifts and treats into his canvas bag. He adjusted his straw hat on his head. Then he picked up the Brownie and handed it back to her. “I want you to have it.”
Dolores stared at the camera for a moment before reaching out.
Marie spoke up. “Mais non, we can’t take such a gift.” She waved her chubby hands in front of her apron. “She can’t take this. Papa?”
Dolores gazed up at her father. He had broad shoulders and hands that hung down awkwardly—muscled hands, too big for the rest of him. His hair was thick and white. He squinted at Dozier with a pained look, rubbed the stubble on his chin. “You sure you want to do that, young man?”
“She’ll be good with a camera, sir,” said Dozier. “It’s not an expensive apparatus; many people own them in the city to take family photos and the like. I can develop the film for her.”
Her papa directed his grimace at Dolores, and his forehead softened. “I guess it’s all right. Didi, qu’est-ce que tu dit à monsieur?”
The crowd around them became quiet. She held the camera close to her chest. “Thank you.”
Dozier handed her two more rolls of film. “It’s time to pass this thing along, anyway.” He placed her used film in his bag. “I’ll send these back to you as soon as I can print them.”
She reached out to shake his outstretched hand and nodded her head. After saying his good-byes, he untied and started his motor. Dolores wandered away along the shore, gazing down into the camera. She did not look back as the sound of the motor faded in the distance.
The inspiration for this novel is rooted in my love of the places and people of Louisiana and of photography and the struggles of artists, especially women. I am interested in the ways that our ancestors’ experiences can affect who we become.
I became intrigued by the work of photographer Fonville Winans, who traveled around southern Louisiana photographing Cajun life in the 1920s. My story begins with a photographer coming to a small Cajun town and making a gift of a Brownie camera to a young Cajun girl, Dolores, who goes on to pursue the art of photography. This part of the story is set in the 1920s. She and her husband move to New Orleans, where she struggles with mental illness and the problem of pursuing her art in an era when women were discouraged from doing so.
The alternating chapters are set in the 1990s and feature Dolores’s granddaughter, who lives with her grandfather, Dolores’s husband, in New Orleans. She is going through the process of finding her path in life and in that process discovers her grandmother’s photographs for the first time. Her family has kept her grandmother’s illness and photographs secret. The unfolding discoveries of her grandmother’s life bring her insights into her own.
Woven into the dramas of these two women two generations apart is the character of the region itself—the coastal region of southern Louisiana, with its bayous and swamps and fingers of land extending out into the Gulf of Mexico. And so is the city of New Orleans, with all its complex contradictions and personalities. Both of these settings are active characters in the novel, providing rich backdrops in which the story unfolds.
Sharon LaCour, a 61-year-old piano instructor who lives in Amery, Wisconsin, has been writing fiction for many years. Her first published story came out in November 2017 in the Xavier Review.
Embark, Issue 4, April 2018