I had been hiking alone, in a snowstorm, in Cape Breton -- a possibly ill-advised adventure in a research trip for my book -- when the first call came from the NEA. The message, when I listened to it six hours later, was cryptic: so-and-so had a few questions about my application and would I please call back at my earliest convenience. It was too late to call, and the next day, I got another message, just as cryptic, and an e-mail that sounded frankly (and again, cryptically) dire. I was sure I'd flubbed a piece of paperwork and been disqualified. It didn't even occur to me that the news might be good.
This fellowship could not have come at a better time. I'm at a stage in my career when finishing a book is within sight, but my job situation is uncertain. I've been told that my default resting face looks a lot like worry, and that's been even more true as I've tried to work out how to keep writing, keep paying rent, and start a family with my partner. The National Endowment for the Arts has un-creased my brow for a while. Choosing to be a writer comes with all kinds of risks and sacrifices, but for the time being, thanks to the NEA, I will get to live exactly the life I want to, and use my creative energy for my work rather than for making ends meet.
Excerpt from Terre Bonne
Boy heard them coming, then saw them coming, a buzzing flicker amongst the cypress trees. He was mucking his way across a muddy bank in hipboots and carrying a plastic bucket filled with gator eggs that he had nestled in soft dirt and marked in Sharpie with an X for this-side-up. If the eggs rolled or got flipped upside-down, it would kill what was inside; Boy didn't know why that was so, only that it was so. He wasn't no zoologist, he just did what he was told. He had cleared out a nest he'd had his eye on for weeks, picking one egg after another out of the warm mound of mud and straw while the momma gator floated and watched, apparently with no interest at all, about twenty feet away. Her eyes peeked up just above the water and registered nothing. Sometimes the mommas were like that, and sometimes, they would only seem to be like that – all reptilian indifference – and then come at you suddenly, in a blind rage.
He was backing away from this nest and the lingering gator, moving further down the bank toward his pirogue, which was tied to a cypress knee not far away, when he saw the law, just a flicker of movement in the distance among the trees. He tallied the risk – tens of thousands of dollars in fines, five years in prison, the ample evidence stashed in the Old Man's camp, the problem of his daughter alone out there at the camp, too, where he'd left her while he went on this errand, and what the law and the judge and her mother would say about that, whether she'd be sent to juvie, whether he'd lose her forever and all – against the profit of these few dozen eggs. He waded out, lowered the bucket down to the water, tipped its rim, filled it, sunk it. He untied his boat, walked it away from the bank, sunk that too. He pulled the cane tube out of his pocket and dove down.
Underwater, he swam beneath a delicate flotant of spikerush, careful not to disturb the thick carpet that almost completely covered the water. He put the tube to his mouth, spun over onto his back and did a sort of reclining deadman's float, knees bent, his heels and ass dragging in the muddy bottom, his head tilted back. Only the cane tube broke the surface, and among the spikerush, it looked like nothing, another reed, a stem. The water was warm and still. He kept his eyes closed – couldn't see through the murky brown if he tried – and listened to, or felt, the buzz of the airboat approaching. It was a pressure in his ears, a vibration,irritating, like waking slowly out of a dream to the sound of a lawnmower on Sunday morning. It went on fading and returning for hours, and Boy did not raise his head.
It was not easy for him to be so still for so long. His body filled up and nearly burst with its own pent-up, quivering energy unless it was siphoned off through a twitching foot, twiddling thumbs. He wiggled the fingers of one hand and then another. What made it harder was this: he had left his daughter at the Old Man's abandoned camp about three miles deeper into the swamp. She was waiting there – along with five buckets of eggs, about $3,000 worth, and another several thousand in salted skins rolled up in the wall – and no way out until he fetched her by boat. When he thought about what Lee might be up to back at that rundown old camp, when he imagined worst cases – collapsing floors and roofs, gator attacks, rogue poachers with less impeccable manners than his own – he became more aware of the numbness in his feet and hands, of an itch at the back of his neck, and he felt the water around his throat like a pair of strangling hands, the water on his face like a smothering pillow. But if he imagined her there, instead, as he himself had been there as a boy, if he thought of the way the muskrat pelts had shone auburn in the sun, of how he'd passed the time tossing cast-nets until the Old Man came back, sometimes long after dark, with a boat-bottom full of thick-furred carcasses for him to skin, he could settle again into a deep quiet, and wait, and wait.
Twice, the engine roared close and stopped; Boy heard the muffled voices of the wardens, a faint sloshing as they waded from their boat to the bank. He had to fight down a panic that their boat would pass right over him, that they would see a ripple or wade his way, right into him.
But, no. They saw his footprints and the decimated nest, and except that the evidence was fresher, the scene looked not much different from any number of others that they had certainly found and investigated, and from which he had made a clean escape. They would know he could not have gotten far, though, with a pirogue and a paddle, and driven by hope and the frustration of what seemed an impossible thwarting of that hope, they would search on and on, cover the same ground over and over, and never find another sign of Boy.
Stephanie Soileau is a Jones Lecturer in Fiction at Stanford University, where she was also a Truman Capote Fellow in the Wallace Stegner Fellowship Program. Her short stories have appeared in Glimmer Train, Ecotone, Tin House, Gulf Coast, StoryQuarterly, Nimrod International Journal, three volumes of New Stories from the South, and Best of the South, Volume II: From 10 Years of New Stories from the South. She is working on a collection of stories and a novel, Terre Bonne, about fishermen, oil and erosion in her home state of Louisiana. She grew up in Lake Charles, Louisiana, but has spent the last dozen or so years in Chicago and San Francisco, where she now lives with her dog, cat, and soon-to-be-husband, Jonah.
Photo by Jonah Gendron