There was never anything magical in the gumbo. At least, nothing you could see. From the peanut butter–brown roux to the slender rounds of her sliced okra, Camille Bergeron made her gumbo the very same way her Creole mother had made it in her own kitchen for nearly forty years. But then, Camille should have known that a single woman from New Orleans with caramel skin couldn’t arrive on the cold and quiet shores of an island in Maine in 1977 and expect to blend in, especially not with two teenage daughters in tow and a carpetbag that smelled of boiled crawfish, no matter how many times she’d hung it out.
So it was no surprise to Camille when she opened the doors to her Little Gale Gumbo Café that the islanders eyed her suspiciously over their soup spoons, even as they clamored for second and third bowls of her trademark Creole stew. It had killed them, she suspected, to admit how good her gumbo was, nearly broken them to find themselves addicted overnight to such a simple confection as a praline, charging through snow and rain to buy a brown bag of those shiny bronze disks that melted on your tongue like good bourbon.
You might have asked native islander Ben Haskell what Camille put in her gumbo to make it so special, but he would never tell. From the moment Camille and her daughters had appeared on his weathered porch to inquire about an apartment for rent, Ben’s routine and guarded world was never the same.
His teenage son, Matthew, would have been of even less help, having been equally enchanted by Camille’s girls, soft-spoken Josephine and headstrong Dahlia: passions that would follow him for years, no matter how hard he tried to let them go.
Because just as anyone enjoying a good gumbo could never bear to relinquish it until the bowl had been tilted and the last silky spoonful had been scooped from the bottom, so it was for all the men who fell in love with the Bergeron women, those too good and those much too bad. Letting go was never easy.
Little Gale Island, Maine
Friday, June 14, 2002
Fog crawled along the island’s rugged shoreline like old smoke, hugging shingled gables and steeped in the rich, salty taste of the tide.
From the bedroom window of her mustard cape, Dahlia Bergeron watched morning spread across her backyard, brushing daylight over her cold frame greenhouses in streaks of blue and gray. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d risen before the sun, at least not to roll over and make love again. But the mattress beside her was empty and had been for a while now. What she wouldn’t have done for a lover’s company today, the smell of a man’s skin on her fingertips, his hairs on her pillow.
When the phone sounded on the other side of the room, she reached it before the second ring. Most mornings she would have let it chime on and on until the machine swallowed it up, but not today. She’d known even as she hurried across her cluttered wood floor that there was only one reason anyone called this early.
Dahlia could hear her younger sister’s ragged breathing on the other end. Josie had been crying. Sobbing.
“Joze, honey, what is it?”
“It’s Daddy. He was here last night. He was here and he attacked Ben.”
Dahlia fell hard against the dresser, her collection of perfume bottles toppling. “Oh, God, is he . . . ?”
“Daddy’s dead. He’s dead and Ben’s in a coma.”
Dahlia closed her eyes, swallowed. “Where is he?”
“Portland. He’s in ICU. But the doctors won’t let us see him. They said only family, and they won’t make any exceptions.”
“Where are you?”
“Just stay there,” Josie said. “Wayne’s already on his way.”
Dahlia rushed downstairs to the front door and opened it just as the station wagon came barreling up the driveway, bringing with it a damp sea breeze that tumbled through the long tangles of her black hair and raised goose bumps along her bare legs.
Wayne emerged from the driver’s side, his brown hair and beard wet with perspiration, his round face flushed.
Her brother-in-law looked grimly at her over the roof of the car.
“Get dressed,” he said. “Hurry.”
Josie waited for them on the front porch, pulling nervously at the ends of her short red bob.
This was all her fault. She’d grown so lazy with her Voodoo. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d dressed a candle or covered the steps with brick dust. Her mother, Camille, would never have let so much time go by without a protection spell, never have left herself and her family so vulnerable.
And now the man who had been like a father to Josie and Dahlia for nearly twenty-five years, the man who’d loved their mother so much you would have sworn his skin had smelled from it, their beloved Ben, lay unconscious in a hospital bed.
It was unimaginable to her.
When the station wagon appeared, Josie rushed to the railing and watched Dahlia crawl out of the passenger seat, holding the door to steady herself.
Wayne closed the driver’s side and walked ahead, wiping his forehead with his arm. “Any calls?”
“I don’t know,” said Josie. “I couldn’t stay in there alone. I was going to jump right out of my skin.”
Dahlia labored up the four crooked treads to the porch, her plastic garden clogs smacking the old wood with each step. “Your husband is a heartless son of a bitch.”
“Because I wouldn’t stop at Clem’s for booze,” Wayne explained wearily, passing Josie to enter their shingled cape. “I told her we had plenty of alcohol here.”
“Cooking sherry doesn’t count!” Dahlia yelled after him, finally on the porch and face-to-face with Josie. “Hi, sweetie.”
The sisters embraced, clinging to each other with a desperation they hadn’t felt in years.
“We’re supposed to just sit here on our hands while he lies there all alone, Dahl. I can’t bear it.”
They parted, still holding hands.
Josie nodded to the street. “Let’s go in before the vultures land.”
“He wasn’t supposed to get out, dammit.” Dahlia pulled an ivory mug down from the kitchen cabinet and poured the last of the coffee. “He was supposed to rot and die in there.”
“Well, he didn’t,” said Wayne, pulling a soda from the fridge.
Dahlia carried her cold coffee to the window seat and dropped into it.
“I should have known something awful was coming,” Josie said, knocking the old coffee filter into the trash. “All this early heat, and that stupid fly that wouldn’t leave me alone in the café yesterday. You remember, Wayne?”
Dahlia groaned. “Oh, Jesus, here it comes. . . .”
“Don’t you dare make fun of me, Dahlia Rose.” Josie spun around. “If Momma were still alive she would have scrubbed the steps a dozen times by now.”
“Right—because that worked so well keeping him out all the other times!”
“Hey!” Wayne stared pointedly between them. “Just cool it. Both of you.”
The sisters fell silent, looking away.
Josie’s hands shook as she peeled the lid off the coffee tin. “I hate that Ben’s all alone in that hospital room and they won’t let us see him. I just hate it.”
Dahlia stared numbly into the backyard, where Wayne’s mower stood stalled in a patch of high grass. “So, who found them?”
“Who do you think?” Wayne snapped open his soda and took a long swig. Jack, of course. Dahlia rolled her head against the glass, trying to imagine what her ex-boyfriend must have thought, seeing her father again after so many years, and now with Jack being the island’s police chief to boot.
Josie rinsed out the coffeepot, fresh tears spilling down her cheeks. “Poor Jack,” she whispered.
“He went over as soon as dispatch got Ben’s call,” Wayne said. “Apparently the front door was open and Ben and Charles were just lying there at the bottom of the stairs. Jack thinks Ben went upstairs to try to get away from Charles and Charles chased him to the top and they lost their balance.”
“Jesus.” Dahlia closed her eyes.
Wayne walked to the sink, shaking his head. “This shouldn’t have happened. We should have just filled out those request forms from the prison when they came.
Then we would have known he was out.”
“Well, don’t look at me,” Dahlia said. “Your wife’s the one who thought it was a better idea to soak them in gasoline and stuff ’em in a goddamned tree.”
“It was vinegar,” Josie said indignantly, “and I didn’t stuff them in a tree; I buried them around the roots. There’s a difference.”
“Oh, well, excuse me, Your High Priestess.”
“You and Daddy never understood what Momma and I believed. You never even tried.”
“What’s to understand about digging a hole under a tree? And you know I hate when you call him that.”
“Fine, Dahl. What am I supposed to call our father?”
“Gee, I don’t know. How about wife-beating asshole? Drug-dealing shithead? Either of those would work.”
“What difference does it make now?” Wayne said, taking the empty carafe from Josie’s stalled hands and filling it himself. “He’s dead.”
Dead. The sisters looked across the room at each other, waiting for the word to sink in. All the years they had suffered their father’s violence. Leaving New Orleans to escape him, only to have him follow them north to the island, as relentless as a greenhead fly. They’d been so sure he’d chase them forever.
Them, and anyone who’d ever loved them. Ben, Jack, Wayne, and—
“Matty.” Josie gasped.
Dahlia rose in an instant. They raced for the phone at the same time, shoulder-to-shoulder across the kitchen floor.
Wayne called after them, “I’m sure Jack’s already talked to him.”
But neither sister was listening. It was unthinkable that their oldest and dearest friend should hear this unbearable news from anyone else. Josie reached the phone first and snatched it up. “We should try his cell.”
“No,” said Dahlia, over her sister’s shoulder. “What if he’s at work? Or driving? He’ll run off the road!”
Josie agreed, already punching in the numbers. “We’ll try his house first,” she said.
And just like that, after so many years of their agreed truce on the subject of Matthew Haskell, the Bergeron sisters unwittingly began their unspoken contest for his affections all over again.