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Love Like Saltwater

As I study my genealogy chart, I love to say the languid names of my Cajun ancestors, names like Jean Baptiste Olivier and Marie Magdelaine Monpierre, liquid names that curl in the mouth like minnows, then unfurl and swim off the tongue. I come from a family of fishermen. My immigrant relatives made their living catching silverfins and tiger prawns in the murky coastal netherworld of Bayou Black, the swamp singing in their veins, as lush as mellifluous green rivers.

On a still, sweltering Sunday afternoon in August of 1856, before hurricanes had female names, a violent storm ravaged Terrebonne Parish where my ancestors lived on the Louisiana coast, killing over two hundred people. The hurricane destroyed the hotel and gambling houses at nearby Isle Derniere, the island left bereft, void of vegetation and split in half, the once bustling seaside resort transformed into a feral haven for brown pelicans and black-backed herons, royal terns and laughing gulls. Rains flooded the Mermentau River and destroyed crops along the bottom lands. Saltwater soaked rice fields in Bayou Black, stripping fruit from orange trees, smearing the air with fragrant swirls of tangy brine and sweet citrus. Survivors clung to bales of cotton and washed ashore as the storm subsided. My great-great grandmother Delphine, whose name is a French-Greek hybrid of “dolphin,” was fifteen when the hurricane hit.

I imagine that Saturday night before the great storm, Delphine—thin as an egret wading through a tangle of bible-black vines—crept to the lip of the pier, dipped her net, and waited for crawfish. Maybe Sunday morning after dawn, the sun turned the moor to loam, and a violet sheen skimmed the gulf. I picture Delphine sprawled on the front porch, watching the veined sky glower and sink and watching the vultures wheel and dive like black angels. I imagine that my great-great grandmother, like me, was a Catholic girl who harbored a secret pagan heart. On Sunday afternoon, the storm loomed. Delphine’s limbs aquiver, she whirled and danced like a dervish while the sea swelled. She was Hurricane Delphine, deciding whom to love when she saw what could crawl from the shambles unscathed, who could cling to a bale of cotton and sweep ashore, his swamp-green eyes singed with salt, his blue-black hair braided with seaweed—her own personal Poseidon. This is how she would choose her mate. I like to pretend this is how she met Pierre Zephirin Olivier, my great-great grandfather.

A century and a half later, their ghosts dance on my ribs, their maritime blood brewing inside me, imbuing me with a hunger for salt and brine and sun. Perhaps this is why I swam as soon as I could walk, staying under the water until my flesh puckered and my green eyes burned, flicking my imaginary fins, twirling like a drunken ballerina. A timid child too scared to climb trees or ride bicycles, I was always the first to dive, fetching pennies that glimmered like buried treasure at the bottom of the pool. Once I swam with dolphins off the Mexican coast of Isla Mujeres, my hands gliding easily over their satin spines as they keened and twittered, their lithe, powerful bodies coiling around me, weaving human and dolphin skin into one skein. It felt like home.

Shortly after I learned to swim, in order to make myself useful to my father, I figured out how to mix his martinis—gin rather than vodka, shaken instead of stirred, laden with green olives and poured over ice. I remember the heady, acrid smell of the liquor, the clink of ice against the tumbler. I remember how he chilled the olives in champagne until they were smooth as emeralds bobbing in frothy bubbles. I used to dive for the olives submerged at the bottom of his rocks glass, and I would suck the juice out of them, rolling them around on my tongue, loving their briny, gin-and-champagne-soaked taste. They tasted like the ocean, like the swamp where my father’s people lived, like fishermen, like olive skin and sea-green eyes and ink-dark hair…like my father himself.

While most of the girls I knew received cars and college educations from their fathers, the Olivier genealogy chart is the only thing my father ever provided for me after I turned eighteen and he no longer had to pay child support. My father and I never knew each other very well, and all we shared was the same saltwater in our veins. A born seaman, he served as a lieutenant commander in the Navy and was often stationed overseas at exotic-sounding places like Guam, and Bahrain, and Okinawa. When I was in elementary school, he lived in Japan for two years, so I became obsessed with that seafaring country—their painted Kyoto dolls, their sushi rolls and squid salad, their modular beds as compact as cupboard drawers. When my father would return to my mother and me in Shreveport, he didn’t have much use for me outside of my bartending skills. He found me too fey, too fanciful, too peculiar. He called me a “bleeding heart liberal.” He called me “an egg about to crack.” Then he left us for good.

My father never really knew his father either—Alcide Olivier, nicknamed “Frenchie”—because he died when my father was a little boy. In the only photograph I have ever seen of my grandfather, he stands, haggard and swarthy, next to my elegant grandmother, his shock of sable hair mussed and oily, a hand-rolled cigarette dangling from his mouth. Working as a roughneck on a Gulf Coast oil rig, Frenchie traded in a life of fishing for a life of drilling. He swapped the salt air for sulphuric acid, and his blackened, sea-starved lungs couldn’t take it. So I suppose it isn’t my father’s fault that no one ever showed him how to be a dad.

In the French folktale, “Love Like Salt,” a king asks his daughter how much she loves him. She replies, “I love you as much as fresh meat loves salt.” The king is so perplexed by his daughter’s unusual answer that he disowns her and banishes her from the palace. Years later the banished daughter marries a prince from a neighboring kingdom and invites her father to the wedding. Still desperate to please her father, she requests that the food for the wedding feast be prepared without any salt. But the king spits the food from his mouth, declaring it “tasteless.” The king then embraces his daughter, admitting he was wrong to misinterpret her words. For the rest of the wedding banquet, the king relishes plump shrimp curled in crimson sauce, fat scallops soaked in butter, and brine-drenched oysters dipped in sea salt, affirming they are the best foods he has ever tasted.

Unlike the mythical French king, I doubt my estranged father will ever appreciate my odd way of looking at the world or will ever forgive me for being who I am. But I can try to forgive him. After all, his blood is the salt that flavors my food. He gave me more than a genealogy chart, more than a lilting list of French names printed in black font on twenty pages of white paper. He gave me a rich history from which I can weave stories, spinning them around in my mind like dolphins spiraling up from the bottom of the sea. He gave me sea gods washing ashore after great storms. He gave me Delphine fishing under the feverish flambeau of the bayou, luminous as a selkie drying her silken skin in the sun. He gave me the water.

- LeeAnn Olivier is a full-time English instructor at Tarrant County College in Fort Worth, Texas, and a graduate student in the creative writing program at the University of Texas at Dallas. Her poetry has recently been published in the literary journals Illya’s Honey, SWAMP, and Sojourn.

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