The Ferocity of Tenderness
In the cool, early Spring of March, parked at a near-flooded South Louisiana campsite, two friends tense their muscles in the front seats of a Chevy Tahoe, listening to music and making conversation that won’t be recalled but remembered. The car gives the impression of enclosed safety, an escape from any dark figure approaching by crunch of leaves, a twig snapping beneath foot. In the dim light of the dash, their faces glow slightly green as they whisper and laugh, trying not to look too often into eyes. While others lie calmly in tents, they celebrate a birthday in both the darkness and deep reverb of ghostly harmonies. One of them fingers the knife in the pocket of her hoodie as the fresh night air slips in through the cracked window, taking the place of the smoke just expelled. A noise, perhaps? Hard to tell above the loudness of thoughts and quiet song. No longer can they see the water, sense its presence among the trees that surround the campsite. No longer can they be sure of its rising or receding. The trees grow taller and taller making dark darker, making way for the light that ends the night in a flash, a door suddenly ajar, the interruption of the senses.
Set back behind an uptown New Orleans mansion, past the tall bushes lining the stone walk that leads behind the house, the cottage can only be accessed through a black wrought-iron gate running along Garfield Street. Unused, usually, the space holds a sofa, a coffee table, and a small kitchenette in the main room, a clawfoot tub in the bathroom, and a stately queen bed and chest of drawers in the cozy, doorless bedroom. Shaded by its hovering mother of a house, the air and hardwood floors remain cool and welcoming. It feels the same shade of blue as the walls are painted. When the neighbors water their lawn with a sprinkler, splatters of water drum the kitchenette window, separated by several-second intervals of silence. Behind the sofa, a mattress and box spring lean against a wall and cover a window, they themselves covered by a bed-sheet. Out of place in the minimalist, tidy setting, this tall ghost seems to be the sole regular inhabitant of the cottage. Once, in the month of October, two women sat in silence on the sofa of the cottage watching dust particles disappear into the growing shadows. One of them rested her head against the shoulder of the other and felt the soft touch of fingertips down the side of her face and around her neck, suddenly the weight of a hand pushing along the clavicle, the ferocity of tenderness.
In a once flooded basement New Orleans apartment, held in by concrete walls and floors, two musicians linger amidst disheveled boxes and indiscriminate belongings listening to the haunting echo of music escaping through contemptible computer speakers. This guy calls himself “The Tallest Man on Earth” and he sings with a shaky voice, as one that’s been screaming all night at passers-by on the street, not a beggar, but one that sees more than there is to a person, feels the need to yell from a street corner, to expose the secrets of those who feign innocence walking from one place to another. The guitar’s rhythms, just as claw-hammer as the banjo’s, move rapidly from string to string, chord to chord, as someone with a stutter trying to give a warning, to save a life. This is no city voice full of vibrato, it’s all mountain passion and unsteady like a thirteen-year-old boy. The songs smell of burning wood and melting snow. A winter campfire, one heard hissing and crackling all night and into the morning, the final hiss of ice on the smoldering ashes. And where there’s no snow, it’s just water, the water of a narrow river seeping up through the hole in the bottom of a canoe. There are no extras here, only the essentials of wood, fire, and water, strings and voice, the taste of red wine from a tin cup, refined yet rustic, no need for showiness, a proper vessel, the smoky tartness speaking for itself. Touching the lyrics is touching wet grass or the slippery trunk of an Oak tree after a rain. Earthy, dirty, and fresh. The sense of seeing clouds roll out after the first rain as darker ones roll in from the distance.
Kelcy Wilburn holds an MFA from the University of New Orleans. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Hobart, Waccamaw, The Whistling Fire and fwriction : review. Wilburn is also a musician, songwriter and freelance writer based out of New Orleans. Her second album, Pennies in Hand, was just released to positive reviews. Visit her at
Pic courtesy of imissyousomuch