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R. Sebastian Bennett

Riding with the Doctor

I am an expert on folklore, and I know all about the masks with noses shaped like penises. These masks are a crucial element of rural Louisiana Mardi Gras celebrations, a folk life which we must preserve, as it is a significant heritage. I, Dr. Hoyt Leblanc, am in an enviable position, as I am both a native of the "Cajun" region of Louisiana ("Cajun" is formulated from the word "Acadien," in a unique contraction) and an accomplished Doctor of Folklore Studies. Frequently, I give lectures on various aspects of culture at the university and at the church, for the edification of the populace. I see you are staring at my mustache. Isn't it grand? It is in the "full brush" style fashioned in the late 1870s, but most popular in the early spring of 1877. Yet, I allow the side brushes of my whiskers to drop in a "demi-cercle." All of the ladies love to touch my facial hair and feel it on their skin. They say, "Mais chère, lemme tosh dat moostache."

On Tuesday next, I am going to the Mardi Gras festival in Duson, where I will be both spectator and participant. This is known as "multi-tracking," when one appears in a position with two separate functions, e. g., observateur/participateur, which affords a unique entrance point into the societal characteristic. You are looking at my pocket? That's only the outline of a tube, see-Mustache Lotion-I buy it from the distributor in New Orleans. Sniff . . .

No, really, sniff the scent. It's made from the original recipe developed before la dérangement from Nova Scoshe. Sniff . . . That's the smell of nutria pelt oil mixed in with the gelatin base. A "nutria" is a large melon-shaped rodent with a pointed snout.

You assumed that I would be the capitaine of this year's Mardi Gras "course," didn't you? Actually, although many feel that I have the stamina and musculature to be leader, this year I will not command the begging for chickens. However, I am very close friends with the capitaine's brother. In fact, our masks-with beads and sticky fur on the chins-share the same noses, made from limp carrots spray-painted tan.

As my folkloristic colleagues love to say, Mardi Gras is a tradition of times long past, of the ancient rites of spring, when the maidens bared their young bottoms and offered their pert breasts to the followers of Pan. Now we will wear our masks, and some men will dress as clowns and some as women; and some women will dress as men; and Blacks will paint their faces white and clip clothespins to their nostrils. We will all ride from house to house to steal chickens. And we will carry our whips of sexual innuendo or intimidation, and we will conduct faux flagellations and mock abductions of womenfolk. We will chase fowl around the yard until we catch them and wring their necks and put them in our soup. Our festivities we will enjoy until the pre-Lent of Ash Wednesday, when we must fast and show our piety.

You know that the Mardi Gras "course" means "race" in French? It is useful to be bilingual in this region, as I am. Do you like my horse? His name is "Fliculate"-FLICK-U-LUT. You may pet his mane or his rump. Do not pet under his tail, because that's where he has the froth of anticipation. He is a fine steed-not a gelding. That's why he is trying to snort up that mare in front of us.

On our horses, with the thunder of ten thousand goats, we ride from house to house, until the capitaine raises his flag. But this is a secret symbol, for in actuality a homeowner requests the Mardi Gras riders, our wondrous gang, to enter his property, to raze the dwelling, to steal his wife and whip his young-et bien sûr, de chasser les poulets, to hunt the chickens, to wrap thick fingers around their feathery necks and destine plucked white meat for our steaming gumbo supreme. Look! The stout capitaine has lowered the flag-we are welcome in this home. Come, spur your mount! Gather your flange. Our time is here.

"Chiquez la paille! Chiquez la paille!" Chew the straw! This is what we say when we chase and pretend to pillage. It is an ancient cry from medieval times, a treasured folkloric relic, which we do not fully understand, yet we utter it with gusto and élan, as is our nature. Did you see? Monsieur Blanchôt is dancing on his horse? He stands in the saddle and waves his arms and stomps his feet. He pretends to unbutton his fly and remove "son fusil de l'amour," his love pistol. . . . But he does not actually take it out. See! Monsieur Richard (Ree-Shard) has released two chickens from the bathroom door. They cluck and flap their wings. On reddish clawed feet, they wobble and run as they are chased by fat Monsieur Bourgeois, who is very agile, despite his girth. See the way he grabs the Langshan fowl, clamps it between his plump thighs, and twists its tapered neck without allowing its beak near his palms? Let me tell you something-listen to me: A chicken beak is a vicious thing. It can rip into a man's flesh and pierce his genitals. Why do you think the hoodoo traiteurs love to put so many beaks in their conjos?

Oh yes, the corpulent Bourgeois holds his poultry above his head. He shakes its limp form in victory and waddles with it toward the wagon, the repository of our meat. What is that stream of warm water on my arm? That squirting? Oh, it's nine-year-old Scotty Richard, with his water gun. He wants to get whipped by a clown in a mask, or perhaps by a man in a brassiere. I have my thick whip right here, an oiled black snake. See Scotty's expression of terror and delight as he is walloped? Hear his squeals? His father has locked him out of the house, and now the boy is surrounded, writhing on the grass while the men flagellate him softly. Scotty knows the tradition. He will not he harmed. There will be only mild red marks on his young body, but no bloody gashes, rope burns, or deep bruising; and no blows to the face. And, of course, the whipping will stop if the boy grows a boner. Scotty loves this game. It's a wonderful folkloric tradition, better than Rambo: First Blood, Part II. Mardi Gras will make Scotty a man, and one day he will lock his own son out of the house, to shriek with postured terror, to be mock-whipped by merry marauders in proboscis masks.

Now the neighbors, in front and in back, to the left and the right, have all come to watch Mrs. Richard be abducted. She folds her arms to cover her large breasts, then she releases them. Mrs. Richard is not really shy. She has a lovely figure, and she knows it. She always wears a sleeveless blouse, cut narrow at the waist and wide in the chest. But now she is being led off by two men in women's dresses, curlers, and wrinkled tights. Their cheeks are colored cherry red with rouge, like silhouette moons of Venus; and they wear false eyelashes and black beauty marks the size of dimes-twice as large as deer raisins. Only the most virile men can dress as women. And still, they must make their costumes obvious, with exaggerated bust and makeup; gaudy wigs and fluorescent nails. No man may truly try to appear as a woman-no transsexuals or cross-dressers allowed. They will be beaten. They will not be given any soup.

The men won't harm Mrs. Richard. They really won't even touch her. They won't use their whips on her derrière, or squeeze her privates. Look, they usher her only as far as the driveway, and then release her, with a show of having been tricked into letting her escape. As you see, there are some limits to the Mardi Gras festivity. These parameters are not easily understood by the average citizen. I have studied them for fifteen years, which is why I am such an expert.

Did you notice the women in overalls? The short one with the cigar is Widow Frey. Standing with her are Connie, Sheila St. Jacques, and Fifi LaFleur-all wearing cowboy boots. Fifi is over six feet. She was an all-state volleyball and field hockey champ. Stand aside-the women are coming over. They love to talk to me on these occasions. We speak of many things. I notice they tend to stare at my pants, but I make no remark of this. I am a very reserved person. It comes from my high educational level and academic status. Did you realize that my office is closest to the men's room in the Humanities building? That is because I have seniority.

The Widow Frey is tickling my neck, and suddenly Fifi LaFleur-with her big hands-makes a grab for my crotch (I am not wearing a codpiece). This happened once before. The true significance of this action lies in its folkloric nature. You see, in the reversal allowed in the Mardi Gras festival, in fact, the women may become more aggressive than the men. It is permitted. They may enact their autoerotic urges, especially with a subject as knowledgeable as myself; although I must add that women have always found the way I wear my jeanspulled up high above the navel-quite appealing. "Oh, Doctor Leblanc," says Sheila, "we gonna examine you . . ."

I allow myself to be hoisted up by the four women, each of whom grabs an appendage, a hand or a foot. They carry me around the side of the house, toward the toolshed, to the accompaniment of applause and taunts from the capitaine and his men-porcine grunts from Bourgeois, who is pressing up the tip of his nose with his thumb, exposing his nostrils and septum, as if he were actually a hog about to root. (Truthfully, I am at a loss to explain this behavior. It may be concretized ritualembodiment, a remnant of La Boucherie, where blood is drained and drunk from larger farm animals.)

The women lug me by all fours, parallel to the ground, sagging at mid-section, and I stare at the yellowing sky. I do not struggle. It is the folklorist's duty not to interfere in the rites of a culture. Thus, I may not alter the course of inversion here, occurring as a function of "festival." I am hauled into the dark toolshed and laid down hard on the concrete floor. My head is underneath a shelf, near a sack of peat moss which I can smell, and which combines in an odd way with the aroma of nutria from the lotion on my thick mustache.

"Doctor, we gotta a sir-prize for you-ou," says Connie Duhon. With my exquisitely developed linguistic sensitivity, I realize that the intonations of Connie's nasal vowels are diphthongic in nature, and thus Connie's "you" rhymes perfectly with "Jew." In fact, at the Tennessee Valley Folklore Conference, I presented a paper, "The Nasal Assonance of Napoleonic Oral Tradition of the Poitou Region," which was extremely well-received.

I am not really surprised when each woman sits on one of my arms or legs and holds me to the floor. Connie and Sheila each sit on one of my calves, and Fifi LaFleur and Widow Frey straddle my arms. Underneath Fifi's overalls, I feel the warmth and dampness of her wide buttocks. I flex my forearm muscle so it bulges beneath her. The women are laughing, cackling really, and Sheila leans over to touch her index finger to my lips. "You just hush now, big Doc. Ain't nobody gonna come get you now. . . ."

As a test, to confirm that I could wrench the women off of me and escape-if I really wanted to-I try to move my leg, just slide it to the side and simultaneously twist my shoulders, too. I am surprised to find that I am truly pinned in place, held like a cow at the milking machine, with pressure plates against its chest and pelvis, and suction cups at its udder. The door to the shed is closed now, and its inner space is lit only by a slice of light from under the roof. The room has a warm, fetid, stagnant odor, like manure in August, and I realize that I am perspiring, around my neck and in the clefts beside my groin. The women are oddly quiet, becalmed, as if for the time being they are content merely to sit and gloat about their captive, a practice documented by the explorer Lafcadio Hearn, who was captured by the French and Takapah Indians, and then quietly observed. He reported that for several hours, at the beginning of his incarceration, only the words "umbata krendak lahma" ("toad in the hand") were spoken. Later linguistic researchers theorized that the colloquial usage of "umbata . . . lahma," as opposed to the verbial "umbatar," actually connoted the fact that a palm-imprisoned toad will often urinate. This theory has not been fully proven.

Although I am not really frightened, I do decide to use my expertise in oral narratives of escape and take decidedly affirmative action. To distract the women, I drum the fingers of my left hand on an empty tin of paint thinner-I drum pinky, ring finger, middle finger, in that order, as if I am playing the introduction to the bridge of the popular Zydeco folk song, "Toss the Turnips, We Are Late for Church." Yet, covertly, I slide my right arm down toward my waist, near my belt, where hangs the sheath of my Lewis and Clark Signature Replica fish knife, which I mail-ordered from Craftway, Inc. But Sheila St. Jacques has quick reflexes. Her supple arms swing down and her smooth hands grab my own, until Connie extracts the knife from its sheath, and with thumb and forefinger dangles it above my stomach, swinging it to and fro. "Don't you worry 'bout this knife, chère," she says. "We gonna keep it fo' you, nice and safe. . . ."

And with that, all the women are laughing again, giggling, until the Widow Frey begins to talk, staring down into my face like a third-grade teacher addressing a disobedient student-before administering corporal punishment, raps with a ruler or pantless strokes of a willow switch (both documented in Feodor's classic study, "The Corporeality of the Nascent Urge; Images of Schoolhouse Tradition," for which I was an advisory editor).

"Now Doctor," says the Widow Frey, and as she looks down the length of my reclined body, her three chins contract. "Doc, y'all remember at the Crawfish Festival in Breaux Bridge, when we was tryin' to eat, and you kept lecturin' us on the proper way? You said we had to suck the crawdads' heads, and the thor-axe, 'cause that's what the Indians did-and also chew the feet. . . . And then in yer speech, you let on that we were makin' a mistake with the crawfish bisque, because, historically speakin', crawfish were boiled or steamed? Do you remember that, chère?"

I nod my head slowly, but then the widow has grabbed my chin, squeezes my jaw with her fingers; and the sharp curved tips of her artificial nails dig into the skin of my cheeks, making indentations, I'm sure. I have very soft skin.

"You think yer so smart, don'tchee? Don'tchee?" asks Widow Frey, squinting and curling back her lip.

Just then, I feel a hand on my stomach, a steady pressure. With the widow's clasp on my jaw, I can only just barely see Fifi unbuckling my horseshoe belt buckle and unsnapping my pants. I flinch, shiver, but realize that the aggressiveness of these women typifies the inversion of the Mardi Gras rites, and as witnessparticipant, I must maintain my multi-track aloofness.

Sheila unzips my pants and three women work at once to tug down my jeans and undies. Soon I feel the coldness of the concrete floor on the naked flesh of my hips. Yet, I succeed in remaining detached-the mark of a true social scientist-and I gaze only at the roof, where the corrugated tin has rusted in a curious half image of the traditional doubleswooped butcher's knife, the "grue-grue blade," which was the subject of my doctoral dissertation.

Widow Frey unbuttons my rancho shirt, and now my entire mid-section is exposed, from knees to chest-my genitals especially prone; yet I make no cry or show alarm. After all, a true festival may not be interrupted, as one of the threads-one of the many fibers which compose the beauty of the rope of folkloric form-will be broken.

From somewhere hidden in the shelving, Connie has procured a tin of Steen's Sugar Cane Syrup, extra-thick, from boiled resin. I blink and feel my forehead wrinkle, always a sign that I am in deep thought. I blink because of the incongruity of this syrup in the shed. While certainly an authentic item of Cajun food ways, its presence clashes with the agricultural folkways of the farm implements-pitchforks and spades, hanging from the walls. This mélange actually reminds me of the syncretism of cultural attributes common in the West African obeahistic spiritualism of this region.

Now Connie is pouring the syrup into her cupped palm. She passes the jar to Fifi who does similarly, and, as the syrup pours slowly, Fifi finally hands the jar to Sheila.

Then, in ensemble, the three women rub their hands together. The liquid is thick and makes a slapping almost grating noise with friction. It is applied first to my abdomen, then to my thighs, rubbed in a slow zigzag motion-six female palms kneading my body. I notice that initially the women's efforts seem concentrated on the outer surfaces of my body, the exteriors of my thighs and hips. In fact, this is consistent with the traditional icing of a Creole funnel cake, where molasses is applied to the circumference, before the top-and certainly before the candle is set in place.

At first the women do not touch my male organs. Their hands slide between my thighs and over my umbilicus. The syrup does not harden, yet it doesn't drip, and I feel its continuous presence, its minute tug and suction on my skin. Then Fifi begins to apply the syrup to my testicles. I am able to glance low enough to catch her expression which is curiously stern and intent, not at all amused or prurient, as she works the length of my male element with two hands. I realize that I am growing erect, a fact which does not slow the smooth circular motions of Fifi's palms; and a fact of which I am not ashamed, as historic folklore often involves bawdy behavior. Yet, truthfully, I would have preferred to leave the stiffness of my sex as an object of idle observation, not the center of attention; but then the Widow Frey leans across me and says, "Old Doc's wood is purty small. Won't make much of a meal . . ."

This remark makes even Fifi grin, but I don't have much time to ponder the significance of the word "meal," because just then, the widow has reached into what I now see is an old cloudy-glassed, mold-stained aquarium. There is a flipping smacking noise like fins in water, and suddenly the widow withdraws her arms quickly, holding two animals in her hands. I blink at the writhing multilegged creatures dangling above my head, and it is with an uncommon hesitation that I realize their species: The Widow Frey is holding two live jumbo spiny crawfish. They are greenish-red, eight inches from head to tail, mandibles and claws intact, antennae wiggling. They make sounds, snapping and clicking noises, tails curling and spreading, fanning the air. I can hear their crustacean hiss, and a few drops of water fall from their bodies onto my neck.

"Now listen ep," says the Widow Frey, staring past the animals into my face. "You think you kin tell us 'bout how to gwon and eat a crawfish? Hell, we been eatin' these damn mudbugs fer a hunnerd years-any way we like 'em! You think you know all 'bout this crawfish? Less see if you know how these crawfish eat . . . We gonna find out, right now. . . ."

She sets both animals on my ribcage, where their feet-their eight swimming legs-sink into the coating of syrup which seems to excite them; their legs scramble in a flurry of motion, their stalk eyes tremble. One stops for a moment and lowers its head, perhaps to taste the Steen's Syrup, I am not certain. Then it uses its wide fan tail to propel itself forward through the ooze around my navel, toward my groin.

I feel the many sharp feet upon me like light pinpricks, somehow intensified by the gelatinous layer of Steen's; and I observe the large asymmetric pincers of the creatures, the larger claw for crushing, the smaller one for cutting and tearing. Crawfish are not unique to Louisiana, yet they have been traditionally prized, even worshipped, especially by the Houma Indians, who held them in great esteem as totem animals. And though the chitinous bodies and calcareous shells feel heavy on my abdomen, and the drag of the creatures' muscular tails makes a trail in the ooze, what I am fascinated by is the index of acculturation in these women's behavior. They have obviously combined the historic laudation of crawfish and Native American vernal crustacean festivities with their own material culture and food ways to create a new tradition, a new ritual to which I, Dr. Hoyt Leblanc, am privy. I must remain alert to all aspects of this ritual, this fête extraordinaire, so that I can submit a paper on this topic to the Southern Folklore Quarterly, which even in abstract form will no doubt enhance my career. . . .

For some reason, the crawfish have stopped moving. They seem content to rest on my abdomen, claws lowered. Perhaps they are enmired in the syrup-has it interfered with the tendons of the creatures? Or blocked their already minimal neural functions? Perhaps the animals are merely taking a repose, or pausing to communicate. Even the top scientists do not fully understand the language of the animals, you know.

"Come on, git on there!" says Widow Frey. She snaps both crawfish on their tails with her long press-on fingernails, and they jolt forward as if prodded electronically. I realize now that the crustaceans are dangerously close to my penis, which unfortunately is still erect and will provide a greater surface area for the animals to attack, should they misinterpret my phallus as a bloated water worm, or possibly a banana slug. I glance and see that all the women's eyes are focused on the progression of the creatures, as intently as men watching two spurred roosters in a cockfight. Now, it is time for action. . . .

Fortunately, my abdominal muscles are quite developed, as I do sixteen sit-ups per day. Thus I am able to contract my lower stomach rhythmically, creating an undulation of flesh, a ripple of skin, which causes the larger crawfish to lose its balance, and it topples off the side of my pelvis where it lies writhing on its back, gooed feet scratching at the air. None of the women touch the spilled crawfish. Silently, they watch its gyrations, and I can hear the rhythmic sound of its shell scraping the concrete. Ksnk, ksnk, ksnk . . .

Aha! so this is the game-a primitive folk test of stamina and inventiveness. I am to find a way to rid myself of these creatures through physical contortion, or perhaps telepathically. Thus, at that moment I close my eyes and concentrate on the mythic forces of nature, the spirits of dead Indians and drowned bayou fisherman to assist me in escaping from the claws of fate of the last crawfish.

But soon Fifi breaks my concentration. "Put 'im back on," she orders. And without flinching, Sheila rights the creature by holding its tail, flipping him, and, her pinkie extended as if she were holding an expensive cup of tea, she places the animal upon my thigh, such that now I can really only see its profile, crenulated and insectoid; and I realize why the early emigrants were at first wary of eating this spiny animal of the mud.

Both creatures have paused again, hesitating as if uncertain, a few inches from my manhood. Erect, I am seven and seven-sixteenth inches long (18.9 cm), which must pose a curious obstacle to the crawfish. They are completely still, except for twitching antennae. Again, I have an inspiration. I squeeze my sphincter muscle the way I used to practice to prevent premature ejaculation, tightening the muscles of my groin, which has the effect of bobbing the penis slowly up and down, a motion which I hope will frighten the creatures. Unfortunately, it has the opposite effect, and both crawfish move forward simultaneously, their small pincers (for cutting and tearing) snapping and clicking like surreal castanets.

Both crustaceans are now at the base of my stump. And despite my pure objectivity, my scientific detachment and highly developed skills of observation, I find myself clamping shut my eyes and gritting my teeth, awaiting the first piercing grips, the spiny incisions. It is my folkloric destiny.

But after a few seconds, dark tense moments in which I feel my entire frame grow rigid and I hold my breath, the crawfish have not begun their attack. They have not drawn blood. Then I feel them move, the larger one first, which grapples through my pubic hair with its swimming feet. Yet it does not begin to eat. Yes, I feel its pointed feet, one by one, its tenuous grip up the vertical surface of my cod, but I soon realize that the animal's objective is motion, not destruction; and step by step, it climbs my stalk, soon followed by the other animal (perhaps its mate), up the other side. They cling to my surface like lizards on a "pieux" fence post, one of the famous holed posts of the Acadian region.

Perhaps I am fortunate that the animals are not hungry. Or have they only mistaken my gender for a birch root bobbing in the swamp; and genetically encoded to do so, they mount the root in search of crickets. Of course, the bark of the birch root has its own traditional significance. Historically used by early settlers as a form of chew, it actually contains a mild stimulant, stryptocaine. In the wild, the concentrated exodus of this substance might drift into the water and inspire the animals to mount and climb, to crawl upwards toward the stars, which if observed by Native Americans would provide muchneeded documentation for the early "Creeper Legends," whose heroes are lowly arthropods which, step by step, grapple for the stars.

Unfortunately, I do not have my tape recorder with me now, so I must suffice with a mental note to research the history of birchwood in folkloric material culture and to trace the evidentiary steps of crawfish lore in palmetto illustrations. Armand Alikkum's desk reference to fabliaux of bestiality should provide an adequate cross-index to crustacean practices in pre-Civil War sexual foreplay of the settlers of the waterways of Louisiana. I must not forget these things, I pray to God.

Oh, but the life of a folklore doctor is a difficult, yet wondrous thing. . . .

R. Sebastian Bennett studied writing at Columbia and is currently creative writing instructor at Southwest Louisiana University, where he also edits Southern Anthology. Recent work appears in Indiana Review, George Washington Review, and Paris Transcontinental.

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