Between the ages of five and sixteen Taylor Hicks spoke in Tongues. On sultry summer nights, under tents stretched tight against the elements, from Gulfport to Austin, Shreveport to New Orleans, she wailed; just a little bit of a girl in crinoline dresses and Patton leather shoes. And although no one understood her in the normal way—Tongues being not an earthly language, but a heavenly one—every sinner and backslider knew: the unsaved must confess and be baptized in the Blood of the Lamb.
While her father preached, his Bible held high, Taylor testified, her body an instrument of salvation, her soul secure in its righteousness. Out in the World the Beast snorted and pawed the ground, but inside the tent, with its rows of metal chairs twelve across and twenty deep, with folks crowded together, fanning and mopping their brows with handkerchiefs, the Holy Spirit moved.
The cessation of Taylor's gift, which coincided with the landfall of Hurricane Katrina and the destruction of the Gulf Coast from Mobile to Lake Charles, was met with considerable consternation by her father, Preacher Will Hicks, and his flock at the Bayou LaBatre Assembly of God in Jesus Christ. Why, her gift was living proof of Jehovah's love; it certified the truth of the Word and placed Bayou LaBatre on the map in a way Forrest Gump never had. Taylor's loss could mean only one thing: despite all the prayers and singing, all the visiting of the sick and dying, the Devil was at work in their little church.
After cleaning up the sticks that remained of their homes and businesses, removing boats snagged in the branches of century-old Live Oaks, and arguing with FEMA over every nickel, the congregation and Preacher Hicks set out to drive that old serpent from their midst, never suspecting what Taylor knew but dared not reveal: it was in her own heart where He resided. For on the very evening before Katrina hit, she'd accepted a ride home from the Blue Heron Cafe with Bobby Delacroix and allowed him to kiss her out front of her daddy's house, their tongues wrestling like feral animals. Before bolting for the door, she'd squirmed like a whore when Bobby touched her breast through her waitress's uniform and opened her legs so he could run his hand under her skirt. And later on, she'd lusted for him in unspeakable ways while lying in her bed, the sheets sticky as molasses on a blue plate special.
No wonder, then, God shut her mouth and washed Bobby away, his battered pick-up discovered on the beach at Pass Christian by an old black woman searching for coins, his body never returned by sea or wind.
Three years later, Taylor still lives at home. She lies awake while her parents and sister sleep. Instead of praying, she listens to the bellow of alligators on the bayou and longs for whatever lies beyond. Instead of studying scripture, she watches the lights of freighters passing in the distance and wishes she could travel with them. No longer a child, she attends community college and feels trapped between a past she doesn't own and disappointed by a godless future she never expected.
One evening after classes, she's persuaded by friends to join them at a bar on Dauphine Island. She washes down Gulf oysters with her first-ever Margaritas and meets a shrimper by the name of Emile, a tall, beefy, Cajun boy who knocks back beers with Wild Turkey shots and tells her he comes from a family known for its fishin, fightin, and fuckin. Later that night, drunk and sick, she's grateful when Emile drives her home in his pickup. Instead of taking advantage, he buys her coffee, washes her face with bottled water, and scrapes vomit from the hem of her skirt. Before saying goodnight, he asks what it would take for a girl like Taylor to see her way clear to a guy like him.
A few months later, they're married, not in her father's church but in a Catholic church, a child's heart already pulsing in Taylor's belly. Estranged from her parents and sister, she embraces Emile's rowdy kin, their music, dancing, drinking, and quarreling. Once a week she confesses her trespasses to a soft-spoken priest who absolves her not with fire but with the sign of the cross.
Not long after the first child is born, while she's pregnant with the next, an oil rig explodes in the Gulf. Oil gushes, pollutes, and takes shrimpers down like angels cast from hell. Geneaux Shrimp and Fish holds out for six months before Emile's father divvies up what's left between him and his sons, and calls it quits. Emile and Taylor move first to Baton Rouge, then to Lake Charles, and finally Houston.
One morning, she discovers him hunkered over the steering wheel an hour after he's supposed to have left for work. His boss at the auto parts store is an asshole. He misses his brothers and feels trapped by new responsibilities. He wants to return to shrimping, but they're so broke they can't pay the rent much less afford a boat. She guides him into the house, fetches beers from the refrigerator, and lights cigarettes for both of them. Their first child, Shelby, sits in her lap, sucking her thumb. The baby cries from its swing. When the boss calls, Taylor answers the phone—he'll by God fire Emile's sorry ass if he doesn't get there pronto.
She wants to say her husband can't be fired because he's already quit. She wants to tell the man they don't need his crappy job anyway, but when she opens her mouth the words fly out. Not words she knows, but words in ancient tongues and tongues yet to be discovered. She drops the phone and turns to her husband, unable to cease her chanting.
He takes their baby on his knee and asks, “Are you all right, honey?”