by C. Francis Higgins
The body was face down on the porch, with its arms crossed awkwardly beneath it. Dark blood stained the rotting wood, as it pooled underneath the corpse’s torso. Officer James pulled a handkerchief from his shirt pocket and wiped the sweat from his brow. Summer in the Bayou was hellish, with its oppressive humidity and swarming insects. The sun was like a gaslight behind an opaque curtain, boiling the surface of the earth. Water moved with hesitation through the stillness of the swamp, gently lapping at the muddy banks, as the echoes of distant birds broke the gloomy silence. The corpse’s face was ruddy with sunburn, and a thick layer of stubble surrounded his chapped lips and jagged teeth. The man appeared to be in his fifties, and after examining the body for a few moments, James realized who the man was. The back door to the old house was broken, hanging on a single rusted hinge. A loud voice called out from inside,
“There’s another one in here! Come take a look.”
James stepped back into the abandoned house, and met up with his partner in what was once a spacious living room. A second corpse was propped up against the wall in a sitting position, with a shotgun in its lap. Unlike the dead man on the porch, this one was younger, clearly a teenager. His head was tilted to one side, and the rotting gore from the shotgun blast was like macabre halo smeared on the decaying wallpaper.
“Looks like this here kid shot that guy outside and then shot himself,” James noted.
“And look over there,” his partner replied, pointing to some bloody footprints a few feet from the body. “More than two sets of footprints there, looks like three or four to me.”
James bent down to take a closer look while his partner continued to examine the body. One set of footprints was decidedly smaller than the others. Perhaps young boy or girl, he thought.
“I know this kid,” his partner remarked “I went fishing with him and his dad once, years ago. He’s Henri Nadeau’s boy.”
“I ain’t never met the man, but I’ve seen pictures of him in the tackle store. He’s dead on the porch outside. Go out there and take a closer look. You’ll recognize him.”
“I wonder why the boy went and killed his daddy.”
“I don’t know. And what about all this blood five feet from the kid? It doesn’t look like he was moved. Someone else may have been shot. We better check this entire house, but watch the upstairs, the place is old and falling apart. One wrong step and you could end up in the kitchen,” James warned.
Vera couldn’t sleep. She was kept awake by the fervent cries of a passionate evangelist pouring from her father’s old Philco radio, echoing through the swamp and reverberating through the tiny house. Her sheets were soaked with sweat, and her head throbbed. She stood up and walked barefoot over to the old sink next to the door, and peered into the mirror. The girl wore a forlorn expression, her pale blue eyes almost colorless, and her full lips arching slightly downward, in a kind of subtle frown. Her messy black hair contrasted with her pale skin and a small pool of sweat gathered at the base of her thin neck. It was her birthday, and she was seventeen. But there was no celebration, nor even an acknowledgement from her father. If her mother were still alive, they would have blackened catfish and maybe a chocolate cake, she thought. But all that had changed. The preacher’s voice was raspy and shrill,
And the moment you begin to look for Jesus, you have already found him. Amen…
Vera threw some water over her face and then stood sideways next to the mirror. The nightshirt hung tightly over her shoulders and chest. Her breasts were larger now, but she was thinner. She couldn’t remember ever becoming a woman, or what rite of passage that involved. Vera seldom went to school since her mother had died, and she missed her classmates, longing for a time in which she no longer had to cook for her drunken father, and watch after her reckless younger brother. Some girls were lucky, she thought. They had real homes, with washing machines and television. A red prom dress and silk panty hose; glossy lipstick and big department stores.
And for three years no rain fell on Israel. No rain…
Her thoughts were interrupted by the sounds of a slamming door and an argument from outside her window. She pulled the screen up and looked outside. Her brother’s thin silhouette could be seen walking backwards down the dock, while another shadow sat in the small boat anchored there.
“Screw you old man! The hell with this place! You can’t tell me what to do no more,” her brother shouted.
“You git yo ass back ovah here boy…” her father retorted.
The tiny boat’s outboard motor came alive, while the heated exchange continued…
“I’m leavin’ here. For good this time!”
It was finally happening, Vera thought to herself. Rene was running away and never coming back. The prospect of living alone with her father was frightening.
“I’m taking this here boat and goin’ to New Orleans. Don’t even try to come after me, cause’ I gotta shotgun right here!”
While Rene boasted, Vera pulled off her nightshirt and scrambled to find some clean clothes among the pile of dirty laundry at the foot of her bed.
“Don’t ya threaten me boy, cause I know you’ll be back right quick. I’m headed t’bed, and you better be here in da morning when I wake up!”
The God who answers by fire, he is God. Amen...
Again, Vera could hear the screen door at the front of the house slam shut. She frantically threw on some jeans and a white blouse, and slipped into her leather work boots. Then she grabbed a flashlight, pushed some cosmetics into her backpack, and headed towards the window. After a moment’s hesitation, she slid through the window and into the overgrown yard. Before her brother and his friend could escape in the boat, she ran down the dock and confronted them.
“You ain’t going without me Rene.”
She could see Pete Lawrence sitting in the boat, tending the motor. He wore a red flannel shirt and gray overalls. His thick-rimmed glasses hung crooked on his face. She often wondered what he looked like without them.
“Hell no Vera, we gotta…”
“I ain't staying here alone with him. Don’t you make me stay here!”
“Let her come along Rene, she won’t do no harm coming with us,” Pete said in a thick drawl.
“You said you would take me with you. We talked about this,” Vera pleaded.
“Get in the damn boat and shut your mouth before Daddy changes his mind and comes back out here and starts shooting at us.”
She threw her bag down next to Rene, and jumped enthusiastically into the boat. Pete pulled the rope in, and the three coasted slowly out into the brackish swamp.
Even in this congregation you are alone. Solitary before God in his glory, alone in your sin. Amen.
The pallid glow from Pete’s lantern helped Rene navigate the unlit Bayou. On her back, Vera playfully pointed her flashlight towards the trees above; the branches intertwining like gothic arches in the endless nave of an obsidian cathedral, while feeble moonlight penetrated the canopy, and reflected off the water like a trail of orchid petals behind the tiny vessel.
“We ain’t gonna make it to the city tonight little brother,” Vera said with a smile. This was her first adventure, and she felt an excitement swell within her chest.
“I figure we’ll head over to the empty house near Ashton. We’ll spend the night there and then continue in the morning.”
“Let’s keep going Rene. That place is…”
Rene cut Pete off in mid-sentence “is what! Haunted? I don’t believe this shit. How old are you? The kids at school make up these stories, and none of ‘em have ever even been there.”
Vera rummaged through a canvas bag stashed in the corner of the boat, “I see you packed some food here. Must have been planning this little trip for some time now. Apples, canned beans… I hope ya’ll brought a can opener.”
“We don’t even know how to get to that house. It’s dark as hell out here,” Pete whined.
“I know how to get there, you just give me some light.” Rene replied, while directing the small boat down the river.
“So what’s up with Daddy?” Vera inquired.
“I don’t wanna talk about Daddy.”
“When he gets drunk, you just have to avoid him. No sense in trying to be tough. See that’s your problem little brother, always fighting with Daddy when their isn’t no point. Like a fox with buckshot in his leg refusing to leave a pasture.”
“Things between me and Daddy are different.”
“Well lookee here!” Vera shouted gleefully, while pulling a large bottle from the bottom of the bag “Kessler’s!”
“The old man’s got all the whiskey he needs. I decided to snatch some,” Rene said with a giggle.
“Don’t forget about me now,” Pete added.
They were down to their last drop of whisky by the time the old house came into view. At the end of a shallow cove, a massive structure could be seen through the trees. Giant willows sprouted from the muddy banks, their hanging branches painting delicate designs on the surface of the water. A cobblestone path led from the shore up to a decrepit porch. Spanish moss hung down in emerald waves from the broken roof.
Pete jumped from the boat onto the shore, and tied the vessel to a tree trunk. He then helped Vera and her brother climb out of the boat.
“Did you see that?” Pete exclaimed, while pointing towards the house.
“I thought I saw a light inside the house. Up in the witch’s hat.”
“It’s called the widow’s peak,” Vera replied.
“It’s gotta be the lantern reflecting off the glass,” Rene added, “This place is been empty since I was in diapers.”
Vera tossed the duffle bag over her shoulder, took the shotgun, and began to make her way up the overgrown path. The whisky quelled her fear and apprehension. Her brother and Pete followed. The house seemed alive with decay; mold exploding from cracks in the rotting wood, while vines hung down over hollow windows. Nevertheless, they could tell the estate was once a magnificent example of antebellum architecture. It was a dozen times larger than Vera’s squalid home. When she reluctantly knocked on the door, it swung open invitingly.
“There ain’t nobody here, no point in knocking,” her brother said, as he boldly walked past her and into the foyer. The wood floor sagged under his feet, giving off a loud creaking sound. Pete followed, and pointed the lantern into the cavernous room beyond the foyer. It revealed a double staircase, which rose up from each wall and met in the middle, forming a kind of balcony one level above. Vera directed her flashlight down a corridor to the right of the large room. On each side of the corridor, four full-length mirrors could be seen. When she took a closer look, she noticed that none of them were broken, only covered in dust and dirt. A tattered Persian rug ran the length of the hallway beneath her feet.
“This place is huge!” Pete remarked.
“And it looks like they left the furniture,” Rene added, while gazing into an adjacent room. Vera quickly ran to her brother’s side and used her flashlight to study the chamber. Inside was a collection of old furniture; a pair of loveseats, a credenza, a dust-covered buffet, and a tall Tiffany floor lamp. A large dormant fireplace stood against the north wall.
“The couches are shot, but that lamp has to be worth some money. I’m surprised this stuff is still here,” She noted.
“Maybe we’ll take the lamp with us and sell it later,” Rene remarked.
Pete carefully ascended the ancient staircase, and lightly stepped across the landing to a set of double doors. He twisted the brass doorknobs, but the doors wouldn’t budge. “Looks like these here doors are locked!”
“Don’t bother with that, we’ll set up camp down here!” Rene shouted from below. “The second level probably isn’t safe anyway. We need the lantern down here.”
Vera reclined on the tattered loveseat. Her head was swimming from the whiskey.
“So why is it different between you and daddy?” She asked.
“I guess cause I’m a boy and all.”
“So he gives you more crap just cause you’re a boy? You think things are easy for me?”
“..no, not like that.”
If only Vera knew the truth, Rene thought. There were larders in his mind best left unopened, and memories he hoped would eventually fade in time. Recollections like old festering wounds.
Pete set the lantern down at the center of the hardwood floor, and began to unroll a sleeping bag. “The upstairs is all locked and the kitchen is nasty,” He said.
“Sometimes I wish momma were still around…” Vera said softly, while looking up at the old chandelier.
They talked for a few hours, while finishing off the apples and beans. Occasionally, an owl could be heard outside the massive windows, interrupting the clamor of locusts. Pete’s bladder swelled from all the alcohol, as he climbed to his feet and walked toward the entryway.
“Gotta go find a bathroom.”
He used the flashlight to navigate the vast rooms and corridors of the old mansion. Some of the doors were locked, but eventually he came upon what appeared to be a bathroom. He carefully pushed the door aside and peered in. The stench of stagnant water and mold seeped from the room. The sink was coated in dirt, fungus, and brown filth. The shallow water in the old toilet was black as petroleum. Some small black and white photographs and a large crucifix hung from the wall. A cloth shower curtain surrounded a rusty claw-footed bathtub. Pete set down his flashlight on the sink and began to urinate in the toilet. Midway through, the locusts outside suddenly went silent, and he became uneasy. He felt as if he were being watched. He stopped for a moment to look into the cracked mirror above the sink. The reflection of the crucifix could be seen over his right shoulder, but it was now hanging upside down, as if suspended only by the bottom nail. Pete spun around in shock, only to find the object upright again. He grabbed the flashlight and nervously backed out of the bathroom, zipping up his pants as he went.
In the living room, a half-asleep Rene saw a shadow move across the open window, almost as if a large animal or person passed underneath, disturbing the trees. He immediately sat up and shouted to his sister “Vera!”
She rolled over to face him and muttered “what?”
“I thought I saw something outside.”
“You’re drunk, go to sleep.”
“I’m serious Vera. Looked like a person or something.”
“It’s just an old dog.”
Just then, Pete entered the room.
“This place freaks me out Rene. I don’t know if I can sleep here,” He said nervously.
“Jesus Christ! Like a couple of babies. Will you guys just go to sleep?” Vera yelled.
Pete sat down on the floor and began to clean his glasses with a small rag. Rene cast a suspicious look towards the window. Once more, the chorus of locusts could be heard outside. But just as he was beginning to relax, Rene heard a faint shuffling noise from the floor above, and Vera noticed the dangling crystals on the chandelier vibrate slightly. Several minutes later, they heard a thumping sound, almost like footsteps.
“Did you hear that?” Pete said.
A startled Vera looked to Rene. “I thought this place was abandoned?”
“It’s supposed to be. Probably some fisherman camped out upstairs. Give me the gun,” Rene said softly.
He cautiously made his way up the stairs, with the shotgun held tightly in his hands, while Vera followed with the flashlight. Pete was right behind her, thinking how foolish it was to run away from home in the first place. It wasn’t the first time Rene had talked him into something he would later regret. Rene knocked on the double door with the butt of the gun. When there was no answer, he retreated a few steps and got ready to break it down. Vera grabbed his shoulder.
To her surprise, she managed to turn the brass handles and easily open the doors. They opened into a small corridor with doors on each side, and an empty window at the end, which looked out over a canopy of trees. Rene put his ear up to the door on the left, but couldn’t hear anything within. Faint orange light could be seen between the bottom of the door and the wood floor, and a shuffling noise could be heard from within. A faint odor of cinnamon filled the hall. Rene backed up a couple steps and pointed the gun towards the door.
“Open it Pete.”
“Come on Rene, let’s get out of here.”
“Just do it!”
Pete reluctantly complied, and gently pushed the door open. Vera guided the beam from her flashlight into the room, but quickly discovered this to be unnecessary. The soft amber glow of candlelight illuminated the chamber. The skin of a black bear lay on the wooden floor, its gaping maw facing her as if to warn against entry. A large oak sideboard rested against the north wall. On top, was a vast array of glasses and jars filled with a dark green liquid, and a dozen bee’s wax candles. Yellow wax dripped over the edge of the sideboard and onto the scratched wooden floor. Next to the windows stood a wicker chair and a rosewood end table. The air was thick from incense that flowed from a gargoyle-shaped censer. An elderly woman sat in the chair, her bony hands clutching a small calico cat. The woman’s dark, leatherish skin was pulled taught over the bones of her face, and a great mane of thin white hair hung down over her shoulders. She wore a colorful shawl, with a white cotton dress underneath.
“Hello children,” She chimed, with a voice of a much younger woman.
Rene held the gun up defiantly “who are you, and what’s going on here?”
“It’s Bessie,” Pete exclaimed.
“She’s an old Creole woman. Used to come around our house selling medicines and herbs. Even sold my Daddy some moonshine once.”
“Is this your house lady?” Vera asked.
“No little Missy, this here’s the master’s house. I just watch over it.”
Rene looked at his sister in disbelief “the woman’s crazy. This place has been empty for fifty years at least.”
“How can this house be empty when I’m here? Please, have a seat. Rest yourselves,” Bessie said, as she pointed to a scarlet loveseat and ottoman. Vera sat down first, convinced there was little danger. Then Rene sat down on the ottoman and laid the shotgun across his knees defiantly. Pete hesitantly took the spot next to Vera. The room was swimming in incense, the thin clouds twisting like apparitions in the candlelight. It made their sinuses almost burn, and brought with it, a kind of lightheadedness.
“Veronique is a pretty name,” Bessie remarked, smiling slightly.
“You know my name?”
“I’ve been in these parts a long time Missy. The Bayou is my home. I knew your mother I did.”
“You knew our mother? Tell us about her,” Rene said.
“She wasn’t no Cajun like your daddy. She came down from Fulton years ago looking for work. Back then, your daddy worked on the oilrigs out in the gulf. She was a nice lady she was.”
“I didn’t know your daddy worked on the rigs,” Pete said.
“He injured his back on the job, but they said he was drunk. We didn’t get a damn thing, and ended up on welfare,” Vera replied in a sullen tone.
“And I know why you ran away,” Bessie said, as she looked directly at Rene.
For a tense moment, there were no words exchanged. Rene stared at the women with an expression of contempt and surprise, as if she were harboring secrets with which to blackmail him. She looked back, with eyes as dark as sackcloth.
“Who is this ‘Master’?” Vera asked.
“He owns this here plantation. He’s in New Orleans now, but he should be back tomorrow. You kids don’t remember what this area was like before the war; much more elegant than it is now. So much has changed…” Bessie mused.
“I thought this place was abandoned,” Pete remarked.
Bessie suddenly sat up in frustration and said, “We would never abandon this place! You hear! The Yankees come try to make us leave this place. Threaten us! I’m staying here. I ain’t going to Atlanta. Nothing there for me.”
Vera felt a numbness in her hands and feet, and the room seemed almost foggy, as if the sharp lines around the windows were melting into the wallpaper. Her brother felt it too.
Bessie once again reclined into the wicker chair and said gently “you runaways can stay here as long as you like. But we have to be ready for the master when he arrives.”
“What do you mean?” Pete asked.
“You smell like whiskey. You’re all drunk, and your eyes are bloodshot. I have something here that will help. One of old Bessie’s medicines.”
The woman reached over and took a small vial of dark liquid from next to the censer. She pulled the cork out and held the vial under her nose. “Yes… this will work fine.”
The lightheadedness gave away to a feeling of fatigue and warm intoxication. The three runaways could only look on wearily as the old woman shuffled over to them feebly and held out a small golden spoon full of the liquid. She presented it to Vera first.
“What’s in it?” Vera asked.
“An old Creole recipe. Thorn Apple and just a little bit of Mandrake. Takes away the hangover, and lifts the spirits. It won’t hurt you Missy.”
Vera closed her eyes and opened her mouth, allowing Bessie to slip the spoon between her lips. The elixir was almost tasteless, but Vera’s tongue tingled slightly on contact. Upon swallowing, she laid back on the loveseat and looked around the room. The yellow wallpaper seemed golden now, its pattern fresher and more vibrant. The wooden floor seemed to shine as if freshly waxed, and the dusty bear pelt looked like a real animal stretched across the floor. From the corner of her eye, she could see Bessie administering the elixir to her brother and Pete, and when the woman turned around she was no longer afflicted with age and decrepitude, but appeared younger. Her hair had turned from white into a luxurious black, and her skin was like smooth mahogany. Bessie’s cracked and shriveled lips had become full and voluptuous, as if pregnant with blood. But before Vera could comment, she could feel herself drifting off into slumber, unable to stay conscious, and no longer able to distinguish reality from fantasy. Without the prudence a sober mind affords, she effortlessly gave into the dream...
Sunlight poured into the spacious bedchamber from a floor-length window, as a gentle breeze caressed the thin gauze drapes, and a delicate chorus of wind chimes could be somewhere outside. Vera could feel something wet and brittle run across her nose, and she awoke to find a calico cat perched on her chest, licking her face. The last thing she remembered was speaking to an elderly woman in an abandoned house, but the image seemed distant and unclear, like a dream fragment from the night before. The longer she waited, the more confused and unsure she became.
She pulled herself up and sat on the edge of the large canopied bed, immediately realizing her clothes had changed from dirty jeans and a blouse, to a white cotton nightshirt. She was tired and disoriented, yet managed to stand up and survey the room. The upholstered walls were decorated with a green and red flower pattern, and a small wrought-iron fireplace stood next to an oak door. A collection of crystal perfume jars stood atop an ornate rosewood dressing table, and next to a large floor mirror, an elaborate dress lay across an overstuffed chair. Vera gathered it up and found a hoop skirt underneath along with a pair of women’s lace-up boots. The front of the dress was black from the waste upwards, with a fan front, and long orange sleeves made of fine silk. The bottom half was also orange, with a band of black trim around the feet. Someone had obviously intended for her to wear the outfit, but who? In a side closet, she found a collection of other dresses, petticoats, capes and shawls. Somehow, the clothes looked familiar, as if she once wore them in a play, and when she began to put on the black and orange dress, she intuitively understood how it should be arranged.
When she was finished, Vera gazed into the large mirror. She seemed older now, and more sophisticated, even though her slipshod raven hair hung down over one side of her face. It was like looking at a distant relative. She could hear the sounds of men working outside, and when she looked out her window she could see a group of young men loading bails of tobacco into a large wagon. Directly underneath the window was a black carriage with a fold-up hood, and two large horses standing at attention. She couldn’t tell if anyone was inside.
Rene sat against the huge Cyprus tree in the front yard, and held a glass of lemonade between his legs. He had worked through the headaches all morning, helping transport bails of tobacco from the warehouse and into the wagons. The great tree provided generous amounts of shade, away from the intense sunlight that reflected off the vast white plantation house. He still wondered exactly what had happened the night before, and could recall traveling with his sister Veronique, as if trying to escape from an imminent danger; a threat that chased them through the swamps and led them to the plantation. His pocket watch read 9:00am, but he didn’t know what day it was. Even his clothes looked unfamiliar. As he sat there confused, a tall man in dusty slacks and a straw hat approached with a smile.
“You feelin’ ok boy?” He asked.
“Just hot is all. And a little tired,” Rene replied.
“You had a rough night. I was going to let you sleep in, but we needed to get this here shipment out before noon.”
“What did you say your name was again mister?”
“My name’s Raymond. I work for Mr. Wilcox. You remember me don’t you?”
“No,” Said Rene bluntly, while shielding his eyes from the sun.
“I think you and your sister are in some kinda shock or something.”
“Shock over what?”
“You gonna tell me you don’t remember what happened last night?”
“Look mister, I need some answers. I think I got hit over the head or something. I don’t remember a damn thing, just bits and pieces.”
“The Yankees burned your house down last night. Happened after General Butler occupied the city.”
“I’m telling you the truth boy.”
“Why did they burn my house down?”
“To send a message I guess. They were looking for your daddy.”
“What about my mother?”
Raymond hesitated. The boy was obviously in a state of denial and delusion. The war does strange things to people, he concluded.
“The Yankees killed her. She was trying to protect the house and pointed a gun at one of the officers. I’m sorry Rene, I really am. And I don’t know where your daddy is. I wish I had better news. Nothing but bad news since this here war started.”
Rene tried to visualize his mother, and was confused by a series of conflicting images each more vague than the last. The rotund woman with the dishwater blonde hair smiled at him, but was it really him? He suddenly seemed to be more of a spectator than a participant in his own life.
“But my sister’s safe?”
“Like I told you this morning, she’s asleep upstairs. Not a scratch on her. You need to be strong Rene. Lots of folks have lost their loved ones in this conflict.”
“What conflict? Why did they try to kill us? What the hell is going on?”
“War between the states boy. Been going on for two years now.”
Rene said nothing, and instead sat against the giant tree in shock.
“Bessie made some breakfast for everyone. Why don’t you come and get some food. It’ll make you feel better.”
Raymond reached down and helped Rene to his feet, then led the boy across the lawn and towards the house. As they entered one of the side doors, the wagons pulled away, stuffed with the precious cargo that would have to be smuggled out of Louisiana to support the war effort.
Bessie was like a marionette, mechanically frying eggs over the wood-burning stove with one hand, and pouring lemonade into tall glasses with the other. Vera sat with three of the workers at a square breakfast table, and smiled when she saw Rene walk through the screen door. He pulled up a chair and sat down next to her.
“Are you all right?” Vera asked.
“I was going to ask you the same thing. My head hurts like hell. Too much whiskey last night I guess. Where did you get that dress?”
“From upstairs in the bedroom. Bessie laid it out for me. Where have you been all morning?”
“I woke up on the porch before sunrise, and wandered outside. That’s where I met up with Raymond. He asked me to help him gather tobacco from the warehouse. It seemed like the thing to do.”
Bessie slid a plate of bacon and grits in front of Rene, as some of the workers began to straggle outside. Vera picked at her food pensively.
“What happened last night Vera? I don’t remember.”
“I’ve got headaches too little brother. Trying to put it all together…”
Before she could continue, a young black boy entered the kitchen carrying a bucket of water. He wore a dirty red-striped shirt and round spectacles. A thick rope tied around his waste held up his pants, and his boots were covered in mud. Vera thought he looked familiar somehow. Bessie scowled at the boy and said “don’t you drag mud in here boy. You give me that bucket and get back outside, git!”
“What are we doing here Bessie?” Vera asked.
The boy set down the bucket and scurried back outside, but not before looking back at Vera a second time. Without turning around, Bessie answered, “We found you out in the Bayou last night after the Yankees burned your house down. You was all muddy and talking nonsense, so we took you in.”
“Who’s General Butler?” Rene added.
Bessie began to clean the glasses, one after another, and answered “The Yankee general that took New Orleans two days ago. His troops been terrorizing the city ever since. No one’s safe here now. The Master went to the city to help run a shipment of tobacco and cotton around the blockade.”
Vera tried to gather her thoughts, and finally asked “What about our daddy? What happened to him?”
“Don’t know what happened to your daddy Missy. Last I heard he was fighting against the Yankees at Fort Jackson. But that was a while back.”
Vera looked at her brother with a panicked expression. “We need to get back to the house Rene! What if Daddy comes back looking for us?”
Bessie grabbed Vera’s arm, “can’t go back there Missy, it’s too dangerous. You need to stay here where it’s safe. The Master is coming back tonight, and he’ll help you. Now you just eat your breakfast and relax.”
“And what if the Yankees come here?” Rene said timidly.
“We ain’t gonna let the Yankees take this here plantation,” Bessie replied confidently.
Most of the afternoon was spent wandering through the overgrown garden behind the plantation house. Vera and her brother followed a flagstone path through an ocean of spider lilies and goldenrods, until they came upon a small wooden bridge that stretched over a slowly moving stream. The brilliant sun cast its rays generously across the murky water, while the birds seemed to sing in unison. Vera stopped in the middle of the bridge and marveled at the beauty all around her.
“You know Rene, I don’t much care for what happened before all this. This place is gorgeous. I could stay here forever.”
“It’s strange. I kinda feel the same way. I try not to think about Mother too much,” Rene replied.
“But then there’s this war. I don’t remember it ever starting,” Vera added.
Without answering, Rene crossed the bridge and continued down the path towards a white gazebo. Vera followed.
“I’ve never seen a garden like this. I thought it was all swamp land over here,” He commented.
Vera ascended the steps and sat down in the gazebo. “It must be nice having money.”
“We can’t stay here. You do know that?” Her brother said in a serious tone.
“But where will we go? Mother’s dead and Father’s missing. We don’t even have a house to go back to.”
“Do you trust these people? We don’t even know them! But they seem like they know us.”
Vera looked at the giant oak tree draped in Spanish moss that stood next to the gazebo. “I’ve heard stories about people going into shock after something terrible happens. They lose their memories an all. Maybe seeing Mother gunned down…”
“But how do we know she was gunned down? I barely even remember anything about Mother.”
Vera grabbed her brother by the chin. “You need to relax. Getting all worked up about this isn’t going to make it any better. We’ll have some answers soon, I promise.”
When they returned to the house, Rene saw the young black boy chopping wood next to an old shed and went to help him, while an exhausted Vera headed back inside.
Rene grabbed a hatchet from next to the woodpile, and picked up a small piece of wood. He then stood it up vertically on the ground. After two blows, he managed to split the piece in two. “What’s your name?” Rene asked the boy. The boy looked back with a blank expression. Behind a pair of silver spectacles, his unblinking eyes were wide with fear. Rivers of sweat ran down both sides of his glistening face.
Rene held out his hand. “I ain’t gonna hurt you. My name’s Rene.”
The boy continued to chop wood, ignoring his gesture.
“You don’t say much do you?”
Raymond walked up to the boys, carrying a pile of wood. “Pete can’t talk no more,” he said, dumping the pile at the black boy’s feet.
“What do you mean no more?”
“The Yankees cut his tongue out after he insulted one of their officers.”
“Why did he cuss at one of the officers?”
“I figure it was cause they were raping his sister an all. That’s before he came here. The Yankees talk all high and mighty about the evils of slavery, but you see how they treat ‘em. Ain’t nobody for the slaves.”
The boy shamefully looked away. For a time, the three continued chopping wood and building a large pile that would be used later for the ovens and fireplaces.
“This here might seem like a strange question Raymond, but how did this whole thing start?”
“How did what start?”
“The war. The fighting.”
“That’s a question best left to Mr. Wilcox. He knows all the details. I just do my job and try not to ask too many questions.”
As evening arrived, there was intense preparation for the arrival of Mr. Wilcox and his associates. While some servants tended to the dining room, lighting candles and arranging silver place settings, others helped prepare the feast. The kitchen was alive with activity, and the scent of spiced meat and saffron filled the house. Upstairs, Bessie helped Vera put on an exquisite purple dress, with three-quarter length silk sleeves and a large ruffled skirt. The girl’s hair was parted in the middle and slicked down on the crown. It was then pulled back and secured with a round silver pin. Bessie fastened a purple choker with a hanging diamond around Vera’s neck. “Missy has beautiful hair. No need for a net,” she commented.
Later, as Vera descended the great staircase, she could hear carriages pulling up to the front of the house. Her brother met her at the foot of the stairs, dressed in a green cutaway jacket and black slacks. It was the first time Vera had seen him in anything other than filthy work clothes. In the soft lamplight, he looked almost gentlemanly. As they embraced, a servant girl pulled open the front doors for the arriving guests.
“Welcome home Mr. Wilcox,” the girl announced.
A thin man of average height walked confidently through the doorway. He wore a long gray frockcoat with a matching vest, and a felt derby. His weather worn features were sharp and hawkish, and his hazel eyes were deeply inset under thick black eyebrows. Compared to the men behind him, his dark goatee was unusually long, hanging down past his collar. As he gave his hat to the servant girl, he kept strict eye contact with Vera and smiled. She found him simultaneously intimidating and striking, a man who exuded a kind of regal malevolence. She couldn’t help but to compare him to Andrew Jackson. He was followed by three elderly men and a women, all dressed elegantly for the occasion.
“Ah, Veronique and Rene.” Mr. Wilcox said with an unusually deep voice for such a delicate looking man. He had only a slight drawl, and his accent sounded almost British.
Vera did her best to curtsey. “Thank you for all that you’ve done Mr. Wilcox. I’m not sure what would have happened otherwise,” she said.
“Please. Call me Richard,” he replied, while shaking hands with Rene. “I’m sorry about what happened to your mother. She’ll get a proper funeral as soon as we can arrange it. Rest assured, those that committed this awful deed will be held responsible. That much I can promise. But for now, please join us for dinner.”
They followed Richard into the formal dining room, where they were seated at a large rosewood table. A servant girl poured them some wine, while Richard took his place at the head of the table.
“Before we get started, I’d like to introduce some young friends of mine. This graceful young woman is Veronique Nadeau and this is her brother Rene. They live up the river from here. I felt it would be safer from them to stay with me until these recent unpleasantries are resolved. Their father has been missing since Fort Jackson. Let’s hope for the best.”
The elderly guests lifted their glasses in a gesture of salutation. Vera noticed that Richard had failed to mention anything about her mother.
“Veronique, this is Colonel Foster, his wife Margaret, and his brother William. And that is Mr. Gregory from Charleston, one of my business associates.”
After an appetizer of black beans and peach chutney, the guests were served a butter-glazed Cornish Hen and collard greens. Richard ate very little, and instead kept up a lively conversation on topics ranging from politics to the latest French fashions. It seemed strange to Rene that the citizens of Louisiana should be in such good spirits after the capture of their proudest city. Shoveling food into their mouths and carrying on garrulously, they seemed more like careless aristocrats, than an occupied people.
“So how long do you think we can hold out?” William asked.
“It all depends on what the Union army does next. Some say they’ll continue east towards Atlanta. There’s little resistance here,” Richard replied.
“Did you hear that General Butler inscribed the union must and shall be preserved on the base of the Jackson monument?” Colonel Foster remarked, as he poured sugar onto a pile of strawberries. “A desecration indeed.”
“While I’m confident the Army of Northern Virginia can hold off the Yankee invasion, I’m still worried about economics. It gets harder each day to feed and clothe our soldiers, and running the blockades has become increasingly more dangerous. Ultimately, we may be forced into a compromise of some sort,” Mr. Gregory added.
Richard’s eyes narrowed as if he were holding back a rising anger. “There have been too many compromises already. I refuse to give in. If the Yankees show up on my doorstep, they’ll find out how deep the southern resolve can go. If I have to fight with a knife in the streets in order to preserve our way of life, I will.”
Vera admired Richard’s courage. While the guests appeared slothful and complacent, he seemed lean and ambitious.
When dinner was over, the men followed Richard into the billiard room in order to smoke cigars, while Bessie escorted Vera and Margaret into the drawing room. The women sipped wine as they gossiped.
“We are under virtual house arrest. My husband’s troops were taken to a prison camp outside the city. Our slaves were confiscated. The beast Butler called them contraband. Wretched indeed,” Margaret said.
“Then how did you make it here?” Vera asked politely.
“We bribed the guards.” Margaret giggled.
“They call him a beast?”
“Only a beast would threaten to treat the women of the city like common prostitutes. One woman was arrested for laughing at a Union funeral procession. I say even the slaves fear these Yankees.”
Before asking her next question, Vera waited for Bessie to exit the drawing room. “How long have you known Richard?”
“For most of my life. But he travels frequently, and spends a lot of time in Haiti. He came back when the war broke out, bringing Bessie back with him.”
“Has he ever been married?”
“Not that I know of. Richard’s always been a little eccentric. You would figure a handsome man like him would have married long ago.”
“What do you mean by eccentric?”
Margaret looked over her plump shoulder nervously. “He has a bit of a reputation you see. We never see him at church. He’s friendly with Madame LaRouche, who runs a brothel in the city. But despite all this, he’s a credit to the Confederacy. He’s put a lot of money towards the war effort, and he fought against General Farragut. He was wounded in the arm and swam across the Mississippi to safety. You could say that what he lacks in morality he makes up for in bravery.”
The two women continued their conversation until Bessie indicated the men were ready to leave. After a long series of farewells, the guests left the house and the carriages disappeared into the night. Vera and her brother slowly made their way up the stairs as the grandfather clock in the hall chimed eleven times.
Ever since she was a young girl, Vera slept fitfully. That night was no exception. Her mind was lost in a nocturnal world of vertiginous images and fleeting apparitions that swirled around her with dark and subtle whispers of admonition. Her mother materialized, crossing herself fearfully, before fading into nothingness. Vera reached out to her, but she was too late. In between scenes of abandonment and desperation, were juxtaposed memories of warmth and togetherness. She found herself at home, listening at her brother’s door, and hearing his panicked pleas from within. She dared not look inside, ashamed of her morbid curiosity, while trying to block out the other sounds; her father’s labored breathing and whispered threats. And she remembered her first kiss, sitting on the lightening-shattered stump of a giant willow tree beside Stephen Floyd. His hands swimming through her tangled hair as his warm and delicate tongue explored her receptive mouth. Then came the pirouettes in the empty kitchen, barefoot as lobsters boiled in the giant pot, and a cool spring wind moved through the tiny house. Time seemed accelerate at one moment, and then slow down at others. Important moments of her life seemed to explode in her mind like burning embers, only to be extinguished seconds later, while seemingly mundane moments went on forever. A decade of washing dishes, or a century of shucking corn. Running through the Bayou, without any destination, while the limitless expanse of the swamp swelled over the horizon and into eternity.
When she awoke, her nightgown was damp with sweat, and her hand was between her legs. She sat up in bed and could hear distant gunshots echo through the open windows. A reminder that the war she had never seen still raged somewhere in the distance; the inevitable disruption that followed her like a predatory animal, closing on its prey.
Her throat was dry, and the glass beside her bed was empty. Assuming everyone would be asleep at such a late hour, she slipped outside her bedroom and made her way downstairs and towards the kitchen. When she entered the corridor of mirrors, she noticed something strange. Though the house was dimly lit by only a handful of candles, she could see her shadowy image in one of the giant mirrors. Expecting to see thin girl in a white nightgown, she instead saw a stranger; a young woman in slacks and a white shirt. By the time she realized something was wrong, her body had passed in front of the second mirror. This time, the image that was reflected back was what she expected. She stopped and took a deep breath, then backed up to look into the first mirror. The rolling amber candlelight glowed through her translucent nightgown, and she suddenly felt naked. Whatever she thought she saw before was long gone. She rubbed her tired eyes and continued hurriedly towards the kitchen.
Next to an oil lamp, a large water pitcher sat on the counter. When Vera poured some water into her glass, she could hear footsteps outside on the porch. She looked through the kitchen window and saw Richard standing there, looking out over the swamp, and puffing on a thin cigar. He held a wine glass in his left hand, and without looking back, said, “Can’t sleep tonight?” She hesitated for a moment and then walked over to the screen door. “The gunshots woke me up.”
Richard turned to look at Vera. “In the field, we learn to sleep only a few hours at a time. When I was a boy, we would swim in the ocean during high tide, and the waves would crash against our body violently. By the time I got home, I was dizzy and could still feel the waves. I couldn’t sleep. That’s what war is like. The cannons erupting all at once, shattering the eardrums. The roar of the cavalry, and the sky black with gunpowder. And afterwards, the screams of wounded and dying men… Will you keep me company for a little while?”
Vera stepped out onto the porch, and felt a sliver of wood pierce the bottom of her foot. “Ouch!” She yelped, as she staggered back against a wicker chair. Richard quickly threw his arm around her waist and helped her sit down. She grasped her wounded foot in embarrassment. “Here, let me help you,” he said, as he set down the wine glass and his cigar. Using the light from a match, he pulled her foot closer, and located the sliver. Her elevated leg caused the nightgown to fall down around her waste, exposing her naked thigh. She knew that to modestly push the gown back down again would simply point out the fact that she was exposed, so instead, she looked directly at Richard. His sharp jaw line and dark eyes were compelling. He pulled the sliver from her foot, and as he withdrew his hands, he gently caressed her calf. He made no pretense to suggest it was unintentional.
“Feel better?” he said, as she straightened her nightgown.
“Yes,” she replied softly.
Richard took a puff from his cigar and exhaled, letting the smoke creep through the screen and into the trees. The guns in the distance had fallen silent, leaving only the sound of crickets and the buzzing of insects that gathered around the light from the kitchen window.
“How old are you now?” he asked.
“Seventeen. Yesterday was my birthday.”
“I remember when I was seventeen. I served on a merchant ship in Caribbean. I was fortunate enough to see many things. Exotic islands and strange people. It changed my perspective in a way.”
“What kinds of things did you see?”
Richard took a sip of wine and then continued. “In Haiti, the people created their own religion from African spiritualism and Christianity. They call this vous deux. They believe that everything in this world is somehow connected on a spiritual level, and that there are no accidents. There is a kind of sacred relationship between the living and the dead, and the spirits of our ancestors can be contacted through ritual. The Haitians would sneak away in the night to practice these rituals, and to dance and pray. For them, time is circular, not linear, and everything is essentially one.”
Vera was intrigued. “My father would call that pagan. He always warned us about stuff like that,” she said.
“The Christians think they have all the answers. I suppose every religion does,” Richard said dismissively. “Always narrow-minded and suspicious of other cultures. When I was younger, I discovered a way to really live. To welcome this life, with all its pain and pleasure, and to stop looking to the next.”
“So you reject Christianity?”
“Does that shock you?”
“No, not really. It’s just that…”
Vera looked away. She couldn’t decide if she felt comfortable with a man who frequented brothels and rejected God.
“Christians are afraid of anything they don’t understand. And really? What is there to be afraid of?” he added. “Sex? The Haitians would whip themselves into frenzy with their dancing, and tear each other’s clothes off. Some of the night dancing turns into orgies. And yet they have a strong family life and a sense of community. Who am I to judge otherwise?”
“Did you watch these rituals?”
Richard took another puff from his cigar and let the smoke trickle from the side of his mouth. “I did more than watch.”
Vera suddenly felt uneasy. There was something dangerous about Richard, despite his inherent charisma and gentlemanly manner. “I should get back to bed now,” she said.
“Of course,” he replied, while helping her to her feet. “I will see you tomorrow then.”
She left him on the porch and made her way back up the stairs and into her bedroom. Her sleep was even more disturbed than before, and she was plagued by images of great fires and wild dancing. Even worse, was the feeling she was somehow a part of these clandestine rituals, and their rapturous conclusions.
Because he felt restless and uncomfortable sitting around the house simply waiting for something to happen, Rene spent the next afternoon hunting in the woods behind the plantation. While stalking a muskrat near the river, he came upon a large shed, half-hidden by the dense trees. It looked abandoned, and was too far from the house to serve any practical purpose as a warehouse. He noticed that there were no windows, and the door to the shed was padlocked shut. He considered leaving the building undisturbed, but then his curiosity got the better of him, so he broke down the rotting door. A group of bats fluttered out from the dark confines of the shed and into the open air. Rene tightly gripped his shotgun and cautiously entered the building. The first thing he noticed was the foul odor. It smelled like a henhouse that hadn’t been cleaned in years. The sunlight from the open door illuminated the room, and Rene could see white feathers and dung clinging to the dirt floor. A pitchfork and an old shovel hung from the rafters above.
But then he saw something else. A number of half-melted candles were arranged in a circle around a strange symbol built from white powder. At closer inspection, the symbol appeared to be a cross with a skull at the top and an x pattern across the lower half, surrounded by strange writing. A blackish-red substance that looked like dried blood stained some parts of the floor, and a group of dead chickens were piled up in the corner, rotting in the summer heat. Rene could remember reading a book about black magic and voodoo when he was a boy, and the symbols seemed somehow familiar. But he also remembered his father’s warnings about things that were unchristian and unholy, and the scene before him was certainly both of those things. As the hanging farm implements swung in the warm breeze, Rene was filled with alarm and trepidation. He quickly exited the shed and started to make his way back towards the house. Everything was unnaturally quiet and even the river seemed frozen in its banks, while the birds dared not to sing.
After breakfast, Richard and Vera went horseback riding through the grasslands north of the plantation. The sun retreated behind dark clouds as an overcast set in. As they went farther from the house, the distant gunshots got louder, and Vera could hear intermittent canon fire echo through the valley. She pulled her horse to a stop. “Sounds like a battle. Are you sure we should continue?”
“You’re always safe with me,” Richard replied with a smile. His large steed was as gray as his frockcoat, and its hair was almost silver in the dull sunlight. He gazed at Vera adoringly, her coal-black hair falling over her shoulders, contrasting with her alabaster skin. In her felt gaucho hat and wool trousers, she was ruggedly elegant.
“It’s starting to get cold out here,” she said.
Richard rode up next to her and took off his coat. He then draped it over her shoulders. “I told you to wear a cape, but you didn’t listen. And I must say, you ride well for a woman.”
She raised one eyebrow. “For a women eh? Let’s see if you can catch me then!” And with that, she gave her horse a swift kick and tore into the forest, with Richard struggling to follow. Soon, she had her horse at a full gallop, effortlessly navigating the winding path through the dense trees. Furious hoof beats could be heard from behind her as she jumped a shallow creek and pulled her horse down a fork to the left. Moments later, the forest opened into a grazing field. Vera clutched her horse’s neck tightly and looked behind her. Richard failed to appear from the forest, and she concluded that he must have taken the path to the right. Suddenly, without warning, her horse dug its hooves into the wet ground, coming to an abrupt halt. Vera was immediately thrown from her saddle, and landed sideways in the field. She winced in pain as she rolled over onto her back. Mud covered the right side of her face, and a sharp pain ripped through her shoulder. Her horse stamped the ground and reversed itself in terror, as it neighed hysterically. Vera was at a loss to explain his bizarre behavior until she saw the bones. All around her were almost fully intact skeletons of large animals. She couldn’t tell if the bleach-white bones were of horses or steers, since not an ounce of flesh remained. As her horse continued his tantrum, she examined the skulls more carefully and was startled to find that the eyeballs were left in tact. Every mouth was wide open, baring rows of jagged teeth. The mutilated skulls seemed frozen in an expression of abject terror. It was as if someone wanted to leave the eyes in place in order to preserve the unfortunate creature’s moment of death. Vera staggered to her feet and took her horse reins. It took several minutes, but she finally managed to calm the animal enough to mount him once more. She quickly rode back into the forest, wiping the mud from her face, and leaving the nightmarish scene behind her.
She found Richard moments later in a small clearing. “What happened?” he asked in a worried tone.
“I was riding too fast and fell from my horse.”
He gave her an appraising look. “Are you hurt? Let me see.”
Vera pulled away. “I’ll be fine. It’s not the first time I’ve been thrown. Let’s just get back to the house.”
They continued their way back towards the plantation, and Vera’s headaches returned, as a heavy rain began to fall over the countryside. Thunder rumbled through the valley, while intermittent blasts of lightening split the clouds. They urged their horses onwards at a cantor until the house came back into view, slowly materializing within the swirling mists.
It was hours before Rene realized he was lost in the forest. He tried to dodge the rain by seeking shelter in the trees, but it was no use. The furious storm washed away the trail, so he decided to try and follow the river back, but he seemed to be going in circles. The river would double back on its self like the circuitous thoughts of a madman, and branch out into smaller streams that plunged deep into the forest. While he cursed to himself, he saw a light in the distance. A small boat was approaching. Rene ran towards the water’s edge to get a closer look. The vessel held a single passenger, who wore a wide-brimmed hat and a long dark coat. As the boat moved closer, Rene could see the man wore some kind of blue uniform, and in his right hand he held a rifle, while his left hand gripped a hooded lantern. Before the man’s face came into view, the mysterious figure dropped the lantern and pointed the gun at Rene. A shot rang out, and Rene could feel a stinging sensation on the right side of his face. He instinctively ducked down while another bullet whizzed by his head. “Yankees,” he thought. “Has to be.” He sprinted frantically back into the forest, as a third bullet shattered tree branch only inches from his shoulder.
The house was dark and empty when Richard and Vera returned.
“Where is everyone?” she asked while tromping up the stairs. Her soaking clothes were heavy and uncomfortable.
“Camille and the other servant girls have the day off. Bessie went to town.”
Vera was disappointed to find that the fireplace in her room was unlit. Her wet clothes were causing her to shiver, and the only thing she could think of was to get them off as soon as possible.
“I lit a fire in my room before I left, you can follow me there,” Richard said invitingly.
Despite her misgivings, she followed him up a small staircase to a third level, where they entered a vast bedroom. The first thing she noticed was the large bed and Persian rug. A pair of French doors led out onto a balcony, where the rain danced on the wooden planks furiously. Above the fireplace, which cast its warmth out into the room, was a painting of a girl. As Vera warmed her hands next to the fire, she inspected the picture. It was an oil painting of a young woman with dark hair and blue eyes. The woman sat beneath a Cyprus tree.
“She looks like me a little.”
“What did you say?” Richard replied while hanging his wet jacket in a side closet.
“I said she looks a little like me. Who is she?”
“Someone I used to know.”
Vera turned to face Richard. Without the jacket, her wet cotton blouse revealed the contours of her breasts, as the material hugged her skin. The silver pin had fallen out during their ride, leaving her hair to hang down to her shoulders and over one side of her face. “That doesn’t really answer my question does it?” she added. Strangely enough, she felt a kind of jealousy towards the woman.
“To tell you truth, I don’t really know who she is. When I was wounded at Fort Jackson, I had to swim across the Mississippi to escape the Union army. My strength almost gave out and I found myself bleeding to death when I reached the shore. A young woman found me there and helped me into a wagon. Must have been a fisherman’s daughter. She brought me back to a small house near the river and bandaged my wounds. She kept me alive long enough for my friends to come and get me.”
Vera looked at the painting once more. “She looks lonely.”
“Perhaps she was. At the time, I could barely speak, and I slipped into unconsciousness more than once. For a while, I forgot about the war. I could only think of her.”
Richard brushed Vera’s hair back from her face. “I had this painting done to preserve my memory of her.”
“Why didn’t you go back for her?”
“I did, but I couldn’t find the house. I asked my friends, but not even they could discover where the house used to be. It was as if she was swallowed up by the forest, never to be seen again.”
Vera looked into Richard’s eyes, which glowed in the firelight. “Perhaps you were dreaming? Maybe it never happened at all?”
“I would be more inclined to say that I am dreaming now,” he said softly.
Without another word, Richard leaned down and gently kissed Vera. It was a polite kiss, almost apprehensive, but Vera wanted more. When he tried to pull back, she wrapped her hand around his neck and returned his kiss with greater passion and intensity, almost forcing her tongue into his mouth. Before she knew what was happening, she found herself on the bed with Richard. Her shirt was open, and his hands caressed her swelling breasts. All fear and inhibition was gone, replaced by a wanton desire. She lifted her waist off the bed, allowing him to pull down her wool trousers. As he admired her naked form, he pulled his shirt off and began to unbuckle his belt. Vera was a virgin with little experience, but she thought he must be a generous and unselfish lover, since instead of taking her right away, he kissed and licked her all over. Her nails dug deep into the sheets as he buried his head between her thighs. The storm outside increased in intensity, pummeling the house with raindrops, while a violent gale tore at the shutters.
Rene ran through the back porch and into the kitchen, as thunder shook the house. He clutched the right side of his face, which was bleeding profusely, leaving a scarlet trail behind him. Bessie sat alone at the table, looking at him suspiciously. Her skin was wrinkled and she appeared somehow older.
“What’s wrong boy?” she asked.
“You tell me lady! First I find some old shed full of dead animals and then someone tries to kill me.”
“Who tried to kill you? “
Rene pointed his shotgun at Bessie. Unlike Vera, he never trusted the old woman or Mr. Wilcox. “Don’t play stupid with me! What in the hell is going on here?”
“Put down the gun boy,” Bessie replied cautiously. “Ain’t nothing to worry about. You ‘re imagining things.”
“Bullshit!” Rene said as he held out a bloody hand for Bessie to see. “Does this look like imagination to you?”
“Looks like you cut yourself shaving.”
The sound of footsteps on the porch outside interrupted their conversation. Bessie looked out the window and scowled. Rene saw her peering out the window and turned around to see a uniformed man emerging from the storm and marching up the stairs.
Bessie’s disposition changed dramatically. “I told you the Yankees were gonna come here! You led them right to our back door!” she shrieked.
The man’s face was obscured by shadows, but Rene could see his mouth moving, as if he were speaking underwater where no sound could be heard. As he closed within a few feet of Rene, the boy panicked. He fired a shotgun slug directly into the man’s heart. The impact was so great, the man twisted in the air, landing face first on the back porch. Rene looked down to see his clothing covered with the man’s blood.
“Idiot!” Bessie screamed. “Now they gonna send an army here!”
Rene pointed his gun at Bessie once more. “Shut the fuck up lady! Get outta here. Git!”
Bessie stood up defiantly. She had obviously aged since the last time Rene had seen her. She now looked like an old crone, with brittle white hair and cracking skin. “You can’t make me leave this place. No one can! Especially not a young boy who is more like a girl! Your daddy turned you into a little whore,” she sneered.
Rene pointed the gun towards a glass cabinet full of dishes directly behind Bessie. When he pulled the trigger, the cabinet exploded, sending glass and porcelain everywhere.
“I said get the fuck outta here!” he yelled.
A terrified Bessie gathered up the hem of her dress and darted out the back door, stepping over the body as she went. Before disappearing into the trees, she looked back at Rene and said. “Do what you will boy. You’re as cursed as any of us!”
Suddenly it seemed as if everything was clear. The shock of the moment caused Rene’s memory to return, and like a patient awaking on the operating table, he was overwhelmed with trauma and terror. He had never killed anyone before, and knew the penalty would be stiff. He wondered how things had gotten so out of control.
The despair was compounded when he looked at the dead man’s face, only to find it was his father. There was no uniform, only his father’s blue overcoat. The old man had followed him to the house, probably in a drunken rage. The mind-shattering revelation was complete when he realized the house had reverted from a proud plantation back into a decrepit ruin. Whether Rene had been drunk or under the influence of drugs mattered little now. The deed was done, and escape to New Orleans wouldn’t change a thing. He had hoped to somehow erase his past, and forget about the abuse, but ultimately, his father had destroyed him. With his head down, he slowly walked back into the rotting structure.
The first gunshot interrupted Richard and Vera’s lovemaking. She looked up at him with a startled expression.
“What was that?”
Seemingly oblivious, he attempted to continue with his seduction. “It was only thunder.”
As he pushed her knees all the way to her chest, the sound of a second gunshot brought her from the throws of ecstasy to an alarmed state. In between breaths she said, “That wasn’t thunder.” She knew something terrible was happening downstairs. She tried to push him away, but he held her tight.
“Don’t worry. I’ll protect you.”
“No!” she shouted, while struggling harder. Richard responded by pinning her arms down on the bed. His face was changing. His skin had turned from a pale white to an almost sickly gray, and his eyes seemed to be sinking into his skull. His polished white teeth had become rotten and yellow, and his hair had thinned considerably. He seemed afflicted with decay and blight.
“No! I have waited too long. Sacrificed too much for this. I won’t stop now,” he bellowed.
Vera planted her feet on his chest, and with one tremendous effort pushed with all her strength, sending Richard tumbling to the floor. She then rolled off the bed and headed towards the door, only to find it slam shut on its own accord. Richard rose off the floor in an unnatural way, almost floating to his feet. His eyes burned with rage.
“I’ve given everything up for you! And yet you reject me!” he shrieked.
Vera ran to the fireplace a pulled a poker from the flames. She waved it at him menacingly. “You ain’t real. None of this is. It’s some kind of trick or illusion!” she retorted.
With every flash of lightening, Richard’s form would change from a hideous corpse into a handsome gentleman. He slowly shuffled towards her. “You did your best to save me, but it wasn’t enough. By the time I was brought back here I was dying, so I had Bessie perform the ritual. She promised me we would be together once more. She said I would never die until I found you. But look at me! Why won’t you believe?” he pleaded.
It was the clue Vera needed. Just before he grabbed her, she took the hot poker and held it against her palm. Searing pain shot through her arm, and she fell back a few feet before her vision cleared. She saw that the room had changed from an elegant bedchamber to a crumbling ruin filled with cobwebs, and Richard was transformed into a putrid, leering zombie. She was filled with disgust and her stomach turned. Only moments before, she shared a bed with the abomination that now crept pathetically towards her. Richard tried to speak, but could managed only a choked whisper. “Don’t do this…”
“I’m not the woman in the painting. I don’t even know you!” Vera screamed.
Before the creature could reach her, the door to the room shattered, and Pete barged in, holding an axe in his hands. Vera knew the young black boy looked familiar, but never dreamed it was her friend Pete, obscured by some accursed illusion and silenced through dark sorcery. He was himself once more, Caucasian, and dressed in his familiar red flannel shirt. Richard spun around to confront the unwelcome guest, but he was too late. Pete ran across the room and buried the axe in Richard’s skull. The hideous zombie fell backwards, clutching the axe. His chest caved in and his legs buckled, and he managed only one final, hellish shriek before finally disintegrating into a pile of dust. The axe fell to the floor unceremoniously. No body remained, only a pile of gray ashes. A strong wind from outside scattered the ashes throughout the room.
Pete gathered up Vera’s clothes and handed them to her. The familiar dirty jeans and a white blouse had replaced her wool riding pants and cotton shirt. “We need to get out of here now. There might be more of these things.” He said.
“But how did you know it wasn’t real?”
“Yesterday, I stood in front of the mirror downstairs for a long time, until my reflection began to change. I knew somethin’ wasn’t right. It’s like I was stuck in a dream. But we gotta go! Come on!”
After throwing her clothes back on, Vera quickly followed Pete down the stairs. When they passed the dining room, they could see a number of skeletons seated around the table, covered in cobwebs, seemingly frozen in time. “Must be Colonel Foster and company,” Pete remarked.
Then another gunshot rang out from the living room. Immediately, Vera thought of Rene, and began running towards the chamber. By the time Pete caught up with her, he found her kneeling next to the motionless form of her brother, sobbing. Rene sat in a pool of blood, with the shotgun between his legs. His head was tilted to one side, and his eyes were vacant. Blood dribbled down the side of his mouth.
“No!” Vera screamed.
It was incomprehensible that Rene should kill himself. Thinking she were still under some kind of spell, she slammed her fist down on the wood floor. “Wake up! Wake up!” she yelled.
It wasn’t until they discovered the body outside that they finally began to understand what might have happened. Pete tried to urge Vera on as best he could. He grabbed her arm. “We can’t stay here Vera. Nothing is gonna bring him back.”
Vera pulled away with tears in her eyes. She screamed, “This is all your fault! It was a stupid idea to run away. Look what’s happened! We knew Daddy wasn’t gonna let us get away!”
“Rene ran away because he was being molested Vera. It’s the God honest truth I promise!”
She knew he spoke the truth, but she couldn’t contain the rage within her. Only one day earlier she lived a life of blissful forgetfulness. An adoring gentleman courted her, while servants attended to her every need. She felt loved and respected. Which life was the dream, and which was the nightmare? The brutal reality of poverty and squalor was now her future. She was tempted to find Bessie again, and force the old woman to return them to the dream world once more. Ultimately though, Vera knew she needed to escape into another life through more conventional means.
“Come on Pete,” she said.
“Are you ready then?” he asked sheepishly.
“I’m ready,” she replied, as she walked down the wet cobblestone path towards the waiting boat. The storm began to subside, leaving behind only a few occasional raindrops and a gentle wind.
A shallow, rolling mist blanketed the swamp, and it was difficult for Pete to see where he was going. He figured anywhere was better than the accursed house they were leaving behind. Vera hung her arm over the side of the boat and let her fingers touch the moving water. She hadn’t said a word since leaving the plantation. Eventually, the mists began to dissipate, opening a passage into a wide river.
“You should try to sleep,” Pete said.
“And where will I wake up?” Vera replied softly.
“I wonder if Rene knew it was Daddy?”
“We’ll never know,” Pete answered. There was little he could do to make her feel better, so he thought it best to leave her alone.
In the distance, flickering lights danced on the horizon. As they got closer, Pete could see dozens of ships and barges gathered around a busy harbor. Church steeples and modern buildings appeared on the skyline. A waxing moon hovered above the great city.
“Looks like New Orleans Vera. This is it. We can start over.”
But Vera didn’t answer, because she was fast asleep.