Ghosts stalk the swamps as the past rises from the deep, with memories of shame and old dreams .
Echoes | Southern Gothic
The chair creaked as she eased back and forth in the heat, at the end of the day. This white board house, built on the edge of the swamp when the price of land was cheap, now was a curse, impossible to sell, impossible to inhabit, and stalked by the creeping bayou.
She looked across at her brother. His contorted body reflected back the years, perspiration draining down the edges of his stiff collar. He had been a slaver. And paid for it. Not like the beatings, and worse he had dealt to his people. She looked at his limpet eyes, and crumpled shell, and remembered the day of dissent, when everyone on the plantation had stopped, too tired to continue, resigned finally to their death, and joined together in a mournful chant that stirred across the rice fields, murmuring and churning the swamp with their utter exhaustion.
“Well, Mary,” she remonstrated with herself, “I was just a little girl. What could I have done. Louis was determined to prove himself.”
She remembered standing close to her present position on the porch, looking out to the fields, where suddenly she observed the men, their bodies drenched in the heat of the summer, standing like the cypress trees and tupelo of the swamp, with their heads held high, their mouths open to the skies, their tools broken or discarded. To her imaginative eyes it was a vista of old ghosts stretching back into the horizon, of the swamp returning to reclaim its land, shimmering in the heat, calling for mercy, and the blessing of death.
But her brother, overfed since birth like a Christmas Turkey, had stumped to the cellar and picked up his father’s rifle and a long knife. Since his pa had died, a vile man with sadistic tastes that brought him respect from the wrong quarters, little Louis had been desperate to demonstrate that a fourteen year old boy was as much the master of this plantation as his mad old dad. And so, with the fever of the sun in his eyes, and the dark temptations of the swamp in his soul he decided to show them.
“It really was the hottest day of the year.” Mary muttered to herself, waving, as she did then, at the corpse flies, and the mosquitos that invaded the most private places. She recalled that day, when nobody wanted to move. But the men in the field and the swamps were expected to continue with their duties, their heads slung low, struggling, she noticed, to breathe in the thick air, taking a moment to gather their strength, to draw on generations of stoicism and fear.
And so her brother, drunk on the heat, and the responsibility burdened upon himself, lumbered his fat frame down the front yard and out into the swamp. He found two of the men malingering, wiping their brow. He shot them, while their backs were turned against him. Mary put her hand to her chest as she did then and watched him wade through the thick waters, heading to the group of men assigned to clearing the waterways on the edges of the fields, their boney chests dripping with sweat. They stood next to the fallen branches that gripped the cool underbelly of the bayou.
“Little Master,” one of the men leaned over, his red eyes wary and tired, he had worked for the family for a generation, his children born into slavery and even now learning survival at the table of deference, “why don’t you go home, it’s too hot for one such as yourself.”
Of course, the little master, so eager to prove himself at the alter of righteous fury announced to them all, “why don’t you just get on with your damned jobs instead of idlin’ here: the heat should be no trouble for people such as you, my father used to tell me so.”
“Ah, indeed, your father.” One of the slaves, slightly smaller than his companions and a little less cautious uttered sagely to his fellows.
The little master was trained by his father to pick up on such inflections of dissent. “What did you say about my father?”
“I didn’t say anythin’, little master.”
“I heard yer words, you worthless whore of satan.”
The first of the group stood a little taller, and took an affronted air. “Little master, that’s no way to speak to a God-fearing man.”
“How dare you question––.” Louis, his face red with heat and anger, spat into the waters. “You, worthless––” The boy yelled at the perplexed group in front of him.
The tallest of them looked across at his fellow who was now fidgeting his hat, pulling it from his head to expose a bald pate to the unforgiving sun, and watching it flap before him. “Sir, no offence was intended, I’m sure.” It was clear to the impartial observer that this was so.
But somehow little Louis responded to this as an act of war. “First you disrespect my father,” he shouted, his eyes bulging in the heat, “and then you dare, still, to question me?” He bellowed, his porcine frame well suited to the braying. But then he drew his knife, and set about the man whose hat had, for a brief moment exhibited an uncharacteristic taste for freedom. The boy, large for his age, and reckless in his manner performed his frenzied act with such efficiency, that the group around him could only gape in awe. After the ordeal, the hat, flecked with blood and perspiration had drifted back into the swamp to pursue its final journey toward the children and wife of the wronged man.
And so the chanting had started, a deep, woeful hollering that endured for hours. It rolled across the fields, slithered across the choking cypress trees, and oozed into the matted fur of the swamp rats and the ailing lilies, sinking into the intestines of the submerged forest of the swamp where it slowed, clung to the remnants of its origins, then dispersed into the deep whispers and subtle rumbles of the land. This was the long call of death, for Louis went on a rampage and hacked down the men, one by one.
By nightfall it was over, the chanting had stopped, the faint echoes only rustling in the dark vegetation around the fields. Louis returned, exhausted, triumphant, covered in the suffocating tendrils of slimey, organic matter, and in the dark waters of the slaughtered men.
From that point on, the bayou seemed to gain in strength, sustained by the woe and misfortune within. Mary imagined that a person might now get lost in the swamp, and die, but still dream of life and leer across the living at twilight.
Years later, the bones of slavery long buried, in law at least, the family retained its flimsy grasp on the immediate land around the slowly disintegrating home. Without the manpower of the slaves the swamp groves had reclaimed their former splendour, and now gathered about the white board house, no longer subservient to the whims of a man’s anxieties.
Mary sighed. No children illuminated the house. No neighbours were left to visit and carouse. Just Mary and her brother Louis. She looked at him, curled in his basket-weave chair, a shrivelled version of the young man who had pretensions to rule the plantation with his rifle and his temper.
But she had observed the events of her long life, and now, at eighty years old, she shed the ennui of her youth. Her brother had become a relic, an ornament in the landscape, and she knew her fate would be the same. Soon this house, and all its contents would be overwhelmed by the bayou, and returned to the natural order, to the darkness, to the shadows in the waters, and the heat, always the heat.
With the memories of that fateful, deadly day fresh in her head, she realized that she despised her brother. She stood up, and decided to lock the door to the back porch, behind her, and leave this ghost, her brother to his misery, just one last time. In the morning, he would be gone, burned up by the rising sun, and the vengeful call of the bayou.[ends]
More in two weeks, (more from What is Time? next week)
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