The swamp is dark and thick and swarming with birds ruffling in moss-covered cypress trees. Insects are drawn by the light of my storm lantern, moths and mosquitoes buzzing on the back wall.
I put a pot full of rice on my propane stove and make sure it is cooking evenly as I lay the squirrel on the cutting board.
The dead rodent seems to be looking at me with his black eyes and I can’t help but grimace when I feel the animal’s feet, tail and head snapping under my shears. I take a breath and pull away the skin until nothing is left. “It ain’t no rabbit, you got to pull as hard as you can,” I remember my neighbor saying. I squint and look away as I remove the guts. When it’s nice and clean, I break down the legs, the ribs and the backstrap to make four pieces of meat that I season with Tony Chachere’s spices and Tabasco sauce before putting in a cast iron pot.
I add cooking oil and stir the meat until it’s golden brown. Then, I cut an onion, yellow bell peppers and garlic that I add into the pot with flour and water to make a roux. I let the whole thing cook on the lowest stove setting to save the propane for my next meals.
The houseboat is creaking as it sways with the water. I make sure it is well anchored to the nearby tree. I lean over the rope and pull on it to see if there is enough play.
It’s already too late when I feel my foot slipping on the wet floor. I heavily fall into the water with a big splash.
Everything is suddenly cold around me and the taste of silt in my mouth replaces the one of the bad Zinfandel I was drinking earlier. I swim to the surface and hold onto the tree, cussing a dozen expletives and trying to get a hold on my moored skiff.
It’s only then that I notice the dark shape of the alligator cutting through the water in my direction.
“Fuck,” I mutter, hoisting myself into the small boat and gripping the floating house’s awning posts to keep some kind of balance as the alligator comes closer with his jaws half-open, slowing its pace until he decides to give up the chase, turning round and lingering nearby, immobile in the hissing of the wind and the cackling of the ducks.
My heart is pounding in my ears. I carefully step away from the skiff to get back on the house. “Holy fucking fuck,” I repeat, removing my soaked clothes in the chilly air.
I sit a few minutes on the floor to catch my breath. I dry my hair and change my jeans. I try not to look outside, avoiding the sight of the reptile luring in his next prey. Monsters aren’t real, are they? Monsters aren’t real.
There is a burnt smell in the kitchen. I stop the stove and put the overcooked rice in a platter on which I add the squirrel gumbo. The food is scalding hot. I go back to the porch and sit on my foldable chair, the smoking plate on my knees.
The alligator is still there in the middle of the swamp. I raise a glass to him and start eating my meal.
Later, when the stars have disappeared behind low rolling clouds, I wish him a good night and go to sleep. I dream of murky wetlands and vengeful beasts hiding in the shade.
The bayou is covered in mist when I wake up. The place is gloomy and eerily quiet — banks of fog breaching through the blue-gray foliage of the cypresses, the sun low under the forest, all pale and lifeless, the silence only broken by the sound of fishes jumping in and out of the water.
I eat a cereal bar, drink a cup of instant coffee, pee overboard and climb on the houseboat’s roof to plug my phone in its solar charger.
Ray Guidry sees me from afar and waves his hand, cutting the engine of his boat and gliding towards me.
“Bon matin!” he says cheerfully. “How was your night?”
I smile at him and get on his skiff, crouching between fishing nets, crab traps and empty coolers.
“I fell in the water and almost got bit by a gator,” I reply.
Ray stares at me in disbelief and we both burst out laughing.
“C’est quelque chose,” he adds with his Cajun accent before handing me a pair of worn out gloves.
“Where are we headed today?”
“To the bay. Then to Pierre Part to sell our catch and make the groceries. Big day ahead of us. I hope you had a good breakfast.”
He launches the Honda motor and we leave our cove for the labyrinth of waterways streaking through the swamps.
“We should be in Morgan City by six if there’s not too much fog. I don’t like to go fast when there’s fog.”
A flight of brown pelicans flies over us. The skiff bounces on the water, the engine’s growl echoing against the dark trees. Dead oaks and fallen cypresses line the muddy banks, their branches bending under the weight of the foliage.
We follow the meanders of the river until we reach the nearby oil and gas drilling station. We both watch the structure and its steel reservoirs nested in a creek where a NO TRESPASSING sign has been posted.
“This is Bayou Postillion. Exxon and Chevron came here about twenty years ago. They’re all around, now.”
“In the middle of nothing?”
“The bayou had to be dredged to restore the original flow and allow barges to pass through. Of course bass fish went scarce. People tried to petition against the field but you know how it goes. Big companies like that, they get incentives from the government, it’s already played out. We’re only a dozen people living here, so we had to adapt. We went fishing and hunting up Big Bayou Mallet instead. That’s how we do.”
“It’s difficult. And we’re luckier than some. See what happened in Bayou Corne because of the fracking.”
“Are you talking about the sinkhole?”
“Yeah. The water had been boiling for months, with earthquakes and houses shifting and all. For months, people told the officials something was wrong. Next thing you know — my buddy Frank, he’s at a town meeting, you see. It all started in June, right? Then in late July, my buddy Frank goes at this meeting to discuss the situation with them gas company agents. He tells them he’s concerned about the diesel smell by his house. Don’t worry, they say. It’s a leaky pipeline, they say. No risk at all. Next thing you know, there’s a 3-acre sinkhole where the bayou was and 350 people have to be evacuated.”
“What did the operating company do?”
“Texas Brine? They offered settlements but most of the people refused and started a class-action suit. The trial keeps being pushed back. And the sinkhole keeps expanding, you see. It’s now 27-acres large and it’s killing everything in the area, what with the debris and the oil and the mud spilling around. But nobody’s talking about it.”
Ray keeps silent as he navigates out of the swamps.
“It’s not important if nobody sees it,” he says.
The water becomes clearer when we veer right on the spillway, speeding up the pace along the road.
The skiff’s motor is running full bore in our ears. Alligators are floating near the banks, swimming in our wake.
We soon meet the Atchafalaya River in Berwick Bay and cruise across the port of Morgan City.
“Watch this good,” Ray tells me. “It may not exist anymore next time you come here.”
“If the Morganza spillway is opened, everything will be submerged with water like in 2011. Maybe worse. The smallest cities are basically saving New Orleans and Baton Rouge’s asses by getting flooded every time there is a risk the river overflows.”
“It’s been like that for a while.”
“Pas de même. You see, the Army had to divert the Mississippi before, in ’73, but most of the bayous were still isolated from each other back then, because of the mud and the vegetation. Astheur, c’est plus pareil. When oil companies dredged their pipeline canals, it opened new channels for the water to go through. And so when the spillway got opened in 2011, the overflow went straight into the bayous through them channels. It just spread without us having control on nothing.”
A barge goes under the city’s old rusted bridges, horn blazing to signal its arrival to the dock.
“On the bright side, you found crawfish everywhere the tar hadn’t leaked in. I remember going to the levee and getting thousands of them in a few hours. They kept coming and coming and coming. Là c’était vraiment toute une journée.”
Traffic seems sparse on the roads as the sun finally rises, casting a yellow hue over the bays and islands that spread around us.
Half an hour later, the skiff exits the river and enters the bay. The Gulf of Mexico opens ahead, past the sandbars and the shores and the driftwood, the horizon lining with the morning clouds and the flocking birds mirrored by the muddy sea.
“This delta is the only place in Louisiana that’s gaining ground for now, but you never know how long it’s going to last,” Ray says. “It’s great for crabbing, though,” he adds, lighting up a cigarette.
He gives the motor 1,500 rpm and corrects the skiff’s trajectory while taking long puffs on his Marlboro.
“Would you hand me these two pans?” He asks, showing me a bunch of white plastic crates piled together at the front of the boat.
He places the pans at the two ends of an L-shaped aluminum gutter and hands me a wire crab cage.
“This is the trap you’ll be using today. Make sure the door is locked good before putting it into the water, all right? There’s the bait box with the flap top. That’s where you put this,” he says, opening two coolers filled with fish heads.
“I thought you would be using chicken bits,” I say, tying a rubber apron behind my back.
“For redfish and bass, yeah. But catfish heads are better for crabs, à cause il y a plus de viande dedans.”
He puts three heads into the bait box.
“Usually we would use a floater to see where the trap is. That’s if we were crabbing from bridges, say. But today, we ain’t going to do that. We’ll tie the traps to this pulley string instead.”
He drops the cage in the water.
“I won’t stop the rig. You’ll just throw the trap down and let the crabs get in it while we’re moving. You’ll pull on the string every ten to fifteen seconds to lift the cage out of the water.”
He yanks on the rope and the cage comes up with five blue crabs squirming in it, all tossed together on the spill gutter as Ray opens the wire box to take a look at them.
“See, this one’s a good one. It’s a male, lots of males this season in the bay. This one is meaty. It’s a 7 inch, a #1. Goes for about $2 a pound. The other ones not so much, but this one’s a good one.”
“The minimum allowed is 5 inches, right?”
“That’s right. I’ll show you.”
He gives me the trap and goes to the other side of the skiff. I put two catfish heads in the bait compartment, make sure everything is closed and send the cage back into the water, the boat still running forward as Ray makes slight corrections at the wheel.
I pick the pulley and lift the trap, now filled with four crabs that I dump in the gutter with a great deal of shaking, a large smile on my face.
“Is it always that easy?” I ask.
“Not always. This one,” the fisherman says, motioning to a small crab clenching his claws on another crab. “I like this one. He’s a fighter. Let’s give him another chance,” he says, throwing the crustacean overboard.
He then prepares a second trap that he drops on his side of the rig, nodding at me without a word.
I put down the cage and lift it again. I release the crabs again, making sure they’re all of good size before cramming them in my pan where they all crawl and swarm until I close the lid. I replace the pan with another one and put my cage down again, then pull it again, tossing away the females with eggs and the smaller factory crabs, the skiff going in large circles, water in my eyes, claws clawing and legs twitching, again, and again, and again.
I lose the count after sixty traps.
The sun is high in the sky when Ray cuts the motor. The pans are all full, stacked on top of each other.
“No more baits,” Ray announces. “We done good today. You did good. Got the hang of it fast. Un vrai pêcheur!”
“Combien de cages?”
“Alentour deux cent cinquante. Two fifty at least.”
“That’s a lot.”
“C’est pas pire. On comptera quand on sera back sur la rivière. Now c’est le temps de diner.”
We eat roast beef po-boys and drink Abita Lights, sat on our wooden chairs in the middle of the Atchafalaya Bay, Lenny Kravitz on the radio.
The po-boys are dripping with gravy and mustard. I wipe my fingers on the pages of a yellowed Times-Picayune newspaper.
“I learned to fish here with my daddy. Mon papa il m’emmenait sur son bateau from Bayou Chene jusqu’à icitte. Puis quand on avait fini de pêcher, là, on vadait à Lafayette pour vendre ça les oeufs des poules qu’on avait dans le clos. We went up to Lafayette to sell them eggs, by walking because we didn’t have no car back then. And my mama, she made cornbread sometimes and sold it too.”
“Were you already living in a houseboat?”
“Yeah, but we also had a field. Un jardin, ils appelaient. My sister was in charge of the potato plants. I was in charge of the chickens and the corn. Et dans l’été on faisait la crème à la sabotière.”
“Were you speaking French?”
“Mes parents, ils parlaient français tous les deux both. Mais les maîtresses à l’école, elles voulaient pas que nous autres on parle français. So we spoke French between us, you know.”
“What about today?”
“I still speak French with my friends, and my family too. Avec le monde alentour de icitte. Ayoù est-ce que le monde il parle français je parle français. Whenever I can.”
“Have you always been fishing?”
“Back when I was young, I worked with my daddy. We did crawfish, Sac-à-Lait and bass fish, mainly. And muskrats. Then when my daddy died I got his boat and I kept fishing. C’est de quoi que je faisais pour ma vie. Mais quand je suitais jeune ça l’était plus facile, because the saltwater hadn’t crept in them bayous, so the game was easier to catch. Now it’s almost all gone.”
He raises his beer and cheers to me. His smile wrinkles his face and softens his rugged traits.
“We can’t do what we used to, like selling fur and skins. It’s all regulated. So I bought this newer rig for crabbing. A 24 feet Carolina, not too big, not too small, perfect for shallow waters.”
“It seems to be working good,” I say.
“Pretty good. I like being alone. My wife, she doesn’t like it much when I’m not home. She makes a couple pies and she gets bored. But I’ve always enjoyed it, being on a boat.”
There is another small ship near the shore, with a single man aboard, untangling a net and listening to bluegrass music. Further away inside the marshes, roseate spoonbills are picking insects and frogs from the high weeds.
“Cajuns are a rare breed,” Ray says. “We’re the last ones. After us, it won’t be the same. When the swamps will be gone, we will be gone.”
“We’re not meant to survive this century. We try to adapt, but we’re not meant to survive in the long run. We’re a memory. There will be no room for memories in the future.”
I think of all the generations of men having said that.
“We will vanish. That’s how things go.”
We keep silent and finish our beers, looking at the waves carrying tree trunks along the sand banks.
Later on, when we’ve traveled back up to Lake Palourde, we clear the deck of scattered buckets and tools.
We quickly cross Grassy Lake up to Lake Verret, heading north to Pierre Part.
The dry dock is located near the Highway 70 bridge. Ray’s Dodge pick-up truck is parked close to the ramp where we moor the skiff. We unload the crab-filled crates and bring them in the truck’s bed.
My arms are aching from pulling and lifting. Sweat drops are rolling in my back and in my neck.
We drive down the road for less than a minute and stop in the delivery area of the Pierre Part Store, the local supermarket to whom Ray sells his crabs at wholesale price.
The store manager greets us as two other guys stop eating their Thai noodles and help us unload the crustaceans from the Dodge.
“I can give you guys $1.50 a pound for your #1’s and $0.70 for the drops,” the man says.
“Come on, that’s the kid’s first crabbing ride,” Ray replies, pointing at me with a big smile. “Humor him.”
“The season has been good so far, Ray. Lots of people bringing their catches. It drives the prices down, you know how it is.”
“Those would go for at least two bucks a pound if I sold them on the docks or to the public.”
“Hear me out: I’m ready to give you $1.70 for the big ones and $0.75 for the smaller ones, and you’ll get a 10% discount on your purchases at the store. How that sounds?”
“All right, deal.”
I watch the manager go back inside to weigh the crabs while we wait outside at the warehouse entrance, near the lumber yard.
“I’ve known Pete since high school. He’s always been trying to lowball me. It’s like a game between us, see.”
“Is he going to buy the whole stock?”
“He sure is. There’s no use wasting my time going from door to door to sell the damn things. Here is convenient. I can sell the crabs and use the money to make the groceries all at the same place.”
The manager comes back with a roll of bills he gives to Ray. Ray counts the money and the two men shake hands.
We enter the market and take a cart each, scurrying the aisles to get everything we need.
A new propane bottle for my oven. A 6 volt lantern. Hoop nets and crawfish wire.
Tissues and rags for the kitchen. T-bone steaks, shredded cheese and canned vegetables. A pack of purified water bottles. Hydrogen peroxide. Evangeline bread. Bologna and potato chips.
I join Ray at the cash register and pop my credit card out to pay for my stuff but he stops me with a stern expression.
“Put that away,” he orders.
I try to say something but he gently pushes my hand back, not giving me the chance to answer.
“You’ve been really helpful this morning.”
“It was nothing.”
“Put that away,” he repeats.
He pays for my groceries and we’re in his truck again, driving back towards the harbor.
We stop at the neighboring church of St Joseph the Worker instead of returning straight to the boat ramp.
“I have to run an errand before we head back. Come see if you want.”
We walk into the town’s cemetery without a word.
Hundreds of graves, hundreds of plaster statues looking for the skies, arms and hands trustingly reaching upwards.
Antique metal crosses leaning against centennial cypresses, family sepulchres with closed gates, crypts and vaults, most white and gray, some darker and dirtier, forgotten under dangling Spanish moss.
Ray kneels in front of an older granite tomb where the name JOSEPHINE ROSE BOUDREAU * 1922 — 1993 reads in engraved letters.
“My mother,” he simply says.
I pay my respects and step back on the wet pavement until he’s finished removing leaves and earth from the gravestone.
“The last hurricane blew a branch right on top of the cross. I thought I had it fixed for good but the caulking is starting already to crumble. We’ll go to the bar down the bridge quick, I’ll ask them to make a temporary patch-up until I come back to take care of it.”
On the other side of the bayou, people are celebrating a birthday, dancing and singing on a rundown pontoon.
“My mama, she was the kindest person you could imagine. My sister, we don’t talk much since she started working in Texas. She’s often out of the country, she doesn’t have the time.”
“So you’re the one taking care of the grave.”
“I have to. I promised.”
We leave the cemetery and cross the bridge by foot. A billboard sign outside the church gives the hours of the local AA meeting.
The bar Ray mentioned is in an old, decaying building. Two Coca-Cola signs are surrounding faded red RAINBOW INN letters painted on the symmetrical façade.
The place would appear abandoned if it was not for the cars parked outside and the massive opened front door.
We get inside where a Fats Domino tune plays on the stereo. A woman in her sixties is eating oysters, alone at her table. The bartender sees us and his face lights up as Ray walks up to him.
“Ray Guidry, it’s been a while!” the man says in a thick Cajun accent, hugging the fisherman. “What can I do?”
“When you have a minute, I would need you to go to my mama’s grave and make sure her cross stays in one piece.”
“The cross again?”
“Yeah. It’s all cracked.”
“I’ll put some cement tonight after my shift.”
A gray-haired man comes out from a backroom and waves at us. He jovially pats Ray on the back and the two of them talk together for a moment.
“This is Don Rich, king of swamp pop music and fellow squirrel hunter,” Ray says to me. “This guy is a superstar,” he adds.
“Don’t listen to him, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. If anything, he is the superstar here,” the musician replies.
“You playing tonight?”
“I am. Warren will be around too.”
“Maudit, I would have loved being there. Anyway, here is the money for the shells I used last time,” Ray says with a small bill folded between his fingers.
“He didn’t forget! I can’t believe this guy! I told you it’s all good — you don’t need to repay me for those shells,” the musician declares with a big laugh, shaking his head and turning to me. “We hunted small game a few weeks ago and he had to use my gun to get a gator we came across with. And now he wants to repay me for the shells! Can you believe it? He’s the most stubborn old man I ever met.”
“A shell’s a shell,” Ray mutters.
The two men hug again. An Otis Redding song ends in the speakers and the voice of Tommy McLain, another swamp pop figure, starts resonating in the room.
“You take good care of him, all right?” Don tells me as we leave the bar’s cozy half-light.
We get back in the skiff and float away from the docks, starting the engine after the water flow has carried us down Pierre Bay.
A lot of houses are falling apart along the river branch. Rusted corrugated metal roofs, collapsing awnings, peeling wood slats, upside-down canoes in front yards and piles of tires by the banks — everything cooking and steaming under the Louisiana sun.
Pierre Part is just a memory when we reach Lake Verret. A bald eagle lands in his nest perched up a naked tree. The boat goes at full speed and ricochets heavily on the water.
“Just in time for some fish and chips,” Ray says.
“Do you know a place?”
“There’s a great bar in Attakapas Landing. It’s a little rough around the edges but you’ll like it.”
I nod in approval and we make a wide turn to our left, soon arriving at a fairly large pier built right outside a cypress swamp.
The orange sun is setting when we disembark. Twisted tree roots arise from the gleaming water where cypresses have been blown down by a recent hurricane.
“We’re near Napoleonville. Just don’t pay attention to the fellows who will try to sell you drugs. You know.”
“A little rough around the edges.”
“The food is worth it.”
We walk on the neglected road towards a long and low building where people are gathering in packs, smoking and drinking, leaning on the green-painted walls, talking in the muggy dusk.
I follow Ray and get into the bar.
Hank Williams’ Honky Tonk Blues is playing, waitresses hustling with platters of broiled catfish on their serving trays, elbowing the crowd to dispatch the food. Everyone is sweating and shouting, women moving languidly by the bar, men waiting for their drinks and making wide gestures as they recount their most recent hunting stories. The orders are yelled over the agitation — frog legs here, smoked boudin and dirty rice there, onion rings for the folks by the window…
We sit at the counter. I order a Sazerac that the barmaid hands me with a smile, listening patiently to a drunk guy slumped over his stool.
“The jambalaya is to die for,” she says in a hoarse voice.
“I’ll have one, then,” I reply.
Ray gets a platter of fried bass and describes our day to another fisherman wearing a Saints t-shirt.
A waitress brings me my jambalaya. The food is incredibly flavorful with juicy shrimps and smokey andouille, the peppers, celery and onions just crisp enough to stand out from the mushy brown rice soaked in stock, the whole thing generously covered in hot piquant sauce and the obligatory Tony Chachere’s spice mix.
I feel like I’m breathing fire but I keep eating nonetheless, rinsing the meal with chilled Sazerac and burning my mouth even more, the bar baking around me, bodies pressed against each other, strong alcohol breaths and Little Walter’s harmonica melodies blaring on the waterside deck.
“That’s when Jimmy told him to go fuck himself,” a man says on my right side. “Then he takes the shovel — this is so fucking wild — he takes the shovel and starts threatening the cop, and of course the cop is a rookie so he’s pissing his pants, and he draws his gun at Jimmy who stands there with his dick all hard in one hand and his shovel in the other. So Jimmy tries to swing one at the cop but gets shot in the ass instead, and he flees the scene completely butt-naked, only to get picked-up by sheriff Waguespack a mile later, bleeding like a motherfucker. Man I would have given anything to see that happening, I swear!”
“Fucking child molester. I’ll fucking tear his eyes out if he fucking talks to me again,” says another man with a scar running across his face.
I finish my plate and walk outside to get some air. Three lumberjacks are arguing near the ice dispensers. I go further down the terrace, my drink in hand, staying by the water and looking at the tranquil lake.
Two tattooed men come nearby and sit in the shade. They’re already fairly inebriated and speak quietly together.
“Have you heard about Ronnie?”
“I heard. Stupid retard had it coming.”
“Where the fuck am I supposed to get the stuff now? Ralph is out, it’s been months. Wesley is so stoned half of the time he doesn’t even remember who I am.”
“I have some Adderall if you want.”
“Yeah, fuck Adderall.”
“Tammy has meth sometimes. Her man cooks it.”
“Tammy from Georgette Street?”
“She’s a crazy old bitch. Fuck.”
The first man stands up and goes to the bathroom while his friend remains at his table, sipping on a beer. He has a cross tattooed on his neck and a bulldog on his right forearm.
“Beautiful night,” he says.
“Beautiful night,” I reply.
“Hey, did you know Jennifer?”
“She was tending bar here in the weekends. She drove eighteen wheelers during the week for a living.”
“I haven’t had the pleasure.”
“Her husband shot her to death a couple of years back, right in this bar. He killed her, then told everyone to get the fuck out and killed himself.”
“Did you know him?”
“People here, they’re fucked up, man. All hillbillies and crackheads. I mean, look at me, right? All fucking hillbillies and creackeads. But them swamps, man. The land. Them rivers.”
“It makes up for it.”
“There ain’t no other place like it.”
We both keep silent for a minute, watching an ibis bird taking off between trees’ air roots.
“Do you know where I could get some heroin?” He asks.
“I’m afraid I don’t.”
He shrugs and tumbles away, shouting “Beautiful night!” as he disappears behind a fence.
I go back inside.
Ray is still sitting at the bar and waves at me. He puts a bill under his glass and slides it away on the counter.
“At least let me pay for your beer,” I say.
“I had you work for nothing,” he responds.
“I barely helped.”
“Next round is on you, then. How do you like the place?”
“I was just asked if I knew where to buy heroin.”
The fisherman laughs loudly as two more amber Abita bottles find their way in front of us.
“The parish is poor. People don’t have much to live with. I knew a young woman, probably your age or so, living in Supreme — a short drive from here. She was a real solid girl, not the kind who lets go easily. But living in a trailer with no job and no future, it ain’t easy on nobody. She tried hard, trust me. She tried working at the ACE hardware store. She applied at Popingo’s. She was even ready to mop them damn floors at the community center. No luck.”
“What did she do?”
“Assumption Parish is full of people like her. They don’t mean no harm, they just want to feel like they’re part of the world. But after a while they get tired of trying and failing all the time.”
“That’s when the drugs come in.”
“That girl, it was heartbreaking seeing her. She had been struggling for so long and the only thing that gave her peace was something that would destroy her.”
“What has she become?”
“She’s still alive for what I know, but she’s a wreck. That’s what I mean, you know? They’re good people. They’re just lost.”
Professor Longhair’s In the Night fills the room and everyone starts dancing and hollering.
“I was just told about the shooting that happened here.”
“Is that why you never left the bayou?” I ask. “To avoid that?”
“We have our own problems to deal with in the swamps. Alcohol mostly. We work hard to play hard, as they say.”
“It seems like a good way of living.”
“There’s abuse, too. We had a neighbor, he used to beat his wife and children. You always wonder what to do in these situations, don’t you? I told him to stop once, j’ai presque passé lui une calotte. It didn’t help. They moved away to Lake Bigeaux eventually, near Henderson.”
“But you never moved.”
“J’ai mes habitudes ayoù est-ce qu’on reste. J’ai toujours resté dans le bayou depuis que je suitais ti-bougre. And Helen, my wife, it’s the same for her. So, you know.”
“It’s a way of life.”
“It is. For me the wilderness is in the city, not the opposite. I don’t understand city living. I know my swamp by heart but I can’t park in town for the love of God. Game hunting, gator trapping and all this. You learn to love it for what it is. And you just let the bad times pass.”
“Isn’t it dangerous sometimes?”
“Sometimes. I always say, ‘Don’t complain about where you going because wherever you go, you going be there.’ My father taught me that. I still don’t know what it means after all these years, but it sounds smart.”
I chuckle and I order two new beers, giving a nice tip to the waitress. My clothes smell like fried food.
“The former owner of this place, him, he used to pick Spanish moss. He picked moss since his childhood. In the end, there wasn’t much to pick anyway because of the pollution, but he managed to sold some every month. Cajun people just turn whatever they have to their advantage, you see.”
“They are resourceful.”
“Moss picking ain’t easy. There’s often rat snakes hanging in trees and nowadays you’re lucky if you make thirty boxes a month, but Wilbert kept doing it until he died.”
“Because that’s what he did.”
“Right. The moss was used for bousillage, before — you know, for the walls. Now it’s only for decoration and crafts. Voodoo dolls, also.”
“There are some shops in Bayou Lafourche selling the stuff. The whole area is full of creepy stories so it makes for good business. Voodoo potions and spells, charms, you name it. Les touristes, ils aiment ça.”
“What kind of creepy stories exactly?”
“I don’t know. The Houma shortcut, for instance.”
Ray puts his beer down on the counter and leans towards me as if to tell me a confidence.
“The stretch of road on Highway 24 near Houma. Long narrow two lane road across the bayou, with old crooked trees all along and nobody for miles around. Spooky as hell in the night. There’s a story about a young couple who went out of gas and had to stop on that road, in the middle of nothing. The boy leaves the girl in the car to go get some help and the girl falls asleep. When she wakes up, there’s a scraping sound coming from the roof. It’s all dark so she’s scared shitless, but she manages to take a look at what makes the noise — and it’s her boyfriend’s corpse, hung to a tree with his feet rubbing against the car.”
“Is it any true?”
“I would be surprised. There’s also the story of a loup garou roaming the swamps and eating people. And one about a gypsy ghost haunting a house, too. What is true is the amount of deadly car crashes on this road. Young ones speeding and crashing into trees.”
I think of my alligator near the houseboat. I think of forgotten creatures wandering in the shade.
Someone taps on my shoulder. I turn my head and see a man with a baseball cap looking at me.
“This is my spot,” he says.
He must be 5’9″ and 240 lbs, probably drunk, sweating and reeking of Jack Daniel’s. I gently get off the stool, the bartender smiling at me.
“Sorry, I didn’t know it was reserved.”
“We were going to leave anyway,” Ray adds, finishing crumbs from his plate before standing up and slowly walking towards the exit.
“No, buddy, you don’t get it,” the man says. “Ain’t nobody sitting there other than me. Everyone around knows that.”
“Gerald, drop it,” the bartender shouts over the music.
“Shut the fuck up, Becky!” The man yells back. “You know, you know this is my spot. You know it and you still let some random faggot sit here like they own the place.”
Ray stops in his tracks and comes back to lead me out. I’m a little sluggish from the alcohol at this point but I follow him as fast as possible across the crowd to get to the door.
“Where you think you going, buddy?”
“It would be best if I just left.”
The man smirks and removes his cap. One of his friends is leaning against a pay phone, staring at us. There is way too much noise and I’m about to feel sick. I need some air.
“You and I have some shit to talk.”
“I don’t think so, buddy,” I say as I step out in the fresh night.
Ray screams something I don’t understand and I’m suddenly pushed forward, the drunk man violently thrusting on my back, making me tumble in the dirt. I come round and see Ray getting shoved on a Coke machine by the man’s friend.
The man is grinning. He adjusts his jeans and starts coming at me. I close my eyes and try not to listen to the song playing in the bar, concentrating on the feeling of the gravel on my skin instead.
I get back on my feet. The music and the clatter slowly fade away as I close my fists, Ray still battling in the background.
Stay down and wait it out, a little voice says in my head. He might have a gun. Don’t get yourself killed, the voice goes. Not a good idea. Not a good idea at all, it repeats.
The man raises his hand quicker than I thought he would and I have just enough time to dodge his swing. He is left unbalanced for a second and that’s when I strike.
I punch him as hard as I can, pushing on my back leg to shift my weight, my knuckles popping as they hit his ear, and it hurts and it’s raw and painful, and I’m able to throw a second punch because he’s fazed and slowed by the liquor, my left fist connecting with his liver and confusing him long enough to allow for a kick in the leg, sending him to the ground.
“Son of a bitch,” he burbles.
Ray is racing from the back of the bar to help me, people gathered in a circle behind him, and I look at the man but he’s not on the ground anymore, he’s already up and charging me, hitting me in the stomach and the side and the face, putting his arm around my neck, me elbowing him in the ribs, me head-butting him in the mouth, him with a bad look in his eyes, me throwing a few punches to his face but missing most, him giving jabs and hooks that I struggle to block, me feeling the rage inside, me brutally striking him in the jaw and watching him fall over, him shaken up and shielding himself, me punching him in the throat, him gasping and coughing, all red with his tongue out and blood dripping from his face, all red with anger, rising up again with a sick sneer and landing a blow right on my kidney — a blow that makes me dive in the damp grass and curl up in pain, forms and shapes in motion, the man sitting over me, his fists pounding and slamming and smashing until Ray pulls him back and kicks him in the chest, finally knocking him out.
“Can you walk?” Ray asks, lifting me from the mud.
I nod in approval.
“The cops are on their way. Do you want to stay?”
“Let’s go back home,” I manage to reply.
We walk down the pier, away from the bar and its crowd. Blood in my eyes. In my mouth. In my nose. I limp into Ray’s boat. I lay into Ray’s boat. Everything hurts.
“Put this on your head.”
I put this on my head and it’s a pack of ice, and it’s wet and cold on my swollen face. The fisherman gives me a soda can.
“It ain’t too bad,” he says. “But next time, run.”
“Next time. You give the guy two or three punches and then you run.”
I keep silent. The stars are bright in the sky. The engine starts and vibrates through my body as we go down the lake at full throttle. Police car lights are flashing in the distance, past the skiff’s wake.
I lose track of time. The ice melts in my hands and on my face. There are river curves and passes. Wind gusts. Trees swaying. Swamp smells.
“I don’t think you got nothing broken,” Ray declares. “Oh cher, the girls will just love this story.”
I smile with my eyes closed. It hurts.
“Are you okay?” I inquire.
“That right you threw him, it was something.”
“It was a stupid move.”
“His friend pinned me against a garbage container. I ended up kneeing him in the balls and went help you as soon as I could. You were doing great until the bastard got all over you.”
“Is it always like that here?”
“This night was especially good.”
I burst out laughing and it hurts a lot but I don’t care.
“A little rough around the edges, right?” I say.
“Wasn’t the food worth it?”
“More than worth it.”
We veer up the bayou and slowly navigate through the trees. The moon glows over us, revealing branches and floating debris in the water. Storm lanterns sometimes show between the cypresses, with shadows of people casting through the windows of nearby houseboats.
We finally arrive at our houses. I get off the boat, helped by Ray who makes sure I’m fine before letting me go. He hands me the groceries I bought in Pierre Part and that I had forgotten about.
“Try to get some rest,” he says warmly as we shake hands. “I’ll see you in the morning. À demain.”
I swallow four Advil and wash my face in the sink. A man with a closed eye and swollen cheekbones stares at me in the mirror. My upper body is covered in bruises. My fingers are sore.
I clean my wounds with my new hydrogen peroxide bottle. I’m too tired to unpack the rest of my purchases and I go straight to bed.
I think of reptiles and predators as I drift into sleep. How they survived. How they adapted. How some of us didn’t. I think of vanishing memories that were not meant to last. I dream of voodoo queens bringing dead things back to life and unleashing them over the world.