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By Caroline Giammanco
The water gently laps at the dock jutting crudely from my front steps. Night will fall shortly, and for some reason I become more reminiscent at this time of day. To some, this bayou evokes fear as the alligators bellow to one another while the shadows grow long. This place holds no fear for me, however, just a melancholy sadness that ebbs and flows like the water in a dark eddy within the confines of this bayou. It’s the only place I’ve ever known.
I remember brighter days. Memories of happy times give me a fleeting respite from the loneliness. I can picture childhood as clearly as I can the events of yesterday. My friends and I spent hours exploring every nook and cranny of our neighborhood. As my mind harkens back through the years, I can hear my mother’s sweet soprano lifting above the voices of the other mothers beckoning their children in for the evening.
“Lennox, dinner’s ready!”
“Mama, can’t I play just a little longer?”
“No, son. Even the gators are going to bed. It’s time for you to join us.”
I seldom disobeyed my mother, but if I tarried too long chasing bullfrogs or tossing rocks across the placid water with my friends, I was rewarded with the less-than-comforting calls from my father.
His deep baritone drowned out the more pleasant sounds of the impending evening. His booming voice growled, “Lennox, get in here this minute, or I’m going to tan your hide!”
My father was an imposing figure. Not only was he taller than average, but he had the strength of ten men it seemed. My brothers, sister, and I seldom received physical punishment from him, but that’s not to say he was above applying a swift and forceful blow to our backsides when he deemed it appropriate. Needless to say, that added to our willingness to respect our mother’s sweet soprano calls the first time.
Oh, how I wish I could hear her voice again. It’s been far too long since she’s been gone, but she is not the only one I’ve lost throughout this life of mine.
Which, of course, brings my lovely Adeline to mind. She was the prettiest girl I’d ever seen. And cook? She could make a meal worth dropping anything for. It was her kind and loving heart, the softness of her brown eyes, and the serene touch of her hand that left the greatest marks on my heart, however. In my younger days, I’d been a ruffian, and I played the field a good deal with the other beauties who lived nearby. Once I locked eyes with my dear Adeline, however, I was a reformed man.
My brothers, all fine fellows in their own rights, followed suit and married, as did my sister Cici. Happiness was short for that girl as she died in childbirth not long after she and Enos moved to the other side of the bayou. Her death was a dark spot in our hearts for many years. My mother couldn’t bear to hear her daughter’s name without tears trickling down her cheeks.
Years went by, and my friends, brothers, and I raised our families. We worked hard, provided for our wives and children, and cared for our parents as they aged. It’s a sad day when our once-robust fathers had to set aside their tools and admit that they now needed to be cared for by us. Our mothers may have fought the inevitable even harder when the day came for us to dote on them. That is the way of life, I suppose.
Then life changed. It started with whispers that there were newcomers to our bayou. I had my doubts about their existence, but the rumors continued. According to the stories, at first, they simply passed through. Some were stricken with malaria. Others succumbed to the alligators and other bayou predators. Steadily, they continued to come. As I said, I heard the rumors, but I had my doubts.
In fact, I didn’t believe my youngest brother, Milo, when he told me he’d seen them with his own eyes.
“Surely you’re pulling my leg.” What he was telling me was not possible. I believed the intruders were simply myths that fueled stories around our campfires at night.
“I swear it, Len. I hid behind a cypress and watched as five of them crept through on a boat. I don’t think they saw me, but when I gasped at what I saw, they stopped and listened for a long time. They are real.”
In the quiet of the evening, after our children had been put to bed, I shared what Milo told me with Adeline.
“Lennox, you know that Milo has always had an imagination.”
“That he does, Adie, but there was a fear in his eye that I’ve never seen before. I know my brother, and he didn’t look like he was telling a tale.”
“Please be careful tomorrow when you’re out fishing. I don’t like the sounds of this if it’s true.”
The next morning, as I checked my trotlines for catfish, I heard unfamiliar voices, speaking in a language I’d never heard before. I knelt behind a tree and held my breath as a canoe passed carrying four figures. Suddenly, they raised a long stick and pointed it at a rising heron that took flight as they approached.
The noise deafened me, and I fell backward. I’d have been noticed no doubt if they hadn’t been so preoccupied in their joy. The heron fell dead on the shore, and the intruders laughed and shouted triumphantly. Then, they did the unthinkable: They drifted away without taking their kill.
They left it there to rot. They aren’t even going to eat the magnificent bird they just killed.
The thought of their senseless slaughter sickened me. I checked my remaining lines and returned home, shaken by what transpired.
That evening, I called a meeting of my neighbors. Some didn’t want to believe what I witnessed, but I didn’t have a foolhardy reputation, so most took me seriously. We tossed around ideas of how to handle this new menace, but since we were by-and-large a peaceful people, we were at a loss.
“I fear what that weapon of theirs can do, Lennox,” my brown-eyed Adeline said to me as she snuggled next to me that night.
“I’ll watch over you, dear. No one will harm you.” I held her until her breathing became deep and regular, and I knew she was soundly resting.
If only my promise to protect her had been the truth. Within a year, our community and our family were on the run. The intruders brought dogs with them and literally hounded us until we found refuge in the remotest corner of the bayou. Food was scarce, our wives and children looked pale, and we all feared the booming sounds of their weapons and the baying howls of their dogs.
Little did we know we would not be decimated by booming sticks or relentless hounds.
My Adeline was one of the first to become sick. The fever hit quickly, and then the scabbing blisters covered her whole body. Nothing I gave her soothed her pain or lowered her fever which seared so hot she became delusional. For hours she writhed in our pallet, pounding her fist against the wall, muttering unintelligible words. She died within three days. Then our children, all six of them, did the same.
I was distraught and nearly went out of my mind. My family’s destruction was repeated throughout our community. Finally, only I was left. I don’t know why I was spared. I would’ve rather died alongside my family and friends, but it was not to be. This disease known as “the pox” wiped out everyone I knew or ever cared about. For centuries we had lived in peace in this bayou, and then we were gone.
Today, I live a quiet life, still afraid to venture far from my own front steps. Sometimes, on the occasions when I stray too far from home, I’ve had close calls with these men who maraud our homeland.
One day, I barely dodged sure death as two of them fired their weapons at me.
These careless hunters called “humans” yelled, “Look, it’s a beast—a swamp monster! Get ’em!” Bullets sprayed around me as I quickly made my way into the shadows.
I’m left to wonder who the beast really is.
As I rock in my favorite chair this evening, I watch the heavy shadows fall around me and listen to the crying sounds of a night bird. Such is the end of another lonely day.
Check out Caroline’s website! http://www.booniehatbandit.com/