An extra Bayou story for all you eager readers waiting for the next chapter. If you haven’t yet begun to read, go HERE to start from the beginning, then you can work your way forward.
May 5, 1915
They had to rush poor Missus Bergeron to the hospital on account of she took too many of them pills she’d been ordering out of the Sears & Roebuck catalogue. Such a shame! Ever since that little girl died a few years back, she ain’t never been the same. Your mama, she said that those pills were working at first – one a day and it calmed her Missus down nicely. But Missus Bergeron, she done started drinking quite a bit, and maybe taking more than one pill a day. Your mama’d come home crying some days, saying Missus B hadn’t got out a bed all day.
Mister Bergeron owns the sawmill where your daddy works, and someone had come running all the way from town to tell him about his wife. Acourse, Toulouse Bergeron has got one of them fancy new Model T buggies, so he goes racing back into town to get his wife to take her to the hospital.
Only, the strangest thing — your mama says they didn’t go to no hospital. She says that Mister Bergeron took her to Hereford House. She says that she weren’t gone but an hour or two, and when she returned, she was acting all giddy, like she’d had too much wine. She was full of vigor — all the sleepiness had left her, and she was all smiles and sunshine.
You’d think this would have made your mama happy, except for what she told me when she got home — shaking like a bird with a gator on its tail.
“Her eyes, Henri,” she told me. “Her eyes were black as Mississippi mud!”
“Bergerons and Herefords,” Oscar thought out loud. He’d been reading through Henri’s journal as well as thumbing through old newspaper clippings and pictures, trying to make a timeline of things. Some of the writing was just personal — a proud father talking about his son’s first experiences, or bitching about his wife’s mother. But when he wrote of the town, the same names kept popping up. The same names that one saw everywhere in Bayou Bonhomme.
It occurred to Oscar that his Deputy was a Bergeron.
“Not Marla,” the Chief said, shaking his head. “No way she’s messed up in all this.”
It might be that her family is, but he couldn’t hold that against her. So what if her great-grandfather was part of some weird Chuck-worshipping cult? His own great-granpere had been a bootlegger and a thief. He wasn’t ready to believe that Marla would be a part of anything to do with the murder of Jean-Baptiste or Amie LeBeau.
His phone kept ringing and he kept ignoring it. His voicemail was full, but that didn’t stop people from continuing to call. Really it was mostly the same three numbers. The office, Marla and Leroy, and he wasn’t ready to talk to any of them just yet.
August 12, 1916
Everybody’s talking about the European War. Some folks is even calling it a World War, and lots of people are scared that it’s gonna spread over here. Victor Angell, my foreman down at the sawmill, he tells me not to worry.
“Ain’t nothin’s goan happen here in Bayou Bonhomme, boy,” he tells me. “Tings here is different, yeah? Our God ain’t goan let anyting bad ‘appen here.”
I told him I was raised Baptist, but that I didn’t necessarily hold that God stepped in and saved folks. I said I reckoned God helped them that helped themselves.
“Ah, but I have de faith in my god,” Mister Angell told me with a wink. “He ain’t goan let nothing bad ‘appen here. You see.”
At first I thought maybe it was a Catholic thing, on account of Mister Angell being one of them French Cajuns — sometimes the Catholics and the Baptists didn’t see eye to eye on things — but later I’d have to wonder if that crazy Cajun might seriously be talking about Remy LeVert.
It was ridiculous, son, but after what I saw that night when you was just a baby, I couldn’t just toss any idea in the trash anymore. Crazy things were happening in Bayou Bonhomme. I had seen some folks actually murder a girl, and today I think I might have just met one of them without his mask on.
Did they really believe that there was some kind of god out in the swamp?
Angell? Oscar wondered if Leroy knew about this. He knew very little about the man’s past. The only Angell he remembered was Leroy’s mother, who had taught Sunday School and made a mean Étouffée. Nobody who could cook like that could be evil, could they? Oscar laughed to himself.
And what of Leroy’s father? What had happened to him? He made a mental note to ask Leroy about it.
April 7, 1917
I do believe I came close to dying, today, my boy, and all because of my big mouth. Let that be a lesson to you about this whole thing. These are dangerous, powerful people — and some of them are real monsters.
In the paper today, it was announced that America was declaring war, and after two years of trying not to get involved, we was entering into what was now officially a World War. While none of the fighting was likely to take place here in Bayou Bonhomme, President Wilson was already talking conscription, and that meant that all sorts of boys — both black and white — would be leaving to go fight the Kaiser.
I showed the paper to Mister Angell, and said how I guess God didn’t rightly care one way or the t’other for the folks here in Bayou Bonhomme.
Now, I wasn’t blaspheming, Mathieu. Don’t you ever think your daddy’s stupid enough to spit in the face of the Almighty. I was talking about this spook story god that I had guessed that Victor Angell and his friends — whoever they were — placed their misguided faith in. And I reckoned he knew it, too, because he got so angry with me that he done wiped the smile off my face with the back of his meaty hand.
Mister Bergeron, he came and broke up the mess, but not before I’d got a swing in on Victor, which was a really bad idea, looking back.
He grabbed me by the arm and dragged me out back.
“Get in the car, boy,” he said, and I was mighty scared, I don’t mind telling you now. “Come on, nigger, I ain’t got all day.”
I’d gotten used to hearing that word, but it stung coming from this man who’d been always been pretty decent to your ma and me.
I did as I was told, even though part of me was pretty sure he was taking me somewhere I didn’t want to go. I was so worried about was happening to me, do you know, I surely missed out on the excitement of my first ride in an automobile? How do you like that?
“You been a good worker, Henri,” Mister Bergeron said. He still had a bit of a French lilt to his voice that people loved. All the ladies in town — your mama included, I’m sad to say — had secret eyes for Toulouse Bergeron. Your mama suspected that was part of her Missus’ sadness as well. The wife of an unfaithful man is the saddest of creatures.
“Yessir,” I agreed. “I surely try to do my best.”
“Smart, too. If you were a white man, you could probably go far in the Bayou.”
I didn’t know what to say to that, so I just kept my mouth shut. It had already gotten me into enough trouble.
“But you ain’t a white man,” Mister Bergeron reminded me, as if looking in the mirror every morning weren’t enough reminder. “And you have to remember your place.”
“Yessir,” I said. It didn’t matter that I collected a pay check from this man, in his mind, he owned me.
“And it’s not a very good idea to spit on a man’s religion,” he said. “Especially where I’m taking you.”
I looked over at him and waited for him to continue.
“Rene Hereford is a good friend of mine, and he could use some help with a project of his. You think you could help out a friend of mine, boy?”
“Sure, Mister Bergeron. Helping friends is always a good idea, my mama always said so, and the Good Book, too.”
Mister Bergeron, he scowled at that.
“Yes, well, let me give you a piece of advice, boy. Best leave all that Good Book stuff to yourself. The Herefords — Missus Marie in particular — don’t have a whole lot of patience for it.”
I was confused, and I told him so. I had always thought the Herefords were good Christian folk.
“They have their own beliefs,” he said, “and they keep pretty private about it. So heed my advice and let a man’s religion be his own.”
I thought about the seven hooded figures and started trembling. Was it possible? Was Toulouse Bergeron one of the hooded figures? My boy, I don’t know that I’ll ever know for sure, but my heart tells me yes.
“You alright, boy?” Mister Bergeron asked me. “You look like you seen a ghost. Why, boy, you’re practically pale. Didn’t know your kind could blanche like that!”
He laughed at me as I fought the urge to throw up.
“Still a bit angry, I reckon,” I told him and hoped he believed me.
“Well, cool it down, boy,” he said. “Rene Hereford ain’t a patient man like me.”
“Yessir,” I said, swallowing the sour taste in my mouth.
“I can’t keep you on, you understand. Not after you went and struck my foreman. Was a time you’d hang for striking a white man, boy — you know that?”
All the spit dried up in my mouth and I couldn’t do any more than nod.
“And there’s some folks around these parts that’d do that with or without the law’s approval.”
I thought for sure I was going to throw up all over Mister Bergeron’s nice new auto-carriage.
“Now, don’t be nervous, boy. I ain’t gonna let anyone hang you. I like you, boy. You and your pretty wife. You think I’m going to let someone make her a widow? Or let your boy grow up without his daddy? That’s why I’m taking you to my friend Rene. No one in their right mind is going to mess with one of Rene Hereford’s boys.”
“Thank you, Mister Bergeron,” I said, relieved for the moment. Later on I’d learn to regret being traded to Mister Hereford.
“N’oubliez pas, my friend,” he told me, and I knew without having to be told so that it was a threat.
Oscar turned the page and was surprised. He turned back again to be sure that he wasn’t missing something, but sure enough, looking at the date, there seemed to be a six year gap where the man hadn’t written anything. Oscar wondered if there was just nothing to say, or if Jean-Baptiste’s granpere had just gotten lax about reporting. Or if maybe things were going well for him with the Herefords.
He poured himself a cup of coffee and grabbed a pack of sugar with the familiar Hereford Sugar logo on it, and continued to read.
October 21, 1923
Mister Hereford has made a fortune with his crazy idea to grow sugarcane right here in Louisiana. His great grand-daddy had made the Hereford fortune bringing sugar cane in from the islands and trading slaves and cotton, but Abolition nearly wiped his business out. Mister Hereford had the idea that he could grow it here and cut out the cost of bringing it in from the islands. His timing couldn’t have been better, and where before his family was powerful because of their history in the Bayou, they have regained their fortune, and everything is going well. Not only is he making more money than the president with his sugar cane crops, but now that Prohibition is in effect, he’s pulling in almost as much running bootleg rum. Laissez les bon temps rouler! If your mama knew the things I seen go on at the parties at Hereford House, she’d have my head.
Tonight, though, I saw something that I can’t speak of. Writing it down seems to be my only choice, though I’m beginning to worry about the safety of even keeping this book. If any of these folks ever got their hands on this, your daddy wouldn’t be long for this world, I’m thinking. Especially after what I saw tonight.
I know you’re not particularly friendly with the Hereford boys — but after tonight, I’m going to make sure you don’t have anything to do with them. Someday you’re going to read this and understand, son. You’re nearly a man now, and you’re going to have to face certain temptations like a man. I wish I could tell you the truth now, and I just pray that you love me enough and trust me enough tomorrow when I lie to you and warn you away from the Herefords, and Philip Hereford in particular. I have no idea what I’m going to tell you, boy. When you read this, know that I only wanted to protect you until you were old enough to know the truth.
There are some scenes that no man should be forced to bear witness to, Mathieu, but your daddy, he had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Mister Hereford, he was throwing one of his big parties — the kind that went into the wee hours of the morning, and ended up with folks drunk and stupid, saying and doing stupid things. Folks were fighting and other folks were rutting like dogs, sometimes more than two at a time — like I said — your mama’d kill me if she knew the things I seen. The booze was flowing like water, even though it’s illegal. The room was full of police anyway. When it came to the Herefords, nothing was out of bounds. Rene Hereford had enough money to buy anyone he wanted, and it seemed people were lining up to be bought. I lost track of how many women I saw him with tonight.
I wandered around the house in a haze. I hadn’t expected to be invited, but after six years working for the man, I’d become something of a staple around the house. When he threw these parties, he invited everyone, and you were expected to show. To ignore one of Rene Hereford’s invitations was to risk his severe displeasure.
I don’t have much of a head for booze, so I had avoided taking anything stronger than water, but then Missus Hereford cornered me with a tumbler of rum and insisted I drink with her. If you’re reading this, believe me when I promise you that I resisted the woman’s advances, despite how heavy the temptation. Marie Hereford is a good-looking woman — you may not believe so reading this, as she’s likely an old lady now — but she was mighty fine at one time, and she smelled so good tonight, leaning in to whisper an invitation in my ear that I’ll not repeat here.
I told her that what she asked sounded nice, but that her husband might not like it.
“He can join us if he likes,” she said. “Besides, I’m the Matriarch of this house, and I’ll take what I want.”
She put her hands on me and I felt terribly uncomfortable. When I heard a cry from upstairs, I pulled away from her and used it as an excuse to escape. Luckily for me, the woman was drunk enough to be distracted, and turned her lusty attention elsewhere without much of a thought.
I ran up the stairs, heart racing and my balls aching something fierce, and tried to find the source of the cry, which didn’t sound like a joyful sound at all. I hesitantly opened the first door at the top of the stairs and almost closed it right away, except that I was mesmerized by what I saw. I can’t even rightly explain it, but Marie’s own daughter Josephine — a girl of maybe twenty years — was on top of some man I didn’t recognize, naked as the day she was born, and holding something that looked like a giant leech to her chest. It seemed to be oozing something that looked like molasses, and the same sticky-looking liquid coated her mouth and hands. She was rubbing it all over the man’s chest as she, well… I’m a good Christian man and I won’t say exactly what she was doing. Embarrassed, I tried to close the door, but then I heard her call my name, and it was like I was a puppet on a string — I felt an almost physical tug at my middle. I opened the door and she was smiling at me with lips and teeth stained black as treacle. With one hand she beaconed me, and with the other she touched herself between her legs. The whole scene was obscene and yet completely enthralling. Another cry jerked me out of the spell I seemed to be under, and I quickly slammed the door and hurried down the hall toward the woman’s voice, which had been cut off all sudden like.
At the end of the hall, the voice had gone still. I could still hear something that sounded like gargling.
I opened the door and nearly became a murderer myself. Philip Hereford was naked and had himself inside some girl, and had slit her throat. He’d done it with a straight razor, which he still held in his hand, cutting her up as he continued to, well, to fuck her. Sorry boy, there ain’t no nice way to tell this part.
The girl’s throat was sliced wide open, and the blood rushing out was bubbling with her last breaths, her body jerking and shaking with its last life.
I stood there stunned, son. My feet wouldn’t move. There was nothing I could do to save the girl, whoever she was. I watched this boy your age finish his horrible business, and when he did, he threw back his head and screamed something I didn’t understand. Then he collapsed, and then — then I rushed in, my stupor broken.
I grabbed him by the hair and pulled him off the girl’s body. He didn’t offer any resistance, and fell to the floor and started flapping like a fish out of water. His eyes were wide open and black as pools of oil. He seemed to convulsing, and I slapped his face to try to snap him out of it.
“What the hell are you doing, Phillip?” I shouted hoarsely. I was trembling with both fury and fear.
“God told me,” he said, his voice sounding dull and sleepy.
“God told you!” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
“God told me,” he repeated. And then he said something I didn’t understand. Something that sounded like Cathewing Chuck. I have no idea what that means, but he just kept saying it. I tried talking to him, but I don’t even think he heard me.
I looked at the girl on the bed and I knew that if anyone found me here, that I’d be blamed. No one was going to touch the kid with the last name Hereford, but me they’d string up quicker than you could blink. One more dead black man in the bayou wasn’t going to bother anyone.
So I did the only thing I could think of doing. And I hope you don’t hate me when you read this, Mathieu, but know that I did it to protect your mama and you. I wrapped that girl’s body up in the bedsheets and threw her over my shoulder. When her body is found tomorrow, washed up on the shore of the bayou, her family will cry and flowers will be dropped, but nobody will think anything other than that she went for a night swim and came across a gator. People will say that she’d been drinking, and the church folks will have more fuel for their campaign against the evils of strong drink.
But I alone will carry the secret to my grave. The stain on my soul is the price I have to pay for your safety, and I pay it freely. I pray you never have to make a similar choice, my dear son.
Oscar’s hands trembled as he read about the girl’s murder. Unfortunately, without even having to match it up with the newspaper clipping that followed it, he knew the name of the victim. He and his brother had heard the story of great-grandmere Jeanette’s poor dead sister Elise from the time they were practically in diapers. Ghost stories were told by firelight during his teenage years about how the dead girl, half-eaten by gators, could be seen swimming in the moonlight during the full October moon. It had started as a personal family tragedy, then it was a cautionary tale, and then it became a legend and a ghost story. Now it was a mystery solved, and Oscar found himself feeling sick.
There was a faded photograph glued to the next page of the journal. The woman in the picture was young and vibrant. A beautiful Creole — it was hard to tell from the photo, but she was so fair-skinned that she might have passed for white. Oscar’s grandmere had been the same, and when she married his white, French grandpere, people had given her an awful hard time.
Oscar guessed that this was Jean-Baptiste’s grandmere, and when he read the first line of the next entry, he imagined that the stains on the photo were his granpere’s tears.
July 10, 1925
They killed her. They killed your mother, Mathieu. Whatever you hear, whatever they say about how your mother died, don’t believe a word of it. But if you’re reading this, keep it to yourself. Trust no one. This whole town is damned. I dare not leave, for fear that they’ll kill you, too.
They know that I know. A package arrived this morning to let me know that they’re watching me. A beautiful, ornately carved wooden box.
I opened the box and began screaming, as your mother’s eyes stared back at me from atop the box’s fine red velvet lining.
I almost want to keep them. They’re all that I have left of her now.