This is part of a serialized novel. Reading this chapter is not going to make much sense to you unless you’ve read what came before.
GO HERE to find the list of chapters.
Oscar stopped reading Mathieu’s journal, and grabbed a newspaper clipping, with the caption Killer Dies in Hospital, followed by a story about how Mathieu Levesque died under suspicious circumstances. The cause was determined as an overdose of pain medication, but it was unclear, the article said, whether it was self-administered or not. The police weren’t ruling out homicide, especially since it wasn’t the first attempt on Mr. Levesque’s life. They had questioned his nurse, Theresa Duchesne, but all she had to say was how terrified and disgusted she’d been to have to care for a murderer.
There were other articles, but Oscar wanted to read what Mathieu had to say before he tried to make sense of the one that showed a mugshot of Mathieu with the caption in large letters The Monster of Bayou Bonhomme.
Strange to say that war times was good times, but when we had spent the last few years being hungry and desperate, we were happy to have work, such as it was. The good times did come to an end, though, Jean, when all them soldiers came to town.
In the Fall of 1941, the US Army was running training exercises all over the state of Louisiana, and so there was soldiers everywhere, each and every one of them with a paycheck to spend. Ben Gillette turned his old family home into a boarding house — he called it a hotel, but it ain’t nothing but four rooms, and small ones at that. Folks ’round town jokingly call it Josie’s Hotel, after his sweet little girl. Other folks with rooms to spare did the same, in the hope to welcome some of the soldiers to come and stay and spend their money. Of course, most of what people would later call the Louisiana Maneuvers was taking place north of here, and so we didn’t get as many soldiers as folks might have liked, though the boarding houses and restaurants were busy enough.
Ed Cayce got his Bar & Grill back up and running, though he never did start serving up his famous BBQ again. Your mama swears she saw Dwight Eisenhower drinking a bottle of Schlitz there one night, but then, I swear your mama must be blind as a bat, ’cause she once told me I was handsome and we both know that’s a dirty lie.
September was a hot one that year, and that first week, I remember you running around in your undershorts like a baby. People were jumpin’ into the Bayou just to cool off, and some of the girls who maybe should of been wearing more were wearing less on account of how hot it was. Looking back, it was like there was something in the air that day, like the feel you get when a storm’s coming. It’s like your back teeth just start humming and it tastes like you been sucking on a penny.
A group of about twenty young men had come to town, looking for a good time. Ed still brought in bands from New Orleans, but the kids coming to town weren’t really interested in old jazz music. They was just looking to drink and blow off some steam. So Marie Hereford — or more likely it was her daughter Josephine and her husband Georges Bergeron — they arranged a big party, hired one of them seventeen piece big bands to do all the big swing numbers like Take the A Train. Everyone in town was invited — well, all the white folks, that is — and every girl of a certain age was there, captivated by the boys in uniform.
Now, I’m not sure just what happened, but the next morning, Victoria Bergeron was taken to the hospital, and folks ’round town was saying that she’d been beaten up pretty bad, maybe even raped by some of those boys. Being as she might of only been thirteen or fourteen years old at the time, people were ready to string those boys up. Course, it was a police matter if there was anything anybody could prove, and if nobody saw anything or nobody would fess up, it weren’t likely that anything would be done at all. All anyone would have to say was that Victoria had been drinking and that would excuse a rape most times. I ain’t sayin’ it’s right, boy, I’m just telling you what people were saying at the time.
The Chief of Police at the time was a cold man by the name of Marcel Duchesne who was a cousin of Marie Hereford’s. He scared the piss out of me, to tell the truth. He looked like the sort of man who’d give you a beating just for the fun of it. It weren’t no surprise when he rounded up all the boys and kept them in the lock up. For their own protection, he told them.
Folks gathered around the police station and called for their heads, and I swear, I thought Chief Duchesne was going to help string them up himself. But then Marie Hereford got up in front of the angry mob, with her daughter Josephine by her side, and told everyone to go home. And then she told everyone something that made no sense at all. She said that she was going to have all those boys over to Hereford House for one last show of Bayou hospitality, and then she was going to send them on their way.
People protested, and called for justice for Marie’s granddaughter. Marie surprised them all by holding up a Bible and saying “Vengeance is Mine, saith the Lord. Vengeance is Mine.”
I watched this all from the edge of the crowd. I stood back and watched that woman tell everyone to go home, and that she was going to take care of everything. She said she wouldn’t stand for any violence against those boys, who were getting ready to go and fight an evil that they couldn’t imagine.
Looking back, I imagine those boys probably wished they made it to Normandy, or wherever it was they were supposed to go. In all truth, I’m not exactly sure where it is they ended up. I only saw them disappear into the swamp.
Later that very day, people from the town gathered outside Hereford House, drawn by something that smelled delicious. Marie Hereford put on a feast for those boys, and when they came out of the house, they all had satisfied smiles on their faces. They didn’t say anything to the mob that had lined up to see them off, but just marched out of town, watched by the angry folks of Bayou Bonhomme.
That should have been the end of it, but that night, my sleep dint come easy. My head felt like it was full of bugs, buzzing louder and louder. I buried my head in my pillow and tried to shut it out, but it weren’t no use. The night, normally full of sounds from the swamp, was unnaturally still. No cicadas buzzing, no frogs croaking, no owls hooting. It was as if the whole bayou was holding its breath.
Your mama finally kicked me out of bed, so I got up and went and checked on you. It seemed like you was havin’ a nightmare. I put a hand on your chest and felt your heart nearly bustin’ out of it. I did my best to calm you down, and went to go sit outside. The night hadn’t cooled off enough to make it comfortable, and so I got it in my head to walk down to the Bayou to have a midnight swim.
The strange thing was, the closer I got to the water, the more my head hurt. But I just kept on walking all the same, like something was calling me there. My heart was pounding in excitement. By the time I got to the water’s edge, the pain had become so strong that I was throwing up, and it was there, bent over and tossing up my dinner, that I realized that I wasn’t alone. I heard something moving in the water. I worried it was a gator, and drew back from the water in fear. There was nothing there. Nothing I could see, leastways.
I looked around, but couldn’t see anyone. I called out, quietly at first, and then louder, but nobody answered. Just the sound of my own voice hurt my head, and I doubled over again, gagging. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted movement on the far side of the Bayou, up where Hereford Road hits the highway. Earlier that day, those boys marched out of town along that route, and now there was someone, or something, moving there.
I made my way along the road, feeling like I was wading through gravy, and then, by the moonlight, I could make out what I was seeing. All those boys from earlier that day, marching along that road toward the water. It was like they was sleepwalking, and it looked like they was gonna walk right into the Bayou. Not for a swim, you understand — just walk into it.
I tried to call out to them — I was only about twenty or thirty yards away at that point — but when I opened my mouth, I found myself unable to speak! I suddenly collapsed, and my head was filled with the most awful thoughts and sounds. I saw broken, bloody bodies, explosions and gunfire. I saw naked, emaciated bodies huddled behind barbed wire fences, and a voice in my head roaring with… pleasure.
Looking up, I watched those boys walk calmly into the Bayou, not making a sound as the water went over their heads, not struggling or rising to the surface at all. I tried again to call out to them, when my head exploded with that horrible voice. I distinctly heard two words among a string of gibberish that I couldn’t make heads or tails of. No, it said. Mine.
I was helpless. I couldn’t call out, and I couldn’t move. Something held me in place, curled up on the side of the road, every muscle aching and frozen. I could only watch as the last of the boys disappeared into the swamp, and everything was still again. The pain in my head relaxed, and I think I may have passed out, because when I came to, it was daylight, and I heard your mama calling me.
Oscar held another newspaper clipping in his hand, this one from Times-Picayune.
TWENTY-THREE SOLDIERS MISSING
The search continues for the twenty-three young men who didn’t return to duty at Camp Evangeline after a two week furlough.
The article showed photos of the young men, often provided by the families, who were all being questioned about the disappearances. There was suspicion at first that the boys had just all gone AWOL, but as the days went by, and the families continued to insist that they hadn’t heard from any of the missing soldiers, other possibilities began to be considered.
Oscar thought he knew exactly what those boys had eaten that afternoon, and wondered if Mathieu ever figured that part of it out.
I didn’t tell your mama what I’d seen. I told myself that I was protecting her, but the truth is, I didn’t want her to think I’d gone crazy. It was one thing to suggest that there was a group of rich folks practising some sort of witchcraft or whatnot, but the idea that there might actually be something out there in the swamp — well, that was another thing altogether. I knew those boys weren’t never gonna be found. There was something in the bayou that night — something powerful — and I think it called those boys out there to their deaths.
What frightens me is the thought that somehow Marie Hereford done something to call that thing, as revenge for what happened to her granddaughter. I felt its power, and I’ll tell you — that ain’t something you keep on a leash.
Of course, I didn’t see anything — not that night — but I knew there was something there. Something had awoken in Bayou Bonhomme. From what I saw in those strange visions I had when I collapsed, I’d have to say that I think it were the war. All that blood and rage and hatred had woken something that fed on that kind of thing.
And it woke up hungry.