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.
A week or so after them boys disappeared, it started raining pretty much non-stop, and I took up a new hobby — fishing. Your mama thought I was crazy, but she didn’t seem to mind the fresh trout I’d bring home, or the occasional catfish. Rainer Angell had a little boat he let me use in exchange for some of my catch, and I spent most nights after supper out on the bayou, under the pretense of the next day’s dinner. It got so that your mama got so sick of fish that I started giving most of my catch to Ed Cayce for his restaurant.
Folks thought I was crazy for going fishing at night, but I insisted that nighttime was when the fish was biting, and no one could argue with the haul I brought back, so they just accepted it. Nobody ever considered that I was out there looking for something. I had no idea what I was looking for, and if I’d known what I was going to find, I can’t truly say whether I would have gone looking in the first place. Horrible as it is to admit, something tells me my curiosity would have still got the better of me. As it was, your mama was startin’ to wonder if maybe my curiosity was leading me astray, and we had some terrible yelling matches over my new obsession. ‘Specially ’cause I wouldn’t tell her about it. Your ma ain’t stupid — she knew I wasn’t going out there for the fish. Now that I think of it, the fact that everyone knew I was spendin’ my nights out in the bayou may have actually worked against me. When those girls disappeared in May of ’42, people started wondering if maybe I’d been the one to take ’em.
Even then, I couldn’t bring myself to tell her what I’d seen. It nearly killed me when I saw doubt in your mama’s eyes. She’s told me since that she never thought it could ever be me, but for one second, when the news of the discovery of those two little girls hit the papers, I saw fear in her eyes. She was scared that she might be married to the kind of man who could gut a couple of little girls like they was catfish.
Oscar flipped through a series of clippings about the disappearance of two little girls — Monique and Elise Benoit, seven and nine, put to bed one night by their mother, and gone from their beds the next morning without a trace. The town was in an uproar, and search parties scoured the bayou, looking for any sign of the missing girls, but none was to be found. The girls were gone for a full week when their bodies washed up on the shore, both of them naked and cut up the middle, their insides scooped out. Oscar had to fight back the urge to throw up at the mental images his mind recollected; of Amie Lebeau, and of Mathieu’s son Jean-Baptiste, who had been such a fixture in the Bayou for all of Oscar’s life.
The girls’ father seemed hell bent on blaming it on what he called The Negro Threat, and Oscar had to bite his knuckle at the absurdity of the headline of one clipping that posed the question IS THERE A VOODOO CULT IN BAYOU BONHOMME? The story told a highly sanitized story, saying only that the bodies had disappeared as if by magic from their homes at night, and then had turned up a week later, having been desecrated, as if for some pagan voodoo ritual.
“Disappeared like magic, my ass,” Oscar mumbled. “I bet those girls knew the man that took them. Maybe called him Uncle, and gave him hugs and kisses as he took them away.”
MANHUNT ON FOR VOODOO MURDERER read another headline, and added the new news that the brother of the girls remembered seeing someone in the girls’ room that night.
It was a dark man, Michel Benoit told Officer Henri Bergeron of the Bayou Bonhomme Police. I thought I heard something, and got up to look, and that’s when I saw a dark man in my sisters’ room. I was scared. He grinned at me like the devil, and I ran back to bed, and had nightmares the rest of the night. But in the morning, I didn’t remember none (sic) of it. It was like he made me forget, and now his voodoo spell is just wearing off.
Oscar wondered what the truth of that really was, and how much coaching the boy had needed before he spoke to the police. Seemed mighty convenient. It gave the police just what they were looking for — a scapegoat with the right colour skin. Now they just had to put the right name to the black face.
The story went on to describe an increase in race-related crimes, and urged anyone with information to come forward. It ended with the repeated fearful refrain: Will we ever truly know what happened to those little girls?
That was the last of the clippings, other than the one that named Mathieu as the killer. He touched the yellowed paper, considering whether we wanted to read it or not. There were still several pages of Mathieu’s laboured handwriting in the journal.
Your mama had gone with me, no questions asked, and I loved her so much for that. I knocked on Ed Cayce’s door at seven o’clock in the morning and asked him if he’d drive us all out to your mama’s sister over in Abita Springs. I’d been out late the night before, and I knew that I had to get us all out of town before them bodies showed up. Ed Cayce and my pa were close — well, as close as a black fella and a white fella could be, anyhow, and I didn’t know as there was anybody else I could ask. I told Ed I could pay him for the gas, and that I knew times was hard that way on account of gas rationing and such, and he agreed to take us, not even really asking why. We didn’t talk about it, but there was a lot of black folks leaving town. Mr. Benoit, he done put it in folks’ head that it had to be some crazy voodoo that made his girls disappear, and there’d been some men got beat up pretty bad. I reckon Ed thought I was just another darkie gettin’ while the gettin’ was good.
I thought that I’d been doing the right thing, son, I surely did. And I admit that I was afraid, after what I’d seen. But running just made me look guilty, and it made me an easy goat to hang the crime on. When the news hit the next day that the bodies had been discovered, your mama took me out in her sister’s back yard and shook the paper in my face, and demanded that I tell her everything I knew. She told me she didn’t think I’d done it, but that I surely knew something, because I’d been keeping secrets from her for months. The anger and hurt in her eyes was too much for me to bear, son, and so I broke down and told her everything, starting with the reason I had to pick and run so quickly.
I knew who killed them girls, I told her. I saw them with my own eyes.