Bonswa, Saint-Jean

Bonswa, Saint-Jean

Short Fiction

Patrick Karl Curley

 

 

 

For Neill

 

Staring out the window, Sebastian saw the brash, orange sun of early morning set fire to the tails of trailing clouds. He saw three quarrelling grackles swirling downward to the scorched ground; the tortured, singed grass; the ragged reeds and flies and crow feathers caught on tangles of rusty, broken barbed wire which came away from a fence-post and down in a fractured spiral to the cracked soil. It had been dry for several weeks, but it would surely rain today.

An arabesque of emotion uncurled inside him when he thought of that delicate, happy face and those smiling, azure eyes. The scent of her skin was still upon him. He wanted to thank her for this new day but Beth was still asleep. Kisses from the night before still tingled on his lips. In the distance he could hear the muted sound of traffic. The rest of the world was coming to life.

He stepped off the porch and walked to the back of the house. He strolled along the old trail, overhung with trees, and down the steep hill toward the creek. The light breeze seemed to blow cold for a moment and he turned to look back. He could just see the slate roof of the house beyond the hill crest. Then, continuing on, he heard the babbling of the water and saw its surface, aureate in the sunlight. Upon reaching the dilapidated wooden pier he stood and listened. He remembered vague fragments of stories about an old Creole woman who used to come down here and weep at the water’s edge. As kids, he and his brother, Blake, used to hide and wait for her. They stayed there for hours but she never came. However, when they returned to the house they were certain they could hear her, beneath the sound of the wind, unleashing a sorrow so pure it seemed to affect the whole landscape. They swore that they heard the water turn restless and saw the overhanging trees twist and bow downward, overburdened with grief. Today, beneath its bright veneer, he knew the sleeping water was dark and old, still twisting with the memories.

 

 

Blake sat in his cell. Two buzzing black, disease-ridden flies circled and occasionally landed on his forehead attracted by rolling beads of sweat. Blake’s eyes had grown aged with lack of sleep. He watched the motes rise and fall in the shafts of early morning sun that streamed through the bars in the opposite wall. He was glad of the daylight. At night the shadows twisted like black snakes coiling ’round each other. He was certain that something lived in those shadows, just as the shadows themselves lived. Crouched, foetal position on the floor, he rocked and rocked feeling heat, fear and flies prickling his scalp. Looking down at his tattooed hands he ran a finger along the faded green extremity of some painted creature hidden beneath his sleeve. Blake crouched and waited.

 

 

The old woman had begun to make her presence felt shortly after the State had decided to put a road through the far edge of the property, some twenty-five years ago. Originally a connection to the old highway, it was seldom travelled anymore. The plans for the road severed the old plantation land (small in comparison to others in the area, but enough), and when the digging went ahead they discovered an old cemetery from the slave-days. There had been talk of bringing the whole cemetery above ground but in the end it was decided that if it had lasted below for two hundred years there was no reason to suspect it wouldn’t last another two hundred. Mother and Father had insisted on leaving the bones where they lay; those that needed moving, in the name of progress, were re-buried. The families of the deceased, insofar as they could be found, were contacted and invited to attend a small ceremony on the property and new markers were put in place. Mother and Father’s final wishes were to be buried here on the land they had loved, amongst those who had sadly toiled and died upon it. It had been something of a struggle but permission had been granted and their wishes had been carried out. Father had been in the ground five years; Mother just over a month.

Sebastian didn’t linger long at the purling water but turned and strolled back up the incline, watching the house gradually reveal itself from the roof down. It stood there upon its hill, arrogant and alone. He stopped for a moment to look at it. The house had begun to look drab and neglected. After Dad died, Mom became significantly less house-proud, he thought. Here and there the paint had cracked or fallen away in large, uneven sections, as though the vile, old secrets from the plantation days were slowly breaking free.

As he approached the kitchen door he could hear the coffee gurgling in the pot. Sebastian’s eyes clouded momentarily as he stepped inside and as they cleared he saw Beth. She stood there, barefoot on the tiles in the whiteness of the kitchen, pale against pale, wearing only a shirt of his. He was shocked by the radiant violence of her flame-red hair in the morning sunlight. She turned and kissed him sweetly. “Good morning, Seb,” she said.

 

 

The rising heat was making Blake feel sick. He was almost glad that the guards hadn’t refilled his food tray, at least there’d be little to retch-up if it came to that. His head seemed clearer today than it had been for a while. The ebb and flow of thought was a little more even. His eyes, though still adrift, could settle for a short time on the areas of light and dark in his cell. With difficulty he stood and stumbled to the edge of his steel cot. He stretched out upon it, his shackled hands on his chest, and let his mind gently float. Memories mingled with dreams. He could hear the noise from a crowded bar and had visions of the soft skin at a woman’s hips. Muzzle flash, as he fired shots into a starlit sky; the taste of tequila. Fury in an unknown man’s eyes; blood and screaming. His brother Seb as a boy, his finger to his lips, as they hid near the creek at his parent’s place. Blake opened his eyes.

There was something about that thought; a shred of memory that he couldn’t quite summon to the front of his mind. The memory floated away. He turned his head and stared at the long, dark shadow by the cell-door. Sometimes he thought he could see the vague outline of some creature, crouched in the roiling shadow; indeed, not so much in the shadow as part of it. Its eyes would flare and he’d hear a sound like weeping, an echo of something long forgotten. It wasn’t there today though. Taken, maybe. Taken by Old Jacky GrisGris who never fails to collect what’s his.

 

 

Seb’s footsteps echoed on the bare boards as he walked into the living room. Beth paused at the fireplace and stared at the photographs on the mantelpiece. “Blake and Seb,” she laughed, lifting an old picture in a brass frame; the two young boys, Seb with his gaze dropped slightly, his eyes uncertain and Blake grinning brightly, his arm draped around his little brother’s shoulders.

“Christ!” said Seb, “We look like feral children! Look at the scrapes on our knees!”

Beth reclined on the faded lime-green couch, “I promise I won’t spill coffee on the furniture,” she said grinning.

Seb smiled back, “Mom wouldn’t have cared if you spilled it. I’m sure she would have adopted you if your parents had been on for it.”

He glanced out the window in the direction of the cemetery. In the distance, he could see his mother’s grave. The top-soil, still quite fresh, had paled in the sun. A wind whipped up outside, shaking leaves into a shaft of sunlight. The shadows fluttered across Seb’s face.

“Hey,” he said, “do you remember that weird funeral ceremony my parents had when we were kids? When the road was being built?”

Beth sipped her cooling coffee, “Of course, when they re-buried those people.”

“You and Blake running ’round making friends with everybody!” said Seb as he sat on the couch. “Yeah, while you brooded up here in the house on your own.” Beth placed her feet in Seb’s lap. “We could see you, watching us. I tried to get you to come outside a couple of times.”

Seb had watched the ceremony from the window in this very room. He could remember the small cluster of people, the distant sound of zydeco music and Beth and Blake at the centre of it all.

“I don’t know why I did that,” said Seb quietly, “I wanted to go out and join everybody. For some

reason I just…couldn’t. I used to hate that about myself when I was a kid.”

“You were always shy…though not so much anymore.”

Beth looked around the room, cobwebs swayed from the cornices and paint peeled on the upper walls. “I used to feel like a queen when I came here to visit you guys. The whole place seemed so huge. What are you going to do with it?”

“Well,” said Seb, “Blake doesn’t want a piece, at least I’m guessing he doesn’t, so I’ll keep it. Live here. I may have to start a second career as an arms dealer to afford the repairs on the place.”

Beth laughed and shoved him playfully with her foot.

“Well,” she smiled, “I was thinking I could move out here for a while…take the pressure off…”

Seb leaned over and kissed her slowly. “I could live with that.” he said.

Beth took Seb’s face in her hands. “I know the circumstances are sad but I’m glad you’re home, Sebastian.”

“I’m glad you’re here,” he said. “Now if I can just get my damn brother to sign off on this place.”

“Still no contact?”

“I’ve left a dozen messages for him at the number he left here, years ago. It’s a bar somewhere near the border. Nobody’s seen him there in months. He’s probably on the run, or in prison. At least Mom and Dad won’t have to clean up his messes anymore.”

Beth shook her head. “Makes you wonder what turns a good kid bad. I’d never seen somebody change like that. He took off like a derailed train.”

A flash of annoyance shot through Seb, “When we were kids it was always: Blake the athlete, Blake the straight-A student and me… ‘Blake’s brother’.”

Beth leaned back and gave an exasperated sigh. “Don’t start that, Seb. Nobody ever thought that…except you! And anyway, you remember him destroying any achievements he might have had, almost overnight. Blake went completely wild. He got even worse after you left for Europe. I treated him a dozen times in the emergency room. I treated quite a few that had encounters with him too. He had a rap sheet as long as that damn road, as you know!”

“I know, it’s just when we were kids…it’s tough to grow out of somebody’s shadow. Y’know it crossed my mind that you and he would…”

Beth leaned over and straddled him, growling with mock fury. “You’re insane! You were never in his shadow, you idiot! And for the record, I always wanted you!” She planted kisses on his face. “That’s right,” she said in a chiding voice, “you can spend ten years away but I can still kick your ass when you need it!” She stared into his eyes. “I’m glad this happened now. This way.”

Seb ran his fingers along the smooth skin in the furrow of her spine. Beth arched her back and then leaned forward placing her forehead against his. “It’s damn good to have you back!”

“Do you remember,” Seb whispered, “when we were kids, Blake and I talking about somebody crying down by the creek?”

“Oh that goddamn story they told us!”

“What story?” asked Seb.

Beth leaned back and looked at him quizzically. “Well you should remember, seeing as you grew up here.”

“Was there something about a Creole woman?” he asked.

“Yeah. That was part of it. You really don’t remember, huh?”

Seb shook his head.

“Well, I think they told us just to keep the kids away from the creek…” Beth trailed off for a moment. “No wait,” she said, “you stayed inside on the day of the ceremony; how would you remember it? I’’m surprised we didn’t tell you after. It scared the hell out of us.”

“What was it?” asked Seb.

“It was a story about…what was his name? Jacques? Jacky…Jacky GrisGris. He was a powerful hungan, back in the 1800’s, I think. He was in love with a Creole girl who lived near here. She rejected him because she was in love with somebody else, so he put a spell on her: all her children would be stillborn. The girl’s sadness was so great that Loa took pity on her, but Jacky would not undo the spell as they asked, so they punished him. They reached into his mind and took away the barrier between this and the spirit world and, unable to handle seeing two worlds at once, Jacky GrisGris went insane. That’s one version of the story. I’ve heard a few versions since then. It might be based in some truth. There could have been some crazy old guy called Jacky who thought he could see spirits. Even if he wasn’t real, just the thought of him kept us away from the creek. ‘Mad Jacky GrisGris hides down by the water, waiting for his girl. If he sees you he’ll take you away’.”

Seb was quiet for a moment, “I never heard that one. I remember the old woman…”

“Remember her? This was more than a hundred years ago Seb.”

Seb shrugged awkwardly and stared at the floor.

“Blake and I, when we were kids, we thought we could hear an old woman crying down by the creek. We snuck out one night and hid down there, waiting for her.”

“And?”

“We got soaked in a downpour and grounded for a month.”

“Well there you go,” smiled Beth, “it’s just a story. I can’t believe Blake never told you.”

 

 

Jacky GrisGris must be getting close; the air was thick with Old Jacky’s scent. The acrid reek of death was all over this place. Sometimes, in the seething shadows of night, Blake could feel eyes upon him; Jacky GrisGris keeping watch on his property. Blake was still bleary-eyed but things were getting clearer. Rather than vague, unfocused areas of light and dark, the boundaries of his confinement had become a little more distinct. His mind had become more settled with each passing hour and his sense of the passage of time had become clearer too. There was no way to tell precisely how long he’d been here, but previous stretches had enabled him to judge roughly. Not longer than a few weeks, he was sure. In his nebulous stupor the guards must have regularly shaved his head and face. Both had the harsh stubble of no more than a few day’s growth.

He wasn’t sure when he had eaten last but, presuming it was once daily, he had not been fed today. His metal food tray had not been refilled and he’d had to fight the blowflies for the lickings of the last few rancid smears in it. He’d try to ration the next cup of cloudy water that came in and this time he’d strain it through his shirt as he was certain that the swampiness of his mind was not of his own making. The soporific effect of whatever was going into his food and water had to be stopped immediately. His bucket needed to be changed and in the muggy morning heat he’d considered siphoning some liquid from it to drink.

Before the guards came he had to test his body’s limits. Perhaps he’d outrun Old Jacky yet. He sat up and attempted to stand, his mind swirled and he pitched forward into the opposite hall. The shackles on his hands were connected to a chain which seemed to be bolted somewhere in the middle of the floor, allowing him a certain range of exploration. Unsteady as he was, he was able to remain upright and began to make a slow, woozy circuit of his environment. Blake began to inch his way towards the small, barred window using the wall to balance himself. Though the streaming light was just a blur, his vision had enough clarity to sense that the day had dulled. There could be a storm on its way.

His mind gave another small swirl. He had a flash of a distant memory and desperately clawed towards it; a beacon in the tenebrous fog of thought. His brother Seb, his finger to his lips. They were hiding by the creek and it was dark. There was a sound…somebody was crying. Very slowly the child Blake began to look out from his hiding place in the tall grass. He could see the moonlight glittering on the water and a shape by the water’s edge. A person. He turned to Seb and urgently motioned him to move closer.

His knees snapped-out from under him and Blake toppled backwards onto the cell floor. Supine and helpless, he felt his throat tighten and tears begin to well in his eyes.

 

 

The first rumble of thunder made Beth look up and glance at the brass carriage clock on the mantelpiece. “Oh God,” she laughed “I’m really late!”

Seb ignored her and continued placing kisses on her neck.

“Wait, don’t. I’ve really got to go,” she said without conviction.

Reluctantly, she threw herself into action. “Okay, clothes,” she said and hurried into the hallway.

Still sitting on the couch, Seb heard her thumping up the stairs until her movements were drowned out by another peal of thunder, closer now. He turned and looked out the window. Tumescent storm clouds were distant but rolling-in steadily, sparking here and there as they came, and with them they brought an inky darkness. Seb didn’t hear Beth walk up behind him and he started as she wrapped her arms around his neck. She kissed his cheek. “Mind if I come back tonight after work?” He turned and kissed her softly. “Of course not. You live here now. In a way you always have.”

As they walked to her car the first, heavy drops of rain began to fall, cooling their last kiss before she climbed in. “Oh, here,” said Seb, handing her a set of keys, “The silver one’s the front door. Wake me if I’m asleep.”

He waited until her car had cleared the driveway and waved as she turned out onto the lonely road. Thunder rent the air as the storm clouds spilled rain in sheets and covered the afternoon in thick Cimmerian shade.

 

 

Blake had used most of his flagging strength to drag himself back along the floor to the edge of his steel cot. His mind whirled and slowed rhythmically, making him feel nauseated. An escape attempt would have to wait as whatever poison he was being fed hadn’t left his system yet. There was something about this cell that he couldn’t quite place. It didn’t seem like any prison cell he’d been holed-up in before. There was a makeshift quality to it.

A flash of lightning shot his mind back to the creek. The memory he had tried so desperately to reclaim now swept him up and carried him off in its dreadful tide. Blake and Seb sneaking through the undergrowth to the water’s edge to see something…the figure of a woman, seen from behind. She was shadowy against the sparkling light of the moon on the water. They had to get closer. The child Blake could discern that her arms were raised up in front of her, as though she was clutching something to her chest.

 

 

Seb was soaked through as he reached the house. He climbed the worn, wooden staircase—remembering every sag and creek from childhood. Some new ones had developed in his absence. He noted the old, familiar whorls in the wood and that small, smooth quirk in one of the tread-edges that he had slipped on as a boy. Seb paused at the window on the second-floor landing. He lifted an awl from the windowsill and tested the point against his thumb. A small spot of blood. In a flash of lightning he saw the arbour of overhanging trees that led down to the water. He thought of Beth and felt a pang of guilt for lying to her about Blake and the night by the creek. Seb ascended the small staircase to the attic, thinking of that night. In that moment, the memory was so clear he could have been there. He turned the key in the attic door.

 

 

Blake heard the cell door unlock and he knew that Jacky GrisGris had found him. He could feel his rabid presence spilling into the cell. Ophidian shadows slithered apart for a beat and Blake saw a face that reminded him of his brother. He felt a spike, like grief, impale his heart. The shadows closed around him and in the darkness Blake finally abandoned his mind to eternal reverie. He could hear the soporific lapping of the water at the creek. He looked around to see his little brother lagging behind. The cries of the Creole woman filled his head and seemed to make his breathing shallow. The child Blake kept his head beneath the line of reeds and scampered ever faster.

He had to get ahead of the woman in order to look back and see her clearly. He reached the

proper vantage point and watched as the woman slowly knelt in the shallows and brought forth what she’d been guarding. As she lifted it and placed it, gently but firmly, beneath the water Blake could see the moonlight’s sheen on its tiny, naked body.

At that moment, young Seb tripped across an exposed root and hit the ground loudly. Blake looked over, shivering, then back to the woman. He could see the bone-white moon reflected in the livid blackness of her eyes as she stared straight at him. Blake was locked in this stare until a single imperative rushed through him—run! He dragged his winded brother to his feet. Seb felt he was flying for a moment and then instinctively began to run after his brother all the way to the house.

The two terrified boys huddled in the attic. “What is it Blake? Tell me what you saw!”

Seb pleaded that they go downstairs and tell Mom and Dad but Blake was adamant in his refusal.

“We can’t ever tell anybody about tonight. Ever!” Young Blake fought his streaming tears. “Promise me you won’t let Jacky GrisGris get me.”

“I promise, Blake, I promise.” Seb threw his arms around his elder brother.

 

 

In the raging storm Seb laid his brother down in the shallows. Blake was weeping softly, resisting as his head touched the water. Then at once, all the fight seemed to leave his body. He was allowing himself be pushed under.

All was calm beneath the water. Blake opened his eyes and was sure he could see shapes through the murk. They looked like tiny bones floating all around him. He heard the sound of weeping and knew he was finally home.

 

 

Seb spent the rest of the day digging. The growling thunder passed overhead punctuated by the shrruk of the shovel in the sodden earth of their mother’s grave. Blake was placed, with sad inelegance, alongside her in the casket. Seb heaped the soaked soil back into the grave and hoped that the rain would do its work and turn the re-laid mud into a thick consolidation. He’d wait awhile and make sure it had set before placing his mother’s memorial.

 

 

Beth had been working at the hospital until late into the night. Despite what Seb had said before she left, she decided to let him sleep. Her own sleep was fitful that night, her dreams vivid and bizarre. She had visions of pearls falling in slow-motion onto black glass, each one making a cracking sound as it landed. She had the sensation of gasping for air and shuddered awake. Seb was standing, staring out the window. Although the storm had abated and the air felt clearer and cooler, there were still some rumbles of thunder. As she stared at him, a flash of lightning seared the image of Seb’s face into her vision. His expression was both sorrowful and strange.

“Are you alright?” asked Beth.

“Yeah, everything’s fine.” Seb slipped back into bed and held her tightly. “I think we’re going to be alright here.” he said.

 

 

Patrick Karl Curley is from Sligo in the North West of Ireland. He writes and creates work for performance, including the controversial, Giallo-inspired, Beneath The Bone Moon at the 2015 Dublin Fringe Festival. Other works include the forthcoming video installation work Morgue Parking at Night, and The Spider in the Bottle—a hyper-trope adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. He is currently working on a poem sequence entitled Geist. He has had work published by Crack The Spine, From The Depths, and Black Heart and The Cormorant.

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