September 17, 1982
This is going to end badly.
Ezter could hear the nervous shuffle of the horses' feet in the barn below and she knew they could taste the tension in the air. She had stirred them to agitation when she burst into the stable in search of a place to hide before rushing up the stairs in the rear of the barn. The old hay loft had been converted into a one room apartment years ago for a boy, Merrit, who worked for her uncle. The space was vacant now, but in the heat of the moment it struck Ezter as a good place to hide. Now she was trapped.
The unoccupied room was still strewn with second hand furniture and she and August Palleau were pacing around each other almost casually, pretending for just this moment that five minutes ago he hadn't been illuminated in a flash of lightning outside her bedroom window a split second before he smashed the glass and chased her through her house, across the back garden and then up here to the barn’s loft.
With a calculated step, August moved sideways towards the door. Ezter parried left and wondered if she was brave enough to take her chances jumping from the loft's big window to the barn floor below. She risked a glance over the edge and imagined herself leaping from the window. She could almost feel the snap of each ankle and her stomach roiled with bile. She wasn't that brave, after all. This was going to end up here- one way or another.
August looked as relaxed as if they were about to sit down to tea and discuss the weather. When he spoke, his voice was soft and low, but it didn’t quite mask the sinister edge he had taken on, ‘You look awful afraid, Ezzie. Not of me, I hope? Don’t be afraid of me.’
‘I’m not,’ she lied. She felt like screaming, but nobody was home to hear so what was the point?
‘You always had such a wild imagination. Don’t let it run away with you.’
She blurted out, ‘It doesn't take much imagination at all to know that the things I have seen tonight is nothing short of pure evil, August. And you will burn for it, that much I know, in this life and the next!'
‘And what do you think you saw exactly?', a lock of wavy black hair fell into his face, he pushed it away with two fingers, 'More to the point, who do you think is going to believe you? Who are you, anyway. A love sick little girl, lashing out after a heartbreak, telling herself stories about how I'm a monster because I don't love you back. That's all they'll think of you. They'll send you to Peaceful Meadows before they ever arrest me.’
Ezter's spine straightened, she wanted to spit that even the town loon could convince some police officer or other to listen to her for ten minutes. But there was a lump of shame in her throat she couldn't quite swallow. For all her righteous fury in this moment, Ezter still couldn't deny that it was well known in Delaisse, and probably the whole Parish, that she had been making a spectacle of herself over August Palleau for more years than was altogether excusable. What she needed to do now was pull herself together before he got the upper hand, as if he didn't have that already.
Forget about that for a minute, you need to say something, say anything. Just keep in motion until you can figure out how to get out of here.
‘How many women have you killed?’, she tried to make the question sound like a demand, but it came out a simper.
‘I don’t know, Ezzie,’ he said through a deep exhale and feigned a look of nonchalance, brushing the top of the well worn sofa bed with the back of his fingers as he stepped around it.
‘So, what, you can't even bother to keep track? How's that work, exactly. You’re so bored with life that even a wild murder spree just starts to bleed into the same ball of white noise?’, Ezter tried to control the tremor in her voice, countering each of his moves by stepping a little further away, trying not to end up in a corner.
August edged sideways again, his face twitched just for an instant into a mask of loathing before he smoothed it back into something almost sweet, 'A murder spree, is that all the more clever you are? I'd think it would be obvious, even to you, what I've been doing is so much different than killing for, what, sport? There is a purpose to everything, Ezter, if you're smart enough to notice it.'
A little sob escaped her before she could catch it, she wanted to cover her eyes and weep but all she could manage to do was shake her head disbelievingly.
'It's just like you, really,' he sighed, 'You never did understand me, for all your lovelorn poetry and lurking in my shadow. Yeah, I knew you were there. Following me from the house into town, from the bar to the sugar factory. I didn't care enough to shake you. You could never have fathomed the purpose of my project, much less explain what you’ve seen to anyone. You were never worth the effort of concealment. But, your simplicity has been amusing in a pleasant way. Kind of like watching a puppy learn to do tricks.'
August took a step forward, her heart leapt in her throat and she stumbled backward. He caught sight of the butcher's knife she was trying to hide behind her right leg and rolled his eyes. He looked at her through a veil of dark hair, 'Is that how you think you're going to stop this from happening? With a kitchen knife?'
Ezter held her breath. She knew now in her bones that one of them was going to die and a tiny surge of adrenaline began sucking the blood from her brain, her fingers tingled and went cold. She scrambled to keep control of her head, to get a handle on her options. Nothing easy or good.
It seemed like their macabre little two-step would go on all night, a mobile stalemate, both of them circling the coffee table in the middle of that tiny loft apartment above the barn; like two burned up planets circling a discarded sun.
‘Please. Please help me understand, because I just don't,’ it was all she could think to say, and she had to say something before the gravity of the moment sucked her into perpetual motion.
August sneered, she knew that look far too well. It meant that he thought she wouldn’t ‘get it’, whatever 'it’ was.
But this was different. This wasn’t beat philosophy or tripped out jazz. This was the death of everything that she had thought meant anything, the end of a fantasy she had indulged in to the point of destruction. And she needed answers before the grand finale.
‘Don’t act like I’m too dumb to hear what you have to say, August. For once just talk to me, make me understand how you could do this. How long have I been offering my soul to the devil? How many bodies do I have to have on my conscience?’
'That's right, turn it all around on yourself. Try and make it about you when you're the last thing on my mind, just like always. Does it make you feel better to martyr yourself, Ezzie? Does it make you forget what a fraud you are, trying to act like you were ever good enough to replace her? I know that's what you wanted,' August snarled, 'You don't even see how close I am, do you? And you can't even begin to understand the disappointments I've suffered at their hands, how they made promises only to reveal themselves as liars in the end. They lied with their mouths and their body's and they had to suffer for it. I couldn't let them get away with the time they forced me to waste. They told me they were vessels, and I tried. I tried to believe them, I wanted to believe them, can't you see that? I took away the parts that weren't like her and I waited for Reine to grow back, to fill them up with her spirit, to reawaken in her new body. But they were impure and her soul rejected them. She refused to be reborn through imperfect vessels. And Reine deserves better, doesn't she? What was I supposed to do but eliminate them and move on? I can't stop now.'
'Jesus and Legba protect me,' Ezter felt her knees buckle under her and struggled not to fall.
'Your stupid superstitions and Gods won't save you, Ezzie,' August was looking at her sideways, eyes narrowed nearly to slits, 'Look at you, your ego is crushed that it took you so long to see what any fool might have put together from the start. I knew you weren't a threat to us, there was never a risk you'd upset my plans or put a stop to any of it. This work is a manifestation of something too pure for you to grasp. I admit, it was fun at first to watch you fumbling around me like a disoriented little bumble bee trying to get at the sugar water, but now you're just a nuisance.’
Ezter faltered and slowed almost to a stop, her vision crowded with tears.
‘Can you see them, Ezzie, all the women you're telling yourself right now that you could have saved? All those whores, their faces yawning up at you from shallow graves, accusing you for their untimely demise?'
She could, she thought, see the specters of mutilated women filling up the dark corners of the room. Closing in like an angry mob, the whites of their eyes flashing in the black air of their bodies. Shadow forms with hands outstretched, waiting for August to send her to the other side, where she would die everlasting deaths at their hands until eternity blinked out. She deserved that.
August tilted his head and smiled. Even now the hair on her arms stood up under his gaze and she knew he could hear all her thoughts.
‘Or is it me you think you could have saved?'
This was going nowhere, they were both stalling.
‘Fine, mock the shameless love I had for you, I deserve that. But I need to hear the truth from you. Stop your little game long enough to tell me whether the man I let myself love all these years was ever who I thought he was or if he's always been the devil himself,’ her voice rose until it was shouting.
‘Do I look like the devil to you, Ezter?’, his smile told her he didn’t care if she thought so or not.
‘No. So help me, you still look like an angel. And it burns me, it burns all through me to know that my traitorous heart will go on loving you through all the fires of hell,’ his lips curled up in a wet grin as she spoke, ‘You like that, don't you. Hurting me. You have all along.’
‘Don’t be naive. I don’t give a fuck about hurting you or not. Until you destroyed my latest project and became a burden, you were nothing more than a pleasant distraction. You didn't think that starting that fire would really be enough to stop me, did you?'
‘Why don't you ever believe me? It doesn't matter, you’re right about one thing, I did let myself believe a lie. That's over now. I’m done hearing lies from myself, from you and anyone else. So tell me straight- how many women were there?’
His eyes glinted like sapphire daggers, ‘You don’t understand. I’m like a pig butcher. Once I realize how useless they are, they all turn into the same piece of bacon and it’s hard to tell one from the next.’
‘Bacon?’, her disgust oozed around the word.
‘Well, they’re just pigs, Ezzie. Just pigs. Smeared with lipstick, looking for a lay or a husband or a way out of their boring lives. But they’re all the same. Pulling me in with the promise of someone they weren’t. Little sausage casings stuffed with lies,’ he giggled at his own analogy, and when he saw the horror on Ezter’s face, the giggle turned into a raucous laugh.
‘Stop it, stop it!’, she tried to shout over his cackling, backing into a table. Still-fresh images of a mutilated woman flashed in her mind like a grotesque antique picture show, jagged snapshots of bloody flesh and pink satin. The knife in Ezter's hand slashed the air as if it could cut through the memory. August’s laughter filled the room and he brought his arms up in a mocking gesture of protection, crossing them in front of his face as he howled. Ezter screamed, grabbing her own hair and pulling it hard, as if she could pull the sound of his laughter out of her head.
‘You should see your stupid face,’ he managed to yelp out between peals of unhinged laughter.
The anger boiled over into rage and she could feel parts of her rational mind shutting down like car engines being switched off. All the energy and power in her body being forced down the same tunnel inside her.
Ezter had to end this. She had to get out, get back to the house and call for help. Had to call the police, she couldn't avoid it any longer. It was time to do what she had to do to make them believe her.
She picked up an ashtray off the coffee table and threw it at him as she turned to run. The crash of glass as it missed his head and hit the wall snapped August into action. He was still laughing when his arms caught Ezter so hard it choked the scream short in her throat.
'Sorry, Ezzie, but it's time I put you out of your misery. Not that you haven't been fun at times, but, I'm so close and can't let you get in my way now. You understand, don't you,' his breath was heavy and hot in her ear, she could feel every inch of his hatred like an electric shock. He had let go of any effort to control himself and she knew he was going to kill her.
The knife was still in her hand but August had her arms pinned to her sides like a vice. She wriggled in his grasp, kicking her feet backwards, hoping to catch his knees with her heels but they only found air. He locked his forearms together and started to squeeze her around the chest. Ezter gasped hard, her ribs shifted under the pressure and her vision pulsed in and out of focus.
She deserved to die, she knew it. She deserved oblivion. Just one more forgettable victim. And it would be so easy to give in to the death that was creeping in to her body, to let August kill her. Let go. The words were a whisper. Let go.
Her heart shuddered from side side inside her chest, loud like a rock tumbling off a tin roof, vibrating her ear drums. Her heart was still fighting, unable to acknowledge the inevitable. Fighting against it, fighting to keep her alive even though she didn't want it to. Let go, her mind hissed to her failing body. But her heart pounded on, shaking her into action, this is not how you die, it told her.
Darkness slunk around the edges of her vision, taking shape like arms reaching from beyond an invisible curtain, pulling the room piece by piece into itself. She had one chance to get out of this alive before death delivered her forever into the hands of her judgement. This was it. Her final moment, her last chance to choose. Ezter’s mouth was open, gasping for air, she bared her teeth and let out a hoarse battle cry.
Ezter let her body dead weight suddenly in his arms and he leaned forward to compensate for the shift. When he did, she shoved with both feet against the floor and pushed backwards with all of the strength she had left. The back of her head made a crack as it came in contact with some part of his face and Ezter felt his balance waver. She pushed again, sending them both stumbling over pieces of musty furniture, limbs shooting out to catch themselves on something as they fell together. They rolled over each other, smashing body parts into the hard edges of objects, August reaching for her neck, Ezter trying not to be the one who landed on her back.
The struggle was ominously silent, all sound was caught in the terror and uncertainty of the moment as if the room was holding its breath waiting for an outcome. August tried to throw his body flat over hers. Ezter thrashed like a fish on a dry dock, trying to get the hand that still held the knife free from the tangle of their limbs as they crashed into the couch and tumbled over it on to the floor.
There was a grunt and a rush of hot liquid.
August's body went limp on top of her, the liquid pooled between them, sticky and warm. Blood.
August let her go and collapsed onto his side, his hands clasped around the blade of the knife buried inside him, blood seeping between his fingers. She scrambled backwards onto her knees and crouched, staring at him, wild eyed. The knife had lodged itself at an upward angle under his ribs during the struggle, the handle moved up and down as his chest heaved with the effort of breathing.
He tried to raise himself up onto his elbows and failed.
‘August…,’ her mouth was dry, ‘I didn’t mean to.’
His eyes burned into her. The way they sunk back into his face, the skin over his eye sockets growing taught as blood leaked from his body, it filled her with a mixture of fear and regret.
'Sure you did, Ezzie.'
She withered under his stare.
‘Well, don’t just sit there, finish the job. Send me to see her,’ he sneered contemptuously, blood trickling down his lip.
Ezter moved toward him with her fingers outstretched, but he shook his head, lips curling down. She opened her mouth to make some inane promise of getting help when August’s face fell slack, twisting into something like sadness.
He wasn’t looking at her anymore, she followed his gaze to a purple raincoat hanging on a hook by the door behind her. She knew he was looking at it and thinking of his sister, Reine.
'Purple for the Queen,' he repeated the line their father had always chirped. Purple was her favorite color. August winced hard and gripped the portion of knife blade sticking out of his side, his face pale but his voice hard, ‘I think I've underestimated you, Ezzie.’
He moved again as if he would try to stand.
‘Don’t move,’ her voice came out shrill, she scooted backwards and tried to cover up the fear with words of caution, ‘If you keep trying to get up, you’re going to drive the knife further in. Stay there and I'll go call for help.’
The eyes he turned on her where blazing with evil, ‘I’m dead already, Ezzie. Question is whether or not I can kill you first before I go.’
With a throaty grunt, August yanked the knife out of his side in one pull and waved it, dripping with blood, at her. She went wide eyed, frozen.
In a burst of motion, he pushed himself into a crouching position, ready to pounce like a desperate, cornered beast. His eyes were unfocused, but there was no mistaking the flash of hatred in them.
August sucked in a breath of air through clenched teeth and flung himself toward her. Ezter leapt onto her feet and grabbed the nearest thing to her, a brass lamp off the side table, swinging it hard into his face as he lunged for her.
He crumpled backwards with a groan. This time he lay where he fell, as still as roadkill. She let out a mousy little whimper and August's dazed eyes fluttered up to meet hers, staring at her through the blood that was gushing out of a deep wound in his forehead.
‘I guess I’m dying alone, after all,’ he bared his teeth at her in a menacing grin, they were stained red.
Instinctively, she crept a few inches forward. He spat blood between them and told her to stay away. The room around her came into sharp focus as her own body inside of it seemed to blur. She was a stranger in her own reality.
Ezter was starting to hyperventilate. She backed away on her knees, pushing herself flat against the wall. But she couldn’t run away. Not yet.
Even though she could see death creeping across August's face, Ezter was desperate to cling to these last fleeting breaths of his life. If she could hold on to this limbo, these last moments when August wasn’t dead, then none of it was real. This was any other September night. August wasn’t a murderer. And neither was she. Once death claimed him, she was going to have to call the police and lead them his body. And then to the sugar factory. After that, the world she’d known would be swallowed up by the nightmare still to be revealed. And it was her burden, her punishment, to be the one to reveal it.
Everything was crumbling down around her like the charred ruins of a house after a fire. Ashes, she was all ashes.
August coughed, jerking her attention back to him. He was watching her with reptilian coldness. They locked eyes, her mouth opened and closed, trying to find something to say to this man she had once been so desperate to love.
As if he could read the pathetic, self pitying thoughts tumbling through her head, August snorted disdainfully and moved gingerly onto his back. He coughed again, it sounded watery.
Grimacing, he pressed a hand against the wound in his chest, ‘You got me good, Ezzie. I didn’t know you had it in you. Then again…’, the words drifted off into a choking laugh. The laugh turned into another cough that gurgled in his chest, his face went ashen and his whole body convulsed.
She wanted to hold him, to comfort him as death crept into his limbs. The coughing subsided, but it had shaken most of the life from his body. His face twisted in pain and fear, then it relaxed. Ezter stared with horrified, helpless eyes as August slowly faded into a corpse.
He began to sing to the ceiling in a dreamy hum, 'Black is the color of my true loves hair... Sing it to me, Ezzie. Sing me off to sleep.’
Life was ebbing from him fast and there was nothing she could do to stop it now, even if she could find it within her power to move. There was a hollow space inside her that didn’t know which emotion to fill itself up with. Sorrow? Regret? Relief? Maybe all three.
Ezter hugged her knees to her chest and picked up the verse, her voice a tear soaked whisper, ‘Her face so soft and wonderous fair…’
August’s lips were moving silently with her words as she softly sang the tune, ‘… the sweetest smile, the softest hands, I love the ground whereon she stands.’
Ezter stopped singing and inched closer, his lips were still silently mouthing the words to his sister’s favorite song. She wondered if he could see Reine in his mind now, dancing like a ballerina around that ridiculous statue of Apollo in their mother's rose garden, her long, dark hair glinting like strands of jet beads in the sun while he sang to her and Ezter played the mandolin.
The memory was a portal to that brief window in time when everything had seemed perfect. That one summer when the three of them had melded into an inseparable unit. Ezter was already falling in love with August but hadn’t yet realized there would never be any room in his heart for anyone besides Reine. August was full of unspoiled innocence, and Reine… Reine was an angel.
With a weak smile, August let his eyelids droop halfway down. Ezter wondered which private moments he was recalling in his mind to light the passage between this world and the next. She wondered which memories she would recall in her own final moments. Would she remember her grandmother softly brushing her cheek as she drifted into sleep, her father lifting her into the air with a laugh, August kissing her for the first time?
She began to sing again, 'And still I hope the time will come when she and I will be as one...' Her song dropped off to a hum when she couldn’t keep her voice steady anymore. She sat beside his body, resting a hand on his chest. The rise and fall of air in his lungs came in fits and starts, the intervals between them stretching out until she was sure every new breath was his last.
Ezter thought it might go on like that forever. August sputtering, halfway between life and death in this trapped moment for the rest of time itself. And then there was nothing. She sat still, waiting for his heart to beat again, waiting for his mouth to open and suck in a soggy gulp of air. But there was nothing.
The blood in her veins turned into molasses sludge.
She wanted to run so fast that her body exploded into a million dots of light scattered into the air like dandelion seeds.
She wanted to scream so hard that she sucked her lungs into her throat and spit them onto the dirty rug.
In the end, all she could do was remain.
She held August’s lifeless hand and wept until her tears stopped flowing. There was a voice in her head, distant and fading, the remnants of her rational mind telling her she needed to get up and call for help, but she couldn’t leave him yet- not yet.
Once she let herself snap out of this, she knew he would be gone forever. And everything would change.
Ezter kept a silent vigil for minutes or hours as the features of his face shifted into something cold like putty and the skin all over his body hardened from a flushed honey color to a drab beige. She was mesmerized, watching his body fade from a flesh and blood man into a wax figure. She reached out to touch his face; it was growing cool, stiff.
August was dead.
A wail began somewhere deep within her, deeper than she had ever felt before. She wailed and every sinew inside her body shuddered with an ache that settled into all the dark crevices of her soul. She panted around the animal noise like a choking dog, unable to suck in enough air to stop the pain in her chest. Her heart cracked open and every emotion she’d pushed down for the past five years raged inside her unchecked like a swarm of hornets forced from their hive.
What had he done? What had she done?
Ezter waited for the sound of footsteps on the stairs and voices of alarm and concern, but none came. The whole world outside this room kept on spinning, unaware. Nobody had yet realized anything was amiss. What was she going to do now?
Ezter was alone. Her whole world was death. Death had come for her once tonight and she had defeated it, fighting against it with terrible passion. But now the silence of the grave called to her sweetly, Let go, the cowardly refrain began again.
The ghosts of the unknown women sacrificed on the altar to August's dead sister held up mirrors in her heart and she saw herself naked with their blood covering her body. One, five, fifty. It didn’t matter how many there were. Their deaths all lay at her doorstep, just as much as August's. She didn’t want to know if she could live with the weight of it.
Reaching out a trembling finger, she dipped it in the pool of blood that had gathered under and around August’s body, it was no longer warm and had started to congeal. She drug her fingers through his blood and smeared a stripe of crimson syrup over her own face like war paint.
Death has come for us both, you and I. You wanted to die with Reine, but now you will die with me. And we will burn together for what we’ve done.
The sound of her mind breaking was almost audible in the after-death stillness of the loft. She picked up the knife laying on the floor and looked up into the faces of the shadow women standing beyond the reach of lamplight, who nodded and murmured incoherently their approval.
In a daze, she turned her face away from them and pressed the blood stained edge of the knife in a straight line down the length of her own arm, from her wrist to the crook of her elbow.
The wound hid its’ depth at first, slithering in slow motion across her chalky-taupe flesh like a thin red ribbon. It only stung a little as she watched the droplets of blood seep up between the split skin, one at a time. She worried then that the wound wasn't deep enough and that she'd have to make the cut again. But the cut started to burn like acid as it slowly parted to reveal a gulf of broken veins and the layer of bubbly fat that hides on the underside of skin.
Ezter breathed in the pain of it with relief and laid down beside him. She laced her fingers through August’s, their blood mixing into one pool of deep red between them. Every molecule of her body slowed down until she could sense the euphoria of death settle around her. All around her fading consciousness she saw the shadows shuffle nearer to bend over her dying body and wait.
Peace before the punishment of hell.
A drumming grew louder on the fringes of the gray static that crackled in between her ears. Footsteps on the stairs.
Too late. You’re too late.
July 6, 1996
There's something sinister about Louisiana in summer. An evil in the honeysuckle heavy air that clings to your skin like an unwanted embrace.
The endless days of July bleed into night begrudgingly, holding on to daylight in a death grip until the sun sags under the horizon at last and the solace of midnight takes hold.
Summer in the South will make the faithless pray. Pray for rain, pray for wind, pray for a plague of locusts to sweep across the sky in a black mask, blotting out the sun and blessing the ground with a moment of shadow. Even Godless heathens whisper, ‘Please, Lord.’
But, God will offer no grace; this is a thing which must be endured alone, like a biblical scourge.
Sodden with steamed air, the vast, sugar cane clogged acres of Belle Helene have sprawled here for more than two hundred years, witnessing the passage of time and all its' ills with a languid benignity. The curve of swampy land and moss covered water snaking around the spines of cypress roots; swallowing the secrets of the wicked and the naive impassively, pregnant with foreboding. The days are filled with cautiously held breath, the night is unquiet, haunted.
And here, deep in the bayou, forgotten among ancient trees, there is an old Acadian fishing cabin half on land, half hung over a motionless river. Its high-pitched red tin roof reaching low over a deep porch and wavy glassed windows that stretch from the floor to the ceiling across the front. The white paint, what there is of it to see between the mass of untrimmed shrubs, is somewhat faded but not peeling. Everything is both cared for and unkempt in a way that is very deliberate in its chaos. The house feels not alive, but aware. As though it would gladly share the hundred years of stories it shelters to anyone that came inside and listened.
Outside, the little cabin ripples like a mirage in the already insufferable early morning heat.
Inside, Ezter Doucet twists a thin cotton sheet around her tawny shins, kicking at a fevered dream.
The ghosts of July linger here in the folds of pre-dawn haze, given an ectoplasmic half-form by the fog of humidity, slouching their bitter silhouettes across a linoleum floor, shuddering into the sleeping head laying shrouded in a sweaty sheet to remind her of the restlessness that awaits in the afterlife. Her bed is crowded with the shared nightmares of the dead, pushed out of their graves by the swelter of summer soil.
It’s just a pig.
Hushhhhh, hush now… Oh, I love my love and well she… SHUT UP PIG!
‘Don’t, don’t…’, Ezter mutters, trying desperately to wake.
A fan overhead beat loudly, failing to stir the heavy air that surrounded the unrestfully sleeping woman, managing to do nothing more than impart an ominous whirring noise to the background of her dream.
Are you afraid? Don’t be afraid of me.
It’s a woman.
Hush, girl… hushhhhh…
A dagger of sunlight sliced away the remnant of night sky and cut across the horizon, burning through the open, uncovered window and searing Ezter's closed eyes. She twisted her face away instinctively, but, finally, the light shoved into her unconscious awareness and she sat up with a sharp inhale.
The minute hand on the clock next to her bed clicked. 6:23. Unbelievable, I just barely fell asleep. She waited a few minutes for her heart to stop racing before hatefully yanking the heavy curtain off its' hook and swinging it across the window.
The room was swallowed by a quasi-darkness and Ezter flopped her body across the bed, exhaling heavily with the pleasure of it, but the relief was short lived. Even though the sun no longer broke in to disturb her, the heavy curtains blocked what little morning breeze there was and she knew it was only a matter of time before the stifling air would become intolerable.
Ezter begged the Gods of sleep to let her drift off again before the uncomfortable dampness all over her skin turned to a full on sweat, forcing her out of bed and into a cold shower. But their ears were occupied with the prayers of someone more deserving, just as they usually were, and the stillness of the air mixed with the useless hum of the ceiling fan, ushering in a creeping wakefulness. Damn, her eyes pressed open against her will, staring at the cracked plaster above her. Was that water damage? I should really get that fixed.
Ezter swung her legs off the bed and sat there, shoulders hunched, scowling at her knees. Either you sit here all day, letting the sweat pool under your ass, or you get up and try and do something with your life for once. Wasn’t that what Cali used to say to her on Saturday mornings when she was in high school?
A droplet of sweat trickled down her spine, sending a shiver through her in spite of the heat. She shook sleep from her head. Then, with a sigh and a stretch, she shoved herself off the bed and slid across the warm floorboards to the bathroom, appreciating for the millionth time how smooth the worn, old wood felt on her bare feet.
She pulled her hair back and stood under a stream of cold water in the shower, bracing her body with both hands on the yellow and black tiles, letting the recollection of the nightmare and all the memories it called up swirl off her body and down the drain until she could feel a threadbare trace of humanity creep into her bones. Ezter turned the water off and stood there, forehead resting on the momentarily cool wall, and tried to quiet the voices in her head before facing the rest of the morning.
Wrapping a towel around herself, she let her hair down and stood in front of the bathroom mirror. Every morning she was compelled by some lurking sense of self hatred to take stock of the erosion of youth, marking off each new tribute of loveliness that time claimed from her. Ezter had never been particularly proud, so it came as a mild shock that she was so invested in the aging process at this stage of her life.
Perfect timing, decide you actually care about how you look after you've far exceeded your prime. No time like the downhill tumble into middle age to start being aware that you're losing perfectly decent looks which you never had the presence of mind to exploit.
Ezter pressed the pads of her fingers into her cheeks, it wounded her latent vanity to witness the evidence of age creeping across her face.
Time was a monster lying in wait, just like every other damned thing in this life.
The mirror tossed back a spiteful image of wild, brown curls, threaded here and there with bright silvery gray like exclamation points, that fell in a tangle around a khaki hued face, just a shade lighter than her hair. The high cheekbones gave an air of grace to the curve of her face, but there were more crow's feet on the delicate skin around her eyes this morning that there were last night, fanning out like tiny fractures in fine china. Or maybe that was her imagination.
She met her own gaze in the reflective glass and squinted. Ezter was surprised to find herself looking so bitter. Her pale olive eyes looked almost reticent and the dark flecks of brown that scattered across the green of her cornea had dulled, no longer shining like strange ocular gems the way they had in her youth. Even the freckles on her cheeks and shoulders seemed muted. Everything about her reflection felt like it was recoiling into itself to be hidden away or protected; prepared, maybe even expecting, to meet the secret darkness in people like a weary, war-torn General, 'Are you afraid of me?'
With a sigh and a wince, Ezter laid her hand flat across the mirror and looked away. Well, that’s enough of that. She leaned one shoulder against the wall as she walked down the hallway, the bungalow creaked awake alongside her, its’ walls expanding in the rising heat of morning.
She needed coffee. Lots and lots of coffee.
In the kitchen, she stood in front of the old Crosley Shelvador refrigerator, holding on to the handle like a counterweight as she leaned back, pondering the sparse contents much longer than she needed so she could fully appreciate the spiral chilled licks of air that wafted out of the creaky fridge and across her skin. The refrigerator hardly ever offered anything useful besides cold air, anyway. In all the time she'd spent with the women in her family, helping them put up preserves or prepping vegetables for big meals, Ezter had never managed to pick up any skill of her own in the kitchen. If it weren't for her Aunt Marietta constantly hounding her to spend time at the main house and stay for dinner, Ezter would be half starved and living off of packages of lunch meat and potato chips.
Her eyes scanned the refrigerator's shelves- an almost empty, repurposed milk jug that had been full of chicory laced coffee only yesterday, a lump of salted butter on a saucer, a half a bottle of cream, a greasy paper bag full of god only knew what and a few slices of roast beef wrapped up in butcher’s paper. The plastic jug of coffee started to sweat in the invasion of warm air, Ezter took it as an invitation and poured its’ remaining contents into a glass. Barely even half full, that’s life for you, she frowned. She topped the glass off with cream and heard the ghost of her Grandma Grace scolding, ‘Tsk, coffee is like love- best when it’s hot.’
She could almost feel the disapproving curl of her grandmother's pink lips and said out loud, 'Sorry, Grace.'
Ezter’s long fingers circled the glass of iced cafe au lait with one hand, the other laying across her belly as she pulled deep swigs of the biting, creamy brew. The coffee percolated through her blood stream and shot along nerve endings in her face, sizzling across the gray matter of her brain until she could feel the caffeine pull at the crown of her head. She sighed with the pleasure of being lifted to a higher state of awareness and sank down in the kitchen chair.
This was her favorite part of the day. The morning was still barely blue in the windows and the world outside not yet in the full swing of day. These fleeting moments spent alone just past dawn, sitting at the kitchen table with her coffee and a silence so complete it drowned out even the non-stop chatter in Ezter's head. It swelled around her in the heavy air, punctuated by the old grandfather clock in the living room, its' pendulum punching the quiet with tics and tocs. The methodical sound was mesmerizing, it echoed in the back of her skull like a deep meditation.
Ezter slipped into the stillness gratefully, barely aware of the periodic dripping of the kitchen faucet, the sigh of a light breeze blowing through an ill fitted strip of insulation around the window by the door, the clicks of the clock's pendulum swinging to and fro. Ezter depended on this silence to balance the daily flood of inner voices reciting all the sins she would never be forgiven for.
This quiet existence was so different from the frenzy she had courted in her youth, with its crush of emotions tumbling all at once over each other that she had chased as a barely blossomed teenager. Each untethered desire becoming tainted and directionless with an obsession she was not wise enough to let burn through her and burn out. Instead she had rushed into her heart's flames and asked to be singed like a wanton angel, not yet knowing what it meant to be burned alive.
In spite of her best efforts, Ezter found herself aching even now for a future that could have been if she hadn't been too stunned by loss to leave Delaisse all those years ago when she'd had the chance. After her father's funeral when she was thirteen, his baby sister, Ruth, had offered to take Ezter home with her to New Orleans where she shared a home with her painter husband and three nearly grown sons. In that moment, Ezter had found herself oddly unable to let go of the comfort of the memories that still lived on for her at Belle Helene. She had lost too much too fast and wasn't thinking straight when she politely declined.
Ezter had been standing at a crossroads in that moment and hadn't realized it, staring down an invisible path that diverged into unknowable futures. One side branching off into a colorful, fragrant world of reinvention, the other path was well trod and seemed like a warm embrace after the crisis of identity her father's death had brought on. So, she had stayed. In the two years that followed, she lost night after night of sleep, staring into the dark and second guessing herself. By the time she was fifteen, Ezter had nearly resolved to get on her knees and beg Aunt Ruth to make her offer again. But barely a week after that dark night of the soul, she met August Palleau and forgot every dream of escape she'd ever had. The only thing that existed from that moment on was him. And the only place she wanted to be was wherever he was.
If she could go back in time and leave Delaisse when she'd had the chance...
But nothing could change the fact that she had chosen to stay in Delaisse on that fateful day and two summers after her father died, August and Reine had come in to her life like a wildfire and burned down everything that could have been, leaving behind only what was.
By the time Ezter was through letting August purge her world of everything but sorrow, the only thing left for her to do was retreat like a wounded soldier and suit herself into this swampy solitude like armor. It had saved her, Ezter was sure of that. After the summer of 1982 and the crush of public attention she had endured in the months that followed, the little Acadian sanctuary became the only place Ezter could hide away from the noise of people with their 'bless your heart's and the endless parade of casserole dishes. Overnight, she had become the pet pariah for the whole Parish to gawk compassionately at and then gasp over in the privacy of their own homes. All of their poorly disguised concern was only an ill intentioned curiosity, Ezter knew it and shrank from their disingenuous attentions.
This forgotten cabin in an overgrown corner of her family's plantation became the only place she felt safe anymore, it was her sanctuary.
Pressing her eyes open again, she drained the last of her glass and pushed coffee grounds against the back of her teeth with her tongue. Wasn't nearly enough.
Ezter slid the empty glass away, let her forehead drop to the table and rolled it from side to side, trying to press out the lingering tendrils of last night's dream. Without looking up she reached out for the spiral bound notebook she kept on the kitchen table. With a sigh, she sat up straight and began sketching out what she could remember from the nightmare she'd woken up from.
August walking toward me in the barn. As he passed each stall, the horse inside would kneel down and die. I thought I was well hidden, but A was looking me dead on as he got closer. The rafters bent toward the middle so that they closed over each dead horse like coffins and he reached for me with fingers that grew longer. I knew that if he touched me I would have to follow him into Hell. I ran up to the loft and fell. Hands reached over the loft window and grabbed my legs and pulled me over the edge. All of a sudden, we were in the sugar factory and it was on fire. His face was melting and he was laughing while I screamed. There were faces in the flames and they were smiling as they got closer to me. Woke up.
Each page of the notebook contained a variation on the same theme, there was a box of similar notebooks on the top shelf of Ezter's closet. One day she was going to burn them all and put a hex on the spirit of her tormenter, if she could figure out how to do it, not that she thought it would do anything but make her feel better. Wasn’t that enough?
But not today. Today she was going to the main house to weed the summer vegetable garden, eat tomato sandwiches and spend the afternoon with Cali, the elderly mother of Marietta, her Uncle Aaron's wife. Cali suffered from unpredictable bouts of dementia in her old age, and Ezter was tasked with keeping her company and out of trouble. Of course, they could have hired someone actually qualified to do the same thing. But, she was sure it had been engineered to fall to her as much to ensure there were at least a few days a week when she left the confines of the old fishing cabin as anything else. And, anyway, she loved the old woman with a full heart.
She examined herself momentarily in the mirror again once she’d dressed in a white linen dress and her worn, brown work boots that were nearly as old as she was. A little noise of displeasure passed her lips as she tried to run her fingers through the tangled mass of curled hair on top of her head. She had let it grow shaggy and it had begun to knot in on itself. ‘Like a lion and his mane’, she knew Cali would say about the tousled, fawn hair that was almost the same color as Ezter’s skin. That meant she was also getting a haircut.
July 6, 1996
Belle Helene Plantation had been in the Doucet family 'since God was a boy', or so the family line went. Its fields stretched for more than two thousand acres, still broken up by a row of ancient pecan trees boxing in every two hundred acre parcel, just as it had been for hundreds of years. It was bordered on one side by the Black Honey River and the adjoining bayou, dotted throughout the vast acreage with snatches of pine forest encroaching on the land like shrugging shoulders, providing an aromatic umbrella for summer walks and a place for Ezter's aunt, Marietta, to ride her horses. The Acadian fishing cabin where Ezter lived, if you could call it living, had stood for more than a hundred years on the edge of Belle Helene, hidden in a deep tangle of cypress trees and swamp on the southern end of the property.
Her father had always called it their fortress, and it still felt like one; as if he had built it just for her, weaving spells of protection into the foundation like her own personal Merlin. It may just have been her imagination, but it had always seemed to Ezter that you could feel the love and care Jacob had poured into the project of restoring this cabin when you stood quietly in the center of the house and held your breath.
Ezter was still thinking of her father when stepped out the front door and onto the creaky porch, breathing in the humid morning air. She loved the way summer felt in her lungs, she could nearly taste the rays of heavy sun in the back of her throat. Ezter had always been a creature of the summer, she lived for the first sun soaked day when working in the garden made her sweat. By then, Cali would be after her to wear a sun hat, but Ezter liked the sunlight warming her unhindered, deepening her khaki skin and the browning the freckles that spread across her whole face, traveling down her collarbone and onto each shoulder.
The wind had changed direction since the morning, blowing harder now and shifting the blue of the sky into something less certain and much more gray. Ezter looked over the top of the trees and scanned a wall of dark clouds that had formed, still a few miles south of the plantation but traveling towards her. A summer storm was coming to interrupt the heat of the day, rushing to swallow the sun, eating inches of blue sky by the minute. Ezter smiled with the anticipation of it. There was nothing better than curling up on the worn leather sofa in the library at the big house during a torrential downpour with a cup of coffee and a plate of Cali's buttery biscuits, the smell of rain and old books like perfume in the air. She only had to make it there before the sky opened up and she was swept out by the rising river and down to the sea.
There were two paths to take to get to the old plantation house from the tangled wilds of the cabin. One was a dilapidated, winding boardwalk over the shallow cypress swamp that led to the far edge of a ten acre stretch of pasture; the other was a narrow dirt road, a half-hidden off shoot of the service road running between two fields of sugar cane and down to the highway. Ezter preferred the boardwalk, in spite of the plague of mosquitos. The other pathway made it necessary to cover the remaining distance to the Plantation house on the service road, and that would mean she'd have to come up the main driveway, which led right past the stables. Ezter avoided those at all possible cost.
As she stepped onto the boardwalk she could feel the swamp brace itself for the storm, the air swollen in a deep inhale; neither still nor quiet, though it managed to seem both of those things all the same. Somewhere out of sight, nature continued on tentatively; snakes held their breath and tip toed around the fierce nutria, hunting and hiding and watching each other. The hawks and crows bullied fitful sparrows out of the safety of their perches, the papery tizzy of wings and outraged peeps broke into the chorus of cicadas singing a warning to each other about the coming deluge. When Ezter passed by, the insects and birds ceased their humming and fluttering, just for a second, to let her pass through in a bubble of false silence before resuming their songs and battles.
In the distance, a low rumble began in the sky. A growl from the throat of some ancient, nameless sky God, collecting his lightning bolts about Him and preparing to unleash a watery assault on the mortals below. Reminding them what was beyond their control, what they must capitulate to. Not just the weather, she thought, but the whims of the divine. Ezter inclined her head toward the encroaching black horizon and asked Him to wait twenty minutes more before drowning the earth in another world ending flood. 'Just let me get to the house so I can die with the smell of coffee and the taste of biscuits. I don't ask much', she prayed aloud.
Frogs and fish leapt in the air, pliéing mid-air before plopping back into the swamp to keep time with Ezter's quickening steps. Knobby cypress knees guided her along like road markers. Her father had always told her that the swamp was a friend to those who knew how to respect its' secrets, she supposed that's why she felt so at home here. Ezter had secrets of her own to be kept. All around her, the swamp swallowed her in a humid embrace, muffling her passage and keeping those secrets in exchange for her own silence. It was a pact she had made long ago with the spirits that perched amid wads of Spanish moss. She wouldn't disturb them if they didn't disturb her.
The boardwalk ended on dry land where a fence began and stretched all the way to the back garden of the Plantation house. It was lined with pecan trees and Ezter continued on under the outstretched arms of their branches, crossing a half dozen acres to the garden door at a slow trot. It was a roundabout path to get to the house, but Ezter liked it that way. She paused by the last pecan tree, still casting a shadow in the half blue half black sky, to take in the garden, it was a scene like a pastoral oil painting. Careful rows of summer vegetables, herbs planted in a line all along the fence, black speckled hens clucking carelessly in the dirt. As she passed through the gate, Ezter plucked a few of the deepest red tomatoes and a few of the still green, unripe ones on her way to the kitchen door. It wouldn't take much pleading to get Cali to fry up some green tomatoes and eggs to go along with those biscuits for breakfast.
The glow of the kitchen light was as warm as a fireside in the rapidly darkening storm-sky. She could see her Aunt Marietta through the kitchen window, brewing coffee and talking on the phone. Marietta was the office manager for Doucet Inc., the family company, but from the tireless hours she put in day in and day out, anyone might have thought she was the president. She probably should have been.
'Mr. Blackwell, I don't believe that is what was agreed upon in the contract which I faxed to your office not two days ago,' Marietta was saying into the phone as she poured Ezter a cup of coffee, 'I'll have Aaron look at the revision, but I can't make any promises.... Yes, have her send it over, I'm on my way in to the office. Thank you.'
'Trouble in sugar paradise?', Ezter blew on the piping hot coffee.
'American commerce, Ezter, is a dance between two unwilling partners competing for a very big, shiny trophy.'
'I can't even guess at what that means.'
'Maybe you would if you ever left the grounds.'
'Pass. I'll stay here and enjoy my ignorance, thank you.'
Marietta pursed her lips, 'You look like hell, honey. Not sleeping any better?'
'It's getting ready to storm out there, you better get moving if you want to stay ahead of it,' the subject of her bad sleeping habits never failed to annoy Ezter. Didn't they know that she'd sleep better every night if she could?
Marietta arched her brows and looked down at the newspaper, not reading it, just stifling the urge to maternally prod before she continued, 'Well, I'm glad you made it up to the house before it started. Mama would have been clucking like a mother hen in the windows waiting for you to get here.'
'How is she today?', Ezter knew that every day brought uncertainty where Cali was concerned.
Biting down hard on her lower lip to keep the worry out of her voice, she said as brightly as possible, 'Mama's good today. Real sharp. Yesterday afternoon was hard, the dementia came on suddenly in the middle of lunch and lasted nearly all night long. She was wandering around the house calling out my daddy's name. When I tried to tell her that daddy had passed, she got real angry. I don't suppose you remember mama when she was still a little fireball? No, you didn't meet her until she was already old and subdued, but man, when she was younger... She was a force of nature. Yesterday I saw a little flash of that zest, she threw a righteous fit. Called me a liar and tried to ground me for telling stories just to upset her. You should have seen her, one arm waving in the air, one hand on her hip, calling down fire and brimstone. But, it made me sad, too. Awful sad. To see just that flash of what she once was. She's better today though. I asked if she remembered it this morning when she got up and she brushed me off, said I was being dramatic. You know how it is.'
Marietta broke off when they heard the shuffle of slippered feet coming down the hallway into the kitchen, 'Ezter? That you I hear?'
'Yes, ma'am,' Ezter said brightly, rising to meet the old woman with a kiss.
'Oh, good. I was hoping I'd see you today. There's some zucchini in the garden that should be ready to be brought in, wait there and I'll get my boots.'
With a sideways glance out the window, Ezter reached for Cali's hand to stay her, 'Not this morning, Miss Cali. Look at that sky.'
Cali followed her gaze and saw the swell of clouds advancing across what was left of blue sky, 'Looks like we're in for a good one. I hope the lady peas don't drown.'
Cali sat at the counter across from Ezter and stared into her while Marietta bustled papers back into some semblance of order behind them.
‘How’s the calendula coming up at the cabin, Ezter?’, she finally said with a look that suggested it wasn't what was really on her mind.
‘The calendula sure looks pretty, but it’s not keeping the mosquitos away as well as when you're the one doing the tending. I can't figure out your secret, I've tried every trick I know and I'm still covered in bites from my knees to my ankles.’
‘You got to talk to them, that’s why.’
Cali shook her head and looked exasperated, ‘The calendula. Tell them that you’re grateful to them and then ask them to keep the mosquitos away. You’ll never get something you don’t ask for sweetly.’
‘I wish I’d known that when I was younger.’
Cali accepted a cup of coffee from her daughter and fixed Ezter with a disapproving eye, ‘I hope you're ready for a hair cut, because you’re gettin’ one whether you want it or not, bebette.’
Ezter put a hand to her wild mushroom colored hair, ‘I suppose I can’t say no, in that case.’
Marietta, gathering the last of her papers into a leather satchel, said, ‘Since it looks like you two are going to be housebound today, would you keep an ear out for the postman? I’ve got a delivery coming.’
Ezter nodded and smiled, ‘Sure will.'
She watched her aunt leave the house, dressed in an ivory pant suit with a pale yellow striped blouse. The last ray of sun glinted off her smooth, dark waves with sparks of amber before being swallowed by the gray sky. Ezter marveled at the easy beauty of her Uncle's wife, her elegantly sculpted jawline and full lips. Like a bronze statue, Ezter thought, not for the first time, as she pushed away a familiar twinge of jealousy.
Feeling dull and odd in comparison, she frowned, turning from the window to find Cali watching her.
‘You're a diamond in the rough, bebette, you just need a little faith and some spit polish,' it's what Cali had been saying to her since she'd come to live there In 1976.
Cali shuffled Ezter into a chair and brought over a wide toothed comb and a pair of scissors.
‘Like a lion and his mane,’ Cali said, her gnarled onyx fingers prodding at the untamed nest of hair, Ezter smiled to herself. ‘Why you don’t take better care of yourself, sugarplum? Ain’t nobody gonna be around to do it for you when I’m gone from the world.’
‘You’re gonna live to be a hundred and twenty-five, just like your granny did, Cali. By then, I’ll probably have been dead myself for twenty years.’
Cali’s fingers paused, she let out a low breath, ’Only the Loas know when it’s right to take you. And me, for that matter. You may as well learn how to take care of yourself, just in case. And my granny was only a hundred and eleven,’ she pulled at a knotted curl with her comb, ‘You wanna tell me about that dream, now?’
‘How did you know?’, Ezter started to ask, but stopped herself and said instead, ‘You’ve certainly got a way, Cali.’
Cali was the matriarch of a long lineage of Haitian-Creoles, she came from generations of wise women and healers, with all the trappings of weird powdered things in mojo bags and eerie poppets for a variety of occasions. Cali had an answer for everything from back ache to heart ache in her pantry, and she always got straight to the hidden heart of things with pointed questions, whether you were ready to give answers or not. Ezter couldn’t ever seem to pin down her own feelings on this mystical religion of womanhood, or any other sort of religion for that matter, mostly she leaned heavily into 'Agnostic' territory. But, she had to admit that Cali had never been wrong before. Most days, knowing that was good enough for her.
'Well?', Cali pressed.
‘No, not really I don’t. Not that you’d need me to, it’s the same one I always have,’ Ezter frowned and began winding a loose thread on the hem of her white sun dress around her finger.
Cali shook her head and sighed, ’You need to exorcise that man’s spirit from your body. He follows you like a black cloud these thirteen years. When are you gonna be done punishing yourself for sins of the past?’
‘Maybe I still deserve to suffer.’
‘Tsk. That’s childish, bebette. The grief and trouble that flows through a life is never meant to stay for good. It’ll eat away at you if you hold on to it. You’re supposed to wrap the pain in to yourself and transform it into something better, let it change you for the good and then let it go again. You haven’t done that. And your grandmother, she worry so about you.’
‘My grandmother died when I was fourteen, Cali.’
‘How else you think I know what she’s feeling?’, she pulled the last knot free from Ezter’s mane and began separating it in to three horizontal layers.
‘Well, tell her not to worry the next time you see her, then,’ it was all she could do not to roll her eyes at the old woman.
‘Don’t be flip, Ezter.’
‘I’m sorry, I don't mean to be. But you know how I feel about all that afterlife stuff. Anyway, I’m just not sleeping real well lately, I can't seem to pick up a breeze out at the cabin to save my life. Seems like all I have is sleepless nights and bad dreams these days.’
‘Is that the only thing weighing on you, Ezzie?’, she paused cutting Ezter’s hair to put a soft hand on the younger woman’s shoulder.
Ezter turned her head to look at the Cali, nobody had called her ‘Ezzie’ in a lot of years and the sound of that name spoken out loud was like a sword in her stomach. She could only meet Cali’s eye for a second before she had to turn away, hoping the flush on her cheeks went unnoticed, ‘I suppose you know that it’s not.’
‘You ready to talk about it?’
‘No ma’am, I don’t reckon,’ her voice sounded unintentionally cold, but she hadn’t spoken about those events in thirteen years and this morning was not the day for it, either.
Cali nodded and resumed cutting Ezter’s hair, ’Don’t wait too long, I’ve been watching you hold this pain inside you for years now and it’s been a burr in your heart far too long. It doesn’t matter how hard a thing you think it is to say, I’m telling you that the time has come to unburden yourself. It doesn’t have to be today, just know that you can tell me anytime.’
‘Seems to me you think you know what I have to say already,’ she pursed her lips tightly against the fear of that evil night.
‘It’s not what I know or don’t know that matters, Ezter. It’s the saying it out loud that will set you free.’
The haircut progressed in silence, Ezter chewing her lip distractedly, trying not to let her thoughts drag her down the rabbit hole of past events.
‘There. All set,’ Cali brushed hair off Ezter's shoulders.
Ezter tossed her fingers through the newly trimmed curls to shake out any loose strands of hair and Cali reached to set the scissors on the table. The clang made them both jump as the scissors glanced off the table’s edge and clattered onto the floor.
‘Geez Louise, that scared the gray into my hair,’ Ezter laughed and bent to retrieve the blades.
Cali caught her wrist in an iron grip and held her firm. Ezter gasped from the surprise of it, she may be ancient, but the old woman still had bite.
‘Look,’ Cali gestured with her chin at the scissors, they had landed point down and one side was stuck fast in the gold and white latticed linoleum floor of the breakfast nook, the other end was pointed in a jackknife like an arrow to the opposite wall.
‘Oh, that's nothing to get worked up over, Cali. I’m sure it’ll barely leave a mark. Anyway, with all the tromping around that goes on in here, I doubt Marietta will even notice a little knick in the flooring. If you don't mention it, neither will I.’
‘That's not what I mean, Ezter. Look where it’s pointing to.’
Ezter's brows folded into a thoughtful expression as she studied the protruding scissors. She knew there was probably some deeper meaning to this gesture that Cali was hoping she’d pick up on, but Ezter had never been any good with absorbing the myriad superstitions of old Southern women and didn’t know which one she was meant to recall now, ‘It’s pointing to the refrigerator. Does that mean we’re pre-destined to eat some eggs? Because if so, I’m willing to embrace my fate right now.’
‘Your sassy mouth is gonna get you in real trouble one day, girl,’ Cali frowned, ‘It’s pointing in the direction of the cabin. You expecting a visitor?’
‘No, ma'am,’ she shrugged, trying to picture the birds eye trajectory of the cabin in contrast with the extended scissor arm, ‘Nobody’s been back there besides Aaron since I moved in permanently six years back.’ Every now and then her uncle Aaron came around to make a few repairs to the roof or plumbing, but aside from that she had enjoyed complete solitude.
‘Then you best stay here tonight. Better yet, why don’t you go out to the fishing camp up river for a few days. Take the pirogue, I’ll tell Marietta you’ve got it. I’ll pack you up some food and you can take a few days by the water. It’s so hot out at the cabin, stayin’ closer to the Mississippi will be cooler than the bayou. Help you catch a good breeze and sleep better. And what you need is a few nights of good, hard sleeping.’
‘The fishing camp, have you lost your mind? You know that place is just a flophouse for the boys when they’re too drunk to sit up straight on the boat anymore. It’s a dingy, filthy room that smells like old socks and spilled beer. Not to mention the mosquitos are ten times worse there than at my place. I’ll be eaten alive, no ma'am,’ Ezter bent to snatch the scissors up onto the table. She was about to relate the story of the one and only night she had spent in the fishing camp when she eyed the old woman’s panic stricken face, ‘What on earth has got in to you?’
Cali stared across the back garden to the line of trees enclosing the front pasture, her eyes scanning back and forth as if she were watching tv instead of looking out the window, ’Someone is coming. Today. Someone is coming to see you.’
The hair on Ezter’s arm stood up instinctively before the rational part of her mind could brush the primitive fear away. She sighed, amused and slightly annoyed at her momentary fear. ‘Oh? Are they going to make me some eggs? Come on, Cali. Nobody is coming to see me. Nobody has come to see me in years,' which was mostly the truth.
The old woman scowled with determination, grabbed Ezter’s arm and dragged her into the room between the kitchen and dining room that had once been what they called a butler's pantry but was now filled floor to ceiling with shelves of herbs in amber glass jars, wooden boxes with faded labels, spools of colored threads and candles carved with symbols. There was a little antique desk against one wall, Cali rifled through a drawer and pulled out a small clay jar about the size of a pack of gum. The words ‘banish’ had been etched in the clay’s surface and the corked top sealed with red wax.
Cali stared at her fiercely with milky black eyes and pressed the jar into Ezter’s hand. In a voice hard with insistence she said, ‘Listen to me, Ezter. There is a man coming to see you today. Now, if you know what’s good for you, you’ll stay away from that cabin, stay far away from it. But since I know you're a hard headed woman and never listen to what’s good for you, I want you to take this. It’s black salt. You throw it after him when he goes so that he won’t ever come back again, you hear? He feels like trouble.’