Saturday, April 30, 2016
The Ghosts of Truitt's Crossing. (Rewritten)
It was a damnable paradox. If the windows were screened enough to keep the mosquitoes out of the house then it was far to hot and humid inside for a human being to endue it. There were insects in the swamp that did nothing but sing and hum all night long, there were frogs who screamed until dawn, and all the while there was a steady warm rain as if the whole of the Universe did nothing but urinate on Southern Louisiana for days. I knew, and everyone else who was paying attention knew, that sugar cane was a dying crop. Slavery would come to an end after Mr. Lincoln’s War had its way with us and most of us knew it. I hated this life. I hated The South. I hated Don Pierre the overseer for how he treated the slaves, and I hated slavery. Yet there was a slow and steady trickle of gold that made its way into my hands and there was an eager banker in New Orleans who opened an account in New York for me under an assumed name. I watched the people I owned as property being beaten into a yellow metal that would make me comfortable for the rest of my life. Their own lives would end in misery and death. They spent each night chained to the floors of their hovels. I stood naked on the balcony of the mansion I owned and felt a thousand mosquitoes descend upon me instantly, as if they had foreseen my coming. For a full minute I tried to endure what they endured each night but for only a few seconds did I manage. I knew that I condemned these people to their fate. I knew I lived upon their despair. But the plantation owned by the father of my late wife was useless as anything but a sugar cane plantation. He was in New York and she in the cemetery beyond the house. He wanted me to ride out the war until the bitter end and I promised him I would. After the war, with the money we made on the plantation along with the gold he coaxed out of the Yankees for building cannons, we would return to the South and rebuild, and own much better, and much more land. John Roundtree was nothing if not a thinker and a man of money. He still treated me like a son, but every time I drank I wondered if he had not allowed me to rot in this festering near jungle that grew nothing but cane and mosquitoes. And there was a ferry that ran from nowhere to nowhere, or at least did before the war. They called it Truitt’s Crossing, but I never discovered who the Truitt was. I thought about that when I drank.
And drink I did. What else was there for me to do? Mr. Roundtree’s men in Baton Rouge took very good care of my money. Don Pierre seemed to love his work with a frenzy that defied the imagination of the condemned. The punishments he chose for the slaves were as severe as they were imaginative. Men were locked in a box near the edge of the swamp with nothing but their arms and legs sticking out. By morning only a stump remained. Most bleed to death but a very few survived to be hauled to the field and whipped to death for not working. The rest knew what it meant to try to run or not to work, but they also knew that even in work, there was death, albeit a slower one, it was not as gruesome. I drank more and more each day and smoked more each night.
I awoke with a start, the jug of rum still in my lap, the simple drinking cup of a slave in my hand and I heard the scream. I stood and nearly fell, and in the darkness saw fire and I smelled the smoke of the hovels burning. I had taken some put some opium in my pipe and I had drank rum. In a near stupor I had gone out to the hovels and released the slaves, unchained them, and I had given one of them the keys to the house where Don Pierre lived. The Yankees had taken Vicksburg a while back and now there were rumors they were spreading out all over the low country. I heard Don Pierre scream again and I knew they had put him into the box. They looted his house and had set it ablaze. Oddly, they did not touch mine. Would the Yankees see the fire and investigate? I thought they might. I didn’t care. I expected as much mercy from the Yankees as Don Pierre had shown the slaves. To many of the Yankees this house would be a symbol of everything that was wrong in their world. They would loot it; the paintings on the wall, some of the pieces were great works, objects that I had loved for years, and I could envision the looters growing weary of carrying them and casting them aside into a ditch, or using the canvas as tinder. The silverware, artfully molded and forever polished, would be melted down into lumps. Lorilee’s jewelry, passed down from seven generations of the Roundtree family, would be snatched away by grubby hands that would never know the story of their creation or care. The house itself, a jewel in its own right, would be burned to the ground. And what of Lorilee’s crypt? I struggled to my feet again and saw that the fires were burning down. How long had I been passed out this time?
What might I tell you of Lorilee at this moment? She was sixteen when we married. Young, perhaps, a wisp of a woman, the youngest daughter of John Roundtree, yet full of ambition to be wed and to be a mother. She had the fairest of skin and the white hair of one much older, nearly transparent was she. Her eyes were as green as the grass on a hill and her smile was like the sun. The disease and the foulness of the air of this place sickened her and the birth of a child was far too great for her slight body to bear. My son breathed once, cried not at all, then went to join his mother in the darkness of eternity. May my soul be damned for not following them that day!
There was a sound. The Yankees had come. For the sound was that of a team of horses being whipped forward, driven hard, and the cry of the driver who snapped a whip over their heads. I went to get my pistol and was determined not to be captured or tormented. I would die with my blood pouring from my body or from some great wound. Loot this house? Never! I took the lantern and flung it against the wall and it set ablaze my home.
“Robert Holley!” and I recognized the voice at once. It was not the Yankees!
“Robert Holley!” Lankford Waterford shouted. “Open your door to me! I am in great need!”
“Fool!” I fairly screamed at him. “What business have you here?” I meant to rush upstairs and try to quell the flames but could think of no reason to do so. It would end tonight. For it was likely the Yankees had let Lankford pass just to see where he led, and his passing, so quick and urgent, would lead them here. Yet without permission or my bidding Lankford pushed his way into my doomed house near the point of exhaustion and panting.
What drove this man? Here was someone who never made a true living at work or overseeing work, or even born to idleness. Lankford Waterford’s family was not wealthy but other than he, were good people. He was an adventurer, a wanderer, and more than a bit of a sluggard. While others went to war he went about the business of nothing with more passion than those who sought glory on the field of battle. Yet, Lankford had been, and was, I admit, a friend of mine. In the early days in the swamp he had lent his hands and back into building this place. Much rum and even more wine did he consume, and I was very careful not to leave Lorilee alone with him, but he gave of himself and his time true. At length, and after a gulf or two of rum, he caught his breath.
“Robert,” he panted, “true friend and man of God, hear me, evil I have done this night and worse evil follows from behind, but I know these roads better than any man, you know this, and you know that whatever else may be said, never was my soul in great peril for my actions, wanton as they have been, I have never been truly evil! Yet this night I have brought calamity forth in a manner that cannot be explained easily or quickly, and it is in haste I come.”
“Lankford!” I exclaimed. “Speak not of evil! There is very little here for me to offer you and even as we speak the flames from a broken lantern devour my home. There is nothing left for me here. Let us leave together.”
Even as the first wisps of smoke began curling about the ceiling, Lankford paused to look, as if he just realized what I had said. “Robert, I have done murder. If those I have killed are not in sacred ground ere the sun arises, their souls will forever haunt this earth! We must make haste! I know of the crypt next to that of Lorilee, forever bright and amazing child! We must put those I have killed next to her and we must pray to God the souls of the dead remain forever trapped there!
“Murder?” I could barely managed a whisper. “I stand here amongst ruin and fire and disaster and you bring even more, and worse to me?”
“That is who this man is and this is what he does.” And it seemed that a man had appeared out of the smoke. “It is I, William George, this man has murdered. He has seduced my wife, lay in my bed as it was his own, and when he was caught there he came at me with a knife. My pistol’s shot was errant, and my wife was slain. I he slew with his knife, but both our deaths lay upon his soul like a stone, and it is to hell he will be dragged!”
I stepped back and it seemed that my head swam in waters swirling around the room like the smoke. Here before me stood a living man, Lankford, and here stood before me the dead. I had heard of ghosts and spirits, and always I was wary of dismissing them but here was someone clearly from the beyond. He was dressed as if he were alive, yet his skin glowed with a darkness. Light seemed not to touch him but rather it was absorbed like cloth will drink water. His face seemed as if it were in shadow and his eyes were black pits with no white or color at all. His hands were at his sides and they moved not at all when he spoke. His feet did not move yet he glided towards Lankford and Lankford recoiled from him.
Was this really William George? Who did not know of him? His ships brought from Africa the very slaves that worked this land and he had evaded the Yankee navy many times. No patrol could touch his sloops and he braved storms that frightened even the most stout sea captains. Even in death George looked the part of a man of the seven seas. He was a large man and chesty. His beard was solid grey, from what I could tell, but younger men shied away from conflict with him.
“What would you have me do, Captain?” I asked but my voice seemed to be more of a ghost than he.
“Stop!” and once again I felt my blood turn to water and my bones to thin twigs of the first days of spring. Through the closed door a woman wafted as if she were walking through the screens that kept mosquitoes at bay. Tall was she, and even in death, stately and proud. She lifted a ghostly finger at George and he quivered in darkness. “Stop!” she repeated. “For neither man has told the truth here.”
“Carah!” George shouted. “Be thee silent, my wife, I bid thee to speak no more!”
“Wife?” the ghost replied.”Wife? What wife had you but that of your ship? You and my father treated me as goods to be bargained for, and he gained access to your fleet and you gained access to my body. Yet no child, no son have I brought forth for you! Like a ship that sails infrequent, I have no cargo to discharge! Wife? You married into a trading company and no more!” Carah turned and then pointed at Lankford. “And you!” Lankford backed away from her finger as he might a loaded rifle. “You were in my bed more frequent than my husband, but your time was spent more with him. It is not unlike a man to take his friend’s bed, but you seemed to fear no discovery. With my time you seemed practiced yet there was a facade I could not figure.”
Carah stopped speaking and turned to me, “But no matter, this one is right, you must bury us in sacred ground this night or we will not know peace, me least of all. My mother was accused of being a witch and escaped hanging only because she married well. But mark the truth, sir, these two both have shared my bed, and I think they have done so without my being there. The truth is that my husband’s aim was not untrue, but he murdered me. And at that moment he would be free to do with his life as he pleased, but he trusted not Waterford’s silence. When he turned the gun on his lover it misfired and Waterford killed him. These two are naught but those who would hide who they are, and there is no sin in this. But to kill others to bury a secret is to risk more than I can tell you. Quickly, sir, you must get my body into the ground lest the sun rises upon those who have done me evil, for it is not ghosts you must fear but…”
There was a scream. Don Pierre was at last taken by one of the creatures of the swamp and his voice cut through the lateness of the night like a knife. The ceiling crumbled and fell in. I ran for a window and threw myself out of it. When I hit the ground there was smoke and cinders and there, above the din of my home crashing down to the earth full of flames was the laughter of a woman, strong above all things alive.
I lost everything in the fire. The Yankees followed the sign of fire and smoke and even as I stood watching all burn they came and clasped me in the very chains my slaves had once worn. I was dragged away and thrown into a cell with many more men like me and there we stayed for months, before the end of the war. I made my way to New York, finally, and made a new life there but one day there was a man who came to see me. Don Pierre had survived the box. The Yankees had freed him but he had lost a leg. He came to me to kill me, but his aim untrue for his hands still shook. He was easy to subdue, more frail than any child, and he told me after I disarmed him that he blamed me not at all for setting the slaves upon him, for he owned up he deserved no less. But there were ghosts in the swamp now, and would always be, and for that we should both die.
“So do you believe in ghosts?” the student asked as the others sat in silence.
“No, don’t be silly.” She told them. “It’s perfectly safe out in the swamp if you’re careful and we’ll all be careful.”
“But what about the four people who died there ten years ago, on the same date that four people died ten years before that?” The student felt a little silly for speaking out loud.
“They wandered away from the dig site.” She explained. “It’s easy to get lost if you wander.”
“I have heard that ghosts are the spirits of people who are confused as to how they died, and to create ghosts, you have to make sure they never know why they were killed.” Another student joined the conversation. “And that all of them are invoked by witches.”
“Witches now?” She laughed. “Werewolves next?” The whole class laughed.
“I’m sorry, Dr. Wilson.” The Student apologized.
“It’s okay,Waterford,” she said, “and call me Carah when we are in the swamp. Being there makes us family.”