Decatur was a busy street, and it was a bit of a do trying to get the catch of the day out of my cart. I could tell by the humidity that it was going to be another balmy New Orleans day. I could see the widow Gaultier rocking back and from on her porch with her thirty-something-year-old son Fabian leaning on the wrought iron railing. Folks around here liked to say that Fabian was a little slow. I’m here to tell you that boy was a full on helpless case of what happened when you allowed witchcraft to go unchecked. No jokes, no commentary just a man born with no screws to even loosen. He would make loud noises during the day or whenever he was excited. Don’t let the coonass find something to be happy about because the unearthly noise that followed was nothing if not a blatant disrespectful show of ungodliness. It just wasn’t right what we normal folk had to put up with. Maybe Gaultier had spent more time in church instead of conjuring spells this wouldn’t have happened.
Widow Gaultier was some oopdi do hoodoo woman. People came from miles around to get spells and potions. My father, long may he rot in hell with his father, told me never to go near the old witch’s house. If I did she would turn me into a frog, and throw me into the swamp with the gators. I don’t believe in the nonsense myself, but the merry widow Gaultier was raking in a lot of green by selling her spit in a bottle and calling it magic. While over here, I’m struggling to make ends meet. Nice guys always finish last I suppose. “Guess, the devil truly does take care of his own.”
Widow Gaultier looks up and sees me unloading my catch for the day. Waiting on the shopkeeper to cheat me out of my hard-earned money. I could hear Fabian sputtering over the fish I had caught, and begging widow Gaultier to let him come and see. I’m not afraid of the old goat, so I look her square in the eye warning her off. His blood-curdling gurgles might ruin my sale. Heaven knew he was already scaring off the fish for miles around as it was. Her brow lifts at my steady gaze, and she turns to Fabian.
“No Beybey, Mr. Altier doesn’t look as if he wishes to be disturbed today.” The widow rises, and her son rises with her. He looks forlornly at my cart, and followers her into the house without another word.
The merchant comes out and gives me a pittance of what my catch is worth. I go straight to the bar to my part time job of card sharking. There was more than one way of skinning a rabbit after all.
The next morning my head is pounding something awful. I didn’t scratch the surface of breaking even last night at the card table. This, unfortunately, put me into a hole the size of New Orleans. I had to get up twice as early as I normally did so I could recoup my losses from last night. It didn’t help that Fabian had caught some sort of mania in the wee hours of the night. He caterwauled until the sun began to chase away the evening. Between the booze, the lateness of the evening, and his squalling it had been hell just to drag myself out of bed. I ought to go over to widow Gaultier’s house and demand my payment out of her!
I get up in what was left of the morning and got my cart ready to go. I was behind on my rent, so I had to have a good catch today. No doubt about it. I hear Gaultier’s door open, and a mixed breed dressed in a gown way too expensive for these parts comes out. She was a looker for sure. The kind of lady you’d consider going clean for. Do the whole forsaken all earthly pleasures and willingly jump the broom bit. The widow tucks something in the girl’s, and hands and she, in turn, gives the widow a pouch that I can hear jingle all the way from across the street. Gaultier didn’t care who she drug to hell with her it seemed. I nod at the girl as she goes by. She waltzed past me like I wasn’t anything special, only giving a polite nod in return. I might as well not have been standing there. She thought was too good for me. I hoped she burned in the same hell that Gaultier was going to be consigned to.
I looked up and saw that Gaultier was watching me. I nod to be polite and she returned it. She looked like she had something to say, but her son started making those noises again. Gaultier turned without another word and went back into the house. Not so even as much as an apology for all the noise! The nerve of some people I tell you. It didn’t matter, though. I finished hitching my cart, and my horse Jezebel and I head towards Pontchartrain. Hopefully, the fish were biting today. If not, I was going to be in a whole heap of trouble.
I throw my coffee pot against the wall. I had hardly caught anything! The merchant “charitably” gave me a few more coins then my catch deserved, but I threw them back in his face. I was an Altier! We didn’t take charity from no one! What was even more humiliating was that the widow and her pinhead son had been watching. Not only watching but gnawing on large slabs of jerky. Here I am spiraling into homelessness without a decent meal for weeks, and there they are rubbing it in my face. The world wasn’t fair!
The widow gets up to receive a customer while I’m loading the truck, and they all go inside. I slam my door and sit on my bed for a few minutes trying to shove the rage down. I look out my window at the sound of a calliope. It sounded like a circus. I move over to my window, and I see that it wasn’t a circus, but a freak show. One of the oddities was holding a sign that said they were paying big bucks for new acts. I hear Fabian’s disjointed yowling, and I have an idea that’s going to get me out of the mess I found myself in. He had come back outside and was waving and calling out unintelligible gibberish at the freaks that were wandering down the boulevard.
I go back outside and pretend to get my cart ready for another fish run. Fabian stops calling out to the parade to watch me work. I wave him over, and he shambles over with a wide smile. “Hey Fabian, I’m going out to go fishing again. You want to come this time?”
“Yes, sir I want to fish!” Fabian bounces on his toes but looks back at his house with a worried look. He hadn’t gotten permission from the widow, and even his addled brain knew he couldn’t go without her say so. That was something I couldn’t allow, however. Not for this plan to work.
“Come on and hop in. It’ll be an adventure. She’ll be so busy with work she won’t even know.” I climb up onto my cart and pat the seat beside me. I knew that whenever Gaultier took in a customer she would be there for hours.
Fabian seemed to think about it for a minute, and knew his mother would be there for a long time as well. He nodded and climbed in. The loose strap of his cover all’s hitting the cart as he settled next to me. I didn’t feel any pricks to my conscious as I put Jezebel in gear. I was doing the widow a favor after all. Who was she going to watch this big oaf when she was gone? Not only would he have a job, but a place to stay for the remainder of his days. Hopefully far from here.
We take the dirt roads up towards Metairie. The police wouldn’t allow the Freakshow into the city, but they were able to be out in the country and do as they pleased. I pull up to their camp and hop down from the cart. Fabian was looking around worriedly. He had never been this way before, and he looked worried.
“What are we doing here Mr. Altiers?” Fabian played with the strap of his covers all worriedly and continuously looked around trying to figure out where we were.
“Never you mind, Fabian. You just sit here, and don’t move.” I dust myself off and run my hands through my hair trying to be presentable as possible. I was going to be handling business after all. They needed a freak and I had one to sell them.
“Then we go fish?” I rolled my eyes at the hopeful sound of Fabian’s voice and only nod. I was busy practicing what I was going to say to the manager when I saw him.
I walk up to the largest tent and get the show master. He was playing a game of solitaire, but rose to see what I had brought him. We head out to my cart, and there’s Fabian playing with a group of freaks. He was making this jerky cackling sound that passed for a laugh through his fleshy lips. He sees us, and immediately stops laughing he looks at the floor timidly as if he was doing something wrong. Of all times for him to be worried about the noise, he was making. Could have used more of that last night!
The show master looks him over and turns to me with a frown. “We can’t use him Monsieur. He’s not a freak. He is as God made him.”
“The hell he’s not a freak! Did you hear him, there is nothing Godly about this one! Go on Fabian, make that sound you were making earlier!” I look at Fabian, and he sits on my cart and just watches me with this dumb expression on his face like he didn’t know what I was talking about!
The show master frowns and shakes his head once more. “Take him home Monsieur. I can’t be sure, but I have a feeling that the one he belongs to would not appreciate finding him gone.” With a pointed look, the show master gathers his freaks and head back towards the tent leaving me standing by my cart seething.
I get back up and Fabian gives me a smile that’s as stupid as the day is long. “We fish now?”
I turn to look at him, and something in me snaps. “Yeah, Fabian. I’ll take you to the bayou now, I guarantee.”
It had been a few weeks since Fabian went missing. The widow had closed up shop for about a month mourning for her son. Good riddance was all I had to say. Not only did I sleep better at night, but my catches had gotten better without him scaring away the fish.
I had just completed my sale with the merchant when I felt the skin on the back of my neck begin to prickle. I turned to see the widow staring at me. I stare her down, but something in her eyes frightened me. I’ve never been scared of the old goat, but something about her stare was unnerving. I nod and she nods back without breaking eye contact. A commotion starts up down the street, and I hear shouts that they found Fabian’s body. I look back at the widow Gaultier, and her yellow eyes still hadn’t moved off of me. I quickly finish packing up my truck and head over to Bourbon Street. I needed a drink and a woman, and Storyville was the place to get both.
That evening I got home around one in the morning. I’m considering taking the day off. The whiskey and the whore I found were still on the tip of my tongue. They had worn me out, and I felt I deserved a day of relaxing after all of the hard work I had been putting in. I hear a tapping on my door, and a turn around to see who was bothering me at this unholy hour of the night. Whoever it was going to get my boot on the seat of their pants. I open the door, about to rain some fire and brimstone, and come up short when I see the widow Gaultier standing outside of my door with her fists clenched.
A deep sigh filled my lungs as I impatiently cross my arms. I lean against my door and glare at her for a minute waiting to see what in hell it was she wanted. My brows only lifting when it didn’t look as if she was going to say anything. She glares right back at me, and I start to feel a chill race up my spine. If I wasn’t a gentleman I would have just shut the door in her face. “Can I help you, Ms. Gaultier?”
“You killed my Fabian.” The widow’s voice was low, but I heard her loud and clear. She said it with such certainty that I broke out in a cold sweat and almost confessed right there. That was before I remembered that there was no evidence that I even touched a hair on Fabian’s head. If there had been, the police would have come down and I would have been hung in the middle of Canal street.
“Good night madam Gaultier.” I take off the more respectful “Ms.” That wasn’t for witches that practiced the dark arts in their living room.
I begin to firmly shut the door in her face, but her foot stopped me. I look up to give the harridan a piece of my mind only for her to open her hand and purse her lips. She took a deep breath, and whatever powder she held in the palm of her hand flew around my head in a cloud of acrid dust that made my lungs and eyes burn. I stagger back and I hear the widow step in. She begins rummaging through my kitchen and I hear the sound of her unsheathing my fishing knife. I frantically rub my eyes trying to see and look up just in time to see her take a swing at me. I duck, and she catches my forearm leaving a large gash up to my elbow. I scream out and watch as she takes the knife, and slice her own hand with it.
“You should have returned him to me!” Her voice was a soft hiss, but she stepped away and began whispering strange phrases to herself. A mixture of French and Spanish that chilled my blood with its methodical drone.
The whispers became a breathy chant under her breath, and I don’t wait around to find out what she’s saying. I run outside, and suddenly I can hear Fabian’s screams coming from my little shack. I don’t know what’s going on, but I make a mad dash to my cart. Fortunately, I had been too drunk earlier to unhitch Jezebel. I tug at her reigns, and soon we are careening down Decatur as if the devil was on our heels! I look back and see Gaultier slowly walking out of the front door with a murderous look on her face. She sees me, and her hands lift as if to pull me back. I snap the leather straps harder across Jezebel’s back, and we speed off into the night.
I drive for what feels like ages before I chance a look-back. We were no longer in New Orleans proper. More like the outskirts where the trash lived amongst the hanging moss and muddy estuaries of the bayous. I shook my head trying to clear it from Fabian’s screams. The sound was following me no matter what street I turned on. My mind races trying to make a plan past the noise in my head. There wasn’t any evidence. I’m not even sure how she found out. I didn’t have any family, so I could disappear anywhere. No one would come asking for me later. I could hop on the steamboat up and go start a whole new life up North. I look back once more to make sure I was in the clear. I almost fall out of the cart when I see Gaultier right behind me with her arm still outstretched, and on foot no less! I shake my head trying to clear the alcohol out of my system. Between Fabian’s screams and the hallucinations, I would be lucky if the sheriff didn’t pick me up. I urge Jezebel to go faster. I was sorry to do this to the poor girl, but I had to get out of New Orleans for good. That witch wasn’t going to hang me out to dry. Not in this lifetime.
I look back again to make sure I lost her. I scream and cross myself at the site before me. The witch was in the back of my cart with my fishing knife still in hand. I desperately turn Jezebel to the left attempting to throw her out of my cart. She falls to the ground and the moment I hear her land I kick Jezebel back into a hard gallop. If I could just get to the riverboat I could get away from Gaultier and the townspeople. I know they will come after me with their pitchforks and tar after what I had done.
I get to the river and I see the ship master on the dock checking his pocket watch. I stagger from the cart trying to suppress the sound of the cries in my head. What I wouldn’t give to hear one of Fabian’s happy yowls right now! I loosely tie Jezebel up to a post. I’d be lucky if she didn’t run off with as much skill as I tethered her with. I get to the dock and try to dust myself off. I was worse for wear, but he would have to excuse me I was running for my life. “When’s the next boat coming?”
“Calm down. She’ll be here by first light. What’s in tarnation has gotten into you? Have you been drinking?” The shipmaster eyes me with a large amount of distrust that I deserve, and I hold my hands up in surrender.
“No sir, it’s just always been my dream to go up North. I finally have the money to do it.” The shipmaster seems to accept my story and wanders back down the dock to continue his rounds.
I’m frustrated as all get out, but there was nothing for it. I would just have to hang around with my cart until the boat arrived. I would try to sell Jezebel to someone who needed a ride in town. If not, then I would just leave her there. She was a good horse someone would pick her up. I turn to go ask the river master another question only to draw up short when I meet widow Gaultier’s fiery gaze. She smiles at me, and her head cants to the side as she looks me over.
She shakes her head and a braided lock falls from the rag that was tied around it. “Oh, there won’t be any escape for you Altier! You will burn in this life and the next. I swear it on Fabian’s bones and the cross you pretend to worship, you will!”
I’m not given any time to scream. I feel hands lock onto my shoulders from behind and a strike to my head. I can’t hear much beyond Fabian’s screams, but I can hear the sound of the steam whistle clear as day. Taunting me with an escape that was I never going to get. As I black out I can feel my lips stretch into a relieved smile. The screaming had finally stopped.
I groggily come to and I have no idea where I am. However, I can tell by the smell of rotting plant life that we’re near the swamp. As my eyes adjust to the low firelight I have a sinking feeling that I’m at the spot where I helped Fabian meet his end. I try to get up, but I find that I’m tied to the wheel of my own cart. I jerk back and forth trying to free myself and only succeed in scraping my wrist raw. So, preoccupied with my useless escape attempts that I miss the chanting at first. Once it got closer I could not only hear the chanting but see the lights of the torches that were coming with it. My heart races in fear, and as the mob gets closer I can see grey and brown bodies slowly dancing and stomping around me. Each one clothed in white robes, and skirts that practically glowed against their skin in the light.
I yank and tug at my wrist in frustration. I was not going to let them take me without a fight. “Undo my arms if you dare! At least I was man enough to do what I did without help! Face me down or get a constable! You have no right to judge me! If you don’t you’re just murderers the same as me!” I scream out, but no one stops their chant to help me.
I see the merchant, and I call out to him to undo my wrist, and he dances past me. My breath catches as I see that half of his face was painted with a skull. I begin jerking my hands in vain and almost dislocate my arms for my troubles. The chanting and stomping continue around me. The women that were gathered had large magnolia blossoms strung through their hair, and one, in particular, makes me stop. It was the girl that ignored me the morning I took Fabian. She sneered down at me, and I spit in her direction. I wouldn’t give her the satisfaction of begging for my life.
“It’s almost time.” Her words were a breathy whisper that would have set my whole soul on fire were it not for the terror that filled my chest. Seeing my fright, she laughed and turned away in a dance that was probably ancient before it even made it to these shores.
They all stop and stare at me, and for the moment I think I’ve gotten through to them with my screams until they all start to smile. One man steps over with a skull-painted face and checks his watch, and I recognize the boat master with a sinking feeling in my chest. I had been out for hours, and it had to have been at least midday if not later. However, the swamp was dark at the best of times. The spot I had taken Fabian was darker than pitch and filled with alligators to boot.
“It’s almost time.” The moment the words rumble past his lips. The widow Gaultier melted out of the shadows followed by the circus master and one of the freaks that had been playing with Fabian that day. Her steps were sure and without fear of falling into the swamp. She was in her full priestess robes, and long loc’ed braids fell down her back in waves that melted into the darkness around them. The oddity that brought up the rear held a silver dish in his hands and kneeled beside me on the ground. I look up at the freak show manager and I knew all too well what had happened.
“I told you to return him. Now there’s no help for it or you.” The man shook his white grease-painted face and stepped back giving the widow room to pull my hair back exposing my neck to the air.
“I told you, that you would pay.” Gaultier shakes her head, and the chants get louder as she lifts my hunting knife high enough for me to see. I glare into the widow’s soulless eyes, and she strokes my face with the knife before I feel a sharp pain across my skin. All I hear at first is the rushing of my blood and the soft chants of those crowded into the clearing.
I hear my blood splash against the silver dish, and I see another oddity bringing in a wet sack into the middle of the clearing. My eyes fly up to meet Gaultier’s, and she holds her finger up to her lips telling me to be quiet as if she hadn’t just sliced my voice box open. The chants grow louder as my life pumps away into the dish. I watch as they spread the sack out, and the freak holding the dish filled with my blood runs over to the sack. Widow Gaultier walks over to them without another look in my direction. She throws something into the dish and steam begins to rise into the air. My eyelids grow heavy as I watch them pour my blood out onto the gathered pile of what looks like meat.
The clearing goes silent, and they all watch to see what the evening had wrought. I’m not sure how much of my blood was taken, but my head is starting to loll about. My eyes roll up, and the sack of meat begins to twitch. Soon what I thought was meat is an arm that’s starting to pull itself together limb by desiccated limb. Each extremity crawls onto and over itself trying to find a way to puzzle itself back into a semblance of the human being that it once was. I watch in horror as an abomination of flesh and sinew gathers together and begins trying to stand. Once the head is put back, I see Fabian standing in the middle of the clearing stretching himself out. He turned to me with a mishappen smile, and I convulse with the force of the screams I could no longer produce.
The widow came towards me with my knife and cutting away my restraints. I had assumed she would finish killing me now that there was no longer any use for me. I heard more chanting, and the icy fingers of dread gripped what was left of my heart beat. A dark figure stands over me, and waves a hand over my near lifeless body. I feel arms reaching out of the earth and begin pulling me down into the swamp. My mouth opened and was soon filled with swamp water that I had no ability to cough up. The hands continued dragging me down until I reached a cavern filled with walls built of churning fire. I landed with a huff and looked around. When I saw the face of my old man and my grandfather in the flames I knew that there was only one place I could be.
I held my head trying to ignore the despair that was seeping into my bones. I saw a tall man with loc’ed hair and white skull painted on his face, and assumed it was Old Scratch. He sat on an old stone chair playing solitaire on a table filled with nine seals. He grinned at me with pearly whites only marred by a single gold tooth. He merely laughed and shook his top hat covered head as he watched me try not to go into hysteria.
“You should have returned him” Was all he said before pulling a familiar watch out of his pocket. His face contorting into the face of the ship master’s before settling back into its original form. Though the amused smile never left his face. “But don’t worry, I always take care of my own after all.”
He waved his ring encrusted hand, and soon my father pulled himself from the fiery wall. He gathered me into his arms and I found that I had regained the ability to scream. My father began walking me back towards my grandfather who wrapped his arms around my shoulders and pulled us both back in. The man with the top hat watched until I was embedded into the flames before continuing his game of Solitaire.
© 2017 by SL. Williams