In my time I seen some mighty perplexing things on this here river. One night one of those big steamboats ran aground and you know what? The folks inside just kept on gambling and singing and drinking as though nothing adverse had ever happened. I don’t think they wanted to know what kind of danger they was in.
I seen some sad things too. Things that make you stop and wonder how much misery there can be in some folk. One day I seen a crying baby in a box floating down the river just like Moses, only there was no Pharaoh’s daughter to save it.
But most of the time there are wonders so magnificent you wish you would never grow old. There are the days when the sun sets all magenta and gold behind the Cypress trees with their branches like arms a-twisting in the breeze and reaching down to the water as if they was dancing. Then mullet leap out of the river, all golden in the dying sun, looking for all the world like so many coins scattered by a rich planter. And sometimes I see a gator waddle down the bank and slide into the water with a gentle whoosh. Ah yes, they was joyous times, golden times, when the creator seemed to be just sitting right down there on the river bank admiring his work.
Yet there was one occasion I wish I could unsee everything I seen.
* * * *
It had been raining close on a week. The day it stopped I was down near where the bayou meets the river, eyes fixed on a blue heron. She walked upright and stiff like a Southern gentleman. Then she spied a fish, and with a strike that fast I could barely see it, caught the fish in her golden bill and tossed her head back and gulped it down. Presently the heron glanced up, fear in her eyes. She lifted her pretty blue wings and flew away to the other side of the river.
The source of the heron’s agitation was the arrival of a pale-skinned girl in a green hooped skirt, her golden ringlets topped by a delicate lace bonnet. From the look of her clothes and her bearing she must have come from a well-to-do family, maybe the tobacco plantation a few miles to the east. She stood there all pretty like, leaning against the trunk of a Cypress, sometimes fanning herself, and occasionally running her hand through some Spanish Moss. All the whiles she kept looking back up the bayou then out across the river then back up the bayou again.
With all the recent rain, the air was moist, yet warm, and full of a kind of expectation. The sky was a heavy gray and felt like rain could come down in torrents any minute. A sharp crack of thunder made the girl jump.
That girl must have been standing there near on an hour when there came a hoot like an owl from near the trees. She glanced up the bayou and whistled. The owl hooted back. Then I seen this man emerge from the trees. He was a dark man, in a sweat-soaked check shirt, torn calico britches and bare feet.
‘Noah, you made it,’ called the girl and she ran up and threw her arms around him.
‘Deborah, I’m so happy to see you,’ he said, and picked her up and spun her. He almost fell as he got caught up in her hooped skirt. He kissed her and she kissed him right back.
Noah unslung something from his shoulder. He unrolled a kind of groundsheet.
Soon they was kissing and cuddling and lay down on the sheet as naked as Adam and Eve. Now, I’ve been around and I know what people do; and I knew they was fornicating, and enjoying it mightily by the sounds of things.
When it was over, I heard Deborah say, ‘Noah, when are we going to get away from all this. I want us to be married and make us a home and start a family.’
‘Soon, Deborah. I know some people from the Railroad. They are going to help me get to Canada. Just a few more days and I’ll be gone from here forever.’
They embraced. Noah pulled their clothes over them like blankets and soon they fell asleep in each other’s arms.
* * * *
I seen something wriggle along the ground. A cottonmouth, make no mistake. It slithered down the bank and into the river. I was mighty pleased it paid no heed to the young lovers. One bite from a cottonmouth and either of them would be shaking hands with their creator. As I was watched the snake coiling and uncoiling its body in the water I heard other people’s voices.
Far out in the river was a small skiff with three young pale men in it. One was standing in the front with the other two rowing. Their voices sounded harsh across the water, like a crack of lightning. I knowed straight away they was trouble.
As the skiff got closer I had a good look at the man who was standing up. He had dark hair and a scowl on his face. He pointed towards the lovers. ‘There they is. Quiet now boys and lean on them oars,” he said.
‘Alright Cain, We’s a-rowing just as fast as we can,’ said one of the other men.
It was then that I nearly broke my vow not to interfere in the ways of people. I to’d and fro’d about waking up them two lovebirds and I really wish I did. It will haunt me for a long time but who would listen to someone like me?
The skiff pulled up on the bank and Cain leapt out. The two rowers got out next. I seen one had a rope, and the other a shotgun. Cain prodded Noah with his boot and spat on him for good measure. When Noah sat up he had a shotgun levelled at his chest.
‘God almighty,’ cried Noah, grabbing hold of a shirt to cover hisself. Deborah shrieked and picked up her dress and held it in front of her.
‘So what do we have here?” said Cain, circling the pair slowly. ‘If it ain’t Miss Deborah from the Adams’ plantation being seduced by one of her slaves. My, my, that is something worth seeing. Ain’t that right Jacob, Abe?’
‘I think its god-damned unnatural,’ said Jacob.
Abe had a downright savage look on his face. I sweared he was about to fire that shotgun any minute. ‘What are we gonna do with them?’ he said.
‘Let me think on it,’ said Cain. Malevolence flashed from his dark eyes. ‘String him up,’ he said, pointing his chin at Noah.
Deborah screamed. Cain slapped her so hard she fell to the ground.
Jacob, who was holding the rope, made a noose that quick I could tell he’d done it before. With Abe still holding the shotgun, Jacob and Cain wrestled the noose around Noah’s neck and hung him off of a branch of a Cypress tree.
‘Hold on boys,’ Cain said, and he went over to the skiff and fetched a bottle. He drank some. ‘Just the thing,’ he said and passed it to the others.
He burped. And with eyes narrowed like a cottonmouth’s he looked over Deborah. ‘Now let’s show Miss Adams how us white folks does it.’
I ain’t going to repeat what I seen next. Nobody could describe it and live with their selves. The things those men did to that poor girl are just not natural. I don’t know how long they was there defiling the girl and drinking from that bottle before Cain shouted to the others.
‘We can’t let her go back.’
‘What do you mean?’ said Abe.
Cain’s eyebrows were all screwed up and this ghastly grin came over his face. He picked up the shotgun that was resting against a tree and stomped over to where Deborah was lying sobbing on the ground. He put the rifle against Deborah’s temple and blew half her head off. I jumped. Birds all over the bayou complained and flew away across the dirty grey sky. The trunks and leaves of those beautiful trees were covered in human blood and brains. It made me sick.
As the afternoon wore on the men became drunker and drunker. It started to rain heavily.
‘We gonna get caught by someone. God himself is a witness to what we done,’ said Jacob.
‘There ain’t no God,” said Cain. ‘If there was you’d never have been born. And other than that brown pelican in that tree over yonder there’s only us three who knows what happened here.’
* * * *
I hadn’t noticed the bobcat. Her tawny grey coat made her near invisible. It was just that movement of her head as she bent down to drink that made made me look. I could make out her pink tongue lapping at water. The bobcat looked up river for a long time, her whiskers twitching, sniffing at the electricity in that grand grey sky.
She knew that somewhere up river, maybe two mile or maybe more, a bank must have burst or a logjam must have cleared, and a great torrent of water was rushing down the Mississippi.
For a moment she turned to me with her wide yellow eyes then made a low hiss and ran off in to the forest.
On the bayou, water started lapping over the bank. On account of them sleeping from all the drink they had, the first the pale men knew of it was when they started getting wet. Cain got to his feet and looked in horror at the sight of the skiff drifting away with Abe inside of it a-snoring his head off.
Cain kicked Jacob in the ribs. “Jacob, Get the goddamned boat,” he screamed.
Jacob made a run for it, but could barely keep his feet. He kept falling as he ran through the water. He was shouting at Abe but Abe didn’t move none. Jacob grabbed at the rope but fell into the river. By now the skiff was moving fast. Jacob managed to pull hisself to the boat and hung on to the side but was having a devil of a time climbing into it.
‘What the… Hang on, I’ll git you,’ said Abe, who had just woken up.
‘No. Stay put, for the love of god,’ yelled Jacob.
But Abe went right ahead and stood up and leant over and tried to grab a hold of Jacob, but then whole skiff tipped right over into the water. The last I seen of those two was them being tumbled along in the floodwaters, splashing and a-hollering for their lives.
By then there were so much water you couldn’t tell where the bayou ended and the river began. Deborah’s body had been washed away and it was all Cain could do to cling on to the branch of a tree to save himself. It so happened that it was the same tree that Noah was swinging from. The dead man’s body jerked as the floodwaters tugged at it. Cain screamed as he came face to face with Noah, whose bulging eyes and contorted face made him seem barely human.
Gripping the branch with both hands, Cain turned his face heavenwards. “Sweet Jesus, rescue me dammit. Forgive me Lord, I know I have sinned. I’m sorry I killed the slave and for what I done to the girl. But I’ve been an honest man, mostly, and you know I’ve been at the church house every Sunday, except these last few weeks because… please, please, sweet merciful Jesus, don’t let me die here,’ he blubbered.
It seemed no-one was listening.
The branch cracked like a gunshot. Cain and Noah were both taken by the Mississippi. The last of the birds took to the wing. It was high time I joined them.