B: Long Night Gone
Long Night Gone
It is infrequent that the world is illustrated in black and white
alone. Today is one of those austere portraits of life. A lot like
minimalist art. And I find it surprising that I so vividly recall my
first encounter with the world presented in these tones. It was the
occasion of my first overnight in the Louisiana bayou.
When dusk came I remember that I was both thrilled and afraid. My
surroundings were presented in black and white because the moon was
full. And it was huge. Each time I looked up at the moon I was
awestruck from its size and pure, white color. Then the blue geese
came. They came in squadrons of hundreds, and I could only see them as
they passed in front of the white light of the moon. Their honking was
part of the bayou composite I so loved.
Pearl River was north and east of Lake Pontchartrain, the area where my
family lived. The river ran all the way to Lake Borgne, which opened to
the Gulf of Mexico. This swampy area was full of Cajuns, and I loved
In the bayou, land seemed to congeal into ground that is neither liquid
nor solid, but some sort of compromise. So when I came to ground I knew
to be fairly solid, I stopped. Pulling off my pack, I set it against a
large Cypress stump, then pulled out the little pup tent and found some
small pieces of wood that would serve a stakes once the ends were
Two small blankets were in the pack. One I folded for a bed, the other
for cover. The little tent with the blankets inside looked a lot better
than a Holiday Inn. I pulled a tin can and a fat little candle out, lit
it and dripped wax into the can to hold it upright.
Suddenly the immediate area was drenched in yellow light. I was
surprised the candle put out so much light. But it was the contrast
between the black and white, and the yellow that made it stark.
The night was warm and I was tired, so I didn't build a fire. I pulled
off my clothes and crawled into the tent, blew out the candle, then
turned around for a last look. The effect was immediate. The insects,
owls, and sounds I couldn't identify were concertizing. I looked one
last time at the white moon. Stars so bright I was tempted to try and
touch them with my fingertip now surrounded it. I smiled and got under
But I didn't forget for a minute there had been a Big Foot sighting in
the Honey Island Swamp near the Pearl River.
The sun was barely up when the birds began their wakeup calls. I stayed
under the blankets for a few minutes enjoying the sounds. When I
finally pulled myself out, I saw I was on a narrow strip of solid
earth. Not twenty feet from me was a swampy area with stubby Cypress
knees and a thick covering of duckweed.
Behind me was a fog-shrouded swamp where trees were heavy with
gray/green Spanish Moss. The water was so still the trees and moss were
eerily mirrored. Then I heard splashing, and saw ripples beside a log,
but didn't see what caused it. Could have been a big catfish, or
possibly 'gator a exercising his authority over the many snakes in the
I carefully built a fire to boil water. At twelve years old, I had been
drinking chicory coffee with milk for three or four years. We called it
au lait. When the water boiled, I put in a handful of the coffee,
waited a few minutes, and then put some eggshell I carried in a small
waxed paper box I had made from a milk carton to settle the
I dipped a metal camp mug into the hot liquid and added milk from a
half-pint container. With closed eyes, I concentrated on the sweetness
of the au lait. I sat back against the big Cypress and opened an
egg-salad sandwich mother had sent with me. It was a lot easier than
cooking. I was grateful that mother put a couple of strips of bacon on
it. I was a little on the skinny side and she often put butter, bacon,
or something extra fattening on my sandwiches. I ate it quickly, and
then dipped another mug of au lait.
It wasn't long before the Louisiana heat kicked in. And as always, the
humidity grew oppressive as the temperature climbed. Well before noon,
my shirt was already stuck to my back with sweat. I heard that big
splash again, turned quickly, and saw nothing.
I could tell it was early because of the smell. The heat changed the
scent of the swamp as the day evolved into a rich fragrance of hot
wood, damp weeds, and various flowers like honeysuckle.
My mother had told me to come home sometime in mid-morning. It should
be all over with by then, she said. My stepfather was getting out of
jail in Slidell last night, and he always took his anger out on us.
Mainly mother. We believed violence was as integral to him as the color
of his eyes. He had hurt me a couple of times, too, and mother wanted
me away for the night.
I started home.
I recall that as I took the first few steps home, I could felt that old
tightness in the stomach. Afraid what would happen to me when I got
home, but more afraid of what happened to momma. A white egret flew up
suddenly and startled me. It helped me focus on something other than my
fear. And the steps came quicker.
After a while I stopped for a drink of water from my canteen. When I
did, I heard two or three heavy steps off to my right that stopped
suddenly. I held my breath for as long as I could so I could hear the
slightest sound. My friend, Bobby, and I had heard sounds like this
frequently when we played in the bayou together. Probably a buck. I
hoped it was a buck.
I exhaled loudly, took a deep breath, and took the next step.
After a while, I smelled the neighborhood. Cajun spices, mainly. And
human scent is distinguishable from the deep bayou. I accelerated and
broke through the edge of the woods like a spat watermelon seed. When I
got to the front door my heart was pounding and I had trouble getting
As I reached for the door my hand was slick from sweat and shaking so
hard it slipped off at the first try to turn the knob. Then I opened
it. There was no sound, and it seemed darker than usual. Then I noticed
that the old, worn out, roll-down window coverings were and closed,
keeping out the light.
"Mom, are you home?"
I walked towards her bedroom. The door was closed. I put my hand on the
doorknob. My hand was still shaking, but I turned it as quietly as
possible. I expected my stepfather to jerk it open and grab me any
second. I heard a sound and froze. My stomach was a Sears washing
machine. I waited several seconds.
"Mom, you ok?"
There was that sound again. It sounded like moaning. And it was high
pitched. My whole body was shaking, and only the need to find my mother
was driving me. I was barely able to open the door, but stepping inside
was an almost unmanageable feat. Then I heard the guttural sound again.
I moved inside.
Nothing. No one.
I heard the guttural sound again.
This time it seemed to be coming in through the window. I turned and
quickly went to the kitchen and out the back door. I couldn't see
anything but the bushes. Then I heard something that scared the living
hell out of me. I cannot describe how it sounded. Not even so many
years later. A keening, possibly.
I ran over to the bushes behind mother's bedroom window. There was
mother's head and part of her right arm sticking up from the ground.
Her face was contorted into a nightmarish mask. In less than a second,
my mind registered that her hair was matted with dried blood, her hand
had several deep gashes on it, and her lips were moving- trying to tell
I fell in a panic to the ground digging hard with my little boy's hands
to free mother from the ground. As her arm came free she grabbed me
hard, and I was crying so hard I had trouble thinking. Mother was
loudly gasping for breath. She pulled me hard to her face, but I was so
terrified I didn't know what she was doing. She had me by my hair with
one hand; the other arm seemed unable to move.
"Did he? find you?" She said in a hissing, breathy voice.
"Who, momma? Who? I mean what ?!"
"Listen to? me!" She screamed, never looking at me. Her eyes kept
rolling upwards, and she struggled hard to remain conscious.
"Call the police. Then call ?your daddy. Tell them Morgan?hurt? tell
them he's crazy. Run if?if? you?" Her voice trailed off.
She stiffened, and then relaxed. A watery sound came from her lungs.
Then her hand fell from my head, her eyes looked at something in
another world, and she didn't breathe any more. I felt as if I were
"Momma, momma!" I screamed loudly as I started wildly digging her
"What the hell is going on out there!" A neighbor lady called through
her kitchen window.
"Call the police! Hurry! My momma's been hurt badly. Hurry!"
I sat back on my haunches, quaking, freezing cold, unable to focus on
I was later told that I raised my face and began shrieking. My memory
is not clear after speaking to the neighbor.
I remember that when the world began to make sense again, I was in the
little Pearl River Clinic. I was wrapped in blankets and had a tube in
the back of each hand, while a large nurse in white stood watching
"Hey, honey, how you doin'? Me, can I get you somethin'?" She asked
that distinct Cajun phraseology, as she put her hand on my face.
I did not answer. I was not sure what had happened, and I was
terrified. I started shaking, but not as violently as before.
The nurse tucked the blankets in tight, leaned over me and held
Pictures began painting themselves on my memory. I started
"Shhhhh. Me, I'll be right back. I'm just going to fetch the
A couple of seconds later the nurse and doctor opened the little
curtain around my bed. The doctor put something into one of my tubes
with a needle, and it was only a moment or two before I drifted into
sleep. No words were spoken. Everything was white as I lost
Several days passed, and I was discharged into the care of my father.
Neither he nor I was happy about it. My father was a small town Baptist
preacher, and never forgave my mother for wandering into the arms of
another man. He resented me because I was a reminder of it. I hadn't
heard from him in at least two years.
We drove in silence to his house on the other side of town. It was just
off the highway leading to Slidell and then on to New Orleans. When we
arrived, his new wife, Susan, was on the front porch. I got out and
walked up to the house where she took my hand and led me into the
I remember that Susan tried to be attentive. Dad had nothing to say.
His hateful eyes said it all. I had already been told what had
happened. That Morgan, my stepfather, had beaten my mother. When she
tried to defend herself with a small paring knife, he took it and
slashed her with it. He then buried her in a too-shallow grave behind
the house. Alive. They had not found him yet.
The next morning I awoke just as the sun was showing yellow through the
space between the almost closed curtains. I put on my clothes and
quietly left the house. As I walked, I did not look back. I barely felt
my feet impact the street.
I had no plan. I was a twelve-year-old boy walking towards his mother's
home. With each step, my anguish evolved into rage. As I neared our
neighborhood I breathed deeply, and could feel that my face had
tightened, and my skin was hard from its grimace.
I leaned under the yellow tape around the house and went inside. Now I
saw the bathroom. Bloody palm prints on the wall. Everything was
surreal. My face was twitching. There was blood everywhere. I walked
into the kitchen, and there was blood on the drawer that housed the
I opened the drawer and saw two little knives. The smallest seemed to
gravitate into my hand. I tried at first to throw the knife down, but
my hand would not follow my instructions. I squeezed the handle so hard
my knuckles turned white and my hand seemed to burn.
I remember making small noises, and not knowing why. Gall, vengeance,
recognition that my mother will never hold me again, all acted in
I do not recall leaving the house.
They had not yet found Morgan, but I knew some of the places the police
would never look. It only took about thirty minutes for me to walk over
to Sheldon's piers. Backwoods Cajuns have moored their shrimp boats
here since long before the new docks were built. But I knew one or two
of them were not used as boats, but a place where moonshine and beer
was served up cheap.
I carefully left the trees and walked down to the "Coonass Heaven", an
old wooden boat. I knew this boat had not put a shrimp net in the water
for at least as long as I had lived. 'Coonass' is the term Cajuns used
when referring to themselves. The reference is to the incredible number
of raccoons around southern Louisiana, and what you usually see
sticking up out of garbage cans late in the evening.
I heard laughter, so I crept up to the boat, climbed on board and was
careful not to make it rock in the water. I went around to the port
side and peeked in the small round window. I could see a man sitting at
a table that I thought was Morgan. I went cold. The rage came, and?the
man laughed again and then pulled on his beer. It wasn't Morgan.
There were three or four places left to look. As soon as I got to a pay
phone I was going to call the police and tell them how to find
I walked over to the river and past the little bait shop where he and
his friends drank and fought. I remember that I heard something that
made my blood turn frigid. It was Morgan's laugh. I was not aware of
the decision to go in there alone. Nor was I aware of the knife still
in my hand.
I was soaked in sweat by the time I reached the wooden shed that was
built on a rickety pier out over the chocolate brown water of the
tributary. The humidity matched the high temperature.
My hand was still numb from holding the knife so tight as I entered the
main room of the bait shop, and moved to my left to hide in the shadow.
I saw Morgan at the bar with his back to me. Two stools down on his
right was another man, and the owner was opening another beer for
Morgan, and I could see him over Morgan's shoulder.
I turned into a combustible sphere of rage. I saw my mother's battered
face, and I exploded towards Morgan, my face in a rictus, howling like
a wild animal, spittle flying wildly from my mouth.
When I was within two or three feet of Morgan I leapt into the air and
landed on his back. Just as I became airborne, I could see the owner's
eye's grow large with surprise. I landed on Morgan with a fury. With my
left hand I hung on to his neck with an unbreakable force. My right
hand stabbed him everywhere within reach and as often as my muscle
control would respond. I felt the initial resistance of the blade
point, but each time the knife slipped in all the way to the end of the
blade, to the wooden handle where my hand was, it was answered with an
internal 'yes, yes'.
And all the while, I was howling. I was thundering with torment,
atonement, and hysteria.
I don't know exactly how long I was on him, but shortly everything went
When I came to, I was told that the owner of the bait shop had hit me
hard on the side of my face, knocking me out. A police officer was
wrapping me in a blanket, and I saw his reaction when he looked at my
A child. Perhaps a monster, or a twelve-year-old devil, is what was
reflected in his eyes. To this day I don't know. And to this day I
don't care to know.
I was taken back to the clinic. The nurse who was there before was
waiting for me. She was a large, heavyset woman, and I recall that she
forcibly took me from the officer and carried me to the same little bed
I was in before. As she leaned down to my ear, I could feel her warm
"You comin' home with me now."