Eleven-year-old Sally’s face was contorted with terror and her throat visibly vibrated with the scream she was holding back, as she reached out her hand. Twelve-year-old Evan, probably fighting harder than Sally was to control his emotions, took it. It was the first time Evan ever held hands with a girl that wasn’t his mother, or one of his sisters…but as much as he loved Sally, and he knew he was going to marry her someday…Evan also knew that this wasn’t going to be a moment either of them ever looked back on as “romantic.” What they were looking at on the ground was horrific, even for the kids who had been born and raised in the wilds of one of the least known about and most misunderstood places on earth.
Evan Babineaux and Sally Guidry were born and bred along the banks of the largest swamp in the world, the Atchafalaya. Stretching out over 1.4 million acres, and located deep in the heart of Louisiana, the Atchafalaya holds more mystery, and guards more secrets than the jungles of the Amazon. The Atchafalaya was not only home to the two children and their families, but it also housed over sixty-five species of reptiles and amphibians and over two hundred and fifty species of birds. It’s a place where panthers, black bear, bobcats, nutria, mink, fox, muskrat, beaver, otter and raccoon live in states of both harmony and war. It can be a spooky place even in the daylight when the cypress trees with knurled roots protrude just far enough above the water to throw off the sun and give the illusion of lurking predators. Or it can be mysterious at night when the symphony of sound coming off the water plays background for the feathery wisps of Spanish moss, dangling and fluttering against the black sky or under the light of a full moon, looking like a ghostly apparition, as it searches for a suitable cypress bough to call home.
Evan and Sally were children who didn’t startle easily. They knew which animals to avoid, what areas to stay out of, and even which plants they could pick to eat, and which ones might kill them if they were only to reach out and brush their fingers against the leaves. They’d been sent out at times with baskets to pick the medicinal plants that their mothers and grandmothers used to make medicine that kept them and their siblings alive, and they’d been sent out with shotguns to secure something for dinner on the eves when their daddies got too drunk after a day on the river and forgot to come home. They grew up as part of remnants of a civilization as yet untouched by the hands of the modern outside world, without things like electricity or telephones. They were the offspring of Acadians who had settled upon the rapidly sinking earth, eventually cohabitating and mating with the blacks and the whites like the French, who had come to the swamps for the same reasons the Acadians had…to live, love, and create life in a place that even the hands of time seemed unable to touch. They created families, and their own language, and their own culture, twisting and binding what they’d each brought with them until they’d created their own vibrant and colorful culture unlike any other.
The people who reared Sally and Evan, and those that came before them, weren’t rich in dollars and material things, but their souls were rich and their bodies hearty and it took a lot to rattle or even startle them…but nothing either child had seen or heard in their short time on earth had prepared them for what they’d stumbled upon that day. The silence between them was almost deafening before Sally finally said:
“Should I go get Paw Paw?”
“No.” Evan didn’t hesitate. Sally’s grandpa was the last person they needed there. Evan wouldn’t tell Sally, but like the rest of the community, he thought the old man wasn’t really right in the head. He would want to chant some black magic, voodoo bullshit that wouldn’t do any of them a lick of good. Evan knew what they needed at that moment was a grown-up with a cool head, and the only man the boy knew who fit that description to a perfect “T” was his own Paw, Jean Luc Babineaux.
“I’ll get my Paw,” he told her. Evan started to release Sally’s hand, but he felt her grip onto him tighter almost simultaneously. In a voice he usually reserved for one of his little sisters when they woke out of a nightmare he said, “It’s okay, Sal. I’m not gonna leave you. The mud’s deep here. though, so hang onto my belt loops—I’ll need my arms to get us out of here.” Evan had learned young that while walking in the bayou, upper body strength can be just as important as lower. He used his arms to reach out and grab onto the trunks or boughs of the trees that surrounded them, and use them as leverage to pull his feet out of the deep, sucking mud so he could move forward with another step. Sally clung onto him and although she was tiny, made his journey back out of the little cove they’d been exploring that much more difficult.
Evan was covered in sweat by the time they broke through the thick trees and long, tall lines of cattails, onto the dirt road that led to the river’s edge. Evan’s family home was there, situated among a dozen others. It was the place where he and all three of his sisters had been born, and his father before him, and his grandfather before that. It was small and cramped and occasionally his father had to use cement blocks to keep the front porch from dipping so far down on one side that it looked like a ramp. But it was home, and as soon as Evan saw it, some of the terror that had been digging its claws into the boy’s soul began to ebb slowly, like a tide as it left behind the soft, wet clumps of sand on the beach.
“Paw!” Evan yelled, taking Sally’s hand again and beginning to run toward the house. His father’s voice caused him to stop halfway and look toward the old boat docks.
“Evan! Come on and help me here, boy! Grab that duct tape over there.”
Evan would have told his Paw that his news was the type that couldn’t wait, if Jean Luc wasn’t at that very second straddling the broad back of what looked like a seven-foot alligator. Evan looked at Sally and mouthed, “Sorry,” before releasing her hand, grabbing the roll of silver tape off the porch railing, and running toward his dad and the ginormous reptile. Normally watching his Paw take down a gator fascinated Evan. He was in awe of the 6’6″ three-hundred-pound man who could rock a baby to sleep at 2 a.m., pull in a two-hundred-pound cage of crawfish, and wrestle an alligator before the sun came up every morning. Most days Evan wanted to grow up to be just like him…Jean Luc Babineaux was King of the Bayou, and that notion made young Evan proud.
“Get ’em, boy! You gonna stand there and watch him eat me, or what?” his Paw snapped, and brought the boy out of his thoughts and back to the task at hand. Pulling about two feet of the silver tape loose from the roll, he crept closer and while his Paw continued to wrestle the behemoth, Evan wrapped the tape around its jaws, not stopping until he’d used half the roll.
“Good job!” Jean Luc said, hardly out of breath. He patted the still angry and twisting gator on its side and said, “I ought to just ride him into town now!” Evan was sure no one would be surprised if he did. His Paw had a reputation in town, so much so that the townsfolk were almost disappointed if Jean Luc walked in like a “normal” man and didn’t leave them something to talk about for days, weeks, months, or even years afterwards. Such a day was a rarity though, and even at forty years old, Jean Luc hadn’t run out of ways to shock them. “Help me get him into the cage now.” Jean Luc sometimes killed the gators he caught, and the meat was used to feed their family and many others. But other times, when he was able to get a hold of a specimen as big and pretty as the one he was riding, he took them to a “Gator Ranch,” a sanctuary that was a popular tourist destination. The gator would live out the rest of its life there on the ranch, amusing the visitors by simply lying lazily on the banks of the man-made ponds and waiting for its daily feeding. Evan felt sorrier for those than he did the ones they killed and ate. He had never been caged or fenced in, but just the thought of it made the boy feel like it was hard to breathe.
“Evan…” Sally still looked shaken, maybe even more so after watching Evan and his dad subdue the gator.
“Give me one more minute,” Evan told her. He did what Jean Luc asked, and helped him push the angry, uncooperative reptile into the large cage that Jean Luc would then load onto his boat. When that was done and the cage door locked up tightly Evan finally said, “Paw, me and Sally saw something out in the cove…”
Jean Luc looked like he was waiting for the boy to go on, and when he didn’t, Jean Luc said, “Well, I gotta get that gator delivered before dark, son, so as long as it ain’t nothing that’s gonna eat us in our sleep, I best get to it.” Evan was shaking all over, and he knew he had to tell his father…but the words were sticking in his throat and Jean Luc was already sliding the cage onto the boat when Sally finally said:
“Mr. Babineaux! There’s a lady in the cove…a dead lady, without a head.”
That froze the old man in his tracks. At last he straightened up and looked from his son to Sally and back again, taking in their faces and obviously unsure if this was a silly, albeit sick, little pre-adolescent game, or if they were in fact telling the truth. When his dark blue eyes landed on his son’s face for a second time, Evan nodded. “It’s true, Paw…it’s a naked lady, and she’s dead.”
Jean Luc frowned. “You said her head was gone?” The children nodded and still looking thoughtful he said, “Look like animals did it?”
“No, Paw, it looks like it was sliced off, and she ain’t been there too long because the animals ain’t really got to her yet.”
“Fuck me,” Jean Luc said, his expression remaining neutral. “I reckon I should go out and have a look. Can you kids show me exactly where you found her?” The children nodded, and with the gigantic alligator in tow in his cage, Jean Luc took them out toward the cove in the boat, stopping and tying it along the muddy banks when the kids told him to. The three of them climbed out and while Evan quickly led his Paw toward the spot, Sally held back, looking unwilling to see it again. Evan didn’t blame her. His rush was more about passing the responsibility of the horrible discovery onto his father and taking it off his skinny young shoulders. When they reached the spot where the part of a lady still lay, half submerged in the mud and muck, Jean Luc and Evan stood side by side, staring down at her. Seconds passed, or maybe even minutes, before once again Jean Luc said, “Fuck me. I reckon we’ll have the government up our butts now for a while.”
The government wasn’t something the Cajun people who lived in the Atchafalaya Swamp welcomed, especially into their homes. But insofar as Jean Luc and his family strove to live off the grid, the man had a strong sense of right and wrong, and Evan had known before they even made it out there that Jean Luc would know what the right thing was to do. Evan watched his old man’s face as he stared down at the woman. Anyone else looking at him would see nothing…a blank canvas that could be interpreted in any number of ways. Jean Luc’s expression was the same whether he was singing a French lullaby to one of his babies, or skinning a gator, or shooting a wild hog. Evan always wondered if emotions were afraid to cross the path of the big man’s face, but what he’d learned in the years as he grew from a babe in his father’s giant arms to his sometimes-reluctant sidekick was that the answer to everything was in Jean Luc’s blue eyes. Every emotion the man felt was there, and now as Evan stared up at his Paw, he saw the horror there, the compassion, and the worry. Evan knew the worry would be for his own wife and daughters, and the wives and daughters of his neighbors. Evan’s Paw taught him an infinite number of things. He’d grow up learning how to work hard. He’d know how to fish, hunt, fight, love, provide for and protect his family. But the ability to do any of that without letting the rest of the world know what you were thinking as you did it, that was the one thing Jean Luc taught his son that Evan used most to shape his future.
* * *
It was over thirty years since that day in the swamps when Evan looked down into the eyes of the man responsible for leaving that poor woman to rot in the mud or be eaten by predators. But as he looked down into the man’s terrified brown eyes, not a soul in the room could have even guessed what he was thinking.
The man on the floor may not have known what the big, dark-haired, blue-eyed, heavily-tattooed man looking down at him was thinking either…but he obviously knew enough about the man to be very afraid. In an almost inaudible, shaky voice the brown-eyed man managed to squeak out, “Bonjou, Blackheart.”