Frederick Foote is the author of the short story collections, For the Sake of Soul and Crossroad Encounters.
I step down off the raggedy, rambling bus. Touch my toes to my corner of Louisiana. The humidity reintroduces itself with a slobbery warm welcome. In three steps, it feels like I stepped into a soul sapping sauna.
In ten steps, I ‘m breathing hard and my shirt’s soaked through. Uber, Uber my kingdom for an Uber ride.
But, She said, “Take the bus and walk from Eatonville. Walk and reel, do the chicken heel past the fallow fields.” “Walk,” She said, and walk I will the two and a half miles from Eatonville to the Four Corners.
My companions on this trek are insects, biting flies, fleas, mosquitoes, wasp, bees, flying bugs and a host of other annoying vermin that ensure irritation and vexation.
At Four Corners, I’ll take seven steps south, turn right 90 degrees and take seven steps east. The seventh step will take me out of the United States, out of Louisiana, out of Redbone Parrish and into a world of oppression and pain, magic and mystery. A place with little known history and a doubtful future.
I’ll be home. But, I’ll not be welcome. It’s open season on me. It always will be down here. I don’t have a God to pray to, but if I did it would be for an instant death, a bullet to the brain, a swift machete across my throat; even the swinging rope is preferable to what lies in wait for me at home.
At Four Corners the grass giggles, the leaves rustle laughter, the tree branches creak their mirth. Bushes rustle, chatter, and laughingly sing goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.
She said, “Don’t dally.”
I try not to. But, I have to sweet-talk my feet each step away from the road. I beg, scream, cajole, threaten and plead to get my left foot to take that final step into Hades.
It is one hell of step, that shoots an excruciating shock up my foot, lancing through my leg, rocketing up my spine, to explode in my skull. That step launches me head first into a tree and knocks me on my ass.
I have a knot in the center of my forehead, a split lower lip, and my right eye’s swelling shut. I’m too disoriented even to stand.
I apologize to my reluctant, numb feet, but I had no choice.
I wobble down the bank of Hog Bayou until I spy the skiff and pole.
Between me and that flat bottom boat is Darwin, a twenty foot plus bull alligator. The primordial man-eater is the most infamous reptile in the Parish. The gator bellows, whips his tail from side to side like a scythe and lunges straight at me.
I try desperately to jump out of his path, but the heat, humidity, my two-and-a-half-mile ramble, and my recent encounter with the tree trunk leave me slow and feeble. I trip. I fall.
Darwin has my head between his open jaws. The stench in his cavern of a mouth spins my stomach into rebellion.
Slowly, Darwin backs away; he never closes his jaws on me. That was just a practice run for him. I can see the laughter in his cruel eyes as he backs into the Bayou. I’m heaving up my last meal, the lining of my gut, and a fountain of bile.
I crawl and stumble to the dingy. My vision blurred by my salty sweat I almost plunge my foot into the mound of rattlers in the bottom of the pram.
Fuck! Enough is enough. But, of course, this is only the preamble to my homecoming.
There will never be enough punishment for me in this world or the next to satisfy Her.
I pole easy and steady through the murky waters. Darwin idles along in my wake.
I ignore the swarming insects, my throbbing head, my growing thirst, but I can’t ignore the fear of facing my fellow villagers for the first time in 25 years.
Little Easy or LE as he is unaffectionately known is the first to spot me. “Who dat? No, no, hell no! Boon, Motown, Listless, St. Sally, Roosevelt all you motherfuckers need to get down here to the dock. Come one, come all, fat and thin, short and tall.”
The booming town crier, all three-hundred pounds of him, is stomping his feet in a jig of joy.
“It is you! It is you ain’t it, Styx? The defector Protector?” LE leans over the pier to confirm my identity.
As I tie up the boat a herd of ten or twelve hard-faced, shabbily dressed men, women, and children converge on the small pier.
I carefully creak my way up on the pier. The crowd stops well back. Someone in the crowd says, “He supposed to be the Protector? He don’t look so tough. Look like he been brought, beat, and busted.”
Another voice is lifted, “Protector my ass. He the cowardly traitor, snitch, motherfucker that turned us in and turned us out.”
A child squeaks, “Hey, Mr. Protector, why you do us so bad, huh?”
A woman in red shorts and a torn red top and one red running shoe steps forward flashing a small knife, “Shit! I got a tooth ache, cramps, my corns is killin me and I got a dull knife. Let me at em.”
LE roars, “I spy him first. I get first turn. You niggers need to step back and, and watch me feed Darwin this fool limb-by-limb. Go get your lunches and come back quick, bring your chairs and your babes in arms.”
“No! No! No!” Baby Brother Boon pushes through the crowd eleven gage shotgun in his hand.
LE turns to face Boon to take the matter up with his neighbor. Baby Brother Boon fires one barrel, sounds like a canon, right over LE’s head lifting off LE’s Stetson. The big man alters his attitude shifts his interest to getting home, washing up, and putting on clean pants and underwear.
Boon ain’t going to say hello or how you do. Boon got one thing on his mind – he gona blow my head clean off.
Here come my savior. I smile so big it starts my lip bleeding again. I turn my good eye to Baby Brother Boon. I’m double over with laughter. It’s almost over, over at last. He bringing the gun up to his shoulder, finger tightens on the trigger, “Baby Brother Boon, if you weren’t married, I would kiss your black ass.”
“STOP! HE MINE!”
The words are not ours, but they are in us as heavy as a broken heart. The words are dagger sharp in our brains. The words are on the breeze, hummed by the insect choir, reflected by the sky, screeched by every bird, heard in the sibilance of the waters, and bellowed by Darwin.
I collapse on the dock. A false dawn. A crushed hope.
Repercussions. The fools have ignored her solitary right to create or destroy a Protector.
There will be repercussions for LE, Baby Brother Boon and me. Especially for me.
I see the faces of the crowd. Most of them had lost faith in Her. Doubted Her existence. Forgot or never learned Her gospel. They are beyond terrified, well past the border of panic and madness. They are petrified. I almost pity them.
The girl maybe ten, thin as wire, hair a rust pad of kinks and curls, with a dark brown face. A Boon child marked unmistakable family by thick lips and long narrow nose.
Baby Brother Boon screams and screams, but he can’t move. He don’t need to scream, his face says it all – “My baby! My Baby! No! Take me! Take me! Please take me!”
Skinny girl in a trance removes the machete from LE’s belt, motions LE to the edge of the pier.
LE holds his right hand out over the water over a seething, jostling sea of gators.
“Whoosh!” Her clean, strong, true stroke gives the gators a hand to tussle over.
The left hand next, followed by both feet.
The crowd know not to turn away, not shut an eye and or hide a face or look away.
Worship in Her house.
She is merciful. She is kind. She must have a thing for LE. There’s no bleeding. His cuts are sealed and healed.
She not kind to Baby Brother Boon, not at all.
Skinny little butcher brings me the blade places the hilt in my hand. Whisper in my ear.
The other gators have moved aside. Darwin takes their place. The little one walks to the edge, a quick glance at her father, at Baby Brother Boon. She drops into the waiting maw I just recently escaped.
Here, She not kind at all. Releases the trance so the child can experience the terror.
The screams. The screams. Oh, the screams.
I’m home. She’s back. We’re home at last.
Off with my shoes. Off with my shoes and socks. Toss away the machete. Dirt on my feet, dirt in my hair and on my clothing, dirt. I’m home back down in the dirt, face down in the dirt.
They done evaporated. Every one of them sucked up in their homes and hideaways. Everyone except Baby Brother Boon, crying, wailing on the edge of the dock. Except another one of his girls maybe 10 or 12 trying, trying to help him to his feet.
I help her. I lift Baby Brother Boon. Put his arm around my shoulder. I hold him upright walking toward where the girl leads us. Growing stronger with each bare foot step.
She tap tap tap on her door. The door cracks open, hands reach out snatch Baby Brother
Boon into the darkness. She slips in with him. Someone or two spits at me spits, and spits again.
Good aim. Strikes me in the face. They quick as mice slam and lock the door
I strike the door with the heel of my hand. The wood screams in pain. The door withers, hinges fly off. The door falls open.
I walk away. Walk away with a strong stride. Walk away going some place. Going to see
Her. Walking away to have Her see me.
I see Zill on the rise. I see blue/black Zill standing on the rise, hoe over her shoulder, hand on hip, lips peeled back, eyes on me. Her eyes are on me. As I stride to stand in her shadow. She looms over me, looks down at me. Hisses, “Styx, I swear and swear again on the heads of my dead children at this time, in these times you will not get away.”
I reach out put my hand between her breasts feeling her heartbeat, feeling the blood flowing, feeling the hate blooming.
I talk to her slow, powerful beat. I tell her. “Come now. Walk now. Talk now. Be bold.
Step quick. Dead eyes. With us.”
Zill, grin, square teeth, scarlet tongue. Takes my paw into her mouth, a prisoner behind her square white bars. Annexation on her mind. Spits me out. Drops her hoe. We hold hands. We walk to see Her.
Zill marching in step, in sync, to The Border. “Styx, why She talk to you? Why you?”
“Why you fuck your brother, kill your mother. Why that Zill?”
“Love and hate. Sex and fear. I favor hard dick over brutal hands.”
“Why She bring you back? You just a man whose sisters are his daughters. Why you come back mother fucker?”
We at The Border Between Life and Death. “You dying to know the answers, Zill? Come die with me.”
I laugh until I am laughter.
Zill whispers, “I will spit in Her eye. I would die to spit in Her eye and eat and drink you as a spicy stew.”
I shut up. Squeeze Zill’s hand tighter, study her eyes. Ready to die eyes. We step across the Border Between Life and Death.
She greets us,
“Maggots and flies
Shit and piss
She is an ancient stack of wrinkled and folded skin as parched as a dry river bed and gray as a storm cloud. Her eyes are black holes in the universe of her being. Her teeth are fangs without number, and her hands are as big as platters, with fingers a foot long ending in bloody talons.
I reply, “Shit and piss attracts maggots and flies as does rancid meat and ancient, aged flesh. We’re timely. Every death is timely.” This is foolish. I can’t goad her into striking me all the way dead on the spot. I know that from way back.
“Oh, this is a vortex of illicit things
forbidden thoughts, and taboos A profane, insane home
of horrific lepers
of every dimension
from 10,000 years ago
till this very moment.
That is you history.
Zill, speaks, “Our history is your obscene rule of incest, patricide, matricide, suicide, rape and murder, pain, and suffering. I spit on you.” Zill calls up a wad of red-streaked ebony phlegm.
Zill spits it at Her. The spit hangs in the air between them.
She turns her black holes blacker and points at me,
I have one chance here to avoid eternal suffering. “You left me as Protector. There were and are business interest which found oil and gas under our village.”
Zill, shouts, “Bullshit! How could they step foot on our land without our knowledge?”
Zill needs to shut up and play dead. “Satellites gave us away. No need to set foot on our lands. They saw us. Decided to destroy us to by disease and guile as they did the natives to this land. An old trick played on a new-found tribe.”
Zill sneers at me. “And you Protector saved us by revealing our existence to the outsiders. Our only true protection is their ignorance of our existence. You stripped us naked and threw us to the ravenous beast.”
I ignore Zill. “Once the historians and anthropologists established an aboriginal title to the land going back beyond the Maroons in 1730 I could and did keep the raiders at bay. Our brief glow in the limelight was our thin legal shield.”
Zill shouts, screams at me, “Protector, you ran away! No matter what you say. You ran and left us to their unkind mercies. My babies! My babies. Their deaths are on your treacherous, bloody hands.”
I keep my focus on Her. Later, I might tell Zill that She sent me away, protecting prize breeding stock. She can reward me with death, or She can keep me in Her service for a dozen lifetimes. It is times like this I wish I had a God.
She shifts from a pile of flesh to a bright green light. No more speech. She sends us her message.
“An atomic storm brews
you two will build
in distant places
and rule them
survive and thrive.
I have two children by my mother and two by her sisters, one by Zill, and several by peculiar strangers. It is inbreeding and finding new odd blood to breed with. She saw this coming 10,000 years ago. Breeding us for survival. Now, I know She’ll not grant us death and that we’ll be as cruel and ruthless rulers as she has been.
Zill knows it too, feels it, sweats it. We reach out, hold hands. Wait for Her directions on creating new Hades.