The following is a sample chapter from a horror novel I am writing set on a sugarcane plantation in Louisiana in 1858.
III. The Shaman And The Stampede
I wander for an indeterminate time, coming to the rough dirt road that leaves out from the Doucette estate and onward toward New Orleans. I keep to this road briefly, then abandon it for the wilderness, passing between ancient oaks and cypresses and coming to the edge of the swamp. It is a shadowy expanse columned by trees and gurgling with a thousand voices. I have not had the opportunity to become better acquainted with Louisiana as regards her less civilized aspects. I am ignorant and I intend to rectify that ignorance imminently.
I walk along the edge of the swamp, absorbing its ambience while also mindful of its hazards. Dangers lurk everywhere. A footstep amiss could mean injury, or even death. I see an alligator for the first time in the flesh, its head floating along the surface of the black water. It appears to me as a dragon hatchling. I am no St. George and so I circle far afield of the water’s edge, maintaining that distance henceforth.
I walk a while longer, always mindful of which direction the road lay. The relative silence here—insomuch as human voices are concerned—is welcome. It soothes the raw nerves like a balm concocted from the oils of Paradise. My mind wanders now, thinking of all the sights I wish to see in America.
Thus engrossed, am startled when I see the Red man beneath the cypress tree, half-hidden by the Spanish moss. I see him only because a sliver of light through the canopy glints on the colourful beads dangling from his neck. Except for this necklace, he does not conform to the notion of the Indian depicted in periodicals in England. He does not wear animal skin loincloth and a headdress of feathers. He wears trousers and a shirt and coat similar to what the White workers wear in Louisiana. Yet, he is unmistakably a Red man. His silver hair is long at his back and his skin, though as dark as an Indian from India, has a reddish tint that distinguishes it clearly.
He invites me over with soft wave of his hand.
I approach him without caution. I do not know why, but I feel as though I may wholly trust him. Though a stranger, he seems familiar.
“Hello,” I say to him.
“Please sit,” he says, gesturing in front of him.
I sit in the shade, directly in front of the copper-skinned man. He is old, his face scarred by the claws of Time. Even so, there is a youthfulness in the bright gaze of his eyes.
“You are not from here,” he says. “You are from over the ocean. England?”
“Yes,” I say. “Though I prefer to call it Albion.”
“I know of Albion,” he says. “It is one of the places that exist beneath.”
“Beneath?” I say, confused.
“Beneath what is seen,” he says. “The truth beneath what you can see and touch and hear.”
What he says is true, as I have always known it to be.
“And what tribe do you belong to?” I ask.
“My tribe is gone now,” he says. “They moved Northwest when Jackson forced them to leave.”
“I see,” I say. “I am sorry.”
“All men are sorry…in the end. We have eternity to feel regret and say we are sorry, but it means no more than wind-blown dust from the skulls of the dead.”
I do not know how to respond to this, and so keep my silence. We sit in silence for a long moment. I do not know what to think of him. I wish to know more about him and his people, but I fear I will offend him. He gazes into my face as if gazing into a book. I grow self-conscious. When I open my mouth to speak, he speaks instead.
“You have a secret story you must tell,” he says. “A story you have told no one else. A story of the Bohpoli. He who stays in the woods.”
I am dumbfounded. “I do not understand.”
His hand reaches up to my brow and, with a single finger, he taps my head three times. Instantly long forgotten memories surge to the forefront, overwhelming in their experience and their import. I remember what I had lost.
“Tell me of that story,” he says. “A story of your homeland. A story of your youth.”
Tears in my eyes, I tell him the story I had forgotten. As I recall the story it is as though I live it once more, resurrected anew and fresh with its eldritch ecstacy and its haunting sorrows.
“It was Summer in Derbyshire,” I recall. “I had escaped the clutches of my tutor. He was a demanding demon who fancied himself an Aristotle, and was quite keen on the ruler and its disciplinary functions. I loathed the tyrant. Often, after he had beaten me, I went walking through the highlands to soothe myself. Up from the valleys I would steal, coming to the crest of the mountains as the sting of the ruler abated from my hands. There was a mountain lake that few ever visited, and in the center of this lake was an island. Occasionally. It only appeared when the clouds passed over the sun and the shadow hung over the lake. I was but an adolescent—thirteen, I believe—and I swam out to it on a cloudy day. There was grass on the island, and a circular orchard of oaks, and in the center of that orchard a standing stone. In the standing stone was a door. Without hesitation I opened the door and went inside, hoping to leave the life I knew behind me. Inside the door I found a woman. She was ancient, but beautiful. Like a human, but not human. Her face was like a sunrise, but her smile was as a sunset—sleepy and sad, like the end of all things. It was joyous to see her, and it was sorrowful. She told me that I would always love her, and I would always miss her, and that I would spend my life trying to return to her. I have not seen her since that day.”
Tears stream down my face. I wipe them away. I wish I could wipe away the memories so easily. The Red man smiles sadly.
“You have known the Bohpoli’s wife,” he says. “He is very jealous, and she is very vain. They are known to us Choctaw.”
“Does the…Bohpoli…wish me harm?” I ask.
“No,” he says. “No more than a squirrel may by dropping his acorn on your head. He would rather keep his acorn than drop it. It is the same for his wife and her attention.”
“Oh,” I say. “Then what does it mean for me? Why did it happen to me?”
The Red man regards me for a moment, his face ambivalent. “A Choctaw that sees the Bohpoli learns medicine and becomes a shaman,” he says. “I saw him when I was young. He took me into the forest and showed me many things. He showed me the man-deer we call Kashehotapalo. And he showed me the white people in the water. The Okwa Naholo.”
“But not his wife?” I say.
“No,” he says. “She has her own will. She shows herself to those who she wishes. This makes him unhappy. They war. They make peace. They love. They war again. As they have always done.”
Remembering her beautiful face, I say, “How could anyone war with her?”
The Choctaw shaman laughs softly—it is like the rustle of squirrels through leaves. “Pride makes the very sky war against itself. Why would the spirits be any different?”
Thinking of the Doucette family, I must agree. An empire has not been so beset with strife since the death of Genghis Khan. Miss Lucille and Miss Arabella are warlords without armies, and woe unto the world if they were to ever recruit armies to represent them in their petty squabbles. Not even Noah’s flood would douse the flames of such a conflict.
Thoughts of the Doucettes remind me of Caroline, their housemaid, and her warnings of spirits in the swamp.
“You are a shaman?” I ask.
He nods. His bead necklace sways, catching a scrap of sunlight and glinting. The yellow, orange, and red design reminds me of a rudimentary sun.
“You must understand these swamps well,” I say. “I was warned that the swamp is louder than it should be.”
“The spirits are disturbed,” the shaman says. “Soon a great calamity will come. To all of us here. The sky will war with itself because of pride, and it will bring ruin.”
“You mean a storm?” I say.
“Yes,” he says, “and no. I speak of Heloha and Melatha. Wife and husband in the sky. Heloha has her eggs in the sky, in the clouds, and she nests there. Melatha grows tired of nesting. He wants to hunt. He crackles restlessly. He is a hunter of Impa Shilup. Soon Heloha and Melatha fight and Melatha leaves for a season. This is not good. When they war—when the great storm comes and passes—Melatha goes to hunt elsewhere, leaving Heloha to nest by herself. She weeps tears upon the earth. And then Impa Shilup comes.”
I attempt to grasp at the names scattered among his explanation, and struggle. Only one remains. “Impa Shilup?”
“That is what we call him,” he says. “But it is not his true name. We do not speak his true name. I only say his false name because it is daylight. At night the Creator sleeps and cannot protect me.”
“What is he?”
The shaman stares into the distance, beyond the nearest trees where the swamp’s waters lap at the root-twined bank. He stares intently for a long moment, then he speaks again.
“He eats the shilombish and the shilup,” he says. “The body and the soul of a man. He eats both as one. In one swallow. But always he hungers for more.”
If not for the look in the old shaman’s eyes I would not feel the full impact of his words. Somehow his presence breathes reality into his words; his presence and the presence of the swamp so close to us.
“What can I do when Impa Shilup comes?” I ask.
“There is not much one man may do,” he says. “Not even one tribe may do much.”
“What did the Choctaw tribes do when he came?”
The shaman closes his eyes. “There were ten Choctaw tribes,” he says. “Each was named for what was important in life. Wind. Bear. Deer. Raccoon. Bird. Wolf. Panther. Crawfish. Holly leaf. And there was a tenth tribe, but the other tribes shunned them.”
“Impa Shilup,” he says. “When Heloha and Melatha fought and Melatha left for the season, the nine Choctaw tribes would join together. As Heloha’s tears fell, and the winds of her husband thrashed the trees in his departure, the nine Choctaw tribes readied for battle with Impa Shilup. But the tenth tribe did not. The tenth tribe had made a pact with Impa Shilup. To be spared Impa Shilup’s hunger, the tenth Choctaw tribe gave him their children. This is why the other tribes shunned them.”
“I see,” I say. “And when the Choctaw tribes left, did they all leave together?”
The shaman shakes his head. “The tenth tribe would not leave. They went into the swamp and never returned.”
“Oh,” I say. I survey the expanse of the swamp lounging mysteriously behind the shaman and the cypress tree. It is dark and mumbles like a sleeping dragon in its cave. Who knows when it might wake?
“What…what were they named for?” I ask. “The tenth tribe? What was their animal?”
“The tenth tribe,” he says, “was named the Impa Shilup tribe.”
I am disappointed by this revelation. I had hoped for clarification of what the Impa Shilup might actually be. Instead, I find that the truth is obfuscated by the redundance of subject and the totemic symbol, the two conflated as one and thus signifying nothing of greater import. Perhaps if the tribe had been the Alligator tribe, for instance, then it might elucidate the nature of the Impa Shilup. Alas, it is not so. It is as mysterious now as it was previously. Scraps of light are all this shaman offers…and yet I clutch at them desperately.
“And what of Bohpoli’s wife?” I ask. “Does she…or does Bohpoli himself…have anything to do with Impa Shilup?”
The shaman opens his eyes and sees into my very heart. His gaze strikes with all the sharpness of my tutor’s ruler.
“You will not meet her again,” he says. “Not unless she invites you into her trust once more.”
His words are as a garroter’s rope strangling me. My voice chokes in my throat. The tears renew their shameless outpouring.
I compose myself as I return to the Sugar Palace. It becomes easier to accomplish as the hour passes. The memory of the Fairy woman fades, and the feelings associated with her linger only in phantom form, much like all memories of youth and its bittersweet nostalgia. I think of her less as “Beloved” and more as La Belle Dame Sans Merci. Or perhaps Circe on her own little island in the midst of a Derbyshire tarn.
Arriving at the Sugar Palace, I am greeted by yet another conceited temptress.
“Lord Machen,” Miss Lucille says, approaching me with a wry smile upon her pale face. “Wherever has you been? I was so fretful over your absence that I nearly sent Mr. Boucher and the hounds to find you out.”
“I was curious about the swamps,” I say. “And so I sought to better acquaint myself with them.”
“What a droll expedition that must have been,” she says, twirling her parasol above her fair hair. The latter is adorned with golden ribbons and bows. “But you must be careful not to venture too far out into the swamps. It would be most unfortunate to lose a Lord of England to an alligator.”
“Unfortunate indeed,” I say. “But I am certain I know a few of your guests that would be pleased by such an outcome.”
She giggles like her younger sister, then surprises me by entwining her arm with mine and walking with me. We take a turn about the hedge garden. The sun sets slowly, burning between two oak trees. The Spanish moss seems as if afire.
“To be perfectly honest,” she says, “father would not be particularly upset if you were to be lost to the swamp, except he very much wishes that you could broker sugar trades in Europe.”
“England and France possess their own sugar plantations around the world,” I say. “From India to the colonial islands, sugar is not so scarce a luxury as it once was.”
“That is true,” she says. “Yet, it is a hope of his nonetheless.”
“And what hope have I for your hand in marriage?” I ask.
Her pink lips make a perfect rosebud of a smile. “None whatsoever,” she says.
I chuckle. It is good to laugh after so many tears. “As I thought.”
She smiles more broadly now, seemingly at ease with my ease and honest laughter. Her tone is both coquettish and faintly plaintive
“I am chagrined, Lord Machen, and quite put out. Are you really so reconciled with the notion that I do not wish to marry you? Is that why you offer so little effort to capture my hand?”
“Your hand is as elusive as a white fox in snow,” I say. “I am not skilled enough a hunter to track it down.”
“Such news will disappoint your parents,” she says.
“My mother and father believe their tea needs more sugar,” I explain, “but I have always been one to drink his tea with a bit of milk and spices and aught more. A Sugar Palace is beyond my wont.”
“That is a shame,” she says, disengaging my arm.
Miss Lucille turns to face me and we stand together beneath an arbor adorned with honeysuckle. It is idyllic, yet her wry smile is not of the Romantic sort. Ovid might celebrate her face with a poem, but the expression upon that face more befits a sardonic ode from Catullus than anything by a poet of Love.
“You would make a stately husband,” she says,.”had you more money in the bargain. As it stands, you are a fool. Not a fool in Love, which I suppose redeems you somewhat, but a fool just the same. A noble fool, I will grant you.”
“Is that to mean that I am like a Southern aristocrat?” I say. “I have heard of them being referred to as ‘noble fools’.”
“Yes, but they are noble fools with wealth.” She takes one of my hands into her hand. Her hand is as soft and smooth as silk. “It is a small distinction, insomuch as I am concerned, but large where other noble fools consider it.”
“Such as Mr. Lutz,” I say.
“Yes, and my father.” She squeezes my hand. “But please do stay a while longer, Lord Machen. You have a wonderful way of nettling my other suitors, and I do so love the theater of it. You also have lovely eyes, which I wish to be more attentive whenever we are in the same room together. Your fascination with books is tedious, I assure you.”
“I may simply leave, Miss Doucette,” I say, withdrawing my hand. “It would be best for all involved, except, I suppose, for yourself and your diversion.”
“But you see, Lord Machen, I am only concerned with pleasing myself, and, so, I insist that you stay. I will not accept any other response. You will stay for another week, at least, and then you may go elsewhere to rankle your fellow men…”
Miss Lucille trails into silence. Her eyes wander away from mine and toward the Southern part of the Doucette estate. She appears dismayed. I turn and see something truly astonishing: from out of the distant trees vast flocks of birds blacken the sky, flying inland from the swamps. I have seen large flocks of birds before, but never so many as now blanket the sky. They are myriad and diverse and innumerable, as if Garuda himself summons them to court.
They eclipse the sun.
“So many pretty birds!” Miss Lucille exclaims. She lowers her parasol and gazes with openmouthed wonder. She then thinks better of it and raises her parasol above her head once again. “So many filthy birds!”
I hear the dogs in the kennel go mad with barking. The horses in the stables neigh wildly as if a thousand flies bite them.
“Inside!” someone yells. “Everyone inside! Flee! Flee!”
We turn to see Mr. Beaux racing toward the Sugar Palace, pushing Miss Arabella before him. She holds her bundle of burdensome petticoats up as well as she may as she flees barefooted along the lawn. She trips and stumbles, kept up only by the French dandy’s attentive care.
“Flee for safety!” he shouts.
Miss Lucille and I hurry up the perron leading to the gardenside door. I open the French doors and usher Miss Lucille in. Mr. Beaux and Miss Arabella enter shortly thereafter. Mr. Beaux slams the doors shut immediately, staring out the windows with a disturbed aspect.
“What is the matter?” I ask.
He merely points with a gloved hand.
It is then that I see the swarming multitudes swelling like a dark tide across the grounds. Mice, squirrels, raccoons, deer, wild pigs, and even bears stream out of the brackish wilderness, migrating Northward across the Doucette estate. Alligators and snakes, too, flee, their glistening green bodies still wet from the waters they have forsaken.
“What madness is this?” I wonder aloud.
“Nasty beasts!” Miss Lucille complains. “They are ruining my lovely flowers!”
The animals are not concerned with the flowers, nor with each other. Their only intent is to hasten their progress Northward. Natural-born predators run alongside their prey, unmindful of the feast so easily available for the taking. Likewise, prey does not heed the danger posed by natural predators. All are united by a fear of something else. But what?
We stand at the doors and the windows, watching the bizarre procession surge and ebb. Mr. Boucher, the White labourers, and many of the slaves have climbed wherever they may to escape the sudden tide of beasts. They sit among tree branches, on top of barns and sheds and silos; they even huddle amongst themselves in groups, crying out as the animals flow all around them.
At length, the stampede concludes. There are a few stragglers here and there—hundreds of mice, a few deer, a bear, and even a swamp cat with its tail between its legs—but the pandemonium subsides so accounts may be taken. None among the hosts or the guests have been injured. Miss Lucille, Miss Arabella, Mr. Beaux and myself all escaped unscathed, albeit breathless. Mr. Lutz, the General, and Mr. Doucette had been on the upper porch of the Sugar Palace, smoking, and thus out of harm’s way. Caroline and the other housemaids were inside, too, and avoided injury.
Yet, not all proved as fortunate as the aforementioned. Several sugarcane harvesters were injured. Some were trammeled by deer or scratched by raccoons and opossums. One unfortunate slave suffered terrible wounds from a bear that crashed into him as he was wading through the sugarcane. He was not mauled, but does suffer a broken shoulder. Other slaves have died, and others still are now feverish with animal bites. Their women tend to them. Mr. Doucette has refused to send for a doctor.
Presently, hosts and guests have retired to the dining hall for supper. We sit around a long table, enjoying a meal of fish, crawfish, broccoli, green beans, sweet yams, and various other plates supplied by Doucette crops and Louisiana game. As we eat, Mr. Boucher discusses the strange incident and its consequences.
“I can’t explain it,” Mr. Boucher says. “It is as though they sensed the Flood coming and were heading toward Noah’s boat.”
“The air is changing,” Mr. Doucette says. “I can sense it in my knees and my spine.” He groans and grimaces as he fidgets in his chair. “The pain always worsens when a storm is brewing. And my back informs me that it will be a monstrous storm. One for the annals.”
Thinking of the swamp and how high its waters are, I do not believe we would need rain for forty days and forty nights to flood the Sugar Palace. Four days and four nights might be sufficient.