Thursday, February 3, 2011

An Ill Wind

This is a short story I wrote a few years ago.  It first appeared in WordSmith, the Tampa Writers Alliance annual publication, in 2007.  Enjoy!

An Ill Wind

Armand Lebleu had traveled up and down Bayou Chapelle at least a thousand times, but it had been many years since he had poled a pirogue. He was among the last of the few true Cajuns still living in the bayous of south Louisiana. Scratching a living from the swamps was a chancy business, and most of the people born and raised in Terrebonne Parish had left for jobs on the oil rigs that dotted the gulf or the refineries that blackened the skies of Baton Rouge. Armand Lebleu had stayed in Terrebonne; it was his home and he knew everything there was to know about it.

He knew how the grey-green Spanish moss that hung in heavy clumps from the water oaks that grew thick on the hammocks of high ground. A few pines grew among the oaks; if the moss grew on them, it was a sure sign they were goners. He knew how the little bit of snow that fell each year would only stick to the curled edges of the oak leaves that lie scattered on the ground. He knew where the redfish made their beds and the salt water flats where oysters could be forked out of the mud at low tide. He knew how snare a gator and how to rig a trot line for catfish. Armand knew how to turn corn and water into cash with the help of a copper still and some mason jars. He knew the ways of the swamp animals. The slow moving bayous were home to osprey and otter, raccoon and rabbit, cormorant and crane. And if the old stories were true, they had once been the home of pirates.

His father taught Armand the ways through these swamps by his father, who in turn had learned from his father. That’s the way it was on the bayou, lore and legend alike were passed down from father to son, mother to daughter, until there were no more sons and daughters to teach. Armand Lebleu, last of the true Cajuns, lived alone on Bayou Chappelle because no woman would tolerate life so far from stores and television and Armand could not tolerate life in town.

A hurricane had passed through a few days before, drenching the ground with a rain best measured in feet rather than inches. The land had been lashed by the strongest winds the parish had ever known. Armand weathered the storm well enough in the house his grandfather built on high ground about a mile from where Bayou Chappelle met up with Bayou Penchant. The wind did its work. The old timbers creaked and the floor joists groaned, but the house held together just the same. The old homestead had withstood the force of many hurricanes. Ladies like Audrey, Betsy and Camille had tried their best but went their way and left the home untouched, but Katrina was no lady. She was a bitch.

Katrina stole his john boat and his runabout, and battered the dock with waves until only a few boards were left as a reminder. At least she left the house alone. Now the storm was over, and the winds had scoured away the clouds. The morning sky was as blue as the turquoise stone that graced the silver clasp of the bolero tie Armand wore to the fais do-do that were held on Saturday nights.

But today was Wednesday, and there would be no dancing tonight. Armand had to check his crab traps and all he had left to travel in was an old pirogue his father had carved from a cedar trunk. So he loaded the pirogue and stood in the back like a Venetian gondolier, where he slowly poled his way toward the flats where the blue crab lived.

He hadn’t quite forgotten the beauty and mystery of the swampland, but Armand got closer to nature this trip than he had been since his childhood. Running the channel in a powerboat didn’t give much time to look around, but today, poling the old pirogue down the bayou, he had the chance to gaze a little deeper into his heritage.

Cypress trees, knee deep in the shallows, allowed just enough sunlight through to cast rippling shadows. Armand would catch the small movements in the corner of his eye, and he was glad he was not a superstitious man. An invisible woodpecker drummed in the distance, beating his beak against the hollow of a mossy pine. Blue herons, their fishing disturbed, took wing as he approached. Watching them fly, he understood why the scientists at LSU claimed the birds were descended from dinosaurs. A distant bullfrog gave throaty thanks to God for sparing him from the wrath of the storm. A turtle, startled by the passing canoe, dropped from a log into the safety of the water. A pair of wide set yellow eyes examined Armand as he passed. The alligator decided there would be easier ways to find breakfast and slipped out of sight into the depths of the swamp.

There was a tricky oxbow bend in Bayou Chappelle. It was almost a loop and was only tricky if you tried to run it full throttle in a powerboat, like Armand did one night when he was seventeen. He was on his way home from a fais do-do with visions of a yellow haired girl from town in his mind and too much white lightning in his belly. He ended up missing the turn and probably would have jumped the narrow peninsula into the channel beyond if a giant white cypress hadn’t leaped out in front of him. Today in the pirogue, the bend was just another easy curve, and Armand was able to drink in the sights and smells of the bayou as never before. As he readied to round the bend, Armand’s gaze was arrested by something new.

The cypress that had nearly claimed Armand’s young life commanded the narrow neck of land and forced the bayou to curve around it. For all he knew, that cypress had been there since God formed the Garden of Eden. But today, the cypress lay flat on the ground, courtesy of Katrina. All that was left was a tangled mass of roots that couldn’t keep their grip in the soft mud as Katrina’s fierce winds clutched at trunk and limbs.

That in itself was a shock, but it wasn’t the uprooted tree that caught Armand’s eye. It was an ancient and rusted sword, stuck point down into the earth with its hilt toward the sky that grabbed his attention. It reminded Armand of the old King Arthur story, the one where he pulled the sword out of the rock and won himself a kingdom. It looked a bit like the cross that was carved into the front door of St. Vincent’s Church in Assumption, the church that Armand seldom bothered to attend.

He silently poled the pirogue to the shore and tied it to the shredded end of a limb on the downed cypress. “What have you been guarding all these years, old friend?” he asked the tree as he studied the sword.

It was old, that was plain as the claws on a crawfish. It didn’t have a hand guard like the French and Spanish preferred, the blade was separated from the handle by a flat bar. To Armand, it looked more like the heavy blades favored by the Scots. “It could be Scots,” Armand mused, “they were good Catholics and hated the English as much as the French did. Grandpere always claimed the pirates always left markers to show where they hid their treasure.” He went back to the pirogue to fetch his shovel.

He always took a short handled, flat bladed sand shovel with him on the bayou. One could never tell when a sandbar would shift; causing even a shallow draft boat to run aground in a channel that once was a safe passage. Reverently, he removed the sword and carefully leaned it against the fallen cypress trunk and gently began removing the mud.

He couldn’t sink the shovel’s flat blade very far into the heavy soil, so he went slowly, scraping a little and shoveling a little. Bit by bit, a shallow hole was dug into the soft mud.

The shovel hit something solid, and Armand dropped to his knees to claw at the wet dirt with his bare hands. He jumped back as his grasping fingers pulled a human skull from the earth.

“Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum, what have we here?” he whispered. “Dead men tell no tales, do they?” He had heard the old stories of how the treasure was buried. Lafitte would kill one of the men who helped him bury it and leave the corpse behind to guard the hoard until Lafitte himself came back to claim what was his.

Now Armand was excited as he grabbed the shovel and went to work. Rib bones, leg bones, and rotted scraps of cloth joined the mud to make a heap alongside the hole that Armand dug. Heedless of the grave’s desecration, mud flew in all directions as Armand scrabbled at the dirt, greedy to find the treasure the skeleton was guarding.

Finally his work was rewarded as the shovel hit something solid. Sweat dripped from his forehead as he removed the final chunks of mud to reveal the object below.

Armand laughed like a drunken pirate and the sound of it echoed through the trees as an oak chest, bound with bands of iron, was visible in the clinging mud. He tried to lift it, but the strongbox was too heavy for him. “Ropes,” he muttered, “I need a couple of ropes.”

He ran, stumbling on the upturned cypress roots, back to the pirogue. He rummaged through his gear and found two lengths of rope. These he tied around the chest, one at each end. Using the cypress trunk for leverage, he strained to raise one end. As he gained an inch or two, he tied the rope to a limb and worked the other end. Inch by tedious inch, he raised the massive chest from its shallow grave. He did not notice the shadows that formed an ever tightening circle around him as he worked.

Though he remained fit by years of wresting his living from the swamp’s larder, Armand’s lungs heaved with exertion as he dragged the heavy chest to his boat. “Better to open this at home where no one can see,” he thought as he levered his booty aboard. The pirogue nearly sunk under the weight, but the bayou’s waters were calm and Armand decided to take the chance. The shadows of the swamp played at the edge of his vision as he poled his way homeward, yet he managed to make his destination with the cargo intact.

As he hauled the trunk out of the pirogue, the bottom of the chest gave way and a heap of gold coins spilled out onto the ground. Hastily grabbing them up, Armand loaded them into his tool chest as he nervously looked around to see if anyone had happened by as he dragged the hoard into the house.

All told, there was more gold than Armand had ever dreamed, even as a boy when his grandfather first told him the tales of Jean Lafitte and the treasure the old pirate had hidden somewhere in the bayou swamps. Gold coins made a heap on the floor, and a rotted sack split open. Emeralds and rubies rolled like marbles across the kitchen linoleum. Armand’s eyes glittered brighter than the jewels as he surveyed his loot.

As he sifted through the coins, a large brooch rolled out of the pile. It was a scarab made of solid gold, with eyes fashioned from the deepest green emeralds Armand had ever seen. His hand stretched to take it.

The moment his fingers touched the brooch, all the windows in his house simultaneously shattered, as if dynamite had exploded inside. Armand had been knocked backwards and was momentarily stunned. As he regained his senses, he sat up and muttered, “Son of a bitch, what on earth was that?”

Armand’s eyes rose to the devastated windows. It wasn’t the jagged shards of glass that caused the hairs on the back of his neck to rise, it was a pair of eyes, glowing red in the gathering gloom, that made him feel as though he was standing at the very gates of hell.

A howling sounded in the depths of the swamp. It started as a faint wail, but it grew louder until the wicked keening rushed over the rooftop like the cry of a wounded wolf. Wind whistled across the chimney top and circles of leaves danced in the front yard. Armand’s blood ran cold and he knew that something evil was loose in the swamp.

He gathered the treasure into an old flour sack, but the sack ruptured and the coins spilled across the floor. In the shed, he found an old wooden box and dumped its contents onto the concrete, but it was too small to hold all the treasure. Then he remembered the old cedar chest his mother had stored in the attic, her “hope chest” she called it. Armand hoped it would hold the gold.

Scooping up the treasure, he carefully filled the chest. Black clouds roiled and flashes of lightning streaked through the darkening sky as he dragged the chest back to the pirogue. Red eyes peered from behind the trunks of trees and through the dense foliage, giving speed to Armand’s labor. Pushing like a madman, the pirogue made a small wake as he poled toward the fallen cypress.

The sword was where he left it, leaning against the tree. Using the ropes, Armand carefully lowered the cedar chest back into the ground until it hit bottom with a thud. With all his strength, he thrust the sword into the chest’s lid. The point stuck into the soft wood, leaving the sword standing much as it had before. Carefully sifting through the mud, he gathered the skeleton’s bones and arranged them as best he could on top of the chest. He scraped the heap of mud back into the hole. When all this was done, very little remained to tell the tomb had ever been disturbed. Armand felt compelled to say a few words, but prayer did not come easy so he removed his hat and voiced, “When old Lafitte ordered you to guard his treasure, you took him at his word. Rest easy, old pirate, I meant you no harm.”

The sky was clearing as Armand poled his pirogue toward home. He wondered what people would say when he told this story. “No one would believe me,” he thought, “it would be better just to keep this to myself. I never want to see those red eyes again.”

He walked into his house and surveyed the damage. The setting sun cast golden rays through the shattered western window, letting in just enough light to illuminate the corner where an overlooked doubloon lay hidden.


  1. Tom, what an unusual and beautifully written tale! I'd love to see more like this. I just love it. Thank you for sharing this.

  2. I would love to see that part of the world, Tom. Great descriptions.

  3. I spent some army time in the Louisiana swamps, and much to my surprise, enjoyed it immensely. Thanks for the comments, Jenny and Savvy.