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  • Writer's pictureNick Young

Malédiction


It would not be found on any tourist map, but ask the locals; they could tell you. In the dark heart of St. Martin Parish, east of New Iberia by a handful of miles as the heron flies, lay Bayou Lafouche, a sluggish crawl that ends in a shallow swamp, its origin stretching back through nameless eons, long predating the arrival of the first Acadians. 

Bernard Seydoux was steeped in the lore of his people, nurtured through his fifty-three years by vivid tales spun late into the night over draughts of strong drink. And more than any man around, Bernard Seydoux knew Bayou Lafouche. Only once in his life had he ventured beyond—a weekend in Lafayette as a young buck with two friends. He could recall little of the trip apart from the haze of alcohol and a vague memory of a girl picked up at a bar.  But what was clear was that he had no taste for going back.

So he lived a bachelor’s life in an isolated, cramped shanty of scavenged planks and castoff corrugated sheet metal that clung to the lip of the bayou.  He spent his days in a weathered 12-foot skiff tending to his crawfish traps baited and dropped at intervals in the shallows. His catch, usually abundant, he sold to a distributor whose customers included seafood stores and restaurants as far away as Baton Rouge. His labor kept him in beer and cigarettes, and he was content to spend most evenings drinking and listening to the music of his watery environs or the distant voices that came by way of his radio from New Orleans.

On nights when the moon was full, Bernard would down a few bottles of Dixie, push away from the short dock in front of his place and pole his boat past where he placed his last crawfish pot and follow the bayou to its terminus in the swamp. There he would sit on the skiff’s thwart, beneath a curtain of gently susurrating Spanish moss, smoke and ruminate on the mystery of life, an exercise for which he lacked any philosophical aptitude. Still, he felt a kinship with the night’s creatures, as if he were one of them, and took comfort in their nocturnal chorus.

Though Bernard Seydoux was well-versed in Cajun lore, there were stories in which he put no stock, tales of gris-gris and mal juju.

“Fah,” he would say with derision, “the talk of old women.”

So it was that in the summer of 1967 when several of the old ones began to circulate ominous warnings about a malédiction du diable that would descend on the bayou in late summer, Bernard dismissed the talk with a wave of his hand and a vulgar retort:

“The Devil can embrasse mon cul!” 

The night of August 26. was clear, the moon dull-ivory, suspended high in the southeast sky. The air was heavy, relinquishing little of the day’s stifling heat and humidity. For Bernard there was nothing unusual in it as he pushed away from the shanty and guided his skiff toward the deeper water where the moonlight fell like gauze upon the gentle ripples. His destination was the seclusion of the swamp to see for himself what the radio had told him was a once-in-a-lifetime celestial event, a total lunar eclipse.   

He stood as he poled, and when he reached the swamp he moved with practiced rhythm through the carpet of duckweed and salvinia. He took care to keep clear of the shallows, the ones favored by alligators, maneuvering the skiff  to a spot where his view of the moon would not be impeded by the towering cypresses and their moss draperies.

Shipping the pole and taking a seat, Bernard used the back of his hand to swipe perspiration from his forehead.  He lifted the lid of a small cooler he had brought along and pulled a bottle of Dixie from its nest of ice. He relished the chill as he rolled it across his forehead several times before using the opener slung around his neck on a greasy leather thong, popping the cap and taking a long drink.

Craning his neck skyward, he saw that the eclipse had already begun, with the moon nearly a quarter blocked by the Earth’s shadow. So he relaxed, finished his beer and promptly opened another. He was content to smoke and listen to the chorus of crickets and tree frogs, broken by the occasional splash of a creature in the murky water. After his third beer, he checked the moon again, now more than half hidden and he began to doze.

No more than half an hour passed when he was startled awake, not by a noise but by the total absence of sound. It was as if every creature in the swamp had at once fallen mute, disappeared, ceased to exist. And accompanying the eerie silence was near-total darkness. Bernard turned toward the moon—the eclipse was at its peak. At the same moment, he felt a curious stirring in the water around him and a thump from beneath that jarred the bow of the skiff, lifting it just off the surface of the water. Then came another and a third, each sharper than the one before. He did not understand what was happening but it unnerved him enough so that he took up his pole and stood, letting his eyes probe the darkness.

“Mebbe one big ‘gator,” he muttered. He slipped the pole into the water, feeling the bottom six feet from the surface. He threw his weight against the pole as he tried to turn the skiff and maneuver it into a different position. But when he attempted to slide the pole free for another stroke, it locked in the muck on the swamp floor.

Merde!

He struggled with the pole, bending it this way and that, but he could not dislodge it. He was starting to sweat again, so he took a break, leaned on the pole with one hand while he shucked a cigarette from the pack in his shirt pocket with the other. But before he could light up, he felt a ripple in the night air, an electrified swirl of static that rushed like a whirlwind, enveloping him, raising every hair, causing every pore to come alive. Frantically, he waved his right hand to brush away the electric currents that shimmered over his entire body. He tried to cry out but no sound escaped his throat. There came a fresh agitation in the water around the skiff, which began pitching and yawing with enough intensity that he felt himself in danger of losing his footing.


Then, as he struggled to keep his balance, there arose a piercing, keening wail. It came on softly but quickly crescendoed. It emerged from the very depths of the swamp, becoming louder and louder, bearing with it a horror and unmitigated pain of despair that tore at Bernard’s soul. Again, this time out of profound anguish, he tried to scream. Again, it was in vain. And with the rising sound came a swift upsurge of the water beneath the boat, lifting and capsizing it, pitching him headlong into the stagnant, fetid pool. Quickly, he twisted his body and struggled to get upright. The water was deep enough so that his toes hit bottom, which allowed him to thrust his chin just above the waterline and, while bobbing, gulp air. Still, the hellish sound howled around him, rising and falling and rising louder again as if emanating from a demonic choir. He attempted to thrash his hands free, to clasp them over his ears and dull what was now painful, but he was unable to move them. The more he strained the tighter were his arms frozen with immobility. As he struggled, a new terror arose, for he felt first his toes and then gradually his feet being gripped and sucked into the thick muck of the swamp floor, as if he were being methodically swallowed by a huge, hungry mouth. Eyes bulging with the horror of it, unable to utter a desperate cry for help, he was pulled beneath the surface. And as he sank, he heard the rasp of an ancient, dreaded voice, one that carried all of the ineffable pain and cruelty of mankind,  hiss through the shrieking that rent the night:

You dare to mock me?!?”

In an instant, all sound died away. 

Beneath the surface, Bernard’s skin was alive, nerve endings afire to every sensation of the swirling water, every jagged  terror that his imagination conjured—long, venomous snakes entwining his limbs, crawfish swarming to nibble at his flesh and the hideous muck that sucked his feet fast. 

And with eyes wide, mouth filling and choking on the brackish water—filling and choking again and again but never drowning, never dying for evermore—Bernard Seydoux watched through the undulating murk as the first tiny rind of the ivory moon reappeared.


 


Nick Young is a retired award-winning CBS News Correspondent. His writing has appeared in more than thirty publications, including the Stygian Lepus, Dark Horses Magazine, Little Death Lit, The Chamber, Sein und Werden and the Tales of the Strange anthology. His first novel, Deadline, was published in October. He lives outside Chicago.

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