(Author’s Note: This is a story I wrote for a Louisiana Studies Conference in 2016. I had a lot of fun with it, and I hope you do, too.)
“It looked as if a night of dark intent
Was coming, and not only a night, an age.
Someone had better be prepared for rage.
There would be more than ocean-water broken
Before God’s last Put Out the Light was spoken.”
(Robert Frost, Once by the Pacific, 1928)
The two people sitting beside the crash had nothing to do with it. They were waiting on the side of the road as police and paramedics cleaned up wreckage both metal and human under the weight of a night heavy with heat. Papers were strewn across the road, skid marks embedded in the concrete, all lining a grim path to the splayed carcass of a thing that had once been a car.
Three teenagers were bagged. One girl, her face permanently smiling into the jagged edges of the passenger window. Two boys, one crumpled in the floor of the backseat with his legs in places they didn’t belong. The other had flown free and—like a fledgling bird—had found himself helpless and alone on the unyielding warmth of the interstate.
There was also a fourth body, and when the paramedics began to lift it into its own navy-colored bag, the disheveled young woman who had been sitting in silence on the side of the road combing gravel out of her hair made a noise of deep disapproval.
“Can’t they just leave me?” she whispered to the man beside her.
A smile broke the severe lines of his dark face. His teeth were a jumble, over-growing each other in their enthusiasm to join in the expression. “You want to be a pavement pancake?” he asked.
“Well, no, but….” She sighed and got to her feet. “This doesn’t feel right, either. Nothing does.”
“What did you expect?”
He followed her as she walked alongside the paramedics. His footfalls went unheard. He was taller than anybody there, his impossible thinness wrapped in a dusty black suit, but somehow he turned no heads. Of course, neither did she. She knew, in some small reluctant part of her mind, that both of them were dead, although she couldn’t quite remember who he was or if they were supposed to be dead together. She felt that she ought to know him, but her memories were still a bit vague, floating just out of sight like grey fish in a pond. She recalled arriving at the scene of this crash and glimpsing a shadowed figure, its arched back wispy with smoke. It had been bending over one of the boys, prying his jaws open. She had shouted, and two pinpricks of light in a dark face had met hers…and then this stranger dressed for his own funeral had been waking her up. It couldn’t be right, any of it.
The paramedics slammed the ambulance doors and pulled away. No lights, no sirens. She watched them go, and suddenly her stomach felt empty. She had spent the better part of five years riding in the back of that ambulance, but no matter how passionate she had been about the work, it was not how she had wanted to leave the world.
Her companionable stranger took a smoldering cigar from the brim of his tall black hat and clamped it between his jaws. It burned with a dull blue flame that didn’t seem quite believable in the way it glinted across his glasses. It failed to light the lenses with its glare, and she thought for an instant that his eyes were even emptier than she felt—bare holes behind a hollow frame.
“Shall we cross, ma chère?”
He extended a hand to her, and the same toothy grin lit his sunken face. He might have been charming, but in the faint rays of the rising sun he wavered before her like smoke, and she was reminded of the hunched figure from her last hazy memories. She had almost convinced herself that what she thought she remembered was only the last feeble struggle of her brain as it had given up its rule, but now, standing beside him, she began to fear otherwise.
“No,” she said, as firmly as she could. “No, it’s not fair.”
“Well, if you prefer to go by yourself….”
“No, I mean it’s not fair that I’m dead.”
“Sometimes the soul’s just ready to walk. Don’t you want me to make sure it finds its way?”
“But I didn’t do anything wrong. I was trying to save someone!”
The smile broke at the corners. “Well, that’s just it, isn’t it? How do you suppose Cousin Death feels about people like you, coming along when he’s just going about his business, trying to snatch lives out of his hands? It’s frustrating, you know. Not surprising he lost his temper and popped your heart like a grape.”
She had never felt half so much when she had been alive. The line between fear and anger was wearing very thin. “So it was you. You’re Death.”
He shook his head, the tall hat wobbling slightly. “Not at all. But there are rules and there are roles, and when you mix them about there’s trouble. You assume you’re important enough to know better than Death? You think that the only fair outcome is the one you want?” He turned away from her and glanced about the empty road. The dark glasses and the dim light made his thoughts unreadable, but there was no mistaking the disdain that dripped from his tongue.
“It used to be different. You used to know how these things worked. Where you stood.” He grinned at her then, like a jaguar baiting a mouse. “What’s my name, ma chère?”
“Who cares? What’s mine?” Challenge had replaced tremor, drawn somewhere from deep-rooted years of chasing the dying. She felt brave for a moment, and the feeling sparked an instant of hope. But he laughed and said simply,
She stared at him, offended that he had guessed correctly. “What’s my last name?” she demanded.
Tears were pressing against the corners of her eyes. She fought furiously against them, hating every inch of his leering face. “And my dad?” she demanded. “You or…or your cousin, or whatever, took him three years ago. What was his name?”
“Louis Ramos. And he wasn’t so disrespectful.”
Her battle had been lost. She stood before him, wounded and bleeding tears. “We must be a little important, then,” she said.
“I didn’t say you weren’t. But you think yourselves huge, ma chère, and you’re tiny. You must be, for otherwise none of you would fit together to build us up—like those ugly sky-high buildings you build. You make us monstrous and tall.”
She didn’t know what to say. She was tired, and the flesh on her arms was rising with a cold she wasn’t certain she was supposed to feel. “So there’s no point,” she said flatly. “To any of it. We’re just…food for gods.”
“The dead do wax poetic,” he said with a wink. “So you think I’m a god, now?”
“I think I’m tired,” she said. She went back to sit on the curb and drew her knees to her chest. There was still blood on her uniform, and she wondered vaguely if she would have to wear it forever. There was something bitterly ironic about being a dead EMT.
With a groan and a distinct creaking of bones, he sat beside her. She was already feeling childish and stupid, or else she might have scooted away.
“Have you ever heard of the Great October Storm?” he asked.
Her shake of the head was met with an arched eyebrow over the brim of one dark lens. “No? One of the most devastating hurricanes in recent memory?”
“Not my recent memory,” she pointed out.
“Oh, so it’s not important, then. Who’s ambivalent about human lives now?”
“Fine,” she muttered, letting her legs unfurl to sprawl in the road. “What about it?”
“It was in the Cheniere Caminada area. Have you ever been there? No? Of course not. Well, there used to be a sizeable portion of German immigrants. Prussians, really. They came to Louisiana for better lives, but they didn’t leave everything behind. They brought the things they had built up, just like the Haitians brought me and my wife. Don’t worry, you’ll probably never meet her. We’re not speaking at the moment; I owe her a case of 18th century rum. Anyway,” he added, patting her shoulder to assuage the development of a confused expression, “Where were we?”
“Prussians. And hopefully a point.”
“Right. There was a family among them that came—like many others—to work as oyster luggers. The father, Gils, did that, while the mother, Celestine, and the daughter, Agnesia, made nets. Who knows exactly why they left their home across the waters, probably to do with William the Second. But when they did finally go, something followed them.
“It was old, very old, but not so much as to give up on what it wanted. It had its eyes on Agnesia, who was never what many would have called stunning, but who was pretty enough and had a brave, rebellious nature. That must have been very tempting to a spirit such as this. It was of the water, and it went where it wanted, at its own pace, in its own time. It was a grandson of the great Aegir, whom I’m guessing you don’t know, either? No. Well, he was some big-shot Nordic beast of the waves, and his children and grandchildren love as hard as they hate.
“This particular grandchild was called Fossegrim, and he followed Agnesia and her family across the world, making sure they had a safe voyage of it. He was only a river, but his current was strong enough to allay any serious damage, and so they arrived unscathed. They settled in to their new home and occupations, and poor Fosse soon realized that he had made a terrible mistake. For you see, back home their house had stood on his banks; he could see his beloved Agnesia any time he liked. But here their house lay inland, and the only time he saw her was when she came to the docks to mend her nets or to bring her father a meal.
“And so he waited, every day, until the hour when she would come and kneel beside him to work on her nets. He longed to appear to her in some way she could understand, but he was only a slip of river stuck in the vast gulf that surrounded Caminada. He was weak, made small in this place where only a very few had any idea of him at all.
“One day, as poor Fosse lay below the skin of the waters to watch Agnesia at her work, a shadow cut out the sun. Fosse saw the stranger for what he was: a dead man with neither flesh nor muscles to cover his bones. He carried a black cane with a smaller version of his own grinning skull for a top, and his ancient skeleton was bare except for a thin cloak of shadow that followed in his steps like an after-thought. Agnesia saw none of this. Instead, she saw a handsome gentleman with a captivating grin that spoke lies more pleasing than truth, and she greeted it with her own beautiful smile.
“The water under the docks roiled as Fosse listened to this bold grave-bug’s tales. He told her to call him ‘La Croix,’ and claimed to be a baron with a vast estate nearby. There was danger lurking in his narrow eyes as Agnesia said what a pleasure it was to know him, but though he might have been a wolf, she was no sheep. She met that hungry look and found it more appealing than any lies he could have told.
“I live up the way,” La Croix said at last. “There is a road to the east of the cemetery. If you’re not afraid to follow such a path, you might come and visit me some time.”
“I have found nothing to frighten me in this new world, so far,” said Agnesia.
La Croix smiled and brought her hand to his lips. “In that case, ma chère, why wait?”
Fosse could see the smile blooming in the deep parts of Agnesia’s eyes. He knew what her answer was going to be, but he had not come all this way to watch her give her company to a corpse. He tugged at the folds of the water and tore at its constricting skin, but he could not break free. Now La Croix had an arm around Agnesia’s waist; they were slipping away. Her nets lay discarded on the docks.
“With a cry lost in the hiss of the waves, Fosse lashed out and sent his own wall of water rushing towards the shore. It was not much, that wave, but it was taller than La Croix and drenched both him and Agnesia. She gave a good-natured shriek that bled into a breathless laugh, but the Baron froze in his tracks. He turned slowly, and Fosse knew that those wolfish eyes could see him beneath the angry waters. The death’s head grinned down at him with dark purpose.
“Agnesia went to her home and La Croix slunk back to whatever dark hole had spat him out upon the earth. In his weedy bed, balancing against the pull of strange and hostile currents, Fosse found little comfort with the thought that he had driven them apart for the day. There would be more days, and nights, and he could not protect her for any of them. He saw the curious turn of her smile in his mind, and it made him feel sick.
“As he dozed in a billowing stupor of doubt and frustration, a shadow came to blot out the moon. The skeleton La Croix lowered his bones onto the dock and dangled his bare feet over the water. He leaned forward on grasping twigs and cleared his throat twice.
“Say, Fossegrim,” he said, for he knew he had an audience beneath the waters, just as he knew its name and the names of all things that have the potential to die. “Why don’t you come up and sit with me a while?”
“You know I cannot,” Fosse replied. His voice was smooth, like the small rocks that lay in the bed of his river back home, but there was little of calm in it as he addressed the Baron. “You know I have not the strength. You were careful to take advantage of it before.”
“Is that so?” The anger that had shone in the Baron’s eyes earlier that day melted down into his lips. They curled outwards in a sickly sweet smirk. “I did not realize that the little clam meant so much to you, my friend. If I had known you were trapped in her knots, I would not have been so bold.”
“I traveled across the world for her,” said Fossegrim, a bit proudly. “I left my home and everyone and everything that ever knew me.”
“Then by all means you should have her!” the Baron replied. He had his cane across his lap, and as he spoke he ran his hands along its length like a warrior testing the grain of a sword. Fosse could see his eyes gleaming in the moonlight, just as he could see their empty sockets drawing the night in. He was many things at once, and none of them boded well. “Drink all you want from the living, I always say. After all, they have made us their sacred, and therefore whatever we want we ought to have.”
“But how am I to do anything,” asked Fossegrim, “when I am barred from the land?”
The baron thought for a moment, tapping the top of the skull against his chin. “I will tell you what, my friend,” he said. “Since you and I have had this little misunderstanding, allow me to teach you a thing or two. Let me show you how to walk out of the water, and then you can sweep your beloved clam away.”
Fosse ought not to have agreed, but the defeated do desperate things. It was decided, then and there, that the Baron should come to the docks every night and teach him how to bend currents of more than water—how to shift belief and make it wind its subtle way through stories and songs and deep memories until at last people knew him. The Prussians would remember, and their tales would spread, and before long he would knock on Agnesia’s door and show himself to her, standing tall and proud like his grandfather—a mighty king of the rivers.
“But ‘before long’ took longer than he would have liked. It was weeks before he took his first uncertain steps on land. He hauled himself out of the waves during a rainy, turbulent night. He thought to be met with greetings, but the oyster luggers and fishers only looked at him with fear and ran back to the land as fast as their boats would take them. They told tales of him, but there was terror in the telling. Agnesia came less and less, and every night the Baron’s self-satisfied smile grew wider.
“One night, after days of being forced to slink back into the ocean, too tired to travel farther than the docks, Fossegrim came to a decision. It was simple and honest, if incredibly foolish. He decided that if he could not make it to Agnesia that very night, he would never attempt to do so again. When the Baron came to the docks, Fosse did not speak to him. He was busy gathering his strength, testing the weak parts of the adversarial currents. He ignored the skeleton’s shouts, burying them in a fury of effort that pulled the waters down from the sky and tossed the wind in perilous patterns.
“His vision grew dark with the deep as he pulled from the very bottom of the gulf, lifting waves to meet with rain. He carried the weight of it all behind him and, step by step, forced himself onto the land. They met each other with thunder.”
He went quiet and let his words close in upon themselves until there was nothing left. Kaitlin bore his sudden silence for a minute or so before its effect was worn out. “And?” she said. “What happened?”
“Well, the hurricane, obviously,” he replied. “Fosse walked himself and half the whole ocean to Agnesia’s door.”
He nodded. “People generally do.”
“But that’s awful! Why even tell me that?!”
“Because,” he said, and his voice was earnest this time, “it was what happened after the hurricane that mattered. When you lose so many people…so many small, unimportant people…you run the risk that those remaining will be lost to you, too. You run the risk that they’ll forget, or blame, and before you know what you’ve done, you’re only half-remembered, half-revered, and less than half of what you were. La Croix suffered for that trick of his. It’s well and good to laugh in the chaos, but you can’t do anything but stand in the rubble.”
He stood and held out his hand again. She took it; what else was there to do? Together they walked across the highway and when they had passed underneath the dark canopy of trees on the other side, he slipped his arm into hers and said,
“You’re really not important. Neither am I. But together we’re something hallowed, something unstoppable.”
“And yet you’re still walking me to my grave,” she pointed out.
There was that jumbled smile again. It seemed momentarily as if the skin hiding his terrible teeth was translucent, and grey, like smoke stretched over his bones. “How do you feel about a drink, instead? I’m sure anyone who can keep up with Death like you can has some impressive stories of their own.”
“I might have a few,” she agreed. There didn’t seem any point in asking how the dead were supposed to drink. She let him lead her along, and they soon slipped into the lengthening shadows of the day, two disparate sides of an increasingly companionable silence.
(c) Ray Green, 2016