Thursday, February 25, 2016

Story: "Le Capitaine"

I dreamt of alligators and screaming men. When morning came, Jackson in the grip of August never seemed so sweet. Course, Jackson's got gators nearby, out in the cypress swamp. But not the kind I dreamt of. Not gators which have got a taste of le cochon gris.

The cause of my troubled sleep still lay half-crumpled where it fell yesterday. A telegram, from Jim Smollett, former captain of the blockade runner Miss Lucy Grey: "Come to Biloxi for cornbread."

I know what you Yankees are thinking. "Cornbread gave a Southern boy nightmares? Haw!" Well, I don't object to cornbread. But Cap Smollett? He hated cornbread so much he made it the danger-sign for the Miss Lucy Grey. I reckon from there you can piece out what an invitation to Biloxi for cornbread meant.

Takes a week to reach Biloxi from Jackson if you can't afford a train ticket. And that's if the roads are good. The roads were good, for once.

Me, I hate Biloxi. Smollett, he grew up there, and when the blockade began, he decided to run us out of his home port, rather than further up along the coast near Richmond or other cities which needed supplies more. Smollett was a patriot, but he desired convenience.

Well anyway, I found Smollett's home. Before the War, he'd been repairing its foundations and renovating various sections. Didn't appear as though he'd made any progress. I'd hardly have called any of the surrounding houses tidy or elegant, but at least they didn't have peeling paint, broken window panes, or a half-canted front porch.

I stepped onto the skewed porch and grasped the doorknob. The thing about August in Mississippi is heat. Heat and damp, clogging the air. Metal is never cold, even in the morning or in the night. The doorknob was clammy with the chill of a man who'd been too long in the sea. For a moment I felt myself back on the lookout's perch, watching as shells and gators took men apart.

My uncle Saul told me stories when I was a boy. About Tailypo or Crooked John, mostly, but sometimes about voudoun, or about haunted plantation houses. Doors in those stories always creaked open. Captain Smollett's front door swung butter-smooth.

Last time I stepped inside the Smollett home, there'd been a war on. Even back then everything had been dusty, neglected. Now the place stunk with neglect. For housing three generations of successful captains, didn't show so well. It stood narrow, and dark, even with the front door open and sunlight rushing in.

I shut the door behind me. In here the hot Mississippi damp felt more kin to an open-ocean fog, cold and clinging. When I wrapped myself around the lookout's post, when men and shells screamed, that sort of fog wrapped around me.

Smollett's smoking room, up stairs, is where  he'd be. The man was a cigar fiend. Devil's breath, Granny called it.

He sat there, back to me, looking out a shuttered window. Only a little light crept through. On a table to his right sat an unlight cigar. Some kind of stink hung around. At first I figured the captain just finished some fancy cigar. No cigar smells like seaweed and rotting fish, though.

"Lafreniere. Do you remember the Miss Lucy Grey's last voyage?"

Did I remember a living nightmare? We'd filled the Miss Lucy Grey's hold in British waters, made it nearly back to Biloxi with no close calls. Maybe 30 miles out from port, thick fog rolled in. Pea-soup fog. Voudoun fog. Our pilot--a new pilot, his first trip--swore he could bring us in to port, or at least make Cat Island and the cove there. Captain Smollett himself took soundings at the bow. I rode up in the lookout's nest.

We didn't make Cat Island. We ran aground on Ship Island, no more than ten miles from home port. The Yanks kept a small fort there, late in the war, as the grip tightened on the South. We ran aground in range of Fort Massachusetts' guns. What men weren't killed by shells were killed by gators. Three men survived, out of a twenty-man crew. Me. Captain Smollett. The Pilot.

I answered the Captain. "I remember, sir. You know I do."

His voice was choked, holding back memories. "They blamed you as they died, you know."

"I recall them blaming you, too, sir. And that pilot." I shifted heel to heel. This place stank. Too cold. Too damp. I wanted good honest Mississippi swelter.

Now he spoke so low I could barely hear. "Indeed. They blamed me also. God help me, they blamed us all."

"We coulda waited, sir. We had no lack of fuel."

He didn't answer. I stepped closer, came around his chair to accuse. Not my captain anymore. Why fear him?

Ever seen a drowned man? After a few days in the water, a body bloats and swells. Fish eat away the soft bits--nose, eyes, ears. It's the stink, though. Of fish and seaweed and decay.

The captain's corpse reached out and put his hand upon my shoulder.