[Image is in the Public Domain]
A desolate moan, and the wooden shutters rattled like there was something unholy trying to enter, but it was only the wind.
Leandre Naquin jumped at the noise, then turned back toward his friends, the heat of embarrassment rising in his cheeks. Thunder rolled in the distance and the air coming in through the cracks smelled like rain.
“Scared of some noise?” J. P. Ayo’s characteristic grin flashed out in the dim lantern light. “Loup garou come out of the swamp to get you?”
Leandre gave a genial laugh, and the three other men joined in. “No, it just startled me. But it’s coming faster than we thought. Good thing we got the cane cut. Wind like this could blow it flat. Lose the whole field.”
J. P. gave a dismissive wave. “It’s not a hurricane, it’s just a summer thunderstorm. But you know what that means, T-Joe. You better stay the night here.”
Joseph Lirette, the youngest of the four, put on an expression so comically distraught that J. P. snorted laughter and slapped his knee.
“Won’t hurt you none to miss a night with your pretty wife, T-Joe. You can just make sure and do it twice tomorrow night.”
T-Joe’s face turned scarlet. “That’s not it. I’m just… I hope she’ll be all right by herself. A storm, you know, she could get scared.”
Clovis Dantin snorted. “Better scared for a night than alone forever because you walked home in a storm and got struck by lightning.” He took a swig of the liquor J. P. had poured into tin cups from a heavy ceramic bottle, then leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms.
“I guess you’re right.” T-Joe didn’t look convinced. He took a sip from his own cup, and grimaced. “Damn, J. P., what did you make this from? Lye and horse piss?”
“You get used to it.”
“Not sure I want to.”
Another roll of thunder shook the house. Leandre dropped into a wicker-backed chair, stretching out his long legs and propping his feet on the table. “Refill my cup with some of that lye and horse piss, J. P.”
J. P. obliged with a smile.
“Must be nice, living alone.” Clovis’s habitual scowl deepened, and he took another sip. “My wife’d never let me put my feet on the table like that. You got nobody telling you what to do day in, day out.”
“Nobody to welcome you to bed, either,” T-Joe said earnestly.
“Huh.” Clovis shook his head. “Happens seldom enough in my house, I’d be better off able to put my feet on the table.” He glanced over at J. P., and his expression softened. “Say, sorry, J. P. I didn’t mean…”
J. P. gave him a dismissive wave of the hand. “Don’t worry about it. Marie-Elise died almost two years ago. I’m not over missing her—doubt I ever will be, honestly—but I’m over feeling like every mention of wives or being alone is a knife in my heart. Tiens, you can’t mourn forever.”
“You think you’ll remarry?” T-Joe asked.
J. P. shrugged. “I don’t have a pretty lady ready to take me off to the church, if that’s what you mean. Right now I’m content to go to the fais-do-do and dance with all of them, then come back to my own little house when it’s over.”
“That’s my thought,” Leandre said.
“How about you, though?” T-Joe turned his gaze toward Leandre. “You’re what, twenty-eight?”
“And never married?”
Leandre smiled and shrugged. “Too much else to do.”
T-Joe shook his head, his expression baffled. “I don’t understand y’all.”
Lightning flashed, its blue-white radiance shining for an instant through the cracks in the shutters. The thunder followed almost immediately, a deep-throated rumble that made the liquor in Leandre’s cup vibrate. “Some times there are good reasons for not having a woman, you know.”
The corners of J. P.’s mouth quirked upward. “Such as?”
Leandre’s eyes met his friend’s, and he didn’t answer for a moment. Then he grinned. “So I can put my feet on the table.” Rain began to slash against the roof, and another gust of wind made the shutters vibrate. Enough of it made its way through gaps that the flame in the oil lamp guttered and almost went out. “Hell of a night. The kind of nights when the ghosts walk.”
Clovis gave him a raised eyebrow. “Ghosts? What ghosts?”
Leandre shrugged. “Whatever ghosts are out there. There’ve got to be millions. How many people are alive now, and how many people have died since Adam and Eve left the Garden? The dead outnumber the living, no question about it.”
“That doesn’t mean they’re ghosts.”
“Not all of them, no. But tell me, Clovis, you’ve never seen a ghost? Or known someone who has?”
Clovis opened his mouth to answer, then closed it without saying anything.
“Thought so.” Leandre laughed. “I bet we all have.”
“I don’t know why they’d be out in the rain, though.” J. P.’s smile flashed out in the semi-darkness. “Night like this, I would stay in my nice dry coffin. If I was a ghost, only time you’d see me is on a sunny afternoon. And to hell with appearing in a graveyard, you know? I’d show up in the middle of Sunday Mass. I’d love to see the look on Father Rousseau’s face.” His smile faded. “But you’re right, Leandre. I have seen a ghost. It was a long time ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday.”
“Whose ghost was it?” T-Joe leaned forward in his chair. His eyes were wide, but whether with fear or interest was impossible to tell.
“Her name was Thérèse. Thérèse Clerot. A woman who I knew when I was a child. She lived nearby, by herself, but it wasn’t so she could put her feet on the table.” He flashed a quick grin at Leandre. “My mama said about her that she was no better than she had to be, you know? A lot of the young men in the parish showed up to her house in the evening, only stayed a half-hour or so. But she never wanted for money or food. Even at my age then—couldn’t’a been more than eleven or twelve at the time—I knew what was going on. And now, looking back, I realize why the young men sought her company. She was beautiful, no doubt about that. Long black hair, flashing blue eyes, skin like rich cream. No wonder she was never lonely.”
“Then she died?” T-Joe said.
“Well, yes. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Because Thérèse Clerot finally gave up entertaining every young man who crossed her palm with a coin, and actually fell in love. The different men every night changed to one man who came to her cabin over and over again. His name was Michel Dominique.” He frowned, remembering. “Nobody much would have thought about this, because after all, everyone approved of Thérèse settling down, maybe even getting married herself, rather than carrying on all evening with any men who happened along. There was only one problem.
“Michel Dominique was already married, to the daughter of one of the richest men in the parish, Clément Lagrange.”
T-Joe gaped at him. “So his wife was Jacques Lagrange’s sister?”
J. P. nodded.
“I’ve talked to Jacques a dozen times. He never mentioned he has a sister.”
“No, he wouldn’t. She’s dead and gone, too, along with her husband Michel and his lover Thérèse. And the Lagrange family—well, let’s say they were just as happy to forget Julienne Lagrange ever existed.” He looked from one face to the other, and a flicker of his earlier smile returned to his face. “But like I said, that’s getting things out of order. If I’m going to tell the story, I should tell it proper. So if you want to hear it…?”
T-Joe and Leandre both nodded, and Clovis gave a noncommittal shrug, which was about all the enthusiasm he usually expressed.
Leandre refilled his three friends’ cups with liquor. “Then let’s hear it, J. P.”
“All right. Then I have to begin with the day Thérèse Clerot died. And I can tell you about that because I was the one who found her body.”
T-Joe gave a little gasp. “R’gardez-donc,” he said, in a near whisper. “So you’re not joking, or telling us a tall tale because it’s a stormy night.”
This time the thunderclap was so close that they heard a noise like a whipcrack, almost at the same moment the bolt of lightning struck, followed by an earsplitting roll. “Oh, no. It’s no tall tale.” He took a swallow from his cup, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Now that I come to think of it, I wish it was. But I can’t leave it there. Since I’ve started, I might as well tell you the whole story.”