The sign read "Dieux des Marais". It had a gator painted on it, and bore greenish marks from a long-ago flood. Someone had shot directly through the gator's head with a .22 caliber rifle. There were crushed cans of beer and cigarette butts scattered everywhere. The rain pattered on the garbage, and it began to float in the rising water.
A lone pickup truck rattled down a single-lane farm route. Rays of fading sunlight pierced through a canopy of cypress trees. The air was thick with moisture, and silvery clouds of mosquitoes hung like veils over the road.
Emma Wilkes sat in the passenger seat of her fiancée's 1962 Ford, threading her strawberry-blonde hair through her fingers. It was something she'd been doing for several hours, mostly to keep her mind off the quiet. Bobby stared dead ahead, hunched over his steering wheel.
"It's beautiful here," Emma gazed out at the swamp. A firefly skimmed past her nose.
"Mais oui," Bobby agreed.
Emma smiled slightly. Bobby only spoke English at home, but bits of his native tongue crept into his speech as they traveled south.
"You're speaking French again," Emma told him.
"Suppose this is the place for it," Bobby replied.
Although they'd been together for two years, Bobby was still a mystery to Emma. It was one of the things she loved about him. Of course, he also possessed roguish good looks and charm. Even his negative traits were endearing. He was obsessive about fishing, always hungry, and generous to a fault. The fact that he was only six months away from becoming a doctor made him the perfect catch.
"I don't understand why you're so worried, Bobby," Emma said. "You've already met my parents!"
"It's not the same," Bobby paused. "My kin... they won't like you, Emma."
"Because I'm a Yankee?" Emma demanded.
"They won't like you because of how they are," he replied.
"We're getting married, Bobby," Emma paused. "You can tell me anything." There was bad blood between Bobby and his family, Emma knew that. Still, if she was going to spend the rest of her life with the man, she had a right to know where he came from.
"Mo shou, it's not that simple," Bobby hesitated. There was something he wanted to tell Emma, but it was not an easy thing to explain. More importantly, he had to know that she would believe it.
"Yes, it is," she told him, squeezing his hand. "Love is all we need."
Bobby sighed. His heart melted just a little more. Emma was a lot of things; sweet, stubborn, beautiful, and unwaveringly honest. The one thing she wasn't was smart.
"So what does "Dieux des Marais" mean?" Emma asked, changing the subject.
Bobby slammed on the brakes. "Where'd you hear that?" He demanded.
Emma grimaced. It wasn't like Bobby to stop so fast. "It was on a sign we just passed," she confessed.
"Forget it. It's nothing," Bobby muttered.
But it wasn't nothing, and he knew it.
It was goddamn Uncle Charlie.
They neared Cocodrie Bayou. Bobby squinted at the bridge. It looked unsafe, and he suspected sabotage. Bobby knew that his kin wanted him to come home. He resisted the temptation placed in front of him. If he used his powers even once, Uncle Charlie would find out. And there was nothing Uncle Charlie loved more than being right.
Bobby pulled over.
"Are we there?" Emma asked.
"I think the rain washed out some of the supports," he explained, pointing to the underside of the bridge. "We can't drive over it."
"Do bridges get washed out around here often?" Emma wondered.
"More often than they ought to," Bobby nodded, silently cursing Uncle Charlie.
"Good thing I wore my tennis shoes," Emma grinned. "And I brought my umbrella!"
"Umbrellas are for tourists, mo shou," Bobby said, taking Emma's umbrella. He kissed her briefly. "Don't worry. It's only about a mile. We won't get wet." That was the truth. Uncle Charlie was arrogant, but only a real couillion would play with the weather over Moman's house.
Bobby and Emma reached the gates of the LeJeune estate. Before the war, it had been a great big sprawling place of a dozen buildings. Now only the main house stood. It was badly in need of paint and a new roof, but it still loomed over the property like the palace it had once been, mouldering and defiant amidst overgrown bushes and knee-high grass dotted with wildflowers.
A crow perched on the wrought iron gate. It croaked, making eye contact with Bobby.
"Merde!" he spat, shooing the bird.
Emma took a step back. The crow hissed.
"What's wrong with that bird?" Emma wondered.
"It's Uncle Charlie... his pet," Bobby corrected himself, almost too late. "Don't go anywhere near him. He bites!"
"Only if you want me to, mo shou," A silky voice replied.
Emma whirled around. There was a man standing alarmingly close to her, and she hadn't heard him approach. He was a very tall with an especially dark complexion, and his eyes were an unsettling shade of blue. He was dressed in an antiquated black suit with a purple paisley cravat. There were silver and gold rings on all of his fingers, numerous rosaries around his neck, and a tattered top hat perched on top of his head with a single rose stuck in its red silk band.
Bobby scowled. If Uncle Charlie had been any more obvious, he would have appeared as a caricature of himself.
"You must be Uncle Charlie," Emma guessed
"Who's the catin?" Uncle Charlie jerked his thumb at Emma. He took a cigar from his breast pocket.
"My name is Emma, and I'm a nurse, not a hooker," Emma replied fearlessly. She knew what the word catin meant, and she wasn't pleased to have it pinned on her. Still, she extended her hand in Uncle Charlie's direction. He stared as if Emma were offering him a dead fish. "I'm Bobby's fiancee."
Uncle Charlie raised an eyebrow. "Does she know?" He jabbed Bobby with his pointed elbow.
Bobby shoved him away. "Is Moman in the house?" He asked.
"She was on the gallerie last I saw her," Uncle Charlie gestured to the porch.
"Same. Why didn't you tell me you were getting married?" Uncle Charlie demanded.
"I was going to," Bobby replied.
"Lying is my power, boy. You're no good at it," Uncle Charlie knocked a little ash from his cigar. "Go say hello to Moman. She's expecting you. But you and I need to talk," He added, in a tone that suggested he would not take "no" for an answer.
Emma clung to Bobby's arm as he made his way towards the porch. "Where did he go?" She whispered, nervously glancing over her shoulder.
Bobby groaned. Predictably, Uncle Charlie had disappeared
The gallerie wrapped around the house. It was littered with decades worth of rubbish ranging from broken furniture and old appliances to new windows still in their store wrapping. Nobody ever fixed the house, though Popa often talked about how it would be nice to get Moman a new refrigerator or an air-conditioner. Moman insisted that she didn't need those things, and so the house remained in a permanent state of disrepair.
Popa sat with his feet kicked up on an ice chest, nursing a stub of a cigarette. There were wet minnow traps surrounding his chair, and he was wearing nothing but overalls and his boots. Emma took in the old man's appearance. Bobby resembled his father, although he was much thinner. They both looked Creole, she thought, though she had nothing to compare that to. She'd never met anyone else who shared the same African and French heritage.
"Catch anything good?" Bobby asked, observing the minnow traps.
"I ain't caught nothing but mudbugs and catfish since you been gone," Popa replied. "And I've got an envie for some redfish."
"You have bad luck, old man," Bobby laughed.
Popa snorted. "Fishin' ain't my power," he replied. "I protect women and children, you know that."
"I don't know, Popa. Didn't your first wife shoot you in the foot?" Bobby teased.
"I said I protect women," Popa said. "I didn't say I could make em' sane."
Emma glanced at the Bobby. The word "power" seemed to get thrown around a lot by the LeJeunes, and she wasn't sure what it really meant.
"So, I guess you know I'm getting married," Bobby paused.
"No, you ain't. Not till you talk to Moman," Popa replied. "She's in the kitchen."
Emma moved to follow Bobby, but Popa reached out and caught her hand.
"Sorry, cher. But you'd best stay out here," he said.
"Bobby?" Emma was nervous.
"I'll be right back," Bobby promised.
The kitchen was sweltering. Through the steam from the boiling pots on the stove, Bobby could barely make out the petite figure of his mother. She stood at her wooden chopping board, expertly filetting several small catfish, cutting the meat into pieces, and tossing it in a bowl with cornmeal and flour. The amount of cayenne pepper in the air burned his eyes.
"Does she know?" Moman asked, not turning to face Bobby where he stood. Her knife came down again, and she pushed the parts of the fish that weren't fit to be fried off of her chopping board.
"No," Bobby confessed.
"You're thinking about tellin' her," Moman observed. She picked up an onion and examined it.
"I'd like to marry her," Bobby said.
Moman sighed. "Bobby, you don't know nothin' about women. You haven't had a date since the eighth grade. What makes this one special?" Moman demanded. She did turn around then, her hands on her hips. Her glasses slid down her nose, and her apron was covered in blood and flour. The signs of her hard life were readily visible in her knobby hands, but there was a strength in the old woman's gaze that would not be denied.
"She believes in me," Bobby finished.
"Does she?" Moman pressed. "Your Uncle Charlie don't think she do."
"I don't care what Uncle Charlie thinks!" Bobby snapped. "I swear, if he gets between me and Emma, I'm gonna lay such a gris-gris on'm, he'll think he was ridden by a cauchemar!" Bobby cracked his knuckles. He hadn't worked any black magic in a sore long time, but it was still in him. It always was.
Moman was not amused. She poked her son hard with a bony finger, and he winced. "Bobby, you are too blame smart to talk like that!" Moman warned. "You know you got just one chance, boy. You go get that petite cherie, and you tell her the truth. If she don't believe you, you're gonna lose her forever. That's how it is."
Moman washed her hands in the sink and then reached below her apron to produce a single dime strung on a piece of twine. Lifting it over her own head, she pressed it into Bobby's hand.
"I can't take this," he protested. Anything belonging to Moman was certain to be powerful.
"Lagniappe," Moman advised. "You're going to need it."
Food was a sacred thing in the LeJeune household. When Bobby and Emma first got together, the fact that she didn't own a dining table horrified him. Although Emma was fine with seizing a protein shake and running out the door, Bobby was insistent about sit-down meals. When he cooked, there was a ritual to it.
Emma relaxed slightly as Moman brought numerous heaping dishes to the table. Everything was delicious. For the first time in hours, Bobby really smiled. If his cooking was a kind of prayer, Moman's was a Latin mass, genuine food for the soul.
Emma rested her head on Bobby's shoulder, full and content. There was nothing she wanted more than to stay close to him until she fell asleep.
Uncle Charlie drank down half a jar of moonshine as if it was water. "Allons!" He rapped his cane on the table in front of Bobby. "Let's go on the town!"
"What town?" Emma eyed Bobby sceptically. As she understood it, there was no civilization for miles.
"Whichever one we want. Lafayette, Baton Rouge! N'Orleans. Now that would be fun!" Uncle Charlie replied. "There's a mamba down on Royal Street that I've been dying to ride. She might have something juicy for you too."
"New Orleans is hours from here," Emma pointed out. Everyone ignored her. She noticed that Bobby seemed to be considering Uncle Charlie's proposition, which sounded an awful lot like going to pick up prostitutes.
"I can't," Bobby replied.
He didn't say that he didn't want to, Emma observed.
Moman drifted behind Bobby's chair. She put her hand on his head as if to guess his temperature. "Pauve ti bete. You're too warm."
"I'm not a child, Moman," Bobby protested.
"Every man is my child," she told him in French.
Emma stared at Uncle Charlie. He was smoking a cigar again, and she felt certain that the old man had just used his thumb as a lighter.
"She still don't know?" Uncle Charlie demanded, pointing at Emma with his still-smouldering fingers. "When are you gonna tell her?"
Emma glanced at Bobby.
"Stop interfering with my life!" Bobby demanded, rising from his seat. "Damnit, Legba! I'm not going to dance for you!"
"So what are you gonna do, Inle?" Uncle Charlie demanded. He stood also, planted one hand on the table and poked his cigar in Bobby's face. "Put a gris gris on me? You ain't got the power. All you can trick is fish!"
"I don't know, Legba. There's real magic in fishing," Popa came to Bobby's defense. "Inle's got power all right. I think you ought to leave him alone."
Emma glanced at Bobby. There was something in his eyes that she had never seen before. It reminded her of the sky right before a thunderstorm.
"Ca va!" Moman's words snapped in the air like a fresh log crackling on a fire. It was almost as if sparks were flying out of her mouth. "No fighting in my house!"
Bobby and Uncle Charlie immediately sat down.
"Well, there it is. Moman has spoken," Popa said, a slight smile on his face.
"What's going on?" Emma demanded. Since she'd first set foot on the LeJeune property, things had only gotten stranger and stranger. "Who's Legba? Who's Inle?" The strange things she'd heard all evening left her with a singularly troubling conclusion. "Is this about voodoo?" She asked.
"Oooh wee!" Uncle Charlie cackled. "You want to answer that, Inle?"
"Watch the slap, Legba!" Moman warned. She seemed ready to hit Uncle Charlie, and he skipped away from her. Obviously, he thought she'd make good on her threat.
Emma sighed. "Bobby?" She demanded.
"He's Legba and I'm Inle and... the hell with this! You tell her!" Bobby threw his hands in the air and stormed out onto the gallerie.
"C'est sa couillion!" Uncle Charlie shouted after him. "She's your problem!"
"Mas dats," Moman rolled her eyes. The mason jar in front of her was nearly empty, but she tilted her head back and drank down the last dregs of the moonshine. "So, I was thinking... in the morning, I make Pain Perdu."
"You never make me Pain Perdu," Popa complained. He scooped a few more crawfish onto his plate, cracked one open, and sucked the head.
"That boy's gonna need it," Moman replied, glancing out the window. Wind whipped the branches of a mimosa tree against the glass. Thunder rumbled, and the smell of the sea was very strong.
Emma slowly pushed her chair away from the table. Something bad was about to happen to Bobby. She could feel it in her bones.
"Oh, I raised me some damn fools," Moman muttered, clearing up the dishes. "Inle the worst. Can't believe he ain't done bein' mortal yet."
Emma eyed Moman suspiciously, as if she wasn't sure she'd heard correctly.
Bobby stuck his head in the back door. "Hey, Emma," he said, abruptly changing the subject. "Let's you and me go fishing."
It was too cold to be out on the bayou in a flat-bottomed boat, but Emma could see the tension melting away from Bobby as they skimmed across the water. The light of the full moon illuminated the trees and the salt marsh. For the first time, Emma understood why her fiancee' loved fishing so much.
"I'm sorry for making you come here," she said, mostly to break the silence. "Your Uncle Charlie is awful."
"It's all right, mo shou," Bobby sighed. "There's something I have to tell you. Emma, I'm not who you think. Well, I am... but I'm not what you think. I'm not human. None of us are. We're Orisha."
"Orisha?" Emma echoed.
"The emissaries of Eledumare, creator of heaven and earth," Bobby replied. "Some of the locals around here know it. That's what Dieux des Marais means. Swamp Gods."
Emma blinked in surprise. She'd imagined quite a lot of things coming out of Bobby's mouth, but nothing like what he'd just said.
"Mo shou, I need you to believe me," Bobby sighed heavily. "I always meant to tell you. I just hoped you would have some time to get used to the idea."
"You're asking me to believe that you're a god," Emma paused. That was a lot to stomach.
"No, I'm not god," Bobby sighed. "I'm an Orisha. We're... vessels, more or less. Eledumare acts through us. See, Uncle Charlie is Legba. He controls all the paths between this world and the spirit world. Popa is Obbatala. He's wise, and he protects the weak. Moman is Yemaya. She's everyone's mother, Popa and Legba's too. Now I know that doesn't seem possible, but none of us are bound by time. We've always been, and we'll always be."
"That sounds like a god to me," Emma bit her lip. "What kind of powers do you have?"
"I'm Inle. I'm the guardian of places where rivers meet the sea. I'm very good at fishing," he smiled slightly. "I can also heal."
"So what were you doing in medical school?" Emma asked. "I mean, if you're a divine being."
"School is interesting," Bobby shrugged. "And magic doesn't fix everything."
"But… how does it work? Can you make people better just by touching them?" Emma wondered.
"If the person who's asking truly believes, I can," Bobby nodded.
"And if they don't believe?"
"Then I might as well not exist," he replied.
Emma laughed. Bobby did his best to smile, although he could feel her doubt weighing down on his heart, like a leaden sinker attached to a weak bit of line. That line was going to break soon, and take all his dreams downstream with it.
Neither of them spoke another word for the rest of the night.
Emma woke very early the next morning. It was warm and slightly cloudy. For a moment she could feel the warmth of Bobby's body lying next to her, but then she realized that she was in bed alone. Something very strange had happened. The formerly cozy room was covered in sheets of dust, and gave the impression of a space that had been deserted for a long while. The lights did not work, and the door did not latch.
When Emma stepped out into the hallway, she saw that the roof over the grand staircase had caved in. There were leaves scattered on the floor. The house had been in poor shape the previous night, but since the sun had risen it was literally crumbling all around her. A piece of wallpaper sheared off the wall as she watched it. It was caught by the wind and blew out through the hole in the roof.
"Bobby?" Emma called out.
There was no answer.
Very carefully, she made her way to the front porch. There was no sign of Bobby's truck, of the mountains of food that had been prepared the previous night, or of any of the LeJeune family. Emma continued towards the cast iron gate. A glint of silver caught her eye in the dirt.
It was a dime strung on a piece of cord. She vaguely remembered Bobby wearing it the night before, but the image in her memory was fading fast.
Who was Bobby?
Where was she?
Tears welled up in the corners of her eyes, but she did not know why she was crying.