Even once a month, Arceneaux hated driving his daughter Noelle’s car. There was no way to be comfortable: He was a big old man, and the stick-shift hatchback cramped his legs and elbows, playing Baptist hell with the bad knee. Garrigue was dozing peacefully beside him in the passenger seat, as he had done for the whole journey; but then, Garrigue always adapted more easily than he to changes in his circumstances. All these years up north in the city, Damballa, and I still don’t fit nowhere, never did.
Paved road giving way to gravel, pinging off the car’s undercarriage . . . then to a dirt track and the shaky wooden bridge across the stream; then to little more than untamed underbrush, springing back as he plowed through to the log cabin. Got to check them shutters—meant to do it last time. Damn raccoons been back. I can smell it.
Garrigue didn’t wake, even with all the jouncing and rattling, until Arceneaux cut the engine. Then his eyes came open immediately, and he turned his head and smiled like a sleepy baby. He was a few months the elder, but he had always looked distinctly younger, in spite of being white, which more often shows the wear. He said, “I was dreaming, me.”
Arceneaux grunted. “Same damn dream, I ain’t want to hear about it.”
“No, wasn’t that one. Was you and me really gone fishing, just like folks. You and me in the shade, couple of trotlines out, couple of Dixie beers, nice dream. A real dream.”
Arceneaux got out of the car and stood stretching himself, trying to forestall a back spasm. Garrigue joined him, still describing his dream in detail. Arceneaux had been taciturn almost from birth, while Garrigue, it was said in Joyelle Parish, bounced out of his mother chattering like a squirrel. Regarding the friendship—unusual, in those days, between a black Creole and a blanc—Arceneaux’s father had growled to Garrigue’s, “Mine cain’t talk, l’t’en cain’t shut up. Might do.”
And the closeness had lasted for very nearly seventy years (they quarreled mildly at times over the exact number), through schooling, work, marriages, family struggles, and even their final, grudging relocation. They had briefly considered sharing a place after Garrigue moved up north, but then agreed that each was too old and cranky, too stubbornly set in his ways, to risk the relationship over the window being open or shut at night. They met once a week, sometimes at Arceneaux’s apartment, but more usually at the home of Garrigue’s son Claude, where Garrigue lived; and they both fell asleep, each on his own side of the great park that divided the city, listening to the music of Clifton Chenier, Dennis McGee, and Amede Ardoin.
Garrigue glanced up at the darkening overcast sky. “Cut it close again, moon coming on so fast these nights. I keep telling you, Jean-Marc—”
Arceneaux was already limping away from the rear of the car, having opened the trunk and taken out most of the grocery bags. Still scolding him, Garrigue took the rest and followed, leaving one hand free to open the cabin door for Arceneaux and then switch on the single bare light in the room. It was right above the entrance, and the shadows, as though startled themselves to be suddenly awakened, danced briefly over the room when Garrigue stepped inside, swung the door to, and double-locked it behind them.
Arceneaux tipped the bags he carried, and let a dozen bloody steaks and roasts fall to the floor.
The single room was small but tidy, even homely, with two Indian-patterned rag rugs, two cane-bottomed rockers, and a card table with two folding chairs drawn up around it. There was a fireplace, and a refrigerator in one corner, but no beds or cots. The two windows were double-barred on the inside, and the shutters closing them were not wooden, but steel.
Another grocery bag held a bottle of Calvados, which Arceneaux set on the table, next to the two glasses, deck of cards, and cribbage board waiting there. In a curiously military fashion, they padlocked and dropbolted the door, carefully checked the security of the windows, and even blocked the fireplace with a heavy steel screen. Then, finally, they sat down at the table, and Arceneaux opened the Calvados and said, “Cut.”
Garrigue cut. Arceneaux dealt. Garrigue said, “My littlest grandbaby, Manette, she going to First Communion a week Saturday. You be there?” Arceneaux nodded wordlessly, jabbing pegs into the cribbage board. Garrigue started to say “She so excited, she been asking me, did I ever do First Communion, what did it feel like and all . . .,” but then his words dissolved into a hoarse growl as he slipped from the chair. Garrigue was almost always the first, neither understood why.
Werewolves—loups-garoux in Louisiana—are notably bigger than ordinary wolves, running to larger skulls with bolder, more marked bones, deeper-set eyes, broader chests, and paws, front and rear, whose dewclaw serves very nearly as an opposable thumb. Even so, for a small, chattery white man, Garrigue stood up as a huge wolf, black from nose to tail-tip, with eyes unchanged from his normal snow-gray, shocking in their humanity. He was at the food before Arceneaux’s front feet hit the floor, and there was the customary snarling between them as they snapped up the meat within minutes. The table went over, cards and brandy and all, and both of them hurled themselves at walls and barred windows until the entire cabin shook with their frenzied fury. The wolf that was Arceneaux stood on its hind legs and tried to reach the window latches with uncannily dextrous paws, while the wolf that was Garrigue broke a front claw tearing at the door. They never howled.
First madness spent, they circled the room restlessly, their eyes glowing as dogs’ and wolves’ eyes do not glow. In time they settled into a light, reluctant sleep—Garrigue under a chair, Arceneaux in the ruins of the rug he had torn to pieces. Even in sleep they whined softly and eagerly, lips constantly twitching back from the fangs they never quite covered.
Towards dawn, with the moon gray and small, looking almost triangular because of the moisture in the air, something brought Arceneaux to the barred window nearest the door, rearing once again with his paws on the sill. There was nothing to see through the closed metal shutters, but the deep, nearly inaudible sound that constantly pulsed through his body in this form grew louder as he stared, threatening to break its banks and swell into a full-throated howl. Once again he clawed at the bars, but Garrigue had screwed down the bolts holding them in place too tightly even for a loup-garou’s deftness, and Arceneaux’s snarl bared his fangs to the black gums. Garrigue joined him, puzzled but curious, and the two of them stood side by side, panting rapidly, ears flattened against their skulls. And still there was no hint of movement anywhere outside.
Then the howl came, surging up from somewhere very near, soaring over the trees like some skeletal ancient bird, almost visible in its dreadful ardency. The werewolves went mad, howling their own possessed challenges, even snapping furiously at each other. Arceneaux sprang at the barred windows until they shivered. He was crouching to leap again when he heard the familiar whimper behind him, and simultaneously felt the brief but overwhelming pain, unlike any other, of distorted molecules regaining their natural shape. Coming back always took longer, and hurt worse.
As always afterward, he collapsed to the floor and lay there, quickly human enough to curse the weakness that always overtook a returning loup-garou, old or young, He heard Garrigue gasping, “Duplessis . . . Duplessis . . .” but could not yet respond. A face began to form in his mind: dark, clever, handsome in a way that meant no good to anyone who responded to it . . . Still unable to speak, Arceneaux shook his head against the worn, stained floorboards. He had better reason than most to know why that sound, that cold wail of triumph, could not have been uttered by Alexandre Duplessis of Pointe Coupee Parish.
They climbed slowly to their feet, two stiff-jointed old men, looking around them at the usual wreckage of the cabin. Over the years that they had been renting it together, Garrigue and Arceneaux had made it proof, as best they could, against the rage of what would be trapped there every month. Even so, the rugs were in shreds, the refrigerator was on its side, there were deep claw-marks on the log walls to match the ones already there, and they would definitely need a new card table. Arceneaux pointed at the overturned Calvados bottle and said, “Shame, that. Wish I’d got the cap back on.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Garrigue shivered violently—common for most after the return. He said, “Jean-Marc, it was Duplessis, you know and I know. Duplessis back.”
“Not in this world.” Arceneaux’s voice was bleak and slow. “Maybe in some other world he back, but ain’t in this one.” He turned from the window to face Garrigue. “I killed Duplessis, man. Ain’t none of us come back from what I done, Duplessis or nobody. You was there, Rene Garrigue! You saw how I done!”
Garrigue was hugging himself to stop the shivering, closing his eyes against the seeing. Abruptly he said in a strangely quiet tone, “He outside right now. He there, Jean-Marc.”
“Naw, man,” Arceneaux said. “Naw, Rene. He gone, Rene, my word. You got my word on it.” But Garrigue was lunging past him to fumble with the locks and throw the door wide. The freezing dawn air rushed in over the body spilled across the path, so near the door that Garrigue almost tripped over it. It was a woman—a vagrant, clearly, wearing what looked like five or six coats, sweaters and undergarments. Her throat had been ripped out, and what remained of her intestines were draped neatly over a tree branch. Even in the cold, there were already flies.
Arceneaux breathed the name of his god, his loa, Damballa Wedo, the serpent. Garrigue whispered, “Women. Always the women, always the belly. Duplessis.”
“He carry her here.” Arceneaux was calming himself, as well as Garrigue. “Killed her somewhere back there, maybe in the city, carry her here, leave her like a business card. You right, Rene. Can’t be, but you right.”
“Business card.” Garrigue’s voice was still tranquil, almost dreamy. “He know this place, Jean-Marc. If he know this place, he know everything. Everything.”
“Hush you, man, hush now, mind me.” Arceneaux might have been talking to a child wakened out of a nightmare. “Shovel out back, under the crabapple, saw it last time. We got to take her off and bury her, first thing. You go get me that shovel, Rene.”
Garrigue stared at him. Arceneaux said it again, more gently. “Go on, Rene. Find me that shovel, compe’.”
Alone, he felt every hair on his own body standing up; his big dark hands were trembling so that he could not even cover the woman’s face or close her eyes. Alexandre Duplessis, c’est vraiment li, vraiment, vraiment; but the knowledge frightened the old man far less than the terrible lure of the crumpled thing at his feet, torn open and emptied out, gutted and drained and abandoned, the reek of her terror dominating the hot, musky scent of the beast that had hunted her down in the hours before dawn. The fear, Damballa, the fear—you once get that smell in you head, you throat, you gut, you never get it out. Better than the meat, the blood even, you smell the fear. He was shaking badly now, and he knew that he needed to get out of there with Garrigue before he hurled himself upon the pitiful remains, to roll and wallow in them like the beast he was. Hold me, Damballa. Hide me, hold me.
Garrigue returned with the rusty shovel and together they carried the dead woman deeper into the woods. Then he stood by, rubbing his mouth compulsively as he watched Arceneaux hack at the hard earth. In the same small voice as before, he said, “I scare, me, Ti-Jean,” calling Arceneaux by his childhood nickname. “What we do to him.”
“What he did to us.” Arceneaux’s own voice was cold and steady. “What he did to ma Sophie.”
As he had known it would, the mention of Arceneaux’s sister immediately brought Garrigue back from wherever terror and guilt together had taken him. “I ain’t forgot Sophie.” His gray eyes had closed down like the steel shutters whose color they matched. “I ain’t forgot nothing.”
“I know, man,” Arceneaux said gently. He finished his work, patted the new grave as flat as he could make it—one good rain, two, grass cover it all—and said, “We come back before next moon, clean up a little. Right now, we going home.” Garrigue nodded eagerly.
In the car, approaching the freeway, Garrigue could not keep from talking about Sophie Arceneaux, as he had not done in a very long while. “So pretty, that girl, that sister of yours. So pretty, so kind, who wouldn’t want to marry such a fine woman like her?” Then he hurriedly added, “Of course, my Elizabeth, Elizabeth was a fine woman, too, I don’t say a word against Elizabeth. But Sophie . . . la Sophie . . .” He fell silent for a time, and then said in a different voice, “I ain’t blame Duplessis for wanting her. Can’t do that, Jean-Marc.”
“She didn’t want him,” Arceneaux said. There was no expression at all in his voice now. “Didn’t want nothing to do with him, no mind what he gave her, where he took her, never mind what he promised. So he killed her.” After a pause, he went on, “You know how he killed her.”
Garrigue folded his hands in his lap and looked at them.
So low he could barely be heard, he answered, “In the wolf . . . in the wolf shape. Hadn’t seen it, I wouldn’t have believed.”
“Ripped her throat out,” Arceneaux said. “Ma colombe, ma pauv’ p’ti, she never had no chance—no more than him with her.” He looked off down the freeway, seeing, not a thousand cars nor a distant city skyline, but his entire Louisiana family, wolves all, demanding that as oldest male he take immediate vengeance on Duplessis. For once—and it was a rare enough occurrence—he found himself in complete agreement with his blood kin and their ancient notions of honor and retribution. In company with Garrigue, one of Sophie’s more tongue-tied admirers, he had set off on the track of his sister’s murderer.
“Duplessis kill ma Sophie, she never done nothing but good for anyone. Well, I done what I done, and I ain’t sorry for it.” His voice rose as he grew angry all over again, more than he usually allowed himself these days. He said, “Ain’t a bit sorry.”
Garrigue shivered, remembering the hunt. Even with an entire werewolf clan sworn to avenge Sophie Arceneaux, Duplessis had made no attempt to hide himself, or to flee the region, so great was his city man’s contempt for thick-witted backwoods bumpkins. Arceneaux had run him to earth in a single day, and it had been almost too easy for Garrigue to lure him into a moonshiner’s riverside shebeen: empty for the occasion and abandoned forever after, haunted by the stories of what was done there to Alexandre Duplessis.
It had taken them all night, and Garrigue was a different man in the morning.
After the first scream, Garrigue had never heard the others; he could not have done otherwise and held onto his sanity. Sometimes it seemed to him that he had indeed gone mad that night, and that all the rest of his life—the flight north, the jobs, the marriage, the beloved children and grandchildren, the home—had never been anything but a lunatic’s hopeless dream of forgetfulness. More than forty years later, he still shuddered and moaned in his sleep, and at times still whimpered himself awake. All the blood, all the shit . . . the . . . the . . . sound when Ti-Jean took that old cleaver thing . . . and that man wouldn’t die, wouldn’t die . . . wasn’t nothing left of him but open mouth, awful open mouth, and he wouldn’t die . . .
“Don’t make no sense,” Arceneaux said beside him. “Days burying . . . four, five county lines—”
“Five,” Garrigue whispered. “Evangeline. Joyelle. St. Landry. Acadia. Rapides. Too close together, I told you . . .”
Arceneaux shook his head. “Conjure. Conjure in it somewhere, got to be. Guillory, maybe, he evil enough . . . old Fontenot, over in St. Landry. Got to be conjure.”
They drove the rest of the way in near silence, Arceneaux biting down hard on his own lower lip, Garrigue taking refuge in memories of his wife Elizabeth, and of Arceneaux’s long-gone Pauline. Both women, non-Creoles, raised and encountered in the city, believed neither in werewolves nor in conjure men; neither one had ever known the truth about their husbands. Loups-garoux run in families: Arceneaux and Garrigue, marrying out of their clans, out of their deep back-country world, had both produced children who would go through their lives completely unaware of that part of their ancestry. The choice had been a deliberate one, and Garrigue, for his part, had never regretted it. He doubted very much that Arceneaux had either, but it was always hard to tell with Arceneaux.
Pulling to the curb in front of the frame house where Garrigue lived with Claude and his family, Arceneaux cut the engine, and they sat looking at each other. Garrigue said finally, “Forgot to fish. Grandbabies always wanting to know did we catch anything.”
“Tell them fish wasn’t biting today. We done that before.”
Garrigue smiled for the first time. “Claude, he think we don’t do no fishing, we goes up there to drink, get away from family, get a little wild. Say he might just come with us one time.” Arceneaux grunted without replying. Garrigue said, “I keeps ducking and dodging, you know? Ducking and dodging.” His voice was growing shaky again, but he never took his eyes from Arceneaux’s eyes. He said, “What we going to do, Ti-Jean?”
“Get you some sleep,” Arceneaux said. “Get you a good breakfast, tell Claude you likely be late. We go find Duplessis tomorrow, you and me.”
Garrigue looked, for a moment, more puzzled than frightened. “Why we bothering that? He know right where we live, where the chirrens lives—”
Arceneaux cut him off harshly. “We find him fast, maybe we throw him just that little bit off-balance, could help sometime.” He patted Garrigue’s shoulder lightly. “We use what we got, Rene, and all we got is us. You go on now—my knee biting on me a little bit.”
In fact—as Garrigue understood from the fact that Arceneaux mentioned it at all—the bad knee was hurting him a good deal; he could only pray that it wouldn’t have locked up on him by morning. He brought the car back to Noelle, who took one look at his gait and insisted on driving him home, lecturing him all the way about his need for immediate surgery. She was his oldest child, his companion from her birth, and the only one who would ever have challenged him, as she did now.
“Dadda, whatever you and Compe’ Rene are up to, I will find it out—you know I always do. Simpler tell me now, oui?”
“Ain’t up to one thing,” Arceneaux grumbled. “Ain’t up to nothing, you turning such a suspicious woman. You mamere, she just exactly the same way.”
“Because you’re such a bad liar,” his daughter replied tenderly. She caressed the back of his neck with a warm, work-hardened hand. “Ma’dear and me, we used to laugh so, nights you’d be slipping out to drink, play cards with Compe’ Rene and your old zydeco friends. Make some crazy little-boy story—whoo, out the door, gone till morning, come home looking like someone dragged you through a keyhole backwards. Lord, didn’t we laugh!”
There had been a few moments through the years when pure loneliness had made him seriously consider turning around on her and telling her to sit herself down and listen to a story. This moment was one of them; but he only muttered something he forgot as soon as he’d said it, and nothing more until she dropped him off at his apartment building. Then she kissed his cheek and told him, “Come by for dinner tomorrow. Antoine will be home early, for a change, and Patrice just got to show his gam’pair something he drew in school.”
“Day after,” Arceneaux said. “Busy tomorrow.” He could feel her eyes following him as he limped through the lobby doors.
The knee was still painful the next morning, but it remained functionally flexible. He could manage. He caught the crosstown bus to meet Garrigue in front of Claude’s house, and they set forth together to search for a single man in a large city. Their only advantage lay in possessing, even in human form, a wolf’s sense of smell; that, and a bleak awareness that their quarry shared the very same gift, and undoubtedly already knew where they lived, and—far more frightening—whom they loved. We ain’t suppose to care, Damballa. Bon Dieu made the loup-garou, he ain’t mean us to care about nothing. The kill only. The blood only . . . the fear only. Maybe Bon Dieu mad at us, me and Rene, disobeying him like we done. Too late now.
Garrigue had always been the better tracker, since their childhood, so Arceneaux simply stayed just behind his left shoulder and went where he led. Picking up the werewolf scent at the start was a grimly easy matter: Knowing Duplessis as they did, neither was surprised to cross his trail not far from the house where Garrigue’s younger son Fernand lived with his own wife and children. Garrigue caught his breath audibly then, but said no word. He plunged along, drawn by the strange, unmistakable aroma as it circled, doubled back on itself, veered off in this direction or that, then inevitably returned to patrolling the streets most dear to two weary old men. Frightened and enraged, stubborn and haunted and lame, they followed. Arceneaux never took his eyes from Garrigue, which was good, because Garrigue was not using his eyes at all, and would have walked into traffic a dozen times over, if not for Arceneaux. People yelled at him.
They found Duplessis in the park, the great Park that essentially divided the two worlds of the city. He wore a long red-leather coat over a gray suit of the Edwardian cut he always favored—just like the one we tear off him that night, Damballa, just like that suit—and he was standing under a young willow tree, leaning on a dainty, foppish walking stick, smiling slightly as he watched children playing in a sandbox. When Arceneaux and Garrigue came up with him, one on each side, he did not speak to them immediately, but stood looking calmly from one face to the other, as his smile broadened. He was as handsome as ever, velvet-dark and whip-lean, unscarred in any way that they could see; and he appeared no older than he had on the night they had spent whittling him down to screaming blood, screaming shit, Damballa . . .
Duplessis said softly, “My friends.”
Arceneaux did not answer him. Garrigue said inanely, “You looking well, Compe’ Alexandre.”
“Ah, I have my friends to thank for that.” Duplessis spoke, not in Creole, but in the Parisian French he had always affected. “There’s this to say for hell and death—they do keep a person in trim.” He patted Garrigue’s arm, an old remembered habit of his. “Yes, I am quite well, Compe’ Rene. There were some bad times, as you know, but these days I feel as young and vigorous as . . . oh, say, as any of your grandchildren.” And he named them then, clearly tasting them, as though to eat the name was to have eaten the child. “Sandrine . . . Honore . . . your adorable little Manette . . .” He named them all, grinning at Garrigue around the names.
Arceneaux said, “Sophie.”
Duplessis did not turn his head, but stopped speaking.
Arceneaux said it again. “Sophie, you son of a bitch—pere de personne, fils de cent mille. Sophie.”
When Duplessis did turn, he was not smiling, nor was there any bombast or mockery in his voice. He said, “I think you will agree with me, Jean-Marc, that being slashed slowly to pieces alive pays for all. Like it or not, I own your poor dear Sophie just as much as you do now. I’d call that fair and square, wouldn’t you?”
Arceneaux hit him then. Duplessis hadn’t been expecting the blow, and he went over on his back, shattering the fragile walking stick beneath him. The children in the sandbox looked up with some interest, but the passersby only walked faster.
Duplessis got up slowly, running his tongue-tip over a bloody upper lip. He said, “Well, I guess I don’t learn much, do I? That’s exactly how one of you—or was it both?—knocked me unconscious in that filthy little place by the river. And when I came to . . .” He shrugged lightly, and actually winked at Arceneaux. He said softly, “But you haven’t got any rope with you this time, have you, Jean-Marc? And none of your little—ah—sculptor’s tools?” He tasted his bloody mouth again. “A grandfather should be more careful, I’d think.”
The contemptuous lilt in the last words momentarily cost Garrigue his sanity. Only Arceneaux’s swift reaction and strong clutch kept him from knocking Duplessis down a second time. His voice half-muffled against Arceneaux’s chest, Garrigue heard himself raging, “You touch my chirren, you—you touch the doorknob on my grandbabies’ house—I cut you up all over again, cut you like Friday morning’s bacon, you hear me?” And he heard Duplessis laughing.
Then the laughter stopped, almost with a machine’s mechanical click, and Duplessis said, “No. You hear me now.” Garrigue shook himself free of Arceneaux’s preventive embrace, nodded a silent promise, and turned to see Duplessis facing them both, his mouth still bleeding, and his eyes as freezingly distant as his voice. He said, “I am Alexandre Duplessis. You sent me to hell, you tortured me as no devils could have done—no devils would have conceived of what you did. But in so doing, you have set me free, you have lost all power over me. I will do what I choose to you and yours, and there will be nothing you can do about it, nothing you can threaten me with. Would you like to hear what I choose to do?”
He told them.
He went into detail.
“It will take me some little while, obviously. That suits me—I want it to take a while. I want to watch you go mad as I strip away everything you love and cannot protect, just as you stripped away my fingers, my face, my organs, piece by piece by piece.” The voice never grew any louder, but remained slow and thoughtful, even genial. The soulful eyes—still a curious reddish-brown—seemed to have withdrawn deep under the telltale single brow and contracted to the size of cranberries. Arceneaux could feel their heat on his skin.
“This is where I live at present,” Duplessis said, and told them his address. He said, “I would be delighted if you should follow me there, and anywhere else—it would make things much more amusing. I would even invite you to hunt with me, but you were always too cowardly for that, and by the looks of you I can see you’ve not changed. Wolves—God’s own wolves caging themselves come the moon, not even surviving on dogs and cats, mice and squirrels and rabbits, as you did in Joyelle Parish. Lamisere a deux . . . Misere et Compagnie—no wonder you have both grown so old, it’s almost pitiful. Now I”—a light inward flick of his two hands invited the comparison—“I dine only on the diet that le Bon Dieu meant for me, and it will keep me hunting when you two are long-buried with the humans you love so much.” He clucked his tongue, mimicking a distressed old woman, and repeated, “Pitiful. Truly pitiful. A très—très—tot . . . my friends.”
He bowed gracefully to them then, and turned to stroll away through the trees. Arceneaux said, “Conjure.” Duplessis turned slowly again at the word, waiting. Arceneaux said, “You ain’t come back all by yourself, we took care. You got brought back—take a conjure man to do that. Which one—Guillory? I got to figure Guillory.”
Duplessis smiled, a little smugly, and shook his head. “I’d never trust Guillory out of my sight—let alone after my death. No, Fontenot was the only sensible choice. Entirely mad, but that’s always a plus in a conjure man, isn’t it? And he hated you with all his wicked old heart, Jean-Marc, as I’m sure you know. What on earth did you do to that man—rape his black pig? Only thing in the world he loved, that pig.”
“Stopped him feeding a lil boy to it,” Arceneaux grunted. “What he do for you, and what it cost you? Fontenot, he come high.”
“They all come high. But you can bargain with Fontenot. Remember, Jean-Marc?” Duplessis held out his hands, palms down. The two little fingers were missing, and Arceneaux shivered with sudden memory of that moment when he’d wondered who had already taken them, and why, even as he had prepared to cut into the bound man’s flesh . . .
Duplessis laughed harshly, repeating, “My insurance policy, you could say. Really, you should have thought a bit about those, old friend. There’s mighty conjuring to be done with the fingers of a loup-garou. It was definitely worth Fontenot’s while to witch me home, time-consuming as it turned out to be. I’m sure he never regretted our covenant for a moment.”
Something in his use of the past tense raised Arceneaux’s own single brow, his daughters’ onetime plaything. Duplessis caught the look and grinned with the flash of genuine mischief that had charmed even Arceneaux long ago, though not ma Sophie, never—she knew. “Well, let’s be honest, you couldn’t have a man with that kind of power and knowledge running around loose—not a bad, bad man like Hipolyte Fontenot. I was merely doing my duty as a citizen. Au ’voir again, mon ami. Mon assassin.”
Watching him walk away, Arceneaux was praying so hard for counsel and comfort to Damballa Wedo, and to Damballa’s gentle wife, the rainbow Ayida, that he started when Garrigue said beside him, “Let’s go, come on. We don’t let that man out of our sight, here on in.”
Arceneaux did not look at him. “No point in it. He want us to follow him—he want us going crazy, no sleep, no time to think straight, just wondering when . . . I ain’t go play it his way, me, unh-uh.”
“You know another way? You got a better idea?” Garrigue was very nearly crying with impatience and anxiety, all but dancing on his toes, straining to follow Alexandre Duplessis. Arceneaux put his hands on the white man’s arms, trying to take the trembling into himself.
“I don’t know it’s a better idea. I just know he still think we nothing but a couple back-country fools, like he always did, and we got to keep him thinking that thing—got to. Because we gone kill him, Rene, you hearing me? We done it before—this time we gone kill him right, so he stay dead. Yeah, there’s only two of us, but there’s only one of him, and he ain’t God, man, he just one damn old loup-garou in a fancy suit, talking fancy French. You hear what I’m saying to you?”
Garrigue did not answer. Arceneaux shook him slightly. “Right now, we going on home, both of us. He ain’t go do nothing tonight, he want us to spend it thinking on all that shit he just laid on us. Home, Rene.”
Still no response. Arceneaux looked into Garrigue’s eyes, and could not find Garrigue there, but only frozen, helpless terror. “Listen, Rene, I tell you something my daddy use to say. Daddy, he say to me always, ‘Di moin qui vous lamein, ma di cous qui vous ye.’ You tell me who you love, I tell you who you are.” Garrigue began returning slowly to his own eyes, looking back at him: expressionless, but present. Arceneaux said, “You think just maybe we know who we are, Compe’ Rene?”
Garrigue smiled a little, shakily. “Duplessis . . . Duplessis, he don’t love nobody. Never did.”
“So Duplessis ain’t nobody. Duplessis don’t exist. You gone be scared of somebody don’t exist?” Arceneaux slapped his old friend’s shoulder, hard. “Home now. Ti-Jean say.” They did go to their homes then, and they slept well, or at least they told each other so in the morning. Arceneaux judged that Garrigue might actually have slept through the night; for himself, he came and went, turning over a new half-dream of putting an end to Alexandre Duplessis each time he turned in his bed. Much of the waking time he spent simply calling into darkness inside himself, calling on his loa, as he had been taught to do when young, crying out, Damballa Wedo, great serpent, you got to help us, this on you . . . Bon Dieu can’t be no use here, ain’t his country, he don’t speak the patois . . . Got to be you, Damballa . . . When he did sleep, he dreamed of his dead wife, Pauline, and asked her for help too, as he had always done.
A revitalized Garrigue was most concerned the next morning with the problem of destroying a werewolf who had already survived being sliced into pieces, themselves buried in five different counties. “We never going to get another chance like that, not in this city. City, you got to explain why you do somebody in—and you definitely better not say it’s cause he turn into a wolf some nights. Be way simpler if we could just shoot him next full moon, tell them we hunters. Bring him home strap right across the hood, hey Ti-Jean?” He chuckled, thinking about it.
“Except we be changing, too,” Arceneaux pointed out. “We all prisoners of the moon, one way another.”
Garrigue nodded. “Yeah, you’d think that’d make us—I don’t know—hold together some way, look out for each other. But it don’t happen, do it? I mean, here I am, and I’m thinking, I ever do get the chance, I’d kill him wolf to wolf, just like he done Sophie. I would, I just don’t give a damn no more.”
“Come to that, it come to that. Last night I been trying to work out how we could pour some cement, make him part of a bridge, an underpass—you know, way the Mafia do. Couldn’t figure it.”
Garrigue said, “You right about one thing, anyway. We can’t be waiting on the moon, cause he sure as hell won’t be. Next full moon gone be short one loup-garou for certain.”
“Maybe two,” Arceneaux said quietly. “Maybe three, even. Man ain’t going quietly no second time.”
“Be worth it.” Garrigue put out his hand and Arceneaux took it, roughness meeting familiar lifelong roughness. Garrigue said, “Just so it ain’t the little ones. Just so he don’t ever get past us to the little ones.” Arceneaux nodded, but did not answer him.
For the next few days they pointedly paid no attention to Duplessis’s presence in the city—though they caught his scent in both neighborhoods, as he plainly made himself familiar with family routines—but spent the time with their children and grandchildren, delighting the latter and relieving the men of babysitting duties. Garrigue, having only sons, got away without suspicions; but neither Noelle nor Arceneaux’s daughter-in-law Athalie were entirely deceived. As Athalie put it, “Women, we are so used to men’s stupid lies, we’re out of practice for a good one, Papajean,” which was her one-word nickname for him. “I know you’re lying, some way, but this one’s really good.”
On Saturday, Arceneaux, along with most of his own family, accompanied Garrigue’s family to the Church of Saints Philip and James for Manette Garrigue’s First Communion. The day was unseasonably warm, the group returning for the party large, and at first no one but Arceneaux and Garrigue took any notice of the handsome, well-dressed man walking inconspicuously between them. Alexandre Duplessis said thoughtfully, “What a charming little girl. You must be very proud, Rene.”
Garrigue had been coached half the night, or he would have gone for Duplessis’s throat on the instant. Instead he answered, mildly enough, “I’m real proud of her, you got that right. You lay a hand on her, all Fontenot’s gris-gris be for nothing next time.”
Duplessis seemed not to have heard him. “Should she be the first—not Jean-Marc’s Patrice or Zelime? It’s so hard to decide—”
The strong old arms that blocked Garrigue away also neatly framed Duplessis’s throat. Arceneaux said quietly, “You never going to make it to next moon, Compe’ Alexandre. You know that, don’t you?”
Duplessis looked calmly back at him, the red-brown eyes implacable far beyond human understanding. He said, “Compe’ Jean-Marc, I died at your hands forty and more years ago, and by the time you got through with me I was very, very old. You cannot kill such a man twice, not so it matters.” He smiled at Arceneaux. “Besides, the moon is perhaps not everything, even for a loup-garou. I’d give that a little thought, if I were you.” His canine teeth glittered wetly in the late-autumn sunlight as he turned and walked away.
After a while Noelle dropped back to take her father’s arm. She rubbed her cheek lightly against Arceneaux’s shoulder and said, “Your knee all right? You’re looking tired.”
“Been a long morning.” Arceneaux hugged her arm under his own. “Don’t you worry about the old man.”
“I do, though. Gotten so I worry about you a whole lot. Antoine does too.” She looked up at him, and he thought, Her mama’s eyes, her mama’s mouth, but my complexion—thank God that’s all she got from me . . . She said, “How about you spend the night, hey? I make gumbo, you play with the grandbabies, talk sports with Antoine. Sound fair?”
It sounded more than fair; it sounded such a respite from the futile plans and dreaded memories with which he and Garrigue had been living that he could have wept. “I’m gone need take care some business first. Nothing big, just a few bits of business. Then I come back, stay the night.” She prompted him with a silent, quizzical tilt of her head, and he added, “Promise.” It was an old ritual between them, dating from her childhood: He rarely used the word at all, but once he did, he could be absolutely relied on to keep it. His grandchildren had all caught onto this somewhat earlier than she had.
He slipped away from the party group without even signaling to Garrigue: a deliberately suspicious maneuver that had the waiting Duplessis behind him before he had gone more than a block from the house. It was difficult to pretend not to notice that he was being followed—this being one of the wolf senses that finds an echo in the human body—but Arceneaux was good at it, and took a certain pleasure in leading Duplessis all over the area, as the latter had done to him and Garrigue. But the motive was not primarily spite. He was actually bound for a certain neighborhood botanica run by an old Cuban couple who had befriended him years before, when he first came to the city. They were kind and brown, and spoke almost no English, and he had always suspected that they knew exactly what he was, had known others like him in Cuba, and simply didn’t care.
He spent some forty-five minutes in the crowded little shop, and left with his arms full of brightly colored packages. Most amounted to herbal and homeopathic remedies of one sort and another; a very few were gifts for Damballa Wedo, whose needs are very simple; and one—the only one with an aroma that would have alerted any loup-garou in the world—was a largish packet of wolfbane.
Still sensing Duplessis on his track, he walked back to Noelle’s house, asked to borrow her car briefly, claiming to have heard an ominous sound from the transmission, and took off northeast, in the direction of the old cabin where he and Garrigue imprisoned themselves one night in every month. The car was as cramped as ever, and the drive as tedious, but he managed it as efficiently as he could. Arriving alone, for the first time ever, he spent some while tidying the cabin, and the yet-raw grave in the woods as well; then carefully measured out all the wolfbane in a circle around the little building, and headed straight back to the city. He bent all his senses, wolf and human alike, to discovering whether or not Duplessis had trailed him the entire way, but the results were inconclusive.
“Way I been figuring it over,” he said to Garrigue the next day, drinking bitter chicory coffee at the only Creole restaurant whose cook understood the importance of a proper roux, “we lured him into that blind pig back on the river, all them years ago, and he just know he way too smart for us to get him like that no second time. So we gone do just exactly what we done before, cause we ain’t but pure-D country, and that the onliest trick we know.” His sigh turned to a weary grunt as he shook his head. “Which ain’t no lie, far as I’m concerned. But we go on paying him no mind, we keep sneaking up there, no moon, no need . . . he smell the wolfbane, he keep on following us, we got to be planning something . . . All I’m hoping, Compe’ Rene, I’m counting on a fool staying a fool. The smart ones, they do sometimes.”
Garrigue rubbed the back of his neck and folded his arms. “So what you saying, same thing, except with the cabin? Man, I wouldn’t fall for that, and you know I’m a fool.”
“Yeah, but see, see, we know we fools—we used to it, we live with it like everybody, do the best we can. But Duplessis . . .” He smiled, although it felt as though he were lifting a great cold weight with his mouth. “Duplessis scary. Duplessis got knowledge you and me couldn’t even spell, never mind understand. He just as smart as he think he is, and we just about what we were back when we never seen a city man before, we so proud to be running with a city man.” He rubbed the bad knee, remembering Sophie’s warnings, not at all comforted by the thought that no one else in the clan had seen through the laughter, the effortless charm, the newness of the young loup-garou who came so persistently courting her. He said, “There’s things Duplessis never going to understand.”
He missed Garrigue’s question, because it was mumbled in so low a tone. He said, “Say what?”
Garrigue asked, “It going to be like that time?” Arceneaux did not answer. Garrigue said, “Cause I don’t think I can do that again, Ti-Jean. I don’t think I can watch, even.” His face and voice were embarrassed, but there was no mistaking the set of his eyes, not after seventy years.
“I don’t know, me.” Arceneaux himself had never once been pursued by dreams of what they had done to Alexandre Duplessis in Sophie’s name; but in forty years he had gently shaken Garrigue out of them more than once, and held him afterward. “We get him there—just you, me, and him, like before—I know then. All I can tell you now, Rene.”
Garrigue made no reply, and they separated shortly afterward. Arceneaux went home, iced his knee, turned on his radio (he had a television set, but rarely watched it), and learned of the discovery of a second homeless woman, eviscerated and partly devoured, her head almost severed from her body by the violence of the attack. The corpse had been found under the Viaduct, barely two blocks from Arceneaux’s apartment, and the police announced that they were taking seriously the disappearance of the woman Arceneaux had buried. Arceneaux sat staring at the radio long after it had switched to broadcasting a college football game.
He called Garrigue, got a busy signal, and waited until his friend called him back a moment later. When he picked up the phone, he said simply, “I know.”
Garrigue was fighting hysteria; Arceneaux could feel it before he spoke the first word. “Can’t be, Ti-Jean. Not full moon. Can’t be.”
“Well,” Arceneaux said. “Gone have to ask old Duplessis what else he sold that Fontenot.” He had not expected Garrigue to laugh, and was not surprised. He said, “Don’t be panicking, you hear me, Rene? Not now. Ain’t the time.”
“Don’t know what else to do.” But Garrigue’s voice was slightly steadier. “If he really be changing any damn time he like—”
“Got to be rules. Le Bon Dieu, he wouldn’t let there not be rules—”
“Then we got to tell them, you hear me? They got to know what out there, what we dealing with—what coming after them—”
“And what we are? What they come from, what they part of? You think your little Manette, my Patrice, you think they ready for that?”
“Not the grandbabies, when I ever said the grandbabies? I’m talking the chirren—yours, mine, they husbands, wives, all them. They old enough, they got a right to know.” There was a pause on the other end, and then Garrigue said flatly, “You don’t tell them, I will. I swear.”
It was Arceneaux’s turn to be silent, listening to Garrigue’s anxious breathing on the phone. He said finally, “Noelle. Noelle got a head on her. We tell her, no one else.”
“She got a husband, too. What about him?”
“Noelle,” Arceneaux said firmly. “Antoine ain’t got no werewolf for a daddy.”
“Okay.” Garrigue drew the two syllables out with obvious dubiousness. “Noelle.” The voice quavered again, sounding old for the first time in Arceneaux’s memory. “Ti-Jean, he could be anywhere right now, we wouldn’t know. Could be at them, be tearing them apart, like that woman—”
Arceneaux stopped him like a traffic cop, literally—and absurdly—with a hand held up. “No, he couldn’t. Think about it, Rene. Back in Louzianne—back then—what we do after that big a kill? What anybody do?”
“Go off . . . go off somewhere, go to sleep.” Garrigue said it grudgingly, but he said it.
“How long for? How long you ever sleep, you and that full belly?”
“A day, anyway. Slept out two whole days, one time. And old Albert Vaugine . . .” Garrigue was chuckling a bit, in spite of himself. He said, “Okay, so we maybe got a couple of days—maybe. What then?”
“Then we get ourselves on up to the cabin. You and me and him.” Arceneaux hung up.
It had long been the centerpiece of Arceneaux’s private understanding of the world that nothing was ever as good as you expected it to be, or as bad. His confession of her ancestry to Noelle fell into the latter category. He had expected her reaction to be one of horrified revulsion, followed by absolute denial and tearful outrage. Instead, after withdrawing into silent thought for a time, and then saying slow, mysterious things like, “So that’s why I can never do anything with my hair,” she told him, “You do know there’s no way in the world you’re going without me?”
His response never got much beyond, “The hell you preach, girl!” Noelle set her right forefinger somewhere between his Adam’s apple and his collarbones, and said, “Dadda, this is my fight too. As long as that man’s running around loose”—the irony of her using the words that Alexandre Duplessis had used to justify his murder of the conjure man Fontenot was not lost on Arceneaux—“my children aren’t safe. You know the way I get about the children.”
“This won’t be no PTA meeting. You don’t know.”
“I know you and Uncle Rene, you may both be werewolves, but you’re old werewolves, and you’re not exactly in the best shape. Oh, you’re going to need me, cause right now the both of you couldn’t tackle Patrice, never mind Zelime.” He was in no state to tackle her, either; he made do with a mental reservation: Look away for even five minutes and we’re out of here, me and Rene. You got to know how to handle daughters, that’s all. Specially the pushy ones.
But on the second day, it didn’t matter, because it was Noelle who was gone. And Patrice with her. And her car.
After Antoine had called the police, and the house had begun to fill with terrified family, but before the reporters had arrived, and before Zelime had stopped crying for her mother and little brother, Arceneaux borrowed his son Celestin’s car. It was quite a bit like renting it, not because Celestin charged him anything, but because answering all his questions about why the loan was necessary almost amounted to filling out a form. Arceneaux finally roared at him, in a voice Celestin had not heard since his childhood, “Cause I’m your father, me, and I just about to snatch you balder than you already are, you don’t hand me them keys.” He was on the road five minutes later.
He did not stop to pick up Garrigue. His explanation to himself was that there wasn’t time, that every minute was too precious to be taken up with a detour; but even as he made it, he knew better. The truth lay in his pity for Garrigue’s endless nightmares, for his lonesome question, “It gone be like that time?” and for his own sense that this was finally between him and the man whom he had carved to obscene fragments alive. I let him do it all back to me, he lets them two go. Please, Damballa, you hear? Please.
But he was never certain—and less now than ever before—whether Damballa heard prayers addressed to him in English. So for the entire length of the drive, which seemed to take the rest of his life, he chanted, over and over, a prayer-song that little Ti-Jean Arceneaux, who spoke another language, had learned young, never forgotten, and, until this moment, never needed.
“Baba yehge, amiwa saba yehge,
De Damballa e a miwa,
Danou sewa yehge o, djevo de.
De Damballa Wedo, Bade miwa . . .”
Rather than bursting into the cabin like the avenging angel he had planned to be, he hardly had the strength or the energy to open the car door, once he arrived. The afternoon was cold, and he could smell snow an hour or two away; he noticed a few flakes on the roof of Noelle’s car. There was flickering light in the cabin, and smoke curling from the chimney, which he and Garrigue mistrusted enough that they almost never lighted a fire. He moved closer, noticing two sets of footprints leading to the door, Yeah, she’d have been carrying Patrice, boy’d have been too scared to walk. The vision of his terrified four-year-old grandson made him grind his teeth, and Duplessis promptly called from within, “No need to bite the door down, Jean-Marc. Half a minute, I’ll be right there.”
Waiting, Arceneaux moved to the side of the house and ripped down the single power line. The electric light went out inside, and he heard Duplessis laugh. Standing on the doorstep as Arceneaux walked back, he said, “I thought you might do that, so I built a handsome fire for us all—even lit a few candles. But if you imagine that’s going to preclude the use of power tools, I feel I should remind you that they all run on batteries these days. Nice big batteries. Come in, Jean-Marc, I bid you welcome.”
It was not the shock of seeing Noelle tied in a chair that almost caused Arceneaux to lose what control he had and charge the smiling man standing beside her. It was the sight of Patrice, unbound on her lap, lighting up at the sight of him to call “Gam’pair!” He had been crying, but his face made it clear that everything would be all right now. Duplessis said pleasantly, “I wouldn’t give it a second thought, old friend. I’m sure you know why.”
“Fontenot,” Arceneaux said. “Never knowed the old man had that much power.”
“Oh, it cost me an arm and a leg . . . so to speak.” Duplessis laughed softly. “Another reason he had to go. I mean, suppose everyone could change whenever he chose, things might become a bit . . . chaotic, don’t you agree? But it certainly does come in handy, those nights when you’re suddenly peckish, just like that, and everything’s closed.”
Noelle’s eyes were terrified, but her voice was surprisingly steady. She said, “He broke in in the night, I don’t know how. I couldn’t fight him, because he had Patrice, and he said if I screamed . . .”
“Yeah, honey,” Arceneaux said. “Yeah, baby.”
“He made me drive him up here. Poor Patrice was so frightened.”
Patrice nodded proudly. “I was scared, Gam’pair.”
“He tried to rape me,” Noelle said evenly. “He couldn’t.”
Duplessis looked only mildly abashed. “Everything costs. And it did seem appropriate—you and little Rene working so hard to entice me up here. I thought I’d just take you up on it a bit early.”
Arceneaux took a step, then another; not toward Duplessis, but toward Noelle in the chair. Duplessis said, “I really wouldn’t, Jean-Marc.”
Noelle said, “Dadda, get out of here! It’s you he wants!”
Arceneaux said, “He got me. He ain’t getting you.”
Duplessis nodded. “I’ll let them go, you have my word. But they have to watch first. That’s fair. Her and the little one, watching and remembering . . . you know, that might even make up for what you did to me.” His smile brightened even more. “Then we’ll be quits at last, just think, after all the years. I might even leave some of the others alive—lagniappe, don’t you know, our greatest Louzianne tradition. As your folks say down in the swamp, lagniappe c’est bitin qui bon—lagniappe is lawful treasure.”
Arceneaux ignored him. To Patrice he said, “Boy, you get off your mama’s lap now, I got to get those ropes off her. Then we all go get some ice cream, you like that?”
Patrice scrambled down eagerly. Noelle said, “Dadda, no. Take Patrice and get out—” just as Duplessis’s voice sharpened and tightened, good cheer gone. “Jean-Marc, I’m warning you—”
The ropes were tight for stiff old fingers, and Noelle’s struggling against them didn’t help. Behind him, Arceneaux heard Patrice scream in terror. A moment later, looking past him, Noelle went absolutely rigid, her mouth open but no smallest sound emerging. He turned himself then, knowing better than they what he would see.
Petrifying as the sight of a werewolf obviously is, it is the transformation itself that is the smothering fabric of nightmare. On the average, it lasts no more than ten or fifteen seconds: but to the observing eyes and mind, the process is endless, going on and on and on in everlasting slow-motion, as the grinning mouth twists and lengthens into a fanged snarl, while the body convulses, falls forward, catches itself on long gray legs that were arms a lifetime ago, and the eyes lengthen, literally reseat themselves in the head at a new angle, and take on the beautiful insane glow that particularly distinguishes the loup-garou. Alexandre Duplessis—cotton-white, except for the dark-shaded neck-ruff and the jagged black slash across the chest—uttered a shattering half-human roar and sprang straight at Arceneaux.
Whether it was caused by the adrenaline of terror or of rage he couldn’t guess, but suddenly the ropes fell loose from the chair and his fingers, and Noelle, in one motion, swept up the wailing Patrice and was through the door before the wolf that had been Duplessis even reached her father. The bad knee predictably locked up, and Arceneaux went down, with the wolf Duplessis on him, worrying at his throat. He warded the wide-stretched jaws off with his forearm, bringing the good knee up into the loup-garou’s belly, the huge white-and-black body that had become all his sky and all his night. Duplessis threw back his head and bayed in triumph.
Arceneaux made a last desperate attempt to heave Duplessis away and get to his feet. But he was near to suffocation from the weight on his chest—Saba yehge, amiwa saba yehge, de Damballa e a miwa—and then the werewolf’s jaws were past his guard, the great fangs sank into his shoulder, and he heard himself scream in pain—Danou sewa yehge o, djevo de, Damballa come to us, they are hurting us, Damballa come quickly . . .
. . . and heard the scream become a howl of fury in the same moment, as he lunged upward, his changing jaws closing on Duplessis’s head, taking out an eye with the first snap. Wolf to wolf—the greatest sin of all—they rose on their hind legs, locked together, fangs clashing, each streaked and blotched with the other’s blood. Arceneaux had lost not only who he was, but what—he had no grandchildren now, no children either, no lifelong down-home friend, no memories of affection . . . there had never been anything else but this murderous twin, and no joy but in hurting it, killing it, tearing it back once again to shreds, where it belonged. He had never been so happy in his life.
In the wolf form, loups-garoux do not mate; lovemaking is a gift for ordinary animals, ordinary humans. Yet this terrible, transcendent meshing was like nothing Arceneaux had ever known, even as he was aware that his left front leg was broken and one side of his throat laid open. Duplessis was down now . . . or was that some other wolf bleeding and panting under him, breath ragged, weakened claws finding no purchase in his fur? It made no difference. There was nothing but battle now, nothing but hunger for someone’s blood.
Most of the lighted candles had been knocked over—some by Noelle’s flight to the door, some during the battle. The rag rugs that he and Garrigue had devastated and not yet replaced were catching fire, and spreading the flames to dry furniture and loose paper and kindling. Arceneaux watched the fire with a curious detachment, as intense, in its way, as the ecstasy with which he had he had closed his wolf jaws on Duplessis’s wolf flesh. He was aware, with the same disinterest, that he was bleeding badly from a dozen wounds; still, he was on his feet, and Duplessis was sprawled before him, alive but barely breathing, lacking the strength and will to regain the human shape. Arceneaux was in the same condition, which was a pity, for he would have liked to give his thanks to Damballa in words. He considered the helpless Duplessis for a moment longer, as the fire began to find its own tongue, and then he pushed the door open with his head and limped outside.
Noelle cried out at first as he stumbled toward her; but then she knew him, as she would always have known him, and knelt down before him, hugging his torn neck—Duplessis had come very near the throat—and getting blood all over the pajamas in which she had been kidnapped. She had no words either, except for Dadda, but she got plenty of mileage out of that one, even so.
The cabin was just reaching full blaze, and Patrice had worked up the courage to let the strange big dog lick his face, when the police car came barreling up the overgrown little path, very nearly losing an axle to the pothole Garrigue had been warning them about for the last couple of miles. Antoine was with them too, and Garrigue’s son Claude, and a police paramedic as well. There was a good deal of embracing among one group, and an equal amount of headscratching, chinrubbing and cell-phone calling by the other.
And Jean-Marc Arceneaux—“Ti-Jean” to a very few old friends—nuzzled his grandson one last time, and then turned and walked back into the blazing cabin and threw himself over the body of the wolf Alexandre Duplessis. Noelle’s cry of grief was still echoing when the roof came down.
When Garrigue could talk—when anyone could talk, after the fire engine came—he told Noelle, “The ashes. He done it because of the ashes.”
Noelle shook her head weakly. “I don’t understand.”
Garrigue said, “Duplessis come back once, maybe do it again, even from ashes. But not all mixed up together with old Ti-Jean, no, not with their jaws locked on each other in the other world and the loa watching. Not even a really good conjure man out of Sabine, Vernon Parish, pull off that trick. You follow me?”
“No,” she said. “No, Rene. I don’t, I’m trying.”
Garrigue was admirably patient, exhausted as he was. “He just making sure you, the grandbabies, the rest of us, we never going to be bothered by Compe’ Alexandre no more.” His gray eyes were shining with prideful tears. “He thought on things like that, Ti-Jean did. Knew him all my life, that man. All my life.”
Patrice slept between her and Antoine that night: The police psychologist who had examined him said that just because he was showing no sign of trauma didn’t mean that he might not be affected in some fashion that wouldn’t manifest itself for years. For his part, Patrice had talked about the incident in the surprisingly matter-of-fact way of a four-year-old for the rest of the day; but after dinner he spent the evening playing one of Zelime’s mysterious games that seemed, as far as adults could tell, to have no rules whatsoever. It was only when he scrambled into bed beside his mother that he asked seriously, “That man? Not coming back?”
Noelle hugged him. “No, sweetheart. Not coming back. Not ever. You scared him away.”
“Gam’pair come back.” It was not a question.
You’re not supposed to lie to children about anything. Bad, bad, bad. Noelle said, “He had to go away, Patrice. He had to make sure that man wouldn’t come here again.”
Patrice nodded solemnly. He wrapped his arms around himself and said, “I hold Gam’pair right here. Gam’pair not going anywhere,” and went to sleep.
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