Chapter Nine - The Lost Graveyard
An hour out of the city I realized I was hopelessly lost. I slowed the truck and crept along the swamp road, squinting down crossroads for anything that looked familiar, and hoped fervently that I wouldn't drive into the bayou in the dark.
This deep in the swamp I didn't expect to find any signs pointing the way, so when my headlights picked up something that looked a lot like an arrow carved into the trunk of a cypress, I stopped and got out of the truck to have a better view. It was indeed an arrow, pointing down a little dirt track. It seemed a better proposition than following the road that I increasingly suspected would lead me nowhere I wanted to be, so I got back into the truck and made the turn. It might be a road the forestry students used, I thought, since I knew they had a little station beyond the sugar cane fields, and maybe once I found the students I could get directions to the big house.
Instead of leading me to fields of baby trees, though, the little road led me deeper into the woods, where the oaks and cypresses grew tall and their branches reached over the road to hide the moon.
Abruptly the track came to a stop.
Instead the forestry station or even an abandoned plantation house, the end of the track was marked by a pair of standing stones set like gatekeepers on either side of a path. The thick trees grew up to the stones and continued beyond them, surrounding the plot of land they guarded like a fence.
Leaving the engine running so the headlights could illuminate my way, I got out of the truck and followed the footpath into the clearing, past the stones.
Most places on Fidele, there was always some sort of noise going on -- lawn mowers, the farm machinery in the sugar cane fields, even the Mississippi's slow and mighty crawl -- but this little meadow was so quiet it seemed even the cicadas didn't dare to make a noise. It was otherworldly in a way that reminded me of a battlefield once the shooting stopped and the way your ears ring in the sudden silence.
I wished I had a flashlight with me as I followed the footpath. I did have my lighter in my pocket, though, and I lit it and held it up as I looked around.
Sometimes when camping in the Sierra Nevada mountains we would come across a patch of land so tidy it looked like an overgrown and forgotten garden -- and given the area's history of homesteaders and gold miners, it might have been, though our favorite story to tell each other about places like this was that the wild dryads of California had made these places, then abandoned them when civilization grew too near.
This place had a similar feel -- once lovingly tended, now forgotten. But it was no garden. Instead of neat furrows of corn or potatoes, there were slight depressions in the ground, of various sizes but all of an unmistakable shape.
A hundred or so of these depressions filled the meadow. A hundred or so deaths going unremembered.
The path led through the stones to the back of the plot, where there grew an enormous myrtle, at least as ancient as the oaks. I went to it, even though after the hours of driving and now walking on uneven ground my leg and hip were protesting further movement, but I had to see if the tree bore anything that might tell me who was buried here.
Something was carved into the myrtle's bark. I held my lighter closer and squinted in the dark as I tried to read it, but the letters were so overgrown I could only make out what perhaps was a J and maybe an S.
A soft, irregular clanking sound broke the silence, startling me so much that I dropped my lighter. My heart pounded in my chest, and I thought wildly maybe I could beat off an alligator with my cane if called upon. I flicked on my lighter and said, "Who's there?" as I held it up.
Something white and wispy darted through the trees just beyond the clearing. Despite the warm night my skin pricked. Not a gator, this -- I should know better than to think of spirits in a place like this, especially in a place like this --
"Show yourself," I ordered. "My name is Malcolm Carmichael and I am not afraid of you."
A twig snapped.
I held my breath. Braced myself.
A small dark-haired figure, dressed in white, launched itself out of the trees. Little arms wrapped around my knees. "Caleb?" I said and scooped him up with a slight groan -- he was a sturdy boy and heavy to hold with one arm -- and said, "What are you doing here in the middle of the night, Caleb?"
He put his arms around my neck and buried his head in my shoulder, shivering. His feet were filthy and wet from the forest floor, and he wore only his thin cambric pajamas. He must have been walking for hours. No wonder he was cold.
"Were you sleepwalking? Is the last thing you remember being in your bed?"
Caleb shook his head.
I said slowly, "You got out of your bed and came all the way out here by yourself, in the dark? Why?"
He shrugged. Well, it was a complicated question, even for a five-year-old who spoke.
I sighed and kissed his forehead. "I'm not angry with you," I said. "If anyone at Fidele knows you're gone, though, they're going to be frantic. Let's get you home."
We couldn't be far from Fidele if Caleb had walked here by himself, and so with Caleb in the passenger seat I turned back onto the little road and crawled the truck through the trees until I found the main road again, which eventually did lead us to the front drive of the big house.
As I suspected it would be, every light in the house was ablaze. There were police cars parked in the drive, and we had seen torches and flashlights among the trees of the new forest and the sugar cane stalks, and even along the borders of the bayou. I could hear people calling, "Caleb! Caleb Thibodeaux!" their voices echoing back to us across the open fields.
I carried Caleb from the carriage house to the big house. Noel was on the front porch in his dressing gown, looking like he was near his breaking point. "Look what I found," I said, trying to lighten the mood, as Caleb slid down from my arm.
Several expressions crossed Noel's face at once and he grabbed Caleb by the shoulders. "Where have you been?" he demanded. "Don't you know how dangerous it is out there? Why would you run away?"
Caleb's lower lip trembled and his eyes filled, and Noel got onto his knees and hugged Caleb to him. "I'm sorry, peanut," he whispered, "I'm sorry, I shouldn't yell at you, I'm sorry. I'm glad you're safe."
Caleb put his arms around Noel's neck and kissed his cheek. Noel closed his eyes a moment, hugging him tight -- all was forgiven between them, just like that.
One of the police officers approached us. "Is this the missing child, Mr. Thibodeaux?"
"Yes," Noel said, standing with Caleb in his arms. "This is Caleb."
"We'll call everyone back," the officer said and murmured something to one of his subordinates. He took me in with a look. "You must be the tutor."
"Malcolm Carmichael," I said. "I was in the city and got lost on the way home in the dark." I leaned on my cane. "I found Caleb out in the woods."
"What was he doing in the woods?" the officer said and looked at Noel.
"I don't know," I said. "At first I thought he might have sleepwalked, but I don't think that was the case."
The officer's expression grew skeptical. "What were you doing in the city, Mr. Carmichael?"
"Having dinner with friends," I said. "The Gaspards. I can get you their address if you want it."
"I think that would be a good thing to have."
"I trust Mr. Carmichael with Caleb's safety and well-being," Noel said, his voice tensing. "If he says he found Caleb in the woods, then he found Caleb in the woods. Caleb is exhausted, Officer Dunlap, and I'd like to put him to bed."
"Of course," the officer said, and gave me a long, thoughtful look before he turned to his sergeant. Meantime, the search party had begun to return to the house -- including Willie, whose kind face nearly broke at the sight of Caleb in Noel's arms.
"I can take him, Mr. Noel," he said. Noel looked at Caleb before handing him over, and Willie took him tenderly. They were met at the door by Mrs. Bell, who held Caleb's face in her hands for a moment and then followed them inside.
I stayed outside with Noel as he thanked the students and police for their help, and then when the last torch disappeared and the police cars were gone, Noel exhaled deeply. "I need a drink. Do you need a drink?"
"I would love a drink."
"Good," Noel said and went into the house. I followed him to the sitting room and sat at the side table while Noel poured us both a scotch. He brought the glasses and bottle to the table and pulled over a chair. Someone had lit a fire in the fireplace, and we both watched it and sipped until he said, "So, how was the dinner party?"
I looked at him, and then we both started laughing.
"It was a crawfish boil," I said when we calmed down. "It was a Cajun crawfish boil like something out of the pictures. It had everything -- zydeco and homemade cherry wine and girls with ribbons in their hair. It was amazing."
"I'm glad you had a good time." He looked at his glass and then had another drink.
"How'd this happen?" I asked quietly, with a nod toward the nursery.
"I went to check on him and he wasn't in bed, so I searched the house, and when I couldn't find him I woke up Willie and Mrs. Bell, and Mrs. Bell called the police, and it escalated from there."
"It was kind of the students to help," I said.
"Yes, it was," Noel murmured.
"And Emmanuel? What did he make of all this?"
Noel shrugged. "He sleeps through hurricane season."
The fire crackled for a while. Noel said, "Why would Caleb leave the house? That's what I don't understand. I know the two of you explore the grounds but he's never gone out by himself. Why would he leave in the middle of the night, alone, in his pajamas, without even slippers?"
I hesitated before I answered. "I found him in this strange little clearing. It was so quiet it was like it was in another world, and in the middle was an enormous myrtle tree. There was something in the branches -- it made this weird sound every time the wind blew."
Noel looked at me, then tapped our glasses together. "Did it sound like this?"
"Yeah, sort of. How did you know?"
"You found a bottle tree." Before I could ask, he said, "Where were you on the farm, when you found him?"
"It was deep in the woods," I said. "I'm not sure I was on Fidele land or forestry land."
"They haven't replanted all of it yet," Noel said. "They're rolling it out in waves. If it was on their land it might still be old-growth forest."
I had read enough of the writings of John Muir for that to concern me. "They're going to replant old forest?"
Noel shrugged. "They're deciding section by section. It depends on how old the forest is. If it's land that the woods reclaimed since the War Between the States and no one's been around to work it, they have no problem with replanting it. If it's older than that, they're going to cultivate it and study it. They're still surveying. Do you think you could find the clearing again?"
"I think so," I said. "There was an arrow carved into a tree that pointed out the path to get there." I hesitated, and said, "Noel, did I find a slave cemetery?"
"I wonder if you did," he murmured, rubbing his mouth in thought. "I know there's one out there, beyond where the slave quarters used to be. I think the last person who knew where it is died or left Louisiana before I was born."
"That would explain the gateway stones, anyway. What's a bottle tree and why would it be in the middle of a graveyard?"
"Country beliefs," Noel said with a sigh. "People put bottles on the branches of dead trees, or tie them into the branches of live ones. It's suppose to trap ghosts."
"Ghosts," I said.
"Ghosts get trapped in the bottles over night, and then destroyed by the light of the rising sun in the morning." He shrugged, with a small, fond smile. "Whoever made that yard must have been really afraid of restless spirits, to put a bottle tree right in the middle of it."
Well, he did say they were country beliefs. "Next you're going to tell me the family actually is cursed."
Any trace of a smile disappeared. "How did you hear about that?"
"Rene Gaspard," I explained. "He told me that Thibodeaux brides are cursed to die young."
Noel looked at me as if I had peeled back the layers from his deepest secret, and then laughed again in his dry way. "I think the swamp is getting to you, Malcolm. You're going to tell me you believe in ha'nts and hoodoo next."
"I don't think I'm quite that far gone yet," I said. "Still, that clearing is a strange place. It's got a -- a feel to it."
"A lot of places do, if you let them get to you." He held out his hand for my empty glass, and I gave it to him. "Let's go Saturday to try and find it again. I'd like to let the institute know if it's on their land, so if it is the slave cemetery they can decide what to do with it."
"And if it's still on your land?"
He shrugged as he carried the glasses to the liquor cabinet. "I'll consult someone in the Historical Society about the best thing to do -- whether to re-inter the bones somewhere or just put up a sign so people can find it. I don't suppose there was anything to identify who was buried there."
"Not that I could see," I said. "The closest thing to a name was something carved into the myrtle tree, but it was too overgrown to see."
Noel nodded. "Well, we'll figure it out when we find it." He stood still a moment, his hand resting on the lip of the liquor cabinet. "I need to look in on Caleb."
"So do I," I said, and so we went upstairs.
The door to Caleb's room was ajar. We looked in, and then Noel entered the room and sat on the edge of Caleb's bed. He ran his hand slowly over Caleb's dark curls.
I went to Noel and put my hand on his shoulder, and after a moment he put his hand on top of mine. "He's all I have," he whispered in a choked voice. "He's all I have."
"Let him sleep," I said. "He's safe. Come on." He got up and tucked the blankets closer around Caleb, and then followed me out.
Before we parted, he said, "Malcolm, tell me something. Your friend Gaspard -- is he a friend like Oliver, or--"
"We served together," I said. "He's getting married in a few months."
"Do you ever want that for yourself?" Noel said, taking a step toward me. "Wife, children? The whole fairy tale ending?"
I smiled at him wryly. "What would I do with a wife?"
"It would be normal."
"I don't want normal."
We gazed at each other.
I said softly, "What do you want, Noel?"
"I don't want normal, either." He paused, and then inhaled as if he wanted to say something more -- but it was only, "Good night, Malcolm."
I answered, "Good night, Noel," and we went to our own beds.
In the morning, no one stirred early except for Emmanuel, who had slept through all of the excitement, and Willie, who seemed to me to be made of sterner stuff than the rest of us altogether. I heard them leave not long after dawn, Emmanuel's voice booming through the quiet house, and forced myself to get up and get the day started.
I was in the kitchen, eating toast and drinking a large cup of coffee without much enthusiasm when Noel came in, dressed in a suit with his tie hanging around his neck.
"No lessons today," he said. "Caleb has a cold."
"I'm not surprised," I said, "after running around at night in his bare feet. Should I take him to the doctor?"
"Not today," Noel said. "Mrs. Bell says he needs sleep more than anything else. If it lasts another day we'll take him in." He paused. "How are you this morning?"
"A little tired," I admitted. "Wine always hits me harder than I expect it to. Are you going into the city today?"
"Yes," Noel said and rubbed his eyes with one hand. "I'd stay home but I've got findings to present today. I should be on my way now, in fact."
"Go on. Mrs. Bell and I will look after Caleb."
"All right," he said. "Call me if you need me to come home early." He left the kitchen, knotting his tie as he went.
As I finished my very plain breakfast, Mrs. Bell came into the kitchen. "Would you give Caleb his breakfast?" she asked me. "I can't convince him to come down to eat."
"I will," I said, and when she had the tray put together -- orange juice, oatmeal with raisins and brown sugar, a biscuit, fresh fruit, an aspirin tablet she had cut in half -- she carried it upstairs and I followed.
In Caleb's room, she set the tray on Caleb's little play table and left. The only sign of Caleb was a lump under the blankets in the little bed, so I sat on the edge of the bed and patted what I assumed was Caleb's back. "Hey, sleepyhead. I understand you're not feeling good today."
The lump shifted, and Caleb's pale, weary face peered out from under the blankets.
"There you are," I said and laid my hand on his cheek and then his forehead. Both were warm and clammy, and his nose was running. I took out my pocket handkerchief and wiped his nose, and he blew obediently. "Let's take your medicine first, honey. It'll help you feel better."
He sat up long enough to swallow the pill with orange juice to wash it down, making a face the entire time, and then lay his head on my chest and closed his eyes.
"There's oatmeal," I said. "If you're hungry."
He shook his head and yawned.
"All right," I murmured, "maybe later." I braced my arm around him and scooted back so I could lean against the headboard -- Caleb was too heavy to hold without a little support. I patted his back rhythmically as if he were an infant, and watched the trees sway outside his window.
I must have dozed off myself, because I opened my eyes to see Noel standing beside the bed. The room was very cold, and I held Caleb a little tighter as Noel -- no longer dressed in a suit, which I thought odd, but wearing instead khaki trousers and a red V-necked sweater -- bent over Caleb and ran his hand over Caleb's cheek. A silver wedding band glinted on his ring finger, and a saint's medal dangled around his neck.
At the touch, Caleb stirred in his sleep and his eyelids fluttered. His lips parted and he made a tiny sound, like a baby cooing in contentment.
I said, "Noel?" and the figure's eyes met mine -- and then he disappeared.
I bolted upright, blinking, the hairs on the back of my neck pricking and goosebumps dotting my arms. Of course it wasn't Noel -- Noel had left for the city hours ago, judging by the sun shining through the window, but that meant --
"I must have been dreaming," I said out loud, and Caleb's eyes blinked open. I smiled at him, trying to shake off the strange and unsettling vision. "Ready to start your day?"
He nodded and untangled himself from the blankets, and I set him on the floor. I chatted to him as casually as I could manage as we choose clothes for him to wear, which he insisted on putting on himself; and then I sat with him at his play table so he could eat his oatmeal.
"We could heat that up again," I told him but he shrugged, eating methodically. "Oatmeal is usually better when it's hot. Or I could try to make grits. That can't be too hard, can it?"
Caleb patted my hand, and I smothered a smile.
"Or sometime I'll ask Mrs. Bell to teach me how to make them," I said. "I want her to teach me to make biscuits and gravy, too, now that she's taught me how to make biscuits properly."
There was a biscuit on his tray, spread with butter and honey. He picked it up and had an experimental bite.
"Don't worry about that not being tasty," I said. "Mrs. Bell made that."
He had a bigger bite, and I laughed, not insulted. I didn't blame him -- I knew how to make biscuits, but you could still tell the difference between mine and Mrs. Bell's. I said, "My mother taught me and my brothers and sister how to cook the way French people do -- she was from France, you see -- but my skills aren't up to Mrs. Bell's standards yet. I'll keep practicing. Have you ever had ratatouille?"
Caleb thought about it, then shook his head.
"It's a vegetable dish -- a peasant dish, my mother called it, but I loved it when the weather was cold. And the weather is cold a lot in San Francisco."
There were a few textbooks on his table from Friday. Caleb picked up his geography primer and opened it to the map of the United States, and looked at me expectantly. "This is California," I said, pointing to the state on the map, "and this little dot is San Francisco. Shall we find New Orleans?"
He thought we should, and then New York and Boston, too, and London and Paris when we moved on to the world map; there, we also found Manila and Tokyo and Hong Kong. We placed grapes from his breakfast tray on each city, and when we were done finding cities we ate the grapes.
Whatever had driven him to the woods seemed to be forgotten. I wished I could shake it all off as easily -- the strange feeling that little clearing gave me, the bottle tree, and the odd vision I had seen in Caleb's bedroom.
Caleb and I spent the rest of the morning reading books in front of a roaring fire in the sitting room, and then after lunch I brought out the crayons and drawing paper. I let Caleb draw as he liked for a while, then said, as I drew a picture myself, "Caleb, do you remember why you left the house last night?"
His crayon stopped and he looked up at me, slow and cautious.
"You frightened Uncle Noel and Mrs. Bell and Willie very much, and if I'd been home I would have been frightened, too. It's a big world and you're still a little thing."
He drew a pair of small blue circles, his brows furrowed in concentration.
"Did you decide to go see the new forest?" I said gently. "Was that why you left?"
Slowly, Caleb shook his head, not looking at me.
I hunkered down on the floor beside him, wincing at the pressure it put on my hip, and said, "Caleb." Reluctantly his eyes met mine, and I said, "Did someone say something to you, or do something, that made you want to leave the house?"
His face solemn, he shoved his drawing at me -- he had drawn a man in brown pants and a red V-neck sweater, and had written "DADDY" beneath the figure in big, wobbly letters.
I picked up the picture, the hairs on the back of my neck pricking like they had earlier in his room. "I know you miss your daddy, honey," I said and gave the picture back. "Did you have a dream about him and think he might be in the forest?"
He looked at me helplessly, and then grabbed his crayons and drew a little yellow star. Beside the star he drew a big tree, blue bottles hanging from its branches, and then he looked at me expectantly.
"I'm sorry, Caleb," I said, "I still don't understand."
Caleb sighed heavily and rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands. He grabbed his black crayon and drew a dark smear over the star, and then a big X over the picture of Simon, over and over, hard enough to tear the paper, as his breathing grew shallow and uneven and he abruptly began to sob.
"Caleb!" I said and grabbed his hand, and he threw himself into my arms. I held him tight and stroked his back, and whispered, "It's okay, baby boy, it's okay," until he stopped sobbing and only breathed heavily, exhausted with emotion, and lay his head on my shoulder.
Enough was enough -- he needed rest. I took him upstairs, and when he was tucked in on his little bed, I pulled over a chair and kept watch as I worked on my own drawing -- similar to his, the dream figure that I knew I had seen before, the man in khaki pants and a red sweater.
And why would I dream about a man I'd never met? That's a good question. I didn't know.
>> Chapter Ten