Honey Isalnd Swamp, an eco thriller
©1998, by Dory Lynch
He watched the buzzards circle overhead. First one, then another. Until a trio crisscrossed the sky. A trio of soaring, intent-on-the-ground birds. As always the question struck. Coincidence only? Or were these predators keeping sentinel on some animal's death agonies? As he carried his pack across the dock to the boat, he whistled. Honey Island Swamp always made him feel this way: in communion with all of nature: the sweet-smelling swamp grasses, the egrets, hawks, even the garfish and alligators. Even the buzzards. A loud hammering of wings, and the shy female blue egret, which must have been wading around the bend, lifted her thin, elegant body into the air. "Hang onto that fish, sweetie!" Brad called to her as she floated past. That's what he loved about the swamp: its abundance of animals and birds, its thousands of hidden mysteries. Suddenly his legs snapped together. Someone had tackled him from behind. As the force propelled him into the chocolate-colored bayou, he warned himself: Shut your mouth! Don't breathe! With open eyes, he clawed at the water. Reached, grabbed. As though its slippery substance, would give him some hold, some substance. Arms flaying, he struggled to get back to the surface. But instead he was pulled down. What had clamped his legs together? So tightly? He hit the bottom hard. When a rope brushed against his arms, he realized finally what had shackled him. A rope attached to his dad's heavy anchor. He brought it up to his mouth, tried to chew through it but it was hopeless. He pulled at his jean shorts, searching for keys, a knife, some semblance of blade. But he'd dumped everything on the kitchen table when he'd first come to the camp. Just before an overwhelming darkness descended upon him, he looked up. A stream of golden light poured in through the lagoon's skin; but even as he stretched his arms toward it, he realized it was beyond his grasp.
Chapter One: News of Impending Death
As our plane from Anchorage descended over Louisiana's mottled green swamps, I leaned over and warned my husband, "Watch out, we're about to enter the Great Soup!"
"Cass, we've got summers in Alaska too."
"Sure, summers with highs of fifty-two degrees."
"But I lived in Arizona too." Right. How did I forget that the Bureau of Indian Affairs had once considered it necessary to send Alaskan native kids four thousand miles away to attend high school? As a result of that forced exile, Ik had some idea of what to expect.
As we walked through the airport's automatic doors, a blast of gasoline-tainted air hit us. Three days ago, I'd stood on the aqua-lagoon ice before our Arctic village and breathed air so sweet-smelling and pure that I'd wondered during what month, under what changing polar light we'd return home again?
I'm Cass Monroe, former resident of the Big Easy, where--in what already seems like another life--I once managed a teachers' resource center. These past two years, I've spent above the Arctic Circle in the Inuit village of Quissingkaat, where I fish commercially in the summer, and tutor college students enrolled in long distance education in the winter. College without walls, Far Northern style. Now I was returning home with my new husband, Ik Frank, because my Mom had been diagnosed with breast cancer.
This morning Dad had accompanied Mom to Oschner Clinic, where she had recently begun an intense series of chemo treatments. He'd asked my cousin to meet us. Because no one waited at the gate or luggage area, I assumed that his message had gotten garbled. Relief flooded through me. Now Ik and I could pretend we were coming to New Orleans as tourists: to play through the semi-tropical nights, to dance up and down Bourbon Street, to smell the night-blooming, sweet olive. For another hour or so, we wouldn't have to admit to anyone how sick Mom was, or discuss her tenuous and uncertain fate. But as I squinted into the bright Louisiana sunshine, I spotted my Aunt Alice's red Camaro under a sign that said, NO PARKING: ALL VEHICLES IMPOUNDED. My cousin Brad stood, one leg stretched over the car's bumper, chatting up a Jefferson Parish cabby.
"Yo, Brad, still too cheap to pay for parking?"
"No, cuz, jes plain broke. Jobs here are an endangered species." He undraped his body from the car, and half-sidled, half-jogged toward us. When I tried to give him a hug, he lurched away awkwardly, and knocked my sunglasses off in the process. As a general rule, the women in our family touch. The men do not. Besides, Brad and I had a quarter century of competitive baggage between us.
Brad had the lean muscular body of an athlete. He had run track and played tennis at both Jesuit and Tulane. At nineteen, he'd sold his car because of its negative effects on the environment. Since then, his vehicle of choice had been a Trek touring bike. But his mother, my Aunt Alice--convinced that she'd be called to the morgue to identify the mangled body of a cyclist--had recently given him on permanent loan, her slightly-used Camaro. According to Mom, having a car had been seductive for Brad. Now he spent most of his time in Honey Island Swamp, one of the largest nature preserves in Louisiana. Brad's passion was nature; in particular, the green, animal-rich sloughs of the Pearl River Basin.
"So, partna," Brad asked my husband. "What sort a jobs they got up No'th?"
"Hardly any. We live off the land."
"Us too." Brad said, "Geez, maybe we got more in common than I thought. Hey, want to go piroguing soon? Guarantee we'll see some gators."
"Um. What do they taste like?"
Brad ran his finger over his mustache. It reminded me of wintered-over grass on the levee: pale-yellow, bristly, stubborn, not about to surrender. He gave me a quizzical look.
"The Inuit eat anything," I said.
"Well you've landed smack in the right place. Eat-anythingville Lusiana," Brad gave Ik's shoulder a gentle nudge.
"Everything from freshly-plucked Crawdad's to alligator soup. But I prefer my gators alive, swimming in the bayou."
"Your girlfriend?" Ik said nodding toward the car. Ever-observant Ik. That's why the Arctic has such great hunters, I thought, the Inuit notice everything in their environment, while we look around and barely see. Even though we were still over thirty feet from the car, Ik had spotted a dark form on the passenger seat. But it wasn't until Brad laughed nervously that my interest piqued. "Nah," he said, "just a bud." He gave me an embarrassed look. Or had I imagined that?
Even before the door opened and the young woman stepped out, I realized who she was. No one else had that flood of dark hair, that lilting angle of cheek-bone. But it made no sense. Why would my best friend, Rita Weiss, share a car with my cousin Brad--when they'd hated each other since childhood?
Now they stood side by side in the Louisiana sunshine, warmly greeting Ik. What's more, they showed absolutely no animosity toward each other. They nodded in rhythm, their dark sunglasses mirroring the clipped palms, the bright, semi-tropical sun. What's wrong with this picture? Rita and Brad looked exactly like a pair of lovers. But that couldn't be. Rita had married Tim, a successful, ex-New York lawyer who was now in a mad heat for U.S. Congress. So engrossed was I in staring at this new compatible couple, that I forgot to introduce Ik. But luckily, Rita, reached over and gave Ik a hug. "Gad! I've waited eons to meet Cass's Eskimo. Congratulations!"
"Not Eskimo," I said, "Inuit." A jet thundered down the runway. Hot air blasted around us. The skirt of Rita's blue and black polka-dotted dress swirled around her legs. As the jet lifted skyward, Rita continued, "Christ, this humidity must be a real killer for an Eskimo--"
"Inuit," I interjected again. "Eskimo means flesh eat--"
"It's ok, Cass," Ik said. "It doesn't matter."
"Yes, it does. Flesh eater's a derogatory term. They should know--"
"Oh, Cass don't get P. C. on us," Brad interrupted.
"Remember a rose by--" "Shit, Brad, I'm not being p.c. The term's insulting. Colonialism. A nasty term introduced by the French." But everyone ignored me. Brad pointed out an ominous series of thunderheads which were stacking up over the lake. "Ever seen clouds that color puke-green, partna?" Meanwhile Rita directed Ik to sit up front, then walked around the car to join me. Later I'd explain to them why Eskimo was such an offensive term.
Rita climbed in beside me. Like me she was in her mid-twenties. But unlike me (because I had never been), she was still achingly beautiful. She was Irish too. What they call black Irish. With berry black hair, and dark, unfreckled skin. Her eyes were as brown and polished looking as my grandmother's armoire. I hadn't seen her for over two years--since my going away party at my friend Sammy's house on Esplanade Street. Since then she'd filled out, become more matronly. In her dressy clothes, she looked as elegant as any St. Charles Avenue socialite, as royal as any Komus Queen. When she took her sunglasses off, I saw a network of delicate, spidery sun-folds around her eyes. Her eyes looked distant, world-weary. Up close I could see that her make-up looked rushed, hurried. There was a wariness to her face, a charged animal wariness, which I'd never noticed before. It reminded me of a white-horned owl, I'd once seen trapped on the tundra. Rita shared with it, this same look of mournful despair. Embarrassed, I turned away. A cold breeze from the air conditioner blew over us. Goosebumps erupted on my bare arms.
Rita's briefcase snapped open. Papers fell across the seat. As she shoved them back, I read the letterhead on one: The Conway Corporation, Leaders in an Environmental Future. Suddenly it stuck me how differently our lives had turned out: Rita wore $350 dollar dresses and met her clients in NOLA's four star restaurants, while I spent my days ice-fishing; nights, struggling to sew a decent pair of fur mittens. Her home had a sauna and whirlpool. My tub was stuffed with fishing gear and berry buckets. Due to permafrost, indoor plumbing had never come to our small village which lay on a spit of land next to the Chukchi Sea, nearly a thousand miles northwest of Fairbanks.
"Reet, you all right?"
I looked at her with such disbelief that she leaned toward me and whispered, "Look, Cassio, we gotta talk. The shit's about to hit the fan."
"Sure, tonight. We can go to Tipatina's--"
"No!" she called out sharply. "Just the two of us. What I have to tell you is private." She squeezed my hand. "Sorry, Cass, but I really need your advice." She looked at me with such a pleading look that my stomach turned. In the past few months, what had happened to my friend's story-book life? Had Tim's campaign for Congress altered everything? Or was it something else entirely? Some problem connected to Rita's job? Her family? She must have read the alarm in my face.
"Everything's gone to Hell, Cass, but now that you're here..."
As a Cajun band played on the radio, as Brad and Ik discussed batting averages in the front seat, getting to know each other the way men often do, by sharing their sports knowledge, Rita pulled me toward her. She smelled of coffee, stale office air, her trademark gardenia perfume. I leaned against Rita's shoulder. On the highway in front of us, a Jefferson Parish Bus disgorged passengers. When the women stepped off the bus, they thrust their umbrellas into the air, to protect themselves against the fierce, semi-tropical sun. They wriggled slightly as though moving to music. They struck some chord in my memory. One which I couldn't immediately place. Then I remembered. This procession of passengers sashaying under their black parasols reminded me of jazz funerals I'd come across in the city, where whole crowds had strutted across downtown streets, streets named Felicity, Annunciation, and Resurrection. Smiling, almost in a trance of ecstasy, they had danced past our steamy car. Resolute, parasols raised to the sky, they had demanded that God not send them any more rain or trouble--especially any more death--their way.
Just before we reached Canal Street, Rita leaned over the front seat. She tapped Brad lightly on the shoulder. But even before she'd touched him, he'd begun maneuvering the Camaro over the trolley tracks. He double-parked so Rita could climb out. They didn't exchange a word. But the way Brad watched her long legs strut over the curb, spoke volumes to me. How had my cousin known that Rita had wanted out, mid-block, exactly one street over from her law office? Could this be their customary dropping-off place. From what? Some kind of tryst? Just as she reached the shade under a Po'Boy sign, Rita yelled to me, "Cass, give you a buzz around five."
Her departure left me feeling lost, forlorn. I hadn't expected Rita to meet us at the airport, nor to leave so soon. On the way back from New Orleans International, I'd been counting on her, relying on her to booster me for my first post-cancer meeting with my Mom. After all Reet had known Mom her whole life, and Ik, although Mom's son-in-law, was still almost a stranger. Now I'd have to face Mom without her. How?
© 2008, Dory Lynch, all rights reserved