This is the story of two travelers, Gabe Valentine and Violetta Talbot, who ride out into the untamed wilderness of the Old West, hunting ghosts for fun and profit, haunted by sinister forces, and always finding trouble, even when they don’t try. The travelers have made their way to the bayous of Louisiana, where they hope to find, hidden in that swamp, a monster that goes by the Tainted Keitre.
For the fifth time Gabe grabbed Violetta as she leaned over the edge. The small boat floated down the Louisiana bayou, and each time she would tip it slightly, enough to dip it into the murky water. The man they’d paid to take them this far into the swamp shouted at her in French, and she placed Gabe’s hat on her head as she leaned back in her seat. Gabe stole it off her and swatted her with it.
“You’re going to tip us over,” he said.
She closed her eyes as she tilted her head back. The summer was finally leaving, but here it was still warm and thick with humidity. She pulled her hair into a ponytail and tugged on the dark strands. “I’ve never seen a swamp before.”
Their driver glanced at them. He was an older black man named Rene, not quite stooped with age, though the years did bend his shoulders. He’d only given them a passing look when they’d handed him the money, and he talked in French more easily than he did English. Violetta had learned French as a young girl, but it was nothing like the Louisiana Creole that poured from his lips.
“What you doing out here now?” he asked in his heavy accent.
“Searching for a monster,” she said.
Gabe offered him a smile that apologized for all the words that came out of her mouth. “There’s supposed to be a creature in the bayou.”
“There are plenty of creatures in the bayou.” He gestured out to the green water. Dark trees grew gnarled roots out like snakes, and canopies of leaves dipped low to catch the travelers. He pointed to what looked like a row of dark wood, but one opened a lazy eye, and the alligator watched them as they passed. “If you keep putting your fingers in the water, you’ll find out.”
The alligator dipped below the waters, and Violetta moved away from the edge.
“Have you seen the monster?” he asked.
Rene rowed on. “You’ll see how stories grow out here. A strange thing in the night becomes a monster. Do you want the reward?”
“A hundred dollars is a lot of money,” Violetta said.
“Even if there’s no creature,” he said, “it’s best to be careful in the swamp.”
Neither Gabe nor Violetta had spent much time in any sort of bayou. The water was a bright emerald green with the algae that grew on top of it. It swirled in the places it had been disturbed, where alligators had dipped beneath the water to cool down, and where branches had fallen into it from trees above. They spread their leaves wide to cover the sunlight that glittered in the clear sky. Brush and reeds burst in small bushels from the shallow water, and the land was distant from each other. The small rowboat was the easiest way they could find to get to the outcropping in the center of the swamp. It was more village than town. La Gueule De La Gator, referred to most as La Gueule, was built on sticks and raised platforms. The thin houses hovered half a foot above the water, and platforms stretched out across the bayou, slanting off to touch land where it could reach it. The small town seemed quiet and contemplative. Men sat on the edge of a small pier casting lines into the water, and women set out long woven blankets, or hard clay bowls, or beads carefully braided together into elaborate patterns. Rene docked their boat and helped them both onto the pier, tipping his hat at the men fishing.
“More come for the monster?” one of the men asked.
“You know about it?” Violetta asked.
Another man laughed. “Everyone knows about the monster.”
“They call it the Tainted Keitre out here,” Rene said as Violetta paid him the last of what they owed. “Best find yourself a guide out here. Don’t want you falling into the water.”
Gabe looked past the pier into the small town. No one seemed particularly interested in the newcomers. None looked twice at them as they passed, and for him it was a small peace. She smiled widely at everyone, seemingly giddy with the heavy swamp air. She’d stolen Gabe’s hat again and tipped it at every girl she passed, who all gave her strange looks. Kids ran past, trailing cloth or carrying huge buckets of fish. One young thing lifted himself over the railing at the edge of the platform and tossed a fish down. In a moment he was rewarded as an alligator reared its long jaw out, snapping the fish with a deadly sound, and then sinking below. He squealed and ran to the other children, who all laughed.
A woman shook her head at them and looked to the strangers. “You’re out here looked for the Keitre?”
“Sure,” Violetta said.
She laughed. “Good luck, my friends.”
“You wouldn’t happen to know someone who guide us around?” Gabe asked.
She gestured towards another pier that stretched into the swamp water. On it was a shack with a sloped roof, decorated with animal hides and stretched over its doorway a taxidermied alligator with its jaw wide open. There was laughter from within. Gabe gave the woman their thanks, and they entered the shack.
At mid-afternoon, the bar only had a few patrons. Wooden tables were empty except for one, where five souls were gathered. They each had a beer, and a tall, skinny man was in the process of handing them more. The bar was strung with skeletal remains and fish hooks, and an alligator skin that stretched as long as a boat was tacked to the wall. The man serving noticed Gabe and Violetta before the others, and he offered them a friendly smile.
“Strangers!” he called, his Creole accent as thick as the others. “Welcome!”
The others turned as well. None quite looked the same. An old man with white hair leaned forward, grinning wide enough to stretch the thick, near black scar that crossed his cheek. A young man in straw hat had his boots propped against another chair. A young woman looked at them, her lips pulled back in a slight smile, as though she were enjoying her own personal joke. A white man sat with them as well, tall and skinny as a scarecrow, and the look he gave the strangers was not as friendly as the others. The last woman was the eldest, her skin pulled back over her bones, and she wrapped her hair in a bright purple cloth. The bartender looked only a few years older than Gabe, a tattoo creeping up his shoulder and onto his neck.
“Name’s Claude,” he said as he approached them and offered out two mugs of beer. “Something tells me you’d like to sit a spell.”
“More folks looking for a reward no doubt,” the white man called.
“You’re not up for the competition, Mathieu?” The young woman slapped his shoulder and turned to grin at the travelers. “I like the look of them.”
Violetta grinned right back at her as they accepted the beer. “We got told you were the folks to talk to about it.”
The young man pushed two chairs forward. “Come and sit, zanmi. What’s your name?”
Gabe and Violetta introduced themselves and learned their new friends’. The white man was Mathieu, and the young man was Julien. Collette was the young woman, and Andre the old man. They introduced the old woman for them as Batilda. She only smiled as they sat.
“Folks who’ve never seen a gator are trying for the reward,” Mathieu said, casting them a look that suggested they were just the same. “Us honest folks can’t compete.”
“When’ve you ever been honest?” Julien asked.
“You cheat at poker each week,” Andre said.
“Personally I like the competition.” Collette leaned back to look at the travelers. “La Gueule has seen more new blood this past year than ever.”
“You’re all gator hunters?” Gabe asked.
“Except Mathieu.” Julien tapped the white man’s shoulders. “He transports goods up the river.”
“Just ‘cause I don’t make my money on gator skins don’t mean I haven’t hunted them.” He nodded proudly. “They always want to get on the boat.”
“What do you folks do for a living?” Andre asked.
“We’re monster hunters,” Gabe said.
“Professional,” Violetta added.
They laughed. Andre slapped Gabe on the back.
“We all are!” he said with a wide grin.
“What sort of monsters do you hunt?” Claude had returned with more beers, and he pulled up a chair beside them.
“Witches,” Violetta said. “Wendigos. Womps.”
Collette peered at her curiously. “Womps?”
She shrugged. “I couldn’t think of another ‘w’ word.”
“I see.” She smiled at her. “Très professional.”
“And you think you’re prepared for the Keitre?” Julien shook his head. “A witch might curse you three ways from Sunday, but the Keitre will snap you up.”
“Worse than a gator,” Andre promised. “He walks on land, faster than any lizard.”
“He’ll snatch things out of trees and wreck boats.” Mathieu leaned forward, and the others nodded eagerly. “Friend of mine left for not five minutes and when he returned his supplies were tossed into the bayou and his boat destroyed.”
“Vivianne saw it on the river,” Collette said, “and she swore it followed her home. She saw its eyes watching outside her house.”
“Have any of you ever seen it yourselves?” Gabe asked.
They all looked at each other. Not a single one said a thing. Claude chuckled into his beer.
“These folks trade stories more than gator skins,” he said. “If a single one of them were true I’d jump into the bayou.”
Collette shook her head at him. “Claude, you’d never do such a thing. You’d be too scared of getting that pretty face all wet.”
Violetta put her chin in her hand. “So none of you could tell us where we could find it.”
“Nothing gets seen in this swamp without us knowing about it,” Andre said. “You want to hunt something, you came to the right place.”
“Hunting’s not hard,” Gabe said. “We need a guide.”
Mathieu drank his beer. “I’m not lugging around this bunch. If they want to die in the swamp, that’s on them.”
“Most of us got real work to do.” Andre offered a shrug.
Collette looked them over. “I don’t know. I like the look of these two. I’ve got the boat, I’ve got the time.”
“Collette would jump straight into an alligator’s mouth if she thought it’d give her a thrill,” Julien said with a laugh. “You’re going to find a whole lot of nothing. This is a big swamp, zanmi. If the Keitre wants to hide, you won’t find it.”
She raised an eyebrow. “You’d like to make a wager on it?”
“Ah,” Mathieu said. “Now we’re speaking my language.”
Claude leaned forward. “I wouldn’t bet against Collette.”
“I’d bet on the Keitre.” Julien waved a hand. “Ten dollars says you end this week with nothing to show for it.”
“Ten dollars?” Collette laughed. “Keitre’s worthmore than that. Twenty.”
“You don’t have twenty dollars,” Andre said. “But I got thirty alligator skins and a crate of rum that says you don’t even catch a glimpse of that monster.”
“I’ll take just the crate of rum, mèsi.” She looked at Julien. “And I’ll settle for your ten dollars. There will be more than that in reward. What about you, Mathieu?”
“Another crate of rum,” he said. “That way if you win, you can throw the party.”
She laughed. “And if I lose? What do I owe you gentleman?”
“Our drinks can go on your tab,” Mathieu said.
Claude laughed. “One of you’d have to pay your tab.”
“Fair deal.” Collette clapped Violetta’s arm. “These fine folks and I will be finding you a Keitre, and when I kill it and stuff it I’ll even let Claude hang it around this place, as a reminder.”
He shook his head. “It’d be too ugly to put up.”
“How do you know what it looks like?” Violetta asked.
“They say it looks like an ape,” Julien said with a shrug. “With ugly yellow fur.”
Andre nodded along. “Red beady eyes. Webbed feet.”
“Sometimes it stands like a man, sometimes it crawls on all four.” Mathieu set his empty beer on the table. “It’s clever enough to climb trees.”
“It’s got eyes like the devil,” Batilda said.
The others quieted and looked at her. Her limbs moved slowly as she reached for her beer. She was like an ancient oak tree, regal in the way her skin cracked, her dark eyes alive. The others didn’t speak over her, and they waited patiently for her words to come.
“I’ve seen it,” she continued. “When I was a gel. I was watching the gators dip below the water, and I saw it moving on the other shore. Its eyes are yellow, but it ain’t like an animal. It’s got smarts. It saw me watching it, and it scurried away. It came back later too, peering in my window. I gave it a piece of bread, and it left again. Haven’t seen it since.”
“There you have it,” Collette said, once she was sure the old woman was done. “If Batilda says it’s true, we’re going to find it.”
Time passed before they left the bar. The others returned to their work, and Collette led the travelers down the pier onto the land below. She had a wide wooden boat, the front part made for sitting, and the center of it dug deep. Specks of alligator blood and algae touched the wall. She stood at it, presenting it proudly.
“Ever hunted gator before?” she asked.
“No,” was all Gabe could say.
“You’ve never seen a monster until you’re face to face with one.” She smiled at Violetta. “You don’t look like you’ve ever seen a monster.”
Violetta brushed aside what she thought of as an insult. “How long have you hunted alligators?”
“My whole life. My father did it, and we all helped as children.” She gestured out to the bayou. “Y’all can check the traps with me if you want. It’ll give us a good time looking around the swamp.”
They crawled into the boat. It wasn’t meant for more than a few people. Collette took the front with Violetta, and Gabe sat at the back. He hung his legs over the pit in the center and watched the water.
“So you fight real scary things?” Collette asked, looking at Violetta. “Seen a ghost or two?”
“Seen several,” she replied. “Gabe here’s more of a skeptic.”
“Most of the time it’s just people seeing what they want to believe,” he said. “But strange things have been known to happen.”
Collette turned them down the long trail of the bayou. The water opened and narrowed as the land grew around it, and in that space there seemed to be a thousand alligators. They slept on land and sunk beneath the water. The boat thumped against a few of them, and if they noticed they did not show it. Many of them were long as trees with tails that whipped through the water. Collette whistled as she drove the boat, pointing out landmarks to the travelers and alligators that were scarred and ancient. They came to a small cul-de-sac of water that pooled between three thick trunked trees.
“Here we are,” she said, pointing the line of wire that crossed between the trees. “I’ve got my own traps. The others try their luck too.”
“There’s never any confusion?” Violetta asked.
“We’re neighbors. We’d be found out too quick. You.” She gestured to Gabe. “You’re alright with a rifle?”
“What do you need it for?” he asked as he moved forward in the boat. Collette handed the gun to him.
“The beast should be dead,” she said. “But in case it isn’t, shoot it quick. They don’t live long with the hook in ‘em.”
“How does it work?” Violetta was leaning over the side of the boat, eying the wire. Another string came down, and she could tell by the way it pulled that something had caught it.
Collette grabbed onto the wire that hung down and heaved it up. At first she struggled beneath the weight, but as the wire between the trees helped carry it. A huge alligator emerged from the water, its jaw held tight to the wire, its dark eyes long milked over. It didn’t shake or move as she hoisted it, and Gabe abandoned the gun to help her bring it into the boat. It was slick and smelled like foul water. With a few artful tugs, Collette removed the wire from its strand and let the dead gator have it. She grinned at the two as both Gabe and Violetta covered their mouths.
“It ain’t fancy,” she said, kicking the head of the gator into the hollow of the boat. “But it works.”
They stopped at three more trap spots, two of which were empty. She showed them how she hung the chicken over the water’s surface in hopes a gator would snag it. The large hooks they were on would stay in its belly and kill the creature, except when it didn’t. She carried a gun with her for those moments. Even a gator near death was dangerous.
As they traveled, she pointed out the spots people claimed to have seen the Keitre. They watched for glimpses of it in the treetops, and every time something disappeared beneath the surface of the water, Violetta would squeak in surprise. By day’s end, Collette brought them back to her place at the edge of the water, still on the stilted platform the rest of La Gueule was on. She had a mechanism for bringing up the boat so she wouldn’t have to haul gators, and she set about cutting them up while Gabe and Violetta stood outside.
“It’s a big swamp,” Gabe said. “I’ve no doubt some kind of creature lives here, but do you think we’ll see it?”
“I don’t know.” Violetta glanced back at the house. “I think Collette can help us.”
He smiled. “What about her makes you think that?”
“She seems smart and brave.”
She looked at him, face turning red. “I didn’t say a thing.”
“You think I don’t notice.”
“I mean she is all those things.” She turned his hat down, trying to hide her face. “We can hang around a few days at least. There is a bet going.”
He was still grinning when Collette emerged, washed up and her hair pinned back. The sun was setting, and orange sky looked strange against the emerald green of the swamp. They walked along the stilted streets of La Gueule. Collette talked loudly about just about everything, pointing out the best place to buy crawfish and her favorite spot to fish, waving to folks as they passed.
“You do this whole thing alone?” Gabe asked as they stood at the edge of the walkway.
Collette was waving to Julien, who was showing off their haul of gators. Two men sat with him, his brothers according to Collette.
“Oh sure,” she said. “I didn’t used to, but my family’s never been one to sit around. My sisters got married, my brothers went to find their fortune. I stayed behind.”
“Why?” Violetta asked.
“‘Cause I love it.” She grinned at her. “There’s nothing half as exciting as finding a live gator still in your trap and wrestling it back down. I like my life. There’s not much worth changing in it.”
They met Julien down by the bar. Now the whole town was inside. Some folks played games at the tables, while others merely talked and laughed. A few children sat at their parents’ feet, eyes wide at the display around them. It didn’t feel much like the rowdy bars the travelers had become accustomed to in their passing, but rather a gathering of neighbors trying to relax after a long day.
Claude brought them beers. “Any luck on the Keitre?”
“We’ll get started tomorrow,” Collette said. “For now we celebrate new friendships.”
“Do you really think it’s out there?” Violetta asked over the din.
Claude smiled. “Like I said, I don’t bet against Collette. If she wants to find it, she’ll get you there.”
Violetta looked at their new compatriot, in the midst of introducing Julien’s brothers to Gabe. Her brown eyes caught her gaze, and a smile creased her cheeks. Violetta nodded at her and tipped back her drink.
The party fell well into the night. Families filed out as the night grew darker, but just as many remained, sharing drink and stories. Gabe stepped away from the heat inside into the night. The humidity was thick, but the air had cooled. The smell of the water was thick with living things. In the lamplight, he saw a hundred eyes glint at the water. They could light up the swamp themselves.
A distance away, on the cool ground, he saw a fire, and around that fire he saw Batilda. He followed the ramp down. The old woman was singing a song he didn’t recognize. She held chicken bones in her hands, meat still clinging to them, and scrap pile of food wrapped in cloth at her feet.. Her white hair was stark in the darkness, and she looked up at him with her sharp, dark eyes.
“You come from far away?” she asked.
He nodded, though he didn’t really know what she meant.
“We all do,” she said and tossed the bones into the fire. The meat sizzled away, and the heat cracked the bone. She smiled. “The dark rider crosses this land, burning away everything it sees.”
He nodded again, still unsure.
Her eyes were on the fire, where the bones cracked. “We’ll know all things in time, I suppose. You best get back to your friends.”
There was something strange about the old woman in firelight. He had learned many things in his twenty-odd years, and old women spouting things he didn’t quite understand weren’t meant to be ignored.
Still, he did as she said. Batilda watched the fire, even after he was gone.
Despite being in the center of the swamp and accessible only by boat, La Gueule was busy during the day. Traders passed it on the way to dry land, trading rum and tobacco for whatever wares the townspeople could provide, and the people bustled past as Collette led the travelers down the path into her small boat. Today she promised no gators.
“It’s a Keitre we’re looking for,” she said. “That’s what I’m hunting.”
She drove them through the water pathways, humming a song. Violetta laughed.
“Gabe,” she said. “You should sing something.”
He smiled at both of them. “You must be in a good mood. She never asks me to sing.”
“What is it that cowboys sing?” Collette asked.
“Rambling songs,” he said.
“Songs about girls,” Violetta said.
“Ah.” Collette closed her eyes and sang, “Aurore Pradère, belle ‘ti fille, C’est li mo oulé, ce’st li ma pren. Do you have a girl?”
Violetta put her chin in her hand as he sighed.
“Marie isn’t waiting for me,” he said.
“Oh, Marie.” Collette lilted her French. “Aurore Pradère, belle ‘ti Marie.”
Violetta patted her arm. “He’s very sensitive about Marie.”
“Look at you.” She threw out a hand. “Big, strapping man. Handsome face, gentle soul. What woman wouldn’t wait for you?”
“We agreed,” he said, a little defensively, “that waiting is what fools do. Marie’s heart is true, but it doesn’t mean it belongs to me.”
“So sensible. Very unromantic.”
“If I ever get off the trail,” Violetta hummed, “And misfortune doesn’t find me, I’ll make my way straight back again, to the girl I left behind me.”
“What about you?” Collette asked. “Who have you left behind?”
Violetta lowered her eyes, imagining an envelope she kept hidden in the bottom of her pack. Gabe glanced at her, knowing the same.
“It’s hard for a heart to move on,” he said.
“Good news for you then.” Collette didn’t press.
They followed the paths to where her traps were set up. She pointed out places where people had seen the Keitre, less traveled paths carved by foot alone, small houses that remained outside the town. A small cottage had been strung with a hundred glass beads that glittered in the midday light and cast dots and shadows though the water. Batilda stood in front of it, and she waved to them as they passed.
“Is she a gator hunter?” Gabe asked.
Collette nodded. “She’s been working longer than any of us.”
“She was throwing chicken bones into the fire last night.”
Violetta looked at him. “Voodoo?”
Collette laughed. “You wouldn’t know voodoo if Baron Samedi kissed you. I’ve never seen Batilda in a church or a hounfour. It’s possible the old woman has gods of her own.”
They came to a muddy bank, and Collette docked the boat. She took Violetta’s hand to help her onto land. People walked through the bayou where they could, and small foot bridges had been propped up, mostly as boards nailed haphazardly into the ground. Collette hopped and skipped over the earth as if it were her playground, while the travelers got used to the soggy land moving beneath their feet.
“There’s another village a few miles this way,” Collette was saying. “You can walk it if you’ve got the time. Lots of people say they saw the beast coming this way.”
“What does the Keitre do?” Gabe asked. “Besides steal food and be a nuisance.”
“Some say if you wrong it, it pulls you under the water.” She shrugged. “The gators swim away from it. They can sense it.”
“Do you think it’s evil?” Violetta asked.
“I think it’s an animal. A smart animal, sure, but that’s all.” She smiled at them. “We’ve had dogs, we’ve fed scraps to cats, I’ve even tried to tame snakes and rats when I was a girl. Look at the gators. We call them mean and nasty, but I’ve never seen a gator do what didn’t come natural to it.”
Nothing in the swamp looked the same twice. They walked for hours, following trails people took, finding campsites travelers had left, finding bits and pieces of civilization in the murky water. Collette spun tales for hours as she told them of the time she caught an 80 pound gator all on her own, or when she and Julien were nearly dragged under by a beast that would not give up. Violetta and Gabe shared their own stories, and by the time they returned in the evening they were all too exhausted to care about their failure to find anything.
Collette dragged them to the edge of the walkway and climbed up on the railing. She held onto the lamp post and pulled the lantern from it, holding it over the water as she pointed out. In the darkness of the bayou, they could only see the shapes and shadows of things, but as she held it out, it seemed to light something in the distance. From the murky water rose a hundred bright, beady eyes, illuminated by the candlelight. The gators were all watching.
“They come near the town,” Collette said, returning the lamp to its post, “cause we’ll drop food over the side. Easy pickings. It wouldn’t feed a good sized gator, but they’ll snatch it right up anyway.”
Violetta leaned over the railing, looking up at their guide. “This is what you look at at night.”
She grinned down at her. “What do you like to see?”
“Hey, Collette!” a voice called behind them, and they saw Andre walking towards them. “Where you going?”
She hopped down. “Hadn’t made a plan.”
“Mathieu’s at Claude’s, he says he’s going to rack up a tab worth you paying. Drinks for all!”
“He ain’t!” She waved the travelers after her as she ran to catch up. “That fool’s never bought a drink for anyone a day in his life.”
“He says he’ll even buy them for your friends there.”
They arrived at the bar, and tonight it was not a homey place for families. Mathieu and his river buddies were gathered around Claude, drinks in hand. A number of hunters and sellers had come in, ready to drink. Collette jumped up to the bar, grabbing Mathieu’s arm.
“I heard you’re making yourself a poor man,” she said.
“I’m making myself a drunk one.” He smiled at her. “Less you find a ghost story in the swamp.”
“We’ll see, won’t we.”
Soon everyone had joined them. Even Batilda came in, occupying a corner as Claude placed rum in front of her. Collette brought two glasses to the travelers before jumping on Julien as he and his brothers came in. Andre and his crew sang a Creole drinking song, which got everyone singing along. Gabe and Violetta looked at each other amiss the madness before tapping their glasses together and downing their drink. Collette slapped Gabe on the back before handing them both another.
“Is it like this often?” Violetta asked as Collette handed her the glass.
“Only when we’re in a betting mood.” She smiled. “Usually Mathieu gets ahead of himself. He usually ends up paying.”
The revelry grew louder as the night grew darker. A fat moon pulled overhead, and the humid swamp cooled. Well into six shots of rum, Julien and his brother were teaching Gabe Creole songs, which others would randomly jump into, slurring the words together. Violetta tried to speak to them in French, which sent Collette into a giggle fit. Mathieu had started up a game of dice, and they roared in their corner every time someone won or lost. A few more shots were had, and Violetta and Gabe were reenacting their chase of a hodag, which had teeth larger than their arm and horns like a bull. Violetta told them gleefully how it had chased them down, and they’d spent the night in a tree before it’d run off. Andre told the story of how they snagged the biggest gator ever see in La Gueule, which was now stuffed and hung over Claude’s wall, how the beast had nearly torn their boat into the water and old man Erhard had lost his hand to it.
It was well past midnight and more than a dozen drinks in that Violetta felt too warm and claustrophobic. She pushed her way outside and leaned over the railing. The water beneath her shimmered in the moonlight, and she was sure she could see shadows passing underneath.
“Enjoying the party?” Collette asked.
Violetta looked at her and smiled. “It’s been a minute since we’ve had a warm welcome.”
“I liked the look of you two.” She made a gesture, pointing from her eyes to Violetta. “You folks are strange people.”
“I’ve been told that.”
“How does someone like you become a professional monster hunter?” Collette stood beside her, arms draping over the railing. Their elbows touched, and an electric chill pricked Violetta’s skin.
Violetta leaned back. “It’s a long story.”
“You do this mysterious bit a lot?” She threw her hand over her forehead and picked up a mock British accent. “‘Oh I’m so romantic and foreign and I won’t tell you a thing about my dark and troubled past.’”
“You think I’m romantic?” Violetta asked.
“I think you’ve got the look of one. You probably dream of a man on horseback riding in to save you.”
For a moment Violetta faltered. The drink loosened her tongue more than she’d like, and her expression grew grim as she said, “I dream of a muddy plain that I’m drowning in. There are birds singing to me.”
It wasn’t the answer Collette had been expecting. She looked at Violetta. Her brown eyes had a fervent shine to them, the look of a woman never willing to work less than one hundred percent on something. Her skin smelled like sweat, but there was something else, a sweet flower that bloomed off her. Violetta knew what she was doing a second before she did it, too late to stop the impulses in her brain. She leaned into her, and there was a pause as the two considered the shape of the other’s lips and the curve of their cheek and heat of their skin, and then no more thought went into it. They kissed. The alcohol made them clumsy, but Collette brushed her hand down Violetta’s neck, guiding her chin, and Violetta found the soft skin of her hip beneath her clothes, and the two of them remained there, unbothered by the light of the bar or the noise from within.
It was the screech that finally tore them apart. Something called from the canopy of trees like a siren blaring. The noise jumped Violetta back, and she grabbed the railing as a dizziness came over her. Collette was quicker on the draw, and she whirled around, grinning wildly.
“That’s it!” she shouted.
Violetta was having trouble finding the ground, and she clung to the railing for dear life. “The Keitre? It’s not some other animal?”
“I know what this swamp sounds like,” Collette said. She grabbed her arm. “Come on!”
Violetta clung to her. Once they left the safety of the pier, the ground became impossible to traverse. She tripped and slid, but Collette held tight to her, dragging her down the pathways she had been born walking. If the noise had bothered anyone in the bar, they didn’t seem to follow them. The light of the moon made it easy enough to avoid falling into a gator’s mouth, but the trees cast long shadows. She was certain she saw eyes glinting in the water, waiting for the right moment to snatch them away.
“I’m sure it was this way,” Collette said. They’d started to slow, and now La Gueule was a series of lights in the distance.
The darkness disoriented Violetta. She let go of Collette and slumped against a tree, desperate for something solid. “I may be too drunk for this.”
Collette was laughing. “I see why you like this, you know? Here, do you have any food on you?”
Violetta shook her head, but Collette was already removing things from her pocket. She found some dried meat wrapped up, and she presented it happily.
“Batilda said she fed it as a child.” She placed it on the ground and then leaned against the same tree. She clasped her hand in Violetta’s. “Most animals are looking for their next meal.”
Violetta was happy to breathe again. “If I’m sick over this I’m blaming you.”
She laughed again. “You can’t hold your liquor, cheri mwen.”
If she wasn’t feeling so dizzy, Violetta might’ve kissed her again. It was rare to find people so fervent about things. She’d found it in Gabe, who had a quiet fire inside him, one he tended diligently, but Collette was like a bonfire roaring. There was nothing she couldn’t do, and if she was going to do it, she might as well do it spectacularly.Violetta wondered if she’d be like that too, if she’d been raised here to hunt gators instead of behind suffocating walls.
“I think it’s gone,” she said after some time had passed.”If it was here at all.”
“You doubt me?” Collette asked.
“I’m incredibly drunk, Collette. I barely know where I am.”
She squeezed her hand and stood. Violetta closed her eyes. The night seemed to catch up with her. The air was thick with the smell of the water, but it wasn’t unpleasant. Something pressed against her, and for a moment she thought Collette had returned, until she felt the cold touch of a claw hesitantly press to her skin. She jumped back just as something large and hairy scurried up the tree.
“Collette!” she shouted.
Collette was beside her in a moment, but Violetta could only point a hand towards the canopy above them. There was a shadow above them, and leaves shed down. The shape of it was long with arms that reached out in claws that curled around branches. Under the light of the moon, they could just make out the grey hair of the animal, the small round face, the strangeness of its shape. It turned its head and yellow eyes glinted at them. The animal shifted ever so slightly, and then it sprang from the branch and landed just in front of them. Violetta let out a squeal she wasn’t proud of as Collette yanked her out of the way. The beast rose up on two legs and swung its claws at them. They both shouted as they scrambled out of its reach.
They ran. The swamp was swirling in Violetta’s vision and she held onto Collette like a life preserver. They both slid on the muddy ground, grabbing at trees and each other to keep from falling, as the creature hissed and howled behind them. Violetta tried to turn to see it, and she slid into the water with a yelp. Collette dragged her up, and they tried to orient themselves towards the lights of La Gueule. Music raised from the bar, and Collette guided them towards it until they hit the edge of the wooden pier. Violetta grabbed onto the railing and whirled around to see the creature. It had disappeared from behind them, and the swamp returned to its still state.
“What was that?” she shouted.
Collette was running up the pier. Some of the patrons had spilled out, and they looked on at the commotion. Julien grabbed Collette’s shoulders as she came up to him.
“‘Ey, Collette,” he said, grinning. “Thought you were getting some alone time with that gal.”
“There’s a—” She breathed heavily, grabbing onto his arm. “The Keitre!”
Violetta staggered up. “It’s gone.”
Julien walked to the edge with them, and a few people trailed behind. Collette reached for Violetta, helping her steady herself.
“There’s nothing out there,” Julien said.
“It was–it was there,” Violetta said, a little unsure.
“The Keitre was there.” Collette peered into the bayou, but there was nothing to see.
Julien shook his head. “Mathieu won’t stick to seeing it.”
“No, he won’t.” Her hand gripped tight around Violetta’s.
The party turned back. The bayou glistened under the full moon, and the night swarmed with noise. The shadows seemed to move. There were monsters everywhere.
Gabe groaned as he woke to the sounds of people moving around. His head pounded, and he rolled over to see Collette and Violetta moving around. They seemed unbothered by any hangover.
“What is happening?” he asked.
Violetta looked at him. “We’re hunting the Keitre.”
His body protested as he lifted himself off his bedroll. He didn’t remember much of the night before, except for bits and pieces, but he did remember Violetta talking loudly about some creature in the trees.
“What time is it?” he asked.
“Around ten.” Collette tossed him a pack, which he caught clumsily. “We let you sleep in.”
“Thanks,” he muttered and went to wash his face.
The sun was high as they set out down the path they’d followed the other night. Collette had handed him a rifle and carried another on her back. Violetta told Gabe again the story from last night, a few details missing, she admitted, but they were certain of where they saw the creature. The area was easier to traverse in the daytime, and Violetta pointed to the tree where she was sure they’d seen it.
“It could be anything,” Gabe said.
“It was the Keitre,” Collette said.
“I’m not ruling that out,” he said, “but it could be anything.”
Collette hopped ahead. Gabe looked at Violetta, who was keeping her eyes on the trees.
“Last night was eventful,” he said.
“You’re trying to get me to say something,” she said.
He wrapped an arm around her, and she smiled.
“Alright,” she said. “I try to be discreet about it.”
“Apparently Collette does not. You might’ve won someone their money.”
She narrowed her eyes. “A bet?”
“The other trappers were convinced you’d be courted before you saw a glimpse of the Keitre.”
“I’d be courted?” She laughed. “And what’d you say to that?”
“I’d pointed out you’d already disappeared with her.”
Violetta was still smiling as they followed Collette. The paths twisted around, disappearing into water, reappearing past gnarled tree limbs. Collette tossed the last of the bread into the water and turned in a circle. She pointed past a patch of thick reeds, where Batilda was walking the path.
“Batilda knows everything that goes on around here,” she said. “Come on.”
Batilda was walking on her own. Her wrinkled dark hands were clasped together, and she was humming to herself.
“Bonjou, Batilda!” Collette called. “How are you this fine day?”
“Bonjou,” she replied and smiled at the travelers. “I didn’t expect to see you up and about so early.”
“It was an exciting night.”
“You saw the Keitre last night, eh?”
“You’re the one who’s seen it before,” Collette said. “Was it the creature?”
The old woman gave a little sigh of memory. “It’s been so long. Who am I to say what you’ve seen?”
“You haven’t seen anything recently?” Violetta asked. “No sign of it?”
“I’ve retired from hunting. I leave it up to the young ones.” She looked at Collette and gestured towards a natural trail that followed the edge of the water. “But I’d start down there, if I were to chase after it.”
They skirted the edge of the islands of land. Gabe tossed a pebble across the surface, and an alligator sank beneath the surface. Violetta kept an eye on the trees, which meant Collette would grab her every few feet, steering her from the water.
They sunk into an easy silence as they walked. A hundred animals traveled through the bayou, but Collette was good at discerning the difference between them. They stopped after an hour of wandering and sat on some stones to enjoy their lunch. They shared a few more of their stories as they sat around, passing food to each other, and Collette told them more about her family, where her brothers went off to, the things her sisters sent her. They followed the path at random, trying to follow paths people had set, and after a few hours they had nothing at all to show for it.
“There’s nothing out here,” Gabe said.
Violetta sat on a log at the edge of the land. She tied her hair back, sighing. “He may be right, Collette.”
Collette was less sure. “I don’t know. Why would it come so close last night?”
“It doesn’t seem to be scared of people,” Gabe said. “Batilda said it followed her.”
“It’s an odd thing to be sure. It doesn’t want to be found is all I know.”
Violetta leaned back, closing her eyes. The day combined with the night before had left her exhausted, and she’d be happy to turn around and pass out for a few hours. She’d been thinking about kissing Collette again, and it was a distracting line of thought.
“Violetta,” she heard Collette say, and she would’ve enjoyed it. There was something thrilling in the way her Creole accent formed the syllables of her names. She could’ve heard her say it a thousand times, but her tone had changed. Collette was warning her.
She opened her eyes. Gabe was pointing a gun at the water behind her. Violetta froze up. Instinct told her to turn and look, but the fear in their faces made the thought of whatever was behind her too difficult to bear. Collette reached a hand towards her, slowly, and out the corner of her eye she could see the ripple in the water and a dark shape rising.
Collette yanked her forward as the gator flew at her. Violetta felt the spray of the water, heard the sharp snap of its jaw, the press of air as it shut so close to her skin. Gabe shot, and she saw the bullet pierce its hide, and it rolled as it landed back into the water. Collette wrapped her arms tight around her, and Gabe quickly reloaded the rifle. They all drew away from the water.
They all held their breath, but the water didn’t move again.
Violetta gave a short, sharp laugh. “We certainly found something!”
Collette looked at Gabe. “Is she alright?”
He shrugged. “She’s not mauled.”
“I’m fine.” Violetta gave a grateful look to Collette. “Is that what you do each day?”
“They don’t usually jump at people unless there’s a lot of raw meat around.” She let go of Violetta. “But it happens on occasion.”
“We haven’t found a thing,” Gabe said, still holding onto his rifle. “Let’s head back.”
“Yeah.” Collette gave another nervous look to the water. “You’re probably right.”
They were jittery on the journey back and kept a wide berth to the water. They kept their eyes on their feet now, which was perhaps how they missed the yellow eyes watching them from the trees, and the dark shape that skittered away.
Violetta stood at the railing just outside Collette’s home. The sun had set over the bayou, and she was excited to sleep. Her bones ached, her head hurt, and she was still jittery from her close encounter. She’d taken a moment to herself, and she wasn’t surprised when Collette peeked out at her.
“You’re alright?” she asked.
Violetta smiled at her. “It’s not the first close encounter I’ve ever had.”
That seemed to ease Collette, who stood beside her. Their shoulders touched, and Violetta dipped her head down, hoping she wouldn’t see how goofy her smile got.
“Things are not always so exciting around here,” Collette said. Her eyes were on the bayou in front of her, the green water, the pink and purple sky. “Don’t get me wrong. I have wrestled a gator, and me and the boys can raise seven kinds of hell on our own, but I get the suspicion you’re having all the fun.”
“I’m not sure about that. There are twice as many near death experiences.”
Collette gave her a grin as she squeezed her hand. “What other way is there to live?”
“It’s few times I meet someone as enthusiastic as I am about this work.” Violetta turned her hand over so the skin of Collette’s wrist was visible. The curve of her hand into the length of her arm was surprisingly delicate for the calloused palm. She had a thought that made her grin as well. “Did you know about the bet?”
Collette looked at her with innocent eyes. “What bet?”
“Your boys already told Gabe. Apparently they have a lot of confidence in your seduction skills. I wonder who won.”
“Mathieu and Andre would bet on the setting sun if they got bored enough.” She shook her head. “I did get five dollars out of it, if that’s what you’re wondering.”
“It’s barely been two days.”
“I was betting on you,” Collette said. “I recognized a kindred spirit the second I saw one. Plus a girl like you doesn’t sit around on something she’s taken an interest in.”
“You know me so well?”
“I know me so well, which gives me an inkling into your thought process.”
“Well.” Violetta cupped her hands on either side of her face. “Maybe you’re right.”
Gabe interrupted them sometime later, with a gentle clearing of his throat. Violetta faced her ribbing with an expression that was only slightly pink, and Collette laughed as she took them both inside to share her dinner. They took bowls of jambalaya and talked as the sun went down. By the time the moon was high overhead, they were asleep.
Collette dreamed in full color, of a turquoise sea with a sky like a grapefruit. Her boat was a ship like in old paintings, large bows with full masts and a figurehead on the bow of an alligator, its jaws wide open in a sinister grin. She wore a full hat with at least three feathers in it. She was, as in the waking world, larger than life, and in command of herself.
Gabe’s dreams were never as grand. He saw a home he’d built of strong, good wood with a door painted blue. A figure stood in front of it, hazy with distance and desert heat, but in his heart he knew who it was. Hoofbeats sounded behind him, and he turned around to face a wide plain, and in the distance a figure in black rode past.
Violetta only ever had one dream. Mud filled her throat and filled her chest with lead, and she saw three figures standing over her. They murmured words she couldn’t understand, and three bluejays fluttered away. Her dreams whispered to her: Something is watching you.
She jerked up from her slumber, and she saw. Two yellow eyes watched her from the window, its small face pressed against it. It watched her as she raised herself up. It wasn’t a predatory gaze. She’d stared down much worse, but its yellow eyes watched as she reached slowly for her pack and the gun within.
It darted away.
“Collette!” she hissed at a whisper in the darkness. “Gabe!”
They stirred, not quick enough for her. She threw open the door, trying to eye where the thing had had gone.
“The Keitre?” Collette asked, her voice still heavy with sleep.
“It was watching us. It was here.”
Gabe was quicker to wake, and he pointed down the hill of land. “There.”
The darkness was no easier to maneuver while sober. Gabe carried a rifle, as did Collette, and they walked slowly across the land. Violetta tried to be aware of where the water was, but it would still surprise her sometimes. But Gabe’s eyes were sharp, and Collette knew the land, and they followed the dark shape through the woods.
Violetta stopped suddenly. They looked at her. After a moment of consideration, she pointed up.
And the Keitre dropped down.
It screamed at them, its long arms wild as it struck at everything. They sliced Violetta easily, and she shouted as she drew back. Gabe shot, and the thing flung at him. Collette struck it with the butt of her rifle. It slammed into the ground and then scurried up. It was limping, though. Gabe helped Violetta up, and they chased it again. It used the trees, which Collette wasn’t used to, and its dark shadow merged easily with the wide treetops.
Ahead there was a fire. Batilda threw bones into it.
“Batilda!” Collette shouted. “The Keitre!”
“It’s here,” Batilda said. Her hands worked with the bone before she tossed it into the flames. It cracked and split, and she smiled. “It hasn’t gone far.”
Gabe raised his gun, but Collette grabbed his arm. The Keitre was there. It crawled forward, and in the firelight it was easy to see the strange shape of it. It was more ape-like than anything, but its limbs were not quite proportionate. Its grey fur was peppered with white and black, and it looked up at Batilda with its yellow eyes. She tossed it a bone, and it turned it over, pulling the last of the meat of it with its teeth.
“It’s been terrorizing people,” Collette said weakly.
Batilda shook her head. “It’s curious sometimes, but it don’t mean no harm. You wouldn’t kill a dog for barking away a cat.”
“It hurt me,” Violetta said, a touch of pout at her lips.
“You wouldn’t kill a cat just for getting scared and using its claws.” Batilda looked directly at her, and her dark eyes were black in the firelight.
“This is my swamp,” she said. “No one’s getting hurt on my watch.”
“There’s a bet.” Collette could barely talk underneath the old woman’s stare.
“I suppose there is.” Batilda looked at the Keitre, and they all breathed a sigh of relief. “I can help with that. But you won’t be killing anything tonight.”
All three of them wanted to argue. Not a one of them said a thing. Collette took them both by the shoulder, and they all turned around, back towards La Gueule.
Batilda tossed a bone into the fire. She could see the path of time in the cracks, the walls of civilization crumble, new towers erected. Sometimes they split in half, and she knew tragedy would strike, and sometimes they remained whole and solid despite the pressure, and she knew her people would be alright.
She worshipped not the gods nor the lao nor any text that told a person how to live. She was only herself.
She left the fire burning all through the night.
Violetta wore Gabe’s hat as they prepared to leave. Rene was waiting for them. He’d stuck around to hear the story.
Collette was just as good at telling stories as she was at hunting. She told the boys how they’d been woken in the night by the Keitre, and they’d chased it into the bayou until Gabe had shot it and it’d sunk. Batilda nodded along and assured everyone it was true. No one doubted Batilda.
The boys laughed and whooped, and when the time came, they all patted Gabe on the back and told him to come around again. They all pointedly left Collette and Violetta alone, who entwined fingers and didn’t speak.
And then the time came to leave. For the first time since coming to America, it felt difficult for Violetta. She liked La Gueule and its strangeness, and she liked Collette and the trappers, and she liked the bayou. She and Collette didn’t promise to meet again or anything silly like that. For some reason that disappointed her.
Gabe and Violetta climbed into the boat. Rene paddled them down the river.
“Doesn’t feel quite right,” Gabe said to her quiet. “I wouldn’t mind coming back.”
He was watching her. He did it for her benefit.
“Sure,” Violetta said. “One day.”
La Gueule disappeared in a sea of green, and they watched the alligators dip below the surface, to wait below the waters.