Evangeline of the Bayou, page 1
For my big brother, Mark, my inspiration
About the Author and Illustrator
About the Publisher
They say if a sparrow taps at your window during the night, it’s a sure sign death is near.
But this particular tapping wasn’t meant to be a foreshadowing of Evangeline Clement’s demise, at least not on this night. It was just a messenger, delivering a request from one of the bayou neighbors.
Out on the windowsill the sparrow shifted from one foot to the other, a tiny folded scrap of paper clutched in its beak. It cast an anxious glance over its shoulder, then rapped at the shack’s glass pane again.
Evangeline sighed. “I’m coming. I’m coming. Keep your feathers on.” Someone must have been knee-deep in desperation in order to send one of the little birds instead of a customary red cardinal. Evangeline rose from the battered wooden table, leaving her journal open and her lessons interrupted. Beneath the light of a kerosene lamp, boxes of rodent bones and jars of black nuggets lined the tabletop. “If Gran had her way,” she muttered, “I’d spend all my nights classifying critter carcasses and scat instead of driving out haunts.”
The old cypress floorboards creaked as Evangeline strode toward the door, though the sound didn’t wake Gran. She sat there in the front room alongside Evangeline, dozing in her rocking chair like she did every evening—her scarred hands folded neatly on her lap, one eye open, and snoring mightily enough to rattle the tin roof.
For a brief moment, Evangeline considered alerting her mentor to the sparrow’s presence, but why disturb her night nap? After all, ghost and monster hunting flowed through her veins as surely as it flowed through Gran’s, their blood running strong with the haunt huntress powers they’d inherited from their ancestors. She was more than capable of taking care of whatever job request the messenger had delivered.
Evangeline peeked out the front window at the mantle of fog crawling in from the bayou and the dark clouds draping the moon. Behind the sparrow, a pair of green eyes rose from the gathering mist. Before she could even cry out, a set of fangs snapped down on the bird’s tail, snatched it from the ledge, and dragged it down beneath the shroud of mist.
“No, no, no!” Evangeline leaped for the door and yanked it open. She barged across the porch and down the front steps, plunging headlong into the muggy night ringing with the racket of frog croaks and bug chirps. The lamplight emanating from inside the house did little to penetrate the murk. She clenched her teeth as well as her fists. “Let it go, Fader, you scab-crusted spawn of Satan. Drop it, or I’ll get Gran. So help me, I will.”
Fader shot out of the fog, his tail whipping against the leg of her jeans as he raced past her and up the front steps.
Swearing under her breath, Evangeline tore after him. She stormed into the house, slamming the door behind her. None of the commotion roused Gran, though during times of genuine distress, she was known to wake at the drop of a whisker.
With the sparrow clamped in his grinning mouth, Fader hopped onto the table and crouched in the pool of kerosene light, his tail thumping against the wood surface.
“Don’t you dare kill that messenger.” Evangeline narrowed her eyes at the four-eared, scruffy gray tomcat.
Fader narrowed his green eyes in return and rumbled a throaty growl. He bent back one set of ears, the second pair still jutting out the top of his head and looking for all the world like a set of small, furry devil horns.
“Fader . . . ,” Evangeline warned.
The cat let his mouth drop open, and the bird plopped to the table, its tiny feet crooked and pointing upward.
Fader lifted one of his own large paws and licked it, indifferent to Evangeline’s death glare.
She scooped up the sparrow and examined it for puncture wounds. Finding none, she rubbed it against the sleeve of her camouflage T-shirt, wiping off cat spit and roughing the little creature back to consciousness. “If it were up to me, Fader, you moldy mange magnet, you’d have been gator bait years ago.”
The cat yawned, unmoved, as though he knew his position as Gran’s familiar would protect him from Evangeline’s wrath. No one could argue he hadn’t earned his keep with his daily gifts of mice, lizards, and other assorted small carcasses. Waste not, want not, Gran always observed. Then she would bottle the bodies, sometimes dissecting them before sorting them into containers filled with similar parts and pieces.
“Familiars,” Evangeline muttered. “What are you smirking at?” She scowled at the cat. “My familiar will be showing up any day now. And you can bet it’ll be far nobler than you. Probably a red fox, or maybe a broad-winged hawk.” Knowing her luck, though, it’d turn out to be a crawfish or an earthworm. Her scowl melted into a frown, and her stomach knotted. Whatever critter it was going to be, it’d better hurry up. She’d be turning thirteen next month, the age by which all haunt huntresses had acquired their animal familiars. And if her birthday were to come and go with still no sign of her familiar, well . . .
Well, she didn’t want to think about that right now.
Within her hand the sparrow gave a shiver and opened its eyes. She set it on the tabletop, and Fader sprang over. He snatched the folded note with his teeth and jumped to the floor. He strode toward the sleeping Gran, who was still attired in her housedress and work boots, ready to leap into action if they received an urgent request, and well rested thanks to her night nap.
“Oh, no you don’t!” Evangeline lunged after him, seizing him by the tail and hauling back as though yanking on the rope of a church bell. Fader let out an indignant yowl, yet managed to keep his jaws clamped.
“Mind your own beeswax.” Evangeline ripped the tiny letter from his mouth, a soggy corner of it tearing away in the process. She thrust her hand toward him. “Spit out the rest of it.”
Fader fixed his eyes on hers, then swallowed, taking the scrap of message to a place where she could not retrieve it.
“Fine.” Evangeline pursed her lips. “I can figure it out on my own.” The sparrow fluttered up and perched on top of her head, settling comfortably into her short, dark, messy hair as she unfolded the tattered note and spread it beneath the lamplight.
The letter was addressed to Gran, with no mention of Evangeline. A cannonball of disappointment dropped into the pit of her stomach, and her face flushed.
Just because Mr. Broussard’s clothesline full of laundry had been splattered with dirt and brown water the time she’d detonated that Mississippi mud man, and just because she might have been responsible for the collapse of Mrs. Mercier’s front porch during the unfortunate galerie goblin situation, it didn’t mean she wasn’t capable of dealing with this new case on her own.
She tugged at her shirt collar, which suddenly felt too tight. And that incid
Evangeline glanced down at the note again, rereading its salutation just in case she’d somehow missed her name the first time, but it still wasn’t there.
Well, it didn’t matter anyway.
The sparrow danced impatiently on top of her head, but she read on, skimming through Mrs. Arseneau’s hastily scrawled message and past the customary request for the services of a swamp witch. The name swamp witch never bothered Evangeline. It was just what the locals had always used for Gran and all their female ancestors, preferring to address them as such rather than by their official title of haunt huntress.
She ran her eyes farther down the page and finally reached the meat of the matter.
. . . such a catawampus! Gnashing and screeching and carrying on!
A bayou banshee. Just a standard banishing. Evangeline nodded, her hope rising. This could finally be the job that proved to the council she “had heart.” Then all she’d have to do was find her familiar and undergo testing of her power and talent. All her years of hard work and determination might be about to pay off.
She touched her mama’s silver haunt huntress talisman hanging beneath her T-shirt, drawing reassurance from it like warmth from a sun-soaked stone. She’d have preferred to wear it outside her shirt, but it wasn’t hers. To display it as such would be the equivalent of wearing a sheriff’s badge when you weren’t a sheriff. She allowed herself a faint grin of confidence anyway. Soon she would meet all the council’s qualifications. And assuming she was of sound mind and body, they would give her a new talisman of her own. Then she’d never doubt herself again. And neither would anyone else.
She cast another glance at Mrs. Arseneau’s letter. With her fingers still pressed against her mama’s silver talisman, she skimmed down to the last line of the note.
There’s also a . . .
But that was where the message ended. The rest of Mrs. Arseneau’s words were slowly making their way through Fader’s digestive tract.
The missing information could have contained anything. Hopefully it’d simply been an indication that Mrs. Arseneau would leave one of her renowned pies like she always did as barter payment for services. It’d probably be sweet potato. But a pecan pie, a flaky, buttery-crusted pecan pie, its sweet gooey inside packed with fresh meaty pecans . . . that’d be much better. Evangeline’s mouth watered at the possibility.
The sparrow danced impatiently against her scalp again. She went to the front door and stuck her head out, and the tiny messenger fluttered away. Fader watched through the window, swishing his tail and licking his lips as the bird disappeared into the night.
Bypassing the crammed bookshelf, she stopped at one of the room’s other towering shelves. She ran her finger along the bottles and jars crowding its ledges. Powdered beetles, dried fish eyes, beard of goat, rusted coffin nails . . . “Ah, there you are.” She took down an old mayonnaise jar stuffed with what looked like bits of shriveled black twine. The label listed the contents as green lizard tails. “No shortage of these.” She cast a glance at Fader, who’d curled up on the fireplace hearth. “I guess you’re not completely useless.” She withdrew a dried tail, kicked off her right boot, and dropped the appendage in, to ensure a good hunt. She pulled her boot back on and slipped a blue beaded bracelet onto her wrist for good luck.
She hurried around the room, pulling more odds and ends from cabinets and drawers, packing the tools of her trade into her leather satchel: silver handbells, juniper twigs, bottle of holy water, sack of salt, old iron key, crust of stale bread. She strapped her bowie knife onto her left thigh and donned Gran’s red hooded cloak. Her own red cloak, and even her red hoodie jacket, was buried deep in a pile of dirty clothes.
On the table she left a quick note for Gran, just as Gran often did for her. She was always posting reminders like: Evangeline, place this goat’s horn under your pillow for a good night’s sleep. Or: Here’s a vial of bullfrog urine you can apply to that wart on your elbow. And it was just this morning she had found a note taped to the bathroom mirror advising her there was a cow dung poultice in the icebox that would knock out the headache she’d been plagued with for a week.
Evangeline took a lit lantern from its hook on the wall, stepped outside, and drew a protection pattern in chalk on one of the porch’s wide wooden planks, an extra safety measure for Gran. The precaution was probably unnecessary, considering all the holly and horseshoes hanging inside the house, as well as the pair of scissors tucked beneath the doormat, but better to be overprepared than under. Gran had made more than a few supernatural enemies throughout the years. Antagonizing evil was a risk that came with the job, a risk their haunt huntress ancestors before them had also faced.
She set off down the dirt path, making her way past mossy oaks, sharp-bladed palmettos, and thick green vines. It didn’t take long for the darkness and fog to swallow her up. All around, the swamp sang with sounds of life: chirpings and skitterings, fluttering wings and snapping twigs. As she neared St. Petite’s Church, the lantern’s glow barely lit the trail three feet in front of her, but her eyes were sharp. “What’s this?”
Lifting the light, she leaned forward. A tuft of coarse black hair clung to the bark of an old oak. Wild boar? She pulled the clump free and rubbed it between her fingers. Maybe dog? She gave it a sniff. No. Close, very close . . . but not quite dog.
She took an empty vial from her satchel and dropped the hairs inside it. She and Gran could identify them later. Whatever critter the sample had come from, it didn’t matter. It’d no doubt turn out to be useful.
She trudged a few yards forward, slowing as she passed the churchyard where her mama lay buried. She gave a respectful nod. The sinkhole of sadness began to open inside her, the one that always appeared when she had thoughts of the mama she’d never known. She quickly covered it over. It wouldn’t do to dwell on her loss, or the manner in which her mama’s life had been violently snatched away. She had a job to do.
She stopped in her tracks again.
Something was there, watching her from among the jumble of mossy and mold-stained tombstones. A bolt of fear struck, raising the hairs on her arms and sending a surge of adrenaline coursing through her veins. Her hand went to her bowie knife at her leg, but the mist and the dark had gathered too thick for even her keen eyes to see through.
No time to be getting a case of the heebie-jeebies. It could be any one of the numerous unnatural creatures Louisiana seemed to be teeming with, many of them having arrived as stowaways. Over the years, they’d hitched rides with unsuspecting immigrants from around the world, settling and adapting to their new southern environment as seamlessly as the humans had. And while not all of them were malevolent, Louisiana certainly had more than its fair share of hostile ghosts, monsters, and other assorted supernatural nasties.
She rubbed down the goose bumps. Well, as long as whatever it was stayed where it was and didn’t cause her any trouble, it wasn’t her business. She moved on, the weight of the creature’s gaze clinging to her back like marshy sludge. It definitely wasn’t human. That was for sure. She hurried her steps, the rushing of her feet keeping time with the rushing of her heart.
The farther Evangeline traveled from the bayou’s slow-moving waters, the more the fog thinned and the path cleared. She tried to focus on the job waiting ahead, but her mind kept skipping back to the thing in the graveyard. She sifted through a litany of Gran’s lessons on supernatural beings.
The creature might have been nothing more
Or, maybe it’d been a Johnny revenant, the reanimated, moldering corpse of a Civil War soldier. She really hated those things, galumphing through the swamps, their shrill rebel yells announcing their arrival. Of course, they’d all been disarmed long ago by her haunt huntress ancestors, but that didn’t deter the creatures from swooping up broken tree limbs and brandishing them like sabers, giving you a sound wallop to the head if you weren’t quick enough to clear out of their path. They only came out after a big rain, though, when storm-torn branches were strewn aplenty, and the weather of late had been dry.
She’d thought of at least half a dozen other possibilities by the time she arrived at the Arseneaus’ old two-story cypress-plank home, but none of the options matched up with her gut feeling. Gran was a true believer in listening to your instincts. “Trust your gut, Evangeline,” she was always saying. “It sees what the eyes don’t.”
As Evangeline set down her lantern, a barred owl hooted from the rooftop. An omen of bad luck if she’d ever heard one. She cursed beneath her breath.
The owl hoo-hoooed again in its lonely, mournful way. It stared down at her with eyes as round and black as the empty eye sockets of a ghost.
Frowning and tapping the tips of her fingers together, she assessed the situation as Gran had taught her. Laundry on the line. Toys in the yard. The family must have evacuated quickly, probably staying in Thibodaux with Mrs. Arseneau’s sister.
From the side of the house a low moan rose, building to a tormented wail.
“I hear you. I hear you,” Evangeline murmured. She pulled off Gran’s red cloak, folded it, and set it aside. She dug through the satchel strapped across her chest and took out the crust of bread, followed by the sack of salt, which she dumped into her hand. She spat on the ground for added protection, then straightened her shoulders and fixed her eyes on the side of the house. Steadying her voice, careful to make it clear and confident, she called out, “What is it you seek?”