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.”