Saturday, April 21, 2012

Samedi: Ghost Stories

The excitement of NOLA Navy Week has me thinking about my ancestral home and the many legends of ghostly ships, seafarers and – in particular – pirates that linger there to this day.  With all that swirling around in my head, I realized that we haven’t had a good ghost story here at HQ for awhile.  Despite the brightness of spring, or warmth of fall depending on where you are on our dear Earth, I invite you to draw the blinds and allow yourself to slip away to an ancient, Louisiana bayou, where the frogs are chirping and the drown just won’t stay dead…

There was a quadroon man named Louis who lived on Bayou Grand Caillou in Louisiana.  He was a fisherman and sometimes he was happy with his trade, sometimes not.  Louis heard, from the other fisherman, that on a nearby island which was not much more than a muddy chenier, the Baratarian pirate known as Gambi had buried some of his treasure.  Now the talk went that Gambi was the most ruthless and treacherous of the pirates who aligned themselves with the famous Jean Laffite.  He would slit a man’s throat for no reason, and it was said that if anyone tried to steal his treasure, his ghost would slit his throat, too.

Louis was a brave man if, it must be admitted, not very bright and he began to enquire after this pirate’s treasure.  Where was it, he asked his friends, and when was the best time to go to the island and dig it up?  His friends told him he was crazy but Louis persisted.  Finally one old Cajun told him that the only way to find Gambi’s treasure was to go to the little island at night, under a full moon, and look for a patch of moss that glowed silver in the moonlight.  That was where the pirate had hidden his long lost horde.

As we said, Louis was brave, so on the night of the next full moon he packed up his little pirogue with a shovel and canvas and everything he thought he’d need to bring that pirate treasure home.  He quietly sailed out to that deserted island where there was nothing but a broken down old boat shed, one or two sad cypress trees and big patches of green moss all over everything.  Louis pulled his boat up high onto the broken shells of the shore, turned and almost immediately saw the silvery moss over by one of the trees.

The fisherman set directly to his task, the chuff and hiss of his spade, his own breathing and the croaking of frogs the only sound beside a mournful wind off the Gulf.  But then Louis heard another sound, like something being dragged across the shells at the water’s edge.  He turned and he was surprised to see his pirogue down in the water when he was sure he had dragged her high up on land.  He threw his shovel down and marched into the water.  Retrieving his boat, he dragged it up on shore again but this time he tied her up to that other sorry cypress tree.

Louis marched back to the hole he had started, grumbling about the wind and tide, but just as he was putting shovel to dirt again he saw two ugly, hairy feet appear, their toes just hanging over the chasm of his little ditch.  Suddenly, Louis felt cold.  He gulped even though his mouth was as dry as sand, and with all the courage he had he looked up from his spade.  There before him stood two horrible, grinning pirates.  They were sodden with water and seaweed, while little shrimp crawled in and out of their clothes and hair.  They each held a cutlass, both dripping with either rust or blood – Louis did not want to know which – and they stared at him with eyes as cold as gleaming silver.

Now Louis was brave, if not very bright, but he was also a good Catholic and he knew what to do when the Devil jumped up.  He fell to his knees, clasped his hands under his chin after crossing himself and began to recite the Hail Mary over and over and over again.  After the seventh sincere recitation of the prayer to the Virgin, Louis finally opened his eyes.  Sure enough, those silver-eyed, watery pirates had disappeared and Louis, well, he was still alive. 

Even as Louis let out a sigh of relief, he heard that awful scraping sound behind him once again.  Turning, he saw a third pirate sitting on his pirogue.  This one wore a long dagger, held a fine ivory handled pistol and his bristling, black mustache dripped red with blood.  He too was dripping wet, covered with crawfish and seaweed, but he wore fine, leather boots that marked him as a captain.

“Gambi?” Louis asked.

“The very one,” the phantom replied.  “And if you don’t get in this pathetic dinghy and row for your life, I’ll shoot you or slit your throat for no good reason.”  The pirate smiled, and one gold tooth gleamed like fire in the moonlight.

Louis didn’t have to be told twice.  Abandoning his tools, he untied his boat and jumped in rowing as hard as he knew how as far away from the island as he could. 

Once the pirogue was a few leagues out into the bayou, Gambi’s ghost put away his nasty pistol, slipped over the side of the boat and disappeared into the inky water.  Louis would later tell his friends that he knew for sure the creature was not of this Earth as no bubble rose to the surface when it sank below the waves.

So Louis went straight home and there his wife nearly shot him herself, he looked so different.  His hair had turned stark white and he would never smile again.  Though he told his story to anyone who would listen, it wasn’t long before Louis went to bed one night and died, perhaps joining those phantom pirates on that little chenier off Bayou Grand Caillou.

This story is told with many different variations around southeastern Louisiana and is especially remembered in the book Gumbo Ya~Ya edited by the incomparable Lyle Saxon.  In that version, however, the island is identified rather than the pirate; it is called L’Isle de Gombi.

Header: Phantom of Bayou des Mortes by Lew Lehrman


Timmy! said...

Good story, Pauline!

I like the painting too.

Pauline said...

I love this story; it's funny and spooky at the same time.