I was just off Southwest Pass, between Pecan and Marsh islands, with the green, whitecapping water of the Gulf Stream to the south and the long, flat expanse of the Louisiana coastline behind me which is really not a coastline at all but instead a huge wetlands area of sawgrass, dead cypress strung with wisps of moss, and a maze of canals and bayous that are choked with Japanese water lilies whose purple flowers audibly pop in the morning and whose root systems can wind around your propeller shaft like cable wire. It was May and the breeze was warm and smelled of salt spray and schools of feeding white trout, and high above me pelicans floated on the warm air currents, their extended wings gilded in the sunlight, until suddenly one would drop from the sky like a bomb from its rack, its wings cocked back against its sides, and explode against the water's surface and then rise dripping with a menhaden or a mullet flapping from its pouched beak.
But the sky had been streaked with red at dawn, and I knew that by afternoon thunderheads would roll out of the south, the temperature would suddenly drop twenty degrees, as though all the air had suddenly been sucked out from under an enormous dark bowl, and the blackened sky would tremble with trees of lightning.
I had always loved the Gulf, no matter if it was torn with storms or if the surf was actually frozen with green ridges of ice. Even when I was a police officer in New Orleans, I had lived in a houseboat on Lake Pontchartrain and spent my off days fishing down in Lafourche Parish and Barataria Bay, and even though I was in homicide I sometimes worked deals through the boys in vice so I could go along on the Coast Guard cutter when they went after the dope runners out on the salt.
Now I owned a bait and boat-rental business on the bayou south of New Iberia, and twice a week my wife, Annie, and I headed out Southwest Pass in my converted jug boat and trawled for shrimp. It was called a "jug boat" because years ago it had been designed by an oil company for retrieving the long, thick, rubber-coated cables and seismic instruments used in marine oil exploration; it was long, narrow, and flat, with a big Chrysler engine, two screws, and the pilot's cab flush against the stern. Annie and I had outfitted it with ice bins, a bait well, winches for the nets, a small galley, fishing and scuba gear boxes welded to the gunnels, and even a big, canvas Cinzano umbrella that I could open up over a bridge table and folding chairs.
On mornings like this we'd trawl in a big circle through the Pass, the bow almost out of the water with the bursting weight of the net, then we'd load the ice bins full with pink-blue shrimp, set out the rods for gafftop catfish, and fix lunch in the galley while the boat drifted against the anchor rope in the warm wind. On this morning Annie had boiled a pot of shrimp and bluepoint crabs and was cleaning the shrimp in a bowl to mix with a pan of dirty rice we had brought from home. I had to smile as I watched her; she was my Mennonite-Kansas girl, with curly gold hair that lifted on the nape of her neck in the breeze, and eyes that were the most electric blue I had ever seen. She wore a man's faded denim shirt with the tails hanging over her white ducks, and canvas shoes with no socks; she had learned to clean fish and shrimp and handle a boat in a gale as well as if she had been born in the bayou country, but she would always remain my Kansas girl, sewn together from bluebonnets and sunflowers, tilting awkwardly on high heels, always awed by cultural difference and what she called "weirdness" in other people, although she came from a background of wheat-farmer pacifists that was so pervasively eccentric that she couldn't recognize normality when she saw it.
She had a tan even in winter, and the smoothest skin I had ever touched. Small lights played in her eyes when you looked into them. She saw me smiling at her, set down the bowl of shrimp, and walked past me as though she were going to check the rods, then I felt her behind me, felt her breasts touch the back of my head, then her hands collapsed my hair like a tangle of black snakes in my eyes, and her fingers traced my face, my brush mustache, my shoulders, the pungi-stick scar on my stomach that looked like a flattened, gray worm, until her innocent love made me feel that all my years, my love handles, my damaged liver were not important at all. Maybe I had grown foolish, or perhaps fond is a better word, in the way that an aging animal doesn't question its seduction by youth. But her love wasn't a seduction; it was unrelenting and always there, even after a year of marriage, and she gave it eagerly and without condition. She had a strawberry birthmark high up on her right breast, and when she made love her heart filled it with blood until it became a dark red. She moved around the chair, sat on my lap, rubbed her hand across the thin film of sweat on my chest, and touched her curly hair against my cheek. She shifted her weight in my lap, felt me under her, looked knowingly into my eyes, and whispered as though we could be heard, "Let's get the air mattress out of the locker."
"What are you going to do if the Coast Guard plane goes over?"
"What if one of the reels goes out?"
"I'll try to keep your mind on something else."
I looked away from her toward the southern horizon.
"It's a plane."
"How often do you get propositioned by your own wife? Don't let opportunity pass, skipper." Her blue eyes were merry and full of light.
"No, look. He's in trouble."
It was a bright yellow, two-engine job, and a long trail of thick black smoke blew from behind the cabin all the way across the sky to the horizon. The pilot was trying hard to gain altitude, gunning both engines, but the wingtips wobbled from side to side and wouldn't stabilize and the water was coming up fast. He went past us and I could see faces in the glass windows. The smoke twisted out of a ragged hole just in front of the tail.
"Oh, Dave, I thought I saw a child," Annie said.
The pilot must have been trying to make Pecan Island so he could pancake into the salt grass, but suddenly pieces of the rudder shredded away like strips of wet cardboard and the plane dipped violently to port and turned in a half-circle, both engines stalling now, the smoke curling as thick and black as smoke from an oil fire, and went down hard on one wing against the water's surface, flipped over in the air like a stick toy, and landed upside-down in a huge spray of green and white water and floating seaweed.
The water boiled and danced on the overheated engine housings, and the hole in back actually seemed to create and suck a river deep inside the plane. In seconds the bright yellow underside of the plane was dimming in the low waves that slid across it. I couldn't see the doors, but I kept waiting for somebody in a life preserver to break through the surface. Instead, big balloons of air rose from the cabin, and a dirty slick of oil and gasoline was already obscuring the sun's winking refraction off the wings.
Annie was on the shortwave to the Coast Guard. I pulled the anchor free of the mud, threw it rattling into the bow, turned the big Chrysler engine over, heard the exhausts cough below the waterline, and hit it full throttle for the wreck. The wind and spray were like a cool slap in my face. But all I could see of the plane now were small gold lights in the floating blue-green stain of oil and gas leaking from broken fuel lines.
"Take the wheel," I said.
I saw her thoughts gathering in her face.
"We didn't refill the air tanks last time," she said.
"There's still some in there. It's not more than twenty-five feet here, anyway. If they haven't settled into the silt, I can get the doors open."
"Dave, it's deeper than twenty-five feet. You know it is. There's a trench right through the Pass."
I got the two air tanks out of the gear box and looked at the gauges. They both showed almost empty. I stripped down to my skivvies, hooked on a weight belt, put on one air tank and a mask, and slipped the canvas straps of the other tank over my arm. I picked up a crowbar out of the gear box.
"Anchor outside so one of them doesn't come up under the boat," I said.
"Leave the other tank. I'm going down, too." She had cut back the throttle, and the boat was pitching in its own wake. The side of her tanned face was wet with spray, and her hair was stuck to it.
"We need you up here, babe," I said, and went over the side.
"Damn you, Dave," I heard her say just as I plummeted with a clank of metal tanks through the water's surface.
The bottom of the Gulf was a museum of nautical history. Snorkel and scuba diving over the years, I had found clusters of Spanish cannonballs welded together with coral, U.S. Navy practice torpedoes, and the flattened hull of a Nazi submarine that had been depth-charged in 1942, a cigarette boat that dope runners had opened the cocks on before the Coast Guard had nailed them, and even the collapsed and twisted wreckage of the offshore oil rig on which my father drowned over twenty years ago. It lay on its side in the murk in eighty feet of water, and the day I swam down to it the steel cables whipped and sang against the stanchions like hammers ringing against an enormous saw blade.
The plane had settled upside down on the edge of the trench, its propellers dug deep in the gray sand. Strings of bubbles rose from the wings and windows. I felt the water grow colder as I went deeper, and now I could see crabs and jewfish moving quickly across the bottom and puffs of sand from the wings of stingrays that undulated and glided like shadows down the sides of the trench.
I got down to the pilot's door, slipped the spare tank off my arm, and looked through the window. He stared back at me upside down, his blond hair waving in the current, his sightless green eyes like hard, watery marbles. A short, thick-bodied woman with long black hair was strapped into the seat next to him, and her arms floated back and forth in front of her face as though she were still trying to push away that terrible recognition that her life was about to end. I had seen drowning victims before, and their faces had had the same startled, poached expression as the faces of people I had seen killed by shell bursts in Vietnam. I just hoped that these two had not suffered long.
I was kicking up clouds of sand from the bottom, and in the murky green-yellow light I could barely see through the window of the back door. I held myself out flat, holding on to the door handle for balance, and pressed my mask to the window again. I could make out a big, dark man in a pink shirt with pockets and cloth loops all over it, and a woman next to him who had floated free from her seatbelt. She was squat, with a square, leathery face, like the woman in front, and her flowered dress floated up around her head. Then, just as my air went, I realized with a terrible quickening of my heart that somebody was alive in the cabin.
I could see her small, bare legs kicking like scissors, her head and mouth turned upward like a guppy's into an air pocket at the rear of the cabin. I dumped the empty tank off my back and jerked on the door handle, but the door's edge was wedged into the silt. I pulled again, enough to separate the door a half-inch from the jamb, got a crowbar inside, and pried the metal back until I felt a hinge go and the door scrape back over the sand. But my lungs were bursting now, my teeth gritted against my own exhalation of breath, my ribs like knives inside my chest.
I dropped the crowbar, picked up the other tank, slapped the valve open, and got the hose in my mouth. The air went down inside me with the coolness of wind blowing across melting snow. Then I took a half-dozen deep hits, shut the valve again, blew my mask clear, and went in after her.
But the dead man in the pink shirt was in my way. I popped loose his seatbelt buckle and tried to pull him free from the seat by his shirt. His neck must have been broken because his head revolved on his shoulders as though it were attached to a flower stem. Then his shirt tore loose in my hands, and I saw a green and red snake tattooed above his right nipple and something in my mind, like the flick of a camera shutter, went back to Vietnam. I grabbed his belt, pushed under his arm, and shoved him forward toward the cockpit. He rolled in a slow arc and settled between the pilot and the front passenger seat, with his mouth open and his head resting on the pilot's knee, like a supplicant jester.
I had to get her out and up fast. I could see the wobbling balloon of air she was breathing out of, and there wasn't room for me to come up inside of it and explain what we were going to do. Also, she could not have been more than five years old, and I doubted that she spoke English. I held her small waist lightly between my hands and paused, praying that she would sense what I had to do, then dragged her kicking down through the water and out the door.
For just an instant I saw her face. She was drowning. Her mouth was open and swallowing water; her eyes were hysterical with terror. Her close-cropped black hair floated from her head like duck down, and there were pale, bloodless spots in her tan cheeks. I thought about trying to get the air hose in her mouth, but I knew I wouldn't be able to clear the blockage in her throat and she would strangle before I could get her to the top. I unhooked my weight belt, felt it sink into the swirling cloud of sand under me, locked my arms under her chest, and shoved us both hard toward the surface.
I could see the black, shimmering outline of the jug boat overhead. Annie had cut the engine, and the boat was swinging in the current against the anchor rope. I had gone without air for almost two minutes, and my lungs felt as though they had been filled with acid. I kept my feet out straight, kicking hard, the bubbles leaking through my teeth, the closure in my throat about to break and suck in a torrent of water that would fill my chest like concrete. Then I could see the sunlight become brighter on the surface, like a yellow flame dancing on the chop and glazing the flat slicks, feel the layers of current suddenly become tepid, touch the red-brown wreaths of seaweed that turned under the waves, then we burst into the air, into the hot wind, into a dome of blue skies and white clouds and brown pelicans sailing over us like welcoming sentinels.
I grabbed the bottom of the deck rail with one hand and held the little girl up to Annie's arms. She felt as though she had the hollow bones of a bird. Annie pulled her up on deck and stroked her head and face while the little girl sobbed and vomited into Annie's lap. I was too weak to climb out of the water right away. Instead, I simply stared at the red handprints on the child's trembling thighs where the mother had held her up into the pocket of air while she herself lost her life, and I wished that those who handed out medals for heroism in war had a more encompassing vision about the nature of valor.
I knew that people who took water into their lungs sometimes developed pneumonia later, so Annie and I drove the little girl to the Catholic hospital in New Iberia, the small sugar town on Bayou Teche where I had grown up. The hospital was a gray stone building set back in Spanish oaks on the bayou, and purple wisteria grew on the trellises above the walkways and the lawn was filled with yellow and red hibiscus and flaming azalea. We went inside, and Annie carried the little girl back to the emergency room while I sat across the reception desk from a heavyset nun in a white habit who filled out the girl's admission form.
The nun's face was as big and round as a pie plate, and her wimple was crimped as tightly across her forehead as a medieval knight's visor.
"What is her name?" she said.
I looked back at her.
"Do you know her name?" she said.
"What is her last name?"
"Is she your daughter?"
"She's your daughter?"
"Hmmm," she said, and continued to write on the form. Then, "I'll look in on her for you. In the meantime, why don't you look over this information and make sure I wrote it down accurately."
"I trust you, Sister."
"Oh, I wouldn't say that too quickly."
She walked heavily down the hall with her black beads swinging from her waist. She had the physique of an over-the-hill prizefighter. A few minutes later she was back and I was growing more uncomfortable.
"My, what an interesting family you have," she said. "Did you know that your daughter speaks nothing but Spanish?"
"We're heavy into Berlitz."
"And you're so clever, too," she said.
"How is she, Sister?"
"She's fine. A little scared, but it looks like she's with the right family." She smiled at me with her lumpy, round face.
Afternoon rain clouds had started to build in the south when we crossed the drawbridge over the bayou and drove out East Main toward the edge of town. Huge oak trees grew on each side of the street; their thick roots cracked through the sidewalks, their spreading branches arched in a sun-spangled canopy overhead. The homes along East Main were antebellum and Victorian in design, with widow's walks, second-story verandas, marble porches, Greek columns, scrolled iron fences, and sometimes gleaming white gazebos covered with Confederate jasmine and purple bugle vine. The little girl, whom I had offhandedly named Alafair, my mother's name, sat between us in the pickup. The nuns had kept her damp clothes and had dressed her in a pair of faded child's jeans and an oversized softball shirt that read New Iberia Pelicans. Her face was exhausted, her eyes dull and unseeing. We rumbled over another drawbridge and stopped at a fruit stand run by a black man under a cypress tree on the edge of the bayou. I bought us three big links of hot boudin wrapped in wax paper, snowcones, and a lug of strawberries to fix later with ice cream. Annie put the ice in Alafair's mouth with the small wooden spoon.
"Little bites for little people," she said.
Alafair opened her mouth like a bird, her eyelashes blinking sleepily.
"Why did you lie back there?" Annie said.
"I'm not sure."
"She's probably an illegal. Why make problems for the nuns?"
"So what if she's an illegal?"
"Because I don't trust government pencil pushers and paper shufflers, that's why."
"I think I hear the voice of the New Orleans police department."
"Annie, Immigration sends them back."
"They wouldn't do that to a child, would they?"
I didn't have an answer for her. But my father, who had been a fisherman, trapper, and derrickman all his life, and who couldn't read or write and spoke Cajun French and a form of English that was hardly a language, had an axiom for almost every situation. One of these would translate as "When in doubt, do nothing." In actuality he would say something like (in this case to a wealthy sugar planter who owned property next to us), "You didn't told me about your hog in my cane, no, so I didn't mean to hurt it when I pass the tractor on its head and had to eat it, me."
I drove along the dirt road that led to my boat-and-bait business on the bayou. The rain began to fall lightly through the oak trees, dimpling the bayou, clicking on the lily pads that grew out from the bank. I could see the bream starting to feed along the edge of the lilies and the flooded canebrake. Up ahead, fishermen were bringing their boats back into my dock, and the two black men who worked for me were pulling the canvas awning out over the side porch of the bait house and clearing the beer bottles and paper barbecue plates off the wooden telephone spools that I used as tables.
My house was a hundred yards back from the bayou, in a grove of pecan trees. It was built of unpainted oak and cypress, with a tin-roofed gallery in front, a dirt yard, rabbit hutches, and a dilapidated barn in back, and a watermelon garden just beyond the edge of the pecan trees. Sometimes in a strong wind the pecans would ring like grapeshot on the gallery's tin roof.
Alafair had fallen asleep across Annie's lap. When I carried her into the house she looked up at me once as though she were waking briefly from a dream, then she closed her eyes again. I put her to bed in the side room, turned on the window fan, and closed the door softly. I sat on the gallery and watched the rain fall on the bayou. The air smelled of trees, wet moss, flowers, and damp earth.
"You want something to eat?" Annie said behind me.
"Not now, thanks."
"What are you doing out here?"
"I guess that's why you keep looking down the road," she said.
"The people in that plane don't fit."
I felt her fingers on my shoulders.
"I've got this problem, officer," she said. "My husband can't stop being a homicide detective. When I try to hit on him, his attention is always somewhere else. What's a girl to do?"
"Take up with a guy like myself. I'm always willing to help out."
"I don't know. You look so busy watching the rain."
"It's one of the few things I do well."
"You sure you have time, officer?" she said, and slipped her arms down my chest and pressed her breasts and stomach against me.
I never had much luck at resisting her. She was truly beautiful to look at. We went into our bedroom, where the window fan hummed with a wet light, and she smiled at me while she undressed, then began singing, "Baby love, my baby love, oh how I need you, my baby love..."
She sat on top of me, with her heavy breasts close to my face, put her fingers in my hair, and looked into my eyes with her gentle and loving face. Each time I pressed the back of her shoulders with my palms she kissed my mouth and tightened her thighs, and I saw the strawberry birthmark on her breast darken to a deep scarlet and I felt my heart begin to twist, my loins harden and ache, saw her face soften and grow small above me, then suddenly I felt something tear loose and melt inside me, like a large boulder breaking loose in a streambed and rolling away in the current.
Then she lay close to me and closed my eyes with her fingers, and I felt the fan pulling the cool air across the sheets like the wind out on the Gulf in the smoky light of sunrise.
It was late afternoon and still raining when I woke to the sound of the child's crying. It was as though my sleep were disturbed by the tip of an angel's wing. I walked barefoot into the bedroom, where Annie sat on the edge of the bed and held Alafair against her breast.
"She's all right now," Annie said. "It was just a bad dream, wasn't it? And dreams can't hurt you. We just brush them away and wash our face and then eat some ice cream and strawberries with Dave and Annie."
The little girl held Annie's chest tightly and looked at me with her round, frightened eyes. Annie squeezed her and kissed the top of her head.
"Dave, we just have to keep her," she said.
Again I didn't answer her. I sat out on the gallery through the evening and watched the light turn purple on the bayou and listened to the cicadas and the rain dripping in the trees. At one time in my life, rain had always been the color of wet neon or Jim Beam whiskey. Now it just looked like rain. It smelled of sugarcane, of the cypress trees along the bayou, of the gold and scarlet four-o'clocks that opened in the cooling shadows. But as I watched the fireflies lighting in the pecan orchard, I could not deny that a thin tremolo was starting to vibrate inside me, the kind that used to leave me in after-hours bars with the rain streaking down the neon-lit window.
I kept watching the dirt road, but it was empty. Around nine o'clock I saw some kids in a pirogue out on the bayou, gigging frogs. The headlamps of the children danced through the reeds and cattails, and I could hear their paddles chunking loudly in the water. An hour later I latched the screen, turned out the lights, and got in bed next to Annie. The little girl slept on the other side of her. In the moon's glow through the window I saw Annie smile without opening her eyes, then she laid her arm across my chest.
He came early the next morning, when the sun was still misty and soft in the trees, even before the pools of rain had dried in the road, so that his government car splashed mud on a family of Negroes walking with cane poles toward my fishing dock. I walked into the kitchen where Annie and Alafair were just finishing their breakfast.
"Why don't you take her down to the pond to feed the ducks?" I said.
"I thought we'd go into town and buy her some clothes."
"We can do that later. Here's some old bread. Go out the back door and walk through the trees."
"What is it, Dave?"
"Nothing. Just some minor bullshit. I'll tell you about it later. Come on, off you go."
"I'd like to know when you first thought you could start talking to me like this."
"Annie, I'm serious," I said.
Her eyes flicked past me to the sound of the car driving across the pecan leaves in front. She picked up the cellophane bag of stale bread, took Alafair by the hand, and went out the back screen door through the trees toward the pond at the end of our property. She looked back once, and I could see the alarm in her face.
The man got out of his gray U.S. government motor-pool car, with his seersucker coat over his shoulder. He was middle-aged, thick across the waist, and wore a bow tie. His black hair was combed across his partially bald head.
I met him on the gallery. He said his name was Monroe, from the Immigration and Naturalization Service in New Orleans. While he talked, his eyes went past me into the gloom of the house.
"I'd ask you in, but I'm on my way down to the dock," I said.
"That's all right. I just need to ask you one or two things," he said. "Why didn't you all wait for the Coast Guard after you called in on the emergency channel?"
"Most people would want to hang around. For curiosity, if nothing else. How often do you see a plane go down?"
"My wife gave them the position. They could see the oil and gas on the water. They didn't need us."
"Huh," he said, and took a cigarette out of his shirt pocket. He rolled it back and forth between his fingers without lighting it and looked away at the pecan trees. The tobacco grains crackled dryly inside the paper. "I got a problem, though. A diver found a suitcase in there with a bunch of child's clothes in it. A little girl's, in fact. But there wasn't a kid in that plane. What's that suggest to you?"
"I'm late for work, Mr. Monroe. Would you like to walk down to the dock with me?"
"You don't like federal people too much, do you?"
"I haven't known that many. Some of them are good guys, some of them aren't. I guess you tapped into my file."
"Why do you think illegals would carry a child's clothing with them when they had no child? I'm talking about people that left the banana farm one step ahead of the National Guard shredding them into dog food. Or at least that's what they tell the press."
"I don't know."
"Your wife told the Coast Guard you were going to dive that wreck. Are you going to tell me you only saw three people down there?"
I looked back at him.
"What do you mean, three?" I said.
"The pilot was a priest named Melancon, from Lafayette. We've been watching him for a while. We think the two women were from El Salvador. At least that's where the priest had been flying them out from before."
"What about the guy in the pink shirt?"
His face became perplexed, his eyes muddy with confusion.
"What are you talking about?" he said.
"I damn near tore the shirt off him. He was in the back. His neck was broken and he had a tattoo over one nipple."
He was shaking his head. He lit his cigarette and blew smoke out into the dappled sunlight.
"You're either a good storyteller or you see things nobody else knows about," he said.
"Are you calling me a liar?" I asked quietly.
"I won't play word games with you, Mr. Robicheaux."
"It seems to me that's just what you're doing."
"You're right, I did get feedback on your file before I came down here. You have an amazing record."
"You blew away three or four people, one of whom was a government witness. That's real hardball, all right. You want me to come back out with a warrant?"
"I don't think I'm going to see you for a while. You dumped the wheelbarrow on its side, podna. Your people are into something they haven't let you in on yet."
I saw his eyes darken.
"I'd tend to my own business if I was you," he said.
"There's something I didn't tell you. The UPI in New Orleans called me last night. I told them there were four dead people in that plane. I hope you guys aren't going to tell people I can't count."
"You don't need to worry about what we do. Just keep your own act clean, and we'll get along fine."
"I think you've been talking to wetbacks too long. I think you should give some thought to your words before you say things to people."
He dropped his cigarette on the ground, pressed it out with his shoe, and smiled to himself as he got in his car. He started his engine. A shaft of sunlight cut across his face.
"Well, you've made my day," he said. "I always like to be reassured that I'm on the right side of the fence."
"One other thing. When you drove in here, you splashed mud on some people. Try to be more careful when you leave."
"Anything you say," he said, and smiled up at me, then accelerated slowly down my lane.
Very cool, Robicheaux, I thought. There's nothing like rattling the screens on the baboon cage. But what should you do in a situation like that? Most government employees aren't bad guys; they're just unimaginative, they feel comfortable in a world of predictable rules, and they rarely question authority. But if you run up against the nasty ones and they sense fear in you, they'll try to dismantle you one piece at a time.
I went down to the dock, put fresh ice in the beer and pop coolers, seined out the dead shiners from the bait tanks, started the fire in the split oil drum that I used for a barbecue pit on the side porch, oiled and seasoned the twenty-five pounds of chickens and pork chops that I would grill and sell at lunchtime, and then fixed myself a big glass of Dr Pepper filled with shaved ice, mint leaves, and cherries, and sat at a table under the porch awning and watched some Negroes fishing under a cypress on the opposite bank of the bayou. They wore straw hats and sat on wood stools close together with their cane poles motionless over the lily pads. I had never understood why black people always fished together in close groups, or why they refused to move from one spot to another, even when the fish weren't biting; but I also knew that if they didn't catch anything, no one else would, either. One of the cork bobbers started to tremble on the surface, then slide along the edge of the lily pads, then draw away toward the bottom; a little boy jerked his cane up, and a big sunfish exploded through the water, its gills and stomach painted with fire. The boy held it with one hand, worked the hook out of its mouth, then dipped his other hand into the water and lifted out a shaved willow branch dripping with bluegill and goggle-eye perch. I watched him thread the sharpened tip of the branch through the sunfish's gill and out his mouth, then replace it in the water.
But watching that scene out of my own youth, living that moment with yesterday's people, wouldn't take my mind off that ugly scar of smoke across the sky at Southwest Pass or a woman who would hold a child up into a pocket of air while her own lungs filled with water and gasoline.
That afternoon I drove into New Iberia and bought a copy of the Times-Picayune. The wire service story said that the bodies of three people, including that of a Catholic priest, had been removed from the plane. The source of the story was the St. Mary Parish sheriff's office. Which meant the sheriff's office had been told that three bodies were recovered, or that only three had been brought into the parish coroner's office.
It was hot and bright the next morning when I cut the engine off Southwest Pass and splashed the anchor overboard. The waves slapped under the bow as I put on my flippers and air tank, which I had refilled earlier in the morning. I hitched on a weight belt, went over the side, and swam down in a stream of bubbles to the wreck, which still lay upside down on the sloping edge of the trench. The water was a cloudy green from the rains, but I could see detail within a foot of my face mask. I came down on the tail section and worked my way forward toward the cabin. The hole that had gushed black smoke across the sky was jagged and sharp under my hands. The metal was twisted outward, in the same way that an artillery round would exit from iron plate.
All the doors were open forward, and the cabin was picked clean. At least almost. The torn pink shirt of the tattooed man undulated gently against the floor in the groundswell. One of the cloth loops was caught in the floor fastening for the safety strap harness. I jerked the shirt loose, wadded it into a tight ball, and swam back up to the yellow-green light on the surface.
I had long ago learned to be thankful for small favors. I had also learned not to be impetuous or careless with their use. I laid the shirt out on the deck and weighted the sleeves and collar and tails with fishing sinkers. It didn't take long for the shirt to dry in the wind and against the hot boards of the deck; the cloth was stiff and salty to the touch.
I found a plastic minnow bag in my tackle box, took the shirt back to the pilothouse out of the wind, and began cutting away the pockets with my single-blade Puma knife, which had the edge of a barber's razor. I picked out a pencil stub, tobacco grains, sodden kitchen matches, a small comb, strings of lint, and finally a swizzle stick.
A wooden swizzle stick in a tiny sanitary wrapper. A swizzle stick that I knew had letters printed on it because the purple ink had run into the paper wrapper like a smeared kiss.
Copyright © 1988 by James Lee Burke