THE LAWSON’S PEAK BOOKS

Thin

I used to be quite the camper when I was a teen, but I haven’t slept outdoors in a tent in probably 25 years.

Back then, though, my buddies and I would go out to “the seawall” at Lake Fausse Point on weekends. I am ashamed to admit that our camping out was more to drink beer clandestinely. Hey, we were a buncha kids.

We’d pitch a tent and build a fire, circle our cars around the entire encampment, and watch the mysterious lights glowing over Peach Coulee across the lake. Indian lore has it that a family of Chitimacha was along the lakeshore and spotted a white deer. They killed and ate it, which was a big taboo, and as penance they all suddenly went into trances and walked into the lake, vanishing under the surface. They can be seen on occasion still, transformed into balls of light, dancing over the coulee.

I remember once – during another one of those juvenile activities – a buddy of mine and I were on a double date and we went out to the seawall to park. The lights were dancing over Peach Coulee, and we watched them for a long time. My pal in a colossal case of bad judgment, flashed his headlights at the distant orbs, and they immediately went dark.

Mere minutes later, one of the young ladies looked out across the lake and scoffed, “Those were nothing but hunters spotlighting,” and instantly there they were, all five of them, except they were halfway across the lake and moving toward us. Fast. Real fast.

Yeah, I guess you’ll think I’m a nut, but we waited a little while until they got close enough to see that they were suspended over the surface of the water by about four feet, and barreling-behind right at us. There was nothing beneath them, no boat full of hunters, nothing. I can tell you that we departed in a tire-spinning, mud-slinging hurry. As we hit the levee road, I glanced back…and the lights had stopped, hanging there over the granite rocks of the seawall until we were quickly out of sight.

I don’t think any of us ever talked about that again. Over the years, we’d run into each other on occasion, in the grocery store, at a mutual friend’s wedding, whatever. We’d exchange pleasantries, how’s it been going, who got married, who had kids, what jobs…but we never talked about it. There was something haunted in the eyes of those I ran across for many years later.

And it’s not that we didn’t keep camping there, my other group of friends and I. And we’d see the lights, but we wouldn’t tempt them. Wouldn’t provoke them.

Many times in the last three decades I have wondered: What did we call out there? What did we signal, what lonely, forgotten spirit?

One night an old fisherman in a skiff full of dying catfish came silently by just at dusk. We never heard him coming, and he nearly scared us to death when he called out in a shout that was more guttural, more animal, than words.

After our nerves settled we offered him a beer and praised his catfish catch, and just then the lights were dancing over Peach Coulee. I remember that he looked out at them, and his eyes went distant, darker somehow. I asked him what he knew about those lights, and he tore his gaze away from them, and said words that I never forgot. I can still hear the low growl of them, in his raspy, whisky-hewn voice:

“It’s thin there,” he said. “Thin.”

And at once I knew that we had imagined nothing, had concocted nothing. The old fishermen knew, and he had perhaps come even closer to them than we. Five lights, the souls of Indians who had dared break tradition and law? Swamp gas, the skeptics tell me, those people firmly rooted on concrete and steel and insulated by gypsum and fiberglass.

It’s thin there. I understood at once, and a chill scrambled up my spine, lodged into the nape of my neck. There are places in the world where the margins of our comfortable reality are not so firm. Places where the walls bend, if not break, and the well ordered becomes more chaotic.

It’s a matter of faith, as I said here last week. I know that when we used to fish Peach Coulee, we’d coast in and you could feel the thinness. The place is a local legend, or used to be. Tales abound, mostly likely folklore. But a good friend once hunted squirrel back there, and found a wooden cross nailed to a tree, with a hanging noose dangling from one arm of the crucifix. He tried to pry it off the tree but it would not budge.

He came to school a few days later with his right hand bandaged and swollen. It had, in fact, receded: By the time he got across the lake and back home, his hand had swollen to the size of a melon.

“Shouldn’t have touched it,” his old uncle, who fished hoop nets on Lake Fausse Pointe and hunted its cypress shores all his life, said. “Never touch anything you find in Peach Coulee.”

My grandfather, who was a treasure hunter of sorts, said a metal detector refused to operate in Peach Coulee. He said it would emit a constant, high-pitched whine, nothing else. Once, when he was a young man, he met an old African-American man who said that when he was a lad a group of white folks were digging a huge pit way, way in the back of the coulee. They had fenced in the work area and would not let him in.

He said he was standing outside the fence, trying to get a glimpse of what was going on, when a little woman appeared next to him, and she said to him in a language his ears heard but could not understand, yet his mind comprehended completely:

“What are you doing here? This is not for you,” she said, then picked him up and threw him over the fence.

At the moment he hit the ground, the diggers came out of the pit, screaming in terror. He ran in fear too, and later, he was told by one of the excavators that they had looked up around the brim of the hole and there were soldiers there.

“Old-timey ones,” he related the man’s story to my grandpa. “Like from the Revolution or something, and they were firing muskets down at the men who were digging, but they didn’t hear a sound. When they looked at each other, they saw where they had been all shot up.”

My grandfather was then convinced they had located pirate treasure. He always believed the infamous privateer Jean Lafitte used Peach Coulee as a hideout and buried his loot there, killing his youngest and most inexperienced crewman so that the poor soul’s spirit would remain to guard the treasure. He made arrangements to meet the old man at five o’clock to show him where the spot had been.

He arrived half an hour late, and as he was walking up to the house, there was a gathering on the porch. He asked the gentleman’s whereabouts, and a weeping old woman dabbed her eyes with a kerchief:

“He died,” she wailed. “At five o’clock.”

In our paradigm – the way we viewed the cosmos on this continent before and after the Great Sadness that began in 1492 – time is circular, and the barriers between here and there are…thin. It was a world of light and dark, sun and shadow. It did not carry with it the connotations of the Western world, of good and evil. We are defined by our choices, just as when Rabbit was commanded by the Creator to bring medicine to a sick little girl.

“Do not stray or wander from the signs,” the Creator told Rabbit, but Rabbit did, and got lost. When he finally found the path again, in his haste to make up time, he fell and split his lip on impact. Rabbit carries the sign of his foolishness to this day.

It is only the arrogance of the Western paradigm that denies possibilities. On this continent, there were always possibilities. Still are, I guess, and perhaps I’ll take a trip to the seawall one night, gaze out across the lake to the little point of trees where I know Peach Coulee lies hidden. But it’s not the same anymore, and I don’t think I’ll find anything there. It’s all hunting club and camps, and whatever power once existed in its blackwater reaches has probably ceased to be. Faded, into obscurity, because there was no one left to believe.

But I ran into one of my fellow witnesses just a few days ago, and I guess that’s why all this came out of my fingertips today. Because we didn’t’ talk about it. We didn’t laugh about it, talk about how silly we were for imagining such a ludicrous thing. And I wondered as we shook hands and went our separate ways for what would likely again be many years…did he see the place in my eyes where what we saw that night still clings? I don’t know, but I saw it in his.

4 comments to Thin

  • Judy Simoneaux

    Awesome …just what I needed on a very boring Friday afternoon. You weave such a great tale, but, (hey and this is praise) like Stephen King, you know it could be the truth. Seems we all spent our teen years looking for the stuff our ancestors told/warned us about. But, when we discovered them, we knew to keep it all within. We spent many a night in Lydia at a graveyard in the middle of a cane field listening to the wind that was not blowing making the chains on the fence rattle. Hey, I believe.

  • blufloyd

    Thin exists up here. Been to lantern lane, it will make you believe in strange lights and other things.

    Doesn’t mess up the fishing too bad, though.

  • Donald Kidder

    I spent many nights in Peach Coulee when I was young and believe me it is one strange place. But on the other hand very beautiful and rich in history.

  • Becki

    Intriguing. Where is Peach Coulee? Just once I would like to encounter something “strange”, just to see how I would react to “it”.

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