My brother Billy Joe never did have much sense. Least that's what Granpere used to say. The September I turned fourteen Billy Joe went off into the swamp permanent-like. He left his hound dog behind and I knew we'd not see him again. The town sheriff organized a search party, but they never turned up my brother's body. Now he's just another bayou legend.
Old Red howled like 'twas the end of the world, but it didn't do no good. The old fella refused to eat and wasted 'way to bone in 'bout two weeks. Never actually saw him croak. Just walked off one night 'fore he got too weak. Mama cried and cried for weeks. When she finally quit she wouldn't say Billy Joe's name or allow us to mention him. It was real hard, 'cause I heard the folks 'round Bayou Mouton sayin' at first he'd probably run off after the Harrison girl from New Orleans. Time went on, they said he'd just been stupid and lost his way. I knew Billy Joe better'n that. The bayou'd been his secret place to go when Mama'd drive him distracted with her naggin'.
He was four years older'n me and thought himself un gran homme, a grown man. I used to grin at him behind his back when he'd swagger 'round the city girls come to see the 'wild Cajuns.' Sometimes he'd tease me somethin' unmerciful 'bout my scrawny legs, but I never wanted him to leave.
Granpere said no Bayard ever got lost in the bayou. He used to stare out at the black water, with its green pond scum, bony-kneed trees, and gators, and tap his teeth with a thoughtful look.
"Billy Joe'll show up, Belle. Just you wait and see." Then he'd laugh his dry, rusty laugh till the hairs stood up on my arms. When he'd see my shudder, he'd chuckle. "Cher, Cajuns don't fear the swamp, we're a part of it. You just gotta give it respect. Your brother's got his reasons, foolish as they might be. He'll be back."
Granpere passed on last June, two years after Billy Joe disappeared. Up to a few days 'fore he died, he insisted Billy Joe still lived. Didn't matter the rest of the town held a funeral and put up a plaque where Billy Joe used to tie his pirogue. Granpere and I went down there afterwards.
The dang thing said:
Lost in Bayou Mouton September 15, 1983
Billy Joe hated that name, so it seemed they were talkin' 'bout somebody else, a stranger maybe who'd been fool enough to go off into the swamp.
I still feel real bad, 'cause I'm sure he's dead. It's downright spooky at times livin' this close to the bayou. Even after all this time, I'll wake up and swear I hear Old Red's bark and Billy Joe's laugh in the dead of the night. Keep tryin' to tell myself it's just night birds.
Mama, who considers herself 'a proper lady of the finest blood' won't hear of what I think happened to Billy Joe. Sometimes I think I'll go crazy, but I try to hide it from her. Without Granpere around to talk to, I can't tell nobody.
The summer 'fore Billy Joe went away the Harrison girl came south to visit from the big city. I sorta envied her with her blond hair hangin' down her back and her fine legs. Still, she made Billy Joe laugh in a good way. Not like some of the others who'd egg him on to do dangerous stuff. They'd point their fingers and giggle at the backward coonass while he laughed at his own foolishness. Though the old folks sniffed and said she'd bring trouble I started to like her, too. Just 'fore she left to go back to New Orleans, I saw her and Billy Joe go off to say good-bye.
I knew Billy Joe'd be madder than a wet hen, so I hid behind the gazebo and listened. She promised she'd write and he promised he'd answer. Then they stopped talkin' and started makin' funny noises. I got curious. Almost wished I hadn't. They were kissin' and pettin' each other like my Tante Evangeline does her cat. Sorta fascinatin' and disgustin' at the same time how they hung on to each other, purrin' and gettin' all hot and bothered.
Anyway, after she'd gone, Billy Joe'd run down to the mail box every day. His face'd be all lit up like a lightnin' bug lookin' for his mate. Every afternoon he'd sift through the junk mail and bills, then shove it back in the box with a scowl. One day I was feelin' kind of mean and made fun of him.
"Billy Joe's got a girlfriend. Billy Joe's got a girlfriend," I sang as I danced 'round in front of him, swingin' my hips and makin' kissin' sounds.
He grabbed me, his eyes hotter'n the Louisiana August sun, and hissed 'tween his teeth. "Hush your mouth. You don't know nothin', you hear me."
I did though. I knew he fancied himself in love with that Harrison girl. The one who broke his heart. Billy Joe spent more and more time on the quay, staring out over the water. Sometimes he'd be out so late Mama'd yell at him. He never answered her back though, just took her anger and went to bed with it.
The day he disappeared, Mama sent him into town on an errand. When he got back, he checked the mailbox like usual. I'd finished my homework and was on the big elm tree's swing, waitin' for my friend, Marie, to come by. By this time, I'd got used to watchin' his ritual. He did it almost like he did communion in church, with this sort of set look on his face. All at once he let out with a rebel yell and waved an envelope 'round in the air.
I didn't want him to know I saw him, so I stayed real still. He tore into the letter like a starvin' gator into a bird strayed too close. Like a streak of sky fire his face went from lookin' like he'd won a hundred dollars to like he'd lost his best fishin' pole. He crumpled that letter up, tossed it into the bayou, and stomped into the house.
After a peek to make sure he wasn't comin' back, I ran down to fish it outta the water. I dried it real good, flattened the stiff paper and tried to read the fancy writin'.
'You are invited to the wedding of Miss Helen Harrison to Master Jason Kingsley on the 25th of September, this year of the Lord--'
The water had smudged the rest too much to read, but I knew it meant misery. Now why'd that girl go and send him such a thing? Didn't she know it was better just to let it go? Even I knew Billy Joe'd forget her eventually. But now she'd gone and rubbed salt in an open wound to keep it bleedin'. I stamped my foot and cursed my best Cajun curse I'd learned from Granpere. My luck Mama came out on the back porch just then.
"Belle! Watch your language. Come inside and bring whatever it is you're holding there."
Merde! I couldn't let her see the despicable thing. I folded it and stuffed it down the front of my dress. Mama got mad when I said I'd lost the paper and sent me to my room without supper. Later, after everybody had gone to bed, I snuck downstairs. I'd seen Billy Joe on the quay and had to talk to him.
He was sittin' there, lookin' like he'd like to cry. Somethin' I'd never seen my big brother do, even when Papa's boat came up missin'. I shuffled my feet to let him know I was there, but he never looked at me.
My throat got all tight and I had to swallow 'fore I could talk. "She ain't worth it, Billy Joe. She just played you like a fish on a hook."
He made a growlin' sound and caved in toward himself. I felt real bad and mad all at the same time. How dare that city hussy come and hurt my brother like that?
"There'll be somebody else for ya, Billy Joe. The girls all think you're the handsomest man 'round these parts. They all want you for their beau. I gotta agree, even if I am your sister." I tried to make him laugh, to touch him, but he shook off my efforts.
"You don't understand, Belle. I love her. She... was special. That note wasn't even in her handwritin'." He put back his head and howled till his voice broke. In the full moon's light I could see the tears shinin' on his cheeks. "Why did she do this? Why?"
I couldn't answer. How could I? I'd never known that kind of love. I'd only read 'bout it in those books I hid from Mama. I reached out again and this time he let me hold him for a while. When Old Red nosed 'tween us, Billy Joe pulled away.
"Best get inside or Mama'll have your hide. Take Old Red with you and tie him good. Don't want him wanderin' off." He wouldn't look at me.
"Why you want that ornery hound tied? He'd follow you anywhere and sure wouldn't take off without you." Billy Joe wouldn't answer me, just looked off into the bayou. I stood there, waitin', till he turned back to me. He still wouldn't meet my eyes.
"Just do it, Belle," he muttered, his voice all choked.
It bothered me leavin' him there like that, but he was my older brother, so I did what he asked. The next mornin' he went missin' and his pirogue with him. To this day I wish I'd stayed with him or refused to tie his dog. If I had, he might still be here.
Every once in a while I'll pull out that weddin' notice and try to puzzle out why that girl would do such a mean-spirited deed. After school started again that year, I got me a boyfriend of sorts. Vowed to myself I wouldn't do to him what 'Helen' did to Billy Joe. He's a tall un, two years older'n me, with a wild streak somethin' like Billy Joe's. His name's Jean-Paul Hebert and he says his last name like 'A-bear,' a true Cajun name. He and Billy Joe used to go off fishin' together sometimes. Since Billy Joe's gone, Jean-Paul takes me along crawfishin'.
Mama's face gets all stiff when Jean-Paul comes 'round 'cause she don't approve of him. She thinks I should wait for a proper gentleman, not some dirt poor Cajun fisherman. I don't care 'cause I figure what does she know. After all, who'd she marry but Papa. Not his fault he got caught out at sea in a hurricane. Maybe that's why she got so mad at Billy Joe. He was the spittin' image of Papa with a like temperament. Guess it just hurt her too much to see him 'round. Maybe that's why she won't let anybody talk 'bout either one.
Mon dieu, guess who just showed up? After all this time Mrs. Helen Kingsley waltzes in, bold as day, but without Mr. Kingsley. Made me want to scratch her eyes out. She came by all decked out in fancy clothes with a big shiny diamond on her ring finger. Said she'd stopped by to say 'hey' to us. I think she did it to rub it in Billy Joe's face. Served her right to find out he'd gone missing after she got hitched.
Almost (but not quite) felt sorry for her when she got all white in the face and near passed out at the news Billy Joe's been gone so long. Imagine that. Guess she figured she could have all that money and come and have Billy Joe, too. Surprise. Why Mama had to go and offer her a room is beyond me. Granpere woulda had a fit.
Oh, Billy Joe, I wish you was here. The moon's big as the night 'fore you left. The air's just as heavy and thick as then, too. Nights like these don't make a body want to sleep. They make a body want to run and jump in the bayou, howl, or lie and listen to the bullfrogs, crickets, gators, and other critters acting just as crazy as a person feels.
A noise I'd hoped not to hear again started up. Someone cryin' like fit to die. It gone on and on till I finally rolled over and looked at them glow-in-the-dark numbers on my clock. Midnight. I couldn't stand it no more. I had to go see. Can't bear for a body to be so miserable. 'Sides it could've been Mama.
Crept up the hallway to Mama's room, but she lay sleepin' like the dead. Went back past Billy Joe's room, thinkin' I must've been hearin' things. Glanced through the door into his room and near leaped outta my skin. Moonlight skewered Helen, sittin' on his bed, her head in her hands. Couldn't just leave her like that. I whispered, not wantin' to wake up Mama.
Her head jerked up, eyes all dark in her pale face. When she saw it was just me, she seemed to sag.
"Please, Belle, call me Helen," she said. Her cultured city-voice came out all ragged and torn. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't be in here. I just wanted... to be someplace where Billy Joe spent time. Someplace he called his own." With a sniffle, she scrubbed at her face. I sat beside her, kinda guilty 'bout hatin' her earlier.
"No need to 'pologize."
"Yes, there is. But the person I should do it to won't ever know how bad I feel." Her tears busted through again, the sound tearin' at my heart 'most like when Billy Joe cried last time I saw him. Felt even worse 'bout all the spiteful things I'd thought of her. Put my arm 'round her shoulders, all shakin' with her sobs. She took a wobbly breath and started talkin' again.
"My parents were horrified when I told them about Billy Joe. I intended to come back, but they forbid me." Her eyes shut real tight, but the tears leaked out the sides anyway. "When I threatened to run away, they told me they'd send the police after me. They'd let me write him, but I wasn't to expect anything much to come from a summer fling."
"Billy Joe wrote you, but he never got no letters back!" Just that blasted weddin' invite. But I didn't say it out loud.
"I suspected as much, but I kept writing. They wouldn't let me call. A couple of months later, they talked me into marrying one of their friends' son."
Puny sorta excuse, I thought and she cringed like she could read my mind. She rushed on, "I realize it sounds weak, but I thought... Well, I thought I was in the family way and I'd never heard from Billy Joe." Her face spasmed like she hurt. "Turned out it wasn't true, but they pushed and pushed until I did as they asked. I hoped he'd come for me when he found out about the wedding."
"Near drove him crazy, Miz Kingsley... I mean, Helen. Fact is, I believe he figured you was just as spiteful as them other girls." I watched her eyes squeeze closed again and felt pleased for Billy Joe in a contrary sorta way to see her look wretched.
"Never. I desperately wanted him to come and carry me off. Thought he didn't love me enough to look for me. I'll never forgive my parents for this. In fact, I haven't spoken to them since I married."
She stopped after another shaky breath and I got to thinkin' some more. Wishin' Billy Joe'd gone after her. 'Mazin' what people do to themselves and each other. I sighed, wonderin' what she'd do now she'd cut herself off from her family.
"Why'd you come back?"
"I couldn't stand my empty, loveless marriage. All I could think of was Billy Joe. I left my husband, divorced him last month. I counted on at least seeing Billy Joe one more time. Seeing if it was still as good between us as before." Her face scrunched up. "Now he'll never know how much I cared. I won't go back to New Orleans, but I don't know what to do."
She started cryin' real hard then. Tried my best to comfort her, but it didn't help much. When she finally quit she got real still. We just sat there; surrounded by the stuff Billy Joe'd collected. He'd covered the walls with pictures of Papa, Mama, and us, a picture of Helen, pennants from his favorite teams, and all his books. Helen got up, walked over to his dresser, and picked up the pocket knife Papa'd given him his twelfth birthday.
"I remember how he carved our names on a tree out in the swamp with this. He said the bayou spirits would see to it we'd stay together." The knife slammed down on the scarred wood. "I guess he was wrong about that. I loved him, Belle, but it wasn't enough."
I couldn't say nothin'. How'd I explain 'bout what I heard at night since he disappeared? She turned back to me, her eyes weary and sad.
"It's late. You'd better go back to bed." I stood up and waited for her to follow. She shook her head. "I can't sleep. Think I'll sit outside on the balcony for a while."
"Don't let the skeeters eat you alive," I warned her. Her mournful, sorta hopeless look gave me a start. Reminded me of Billy Joe 'fore he took off. Kinda worried me, so I gave her a hug 'fore I went back to my room.
Climbed back 'tween my sticky sheets, wonderin' if she told Mama 'bout her reason for gettin' hitched so quick. I tossed and turned, my thoughts goin' 'round and round. I'd not get much sleep this night. Most of all, I couldn't stay mad at her anymore. Just regretful she and Billy Joe'd never get together.
Weirdest thing happened not long after I'd lain down. Just like those other full moon nights since Billy Joe disappeared, I thought I heard Old Red bayin' and Billy Joe's laugh. Only this time I knew I wasn't dreamin' 'cause I was still awake. Jumped up, looked outside, and swear I saw somethin' down by the quay. The thought of his haunt comin' 'round gives me shivers, though I know Billy Joe'd never hurt me, dead or alive. Still...
This mornin' Helen came up missin'. Her clothes and other stuff are in her room, but there's no sign of her. Mama sent for the sheriff, but I don't think they'll find anythin'. I think Helen went to find Billy Joe. Know what else? I think last night he came for her. Believe she went with him into the bayou and they're together out there with Old Red.
Sure miss him, but I get a sense he's there with her, watchin' me whenever I go down to the quay on full moon nights. Guess Granpere was right 'bout most things. Billy Joe never had much sense, but he also came back. Now he and Helen are together and a part of the bayou. Maybe now Mama'll let him go and let me live my own life. If not I just might have to follow in Billy Joe's steps and go off with Jean-Paul into the bayou.