It was dark, and she ran. She slipped and rolled downhill into the soft mud that bordered the swamp at the edge of the glade. She remained there, quiet, listening to the darkness. The song of the frog and cricket were silenced by their presence. The presence of those who didn’t belong.
She moved silently through the mud and into the black water. She drifted without sound across the bayou until she reached the great tree. Leaning against the mammoth cypress, she reached around the roots for the mixed mud concoction she used to protect her skin.
She took off the clothing they made her wear, folded it carefully, and stored it in the tree with her other precious things. Maman’s cross was there and so was her old clothing... and trinkets. Little trinkets of the swamp.
Carlotta loved the silky feeling of the herbal mud as it slipped over her skin. Using both hands, she coated her body in a thick layer and let it dry, smoothing her flesh and concealing her scent. She felt the welcoming of the mother tree. It loved her. She felt the energy as she climbed into the graceful boughs draped with lacy Spanish Moss. This is home. It had been since the death of her Maman many summers ago.
“Why do they keep coming?” she asked Laveau.
“They will always come,” Laveau said. “When they captured you, Chere...” she hesitated. “They will come when you relive that time.” Laveau was the voodoo spirit her Maman conjured to care for her in the glade. Laveau would always be with her. It upset Carlotta when Laveau talked like that.
“I am alive! Can you not see me? They call me Ava, and there is noise that hurts my head. They hit me and hit me. They hurt me. That will not do, Laveau. Maman would not like that at all.”
“No, Carlotta. Maman would not like that.” Laveau shook her head and looked away.
“I am not dead...” Carlotta screamed into Laveau’s spirit. She felt Laveau’s sadness wash over her and ceased the tirade. I am not angry with Laveau. It is the bandits I hate. “I am home now,” she said to Laveau, and sighed.
She sat back among the Spanish moss filled with chiggers and lice. The bugs won’t bother her, for Maman taught her to cover her skin in a plaster of mud and herbs to keep the swamp vermin from biting her and disguise her scent from predators.
“There they are,” she whispers to the mother tree, for Laveau has gone. The bandits searching for her stomp through the soft ground with their light torches shouting, “Ava. Ava. Where are you?”
Carlotta smiled. “They remain on the other side of the bayou, and they think I am afraid. I will not answer them. I understand their language, but they cannot understand mine. I am not afraid… Sweet Maman taught me to speak their tongue, but Laveau and the glades taught me the language I speak. The voodoo is powerful, and I am Queen. My name is Carlotta for my Grand-Mère’s given name. My name is Marie Laveau, for the voodoo Queen of my clan. My surname is Dom Pierre, for the creole blood of my fathers. Laveau taught me the power of the combination,” Carlotta paused her litany to the mother tree... “Carlotta Marie Laveau Dom Pierre,” she whispered.
She snuggled deeper into the moss and covered her legs. “No, I will not answer them and if they do not leave me alone, I will do to them what I did to the great death snake.”
Carlotta remembered laying near the nest, her entire body smeared in mud, weeds, and sticks so her scent would not give her away.
She had the blade on her mother left, and she waited. Still and silent, unmoving. Time passed before the great death snake returned and coiled her body around her clutch. Carlotta was waiting for her, patiently. She looked the great snake in her eyes and whispered the voodoo canto for peace. The snake flicked her black tongue, understanding the language of the glade, and then Carlotta impaled her triangular-shaped head in one smooth, practiced stroke. Holding the knife handle securely, she beat the snake with a rock until her innards bulged from various tears along her 16-foot length.
Then Carlotta beat her more, remembering how she encircled and squeezed the life from her Maman. When the great snake was dead, flat and lifeless and the beady black eyes lost their shine and only looked at Carlotta through a milky haze. She looked into the snake’s lifeless eyes, reaching for her spirit, then turned her head so the great death snake could watch as she crushed her eggs. The nest was ruined...
“You should have left us alone,” Carlotta had hissed to the dead snake and her young in the language of the glade. She smiled at the memory.
Carlotta leaned back against the tree and breathed as she patted the moss around her. It kept her warm in the night and she was still small enough to rest comfortably in the great boughs. She didn’t remember how many summers it had been since her Maman had gone. The cypress rocked softly in the wind, and she rested. She didn’t sleep, for the bandits that stole children were still afoot in the glade... she would not sleep until they were gone and the swampy forest around her returned to its nocturnal routine.
Carlotta thought about the happy home in which her Maman had lived with her parents before the bandits stole her and brought her to the sugar plantation. She had only been a little girl, ten years old. They made her work, and they beat her and abused her. Carlotta shuddered.
Laveau told them her Grand-Mère Carlotta had died from a broken heart when her little girl disappeared, but young Carlotta did not believe that story. Nothing would have stopped her from finding her child... Maman taught her that.
When Maman found she would have a baby... she ran away to the swamps, away from the bandits and deep into the glades where they would never find her. Maman said if she had given birth on the plantation, they would have killed or sold her baby, and she would never have seen her sweet Carlotta.
Maman told her about the men that stole children. The terrible things they did to the little ones. They made her watch... sometimes. Maman tried to save the babies with her voodoo, but she was a child then, and she had a good heart. Carlotta did not suffer that affliction, although she admired it in her sweet Maman.
So, Carlotta was born deep in the glades with the old voodoo woman, Laveau. Laveau wasn’t really there. Maman conjured her spirit with voodoo for the birth and charged Laveau with the care of Carlotta. The voodoo was strong in Maman’s family. Her Grand-Mère Carlotta was a queen, an acolyte, and cousin of Marie Laveau, the most powerful voodoo Queen that ever lived. That is why Maman summoned her. The conjured spirit of Laveau taught Maman to survive in the glades and taught Carlotta how to conjure, too. It was how she killed the great snake and how she would kill the bandits if they didn’t leave her alone.
Poor Maman. Carlotta thought. She was so young when she died. “I built a monument to her for her bravery and to her love for me. It is a totem the Natives worship. I built it long ago. Maman was a Saint, but I am not. Maman understood that and loved me anyway...” Carlotta whispered, remembering her sweet Maman.
Carlotta spoke to the mother tree. “Laveau told me long ago when my life is done, my spirit will rise to wreak vengeance on those who harm the children. Just as Laveau came back to help me, I will protect the children. I will be a revenant, a vengeful spirit. I am happy about that. The children need someone to protect them."
The swamp came alive around her, the bandits were gone. The gators slipped into the gray water to await their morning feast, and the cicadas sang in the dark before dawn. The owls hooted, and the frogs croaked their songs in unison, depending upon their size and type. It was a symphony for Carlotta... and she slept at peace.
“Help! Help me!” a childish voice called from across the bayou. Carlotta was instantly alert, although she did not move from her hiding place. She absorbed the surrounding energy. She felt no threat and climbed into the higher branches to see where the voice came from. Four children were picking their way around the bayou. They must have run away from the bandits. The plantation was different now than it was in Maman’s time. The crops they grew were not sugar cane, and they brought many stolen children here. They didn’t work the fields... they only came for a short time. Laveau said the crops were drugs, and the bandits were selling the children as slaves. Carlotta did not understand why they wanted the small ones for slaves.
Surely, it is a trap, Carlotta. The bandits have let them go to lure you, Laveau said into her mind. Sometimes, she was uncertain if the voice belonged to Laveau or Maman. She paid attention anyway, and she watched them make their way around the bayou and take off in the opposite direction of her home. They would be easy picking for the panthers if they did not pay attention. Carlotta slipped down the tree.
She piled handfuls of her mud mixture into the leather shoulder bag she had found long ago, slipped on trousers and a shirt she took from her Maman’s old clothing. Her hair was short, she kept it short, so the mud held it slicked back out of her face and eyes. She tied a leather band around her forehead and took jerked meat from her store and placed it atop the mud mixture in the bag. She recovered her spear, her bow, and arrows, and the knife her mother left her from the cavernous hole under the rock near the mother tree.
Carlotta was going hunting. "I hunt the bandits that steal children." She watched their trail and just as Laveau or Maman had told her... bandits trailed the children.
There were five of them, the bandits. Carlotta smiled again. She watched them pass from aloft in the mother tree and then whispered her goodbyes. She always said goodbye to the mother tree and thanked her for her care if she did not return. Once, Carlotta had not returned for a long time. She couldn’t remember that time, but sometimes she dreamed of it.
Carlotta trailed them unseen for two days. She wondered if the children were starving. They had slowed, and so had the bandit trackers. On the second day, she gathered berries and added wild tomatoes and sour grapes to the top of her bag. In the night, she slipped into the clearing where the children slept and left the food in a pile. She added four small pieces of her dried meat.
She hid among the brush between the trackers and the children and watched the next morning as the oldest boy shared the food among them. He saw her, and she motioned with her finger over her lips for quiet. He looked around and then up into the trees, where he spotted the smoke from the bandit’s morning fire. He gathered the children, quick and silent, and then looked around. He made a slight motion to her as if he were drinking and she understood they needed water. Then he looked the other way and started walking with the children. He is smart. He does not give me away in case someone is watching.
She went before them into the swamp and fastened an arrow of reeds on a tree trunk, guiding them to a clean waterhole. She doubled back to the bandits and found them quarreling.
One of the older men she’d seen before. He was shouting, “I ain’t goin’ no deepa in dat swomp! I don tole you dat.”
“Oh, Jensen, Not again.”
“Dis’a hur place, yeah. She been here a long time. You ain’t gon find dat revenant less’n she want you to.”
“Wait, I’ll go with you,” a second man said, looking around with careful eyes.
Carlotta smiled. She could feel their fear. The same fear she felt from the children.
“There is no such thing as ghosts, Jensen. You and that Creole voodoo shit... There is no vengeful revenant, no spirit haunting this swamp. You’re a coward and nothing more,” the man with the gun shouted at him. “I will find who’s taking these kids and when I do...” He raised the gun and pointed it at Jensen.
The man named Jensen touched his forehead, his chest, and each shoulder, looking nervously around him. “I seen it, yeah,” Jensen mumbled. “You hea’r dat panth’a scream... you a dead man!” He pushed through the swamp in the opposite direction, mumbling under his breath.
Two of them were going back and Carlotta smiled. Tonight, there would be food for the children. She stalked the two men to the edge of the bayou and when they stopped for their noon meal, she crept near their camp. They could not hear her as she lurked at the edge of the glade. They talked softly as she slipped into their clearing...
“Oh, God,” Jensen screamed and stood up, Carlotta tore out his throat. The other man ran away, but he could not outrun Carlotta. He heard her laughter as she chased him and jumped on his back. It was the last thing he ever heard.
She took everything from them, even their clothing, dragged them to the quicksand pits, and threw them in. No one would ever find them. Not that anyone cared. These were wicked men.
Carlotta buried what she could not carry as she had done many times. She’d go back for it later. She had a shiny new knife tucked in beside her, Maman’s. Feeling pleased with herself, Carlotta rested high in a cypress tree until just before dark. She dreamed again. She dreamed of when the bandits found her long ago and tied her up. She watched Laveau cry as they beat her and abused her.
Carlotta had not cried... she remembered they had done this to her sweet Maman, and she fought them. They hit her when she fought, they hit her hard. She kept fighting and kicking and screaming until one of them slammed her against a tree. Carlotta could not fight anymore. She could not breathe. She could no longer feel her legs, and she could not hear or speak. They took her to another place and threw her in a deep hole with others like herself. Then they left her alone.
She lay still and broken for a long time... Day and night passed, and Carlotta watched the shadow of the buzzard circle over her... she called for her Maman. Then she fell asleep.
Carlotta thought she was dying, but she never found Maman. When she woke... she didn’t move. She lay quietly as she looked around in the darkness. She could hear the night song of the cicadas, and she could move without pain. She stood and looked around and then down at her broken body... she screamed into the darkness. The woman scream of the panther... Then she was silent.
Carlotta climbed out of the hole and ran from the bandits back into the swamp. It was dark, and she ran. She slipped and rolled downhill into a soft muck that bordered the swamp at the edge of the glade. That was after the great snake had killed Maman. It was when she had been gone so long from the mother tree.
Carlotta stirred, and the dream faded. She was always relieved it was only a dream. It frightened her. Laveau was with her when she woke. She always came when Carlotta dreamed. “You all right, Chere?”
“Of course, I’m alright. I have work to do.” She looked back at Laveau. “Thank you for coming.”
Laveau looked at her sadly. “You’re a good girl, Carlotta. Be careful.”
She slipped back through the tall saw-grass unseen. She found the children easily, but not the bandits. She should have come across their trail first.
Stop. She heard Laveau. Carlotta moved backward, silent, and careful. When she had gone a safe distance, she murmured the canto that would let her see and hear the glade with unnatural senses. There were no trees here, she could not climb. She felt a chill and remained motionless, even though she wanted to run. She heard the men then... laughing on the other side of the clearing where the children were.
Her stomach turned. That is why the children were silent. She crept to the edge of camp and one glance told her the worst. They had captured and tied them. The oldest boy stared toward her with fearful eyes. He lay on his stomach, his arms, and legs bound over his back. He’d been beaten until one of his eyes had swollen shut and dripped a bloody mucus. The younger boys’ hands were nailed to a tree, and he hung there sobbing quietly. She backed away. She did not want to see the girls. Her heart was cold in her chest.
Carlotta stood and walked to the waterhole to cleanse herself. She left her gear on the bank and undressed completely, using the nearby grasses to loosen the mud from her body. The dark water slipped like silk over her bare skin as she cleared her mind and concentrated. Carlotta began the canto, in a trance as she stood in the water, singing, and swaying. She was not afraid of the bandits. She was Queen of the glade and Queen of the swamp, and the bandits didn’t know it, but they were already dead. Walking, laughing, breathing dead men.
The speckled moonlight played through the trees as Carlotta rose from the water and seemed to glide to the bank, murmuring the voodoo cast for her intention. She threw back her head and screamed. The eerie woman sound of the panther’s scream. Her body fell and writhed upon the ground as she screamed again, even more frightening with deep reverberation... the sound echoed through the night. She was gone. Now and then a shadow crept along the ground and then disappeared again into the deeper shadows.
The three men were back-to-back, their firearms drawn. They were afraid. She could smell their fear. She could almost taste it. She licked her lips with her long tongue. Carlotta smiled as she circled the camp and lay down among the brush to wait. She was good at waiting patiently. Her Maman taught her that. Her sweet Maman. She would not approve of what Carlotta planned to do... but she would not approve of the men who hurt the children either.
Her black eyes shone in the darkness as the men settled back near their fire. Carlotta was not afraid of fire. She licked her paws contentedly and purred. She sniffed the night, the dank smell of the marsh grass and the blood and fear of the children. The alcohol the men drank. She waited until they slept and then padded silent and deadly into their camp. She chose the one with the rifle first and tore out his throat. The others alerted by his gurgling ran, but she caught them easily and ripped them to pieces, one at a time... near the cheery, blazing fire.
Carlotta padded back to the waterhole slowly, allowing herself to transform. She did not cover herself with mud but dressed and went to cut the children loose. She and the older boy pried the stake from the tree and dressed the wounds in the younger boy’s hands. He was silent and brave. Carlotta liked him. The girls sat quietly, holding on to one another.
She motioned for the older boy to come with her and they went to the clearing of the bandits and retrieved food and utensils they would need. Carlotta picked up two canteens and took the boy back to the children. “Eat,” she pointed to the food. “I will return,” she told him. “Do not be afraid.”
An hour later, Carlotta padded into camp with full canteens in her mouth and ambled toward the oldest boy. She laid them at his feet. He was frightened. She could smell his fear even though he didn’t back away. She couldn’t blame him after seeing the gore she’d left in the bandit’s camp last night.
She nudged him and rubbed her face across his legs. He touched the soft fur of her face and she purred.
“Is it you?” he whispered.
She moved her head, staring into his eyes. Then she nudged him and walked ahead until he understood she wanted him to follow. The children trailed at a good pace all night and she let them rest and eat in the early morning. By late evening, they would find the Tamiami Trail and she would leave them with the tribe.
Carlotta had been bringing lost and injured children to the native tribes of the swamps for more than a century. The tribe worshipped at the place of the totem. The place she had buried her sweet Maman. They had always known her, and they would care for the children.
They neared the clearing now. Carlotta could smell it through the fallen dew on the grasses, through the scent of her native friend, Victor, and his brother... through the scents of the children, fearful and dirty. Carlotta could smell the scent of the totem and beneath it... her sweet Maman.
She led the children into the clearing. Two braves she knew were at the totem. She had also known their grandfathers. They stood near the monument that she built for her mother. That made Carlotta happy,, and she smiled. Her Maman was never alone here.
One of them was Victor. He stood looking at her and nodded slowly, then turned and herded the children toward the village. Carlotta padded around the totem as she always did, thinking of her sweet Maman and rubbing her soft fur against the totem till it shone. Victor glanced back as she disappeared into the forest.
“The panther brought us here,” the boy told Victor, looking over his shoulder.
“Were you stolen from your family?” Victor asked.
“Yes. We escaped, but they found us.” He cried. “They beat us and nailed my brother, Joey to a tree,” he sobbed. “Last night there were screams... I thought it was a woman, but a panther came in the night and killed those men. I saw them when the girl took me to the camp after she cut us loose. She left, and the panther came back and brought us here.”
“It is not the first time the panther has brought us children,” Victor said reverently. “The panther always brings the children home...”
“But... but there’s a girl. Who is she? Why does she stay out there all alone?”
“She is not alone...” Victor told him softly.
“What do you mean? She’s just a little girl... younger than me. What if the panther gets her?”
“The panther is part of her,” Victor said softly. “She is not just a girl, she is a Queen; ruler of the swamp and protector of the children.” Victor looked back and saw the girl standing at the edge of the wood, watching them with large dark eyes. He stopped and waved his arm once above his head. After a moment, she did the same.
“Come, Carlotta. The mother tree is waiting,” Laveau touched her shoulders.
“Tell me the story of Maman as we walk.”
“She was a little girl, just like you. Her name was Ava Carlotta Dom Pierre...”
Carlotta listened intently, much like the nine-year-old child she believed herself to be. “I am weary,” she said when the story was done. She trudged through the sour-smelling, muddy marsh beside Laveau. Her little feet made sucking noises in the muck as she walked.
“I know, Chere. It is over until the next time...”
Carlotta coated her little body with the mud mixture again, climbed into the waiting arms of the mother tree and slept, until... she woke.
It was dark, and she ran. She slipped and rolled downhill into a soft mud that bordered the swamp at the edge of the glade. She remained there, quiet, listening to the darkness. The song of the frog and cricket were silenced by their presence. The presence of those who didn’t belong.
Published by Barrio Blues Press 2019
Find this story and others like it in the Unity Charity Anthology
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