A Gar's Smile
Hampton Collier sighed heavily and scraped a palm across three days' dry stubble. Pinching the bridge of his nose, he reluctantly acquiesced, and, without moving his head, allowed his eyes to wander from the Persian carpet below the brass casters of his chair over to the mahogany china cabinet sagging in the corner. A family heirloom, the piece was in poor shape, but he just couldn't seem to find the time or the energy to apply the can of linseed oil collecting dust in the shed out back.
He trudged from his desk to the cabinet, squatted down, and with some effort wrenched open the warped double doors below the glass-fronted display. After a moment's consideration, he chose a half empty bottle of Bulleit Bourbon, slid his pinky into a dingy Johnny Walker-themed tumbler given to him some years ago by a client, and stood. His reflection stared back at him in the glass; a man in his mid-forties, dark pools underscoring brown eyes. Behind this image, his grandfather's World War II memorabilia shared a shelf with a few personal items: a Nazi bayonet, an encased baseball with Ted Williams scrawled in blue between the worn stitching, and an antique mallard decoy sat beside a copy of Virginia McAlester's A Field Guide to American Houses, the book propped diagonally against a scarred Schutzstaffel helmet.
Dissatisfied with his reflection, he clinked his way back to the waiting chair and desk. He reinserted himself clumsily into the soft, beaten leather of the chair, reclined, and whispered aloud to himself as the brown liquid slid out of the bottle and pooled up the sides of the tumbler, "Bairdwell Glen…surely not..." He shook his head and took a stinging gulp.
The Mississippi Delta was a wilderness in 1856; at that time only a handful of courageous souls had braved the descent from the hills above to carve out a living in the fertile floodplain of the River. Vicious predators still ruled: alligators and moccasins infested the murky waters, bears and panthers prowled the virgin woods and fields, and malaria-ridden mosquitoes thrived in the boggy lowland swamps.
However, history has proven time and again that the prospect of wealth often overwhelms the instinct for self-preservation. The allure of the planting lifestyle was strong in those days, especially for the non-firstborn sons of aristocratic clans who found their inheritances slighted by the immoveable pillars of tradition, and Mississippi offered a comparatively affordable means of attaining desired status. As such, the mid-nineteenth century witnessed increasing numbers of these fortune-seeking bluebloods venturing out from Virginia, Georgia, and the Carolinas to plant their futures in the Delta earth. Grand plantation homes slowly filled the wild countryside; a thin façade of grandeur borne on the scarred backs of African slaves.
Such was the case of Silas Bairdwell, an early Delta planter. But in truth, the machinery which lead to his eventual grisly demise was set in motion long before trekking the 700 miles to the Mississippi bottomlands.
The third son born to a prominent South Carolina planting family, Silas Bairdwell enjoyed formative years of molding in the customs and education of low country polite society; namely, classics and the arts, as well as the gentlemanly pursuits of hunting, shooting and horseback riding.
And, like most other children of his time and social sphere, Silas made daily sport of tormenting his nurses and various family servants and field hands. But actions initially dismissed as the harmless pranks of a child became increasingly malicious, coming to a climax when twelve-year-old Silas forced the hands of his nurse's daughter into a thresher after the child spied on he and his peers sneaking his father's bourbon. An unremorseful Silas spent the same afternoon hunting while the child suffered and slowly succumbed to her injuries, despite the frantic efforts of her mother.
As the years passed and Silas neared manhood, he developed an infuriation with the order of his household, a bitterness manifesting in drunken binges and the continued beating and maiming of family servants. He would often accompany the plantation overseers into his family's fields. Scars soon stood out on the backs and faces of innumerable laborers; a testament to their young master's readiness to use the knotted whip upon any true or perceived infraction or idleness.
Despite his reputation for such cruelties, ritual declared Silas an appropriate suitor in the eyes of the low country elite, and at age twenty-one he was betrothed to Sarah Cooper, the complacent (if less cruel) little miss of a neighboring plantation. They were married in 1855.
Upon the death of his father the following year, Bairdwell emptied what he considered the meager accounts left him to purchase two thousand acres near the east edge of the Mississippi Delta. With Sarah and more than 200 slaves in tow, he caravanned his way southwest to coerce from the formidable soil the vast dynastic wealth and homestead denied him by familial birth order.
Tree by tree and brick by brick, calloused black hands forced and manipulated the unforgiving landscape until the mansion he called Bairdwell Glen perched uneasily on the east bank of a large cypress bog. With its red brick, arched entries and square tower, the Italianate manor contrasted sharply with the surrounding swamps; a dissimilarity paralleling the lavish lifestyle of cruel white masters amidst the miserable existence of a laboring lifeblood.
Following completion of the home, Bairdwell set his efforts to the cultivation of his land, and for three years all progressed according to his plans. Fertile rowed fields stretched away from the home to the north, south and east. His drudges spent most days melting under the boiling Delta sun to support and grow Silas' now-considerable accounts, deathly afraid of their heavy-handed overseer.
On a stifling August afternoon in the summer of 1859, Silas and Sarah were reclining on Bairdwell Glen's side-porch, oblivious to those toiling unceasingly around them. The knotted whip lay on the tile by Silas' feet, dried blood flaking along the cruel, roped fibers. As the laborers cast knowing glances at one another in the fields, the smell of dead catfish and the primitive creatures feasting among the cypress breaks wafted from the bog across the lawns. It swirled menacingly throughout the opulence of the porch and whispered into the crevices below the locked parlor windows along the face of Bairdwell Glen.
Hampton swung his truck to the right and crunched along a few hundred yards of a loosely-shaped circular drive, his breath catching in his throat as he saw a silver sedan parked ahead. He slowly rolled to a stop in the shadow of the looming red mansion, an ominous silhouette which dominated most of the lawn throughout the morning. Taking care to check for water moccasins before lifting his booted feet out of the safety of the cab, and consciously averting his eyes from Bairdwell Glen, Hampton stepped out and leaned against the truck's warm frame.
He considered the bog to the west. Black crows fluttered and hopped about near the edge of the ooze, uncharacteristically silent. Hampton could just make out the object of their interest -an alligator gar flopping desperately on the shore. A species known for its ability to cling to life outside of the water for considerable periods of time, the fish held Hampton's pity for a few moments as he imagined its fate.
"You've probably done a lot worse in your lifetime, pal," Hampton mused as he considered the gar's elongated snout and dual rows of razor sharp teeth.
After a few moments, he dismissed the scene, reached back through the open window of the cab and pulled from the center console two envelopes. The first bore an inscription in a woman's neat handwriting : "Mr. Collier". Leaning on the hood of the truck, Hampton shakily opened the envelope and read the simple typed letter for what seemed the hundredth time:
I would like to speak with you, at your convenience, regarding the purchase of the property which you advertised. The property to which I am referring is the home at 1115 Lakefront Circle, but I understand it is more commonly referred to as "Bairdwell Glen." I will be in town the week of September 23rd, and was hoping that you and I could possibly meet at the property so that I may see it in person. Please call me on my cell (number can be found on the enclosed business card) or look me up in the Jackson phonebook and you might catch me at home.
I will speak with you then,
The second envelope bore no name on the cover. The letter inside was hand-written:
Can't tell you how thankful I am for this! I have the key and will meet you at the coffee shop tomorrow afternoon around 3. I'll let you know what I think about the house - maybe we can even start some paperwork?
See you then,
Sue had not shown up to their second meeting at the coffee shop. "Surely not…not after so much time…", he broke off.
He closed his eyes and let his mind wander back to his childhood...
"There's nothin' in here to catch, John…", Hampton drawled.
He cast his line out further into the bog and watched as the red and white cork bobbed sideways in the muck. His older brother didn't respond. Instead, John reeled slowly, bunching his eyebrows and chewing the inside of his right cheek.
"You make your way left and I'll make my way to the right," Johh said at last. "One of us will find a honey hole before long. You'll see."
Convinced of his elder brother's wisdom, Hampton high-stepped through the thick, wet grass twenty yards to his left, cast and reeled, walked ten more yards, and so on.
After forty-five fishless minutes, he realized that the afternoon sun was dipping below the cypress trees across the bog, and shielded his eyes back to his right. Where was John? Looking over his right shoulder, he saw his brother trudging around the circular drive toward their grandmother's house, fishing pole over his shoulder and tackle box swinging from his hand. Hearing Hampton call his name, John stopped and let his younger brother catch up.
Breathless, Hampton asked, "No luck either?"
"Sorta. I caught a big cat an' stringed him. When I pulled him out, though, a gar had already eaten half of him."
Hampton made a face. "Yuck. How'd you know it was a gar and not a moccasin or snappin' turtle or somethin'?"
"'Cause he had worked his way halfway up my cat. Was still working the teeth in and everything. Poor cat looked at me like I could help him, but I threw the both of 'em back in."
"Guess that means no fish for dinner. Grandma had some kind of slop warming on the stove when we left."
They had reached the three arches separating the front door from the lawn beyond. Ascending two concrete steps, they laid their poles against the cool, moist brick of the wall within the arches.
Only then did they notice that late afternoon dark greeted them through the windows flanking the door. The lights were out inside the house. Glancing at one another, they paused, unsure. Their grandmother had been home when they left to go fishing a couple of hours earlier, and had told them that she would have supper prepared upon their return. The stories surrounding the home were well known to them, but had always been dismissed as lore and nonsense. A terrible thing had once happened there, but that was it. End of story.
John reached out and turned an ornate doorknob, pushing inward as he did so. Slowly and with a "click", the latch gave and the door swung inward, silent in its journey until bumping the inside wall to their left. Another pause. Hampton stared apprehensively at his brother's back as, mustering his courage, John walked into the grand foyer and surveyed the entryway. John glanced up the stairs in front of him, then to his right at the bedroom where he and Hampton's church clothes from that morning were strewn unceremoniously about. A subtle creaking sounded from the direction of the parlor and side-porch, and John gulped audibly. Glacially, he twisted his neck to the left while Hampton leaned in to peer around the corner of the doorway in the same direction.
Their grandmother dangled in slow circles from the parlor chandelier, a look of terror plastered on her features. The Nazi bayonet from her late husband's tour in Europe stuck up vertically from the pine floor below her feet.
Tossing the documents back inside the cab, Hampton finally lamented and let his gaze drift up to the parlor windows. Slowly tracing the red brick face of the house to the right, his eyes came to rest on the front door nestled behind its triple arches. His spare key dangled from the lock. Stepping around the hood of his truck, he walked in between his bumper and the sedan parked in front of it.
Planting a boot on the first of the two steep steps, he glanced to his left and detected a woman's handprint on the inside dust of one parlor window. The window's lock was partially open, and above it another handprint had disturbed the grime, transforming into three fingers before tracing upward and disappearing behind the traces of curtain which hung at a height of perhaps seven feet. He forced himself onward through the center arch and reluctantly turned the cold iron of the knob, feeling the "B" inscribed on its surface pressing into his palm. The door swung inward.
He flashed back to a Sunday afternoon thirty years before, when as a twelve-year-old he had experienced pure panic on that very spot. John had swung his left arm around so fast in his haste to flee that he had shattered Hampton's left cheekbone, and had been forced to drag his little brother away from the front door and out onto the lawn; away from their dangling grandmother and the low chanting that had begun somewhere within the bowels of Bairdwell Glen. As the two boys struggled down the circular drive, that devilish hymn had grown in strength until the parlor windows rattled in their frames and the crows began screeching out on the bog.
Although mid-morning, and anything but airtight, the house on this day was dark and musty, obviously unlived-in for the past thirty years. Hampton stepped into the once-magnificent foyer. The grand staircase stood before him, to his left, the parlor with its ten-foot windows and fireplace, and beyond that, the side-porch. To his right were two bedrooms, and the kitchen was a separate building behind the home. Upstairs was a center hallway with a single bedroom on each side. A window at the end of the upstairs corridor glared out over the oozing marsh across the lawns to the west.
His gaze climbed the staircase up to the landing, then darted right, his head and neck unmoving, nostrils sucking in quick burst of putrid air. He thought he detected the smell of dead fish.
"Sue?", he called out weakly.
Before mustering the courage to look into the parlor, the room where his grandmother had failed to defend herself from some unknown aggressor thirty years earlier, a familiar rhythmic creaking interrupted his conscious. Panic rose within him as he reluctantly sought out the source of the peculiar sound.
Silas Bairdwell snapped awake to the sound of Sarah's scream, the feverish humidity of Mississippi summer twilight pushing against his effort as he bolted upright on the side-porch sofa. Crowds of faces glared in at him; faces male and female, young and old; faces scarred and disfigured by his own hand. Snatching the knotted whip, Silas raced past Sarah and made for the front door, but found the brick arches congested with another throng of the pitiless.
The side-porch door swung open slowly and the eerily silent and orderly crowd filed in. Sarah, brandishing a tool for stoking the fireplace, held the mob off long enough to attempt the parlor window. The lock was half-sprung when she was overwhelmed. Abandoning his struggling wife, Silas went for the stairs, feet skidding on his heart-of-pine floor, and bounded up to the landing. Glancing back, he watched as his wife was lifted by the mob, three fingers of her left hand dragging the window as she rose. The iron poker fell from her hand as the struggled, its sharp point piercing the wood below and quivering upright.
Hampton Collier could scarcely process the scene before him. Swinging in slow, groaning circles from the chandelier in the parlor, feet dangling eight feet above the ground, was Sue. A crude noose had been placed around her neck.
Feeling madness creeping in, Hampton's mind wildly struggled to maintain rational thought. "There's no way…there's no way…how would she have even…thirty years…"
Panic overwhelmed him and he whirled back to his left. He was surprised to find the door closed. Built of sturdy cypress, the door was faux-painted to resemble mahogany, and Hampton found himself stifling frenzied laughter as he thought of his great-grandmother's china cabinet and its warped framing. The door remained firmly nested in its jamb despite his powerful tugs.
The laughter caught in his throat. Rows of mutilated faces were staring back at him through the murky glass of the windows flanking the door. Backing up blindly in horror, Hampton's heels caught the staircase and he sat with a grunt on the second step. His peripheral vision revealed a parlor full of men, women, and children who gazed back at him from long-dead eyes, Sue swinging in her circles above them. He turned and bolted up the stairs, boots slipping on the wood.
Silas reached the top of the stairs when the chanting began; low and ominous in a language he had never heard. As the mob below continued its surge from the parlor into the foyer, he turned right into the master bedroom, closed and bolted the door, and stood in the middle of the floor, unsure of his next move. Disturbingly, he could feel Sarah's weight swinging in rough circles below his feet. He envied her.
Gripping his whip tightly, he turned to face the door as a single strong kick sent the sturdy cypress crashing inward. He swung the knotted end wildly through the air as strong hands grasped at him. Despite his furious aggressions, Silas was dragged screaming down the hallway, through the parlor and out into the night.
Hampton bounded up the stairs and unthinkingly swerved to his right, too late remembering that Silas Bairdwell's bedroom had no door. Unsure of his next move, he paused in the middle of the room, arms outstretched to each side. The same low, rhythmic chanting that had so often haunted him from his childhood began in the rooms below. It moved up the stairs and slowly approached down the hallway, building in strength until he was forced to cover his ears with shaking palms.
In its panic Hampton's mind slid into memory. He and John stood solemnly in a cemetery. Black-clad mourners around them whispered about "…tragedy…" and "…suicide…" as their grandmother's casket was cranked down into the Delta soil. Her gravestone read:
Sarah Bairdwell Collier
Born, July 25, 1898
Died, August 24, 1970
"For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return."
The simultaneous ceasing of the chanting and the beginnings of a new din startled him and he jerked back into his unfortunate reality. Sounding vaguely like a toy car or a rolling marble, the mysterious sound moved slowly, deliberately down the corridor toward the bedroom.
A badly disfigured man in filthy clothing attained the doorway but paused, staring straight ahead through the window at the end of the hallway overlooking the bog. After a few moments, a smile spread across torn lips and its head whipped right. Hampton stared into the malignant eyes of his great-great-great uncle.
He gazed upon the tattered and blood-soaked flesh of Silas' face, arms and chest, the wounds open and oozing as if it they had been inflicted only minutes before. He saw clearly where the skin had been torn to ribbons or ripped off cleanly as the thresher had churned him up alive, operated by powerful hands that had forced their cruel master into the device and then pulled him back out; in then out. From Silas' hand dangled a cruel-looking whip, and as he shuffled forward, Hampton realized that its knotted end dragging the pine floor was making the mysterious toy car sound. Silas' wicked smile widened. Hampton's last conscious thought was of the gar's snout, and how like a gar Silas looked.
Outside, the crows began to feast; their cawing rising to a frenzy and drowning out the screams from the house across the lawns.