Chapter 48: Bayou of The Shunned
My hands were firm on the steering wheel as Mikael and I journeyed through the darkened road. It had been one hour of us in the car, the city turning into country and the road transitioning into dirt and moist earth beneath my car’s wheels. We kept conversation minimal the first hour because we were both nervous. Mikael, however, was more anxious than I was. He had never been to the Bayou of the Shunned, but like everyone else, had heard tales about the cursed swamp and the witch that ruled over it as its Supreme Sorceress. Sajida was the bedtime story mambos and houngans told their kids about to keep them in line; in the black community, Sajida was “that” woman that the children of voodooists were scared to encounter when the lights went out - Similar to La Llorona in Mexican folklore, a tale told to children to frighten them. Only Sajida wasn’t a legend like La Llorona. Sajida was real.
“You keep acting up, Sajida gone come get y’all in your sleep!” Mothers would say to their kids. Of course, I knew nothing about Sajida the Shunned growing up; mama intended to keep the story of my aunt a secret from me. But now, I was well acquainted with her.
Now, I was going to go visit her again.
I didn’t know what to expect, nor what I was going to ask her. There was a lot I wanted to know; this mission was forbidden, as the Coterie would skin us alive if I even mentioned the idea of going to see her alone. But now, we were on our way, so I felt as if time was short since the mambos likely knew we were gone, Kizzy or Imani having told them where we possibly left to.
“How much longer?” Mikael asked. These were the first words he had said to me in a long while.
“About another twenty minutes. I recognize these trees.”
I looked up at the darkened trees that stood tall, branches bending like claws. The road was becoming bumpy; we were indeed close. I looked over at Mikael briefly, who was staring out of the window now, his leg shaking.
“It doesn’t feel right,” I said, “bringing you along.”
“I don’t want to put you in danger.”
“Our lives are the embodiment of danger, now. So, I suppose this doesn’t make much of a difference.”
I managed a laugh. We both did. My stomach turned when I recognized the forest even more, the farther we traveled.
“Do you trust her?” Mikael asked. “Sajida, I mean.”
I shrugged. “I’m not sure. But it’s weird. I feel like she and I are similar in some ways.”
Mikael was nearly disgusted by the comparison. “How?”
“I’m not a witch, obviously. What I mean is, I’ve always felt like the odd one out. I’ve always felt different. And my potential has never been recognized by anyone, even by me. Sajida’s the same way. Everyone alienates her. My own mother hates her. Everyone is afraid of her because of what she’s capable of, but she’s the only one that willing to face the truth. To embrace it, I guess.”
Mikael listened intently but I could tell he didn’t feel the same way about Sajida. He feared her as everyone else did. To him, she was pure evil. To me? I wasn’t sure. I was willing to entertain the idea of Sajida being more than just evil.
I decided to change the subject. “Does it hurt?” I asked him.
“Your nose.” I pointed to the bruised spot where I punched him.
“Oh. The pain has subsided a bit.” He looked at my nose. “How about you?”
I shook my head. “It doesn’t hurt anymore. The bruising is letting up quickly, thank God. But it’s still noticeable.”
“It doesn’t look that bad,” he said. I rolled my eyes playfully, in which he chuckled. In the silence that came after, I pursed my lips before I decided to say what I had been thinking about.
“I’m sorry, by the way. For punching you...in the face.”
“It’s alright. I deserved it.” His mind wandered off a bit. “I wasn’t thinking straight that night; I regret being an idiot with that crossbow.”
“It’s becoming harder to be mad at you,” I began, “when I think of what you were probably feeling in that moment.” I couldn’t bring myself to look at him. “Hezekiah killed Tia Valeria. Right in front of you. I don’t know how I’d be able to keep it together.”
Mikael was brought back to that night in the woods - the night Abraham was released from his underground imprisonment. It was a trauma that Mikael had to live with for the rest of his life, not only seeing Hezekiah kill Tia Valeria but seeing vampires murder your House members - people you thought of as family. This hurt him deeply. So much so that he couldn’t speak about it anymore. We ended our conversation there; Mikael resumed looking out of the window with a new set of thoughts torturing his mind.
When we reached a fork in the road, I knew that we had arrived. I took the left road and continued on until the road gave away to the soil. I stopped the car and turned off the engine. We were now consumed by darkness.
I turned to Mikael, “We’re here,” I said, though he wasn’t convinced.
“We have to continue on foot.”
He sighed, scratching his beard in thought, “You have a flashlight?”
I nodded. “In the trunk.”
We got out of the car and into the air, which was uncomfortably damp and infested with insects. I pulled out my phone (which had the location turned off for good measure) and used it as a flashlight until we got to the trunk. I grabbed the crossbow and backpack whereas Mikael grabbed the flashlight. The path ahead was lit to our advantage now when he flicked the switch of the flashlight on.
I tucked my phone away and took the flashlight from him, “Follow me.” I handed him the crossbow and quiver with the metal bolts clanging inside, “Please try not to shoot anything.”
He rolled his eyes, “Very funny,” he said before trailing behind me. One foot after the other, we made our way through the trees. We made haste, Mikael having no trouble keeping up. We were very close to each other, though we barely realized it.
Eventually, the trees began to reach so high that they enveloped the sky; it was all leaves and branches above us. We walked on for what seemed like forever, the flashlight our only source of light until I saw the lanterns - foggy lanterns hanging from trees on either side of us.
“We’re close,” I whispered. Mikael didn’t respond; I wish I could see the look on his face, but I was too focused on following the lanterns down towards the bayou’s shore. And when the sign that read Beware. He who passes through here shall only pass with a worthy warrant in French hung on a rusty nail, I knew we had arrived. I was brought back to the time the girls and I had come here for the first time.
Mikael and I slowly walked towards the bayou shore. I turned off the flashlight and looked out to the darkened expanse, the trees protruding out of the murky water like a hand reaching for safety. And up ahead, through the moss and the vegetation that rested on the murky swamp, was the curtain of leaves that shielded us from the Bayou of the Shunned. Behind that curtain, we would find Sajida. But we needed to encounter the Gatekeeper first.
“So, what now?” Mikael asked impatiently. “H-how do we get across?”
“We wait,” I said.
“The Gatekeeper,” I answered. There was an alarming amount of dread on his face, similar to the same dread I had on my face when Kizzy told me about the Gatekeeper - the large, blood-covered man navigating the only form of passage through the bayou, veiled by a deer’s head as he paddled the swamp water in his canoe. He knew we were waiting for him, this Gatekeeper, but he was willing to let us wait. And so we did - for twenty minutes, we waited in silence, the birds’ song through the blackened sky keeping us company in the wretched abyss. Mikael and I couldn’t speak to each other. It wasn’t because we didn’t want to pass the time with conversation, but because our minds were occupied with what the visit to Sajida’s was going to be like. The first time I met her, she had never seen me before; the last time she had seen me, I was an infant. I was ignorant. Completely so. I wasn’t completely rid of ignorance on this second visit, but I was a lot more aware of before. I knew what questions to at least think of asking. And this time, Sajida invited me to come see her. She wanted to speak to me and tell me the answers I could not obtain with The Coterie or Hezekiah.
Suddenly, the water began to ripple. And when Mikael and I looked up, we saw him - the Gatekeeper, standing taut in his large wooden canoe and paddling slowly towards us through the water, moving smoothly around the trees in the bayou. There was one lantern hanging off of the canoe’s curved bow, but it only weakly illuminated the path before him. Mikael sucked in a sharp breath and stared in shock as the Gatekeeper came closer towards us. This time, he did not have the head of a bloodied deer sealing his identity. Instead, an alligator’s head sat on top of his own head, its snout extending outward and providing even more anonymity to the gatekeeper’s face. Its teeth were sharp and engulfing as if at any moment, the dead gator would suddenly decapitate the Gatekeeper. Starting from the top of his head, the dark green scutes on the alligator’s body slid down the Gatekeeper’s back; he wore this reptile’s body like a cape.
The closer he came, the longer Mikael and I held our breath. But I forced myself to not be afraid. I couldn’t be; this was my mission. When the Gatekeeper’s canoe was near the shore, he held his paddle across his body like last time, the boat floating aimlessly in the dark water.
“Do you have a worthy warrant?” he asked us. Mikael looked at me for the answer, then looked back at the Gatekeeper who stood before us.
“Yes,” I answered. “I’m here to speak with Sajida. She’s my aunt.”
When I gave him this answer, he stared at me from underneath his alligator headdress. He knew who I was. I was his master’s niece, and I’m assuming that Sajida knew I was coming to see her and told her Gatekeeper about me. Immediately, he removed the paddle from in front of his body and brought the blade into the shallow water, signifying that we were allowed entry onto the canoe. I was about to walk ahead, but Mikael held his arm out in front of me and went first instead. He eyed the Gatekeeper suspiciously as he walked into the water and climbed aboard, standing behind him. I came forward, Mikael inching near the front of the canoe with an extended hand to help me on. But the Gatekeeper already had his hand extended out towards me. I stared at his calloused palm, as did Mikael. He didn’t do this the last time I was here with Kizzy, Esther, and Rocio. Did he know about my relation to Sajida back then? Was the reason behind this act of ‘kindness’ stemmed from my relation to his mistress?
Regardless of the reason, I placed my hand in his. He pulled me onto the boat and waited until I was sat safely next to Mikael before he turned the canoe around and navigated away from the shore. Everything was like a dream I had before; deja vu, rather. I took in my surroundings as we neared The Curtain, as I began to think of it. Clusters of cypress knees began to surround us on every corner, and hanging moss swayed as the Gatekeeper navigated our boat through the water. The algae parted for us; everything became more condensed. Everything became closer together. We were amazed at how the Gatekeeper could paddle around the trees and vegetation with little to no difficulty.
Finally, as the bayou grew narrow, I saw The Curtain before us - two gigantic Cypress trees that housed long and thick Spanish moss that veiled the Bayou of the Shunned. I looked at Mikael by my side, but he kept his eyes forward. He didn’t want to miss anything. The moss began to part on its own as we neared it, and we were soon welcomed to the other side where the bayou widened again and revealed the community of lost souls that lived in the marshes. I remembered the shacks on the shores and the treehouses held up by cypress knees all around the water. The treehouses stretched as far as I could see, and the split waterways that led to other areas of the bayou’s community were often covered by moss, leaving whatever was on the other side up to the imagination. More lanterns were lit everywhere we looked, giving the bayou an ominous, chartreuse glow. I felt exactly how I felt the first time I had traveled here: stunned. In awe, but the worst kind of awe. My feelings never changed; no matter how many times I would come to this bayou, I would feel the same way. It grabbed me, this bayou, and never let me go.
The canoe began to move slightly underneath us. Mikael and I both brought our attention to the other side of the canoe, where there was movement in the water. I yelped and jumped into Mikael, making the boat sway. The Gatekeeper was unaffected.
“What the fuck was that!?” I exclaimed.
“Probably a gator,” Mikael said, catching his breath. “It was...it was probably just an alligator.”
The Gatekeeper knew what it was, but he kept quiet; the only time he spoke was when he would ask what people’s warrants were. Besides that, he was mute. He continued to paddle through the water until a large, two-story tree house stood in front of us. Sajida’s house, made of deteriorating wood and covered in thick, wet moss. The long ladder that led to the front door grew closer and closer, and we knew once the canoe hit the dock that our time had arrived. The lights in the house were on, but I didn’t see movement, nor did I hear anyone.
Mikael got out of the canoe first and tried to be polite by giving me his hand like before. But the Gatekeeper stepped out of the canoe himself and offered me his hand once again. I stared up at him, trying to find a face, but it was hidden in darkness; all I saw was the alligator head that hung over his own head.
I took his hand and pulled myself up. When my feet were planted on the dock, the Gatekeeper walked towards the edge and got back into the canoe.
“Thank you,” I said to him. He froze, turned to face me again; all I saw were alligator eyes. He then turned back and pulled away and towards another waterway.
“Watch your step,” Mikael said to me. I broke my gaze off of the Gatekeeper and brought it onto him. “This dock is rickety.”
He was right - a few steps forward proved to be dangerous, as the wood whined and bent underneath me. I grabbed Mikael’s arm and leaped my way to the safety of the grassy ground. We both looked up at the tall ladder; it seemed to go on forever.
“I’ll go first,” Mikael said. “I’m not sure how stable this thing is.”
He began to feel the wood of the ladder. I watched as he did this, but suddenly, a whisper brought my attention to the bayou behind us.
It wasn’t from my mind. It was a real voice calling out to me. I shrugged it off the first time, but as my name was continuously repeated, my curiosity was piqued. Mikael was preoccupied, so I walked towards the sound. I had a feeling I was being deceived, but something about the voice was so distraught. It sounded like a cry for help; like my name was their only hope for salvation. I walked onto the dock, making sure my steps were careful on the weak wood. I stared out into the mist; at the residents who looked back at us from their treehouse windows. The whisper died out quickly, but I lingered at the water’s edge hoping I would hear it again. However, it didn’t come back. Not until I turned around to walk back to Mikael.
Suddenly, the dock beneath me began to give in. My heart jumped out of my chest as I knew I had but half a second to react. I jumped forward to try to beat the collapsing dock, but a cold, wet grip dragged me down and made me fall onto the ground. The water splashed viciously beneath me, and as I looked in horror at what held my leg, I saw a black shadow - black shadows, rather, with open mouths and beady white eyes reaching out of the water and trying to climb over the broken planks. I screamed with all the air I had left in my lungs, and immediately, I could see Mikael sprinting towards me. I screamed his name desperately as these shadows pulled me deeper towards the piceous water. Their hands weren’t rough or aggressive. It was a hold of desperation - a hold that matched the pained, helpless wail that escaped their mouths. Mikael grabbed my arms and pulled as hard as he could, but the harder he pulled, the harder they pulled on my ankles. The dock gave out even more, lowering me towards these shadows. At this point, Mikael had his arms snaked underneath my arms, and when this didn’t work, he grabbed my waist and pulled as hard as he could. Against the odds of his slender frame, Mikael used all the strength he had to get me away from the shadows, and eventually, I felt their hold slip from my legs. Mikael and I fell onto the grass. My brain was scattered, my body spazzing out uncontrollably in Mikael’s arms. We scurried away from the water as far as we could, and at a safe distance, I was able to calm down slightly.
“Are you okay?!” he asked with his arms around my shoulders, eyes large and concerned. I nodded, trying to find breath but it was a difficult task. My shoes were soaked, my pants wet at the bottom. But I was in no physical pain. I shook uncontrollably, but there was no physical pain. I knew what was in the water earlier; it wasn’t a gator. It was this “shadow,” but what was the shadow exactly?
Suddenly, a sharp, uniformed flash of light came from above and shot down at the water near the destroyed dock. The shadows shrieked as the light hit them. They submerged themselves back into the water; there were dozens of them, at least. They created black waves underneath the water’s surface as they swam away.
“Go on!” A woman’s voice yelled - a familiar voice, rather. “Get the fuck off my land, y’all know better!”
Mikael and I looked up, and standing at the ladder’s end above was Sajida the Shunned. Light emanated from her palm - magic I had never seen before. Her dress was considerably more modest than the previous outfits she had worn - a short-sleeved, dark blue cotton top with a black skirt that flared out at the end. She looked down at us looking up at her, and as if the last two minutes never happened, she smiled mischievously.
“Well,” she said, “you two gone lay down there till the sun come up? Come on in.”
She nodded towards her front door before disappearing into her house. Mikael was stunned for a moment, but shook his head, slapped his cheek, then stood up, helping me get onto my feet, too. I still felt myself shivering as if the air was cold; I could barely stand up straight.
“Are you alright to climb?” he asked me, and I nodded, even though I wasn’t sure. He urged me to go first this time, and after a moment of processing, I adjusted the straps of my backpack, gripped the ladder and began to climb. I had to keep my eyes closed to ensure I would make it to the top safely and was thankful when I did. I didn’t take another step until Mikael was at the top, too. The door was wide open; Sajida didn’t care to wait for us.
I looked down at the water below before walking inside. The shadows still lingered at the dock, staring up at us expectantly.