The Charred Tree

The Chauchemar

It was a quiet night in the swamp. The fog that covered the water and land alike dampened all the normal night sounds and only a few could be heard—the scratchy calls of the tree frogs and locusts, the hoot of a nearby owl, the occasional splash in the water that could have been caused by just about anything. Rene poled the small pirogue through the dark and watched for possible hazards which could materialize out of the mist without warning. These waters were somewhat stagnant and overhung by the massive moss-hung cypress trees. He wasn’t completely familiar with this area, but the combination of fog, moonlight, and the lantern in the front of the boat would have made navigating treacherous no matter where they were. Capsizing against a hazard would force a swim to shore. In the daylight, the swim would be child’s play, but in the dark with a fog and no reference point, it could be deadly.

Forward, stretching out over the prow of the little boat like a living ship’s figurehead, lay Frank. The tiny pinpoints of light reflected back from the lantern would reveal the location of the bullfrogs they were hunting. Frog gig in hand and ready to quietly call out sighting their quarry, Frank kept his eyes glued to the far edge of the lantern light.

“Rene. D’ere’s one ovah on da right. Ya see ‘im?” Frank’s drawl was barely over a whisper.  He didn’t move a muscle while waiting for his friend to reply.

“Oui, mon ‘mi. You gonna git ‘im, or want me ta do it?” Rene replied in a thick Cajun accent.

“I’ll take ‘im. Just hol’ da boat steady.” Frank rose to a kneel on the flat bottom of the boat and with a practiced jab skewered the large frog and pulled it back to the boat. “Dat makes almos’ a full bag. I’m guessin’ dere’s about thurty big ‘uns dere. You think fifteen apiece is ‘nough or should we git s’mo’?”

Rene began turning the boat back the way they had come. “Fifteen, c’est bon! Should be plenty ‘nless yo’ gut gits more’n its share!” The two men chuckled and joked as they guided their boat back to the landing just down from their shanty.

They had been partners since Frank dropped out of school and ran away from home eight years before. They trapped. They fished. They hunted. They survived deep in the swamp away from civilization. One or the other of them would occasionally take a guide job to lead some of the “outsiders” on outings and fishing trips in the swamp. Once they had taken a job together but discovered that working together was not a good idea for them. The trip had ended in a disastrous argument which culminated in Rene having a blackened eye, Frank losing a tooth, and their disgusted clients demanding their money back.

“De fog she’s gettin’ thickah. Aim de light lowah.” Rene scanned ahead as the fog bank seemed to roll toward them. The frogsong died away as if finally surrendering to the wet shroud. “Dis is a strange night, mon ‘mi.”

“Ya think so, too, Rene? Kinda creepy the way the critters all clammed up.”

“F’true. I don’ like dis. You see anyt’in’ up dere?” Rene stopped poling and let the pirogue glide over the black surface and into the thicker fog. Frank had become a shadowy form near the lantern in the bow of the boat.

“Dayum! Never seen it dis thick ‘afore, Rene. Can’t see more’n a few feet. Go slow, ok? Wouldn’t wanna git lost in ‘ere. Don’t relish tha thought of spendin’ all night wandrin’ de bayous.” Rene quietly nodded from the rear of the boat.

The punt slowly moved through the fog-shrouded swamp for a long time. At first the few landmarks they could make out were familiar—like the big blown-over oak at the mouth of Broussard Bayou—but these quickly faded behind them to be replaced with others neither of the two men could identify. All the trees and snags jutting above the surface into the fog were strange and unfamiliar.

“Franc, d’you know where we are? ’cause I sho’ don’.” Rene was pleased, if slightly surprised, that his voice did not quaver when he spoke. Getting lost in the swamp was a serious problem, especially at night.

“Nope. I thought we ‘uz on the run up behind Old Mother Lenfant’s place when we passed that busted up boat riggin’ aways back, but we ain’t seen her dock nor de willow grove. We should prob’ly go ashore and make camp for the night, don’t ya think?”

Rene nodded. “I thought we on the Broussard after we passed the oak but we not on dat one either. Oui, doan need to ro-day t’rough de bayou all night. We lost enough wit’out getting mo’ lost.”

“A’ight. Git t’over t’tha left bank. ‘while ‘go it looked firm ‘nough.”

Rene angled the path of their boat to the left, keeping a close eye out for limbs and other dangers in the water. It wouldn’t do to get wet now with no dry clothes within easy reach and no prospect of a fire. Snags rising from the water was only one of the dangers; limbs and vines hanging from the trees that overhung the waterway were more likely to be the cause of them getting wet as they moved closer to shore.

“Rene?” The question from the front of the boat came out in a quavering whisper. “What in hayell is that?”

Frank was looking down the bayou in the direction they had just been headed. Just a bit further along the bank than where they would be landing was an eerie green light glowing in the fog. Like a living thing, the light sent out tendrils of luminescence into the fog just above the water as if trying to grasp something on the water.

“Ya think it’s a haint?” The fear was evident in Frank’s voice.

“Mon Dieu! I don’ know. It is the strangest thing I have ever seen.” Rene’s response was barely a whisper.

Rene didn’t realize that he had begun to pole harder for shore when he first saw the green phantasm on the water and the scraping of their hull on a submerged cypress knee came as a surprise. Both men yelled in surprise as the boat tipped over, dumping them both into the water along with their lantern.

Rene broke the surface sputtering and spitting the rank water as he caught his breath. Luckily they were close to the bank and the water was only waist deep. “Franc! Franc, where are you!” His voice seemed to die in the fog and against the ancient trees along the bank. He could see nothing in the dark except for the ghostly green glow out in the channel. He felt around in all directions trying to find anything from the boat or from his friend. His hand found something near him in the water. Heavy and wrapped in wet cotton cloth.

“Franc!” Rene pulled his unconscious friend’s head above the water. “Franc! Are you alright?” Hearing no response, he pulled Frank toward the bank and onto the dry ground. He turned him onto his side to make sure no water was in his mouth. ”Franc! Wake up!” Rene slapped Frank sharply to revive him.

“Wha?! What da hayell?” Frank was wracked by coughs and he spit water. Rene pounded his back. “Where am I?”

“We’re lost in de swamp and de boat turn’d over and you was hit on da head, Mon ‘mi.” Rene saw that his friend would be alright now and he felt the panic begin to fade. When the flickering green of the fog caught his eye his pulse resumed its harried beat.

“Dayum, ma head hurts!” Frank sat up slowly and rubbed the back of his head. “Thanks for pulling me outta there, Rene. ‘t’s a wonder I weren’t drown’d.” Frank saw the glowing fog. “Rene, it’s still theah. Wha’ is it?”

“Je n’sais qua, but I’ll go and see. You stay here, ok?” Rene began to stand.

“No, I’ll go with …” Frank groaned as he started to rise and his head felt like it was about to split apart like a dropped pumpkin. “Ok,” he winced, “you go, but don’ be long, y’hear.” Frank looked up at Rene and watched him nod in the pale, ghostly glow. Rene slowly turned and quietly made his way through the underbrush along the bank toward the source of the ghostly light.

The next thing Frank knew, he was jarred from a sound sleep. Some sound he had missed was still echoing through the trees despite the fog.

“Franc! Wake up, you stupid boy!” Rene was shaking his shoulders violently and screaming into his face. “We cannot stay here; it is too dangerous!” The terror in the Cajun’s eyes mortified Frank and lent energy to his still-wobbly legs.

“Wha’ is it, Rene? Wha’s wrong?” The urgency evident in his friend’s movements and voice convinced Frank that argument would be pointless and he struggled to his feet. Nothing could stop the wave of nausea that overcame him when he stood. “Oh, I’m gonna be sick!” He vomited his last meal onto the damp humus at his feet.

“Vitement! Quickly! Or t’will be too late!” Rene came back and grabbed Frank’s arm and practically dragged him through the trees and brush of the bayou. “Mon Dieu! Dame Mort comes for us! We cannot waste time! We must fly!”

Without only the malevolent green glow to light the way they ran madly through the undergrowth away from the place where their punt had sunk. Running into trees and through briar thickets, they stumbled along as fast as they could, heedless of the bruises and torn flesh they received in the bargain. Rene pulled his machete from his belt and cut the briars where he could see them, but he wasted no time pushing through when the vines were unseen. Out of breath and in pain, they collapsed on a fallen log in a hollow and gasped for breath.

“Mah head feels like it’s goan split wide open, Rene! Dat might be a blessin’, f’true!” Frank held his head tightly between his hands while he bent over and retched again.

Rene kept looking back the way they had come, anxiously looking for what might be following them. “She may not be following us. Mon Dieu, I hope not!”

“Rene, wha’ IS it? Ain’t nothin’ in dis swamp dat can scare you as bad as all that!” Frank clasped his hands to his temples as if trying to hold the pain in.

“No, mon ‘mi! Not ’til de sun be up an’ shinin’ on us. Fo’ now, jus’ trust me—if dat be what my na-nan spoke of when I was jus’ a peeshwank, den dat’s a haint wit’ some very bad juju. Looka! De fog done lifted and ole Mr. Moon is out! Look ovah dere. Dass de old oak tree de lightnin’ struck last spring. Dass Broussard Bayou! Booyah!” Rene’s voice rose in excitement as he realized where they were. “We almos’ safe! We almos’ home!” He sounded hysterical with relief.

“All right den. Let’s git home and you can tell me around da fire.” Frank levered himself up and began making his way toward the tree. He stumbled along, his path wobbling only slightly until he got his momentum going. “We almos’ dere, Rene! We’s gonna make it!”

Rene stood to follow him, but paused to look over his shoulder. Amazed horror broke across his features as he looked into the glowing face of a woman mere inches from his own. The green glow of her hair and skin illuminated his face for an instant before it disappeared. In the moment he remembered before he lost his own will, Rene recognized the look of triumph in the apparition’s eyes and the beginnings of a laugh at the corners of the cupid’s bow of a smile. He tried to protest but only a low murmur escaped his lips as he turned to catch up with Frank.

“Yep! Dass da path to the shanty just over da bog. We can do dat, f’sure! Just have to be…aaaauuuuugh!” Frank screamed as he lost his balance and fell into a swirling eddy of thin mud that looked deceptively solid. He tried to scramble out but sank further into the muck.

“Rene! Help! Da bog’s got me!” Frank reached around him for anything to hold onto that might keep him from going under. “Rene! C’mon, man! Get me outta here!” He reached as far as he could and just barely grabbed onto a root from the massive overturned oak. Rene calmly walked over to the tree where Frank was being slowly pulled into the bowels of the swamp. He looked down at Frank. “Oh, Rene! Thanks, man! C’mon, get me outta here! Dis’s pulling somethin’ fierce!”

Frank looked up at his friend when he walked to the edge of the bog. It was his friend’s face, but the eyes staring coldly down at him seemed to glow with the same eerie light they had seen on the bayou. The grin which split Rene’s face glowed with malicious glee and Frank knew that it was too late. He screamed as the machete came down on his arm, severing his only anchor to firm ground and life.

Rene watched with horror from behind the green scrim of the being that had taken over his body. He watched Frank scream in agony and terror as crimson spewed from the stump of his arm and covered the surface of the bog. Frank’s struggles made him disappear beneath the surface of the muck. Rene heard maniacal laughter ripped from his own throat at the scene. He watched the hand on the tree root loosen its grip and slip onto the dead leaves. The remaining gore drain from it and spread an accusing vermillion finger across the bog toward him.

The emerald film that sheathed his vision faded into darkness an the malevolent being left Rene’s mind. He heard a maniacal wail as it winged into the night like an owl. A shaft of moonlight pierced the canopy of the surrounding trees and lit the now-still surface of the bog with it’s judgmental omen in shades of gray and black. Rene fell to his knees and wept into the ground.

The match flared brightly, giving the dingy shanty an instant of brilliance. It’s initial brightness died down as the sliver of wood caught fire and Rene’s shaking hand almost extinguished it as he held it toward the raised wick of the lamp. He was still in shock over what he had done to Frank. The horrid vision of Frank sinking beneath the bog haunted him every time he closed his eyes—the flailing arms, the severed hand, and the sobbing screams of the young man that had been his closest friend. The match had burned down to his fingers without igniting the oil-soaked wick. Rene dropped the guttering match to the table and darkness again claimed the small room.

Rene? Why, Rene? Why’d ya do it, Rene? The voice inside his mind had the plaintive ring of a lost child.

“Non! Non! T’wasn’t me, Franc!”

But it WAS you, Rene!

Rene cried at the darkness, “Non, mon ‘mi! T’was de nightmare witch! The Chauchemar!” His quivering hands managed to strike another match and this time succeeded in lighting the lamp. A warm yellow glow filled the room. Rene knelt at the table and wept into his crossed arms on the table.

You kill’t me, Rene! You cut off ma hand an’ lemme die in da bog! You let da swamp have me! I trusted you, Rene! I though’ you was ma friend!

The echoes of Frank’s voice faded into the screeching of the crickets and frogs outside the shanty and Rene’s sobs from beside the table. The memories of the stories his na-nan, Madame Arnaud, had told to him only added to his terror. The Chauchemar had once been an old witch that lived in the bayous countless years ago. She had struck a deal with the Devil to keep her youth. Old Scratch insisted she drink the blood of her victims to keep her side of the bargain. She gained the trust of a beautiful young woman that had recently arrive from Acadia before betraying and murdering her. The young woman could still be seen at times wandering the swamps as the elusive will-o-the-wisp. The Chauchemar, according to Rene’s grandmother, was killed by the young woman’s lover—with her own hair. Her shade is still trying to keep her side of the bargain by spilling innocent blood wherever it finds it.

Rene had no idea how long he had knelt beside the table lost in his grief and terror. The only sound he could hear was the barely perceptible hiss of the lamp wick delivering oil to the greedy flame within the globe of the lamp. As still as the room seemed to be, the lamp’s flame did a slow but deliberate dance within its glass prison, causing shadow demons to dance circles around Rene in the middle of the room. The shadow demons danced around the walls of the room while his own demons danced across the walls of his mind. Despair overwhelmed Rene.

Rene, where are you?

Rene heard something move—a scraping followed by a quick scramble like a small animal—outside the shanty down near the trees.

“Non! You are dead, mon ‘mi!” The words echoed softly off the bare walls of the room.

When had the crickets stopped chirping? Rene had lived in the bayous his whole life and could identify every sound it made. There were times it got quiet, but NEVER silent—and right then, it was as silent as a tomb.

He heard the scramble again. It seemed to move closer to the house before it stopped. Rene strained to hear it. What was it? The sound of his heart beat desperately in his ears.

There was silence for several heartbeats before another scramble, a teeth jarring scrape, and another scramble brought whatever was out there up onto the porch. Except for his heartbeat and ragged breathing, Rene could hear nothing more no matter how hard he pressed his ear to the thin wall.

“‘Allo? Who’s dere?” Rene had no idea what made the sound, but he was sure it was on the path. He went to the window and looked out, hoping to see what made the strange noises while also hoping to see nothing.

Thick fog surrounded the house and he could see nothing on the porch. The fog’s return and his imagination of what might be causing the sounds nearly brought panic back to his mind. Then Rene saw the glowing.

I’m comin’, Rene. I’ll be there very soon.

The scraping and scramble came from the direction of the path Rene had taken to get to the shanty from the bayou and it got closer each time he heard it. His eyes became saucers on his face and a scream escaped his lips as the glow along the path coalesced into the form of a beautiful long-haired woman slowly, but resolutely, walking toward the front door. The green radiance seemed to come from her skin as she made her way toward the hovel and it drifted in eddies around her like suitors at a ball. She seemed to notice nothing about her surroundings, as if she was lost in thought.

The sound of his own heart pounding in his chest combined with his screams made Rene almost miss the mysterious sounds. He felt more than heard the thump followed by a scrape and two more thumps after a short silence. The sound came from just beyond the door at his feet and Rene felt a pain shoot down his left arm as his heart beat against his chest. He screamed and backed away from the window. He stumbled back toward the table and the impotent comfort and security of the still-flickering lamp. He knew in his heart that there was nothing left to do but pray.

I’m here, Rene.

He heard three thumps—each louder than the last and the final one made the entire house shudder. The door crashed inward and slammed against the wall as if driven by the force of a charging boar. Rene screamed again and lurched against the table, overturning it. The lamp fell to the floor and shattered, spreading flames across the back of the shanty. He was caught between two different deaths. Rene fell to his knees, whispering and whimpering a prayer he had learned as a child at his mother’s knee. It was something he’d not done for years, but he hoped beyond hope that his long estrangement from the church would not hinder his prayers now.

Rene opened his eyes as he heard the scrambling sound over the growing noise of the flames at his back.
The flames combined with the intruding glowing fog to illuminate the room before him. Horror filled his mind as Rene saw a thin intense line of glowing green extending across the floor toward him from the door. His eyes followed that line—it pointed at him through the fog like an accusing finger. Rene felt as if his very soul was being ripped from him when he saw the horror at the end of that terrible line. There, crawling toward him and trailing the green gore from its severed wrist, was Frank’s hand—scratching and clawing its way toward him like an evil spider spawned in the deepest hell.

It’s no’ so bad, Rene, bein’ dead an’ all. The voice chuckled in his head.

Rene knew that death approached and that his soul would be taken and devoured by the phantasm which stood in the door watching her minion crawl toward its prize. He tried to pray, but the words wouldn’t form in his mind now. The heat from the flames behind him began to become uncomfortable, but he could not move. A stale and unpleasant odor told him that someone had soiled their clothes. It barely registered with Rene that the clothes were his own. He was held fast by terror and horror at the death that awaited him. He watched the hand approach.

Don’ fight it, Rene. You can’t git ‘way from me.

It was a pale thing and showed the ravages of crawling the long distance from the bog where Frank had died. Rene could not move. Helplessly he watched the hand pounce on his knee and begin its final climb. It clawed up his shirt until it came to his neck. Finally, but too late, Rene broke through the paralysis and clawed at the inexorable fingers tightening around his neck. He felt a tearing in his throat as his scream ripped a vocal cords from its mooring.

How’s it feel, Rene, bein’ kill’t by y’own friend?

The flames had spread around the walls of the room and the fog boiled away. Rene met the eyes of the figure standing in the door and saw the triumph in there. He knew he was lost and that she would devour his soul. The figure recognized his thought and laughed.

The fingers dug into the flesh of his neck, crushing with inhuman strength, and Rene felt his life slipping away. He fell onto the floor—more dead than alive. With his last exhalation of breath, he whispered his last.

“Je regret, mon ‘mi. Oh, mon Dieu, I’m sorry.” Rene’s eyes stared unseeing at the ruined door as the triumphant laughter resounded through the bayou and the flames leapt to devour the house and body of the damned.


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5 thoughts on “The Chauchemar

  1. Fun bit of fright.

    I’m always up for a solid swamp tale, but I’ve never had the gusto to attempt a Cajun dialect. (I’m just not familiar enough with it, and it would likely end up reading as too Quebecois.) I envy the job you did of maintaining it throughout.

  2. I have to agree with JRD. I love the way you wrote the dialect. I found myself reading aloud just to hear it actually spoken ^_^

  3. BTW… Thank you both for dropping by and giving it a read. I very much appreciate it as well as the comments.

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