Death by Moonlight by Henry F. Tonn

Death by Moonlight by Henry F. Tonn

Fiction, Vol. 3.3, Sept. 2009

I remember the exact day I split. It was on my third birthday and I was splashing around in a little pool by the side of the house. My momma was over there hanging laundry and she weren’t paying no mind to me when all of a sudden she lets out this terrible scream and runs over and jumps on top of me in the water and pushes my head underneath and all the way to the mud at the bottom. She was just screaming as loud as she could and I couldn’t breathe at all and I thought I was going to die for sure. Then all of a sudden my daddy came and rescued me and pulled Momma off and pulled my head up from the water and my face was all covered with mud and Momma just kept right on screaming. It was terrible; I’ll never forget it.

I hear tell that people in our community always thought Momma was a bit odd. We were a close-knit group back then, where everybody knew each other. It was bayou country and Creole was spoken more than English. Furthermore, we always dealt with things in our own way; we didn’t like the law coming around. Momma had these big dark eyes and was always looking around her like somebody was gonna sneak up on her or something. But the people in the community accepted it just like they accepted most other people in the community because Momma was good to her family and went to church every Sunday like she was suppose to. But, unfortunately, whatever was wrong with her mind finally snapped altogether and she weren’t never right after that. My daddy had to call the authorities and they shipped her off to the state institution. She killed herself two weeks later. Leastwise, that’s what I was told ‘cause we never saw her again. Never. Daddy raised us all by himself, all six of us.

Nothing was the same after that, though, certainly not for me, anyway. Things started happening inside of me, things I didn’t understand, and things I didn’t have no control over. It seemed like the world wasn’t safe no longer and I needed some sort of protection. So there were these other people that started growing inside of me, people with different voices and different personalities and stuff. First one was the Mute, I guess. The Mute knew everything but she never talked about nothing. But you could hear her, or sorta hear her. She sorta thought at you. And you’d think back. It’s hard to explain. It’s like she knew everything but kept it to herself. And then there was the Defender. She was a badass, she was– didn’t take nothing from nobody. My Daddy had a time with her. ‘Course I felt better knowing the Defender was around because she could take care of me and I didn’t have to worry about things so much. She weren’t afraid of nothing. And the older she got, the meaner she got. She got my daddy, Amos, to teach her how to shoot a rifle when she was just seven years old. She wouldn’t have thought nothing of blowing your head off if you messed with her in the wrong way. Swear to God, that’s the truth.

And then I remember the Saint. She happened around the first grade when we were learning how to read. She’d go to church and read the Bible and she’d tell us what was right and what was wrong. And the Student. She was very intelligent and always went to class and sat quietly in the front of the room and never misbehaved. But when we went out for recess, the Athlete took over. She was good at running and kicking the ball and even was able to play with the boys. But if the boys messed with her, well, the Defender was right there to protect her. She didn’t have to worry about nothing either.

Of course, sometimes the Defender got out of hand. Like that time she jumped on this boy and beat him in the head with a rock. She would’ve killed him if we hadn’t intervened, I swear to God. We all used to talk about it among ourselves. It was a mixed blessing having her around. She took care of everybody, but she was dangerous, too.

And, you know, there were others. They didn’t have names necessarily but we knew they were there. They just weren’t very distinctive, they were sorta like in the shadows. Sometimes it was pretty confusing. I’d, like, go off someplace and be gone for long periods of time. That’s when they would be out. I mean, I could lose an hour or an entire day, or whatever. Sometimes people would say something about it but I’d just ignore them. Weren’t nothing I could do about it. I didn’t have no control over anybody.

It was basically a mess, and that’s a fact.

When I was eight I took over the cooking for the family. I was the oldest girl and Daddy was busy– he was the neighborhood mechanic– so it was just natural that I should do it. Actually, I kinda liked it. I’d fling pots and pans around in the kitchen and just basically have fun ‘cause I certainly wasn’t doing no cooking. The Cook did that. I’d eventually just drift off somewheres in my imagination and the next thing I’d know I’d be eating at the table with my daddy and brothers and sisters and we’d be eating fried chicken and mashed potatoes and gravy and stewed okra and cornbread and everybody’d be complimenting me on what a good cook I was. ‘Course I had nothing to do with it, but I couldn’t say so.

“Natalie, you’re the best cook in the world!” my oldest brother would say.

I’m going to cook like this when I grow up,” the littlest one would say.

“Right good, darlin’,” my daddy, Amos, would say, and that would make me feel special ‘cause Daddy hardly ever complimented anybody on anything. It kinda made me feel bad sometimes, too, though, ‘cause, like I said, I really didn’t have nothing to do with it.

And, boy, I’d hear it that night when I tried to sleep. They’d all start up talking and arguing and bickering and I wouldn’t be able to get no sleep, it could be so loud. “She’s so stupid,” somebody would say. “She can’t do anything.”

“You’re stupid, too,” somebody else would say. “All you can do is cook.”

“At least I can do that. She can’t do anything at all. She just sits there eating while Daddy tells her how smart she is. She can’t cook at all.”

“Well, if you want Daddy to compliment you, you should stay out and eat it yourself.”

“I don’t eat. I cook.”

“Then stop complaining.”

“Oh, both of you shut up. You talk too much. You should pray more.”

“You shut up. All you do is pray. If it wasn’t for Sunday, we’d never see you at all.”

“If it wasn’t for me, you wouldn’t be alive. You’d be dead. God would punish all of you.”

“Be careful. All three of you. The Mute is getting angry.”

“Who’s that?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know!”

“You don’t know anything.”

“I know the Mute and you better not make her angry.”

“Nobody knows the Mute. She doesn’t talk.”

“She talks to me. She doesn’t have to talk out loud.”

“That’s stupid.”

“Yeah, well, you can beat up the boys in the neighborhood but you better not mess with the Mute.”

“I’m not afraid of anybody. I can shoot my daddy’s gun.”

“You better be careful with that gun. You’re gonna shoot somebody and get us all in trouble.”

“I need to be out more. I’m an artist.”

“You don’t need to be out. Natalie can already draw.”

“Natalie can’t do anything.”

“Don’t talk about Natalie that way. She’s a nice person.”

“She’s stupid.”

“You should be less concerned with Natalie and more concerned about your souls.”

“Oh, shut up.”

And so it went. Sometimes I thought I’d either get a headache or go crazy. And sometimes I wondered if other people had voices like mine. ‘Course I was afraid to ask.

One day when I was eleven I overheard the old blind lady, Phoebe, from up the road, say to my daddy that somebody was prowling around her house at night. Phoebe was, like, eighty years old, and had been living on a disability check ever since her husband, Horace, passed away five years ago. Now she’d gotten afraid and was locking her door at night. Nobody around here ever locked their door at night. We all knew each other.

“You sure it ain’t raccoons, Phoebe?” my daddy asked. “You know how they get into everything.”

“No, Amos, it’s not raccoons,” Phoebe insisted. She was leaning on her cane and staring off into the distance like she always did when she talked to people. “I can hear footsteps on the porch.”

“You think they’re after something?”

“They might be after my porcelain, Amos. You know Horace bought those porcelain pieces when he was in the military in Japan, and they’re certainly the most valuable thing we have in the house. If I ever needed the money, I could sell them for a pretty penny in New Orleans.”

“How would somebody outside the community know about your porcelain, Phoebe?”

“Plenty of people know about the porcelain, Amos. We used to have a lot of company back in the old days. You remember how Horace just used to love company.”

“I reckon. Well, you want me to send one of the boys to stay with you a couple a nights? Make sure you’re all right?”

“Well, thank you, Amos, but I’d rather have Natalie. She’s so sweet and we’d get along real well, I’m sure.”

“Be all right. She can shoot, you know.”

“Yes, I know. And Horace’s shotgun is still loaded in the closet!”

So, there it was arranged. That night I prepared pork chops for dinner and then made a plate for Phoebe and myself. I was looking forward to staying with Phoebe because she had this big house and I would have a room all to myself instead of having to share one with all my sisters. Just as I was leaving, Daddy rose from the table and accompanied me outside to talk. Daddy was a real tall, thin man with stooped shoulders, and he got down on one knee to speak to me. “I don’t think there’s nothing to this,” he said, holding my elbow with one of his big hands, “but if somebody tries to break in, you go right out the back door and come get me. I’ll take care of it.”

“Yes, Daddy.”

“And you be good to Phoebe.”

“I will.”

I had seen Phoebe’s porcelain before. It took up an entire glass cabinet in the living room and it was all bright and colorful. There was nothing like it in our whole town and everybody knew it. Phoebe’s house was nice to be in, and I hoped I would get to stay there for several weeks.

But on the fourth night I woke up suddenly because I thought I heard something outside. And, sure enough, when I went to the window and looked out, there he was, just wandering around there in the bright moonlight. I didn’t recognize him, and he was dressed in a dark coat and raggedy jeans and he was wearing a wide brim hat that covered his face mostly. But I was sure I didn’t know him, and I knew he shouldn’t be out there. Then I watched him walk up on the porch and twist the knob of the front door and then shake his head when he found it was thoroughly locked. He actually rattled it right softly, but it weren’t going nowhere. Then he sort of tiptoed over to the very window where I was standing and peered in and looked all around. I got back in the shadows so he couldn’t see me and stood there with my heart just pounding something terrible and I was shaking all over. Phoebe was snoring in the next bedroom; she weren’t aware of nothing. But finally I watched the strange man try to push up the living room window and I knowed it had gone far enough and it was time for me to run down and get my daddy like he told me.

So there I was going out the back door when I froze and just stared off into space for a second with my hand right there on the doorknob. Well, that was when the Defender came out. She weren’t frightened at all. In fact, she liked the excitement and was mad at me for being so scared and planning to run down and get my daddy. I wanted to get my daddy just like he told me but Defender just closed the door again and turned to that little closet there by the side where Phoebe’s husband used to keep his shotgun, and there it was just like it’d always been. She pulled it off the rack and cocked the trigger and just then she heard glass breaking in the front room. She crept into the living room and saw that dark arm slipping through the broken pane and reaching down to unlatch the swivel lock. Phoebe woke up and cried, “Natalie?” But the Defender just crouched on one knee and leveled the gun at that man as he was sliding his leg through the window. He was about halfway through, and she could see him clear as day in that bright moonlight when she pulled the trigger. I never heard such a loud noise in my life. It just blasted him right back through the window and on to the porch and he landed there with a great big thud. And just cool as a cucumber, Defender stood up and walked to the front door and said, “It’s all right Phoebe.” She unlocked the front door and peered outside and said, “No problem.”

There he lay in a crumpled heap on his back, his arms stretched out over his head, blood just pouring from his chest. Defender walked over just as nonchalant as you could be and kicked him one time to make sure he was dead, then propped the gun against the railing and commenced to start strolling casually down the road to tell Daddy like it weren’t nothing at all.

“Everything’s fine, Phoebe,” she called out over her shoulder. “I got him.”

We weren’t but just a block away and she went into Daddy’s bedroom and whispered what had happened and he got up without a word and got dressed and then went next door to get his brother and then the two of them and Defender proceeded back to Phoebe’s house. There was already several men there when we arrived, all sort of standing around not knowing quite what to do. They had shooed the womenfolk and children back to their homes and now were just waiting to see what Amos was going to decide. Phoebe was standing there in the doorway wearing her bathrobe, her gray hair sticking out in every direction.

“What happened, Amos?” she said as we approached. She was staring off into the distance with her head cocked to one side like she always did when she asked a question.

“Natalie done shot that critter,” a man standing on the steps observed. He was wearing overalls but no shirt. “He look right daid to me, Amos.”

“Reckon,” Daddy said, shining a flashlight on the man’s face. Daddy didn’t talk much.

“Know ‘im?”

“Cain’t say as I do.”

“Whatcha gonna do with ‘im?”

“Reckon I’ll take ‘im out. Y’all clean up this mess. Get me a sheet, Phoebe,” he ordered.

Daddy and Uncle Ray then wrapped the strange man in the sheet and carried him to the flatboat we kept in the back. I went with them. They put the body carefully in the bottom of the boat and then poled out into the water. The moon shined on the surface of the water real bright that night and it was eerie and beautiful. You could hear all kinds of creatures moving around in the dark, and calling out to each other. We went to a place where everybody knew there were plenty of alligators and just tossed the body overboard and then poled away. We weren’t more than fifty yards gone before we heard them ‘gators just tearing into his flesh. It was a godawful sound and they were fighting each other. They were hungry.

“Damn,” Uncle Ray, said. He just shook his head.

“Sumbitch shouldna been around here,” Daddy said, as his way of explaining the whole thing.

“Damn,” Uncle Ray said again, still shaking his head. He was smaller than my daddy, but real wiry and strong, and he could pole a boat in the swamp better’n anybody.

When we got back several of the men had already cleaned up most of the mess. Phoebe was just standing there.

“Them gators hongry tonight, Amos?” the same man asked. He was picking up tiny glass shards from the porch and gave us a toothless grin.

“Didn’t hear ‘em complaining none,” Daddy said.

One of the men went to his house and came back carrying several panes of glass which he sealed into the place of the shattered ones. Then we all picked up the last of the glass and hosed down the porch completely. By three-thirty we were all done and everybody began to drift back to their homes.

“You be needin’ Natalie to stay with you the rest of the night, Phoebe?” Daddy asked as he was getting ready to walk back down the road.

“That would be nice, Amos,” Phoebe said. “My nerves are a little on edge just at the moment.”

“Be all right then,” he said. “Have a good evening.” And he sorta waved his hand, though Phoebe, of course, couldn’t see him.

The next morning I woke up feeling perfectly good. I fixed Phoebe and me bacon and eggs and cheese grits for breakfast. I didn’t have to go to school because it was Sunday.

Nobody in the community ever talked about the incident. It was as if nothing had ever happened.

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