The Invisible Knife

I

“I want to know once and for all who did this to me!” hollered Hugh Jackson III, waving his stubbed hands dramatically for all to witness (and seeming to startle himself more than the rest of us). This was the climax of a speech he had prepared for me and the local policemen on the morning of my arrival in New Iberia. I had come to investigate a six-month old case that remained unsolved, largely because there were no credible witnesses, or at least none willing to come forward with any kind of evidence regarding the gruesome dismemberment of all ten of Mr. Jackson’s fingers last October. The incident was shrouded in a heap of contradictory testimony which included several accounts of inexplicable and/or supernatural events. There was yet to be found any forensic evidence.

It was a beautiful April morning in southern Louisiana. After the meeting, Police Chief Bobby Doucet offered to give me a tour of the region. It became immediately apparent that Doucet was a well-educated man, especially regarding the Louisiana environment and its wetlands ecosystem. He was eager to share with me his love of the swamps and bayous. This was home to him, and it was evident he took great pride in his heritage and was protective of it.

We drove about twenty miles to Lake Martin Reserve, where it was mating season for the various species of herons and ibis and other great birds. I had never seen anything as strangely magnificent as those bald cypresses rising out of the swamps, now adorned with the plump and pointed forms of thousands of pink, white, red, blue and black birds. We walked along the path that bordered the lake, talking over the cacophony of the birds’ spring ritual. Eventually, we entered a darker area, where the trees were larger, the forest was denser, and the birds were much fewer. We came to a small clearing, where a few cypresses had died and were barren of leaves. There on the branches of those trees, about fifty feet away, perched three great birds facing each other – one scarlet, one black, and one white – forming a kind of triangle. Spanish moss was draped all around them, as if this was their chosen décor, and it seemed to me these great birds resided within a silence separate from all the rest.

II

I learned from Bobby Doucet that Judge Hugh Jackson III came from a wealthy family, a line of sugar cane farmers that had, over the course of five generations, expanded their acreage to cover nearly a third of the Parish. The family also had a history of exerting influence throughout the region, boasting numerous public and political figures, including judges, lawyers, Insurance company executives, and state representatives.  Hugh was the grandson and namesake of one very influential judge, Hugh Jackson I, who handled some of the highest profile cases of KKK and other race-related crimes during the 1930’s. A self-declared independent, Hugh Jackson I was not beholden to any political entity.  His highest moral principal was founded solely in his ambition to expand the interests of family enterprise. Thus, he became a powerful man in Iberia Parish.

Hugh Jackson III was a man of similar ambition. Though he never married or had children, he grew the family business by using government grants to purchase 100 acres of farmland a few miles north of town. He contracted with a major Fracking company from Oklahoma. Within the first year there were already a half dozen drill rigs in place, some towering 150 feet above the cleared land. Although no gas had yet been tapped into, the judge was confident they would hit the jackpot eventually, which would be a great boon to the local economy. Meanwhile, farmers in the area were having troubles with their wells, and there were numerous reports of underground rumblings, some that would shake the shingles off the houses. Their complaints, of course, fell on deaf ears.

The judge lived alone with his Rottweiler on the west end of the city in a plantation manor that sat in the middle of 55 acres of mostly cleared, pristinely landscaped property.  Live oaks and myrtle crepes lined the driveways that ran among the house, the barns, and the shanties, which were empty but impeccably preserved as evidence of the well treated servants of the past. There was, however, one particular eyesore, something that chronically disturbed the judge. On the east end of the property, about two hundred yards from the mansion itself, five acres of undisturbed wilderness separated the Judge’s great lawn and the white fences bordering the town’s residential area. In the middle of these densely wooded, heavily vegetated, and untended acres was a small clearing. In the middle of the clearing sat a little house occupied by a single woman whose long, wild black hair and bizarre clothing blended naturally into her surroundings. Her name was Emma Montaigne.

Rumors swirled regarding the nature of this woman and her relations with the Judge. What became most clear and relevant, however, was that her family once owned over half of the property that is now the Judge’s.  Furthermore, the little house she now lives in was once a cottage, adjunct to a larger house and its 30 acres. The house caught fire twenty years ago, when the woman was five years old. Her father died fighting it while she, her mother, and two sisters watched the conflagration helplessly from the distance. It was later determined that the fire was caused by one of the girls playing with matches. 

The nearest neighbor, Judge Jackson III, offered his deeply felt condolences, along with a fair price to buy all the property. The mother, however, and much to the chagrin of the judge, agreed to sell only 10 acres, and insisted on keeping the 20 acres surrounding the cottage on the east end. She sent one daughter, Estela, to live with an uncle in Jeanette, about ten miles away. The second daughter, Veronica, who was assumed to have started the fire, was sent to a cousin’s family in New Orleans. The third, and smallest of the girls, Emma, would stay with her mother in the cottage, which she would inherit, along with her sisters, upon her mother’s passing 10 years later. It became clear that I would eventually need to pay a visit to Emma and her little plot of wilderness.

III

Dropping me off at my motel room, Bobby suggested we take a ride that evening to the Whiskey River Landing, an authentic Cajun bar and restaurant on the Atchafalaya River. He picked me up at seven and we drove twenty miles north along the river and its bayous. The Landing sat right on the waterfront, surrounded by fishing boats that rocked gently on the muddy waters. It was lit up brightly, and alive with the compelling beat of a zydeco band. We entered into the pungent aroma of down home Louisiana cooking — crawfish and crabs and shrimp and all those spices that go into gumbo and jambalaya. Half the people were eating and drinking, the other half dancing the two-step. 

As I watched the dancers, I was impressed with how they were able to move so effortlessly all over the wood floor, their heads never bobbing up or down, always perfectly parallel to the floor, eyes locked in a kind of stoic embrace. And as for the people in general, it seemed that, unlike other places, there was a variety of dark and light colored skin and hair that blended folks together rather than separate them.  Here was a rare place in America that resisted popular culture and somehow managed to retain a unique identity. Its history seemed to be alive in the present moment.

Bobby was from these parts, a perennial bachelor, and everyone seemed to know him. Moreover, despite his law enforcement position, he liked to drink, and there were a many women who were happy to drink with him. I sat back, drank a few beers and watched as he two-stepped with a half-dozen different women, all of whom seemed reluctant to let him go. It turns out that Bobby was once a defensive back at LSU, made all conference, and was drafted by the Saints in the third round.  As a pro, he soon discovered he didn’t have the kind of heart (or mindset) to propel his body recklessly head-on into the path of a 250 pound running back who had gained a full head of steam. After two seasons as a back-up safety and special team’s player, Bobby had had enough. He returned home to his roots and quickly advanced through the ranks of the local police.

We drank and ate well that night. I was especially struck by our waitress, who, surprisingly paid more attention to me than to Bobby. Bobby introduced her to me as Jean Blanchet. She was probably in her mid to late twenties, and beyond her charming southern belle accent and mysterious black eyes, she wore her cut-off shorts extremely well. I made up my mind that I would return to the Whiskey River Landing soon.

It was after midnight when Bobby dropped me off at my motel room at the end of Main Street. The night was relatively cool and offered a fair breeze, so I decided to take a walk through town. The storefronts were dark, there was no traffic, and only a few dim streetlights and a half-moon shrouded in grey clouds illuminated the sidewalk.  Suddenly I heard a shuffling of feet down one alleyway, and I glimpsed a fleeting silhouette of something large as a human, but seeming to move on four legs. It must have been the booze, I told myself.  Moreover, it had been a long day and I was in strange territory. I picked up my pace and returned to my room. Just as I was closing my door, I heard it again – a strange shuffling in the little patch of woods behind the motel.

IV

The next day, I met Bobby at a little café downtown, where he filled me in on what was known, and what was not known, regarding the mysterious dismemberment of Judge Jackson’s fingers. It happened in the wee hours after the Judge had been awakened by what he called a “plaintiff wailing” in his back yard. In the company of his Rottweiler – which apparently never barked at the sound – he ventured out in his nightgown into the moon-lit night. All he remembers is that he tripped over something, then woke up some time later in severe pain. He then must have passed out again in shock as he saw what had happened to his hands. He was discovered about 7:00 a.m. by his nephew, who called the ambulance. Doctors at the hospital were incredulous. They were unable to explain why there was so little blood, and how there was no infection at the knuckles. All the police could figure out was that whatever the weapon was, it was extremely sharp, and that whoever wielded it demonstrated incredible deftness. But perhaps the strangest thing was that his dog was nowhere to be found and still is unaccounted for to this day.

Bobby informed me that he needed to tend to his regular duties and would not accompany me to Emma Montaigne’s cottage. He sighed as he sat back in his chair, his lean and muscular frame settling into a state of addled resignation. “This woman is unusual,” he understated. “I have had little contact with her, and she rarely talks to anyone. The town people, at least the ones who live in that side of town, they protect her because they believe she is a healer of some sort. Rumor is she has done miracles on animals, cured them of injuries and disease that should have killed them. That sort of thing. So, I don’t know what you are going to learn when you meet her, but I can tell you a real sad story about Emma’s past.”

“John Lagarde was a creole, a very dark one, a very strong man, and a man of few words; I don’t believe there are any words that could ever even begin to express his love for Emma. He first met her when she was just a little girl, nine years old, four years after the fire. John was 17, and worked for Judge Jackson as a landscaper. One evening, as he was working the near the property line out behind the old barn, he heard a sobbing sound from woods just beyond. About fifty feet in, he found her there, trembling, all bloodied from the brambles, with only one shoe.  He gathered her up in his arms and carried through the woods back to the cottage where her mother was in a panic because her daughter was missing.”

“Well, it was determined that Emma, who was always naturally drawn to the wilderness, had got lost in the woods. Funny thing was, after that time, she just about stopped talking. A few words here and there to show that she was not dumb, but that was all. Young John, he was moved by her, and over time, as she grew into a beautiful young lady, he fell in love with her. Though she would never say it, she cared for John too, and would sit with him for hours during the evenings without saying a word, just listening to the bullfrogs and the peepers, watching for the great birds that came to rest in the live oaks.”

“Then one evening about seven years ago, John came to visit like usual. As he got close to the cottage, he heard a strange commotion from inside – a kind sobbing and moaning, he said. He opened the door and found a large man on top of Emma. John was a strong man, and as the stranger began to turn, John grabbed him from behind, bent him backwards violently, and dropped him, a crumpled heap the floor. The girl screamed, and to John’s astonishment, this was not Emma – it was her sister Estela, who had come to watch the house while Emma and her mother were away to visit the other sister, Veronica, in New Orleans.”

“It turned out that the strange man was hurt real bad – his spine was fractured, and he would never be able to stand upright. He would need a cane to walk for the rest of his life. It also turned out that this stranger was a married man, and Estela was his mistress. And what made everything even worse was that the man was Judge Jackson’s nephew, Zachary Jackson, a handsome but unscrupulous character.”

“So when John Lagarde went to trial for manslaughter, Judge Jackson had to recuse himself for obvious reasons. But his influence was felt anyway – the long arm of the law, so to speak – and the lesser judge ended up sentencing John to seven years in the pen.”

Bobby paused, and fixed his eyes on me in such a way as to convey that what he was about to say was to be understood deeply and guarded vigilantly: “John Lagarde was released from prison the day before the Judge was attacked. He is nowhere to be found.”

V

I returned to the landing that evening. Shrimp boats were settling in the docks, the muddy waters roiling softly. It was Monday and the bar was slow. Jean saw me right away, and was happy to join me at my table. She would be off duty soon, and suggested we go for a ride later on.

The cop in me regarded her as a fit young woman, about 5’6’’, 125 pounds, of mixed bloodline, typically Creole in these parts, with tied-back reddish hair that was probably dyed. The man in me saw her as extremely attractive, magnificently curved, with smooth dark skin, full lips and a laugh that soothed like music. The heart in me, however, was sending out very unsettling messages. This was something out of my realm of experience.

Later, In the motel room, I was completely disarmed, then mesmerized. It was a union of bodies and an out-of-body experience all at once. It was like being in flight, in pursuit of a brilliant, beautiful, warm dream, and then getting inside it, feeling like you have finally come home, only to discover that it is fleeting again, always just out of reach. She would not stay the night. I heard her whisper as she closed the door, “I will see you again”.    

VI

The weather report called for a mixture of clouds and sunshine, very humid and windy, with high temperature of 92 degrees and a 50 percent chance of rain on the evening I drove my rental car to the edge of Emma Montaigne’s property. There was no driveway, no mail box, no sign. I parked on the side of the street and followed a crude path through the woods that was  lined with wild azaleas and witch hazel.  Eventually I came to a small clearing where I was halted by a large and powerful-looking white dog, an unfamiliar breed. I froze there, unsure what to do, until I heard a voice call “Shem! Come!”

The dog released me, and I proceeded to the cottage, in front of which sat a woman with uncombed, untrimmed jet black wavy hair that covered much of her face and flowed to her lap. She wore a long white dress cape, and as I approached I could hear the creaking of the wood rocker on which she sat. There was an empty chair across from her. She looked at me with a mix of curiosity and slight amusement as I sat down.

I explained the purpose of my visit – that I was investigating a crime, and was interviewing all the people in the surrounding area, which I sensed she knew to be not quite true. The questions were routine: Where was she on that night? Had she seen or heard anything unusual or strange? Had she seen the Judge or his dog that day or that evening? She just shook her head, and it became clear that she was dismissing me. My last question, however, had an effect: When I asked her if she had heard from John Lagarde, she twitched nervously, then leveled a stare into my eyes that startled me with its familiarity. I could not place it at the time, but its sharp lucidity and gravity seemed to cut to my soul. After a few frozen moments, she released me. “You must leave now,” she said plainly.

As I returned to my car, there was a sudden commotion: a truck sped up the street toward me and came to screeching halt behind my car. A man and woman jumped out and opened the tailgate, which revealed a teenage boy struggling to hold down a form that was flapping and flopping desperately from under a blanket. The driver of the truck relieved the boy, and with great care and determination managed to subdue the struggling body and lift it out of the truck. I followed the family and its burden down the path to Emily’s cottage.

What I witnessed I am reluctant to say, only because I am a man of reason, of logic, a believer in natural law. What I saw betrayed my instincts, and if there was ever a way for me to come to Jesus, it would have started there: beneath the blanket was a full grown bald eagle – a magnificent raptor that had somehow flown head on into a 150-foot-high fracking rig and got trapped between girder joints near the top. The boy, who had been marveling at its graceful flight, saw what happened, and when he realized that the great bird was stuck there and struggling to free itself, he climbed the steel ladder up the side of the rig and somehow managed to free the wing and claw that were caught. The Eagle attempted fly off, but could not maintain altitude. It descended awkwardly, crashing to the ground below. There the boy’s father subdued it with the blanket, loaded it in the truck, and drove here to Emily’s place.

The man laid the great bird down on top of a massive stump, the remains of a great live oak tree. It was surrounded by small pots containing what appeared to be various herbs, leaves, bark, and small animal bones. By now the eagle had stopped struggling, seeming to have given up. Its eyelids shuttered slowly, its broken wing lay limp and twisted and crooked, and two of its talons were bent 90 degrees, nearly broken off. Its beak opened and closed as if gasping for air.

Then it happened: Emma stood over the eagle with her back to us and began chanting in a tongue I did not understand. At first it sounded sad, mournful, almost as if she was crying. Then it took on a rhythmic pulse, and became melodic, lyrical, then joyous – a sound of laughter that seemed so familiar. Then suddenly the clearing in which we were gathered was momentarily shrouded within dense, black clouds. There was peal of thunder, a flash of lightning, and a powerful gust of wind. When the curtain lifted, we saw that the bird was aloft, winging awkwardly first, then gaining strength as it flew away into the purple and orange horizon. Emma, was exhausted, and collapsed to the ground in a heap under her white cape dress.  The boy who had rescued the eagle helped to her feet and led her back to her cottage.

VII

That was the same night I found the snake in my bathtub. As I came in I noticed small drops of water on the carpet. The light switch in the bathroom did not work, leaving only the streetlight from outside and the bedside lamp to guide me as I undressed to take a shower. Perhaps it was divine intervention, perhaps my police instincts, or just plain luck that I noticed the heavy dark form at the bottom of the tub just before I stepped in. Bobby informed me later that this was a cottonmouth, very widespread in Louisiana, and highly venomous. 

VIII

On Tuesday morning I was called to another meeting with the Judge, who was anxious to hear what we had discovered thus far. Neither Bobby nor I offered any information about the snake. Bobby told him that we were still searching the property for any evidence that did not turn up during the initial investigation four months ago, and that we were re-interviewing all the neighbors. Hugh Jackson was impatient. “Of course you know about John Lagarde being on the loose. What have you done about that? How can such stupid man get away from guys? He must be living in the swamp. Why haven’t you brought in the bloodhounds?”

Bobby explained that since John went to prison seven years ago, there was nothing remaining that had his scent on it, and therefore the dogs would be of no use, even if they could smell in the water. I interjected that we were pursuing DNA evidence, employing some breakthrough technology. I assured the judge that we had some of the top scientists working on the case. This of course did not satisfy him. He mumbled some apparent insults and threats, then abruptly dismissed us, waving his stub-hand toward the door.

That evening I drove back to the Landing. Jean Blanchet was not there, and the bartender informed me that she called in that morning to say she was sorry but she had taken a manager job in Lafayette. “Too bad,” he said. “She was a pleasure to work with.”

At the motel, I lay in bed, my gun by my side, wondering about all this, about this weird case and these strange characters, and especially about how, in such a short time, I had become so invested in this place with which I had no natural affinity. I was a stranger in a strange land; part of me wanted to quit this case, to leave this hot and humid swampland behind, and to erase all the memories. The other part of me felt as if it had entered a new dimension, a sort of accelerated parallel universe, and that to return to the common world would be tantamount to evolutionary regression.

Later that night I heard a rustling sound outside. From the bathroom window I glimpsed again the image of a large, stooped creature disappearing into the dark margins of the woods and alley.

IX

The next day brought more, mostly routine, interviews with the town folk. No one had seen or heard anything, yet just about all of them had something to say about the wild woman in the woods. Some believed in her as a real healer; some thought she was crazy, and still others deemed her an evil witch.  Later in the day I visited the family who had brought the eagle to Emma. I learned from the father that the Judge implemented eminent domain to purchase thirty acres of his property as part of the fracking enterprise. His son, who was autistic, was devastated. He had built a treehouse in those woods, and had cut a path that led down to a bayou where he loved to fish. All that land was leveled and cleared to make room for the gigantic drills.

I half expected to hear from Jeanette, and was spending too much time thinking about it. I decided that I would focus on finding out what was following me at night by the motel. My plan was simple: I would drive a few blocks, park my car in a lot, then circle back along the alley to the patch of woods behind the motel, where I would wait behind a tree with gun in hand for the thing that had been stalking me. This might have worked if it had not arrived there before me.

Just I entered the wooded area, something hit me hard in the back of my head, stunning me. As I turned, I barely made out the figure of a stooped man smiling maniacally as he continued to pummel with me with a stick. Dropping my gun, I fell to the ground, trying in vain to shield myself from the blows that rained down from above me. Just when I thought I would lose consciousness, I heard someone yell, “Drop the cane now, Zachary! Drop it now or you’ll be my guest in jail for the next six months!”

Somehow Bobby was there when I was attacked by Zachary Jackson. Surprisingly, Bobby did not arrest him. Instead, he just told him to go home, that he’d done enough mischief, and that he’d deal with him in the morning.

We went back to my room, where Bobby made me an icepack for my head. He explained how Zachary had become the town misfit, sometimes the town menace, since he was nearly killed by John Lagarde in Emma’s cottage. Moreover, he was embittered by his subsequent divorce, and was never able to get over his deep infatuation with Estela. He was a lost cause, and perhaps one to be pitied since he had already been condemned.

He asked if I was up for a ride that night. After stopping at an all-night diner for coffee, we took a dirt road that seemed to go on and on. The sound of night swamp creatures grew louder, drowning out the sound the car’s motor, and I could catch glimpses of bayou as we drove into the wee hours. Finally we came to an overgrown driveway that led to shack situated right on a bayou.

Bobby knocked on the door, and a powerful black man opened it. “John,” said Bobby. “This is special investigator Paul James. He is a friend of mine. You can trust him. I want you to tell Paul exactly what you saw that day fifteen years ago. It is important that he hears it from you.”

As John spoke, I began to understand at least part of what had really happened: that evening, after John had discovered nine-year-old Emma lost in the woods and took her to the cottage, he returned to the barn by the property line and saw the Judge there, inside the barn, digging a hole in the dirt floor. John was startled to see the judge way out here away from the mansion, and, worried that the judge would reprimand him for being off the property, he decided to stay out of sight. He hid at the edge of the woods and watched as the judge shoveled frantically, then took small object from his pocket, dropped it in the hole, and covered it. It wasn’t until years later, while he lay on his cot in prison, that John was able to make some sense out of what he had seen. That object must have been the shoe that Emma had lost.

“I knew that I would never be able to get a warrant to search the Judge’s barn,” said Bobby. “So I knew I had to wait. Then, recently, in the process of investigating the crime against the judge, I’ve been hoping to find something that might be suspicious. Aside from some pornographic films that were buried in the ground along with a garbage bag filled with little girl dolls, there isn’t much to go on.” He paused, his face a mixture of despair and hope. “There is only one thing left to do” he said, looking straight at John. “You are the only one who might be able to find that shoe.”

X

So that was the plan. We would sneak John back to town. There would be a brief reunion between John and his love Emma at the cottage, and under the cloak of the night, John would take a shovel and a small flashlight and retrace his steps through the woods. He would enter the old barn where he would dig and dig and dig like only a man who has been in prison ever could, until at last he found it – a little girl’s plastic shoe, decomposed badly after twenty years, but still identifiable.

Bobby put his career on the line when he went forward with his evidence. He would face something much more dangerous than any 250-pound running back. Yet in the end, despite an eloquent and substantial appeal from the prosecutor, all Bobby had done was soil the Judge’s reputation. The long arm of the law had once again served the judge. The case came and went within a few months; there was insufficient evidence. John was imprisoned again, waiting for trial for numerous parole violations.

Yet there would be justice of some sort after all. No matter how long the arm of the law, it still must have fingers with which to apprehend those who would break it.

On the day after his exoneration, Judge Jackson and his entourage of lawyers walked victoriously up the brass-railed stairs of the great court building. At that time the steps were in disrepair – the concrete was cracked in many places underneath near the edges. Those cracks had become shelters for the pigeons. As Judge Jackson reached the last step at the top of the stairway, a lone pigeon was startled from its resting place and flew right in front of him. The Judge was also startled, and was thrown off balance. Then, after reaching for the rail that his fingerless hand could not grasp, he tumbled down the steps to his death.

In the meantime, my forensic people had discovered a fingerprint at the scene of the crime in the Judge’s yard. This I would keep to myself, for a while at least.

As promised, Jean would see me again. We met for dinner at the Blue Dog Café. At first I didn’t recognize her: her hair was not red, and it was not tied back. It was jet black and long and wavy and beautiful. She wore a striking red cape dress. She was stunning. I realized at that moment who she was.

“So, which sister are you?” I asked. “I’m Estela,” she sighed. “And I’m sorry that you had to be part of this mess.”

“You should know that we found forensic evidence,” I said. “I’m pretty sure it won’t turn out to be John Lagarde’s.”

“I’m pretty sure you are right,” she said with a coy smile. “But I’m not worried – there are at least a few good reasons not to worry.”

“I can’t imagine what it would be like to have a twin” I said.

“Twins? Oh no, Mr. James, we are triplets. But I don’t think you would want to meet Veronica. She is a very intense and very strange woman.”

***

Pete Howard works as an English teacher, a musician, a writer, and a house painter.