A wise man once said, “There’s some scary shit goes on in the South.” Or something like that. Eryk Pruitt conjures up a dark tale from the days of the great Mississippi floods that, among other things, helped spawn the blues.
By Eryk Pruitt
On the third night of rain, we reckoned about thirteen or so negroes were gone. No belongings, no bodies, just gone. First thing come to mind was the river took them. After all, it’d taken everything else. But a bit of time passed now and I know better. I good and well know better, even though this is another of those stories they won’t be printing in the papers down in New Orleans.
The next night seven more disappeared, and a half-dozen the night after that. Boss Mickey screamed and hollered, wanted to know what’s happening to his labor, wanted to know how the hell we expected to fight this river without manpower. He wanted to know if they was running off or if they’d gotten careless around the river, got washed away. He wanted more men patrolling the levees.
“We got all the men we can spare out there already, Boss Mickey,” said Gentry. He scratched at his beard which had grown out of hand. None of us had taken to appearances since the rains started coming again. “But we’re stretched pretty thin now as it is.”
“If we lose more,” Boss Mickey said, “then we lose hold of the river. And if we lose the river, we’ll lose this entire half of the state. That’s your land, my land and everybody’s land you hold dear so get up on that levee and make sure we lose no more negroes.”
So we rowed out there and kept watch ourselves. The sun would drop and all you heard until your ears come used to it was the river, roaring and rushing and taking whatever it wanted, taking it on down through the bluffs at Vicksburg, the hills of Natchez and into New Orleans. The light of the moon showed us where the other men stood, the levee horizon itself dotted with tiny campfires that fought against the rain to keep lit.
We walked down the levee to where the blacks now lived. More tents sprung up every day. Used to, back in the fields, this time of night would have them carrying on and singing. Every recollection I had of the sharecroppers and their cabins lent to music: their work songs, the pounding of the hammers and the chants and hollers back and forth as they labored, loved and played. Those cabins washed away after the first crevasse and no one much sang anymore. All the music was gone, leaving tents and thousands of angry refugee negroes.
I offered one a cigarette. He spied it suspiciously but took it anyway. He stood at the edge of the camp, watching the horizon, watching river spit past and hiss. I asked him about the missing coloreds, asked if they’d run off.
“If they’s smart they did,” he said. “But I don’t reckon so. I reckon one of them men up there didn’t like their cut.”
I looked back at the watchmen. I shook my head and told him I didn’t think that was so. Boss Mickey made it clear he wanted these negroes able to work once the waters receded, and especially if they didn’t.
“You think the river took them?” I asked.
“I think there’s more out there than the river’s going to get us,” he said.
I went to ask him what he meant by that, but the watchmen got to shooting at a dog they found rooting at the fringe of the camp. They’d issued an order to shoot dogs a week ago. Dogs roamed the camps and some had gone rabid and we’d enough fear of disease, but I’d still never get used to it. Somebody got one and sent a black fella down the embankment to roll the carcass into the current. We watched it go under, bob up, then go under a final time, never to be seen in this county again.
In some parts the levee wasn’t eight feet wide. River on one side, flood on the other. Some days the river came up to the top and everyone threw sandbags from the barge on top of it, water lapping and spraying right up over them. Some days the waters receded down the sides of the levee. Folks quit any hope they used to have at the sight of the waters rolling back. The rains always came again and the sun quit rising. We’d had but dark, angry clouds since before the new year. Instead, there were days when it got less dark and stars faded to nothing and we knew night ended.
When that night ended, three more negroes were gone.
This time, Boss Mickey sent us back into the levee camp with a little incentive. His brother and a few boys brought their rifles and we stormed the camp around lunchtime. The coloreds stopped loading sandbags or dirt or whatever they’d been using to fight the river as we arrived, angry and wanting answers. Men mostly, but some women stood around, wishing for something to do.
“I don’t know where they’s going,” pleaded one of the black men. He eyeballed Boss Mickey’s brother, him holding his gun and not taking eyes off the black. “If someone told me something, I’d be telling you right now, boss. You got to believe me.”
“They’s probably drowned,” said another. “Or worse, they died eating this stuff you all’s feeding us.”
A few negroes laughed, but most didn’t dare. The food may not be good, but what alternative was there? Most everyone stared into the bottoms of their bean cups and kept scooping.
“We know life on the levee can be hard,” said Gentry. “Trust me, we know. But we’re doing everything we can to make sure your homes don’t get washed out. You think that’s my house down there under that water? You think it’s Boss Mickey’s? No sir. We’re all in this together to make sure you folk can go home when the water’s gone.”
“I ain’t got nothing to go back to except money I owe sharecropping,” said one of the bigger ones from Allan Hopper’s land. “But ain’t nobody letting us leave.”
“It’s a health risk,” explained Gentry. “We’re under orders to make sure everybody stays and helps out. If every one of you negroes leave, then nobody will be here to help save all you people’s homes.”
The big Negro wanted to continue, but Boss Mickey’s brother got tired of it and hit him in the face with the butt of his rifle. Big man went down and I tensed, seeing as how there were hundreds of blacks on that strip of levee and not but six of us. However, we had the guns. Nobody did nothing but weep and moan. Boss Mickey’s brother didn’t take to that either and came hard with the gun, but Gentry and I held him still.
“Ain’t no use in busting up every one of these fellas that don’t like how things are,” Gentry told him. “We’d have no one left to fight the river.”
I looked to the womenfolk and saw it in their eyes. They were scared. Everyone in the Delta had a right to be scared at that moment, but they weren’t just scared of the river. Nor was it Boss Mickey’s brother and the guns had them stretched. Something else had them. I went to talk to the one from the laundry but good Lord, thunder cracked open the sky and down came the rains again and mealtime ended. Every one of us got to piling sandbags.
We worked until we heard the screaming. How long it had carried on was anyone’s guess, but once we heard it, we got running. It came from the far edge on the flood side, opposite the camp and we rushed through, leaping campfires and pushing past children, rushing through half-abandoned dice games and whatnot until we reached the edge of the levee. Our eyes, slow to adjust to darkness, saw nothing. More negroes heard the scream and gathered behind us to see what caused the ruckus but nobody stepped past Gentry or I, as if to protect them from what may or may not be there.
“Do you see it?” Gentry demanded. I held up my hand to listen but heard nothing but save floodwaters lapping against the levee. No one moved. I held my breath. Beech leaves rattled like bones. Then, after a moment, we heard sounds of visceral tearing and chewing. I squinted and made out a dark silhouette crouched at the side of the levee and called out to it. It froze. The sound stopped. What light we had was scant and I saw no more than its outline and two yellowed eyes. I called again and whatever it was turned to us and hissed, then leapt into the waters and was gone.
“What the hell was that?” Gentry cried. He ran to the waterside and stepped in to his ankles. “Did you see that?”
I told him yes, I saw it, but I couldn’t describe or know what it was. All I saw in my mind were those yellowed eyes.
“Was it human?”
It looked human.
The negroes backed away, wanting nothing to do with this. Gentry sloshed in the water, still looking for answers and suddenly he was down, flailing in the muddy overflow. I clung tight to my rifle but rushed down the levee to retrieve him should he be carried away by the current or worse, but he regained composure and rose to the banks.
“What the hell?” He dragged something to the shore. I wiped rain from my eyes. It was a negro, one of the bigger ones, and he’d been half-eaten.
The camp erupted with the discovery. Many negroes didn’t care who had guns and who would used them or even if they would, they gathered what little they still owned and loaded onto the barge. Boss Mickey himself appeared at the levee and demanded the captains remove them and depart for Vicksburg, but more piled on.
“You didn’t see what George and I saw,” Gentry insisted.
“I don’t think you and George saw what you think you saw,” said Boss Mickey. “What I see is my men standing by while the entire Delta labor force tries to escape. If I have to sink that barge I will, but I will not watch these people quit their duties. Now get them off that barge!”
We did and that night lost four more and the next day they wouldn’t work. Boss Mickey’s brother brought his scattergun and pointed it this way and that but no one budged. They weren’t loading sandbags.
“What’s the point, boss?” asked the one from Allan Hopper’s place. “They’s something out there eating colored folk and if we fight the river, we’ll live to feed it. I’d rather the river take us.”
Boss Mickey’s brother listened to the reasoning then decided he didn’t like it so he pointed his scattergun into the negro’s face and fired. The front of his head exploded into a fine, red mist that took with it all the pain and fear he’d felt since the rains come and the rest of him fell to the flood side. Boss Mickey’s brother stepped over the body and considered it a bit while the blacks screamed and protested and pitched a fit then choked up as the white man kicked the body into the muddy waters.
“Who else don’t want to haul sandbags today?” he asked and in no time, they were back to work.
Someone proposed all this rain was on account of something someone did, as if an irritant to a cranky God, so folks set to praying even more. Others said it could be disease, that a worker got bit by one of the dogs gone rabid or ate something bad or maybe the typhus finally arrived, so a few Red Cross boys made their way from downriver in a motor boat with vaccine. Boss Mickey’s brother and his men rounded coloreds at gunpoint and lined them up for immunizations and we figured that would be that, but six more went missing that night and once more the camp was in a panic the next morning when the sun didn’t come up.
Boss Mickey had enough. He decided we’d wasted too many resources fiddling with this river and our worries, and the pressure on our earthworks could both be eased by dynamiting the levee on the other side. Flooding the town on the other side would save our own and he had no time for ghost stories coming out of negro camps. The levee could go any day if we didn’t act fast. He left that job to Gentry and I.
We readied for night. The rains, as if to conspire with Boss Mickey for our deadly mission, ceased. The current swept stronger than an angry sea, so we took two of the strongest blacks for the rowing. We sat along the riverside and looked to the opposite banks, now further than I’d ever remembered them being. Before, we’d traded with folk from over yonder, now we were tasked with putting them underwater.
“Let’s go,” whispered Gentry. The negroes put oars to water and we set course for the other side.
We fought from the onset. This current moved houses, motor cars, dead and bloated mules and livestock at a steady clip and would not idle as we tried to cross. A good half hour of rowing put us no more than a quarter mile from the banks where we’d started. Our negroes tired, so we fastened our craft to a sycamore that once stood mighty and tall but now only the treetop peeked above the waterline. The blacks collapsed to the bottom of the boat and their lungs pleaded for respite. On the levee behind us, I saw orange dots from lanterns and the tiny glow of campfires, but heard little over the raging current, as if watching a moving picture show. I thought to myself that if we just untied our craft from the top of this sycamore and stayed upright and true, we’d make Vicksburg in an hour and never needed look back.
But that thought never came to words as one of the negroes protested and bucked, threw all his weight against the side of the boat and groaned violently. I raised my rifle to stop him from throwing us overboard, but froze. Someone came over the side of the boat and grabbed hold of the negro and wasn’t letting go. His companion scattered and cowered behind Gentry and I who held fast, screaming and hollering. The attacker grasped the negro quick and sunk his teeth into his neck while he screamed then made no other sound as he was pulled over the side and suddenly it was as if nothing had ever happened, as if he never existed, as if the whole affair were but a dream.
The remaining negro carried on until told to shut it.
“How the hell did he get here?” asked Gentry. “Climb the tree? He didn’t swim against that current. Impossible! Did you get a good look at him?”
I did, but I didn’t want to say what I saw. I’d seen a man eat another, then pull him overboard. I’d seen those yellowed eyes, just like the other thing we’d seen. But I didn’t want to talk about that, for the river grew in size. It had been growing for months, but now with three of us alone in the tiny rowboat offshore in the dark, it became an ocean. Alone? We only hoped so. Our mission tasked us to keep rowing, but I wanted no more to do with this water, this river. I wanted out of the boat. I wanted to run.
I heard splashing on the stern side and not just catfish jumping or the last struggles of cattle flushing downriver, but splashing as if swimming and fired my rifle in its direction.
“What are you doing?” Gentry screamed.
More splashing, but this time on the starboard side and I fired my gun and figured we were all in for it. I ordered the negro to row us back to shore, but he couldn’t be pulled from the bottom of the skiff. I picked up the oar and slapped at the water, told Gentry to keep guns at the ready. We were still tied to the sycamore and I screamed and pleaded with the negro to quit cowering, to unfasten us, but to no use. Gentry fired his rifle twice in different directions into the night, but still the thrashing and splashing against the current and I dropped the oar and pulled at the rope binding us to the tree.
“What the hell is happening on the levee?” Gentry cried. I shook loose the knot, turned and saw. The orange lantern lights flew like fireflies. Silhouettes darted to and fro before the campfire’s glow, sparking embers as people were thrown into them. At first I thought Boss Mickey’s brother had stormed the place, but I knew better. Over the current I heard shouts and screams and knew that what had taken the negroes had returned and would take more. They were being overrun.
Gentry fired onto the levee. I pushed free of the sycamore and let the skiff fall into the current. The weeping negro in the bottom of the boat covered his eyes. We sailed past the levee camp, too fast to see everything, but we saw enough. We saw Boss Mickey’s brother would shoot no more negroes. We saw no one would take issue with the food anymore. We saw no one would be there to fight the river or defend the levee any longer, which had to be a good thing, because I swore if the river didn’t swallow that camp, Gentry and I would return with the dynamite, if we dared come back at all.
Eryk Pruitt is a screenwriter, author and filmmaker living in Durham, NC with his wife Lana and cat Busey. His short film FOODIE won several awards at film festivals across the US. His fiction appears in The Avalon Literary Review, Pulp Modern, Thuglit, Swill, and Pantheon Magazine, to name a few. In 2013, he was a finalist for Best Short Fiction in Short Story America. His novel Dirtbags was published in April 2014 and is available in both print and e-formats. A full list of credits can be found at erykpruitt.com.