Read an excerpt from Murder in Marksville, the new nonfiction book by Madelyn Bennett Edwards.
News on the Bayou
I flipped to CNN, MSNBC, FOX News, ABC and watched it again and again, the telling and retelling of the story. I don’t think I believed it at first as I saw my reflection in the black screen that hesitated between channel changes and felt I was trapped inside that flat electronic monitor hanging in the middle of the wall over the fireplace in my den. I fell back onto my sofa in Asheville, North Carolina and watched, but I couldn’t believe what I saw, so I watched it again. There it was, different reporter, same story.
I was shocked. I felt like someone walked over my grave, and a cold chill, like ice cubes, began in my neck and trickled down my spine like a never ending waterfall, freezing and tortuous. It’s not true, I told myself as I finally pressed the red button at the top of my remote, packed my book bag and headed to Lenoir-Rhyne University where I was in my first semester of a Masters in Writing program at the Thomas Wolfe Center for Narrative Studies.
The icy waterfall continued to cycle up and down my spine while I sat in class and tried to concentrate on how to write creative nonfiction, ironically, the class I was in that day. I couldn’t shake the connection I felt to something terrible and gruesome, like déja-vu. It felt like a chill that grabs and jerks you and lets go—but this chill held on and continued, repeating itself over and over. That eerie, unsettling feeling stayed with me through class and I never got used to the icy waterfall constantly flowing down my spine, recycling and doing it again without pause, and the goose bumps that stood up on my arms like a million pimples waiting to be popped.
When I got home that night I didn’t want to turn on the TV, as if by ignoring it, the story would go away. Maybe I dreamed it. But my husband, Gene, had the news on and, as soon as I walked in the back door he said, “You have to see this. You can’t believe what happened in Marksville.”
Marksville, Louisiana, my hometown. I slumped into the sofa and stared mindlessly at the scene—David Begnaud, of CBS, my favorite reporter whose distinctive voice in all his stories tells me he is a great writer, stood there, in front of the courthouse, in the center of my town.
I guess my mind couldn’t wrap itself around the horror, so it wandered off to the place of my youth, where my children were born, where my mother and brothers live, where childhood friends and classmates still go about their lives as if I never moved away.
Where I come from is another world. Avoyelles Parish. In the rest of the world people call them counties, but in Louisiana they are parishes. Some have Cajun names like Lafourche (Lah-foosh), Plaquemines (Plack-a-men), Pointe Coupee (Poyn-Coop-ee) Lafayette, Acadia, Evangeline, Vermillion, Iberia, East and West Feliciana and East and West Baton Rouge. Then there are those, like Avoyelles, named for Indian tribes—Calcasieu, Tangipahoa, and Terrebonne. Some parishes are named for famous men--Jefferson, Washington, Jefferson Davis, Allen, Cameron, Beauregard, and Iberville. Some parishes are self-explanatory:
It’s the “Holy" parish names that speak to the heavy Catholic influence—St. John, St. John Baptist, St. Bernard, St. Mary, St. Martin, St. Helena, St. Charles, and St. Tammany—although Tammany was not a saint but an Indian clan leader— and Assumption and Ascencion Parishes, holy feast days in the church. (yes, I spelled it correctly).
Being from South Louisiana is about being French, Catholic and different. We live around the bayous and many of our people make their living in the murky, alligator-infested waters.
My bayous are deep and mysterious, seeped in history with stories of past and present, triumphs and horrors. The dark, cypress treed waters are populated with gangly hardwoods that grow along the shoreline and out of the waters, rooted so deep in the muddy bottoms that the trunks are firm and strong, no matter how tall they grow. The roots form knees, or knobs—we call them,“cypress stumps”—that protrude above the water and are hidden under the surface, unnoticed until overrun by a boat or pirogue. Scientists believe that these knobs provide air for the roots which, like the tree trunks, are moisture-loving, known to absorb massive amounts of water, minimizing flooding when backwaters creep up from nearby cresting rivers. They also trap pollutants and prevent them from spreading.
For me, there’s nothing like the smell of a cypress tree, especially one that is fresh-cut or has a fresh-cut branch. It gives a distinct cedar aroma. Uncut and intact, standing at attention in the bayous, the sweet, minty scent mixes with a muddy, fishy smell because of the frogs, toads, and salamanders that use bald cypress swamps as breeding grounds. Wood ducks nest in hollow trunks, catfish spawn in the submerged hollow logs, and raptors like bald eagles nest in the treetops.
Cypress trees resemble glove-shaped cones with the tapered ends becoming smaller in diameter the higher they reach towards the sun. Their bowl-like bases create reflections that trick the eye to believe they grow off the surface of the water. Branches extend like long, individual arms arranged helter-skelter from the tapered top of to about half-way down the trunk. Their fern-like foliage, pointed green needles arranged like fans, are tiny at the tips of the branches and grow longer and thicker towards the trunks. The bark, woody scales that look like shields, stays damp and adheres tightly to the trunks.
The “bald” cypress are unlike most cypress and cedars. These conifers are deciduous, which means they lose their foliage and small branches in the fall. They can grow to 150-feet high and 17-feet in diameter and can live for 1000-1200 years.
My high school sweetheart taught me to fish the bayous and lakes in Louisiana. Years later I bought my own flat-bottomed fishing boat so I could set out before dawn, fishing tackle beside me, motor trimmed up to avoid hitting cypress stumps and putt through the quiet, still waters. I can still smell the musty, composting odors that feel like a siren call, a magnetic pull to the bayou. The subtle scent that rises off the water when the sun is high is like peppermint and mushrooms, fungus-y yet pungent, that opens the sinuses and whets the appetite.
I’d have to duck under thick swatches of Spanish moss that drapes over the gangly branches like long, curly grey icicles that almost touch the water’s surface in places. Thick stands of cypress trees filter sunlight to create cool spots in the hot humid temperature in south Louisiana, from March through November, not only for fisher-people, but for the fish, that like to find deep, cool pools around the embedded roots and knees of the bald cypress.
When I think about the bayous in Avoyelles Parish I can smell the muddy, fishy, musty odor and hear the egrets caw and motors putt through the murky marshes. And I can almost taste the air laced with moss and parasites and water urchins and hear the old Baptist hymns sung in the African American Churches with such gusto that they feel like rock concerts.
While I have precious memories of water skiing and fishing for large mouth bass in those bayous, I’m reminded that my bayous are ones slaves ran through to escape bondage, to find freedom. When you look at the almost black liquid, tinted dark because of the abundance of shade from the canopy of branches that form a ceiling over the slick, waveless, breezeless channels, when you think of all that has happened upon and under the surface, you feel the stories sort of bob to the top like corpses.
You feel the past isn’t finished yet. You feel the whole truth of everything lies not far enough below the surface to ever completely drown and be done with forever. The waters of my bayous seem filled with tears . . . tears that we continue to shed because true freedom is still not realized by so many.
I was reminded of these truths as I watched the story unfold over the next few days, while I tried to continue my life as if my soul was not connected to the past, tied to the present, worried about the future. The ice cubes in my veins refused to melt and goose bumps would appear on my arms for no apparent reason. Worried about my family and friends, their connections to this tragic event, how the onslaught of news media and attention might affect their lives.
I obsessed about my younger brother, the judge in this nationally televised murder, and my other brother, friends with one of the families, my mother, fighting cancer and dementia at 90 years old, my sister who was going through a divorce, my best childhood friend, who had recently been diagnosed with stage four metastatic cancer.
And I thought about the families—the victims, a dad and his little boy, shot, the boy dead, the dad fighting for his life; and of the accused, two police officers whose reactions were the result of so many outside influences. My heart broke because I knew the lives of all of these people would be forever changed, and that my precious bayous would be collecting more tears and witnessing more tragedy, building more history and the stories of these—my people— would forever rise up in my bayous, like those of slaves and plantation owners and KKK member and Jim Crow and Liberty summer.
Of course, I had to go home. I had to face the music, be with my sister, support my brothers, console my mother, see my best friend before she died.