Gros Bon Ange (The Tormented Tale of Chesapeake Charlie ~ A Prequel)

That pet hound of yours with the big brown eyes, floppy ears and wet kisses ain’t the same temperament as the half-dozen ones who’s claws ripped through the cold mud in pursuit of human flesh that long ago October night. Those Eastern Shore hounds of old knew a thing or two about tracking down a man on the run. To those being chased, their howling cries worked a quick tonic against any thoughts of fatigue. In fact, they were left with no thoughts save one. Move.

But wives and children run slow. And babies, not at all. Poor Charlie never stood a chance.

“We’ve traveled too far north,” said Harriet. “I don’t know the land.”

“Ain’t North good, Moses?” panted Charles.

“No. East is good. Safe places is in Delaware, but we’s a long way off.”

“Moses, them dogs ain’t a long way off.”

“No – a half mile or so. They got our scent, though. We need to cross the river. Dogs can’t track over water.”

“I can’t swim, not with these.” Charlie held up his arms wrapped in the chains he’d pulled free that morning from a hitching post. His overseer had learned from experience that selling a slave away from his wife and children often caused them to run. Now, he’d learn that post hardware need be attached with longer bolts.

“I can’t swim neither,” responded Harriet. “We’ll need to find a boat.”

“Where are we going to get a boat?”

“This is the Chesapeake. Boats is everywhere.”

“We can fight,” said Charlie’s wife, Bibiana, patting the small satchel tied to her belt.

“You ain’t got enough ol’ magic to win that fight, Bibby. We gotta run.”

The rowboat they found seemed abandoned. It was upside down and buried a few inches into the mud. When Charlie flipped the boat, voles scattered from beneath and the edge of its wood crumbled in hands. It surprised him when the thing floated.

One by one, they got in. Harriet first, then Bibiana, holding their infant son, followed by their twin six year old girls. Charlie climbed aboard last with a powerful push of his foot from the bank.

They rowed with their hands; Charlie on one side, Harriet on the other. Charlie’s strength would’ve sent them in circles if holding the end of the chain wrapped around his arm didn’t make his hand into a fist. Thankfully, once a hundred feet out, the tide did most the work. They rounded the bend in darkness just after them hounds lost the scent at the water’s edge. They watched as men with torches on horses trotted back and forth searching the high reeds of the bank in vain.

Any time the fugitives had purchased was spent on the water that slowly filled the bottom of the rowboat. Bibiana searched for but could find no distinct leak. It was as if the water pressure outside the boat pushed the water that was already logged in the wood clear through. The girls cupped their tiny hands and, ounce by ounce, did their best to toss the water back over the side.

“We need to make for shore before we sink,” said Charlie. “We can take a chance on land. We got no chance out here.”

“Did we cross the river?” asked Harriet. “With the dark and all these coves, I can’t tell if we’re still on the same side as them dogs.”

“Even if we didn’t cross, we can’t stay here. Besides, it’ll take them dogs all night to come back across our scent.”

They made shore in a cove under the shadows of a majestic oak, beyond which, lay a slumbering plantation.

“There’s slave quarters over there along that far tree line,” pointed Harriet, jumping to the bank. “We might find allies there who can help us. We’ll use the haystacks along the way for cover.”

Charlie jumped into the water. He carried one daughter, then another, above the water to the bank. “Go, run with Moses to the haystacks.”

He took the baby from his wife and held her hand as she negotiated the sandy soil. “Go to the girls. I’ll be right up. I just want to secure the boat in case we need it again.”

“Give me the baby,” she said.

“He’s fine. Go quick. I’ll be right there.”

But, Charlie wouldn’t be. As Bibiana approached the haystack, a sudden and fiery glow came from the woods, followed by the appearance of men on horseback with torches. They stopped in the farm clearing. The posse was smaller than before. There were no dogs this time. It appeared they’d split up to cover more ground. They could not see Charlie in the water, nor the women behind the furthest haystack from their standing.

Charlie sat back in the water, holding his infant son tightly. A cold swell of water woke the child from its sleep as he did. He put his wet palm over the baby’s mouth to muffle the impending cry. It didn’t work. He put his finger in his mouth. It didn’t work. The bitter river water raised his fussing to a level that would be heard. He looked at his wife. A mother knows the start of her baby’s jag. Her terror-stricken eyes watched Charlie from behind the haystack.

Charlie looked at his young daughters. He looked at Harriet. He looked at his wife. All would be lost if they were discovered. One or six? That was his terrible choice. He submerged his little son under the waterline praying the men would turn around and ride away. Harriet tackled Bibiana as she started out to the water. She covered her cry with her hand. “Shhh,” Harriet whispered into her ear. “He ain’t got no choice.”

It seemed to poor Charlie that his tears raised the whole of the bay to help in his terrible deed. How could the men on horseback not hear the screaming of his soul? Perhaps, they could. They started up again, closer, into the open field of haystacks. The women were about to be discovered.

One or five? Charlie’s terrible math continued. He lay his motionless son gently on a tuft of grass behind the majestic oak tree, then unleashed the sum of his fury. In a full dash, he ran screaming in a tortured froth toward the posse. Their frightened horses reared up, tossing two of the four men to the ground, while Charlie pulled a third off himself. The last man atop his horse pulled his pistol, but fumbled it into the darkness in his haste. It went off when it hit the ground. It took all three men on the ground to equal Charlie’s strength. A man on each arm and one around his neck, he carried them toward the water.

Harriet used the distraction as an opportunity to run to safety with the girls. Hiding behind one haystack, then on to another, they made their way to the slave quarters by the tree line. Bibiana followed but stopped at the edge of wood. She turned to watch what price her husband would pay for their freedom.

Charlie threw his full body weight back to the ground, and the man around his neck had his wind knocked clean from his lungs along with the distinct sound of snapping ribs. The men on Charlie’s arms then got the idea to pull him off their friend by his chains. It was an ill-conceived plan. Charlie ripped the links from their inadequate grasps and the chains passed over his head with a whoosh. A devil’s smile came to his face, lit by the dropped torches that now ignited the hay about them. Slowly, he circulated his right arm, steadily building up speed, until the length of chain became a wall of spinning metal. The men in his path stumbled backward to get out of the way. He whipped at them with the chain on his other arm.

For a moment, Charlie thought he might find a way out of this; such a fear he saw in the eyes of men. The moment, however, was short-lived. The rogue pistol shot had done its worst by answering the question: where? Now, the howls of hounds pierced the silence of the woods and a half-dozen more men pulled up on horseback into the field now covered in fire. Hell, this wicked night, would not be denied an appearance.

Two dogs and a horse took the brunt of his chain shield, but it was enough to stop its momentum. The rest of the dogs and the men were able to subdue him. With the dogs called off, Charlie’s arms and legs were roped.

“Forget the bounty! Let’s string him up!” wheezed the man Charlie had fallen back upon. He held his side and kicked at Charlie on the ground, “I think this nigger broke my ribs!” He winced at the pain when his foot hit Charlie

“A warning to others who fight back,” agreed another. “Gotta lynch one every now and again!”

Most were in agreement. Those who weren’t, still stayed to watch.

A noose was fashioned with expert speed, closed around poor Charlie’s neck, slung over a thick branch in the majestic oak and tied to a horse. He raged as he rose into fire-lit night; eyes bulging, teeth grinding, muscles rippling. His fight sought no end.

“That better not be one of mine dancing up there!” snapped the plantation master approaching with a lantern in one hand and a rifle in the other.

“Rest easy. This one’s from down Dorchester County” said a man offering the master a flask he’d been sipping. “He gotta wife hiding around here too.”

“What about my hay? It’s burnin’ away.”

“Tell you what,” said the man with the flask, “You find his wife, you can keep her.”

“Don’t cut him down neither,” snapped the plantation master, “I want him hanging there in the morning for my workers to see. See all the other rope up there?”

The man had not seen it before, but bits of rotting rope hung like tourniquets from the arms of the oak.

“It’s a deal, friend.”

The farmer grabbed the flask and took a belt to seal the deal. Then, they stood around marveling at the waste of so much strength and energy, and how much labor Charlie might have been forced to do, if only he could have been brought to heel. Perhaps, a different master and a more proper motivation.

In the course of their business, none of the men or their tired dogs saw Bibiana, the daughter of a Haitian mambo, slink through the shadows of the trees to within a hundred feet of where they stood. Nor did they see her reach into the satchel on her belt and pull from it a hollow reed and the dart she blew straight and true into the side of poor Charlie.

“Mmm…al domi, Gros Bon Ange, al domi,” she whispered into the night.

Charlie, at last, fell still.

A light and gentle rain began, extinguished the flames and drove the men to the plantation house where flask topping had been offered and new friendships would be made.

Bibiana stepped out into the rain when they’d gone. She found the sad wet body of her baby child beneath the great oak and cradled him in her arm. She walked to where the rope had been tied off to the oak and pulled it loose. Charlie’s big body fell into the wet grass. She rolled him onto his back, pulled free the dart, knelt by his side and kissed them both before tucking their child into Charlie’s arms. From her belt satchel, she pulled a bottle, uncorked the top and dumped onto her husband and child’s faces her caplata powder; a dry grind of the most venomous parts of snakes, fish and frogs with a bit of human remains ground in for the measure of it. “Domi, Gros Bon Ange, domi,” she incanted repeatedly. “Domi, Ti Bon Ange, domi. Reveye avek zekle.”

When she finished her incantation, she dragged Charlie, child in hand, through the mud by his feet to the water. Lighter in the water, she carried them behind the oak and lodged them under it’s roots. Finally, she tied his chains to the tree trunk. “Wait here, my loves.”

Before the sun came up, she said goodbye to her twin girls. How long it would be until they again saw each other, she did not know. She entrusted their safety to Harriet whose protestations lasted as long as it took her to find willing replacements for Bibiana and Charlie amongst the plantation’s slaves. Those moving onward had a mile head start to the east when the master came stretching out his front door. He was sheepishly startled when Bibiana rose out of the rocker on his porch and said, “I’m the missing wife, sir. I believe I belong to you now.”

It was four years later…

One by one, the wooden kegs had been smuggled southwest from Delaware. The plantation master carefully stacked each one in his barn behind a fake wall. The paper label on the side of the kegs read: Du Pont Gunpowder.

It was the third summer of the war. The Confederacy was awash in victories and on the move. With enough supplies and resources, victory for the Cause was within it’s grasp. Unfortunately, for the South, few of their victories came upon the sea, and General Winfield Scott’s Anaconda Plan to cut off the ports of secessionists from all trade, jeopardized the long term prospect of ultimate victory.

Though a citizen of the North, the plantation master’s sympathies, along with most of the white inhabitants of the Eastern Shore, Maryland, lay squarely with the South. Like many others along the Eastern Chesapeake, he hid Northern-manufactured goods in the barns, fields and woods of the bay’s tributaries until ready for transport in small schooners, sloops, canoes and rowboats to Virginia. That supporting the Cause also made many a fortunes, did much to embolden their patriotism.

This was to be the plantation master’s biggest deal. He’d moved food goods, but nothing so lucrative as gunpowder. He had been waiting months for the right time to ship his kegs. It was in late June, that his opportunity arrived. Every blue uniform on the Eastern Shore, indeed east of the Susquehanna River, vanished, summoned to somewhere in south-central, Pennsylvania.

Too big an operation to pull off alone, the master employed the help of some friends he’d made on that fateful night some years earlier. Bibiana immediately recognized the men, as they waded in from their sloop, as the same men who’d chased her family on that cold October night.

The master’s opportunity was not the only patient, long-awaited opportunity to arrive that evening. Bibiana smiled looking upward to the dark and accumulating clouds.

The slaves, Bibiana among them, were made to load the kegs in the barn into the wagon. Down by the water, they unloaded them the same. They walked holding the kegs above their heads, in water up to their chins, out to the sloop anchored in the center of the cove. Their hearts hurt knowing full-well what was the contents of those barrels and how many men, men who fought for their very freedom, might perish through its use. More than one of them thought about throwing the dry powder into the black water of the cove, but the rope, left as a message, which had dug into the bark of the oak towering high above them, did its job and tempered their thoughts.

The first roll of thunder caused the eyes of the blockade runners to fall upon each others’.

“Thunder means lightning,” said one of the men, wiping the summer sweat from his brow, “and last I heard, lightning and gunpowder don’t mix so well. Maybe, we should delay.”

“No,” the plantation master quickly snapped. “With the blue-bellies gone from the land, it’s too perfect. It’s Providence! God’s will – and so is this storm. It’ll keep the Union gunboats hunkered down. They’ll never suspect anyone to run their blasted blockade tonight.”

They had just finished loading the boat when the rains came. Tarps were lashed and tied over the powder kegs. The slaves were dismissed and most ran for their cabins. Bibiana remained. She stood firm and raised her rain-soaked arms toward the tempestuous sky. “Reveye avek zekle!” she shouted as her eyes rolled-back white. “Reveye avek zekle!”

The blockade runners looked at her, wondering if she’d lost her mind. When she lowered her arms from the sky to the oak, and a bolt of lightning hit the tree, they feared sorcery was afoot. They fell to the ground at the blast of percussion. Bark blasted free and peppered the arms held tight over their heads. When they found the courage to look up, the first thing that met their eyes was the chain wrapped around the oak glowing blue. Where the links disappeared into the nearby cove, the water also bubbled and glowed.

“Reveye, Gros Bon Ange! Reveye, zombie!”

One of the blockade runners laying on the ground beside the water began to scream and claw at the ground. His fingers cut long grooves into the mud as some powerful force dragged him by his foot into and under the water. The others scrambled back from the water and the oak. They closed ranks around the plantation master, pulling their knives and pistols. It did little to make them feel prepared for what might come.

When the tortured face with pupil-less white eyes rose out of the water, only one man cried out a feminine scream, but each man in his heart was certain it was he. Their feet stuck fast to the ground as they watched him rise, piece by horrid piece. After that awful face came the red-stained noose, followed by engorged black muscles. And, what was the package in his arms he meant to deliver upon them? The only sound he made was from the rusty rattle of chains dragging on the ground behind him; the only sound, that is, until the package in his arms let out a baby’s wail. This was too much for those who bore witness and they scattered in all directions.

Charlie caught two men by the woods with one lash of his chain; one by the ankle, the other because the captured man held his leg and, from fear, refused to let go. The man tried kicking at the face of the man who held on, but it was to no avail. With a strength that had no business dwelling in even a body as large as his, he swung them by the chain into the air and lashed their bodies into the closest tree trunk. Their crushed bodies fell limp to the ground.

The plantation master ran to and seized Bibiana from behind while she admired her husband’s work. He placed a blade to her throat. “Get to the boat!” he cried to the three remaining men who had started toward the house. “He don’t look like a swimmer to me, boys! I’ll keep him busy. You get that shipment across the bay. There’s two less of us now. Your shares in this endeavor just went up!”

The men stopped. Boat? House? What was the difference? It seemed sound an idea to them; best that their scared-witless minds could reason, anyhow. Charlie paid no notice of them as they dove from the banks into the water and began to swim toward the boat. He focused only on the blade held to Bibiana’s neck and walked evenly in her direction. He made no notice of the remaining dumbfounded and terrified slaves who prayed for their lives on the ground near his path.

“I know you!” cried the plantation master as he got closer. “You’re dead! We killed you! They hung you right there in that tree!”

Charlie turned and started toward the house. The plantation master quickly remembered his own family. He pulled a revolver and started shooting at Charlie. The lead found its mark, but had no effect on Charlie’s movement. The man released Bibiana and started after Charlie with his knife. He jumped on Charlie’s back and began to stab into his shoulder. Charlie ripped him to the ground, placed his callous bare foot upon his chest, removed his noose and placed it around the neck of the plantation master. He dragged the choking man across the wet field, kicking and flailing. The men in the boat hoisting the anchor watched in horror as their compatriot was hoisted up into the old oak tree. When he stopped twitching, Charlie let him drop to the ground.

As the men in the boat felt the wind catch their sail, they pulled up their paddles and took a deep breath. They knew they’d never need come back with the treasure they were sure to make. They’d take possession of it and keep headed in the same direction; away from this place.

They howled in victory and took pistol shots at Charlie who watched them from the bank fifty yards away. Charlie stood white-eyed and motionless. Of the awful derogatory names they called him from the boat, “nigger” was the most kindly.

As the blockade runners reached where the cove met the flowing Wye River, Charlie set his feet wide apart and raised his arm above his head. Slowly, he began to rotate his arm through the rain. The chain attached to his arm picked up momentum and swam in a wide circle. Faster and faster, he whooshed it. The hair on Bibiana’s arm began to rise. Electricity hummed in the air. In the moment Charlie brought the chain back and lashed it in the direction of the sloop, lightning struck him and the bolt redirected from his iron whip across the water, striking the gunpowder-packed boat.

It was said windows rattled in St. Michaels. The explosion had risen high into the night, incinerating all the men aboard the sloop. The slaves who witnessed the blast were knocked to the ground from the percussion. Only Charlie still stood. He stood there on the bank and smoked; a small fire burning in a wound on his shoulder. Bibiana was the only one with the courage to rise and approach the vision. She blew out his flames. She kissed her now-sleeping son. On her tip-toes, she kissed Charlie too. His white eyes never blinked. He gave no acknowledgement that she existed.

“Mmm…al, domi, Gros Bon Ange, ad domi,” she whispered.

At her words, Charlie walked slowly into the cove, disappearing with his son beneath the waters under the old oak.

“Someday, my loves,” she softly spoke, “You might rest forever. But, for now, this conflict is far from over.”

. . .

My status as a slave continued for another two years on that plantation. I was not much more than a boy that long ago night, but I’ll never forget Charlie’s terrible justice. My heart still misses a beat when I hear a baby crying in the night. And yours might now, too.

“What happened to Bibiana?” you ask. I’m not sure if I ever saw her again after that night. Maybe, I have. Maybe, I haven’t. Maybe, she died, taking the ability to remove Charlie’s curse with her. I’ve heard said, only the Voodoo queen who controls the zombie can remove the curse, and, maybe, he will continue to haunt the hearts of dark men forever. Maybe, Bibiana still lives. I once spoke with a woman on a steamer to Cape May who’d spent some time in New Orleans, a very beautiful young white woman she was too, who told me, when I brought up the matter of Voodoo, that she knew of a Voodoo queen down Louisiana who lived for centuries. I don’t know about that, but I do know that on particularly dark nights, when I have the courage or necessity to even go near that accursed, rundown, overgrown plantation house, sometimes, I see a faint lantern light within, moving across the windows.

I pray it’s Bibiana within, telling him, “Go to sleep, Gros Bon Ange, go to sleep.”