Five hours and forty-six minutes after a trapper pulls the skull from the depths of Starry Swamp, shaking sludge and Spanish moss out of its eye sockets, the entire town of Bottom Springs, Louisiana—all five-thousand-two-hundred-twenty-nine Christian souls and the small handful of Godless heathens—has heard the news. Once again, they whisper, a person has been claimed by the swamp.
But days later, Sheriff Thomas Theriot holds a press conference. Sheriff Thomas Theriot has not held a press conference once in his thirty years of service to the law. In Bottom Springs, there’s never been a need. So this morning, when he stands outside his office with the reporter from the Trufayette Town Talk, flanked by his two deputies, the entire town comes to see it. There have been people lost to the swamp for as long as there have been people living in Bottom Springs, but this press conference means something’s different. Even the ones who weren’t waiting for it—who haven’t, like me, laid awake every night anticipating this moment—are drawn out like a spell from the Dollar General and Piggly Wiggly and Old Man Jonas’s Bait & Tackle Shop.
They gather in close quarters on Main Street, some nearly hovering, the better to hear. They know Sheriff Thomas Theriot as Tom, or simply the sheriff. But today he stands unusually rigid in his law enforcement regalia, his mud-brown uniform with its pins and patches. He carries an air of authority that makes him feel like a stranger. Like some big-city cop, not our small-town, small-time sheriff.
“Good morning and thank you for coming,” he booms, kicking things off with a gesture of politeness, which is our way. That and the thickness of his accent is a comfort, a reassurance that despite his strangely formal stance, he is still one of us. “I’m afraid I have troubling news to share today.”
Unease ripples through the crowd. This is Southern Baptist country, and people are prone to unease, apocalyptic and overly associative, seeing holy warnings in the smallest of things, like the pattern sugar makes when spilled across a counter. My father is where you’d expect him, in the middle of the crowd, the tallest person here, thick, tanned, and already gleaming in his cuffed white dress shirt. As the sheriff speaks, the hands of the townsfolk find my father, until he looks like a massive sun radiating spokes of people. They lay their palms on his shoulders and forearms as if he is an anchor, his holiness a shield to protect them from the coming news. I cannot recall ever touching or being touched by my father that gently.
I watch from the back, alone and invisible as always. An ominous feeling seeps through my veins like silty black mud. It has been seeping since the moment I heard whispers about the skull from Nissa, my colleague at the town library.
“June seventeenth, at approximately 4:32 p.m.,” the sheriff says, “while one of my deputies was responding to a vandalism issue in Starry Swamp—”
He stops when the crowd titters, heads whipping to one another, eyes flashing. We haven’t heard this part of the story. Like everyone else, I frown. Vandalism in the swamp?
The sheriff raises his voice and continues. “A trapper reported he’d found human remains in the water, caught up in one of his nets.”
Murmurs erupt from the throng. They know this information, but there’s something about hearing it from a man in uniform, with a carefully stoic face, that feels weighted. It hits me, too, like a punch to the gut. Those with their hands on my father tighten them, gripping him for support. Near the edge of the crowd, gray-haired Mrs. Autin, the town tailor, sways on her feet.
“What kind of remains?” Old Man Jonas calls. “How many pieces?” There are stains on his overalls from a morning spent packing bait. Some tsk at the indelicate question, but it’s Old Man Jonas, so he will be forgiven.
Sheriff Theriot holds out his hands for quiet. “I’m sorry to say the trapper pulled a human skull out of the swamp. As of now, that’s all we’ve been able to recover.”
A head with no body. People turn to gape at each other, wanting to see their horror mirrored. But not me. In the farthest reaches of the crowd, I am silent and dry-eyed. Dry as kindling, in fact. I alone know that whatever information the sheriff holds, he holds it like a lit match poised over my head.
“It was lucky we happened to be there responding to the vandalism,” the sheriff adds, almost as an afterthought, the Louisiana storyteller in him cropping up despite the somber moment. “Trapper said he might’ve thrown it back in the water if he hadn’t spotted the law ’round the bend.”
A thousand threads of fate, then, weaving together to pull the skull out of the dark water and into the light. A thousand things conspiring for this day to come to pass. What are the odds? my mind whispers, and though I’ve instructed myself to remain blank of mind, of all the things I could be thinking, at least it’s probably the safest. My father is only feet away, which means the Holy Spirit is here in this town square, listening.
“It was God’s will,” someone calls, and the crowd murmurs its assent. Some of them have started swaying, moving to a message from the Creator only they can hear, like they’re back in church.
The Town Talk reporter clears his throat. “Is it your opinion someone got lost out there? Or are we talking about another alligator attack like the one last year?”
My body is incandescent with fear. Be a gator.
For the first time, exhaustion carves the sheriff’s face. “Yesterday we received word from the coroner in Forsythe that the skull belongs to a male, aged twenty-five to fifty. And the fracturing on the bone is consistent with blunt-force trauma.”
The crowd goes silent. My heart pounds so fast I want to crack my sternum and release it.
“The skull’s been bashed in,” the sheriff clarifies, his drawl deepening. “This man did not die by gators. He was the victim of a brutal beating. I’m here today to announce we’re opening the parish’s first homicide investigation in twenty years.”
There’s a strangled cry as gray-haired Mrs. Autin succumbs, falling to her knees. Some townsfolk rush to pull her up, but the rest devolve into chaos. They shout, imploring the sheriff for more information, imploring my father to intervene. A woman carrying a small child on her hip, who I know only as one of the Fortenot Fishing wives, starts to weep.
Homicide investigation. Those were the words I was waiting for. Inside me, the fire catches and erupts. No one can see it, but I’m standing in the middle of Main Street, burning alive.
The flames of Hell have finally reached me like my father always warned.
“Calm down,” the sheriff booms, his voice rising above the fray. “I need you to listen.” The two deputies flanking him—old Roy McClaren and young Barry Holt—straighten and finger the sticks at their belts as if they might jump into the crowd to force everyone’s silence. Barry’s troubled gaze searches faces until he finally lands on mine. He gives me a grim, tight-lipped smile. I have no idea what expression I make back. My body is on fire and I can feel nothing else.
“This is all the information we have,” says the sheriff, voice still straining. “We’ll update you as soon as we identify the victim. In the meantime, I need any and all information you might have about the homicide. If you know something—anything—tell us. We’ll follow every lead. Consider this a plea.” His gaze skims the crowd until it stops at my father. They hold each other’s eyes. A darkness passes over the sheriff’s face. “And I must also ask for your prayers. Evil has come to Bottom Springs.”
The crowd explodes at this, one of the older women wailing. The sheriff and his deputies turn their backs and stride into their office, trailed by the reporter. In their absence, my father takes command, lifting his arms to the heavens. I can see only the back of his head, his coal-black, slicked-back hair, the dark sweat staining his dress shirt, but I’ve seen this gesture enough times to know what expression he’s wearing.
“Let us pray,” he shouts, “for the soul of this poor murdered man.” He staggers down to his knees in the middle of the street. Like a contagion, the people around him fall, too, a movement that ripples until the whole crowd is braced against the ground. “May God reveal the wicked soul responsible for this gruesome act, the soul who has betrayed God’s holiest commandment.” The crowd raises their arms like he does, tilting their heads to the sky, imploring their Creator. “May Christ deliver us from the demon who walks among us even now!”
I cannot be here. Cannot watch them prostrate themselves before my father, cannot contain the grief threatening to erupt. I turn and flee, moving as quickly as I dare, knowing I cannot draw attention. I need to get home to my garden, to my refuge, where I can think.
From MIDNIGHT IS THE DARKEST HOUR by Ashley Winstead, to be published October 3, 2023. Copyright ©2023 by Ashley Winstead. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Sourcebooks Landmark.