The Early Years,
Before His Great Adventures
episodes from a folk tale
Margaret Cray married a man, Aubrey Prejean, who had fallen into disfavor with his family and seen a heartbreaking inheritance pass into the hands of his brother. Margaret was a compliant, fearful, dark-eyed woman whose family had come from the bayous; Aubrey was a skillful piano player but also a helpless gambler, eventually twenty thousand dollars worth of helpless. Their twin sons, Connor and Benjamin, were six years old the day some men took Aubrey from the house, clipped off all his fingers, set a Rottweiler on him for a while, and shot him in the head.
They returned his fingers to Margaret in a backgammon box and said, “You bring the money—or we come back for the boys.”
But as soon as Aubrey was dead, his brother Theo stepped in. To Margaret he said, “I can protect you. Do you want to watch those men die? No? Well, something will still be done about them, at least the ones I can find. These people hide out in the swamps.” He also said, “You and the boys will come live with me now.”
The Prejean mansion, Theo’s alone, sat like a king on three hundred acres of rolling grounds that graded into swampland. There were ancient willows and a lake populated by huge, disagreeable swans.
Theo was old at forty, his skin marked by creases and gray swellings that to young Connor looked like papier-mâché. The eyes seemed wedged into the face, like jewels embedded in dough.
He spoke with unusually good grammar. Upon their arrival he told Connor and Benjy, “Your father is dead. Around here you can do whatever you want—but I will not be your father. I will just be your mother’s friend.”
Unlike his trusting twin, Connor was filled with hatred toward their uncle. Despite his youth he could recognize in a vague way that the man was stealing his own brother’s wife.
At night his mother took Connor aside and told him, "This ain't forever. But it’s safe here." She was wearing a necklace now, a necklace Connor hadn't seen before.
During the days, he frittered the time away with Benjy, who had a speech impediment from a facial injury sustained as a baby and was happy to be isolated from other children. Uncle Theo had bought them a Saint Bernard puppy to play with but one day it wandered off over a grassy hill and was not seen again. "Don't ever go off by yourself," their mother had told them. "Your uncle says there are wild dogs in the swamp. And don't bother the swans."
The grounds were wild, unkempt, like a madman's hair; there was one
groundskeeper for three hundred acres, and he was blind in his left eye. Here and there in the high grass, rusty cages hulked abandoned. “Let’s catch us a wild dog,” Connor said, “and put it in a cage.”
His mother said, “Stay close to the house.”
Connor and Benjy turned seven. Gradually the idea that they would be leaving their uncle’s estate faded. Their mother was distant, as if a small node of her brain had been spooned out, and after a while it seemed to each twin that the only human being he knew was the other.
One day their mother went with them for a walk through the wild grass. Massive, steely clouds were beached on the sky, like great ships. Margaret wore a long black dress that the wind teased as they walked in a slow half-circle around the lake. “We got to go back soon,” she kept saying wistfully. “We shouldn’t go far.”
“What is that?” said Connor. He was pointing at a small slender mammal that lay dying in the dry grass; it looked like a long rat. Like a hinge its jaw opened and closed.
Benjy was afraid of it and ran away—“Stay close,” his mother yelled, but he ran—but Connor was intrigued and wanted to touch it. His mother held his arm, keeping him in place, and stepped closer to look. “I don’t know what it is,” she said after a moment. “I have no idea what that is. Not a… stoat. It ain’t a weasel.”
Connor wondered if it might be a wild dog, a very small wild dog. “Touch it,” he said. “Catch it.”
“I have no idea what it is,” his mother said again. “But something’s wrong with it.”
Connor freed his arm from her grip and took a few curious steps toward the animal before she grabbed him again.
She said, “What is wrong with you?”
All at once from behind them came a noise like concentrated thunder, a concussive thrashing of air, and Connor and Margaret turned. The sound came from the direction of the lake, which was obscured by the crest of a low hill and the willow tree which grew on it.
Connor asked, “Where’s Benjy?”
His mother began to run, her black dress and hair pulled sideways by the wind. Again the noise came, again. She reached the top of the hill and disappeared over it. Connor felt a rupture in his chest, a bubbling over of fear, and started after her.
When he got to the top, he heard the sound again and saw what was making it. An enormous swan, big as a sow, stalked the mud beside the lake, beating its wings like thunder. At its black feet Benjy lay, his neck bent like an ankle. Margaret was trying to reach him, but every time she got near, the creature made clicking noises and beat its wings with terrible force. From the water’s edge, four baby swans watched.
Connor ran down the sloping bank, wailing, but his mother grabbed him. She had to stop trying to reach Benjy’s body in order to hold Connor back.
Eventually, the groundskeeper heard screams, came running.
He beat the creature with a rake while Margaret recovered the body.
Two days later, the funeral. Connor had stopped speaking, except in his sleep, in his nightmares, and he was silent at the funeral, gripped by the shoulders by his weeping mother. Something seemed to have gone out of her with Benjy’s death; some maternal spirit had risen. Now she was just a thing that could walk.
After the ceremony, Uncle Theo took him aside.
“I hear you tried to mix it up with the swan,” he said. “Is that right? Your mother had to hold you back?”
Connor did not answer.
“What would you have done?” his uncle asked, shaking him a little, looking into his eyes. It was the first time he had really looked at Connor. “Did you want to kill my swan?”
Still Connor did not answer.
A week later his mother shook him awake just before dawn. She was in her nightgown and there was a funny deadness in her eyes. Within two years she would commit suicide. “Theo wants you,” she said. “Come now. Get up.”
She brought him into the hallway, where Theo waited, dressed in a canvas jacket, corduroys, and boots. He took Connor’s hand and walked him downstairs. When Margaret tried to follow, Theo told her, “No, you stay.”
He led Connor outside, across the damp grass. Connor was barefoot and veils of mist lay across the grounds. He rubbed his eyes and struggled to keep up, tripping over his sleepy feet. They came to a low building, a tumbledown stables. It hadn’t housed horses, or anything at all, in many years. When they were just outside it, Connor could hear something inside—soft but violent rustling, agitated grunting clicks. Swans.
In fear he tried to run, but his uncle grabbed him, picked him up, whispered, “Shhh, shhh. It’s all right, boy.”
His uncle carried him inside and he quit struggling.
In the center of the gutted stables was a long, makeshift stockade-thing. It was wooden, with metal hinges, and looked freshly—and quickly—built. Trapped in the stockade were six swans: the adult female that had killed Benjy, her mate, and their four cygnets. Helplessly beating their wings.
“Why,” Connor asked, “them buckets under their heads?”
His uncle said, “One of these days you will learn better grammar.” Then he put a hand under Connor’s chin and tilted the boy’s head upward. Above each swan’s head a rectangular blade was poised. He said, “See?”
Setting Connor down—the boy, transfixed, did not run—Uncle Theo approached the swan guillotine and clipped the first suspension rope. A blade fell and the smallest bird’s head tumbled into its bucket. One by one Theo cut the other ropes and one by one the heads fell into the buckets, their white feathers turning red under the faucets of their necks. Connor watched with blooming awe. When it was finished, Theo stood beside the guillotine and smiled at the boy.
After that day, Connor's hatred of the man went away. Fear replaced it, then a kind of love that was also fear.
By the time Connor Prejean turned twenty-two, at the beginning of the last third of the twentieth century, the U. S. Army was hungering for men his age—big, healthy, taciturn, uneducated men like Connor—and pulling them off dirt roads and out of the ghost forests and bayous and shipping them to a jungle with machine guns. Connor got called up and figured he would run north to avoid serving, but first he had something to do.
All the money he’d inherited two years earlier from his uncle (who’d been a father to him for years and who he’d finally murdered, though of course no one knew that or ever would know it; never mind; that is not important) Connor had gambled away. So he sat back down at the high-stakes game to try and win some money for the trip north. When he lost badly—too reckless, like his father—there was a dispute with a man named Gore, who produced a knife and stabbed Connor in the side. Connor stared at the knife sticking out of him. He thought, Why don’t people have armor, like crabs. Finally he took it out and stuck it into Gore, killing him there at the table.
Then he fled, driving wounded.
The police, probably they’d never hear about the murder. Gore’s people—they’d come after him on their own. So Connor drove west, since he’d told people he was going north.
In a gas station bathroom he bandaged the stab wound. It wasn’t so horrible. He’d live.
His car began to choke soon after, though, and on top of that it was raining. Connor pulled in at a motel in a little town called Judah, where he gave the name Ted Salmon and paid with Gore’s cash. He had a stack of it, two or three thousand, in hundreds. The sloe-eyed Creole girl at the motel desk looked him over, hunched her sweet skinny shoulders, and said, “Baby, hold on. You cold.” She made him a cup of hot coffee, and he went to his room and fell into a dead sleep.
Morning. His wallet was empty, thousands gone.
At the motel desk, an old toothless man with a face like a dried, mustachioed pea now sat by the ledger. Connor said, “That smart little girl who was here last night, where is she?”
“Delia?” said the old man. “She home.”
“Delia saw me pay with a big bill, so she put something in my coffee,” Connor said, “and then she robbed me. Get her back here or there’ll be trouble.”
“I don’t tell Delia to do nothing,” the old man said. “I’m just a clerk, same as her. You want somebody to boss Delia, you got to talk to the owner.”
“Where is he?”
“He in Metairie.”
Connor reached across the counter and grabbed the old man with both hands by the throat. “Tell me where Delia lives and how to get there,” he said.
Jogged by the throttling, the old man choked out some details. There was a house not far away, in the woods, where the girl lived with her two brothers.
When Connor let go of him, the old man looked at Connor with a certain redneck respect and said, “I wouldn’t go out there if I was you, those boys is dangerous. And if they ain’t there, the dog will be.”
“A special kind, from Africa. They breed them dogs to set on the blacks there. Got Rottweiler in them, bloodhound, some Doberman, shepherd, mastiff, even wolf. Called a Boerboel.”
“A Boerboel,” Connor repeated. New animals interested him.
Leaving the motel, he whistled a thin tune. The old man had told him how to follow the road to the top of a hill called Jawbone Hill, from which point he would be able to look down over some woods and see the top of the house he wanted. To reach it quickly, he would have to go through the woods.
As he walked and whistled, he swung his keys. Some people have rabbits’ feet on their key chains. Connor had the head of a robin.
He came to the top of Jawbone Hill and entered the crackling yellow woods. They were wet from yesterday’s storm but they were also crackling. Woods crackle even when they’re wet.
His foot squelched in the guts of a dead possum. A horde of beetles fled the guts. Connor thought for a minute, then picked up the carcass and carried it with him.
Soon enough he heard noises up ahead, heavy but precise, as if an unusually nimble bear had started running in his direction. He stopped. Oh yes. Here came the dog, all power and force, half-obscured by trees but getting nearer, like one huge black muscle with legs. Connor took out his knife.
But when the dog, the Boerboel, was about thirty feet from him, it stopped. It was indeed a monster dog, brindled black, with a skull as wide as a flank steak. Give it two more heads and it could guard hell’s front door. It regarded Connor with huge lips pulled back, magnificent. Connor regarded it. “A Boerboel,” he whispered. Its lips sank a little.
It sat down.
They were friends.
He gave it the possum carcass and continued on.
Soon the house became visible through the trees. He crouched at the edge of the woods and studied it. A big old house that was falling down. It had the look of an elderly man with no teeth, the way the cheeks sink into the sides of the face. After a while a girl came outside to hang laundry on a line, and he saw that it was Delia.
She had a white bedcover in front of her—she was fastening it to the line with clothespins, but it was heavy and she had to keep adding more—so when he came out of the woods, she couldn’t see him. Connor crept right up to her until he was standing two feet away, the bedcover hanging between them, and then he ripped the bedcover down, clothespins popping everywhere.
Delia jumped back, cried out. She was a very tiny girl, dark-haired, with fine black moles here and there all over her face and arms, and huge dark eyes full of fear. She looked like his mother.
“Give me the money,” he said. Delia was a pretty little girl.
“I ain’t mean to hurt you,” she said, backing away.
“You didn’t hurt me, you stole my money,” Connor said, following. “Give it to me.”
She said, “I don’t have that money.”
And he said, “Well, you better have it.”
“I didn’t want to steal no money,” Delia cried. “It’s my brothers make me. They got it. See them bruises?” She pulled up the sleeve of her housedress. “I got to bring home something.”
“Where are they?”
“They at the shop. We got a shop in town.” She kept walking backward, hands up defensively to her throat. He looked dangerous, this man.
“What kind of shop?”
“A butcher shop. Slaughter it, store it, sell it.”
“I’ll go see them,” Connor said.
“You do that,” she said. Her brothers would be angry with her; they would know she had said where to find them. But she had no choice. “They, uh, they cripples. You go down there, they’ll get scared and give you your money back.”
This was a lie. Her brothers were huge, hale, and brutal.
A shame, she thought, what they would do to him. Probably a meat hook would be involved.
“All right,” Connor said. “Where’s the shop?” She told him. Then he said, “Sit down there, on the porch.” She did as he said and watched him tear one of her bed sheets into strips. Then he tied her to the porch railing, tightly, by her ankles and hands and throat, so she couldn’t move. “You’re not going to tell them I’m coming,” he said.
As she watched him go she felt sorry for him.
A powerful man like him, what a shame he’d be taken apart. In a fit of guilt and sudden reckless lust she wanted to make him hers, almost yelled out to him to come back. But he was gone.
On Connor’s way back through the woods, he passed the Boerboel again. It looked up from its meal and barked. Woof. Hello, friend.
He reached the road and began to walk, whistling, back to the town of Judah. When he got to the town he followed Delia’s directions to the shop. It was a stone building set back a little from the road. According to the sign, the name of the place was Phils’. Some distance away was a church; on the other side of the meat shop was an ice cream store that seemed not to be open. No one was parked outside the meat shop. He went inside.
There was no one at the counter. Connor locked the shop’s entrance. He put the CLOSED sign in the window.
A wide metal door stood open behind the counter and through it, Connor could see the two brothers, one bearded, one not, standing in the back of the meat freezer. Of course he’d guessed Delia was lying about them being cripples. But these men were huge. Blood-covered monsters in aprons, surely over five hundred pounds combined. Hefting and hanging carcasses onto the ends of creaking, frosty chains.
They hadn’t noticed him yet.
He could leave.
“Hey, Phils,” he said. “Your sister stole my money last night. Where is it?”
Slowly the two monsters turned. They stared at Connor, baffled. Was this person demanding his money? To the brothers, taking things from other people was a straightforward matter. You took something, and then it was yours. Nobody really tried to take something back.
The bearded one said, “What?”
Not in a threatening way; he was just confused.
Connor walked around the counter and took a step into the freezer, where the big carcasses hung and the men stood waiting. The space was not much bigger than a locker room aisle. Everyone’s breath was visible.
“The money,” he said.
The bearded one uttered the warning word, “Boy,” and that was all he said.
“Come on, don’t be pigheaded,” Connor said.
“Boy,” the bearded one told him, lumbering forward, “you get on out of here before you on a hook.”
Connor turned around and stepped out of the freezer and shut the door. He took off his belt and looped it around the iron handle of the door, then yanked open a large refrigerator standing beside it and hooked the belt around the handle of the fridge, so that the freezer door, which opened inward, could not be opened more than an inch or two without the refrigerator’s weight stopping it.
The freezer door jerked inward, then stopped. One of the brothers slid the blade of a meat cleaver through the crack in the door and began sawing through the belt, but before he could get through it, Connor had grabbed a length of chain and bound the door handle to the refrigerator handle. Now everything was firmly secured.
There was yelling from inside. Hoarse threats. He ignored them.
Several hours passed.
He watched the door.
The threats became incoherent. The men were freezing to death.
Finally Connor said, “Where is the money?”
After a period of silence there was an answer. “There’s a, uh, a paper bag under the counter.”
Connor found the bag. In it were some ham sandwiches, two brownies wrapped in plastic, and his wad of cash, which he transferred to his pocket.
He was irritated at being made to waste so much time by having his money stolen, and he felt like killing the two brothers. So he put on an apron and gloves, removed the chain from the door, grabbed a cleaver from the counter, and that is what he did. It was like killing two giant flies made sluggish by winter. He dismantled them. A meat hook was involved.
A feeling of satisfaction lightened his step as he walked back up the road and through the woods to Delia’s house. The smartest thing to do would be to return to the motel and get on his way, but since her brothers were dead, who would come to untie her? He felt a sense of responsibility.
This time the Boerboel was nowhere to be seen.
He hoped the possum carcass hadn’t made it sick.
Delia was still tied by her wrists, ankles, and throat to the porch railing. When she saw him emerge from the woods, she yelled, “Please, let me go!” When he got closer, she said, “Where are my brothers?” And he told her, “Dead.”
She thought about this for a minute or two as he walked up to the porch. She said, “Did you get the money?”
He said, “Of course.”
When he was untying her, she said, “I was thinking about you while you was gone.”
“I was thinking about you, too,” he said.
“What am I gonna do,” said Delia, rubbing her wrists, “now they gone?”
He said, “Don’t know.”
She looked at him and said, “Take me away from here. Wherever you going, take me with you.”
“I can be your wife,” said Delia. “I’d be a good wife. I know how to care for a man, I was like a wife to my brothers.”
Connor thought about it. He said, “To have a wife would be good.” And then he said, “Come on with me.”
He waited on the porch while she put some clothes in a suitcase and, when she came back down, they walked through the woods together. For a while the Boerboel came and loped beside them, huge brindle-head slung low, tongue hanging out. “Go on, Kingfish,” Delia told it, “get away.”
It was almost night when they approached the motel. They could see two police cars parked outside, so they stopped. “Wait here,” said Delia, “I’ll go see.”
She left her suitcase with him and went to the motel. In a half hour, she came back. “The sheriff come,” she said. “He knows you done it but he only knows your name from the ledger.”
Connor thought about his options. The people who had seen him stab Gore in New Orleans would not tell the law, though their friends would be looking for him. And this local sheriff would be putting word out for somebody who fit his description. And he’d done some other things, of course, for which other people would be after him. But there was one place he knew would take him in, would send him far away from all this for a while, maybe long enough for some of it to be forgotten.
He started backing away from Delia, walking backward down the road in the darkness.
“Where you going?” she said.
She felt fear, watching him go. He was a force that could lift her up and take her away. She started to follow.
“You can’t come along,” he said. He got further away, his voice distant. “But maybe I’ll come back for you in a while,” he called, “if I need a wife.”
He was gone into the dark. He left her standing on the side of the road with her suitcase.
Of course, he really would come back for her, several years later. And she would be his wife, and a kind of love would happen. But of course she would also eventually betray him—as everyone betrays everyone else, eventually—and then be made brutally to regret her betrayal, but that, of course, is another story.
Two days after he left her standing on the side of the road, Connor showed up at an army recruiting office and said, “Here I am to report for your draft.” One look and they could see he was just the kind of man they needed. He was given some paperwork to fill out, and an address where he should appear on a certain date. And so six weeks later, Connor was on a plane to another continent, to the jungle, where, of course, he would have the first of the many great adventures for which he remains infamous. Never mind, that is another story.