Death By Moonlight
by Henry F. Tonn
I remember the exact day I split. It was on my third birthday and I was splashing around in a little pool by the side of the house. My momma was over there hanging laundry, and she weren’t paying no mind to me when all of a sudden she lets out this terrible scream and runs over and jumps on top of me in the water and pushes my head underneath and all the way to the mud at the bottom.
She was just screaming as loud as she could, and I couldn’t breathe at all, and I thought I was going to die for sure. Then all of a sudden my daddy came and rescued me and pulled Momma off and pulled my head up from the water, and my face was all covered with mud and Momma just kept right on screaming. It was terrible; I’ll never forget it.
I hear tell that people in our community always thought Momma was a bit odd. We were a close-knit group back then, where everybody knew each other. It was bayou country, and Creole was spoken more than English. Furthermore, we always dealt with things in our own way; we didn’t like the law coming around.
Momma had these big dark eyes and was always looking around her like somebody was gonna sneak up on her or something. But the people in the community accepted it just like they accepted most other people in the community, because Momma was good to her family and went to church every Sunday like she was supposed to.
But, unfortunately, whatever was wrong with her mind finally snapped altogether and she weren’t never right after that. My daddy had to call the authorities, and they shipped her off to the state institution. She killed herself two weeks later. Leastwise, that’s what I was told ’cause we never saw her again. Never. Daddy raised us all by himself, all six of us.
Nothing was the same after that, though, certainly not for me, anyway. Things started happening inside of me, things I didn’t understand, and things I didn’t have no control over. It seemed like the world wasn’t safe no longer, and I needed some sort of protection.
So there were these other people that started growing inside of me, people with different voices and different personalities and stuff. First one was the Mute, I guess. The Mute knew everything, but she never talked about nothing. But you could hear her, or sorta hear her. She sorta thought at you. And you’d think back. It’s hard to explain. It’s like she knew everything but kept it to herself.
And then there was the Defender. She was a badass, she was, didn’t take nothing from nobody. My daddy had a time with her. ’Course I felt better knowing the Defender was around, because she could take care of me, and I didn’t have to worry about things so much.
Defender warn’t afraid of nothing. And the older she got, the meaner she got. She got my daddy, Amos, to teach her how to shoot a rifle when she was just seven years old. She wouldn’t have thought nothing of blowing your head off if you messed with her in the wrong way. Swear to God, that’s the truth.
And then I remember the Saint. She happened around the First Grade, when we were learning how to read. She’d go to church and read the Bible, and she’d tell us what was right and what was wrong.
And the Student. She was very intelligent and always went to class and sat quietly in the front of the room and never misbehaved. But when we went out for recess, the Athlete took over. She was good at running and kicking the ball and even was able to play with the boys. But if the boys messed with her, well, the Defender was right there to protect her. She didn’t have to worry about nothing, either.
Of course, sometimes the Defender got out of hand. Like that time she jumped on this boy and beat him in the head with a rock. She would’ve killed him if we hadn’t intervened, I swear to God. We all used to talk about it among ourselves. It was a mixed blessing having her around. She took care of everybody, but she was dangerous, too.
And, you know, there were others. They didn’t have names, but we knew they were there. They just weren’t very distinctive, they were sorta like in the shadows.
Sometimes it was pretty confusing. I’d go off someplace and be gone for long periods of time. That’s when they would come out. I mean, I could lose an hour or an entire day, or whatever. Sometimes people would say something about it, but I’d just ignore them. Nothing I could do about it. I didn’t have no control over anybody.
It was basically a mess, and that’s a fact.
When I was eight I took over the cooking for the family. I was the oldest girl and Daddy was busy — he was the neighborhood mechanic — so it was just natural that I should do it. Actually, I kinda liked it. I’d fling pots and pans around in the kitchen and just basically have fun, ’cause I certainly wasn’t doing no cooking. The Cook did that.
I’d eventually just drift off somewhere in my imagination, and the next thing I’d know I’d be eating at the table with my daddy and brothers and sisters, and we’d be eating fried chicken and mashed potatoes and gravy and stewed okra and cornbread and everybody’d be complimenting me on what a good cook I was. ’Course I had nothing to do with it, but I couldn’t say so.
“Natalie, you’re the best cook in the world!” my oldest brother would say.
“I’m going to cook like this when I grow up,” the littlest one would say.
“Right good, darlin’,” my daddy, Amos, would say, and that would make me feel special, ’cause Daddy hardly ever complimented anybody on anything. It kinda made me feel bad sometimes, too, though, ’cause, like I said, I really didn’t have nothing to do with it.
And, boy, I’d hear it that night when I tried to sleep. They’d all start up a-talkin’ and arguing and bickering and I wouldn’t be able to get no sleep, it could be so loud. “She’s so stupid,” somebody would say. “She can’t do anything.”
“You’re stupid, too,” somebody else would say. “All you can do is cook.”
“At least I can do that. She can’t do anything at all. She just sits there eating while Daddy tells her how smart she is. She can’t cook at all.”
“Well, if you want Daddy to compliment you, you should stay out and eat it yourself.”
“I don’t eat. I cook.”
“Then stop complaining.”
“Oh, both of you shut up. You talk too much. You should pray more.”
“You shut up. All you do is pray. If it wasn’t for Sunday, we’d never see you at all.”
“If it wasn’t for me, you wouldn’t be alive. You’d be dead. God would punish all of you.”
“Be careful. All three of you. The Mute is getting angry.”
“Wouldn’t you like to know!”
“You don’t know anything.”
“I know the Mute and you better not make her angry.”
“Nobody knows the Mute. She doesn’t talk.”
“She talks to me. She doesn’t have to talk out loud.”
“Yeah, well, you can beat up the boys in the neighborhood but you better not mess with the Mute.”
“I’m not afraid of anybody. I can shoot my daddy’s gun.”
“You better be careful with that gun. You’re gonna shoot somebody and get us all in trouble.”
“I need to be out more. I’m an artist.”
“You don’t need to be out. Natalie can already draw.”
“Natalie can’t do anything.”
“Don’t talk about Natalie that way. She’s a nice person.”
“You should be less concerned with Natalie and more concerned about your souls.”
“Oh, shut up.”
And so it went. Sometimes I thought I’d either get a headache or go crazy. And sometimes I wondered if other people had voices like mine. ’Course I was afraid to ask.
Copyright © 2015 by Henry F. Tonn