Robert Hill Long
The Effigies

The Effigies


A generation ago lakeside laborers dug up an entire Choctaw necropolis. Tin buckets clattered with the bones of princesses. Soon another amusement arcade crawled above the water on immense stilts. Its pier, strung with yellow bulbs, gave off the profitable aroma of catfish and doughnuts.

The history of Choctaws, of rice and cotton and slavery, makes schoolchildren drowsy. Some fight off the drowse, the teacher-drone, by planning which pinball or video game they'll challenge tonight at the arcade—the wet-dream motorcycle blond, or the flying ace whose jet carries them so far, so fast. Stroll through the arcade and its cargo of garish video noise at night: you can't hear the waves below the pier, but they keep coming in.

Without the sound of waves, of water moving, some people can't get to sleep. One, a barge-mate who only wanted to live before his time: to pilot a riverboat, pole bayous on a pirogue loaded with furs--identities he assumed from old books. For twelve years he's made the daily stinkboat run: out to the Gulf, barge piled with the city's refuse. A paperback of Twain or Fenimore Cooper was jammed in his back pocket to read on the way back, after pitching overboard the last debris of chickenbones, rotted fruit, smashed toys.

Where does his insomnia come from? Living on this hot street, his father-in-law's street, so far from the lake and the river? or that trip when his pitchfork nosed through the rot and caught the eyehole of a human skull? At night he misses the day-sound of waves, their repetitions, soothing, wordless. Hard not to lie awake guessing where your bones might end up: in a tin bucket for schoolkids to steal, or strewn piecemeal in a Gulf current, in the cloudy tonnage of garbage going down where the big channel catfish wait.

Tonight he continues with the history of the river. It's a yellowed volume, long outdated by versions less dependent on legend and hearsay. Still he prefers the feel of its frayed leather. He opens it to Marquette's fever in the canoe, his burial among the Indians—a page that bears the imprimatur of a flattened silverfish.

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