Lake Fausse Point, Louisiana

September 13th, 2003

The Thin Places
By Roger Emile Stouff

There is a canal on the north shore of Lake Fausse Pointe, my native waters, called Peach Coulee. It is a place of mystery and, some say, stirring, restless ghosts.

Aerial view

No one is sure how it was named Peach Coulee. It is a natural canal, not one of the many manmade channels cut during the logging days of Louisiana. It's right bank is, for quite a stretch, of prehistoric construction. Winding from the lake down the coulee's shallow spine, to the boat's starboard there are occasional glimpses of white shell peeking out like bleached bone. Over the years I have never found a piece of broken pottery on the shell mound lining the east bank of Peach Coulee. Unlike most of the other ancient Chitimacha sites I have found and visited, I cannot guess its purpose.

But the Indians avoided the place in recent memory, told stories of it designed to frighten the young. My grandfather hunted pirate's treasure there, for it was long rumored that Jean Lafitte used Peach Coulee as a hideout. My grandfather said that when he was a very young boy, the very tip of a mast was visible at the mouth of the coulee. Over the decades, it sank into the mud and vanished. He said that, during the Great Depression, he and one of his friends picked Spanish moss from the overhanging limbs along the lake, and while in Peach Coulee, they noticed a cypress knee shaped like a saddle. Nearby was a pile of oyster shell.

"Looks like some old Indian sat down for his lunch there," he noted. They passed the spot for months each time they picked moss in Peach Coulee. Finally he got to wondering about the spot, and went back to find it, but both the cypress knee and shell were gone.

There are many stories about Peach Coulee, some I disregard as fabrication, others are eerily familiar. Tales of headless women, monstrous beasts with red eyes, hanging nooses strung from tree limbs, wooden crucifixes that appear and disappear at random. I know that it is a place of power, though I have never seen anything within it to describe. Yet it is always silent within Peach Coulee, no birds, no croaking frogs. My father and I took many fine bass and bluegill from Peach Coulee, but we never stayed there long. Trees sway and twist in the breeze within Peach Coulee, except that there is no breeze.

Many ages ago, a Chitimacha family was tending to their daily fare when a white dear pranced out of the woods. Though it was forbidden to harm such an animal, they killed, cooked and ate it. After their hunger was satiated, the old people say, each of them stood up, as if in a trance, and walked deliberately into the lake, never to be heard from again, at least in their human form. Yet it is said among my people that they sometimes emerge from the lake as balls of fire, penance for the crime being eternity in such form.

When I was a teenager, my friends and I would go camping on the eastern shore of Lake Fausse Pointe. Nearly every time we were there, late at night, we would see them: Four bright lights, circling over the northern shore of the lake, over Peach Coulee. They danced there, almost jubilant, almost alive. We could never explain their source. An old fisherman, heading in late with a skiff full of dying catfish, stopped near our campsite as we were watching the lights dance over Peach Coulee.

"It's thin there," he said. "Thin." He nodded to us knowingly and took his leave.

I didn't know what he meant at the time, but I think I do now. There are places in the world where the boundaries between this world and the next, the separations of the seen and the unseen, are not so substantial. Thin. Peach Coulee is one of the thin places, and now and then, the comfortable lines we depend on to organize and make safe our world bend, converge and overlap.

There are times, even, when I wonder if the old fisherman who stopped by that night was from within the lines of comfort, or behind the thin places.

I go there now, chasing fish. The coulee forks a mile from the lake, and if I were to follow the east channel, it would eventually end at a rise in the topography. My grandfather said there was a farmhouse back there, though it was long abandoned even when he was a boy. He stumbled on it, he said, while treasure hunting. He had met an old black gentleman who told him a story at the local waterin' hole one night. The man had been but a lad, and somewhere at the back of Peach Coulee, a group of white people were digging a massive pit. They had erected a tall fence around the site, and he was not allowed within.

As he was standing there, the man told my grandfather decades later, he suddenly noticed a small woman by his side. She said to him, in a language he should not have understood but somehow did, "What are you doing here? This is not for you," and she promptly picked him up and threw him over the fence.

At the exact moment he fell, hard and bruised, to the ground, the men digging the pit emerged, screaming in terror, running. The young bystander, his own experience with the small woman now compounded by this mass hysteria, fled with them. Later, he told my grandfather, he learned that the white men in the pit had looked up from its depths, and they saw men in uniforms standing around the edge. My grandfather suspected they were military uniforms, perhaps French or even Spanish. They were firing down into the pit with muskets, though the diggers heard no sound. Yet, when they looked at each other, they saw horrifying wounds.

Convinced that there had been a treasure excavation ongoing, my grandfather asked the old gentleman if he remembered where that spot was in the back of Peach Coulee. He said he did, and promised to take my grandfather there. They set a time of six o'clock, after my grandfather got off work.

He was half an hour late. Walking up the driveway, he met someone coming out of the house.

"Where's Mister Beau?" my grandfather asked the other man, who shook his head sadly, hat grasped in his hand in respect.

"He died at six o'clock," he said.

I go to Peach Coulee when I can. It does not frighten me. When I reach the edge of the finger of shell lining the east bank, I sprinkle tobacco over the ancient soil, into the green-black water. Whatever spirits lurk here seem to be appeased. I fish the channel down to the fork, follow it as far as there is enough water to float the boat. There are big bluegill here in the spring, coming into the shallows to spawn, and in the summer, the occasional nice largemouth lurks under a canopy of overhanging cypress limbs. They like the hardpack shell along the east bank.

Now and then, when the trees sway in air still as stone, or when silence becomes deafening enough to raise the hair on the back of my neck, I understand that this is still one of the thin places. It causes me no alarm. It is but one part, a facet of the whole, of my world. To the south is Grande Avoille Cove, the religious center of my people's entire nation, where turkey-buzzard men still dance and tend the bones of the dead under starless skies. To the west is an enormous village, its name forgotten, where broken pottery lies brown and tan and yellow under the lapping movement of the lake. To the southeast is Amat'pan namu, a great village where the Spanish first landed in galleons almost five hundred years ago.

The creel of home waters bulges with tales. This is but one of the stories that I keep close to my side, safe from disbelief in a world grown too stubborn to recognize the thin places. It is a treasure I keep and share to those who will hear. ~ Roger

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