Fire on Pig's Eye Island

Matthew at the beach . . . actually his front yard during spring flooding of the Mississippi River in 1946 © Mathew Van Tassell

Matthew at the beach . . .actually his front yard during spring flooding of
the Mississippi River in 1946
© Mathew Van Tassell

Pig’s Eye Island owes its name to a nineteenth- century trader, Pig’s Eye Parrant, who sold liquor and guns along the Mississippi’s watery highway. The nearby settlers took his name for their growing town until they decided the more mundane sobriquet Saint Paul might lend more dignity to a territory that was soon to become a state. Pig’s Eye Island kept the rascal’s name because no one gave a damn about a backwater stretch so swampy and prone to flooding. Only individuals too crazy to have any sense or too poor to afford decent land would ever settle there.

Divorced geographically from the growing settlement by a curve in the river’s course and mentally from the attention of the town’s more prosperous inhabitants, the island soon became almost forgotten by all but the poor and the crazy. Or by the unfortunate souls who might be both.

My brothers, sisters, and I were raised on Pig’s Eye Island in the 1940s. Situated about three miles south and downstream from Saint Paul’s sewage disposal plant, we were in an ideal position to retrieve any floating debris that might wash up on the island’s shores during one of the annual floods. We were little pirates, constantly searching for hidden treasure in the flotsam that found its way to our private beach. There was all sorts of interesting booty: furniture, parts of buildings, lanterns, old river buoys, toys. We claimed them as our own.

Our house was a green tarpaper shack measuring about twenty by thirty feet. There was a kitchen, the only entrance or exit door, and a two-burner stove and icebox. Another item in the tiny room was a slop pail. We kids used this as a toilet during the winter, when it was too cold to make the frigid trek to the outhouse. Every morning my father would take the bucket and empty its contents into the two-holer some distance from our shack.

To the left of the kitchen, another room ran the length of the house. There four of my brothers and sisters slept, along with my mother and father. For some reason, possibly because I was first born, I was privileged to have not-quite-sole possession of the remaining room at the rear of the shack. I shared this space with the oldest of my sisters, Joy, who slept in a crib near one of the room’s two windows.

We had no electricity, and for water we had a pump outside that we primed each time we used it. On its handle hung half a coconut shell, used as a family drinking cup. Kerosene lamps provided dim light at night. A battery-powered radio was the only concession to the twentieth century in our nineteenth-century lives. It brought the outside world into our consciousness. Shows like Inner Sanctum, Grand Central Station, Jack Benny, Just Plain Bill, Fibber McGee and Molly, Stella Dallas, and The Shadow fueled our imaginations. In our minds, we saw the scenes these shows thrust at us using only voices and sound effects. Inner Sanctum, with its creaking door and sinister voice “welcoming” us inside, could scare the bejeepers out of us. One payday night, my father was entertaining himself at the Hook ’Em Cow Bar. My mother and I were listening to Lights Out, a show designed to cause nightmares. That night the story was about an escaped homicidal maniac hiding in the woods in the dark of night. Since it was black as pitch outside and we were sitting in the middle of the island’s thick woods, it was not hard for us to conjure the maniac’s murderously hostile eyes peering at us through our lamplit window. My mother was as frightened as I was, which served to scare me even more. Until my father came home late that night, we were too petrified with fear to sleep.

This was the power the brown box could wield, and the writers who wrote the stories engendering those reactions certainly earned their pay. Without the crutch of television’s moving images, our minds were free to manufacture their own, more frightening pictures. Mom said she didn’t understand why they would broadcast something that might scare someone in their audience to death, yet the next time we heard that creaking door, there we were, glued to the box, albeit with our feet off the floor.

One spring in the late 1940s, my father helped Richie Dufor throw up a shack near our own. Dufor had just been paroled from prison, had nowhere to live, and my dad felt sorry for him. Living with Richie was a woman named Ciel and her son, Kenny. Richie scared the daylights out of us kids. Often when he was drunk, he would fly into rages. Sometimes we could hear Ciel crying, and several times my father went down to their place and threatened Richie to keep him from abusing her.

Late one night, while my father was gone celebrating payday, and after Richie and Ciel had been living near us for several months, my mother woke me. “Look out the window,” she commanded in a whisper as she roused me from sleep. Her tone communicated urgency combined with fear, and I was instantly awake. I heard animal-like noises coming from outside, and my heart began to beat fast as I imagined all kinds of reasons for the horrific howling coming from the direction of Richie and Ciel’s shack.

Mathew’s early practice as a carpenter in front of the family home on Pig’s Eye Island © Mathew Van Tassell

Mathew’s early practice as a carpenter in front of the family home on Pig’s Eye Island
© Mathew Van Tassell

“Come here, quick.” She was at the window now, and I could see an orange glow through the white curtain. I untangled myself from my blanket and hurried to her side. “Look at their house.” I looked and saw flames roaring from the windows and door of the black tarpaper structure. Backlit by fire, the shack looked spooky. I crouched by the window, my mother close beside me, watching the terrible show. From somewhere I heard myself say, “Isn’t that a shame,” and felt, rather than saw, my mother look at me. Outside, Richie screamed and laughed as he prowled the dark, away from the area lit by the fire. It was him I heard howling when I awakened. Sometimes his voice trailed off into soft, crooning cries of “Ciel, Ciel,” her name drawn out long and mournfully, like the wail of the steam locomotives we heard in the night. Horrified, I wondered if Kenny and his mother might still be in the blazing shack.

My mother left my side and went to the door. Taking one of our kitchen chairs, she wedged it beneath the knob. Seconds later, we heard Richie at the front of our house. “Phyllis. Hey, Phyllis.” His voice had changed to a harsh whisper as he called through the door. We heard him on the wooden step outside as he shifted his weight. The nails creaked. “Hey, Phyllis. I got those canned tomatoes of yours.”

My mother motioned me not to make a sound, but she needn’t have bothered. My throat was paralyzed. I crept closer to her as she reached into the corner where Dad kept his rifle.

“That’s all right, Richie,” she called out. “I gave them to Ciel to keep.” As she unwrapped the oily rag my dad kept around the weapon, she motioned for me to hand her the box of cartridges sitting on the cupboard top.

“No, Phyllis. Ciel said she wanted me to give them back to you. We won’t be needing them. Come on. Open the door and I’ll set them inside for you.” His voice was calm and persuasive. I looked at my mother to make sure she wasn’t falling for it.
She was loading the rifle.

“Thanks, Richie,” she said through the door as she slid the rifle’s bolt home. “You keep them. I think you’d better get away from the house now.”

There was silence for several seconds on the other side of the door. The smooth metallic noise made by the gun’s bolt seemed to serve as final punctuation to my mother and Richie’s conversation. The step creaked as a weight was removed from it. We moved to the window and saw Richie’s silhouette outlined in flames as he ran past the pyre that had been his home. We heard the grind of his car’s starter, and then he roared past our house, heading up the road with his lights off.

My mother sat in a chair by the table with Dad’s rifle across her lap. I looked out the window at what was left of the shack. The fire had nearly gone out, for there was almost nothing left to burn. Red-hot embers outlined its perimeter. Here and there, stubborn little flames worked on something that had not burned, but nothing remained above the height of the long grass in the yard.

We didn’t sleep for the rest of the night, and at dawn all there was to show that we once had had neighbors was a pile of smoking ashes. When Dad came home, we told him what had happened and the way Richie had tried to get Mom to open the door. Dad unloaded the rifle and rewrapped it in the cloth. He told Mom even if she had never learned to drive, he was glad she had paid attention when he taught her about guns.

Later we learned that Ciel had taken Kenny and left after becoming fed up with Richie’s abuse. Richie went berserk when he found them gone, and that was what had led to their house’s cremation. That Richie was a dangerous man when crossed no one doubted. But until that night, none of the adults who knew him realized to what lengths he would go to prove just how crazy he really was.

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