Swamplands

Swamplands
by Sierra July

Mud clogs my nostrils as I sink deeper and deeper into the bog. Sputtering, I manage to regain my footing, planting my squeaky sneakers on a slippery log hiding beneath several layers of mud. Frogs chirp in the distance like thousands of heartbeats performing a symphony. Fireflies drift by, lazy lanterns perfectly complementing the stars.

Instead of the night noises, the words that started this venture resonate within me.

“Listen here, Patricia.” My dad slurred his words through pain. “I need you to journey across the swamp to get our winter supplies. The Council only leaves the jackets, frozen meat, and medicine out for 48 hours, and I can’t get there with this busted leg.”

My dad pointed to his leg, still harnessed in a sling. The only flesh visible was his swollen red foot, which he was lucky to still have after the gator took a chunk out of his calf.

They say blood smells like pennies, but it’s so much more potent than that. Even with a thousand pennies stuffed in my mouth, the smell and taste couldn’t have clung to my mind for as long as they did when the water of the swamp ran red with my dad in its center.

Dad sighed and rubbed my head with his sweaty palm. “I know it’s a lot to ask, but our survival depends on you, Pat.”

I flounder about in the mud again as I lose my footing for the umpteenth time. I curse my clumsy feet and get my head above the hot, sticky mess again. The mud slurps around me, hungry as quicksand, but I ignore the way it attempts to suck my shoes off and keep moving. I don’t have any time to waste.

Most girls my age—on the outskirts of childhood, a hop and a skip from being a Miss instead of a Missy—would still be at home, attempting to cull and polish their cooking and homemaking skills, but in the absence of a son, I’m my father’s only hope at surviving the winter.

Quagmire, a region of nothing but swampland in a country known for its green oases bearing life and air, can only be called a godforsaken hellhole. The Council comes in on their helicopters and drops food and winter supplies down a two-day’s journey away from all residential areas of Quagmire so they don’t feel guilty about a few starving dogs—and that’s all we are to them, no one needs to tell me. Only in winter do we receive charity; all other times of the year, we may as well be invisible, an uncharted territory to overlook on the maps.

Night presses in on me like a beast with a thick coat, but whether the animal is tame or out to snap me between its jaws is anyone’s guess.

A depressed willow tree is sagging toward me. I make use of its branches and steady myself so I can walk along my log of a balance beam.

Shadows play with my eyes. At first glance, they look like other travelers; on second glance, they become phantoms, hiding out under mud and in trees, waiting to snag me. The few stumps and dirt mounds in the water ahead seem to form the heads of drowned victims. I imagine the phantoms turning, trying to catch sight of an unsuspecting visitor so they can use a leg or arm to drag themselves free from the bog with their root hands.

But wait …

One of them is moving about; I’m not imagining it. A head-like shape swivels this way and that, then all the way around with the ease and precision of an owl. It can’t be human, and yet …

It’s a mere four feet or so from me now, and I still can’t make out any distinguishing features, only that it somehow still resembles a stump. Three feet: it’s climbing from the mud, pulling against the liquid’s suction. Two feet: it’s not a stump, more like an elongated log, coming free from the bog. One foot: it stands before me, in the center of a moonbeam, and it’s all I can do not to run and scream and pull out my hair.

It is not human, but it is alive, all the same.

What stands before me isn’t a stump or elongated log, but a humanoid abomination. It has a face made of wood, rigid and unchanging, and the expression it wears is one of shock or anguish, a permanent roar of pain. From its head falls clumps of what looks like hair, or more like an angry sea of moss, gray and hopelessly tangled.

“Hel … hello,” I stammer. A part of me feels like I’m talking to an inanimate object, a girl carrying conversations with trees.

I don’t think I’m going to get a reply, but then the swamp thing nods. It understands! Somehow, someway, it comprehends English. I take this as a sign that I’m not in danger.

“Can you talk?” I ask.

The thing gives the tiniest of head shakes, a “No.”

“Well, then, I guess you can’t tell me who you are or what to call you.” I pause, thinking up a solution. “How about you come with me? I’ll try to learn more about you on the way to my destination. And, so we can be more familiar, my name is Patricia. I go by Pat. If it’s alright, can I call you Marsh?” I chose an ambiguous name for a swamp creature, a nickname for Marsha or Marshall, since I can’t tell if I’m addressing a male or female.

Marsh gives me a nod.

“Then let’s get going. I’ll have to stop to rest soon.”

As dawn approaches, pink and orange lights touch the horizon, and the frog and cricket concerto ends. Marsh grows uncomfortable in the light, even as dim as it is, and freezes, becoming just like the real trees all around him.

It’s alright with me, for now, anyway. After a full day’s bleeding and sweating, I’m due for a quick break. There is nothing to do out here, so far from home, so I just lie on my back on the spongy ground, like grass at Marsh’s feet.


“Hey!”

I sit up with a start.

Damn! I’d fallen asleep, and when I had so little time, too. I can just picture the hours, minutes, and seconds that trickled away from me, falling straight into the swamp, never to surface again.

I glance up and see that Marsh is still at my side, almost more stone than tree. A jolt runs through my body as I feel eyes boring into me and remember the shout that woke me up.

I spin around and see nothing at first. Part of me expects that it’s another swamp thing like Marsh, one that can inexplicably speak. But then I see a figure sloughing through mud, one that is obviously human … and male.

“From a distance, I thought you were a piece of driftwood,” the boy shouts at me as he fights the elements to make his way nearer, “but then I saw a tinge of pale skin under your mud covering and knew that you were one of the living.”

“Yes, well,” I say hesitantly. “If you’re here, I guess I’m heading in the right direction.”

The boy laughs. “Yeah, that or we’re both roaming ‘round in circles.”

“I sure hope not,” I say, more seriously than I mean to. But really, the possibility of both of us failing is strong.

“Best get going if you want to get the gold,” he says. “I don’t mind you coming along; there’s less than sixteen hours left in the day.”

I gasp. “Are you serious?” I really had slept too long. I wish Marsh had woken me. Marsh …

I glance my monster companion that’s still standing stock-still. This boy isn’t likely to go along with the idea that a living (or at least moving) tree-like thing isn’t a foe. He’d either run screaming, as I’d been about to do initially, or try to protect me from it, as boys are always inclined to do in the swamps: fight when nothing needed fighting.

So do I leave my old traveling companion for a breathing one, one that was likely as vulnerable as I was to the elements? Any sane person would know the answer to that; “monster or human” shouldn’t be that hard of a choice, but perhaps I’m not a sane one.

“My name is Dustin,” the boy is saying. “And yours is?”

“Oh, it’s Pat. Patricia,” I clarify. “Pat for short.”

Dustin smiles and chuckles. “Nice name.”

I blush, more from indignation than embarrassment. If this guy thinks I’m lovestruck by his suave looks and language, he has another think coming. Being flustered and being unprepared for questioning are two totally different things.

“I don’t think I should go with you,” I say. The words have more vinegar than I intended, but I can’t stop now. “I mean, I don’t know you, and I was doing just fine on my own.”

“Oh, th … that’s fine, then,” Dustin says. He looks more downcast than I expected. “I guess I’ll get going then.” He pauses, as if he needs my permission.

“Alright. Hope you find what we’re both looking for.”

“If I do, I’ll signal you somehow. My family is just me, my mother, and little sister; we don’t need a full box of supplies.”

I’m taken aback by the generosity, but not stupid enough to refuse. “Thank you. That’s very kind of you.” And I mean it wholeheartedly.

“You’re welcome, Pat.” Dustin says my name like music, then turns and continues on his way.

I almost question my decision. I could have someone that would help me however he could, who I could trust and—unlike Marsh—someone I could converse with. I didn’t know how thirsty I was for human speech until the second it was gone.

“Oh, well.” I step up to Marsh and place my palm on its barky skin.

Marsh shudders to life, making me jump back, even though I initiated the movement. I was subconsciously afraid that Marsh would never move again, or that I imagined a strangely-shaped tree to life. But no, it seems that, just like I did, Marsh only needed a rest.

We waste no time getting moving again. My sleep-tired eyes feel better, less scratchy and more willing to observe. Daylight may not have worked magic on Marsh’s appearance, but it has added whimsy to the swamp. The mud looks beautiful for the first time in my 17 years of life, gleaming like the surface of a shiny coin.

Hours later, I see movement up ahead. Marsh does, too, because it stops dead in its tracks again.

It’s Dustin. We’ve caught up to him somehow, and miraculously, he’s hugging a parcel to his chest. If I felt things were right, I would be crying tears of joy and waving my arms like a loon so that he could see me, but something nags at me like a mosquito bite. Then I realize what it is.

Dustin is not alone. Another swamp creature like Marsh is moving in on him, and it doesn’t look friendly. For whatever reason, that thing wants the supplies, which is why Dustin is hugging the parcel to himself so tightly. Without them, his family and mine won’t survive the winter, and I can’t let that happen.

I quickly begin running down to the clearing where Dustin is standing. Before I get there, I see a shadow to my left, and I’m surprised to see Marsh, keeping pace with me. Perhaps Marsh was reluctant to be alone, or perhaps it had sensed my fear and anger, but regardless, Marsh has seen no more reason to hide under its stillness.

Marsh and I are separate but we make it to the clearing as one.

The other swamp thing backs away a bit—in confusion, I think—as Marsh and I come up behind Dustin. The ground here is a patchwork of spiny branches and plush moss, a welcome change from the sticky mud. I place a hand on Dustin’s shoulder, and he turns around with such wide eyes that I would have thought I prodded him with a branding iron. He quickly recognizes that I’m not an enemy and nearly sighs in relief … until he sees Marsh.

“Pat, get back!” Dustin shouts. “There’s another monster behind you!”

I almost feel like smiling at his dismay, but I know it won’t help the situation, so I keep a straight face and slowly try to ease Dustin into comfort by edging closer to Marsh.

“It’s alright, Dustin. See?” I put a hand on Marsh’s side and Dustin gawks at me like I’ve sprouted feelers, but somehow, he manages to see there is no threat in our direction, so he turns back to the other swamp thing.

It stands there, eyeing us all with so much malice that I can’t even comprehend that he and Marsh are of the same species.

“I don’t know what that thing wants,” says Dustin. “I just found the package and it came thundering out of the swamp.”

“Let’s just take the supplies and go,” I say, putting my hand on the twine around the brown box in Dustin’s hands.

A sound escapes the malicious swamp thing’s throat … and Marsh’s, a growl that seems to rumble the ground beneath my feet like an earth tremor. I look at them both, inadvertently pressing against Dustin in the process. Something has changed in Marsh’s face—not its expression, but the spark in its eyes. Sadness has evaporated and something fiery has taken its place. Marsh is as angry as the other swamp thing now.

“Marsh, what is it?” I ask, cautiously. My hand is still on the package, fingers curling absently over the twine. “I don’t understand what’s wrong with you.” The rumble continues from the swamp things, like never-ending thunder.

“Move back,” Dustin whispers.

“What?”

“Get away from me for a second.”

I’m confused but I do as he says, watching Dustin closely to make sure he didn’t get greedy and dart away with the supplies he said he’d share. As soon as my hand leaves the parcel, the growling stops. I turn to look at Marsh again. The sadness I’d grown accustomed to seeing is back behind its eyes.

“The supplies,” I say. “You don’t want us to take the supplies. Neither of you.” I look at the other swamp thing that has also backed down, but it still looks unsatisfied. “What could possibly be so wrong with taking something that was meant for us? You do understand that if we leave this neither of our families will survive the winter, right? We need food and medicine and—”

“Pat, look,” Dustin says.

I turn and see that he has unwrapped the parcel right here. “What are you doing? The bandages in there will be ruined if they get dirty.”

“There’s something different about this package from last year’s.”

I see nothing out of the ordinary; the things I mentioned to the swamp things are nestled in their warm enclosure like birds in a nest. Then again, I didn’t really see last year’s package; my father got that one and put the whole thing in a head-high cabinet in the kitchen, saying that we’d just get out what we needed when we needed it.

This is my first time seeing all the contents at once. Suddenly, something catches my eye—a little vial that contains a liquid the color of what a night rain might smell like, something crystal blue, soothing, and pure.

“I got supplies for my family last year and the year before, before my pa passed away,” Dustin says. He hesitates while the wind howls in my ears like a wounded animal with snow on its breath. I hope that that’s the reason I feel so cold. “But I’ve never seen this vial before.”

“Maybe it’s some new kind of medicine,” I say. I know for a fact that in everywhere but Quagmire, technology is booming. Medicine works faster than it used to. Ointments heal wounds without leaving scars. Why wouldn’t we receive a new type of medicine?

“But this doesn’t have a label like the others.” Dustin, deep in concentration, glares at the blue stuff as if it stank like a skunk. “See?” Dustin rummages through the parcel until he pulls out a bottle with red liquid. “This is marked cold medicine, and there’s a bottle with green capsules that says they’re for headaches.”

I can’t comment because I don’t have a response to his suspicion. I want to explain away the oddity, but something about it rubs me the wrong way, too.

I take the small vial from Dustin’s hands and Marsh gives a warning growl.

“What?” I ask, swinging around to face Marsh. Suddenly, I’ve grown very short on patience. “You can growl all you want, but I have no idea what you’re saying. If you’re upset about this stuff, you’re going to have to explain why, because for all I know it’s a cure for West Nile, malaria and every other disease that makes people drop like flies around here.”

Marsh lifts an arm to point its bark stub of a finger at the vial, then to me, then to itself. It does it again, in case I don’t understand: vial, me, swamp thing. Marsh closes its eyes hard, as if making a wish or a prayer, then puts its finger to my forehead.

I stifle a scream as a sharp pain and a flash of light hit me. I feel like vomiting, fainting, and crying all at once. Then the pain lifts and I’m in another world … no, my own world at another time.

I see a desperate young boy in the mud, finding the supplies he thinks will save his family and taking the package back to them in a hurry, before he freezes to death himself.

He gets home, warms his rump with the licking flames of a dying but thriving fire, and has a small celebration with his smiling mother, father, and little siblings. Winter grows harder and meaner, like a dog that got kicked and beaten to the brink of insanity, but the boy doesn’t worry; his family has the supplies that will help them through.

One sibling falls ill, then both of them, then his mother and father. They run out of cold medicine, but the boy doesn’t despair yet; there is one more vial, a vial of liquid sapphire. The boy divides the contents among his siblings, then his parents, and gives a remaining drop to himself to ward off a sore throat.

The boy thinks that the medicine is working because, yes, his throat is no longer raw, his siblings are running about and giggling again, and his mother and father are up and smiling, hugging each other as they look on at their children, thankful, so thankful.

But then the boy starts to notice something: his joints feel stiff. I feel it as if they were my own, bone and muscle becoming like nuts and bolts. His skin grows hard and he starts to wonder. The children no longer run around; they are statues in their rooms, eyes tearing up as their feet grow clubbed, weighing them to the floor. The woodiness spreads like wild fire through their small bodies and then, they are—

I pull away from Marsh’s finger. I don’t need to see anymore, can’t stand to see anymore. I feel numb, but a small part of me realizes that I’m shaking, that tears are drenching my face, making it tender to the wind’s chill. I am so, so cold.

Dustin puts an arm around me. I know it’s him because of the feel of his flesh, something Marsh and his family lost so early on in their transformation. Dustin pours the blue vial’s contents out onto the swamp floor and picks up the other supplies.

We head on, having obtained the supplies before our hours dwindled to none, but we still have to get home before the snow begins to fall.

I cast a glance back over my shoulder at Marsh and the other swamp thing, perhaps his father or a complete stranger. Marsh … Marshall holds up a hand in farewell, and I answer him with my own wave. I wish I could say more.

Dustin leaves me and my share of the supplies at my home and heads back to his own family, kissing me gently in farewell. Dustin thinks of the butterflies fluttering in his stomach, and my dad thinks of our victory over the cold, but I can only think of those other travelers, the ones unfortunate enough to take the blue vial home.


 Copyright © 2014 Sierra July