Update: Just a few clarifying points, because some of my readers can't just enjoy a story without proofreading.
For those of you who are new to me, welcome to my parlor. Please take a look at my other "Teen Titans" offerings. Most of them are far more upbeat. For those of you who are returning to my after my absence, well, I hope you're not too disappointed. I hope you enjoy reading "Wooley Swamp" as much as I did writing it. It's dark, creepy, and seasonal. Don't expect a lot of upbeat, "Titan's Go!" from this one. While I like to think that I captured both Raven and Garfield's essence, the world they live in doesn't even vaguely resemble the Technicolor excitement of Jump City.
I was inspired to write this piece while doing plumbing repair. It was night, in the dead of winter, and I had crawled into the eighteen-inch tall crawl space under a house to repair the water supply line. It was dark, damp, dank, and I couldn't see ANYTHING past the circle of my headlamp, and I was listening to my MP3 player while I worked in an effort to make an onerous task less of a pain.
Now, I'm not a big Country & Western fan, but the occasional track does appeal and slips in. In retrospect, perhaps the "Legend of Wooley Swamp" by Charlie Daniels was NOT the ideal thing for a man with a very active imagination to be listening to in a cold, damp environment where he can't see and can barely move.
You see before you the result.
"Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?"
"I do." – Lamont Cranston. Bwa – ha – ha – ha – ha –ha!
Jacob Roth quietly slipped into the kitchen of the old plantation house. Lit only by the window, the room was steeped in long shadows. Dust motes danced in the golden light of the lowering sun as it threw its beams into the kitchen window and across the large antique table. He tossed the two adult gobblers he had shot that day onto the table and turned to the sink to wash his hands. As he washed up he looked out the old glass across the wooded "back forty" that was just about all that was left of the old antebellum plantation. Well, that and the front approach. The vast, sprawling pile of whitewashed Greek Revival clapboard and columns was badly in need of sprucing up, but was not in any danger of falling down, at least not yet. There wasn't much money for that kind of thing, but Nana always seemed to find enough money to buy Jacob whitewash and shingles when absolutely necessary.
He shivered inside his canvas barn coat. It was late October in Louisiana, but the persistent dampness on the River Road made the unseasonal chill cling to him even after he'd come inside. The young man wasn't particularly tall, about five foot eight. Slender but muscular, he had a reputation at the local high school as a young man you didn't pick a fight with. Well, not these days, anyway. Just a few years back he'd been slender with ropy muscles. His hair was a sandy blonde and freckles splattered across his nose. His eyes were as green as the bayou in summertime.
"Nana," he called as he watched the fallen leaves tumble across the back forty, "I'm back!"
He shook the excess water from his hands and reached onto the old drain board for a dish towel. Behind him, a shadow separated from the others in the growing gloom and silently slithered up behind him.
"Boy!" barked the shadow.
"Gaaaaa!" said Jacob as he jumped and spun. "Nana! I hate it when you do that."
"Poaching again?" she said with great exasperation.
The woman was tiny, four foot ten or less and slender, maybe ninety pounds. Her grey hair was pulled back in a severe bun and she wore a navy blue shawl over a dark blue housedress. Her legs were bare over her sensible flats. Her face, while showing the unavoidable marks of a life without privilege, retained an echo of youthful beauty, like faded fabric retains the muted colors that hint what it was like when it was new. On her nose was a pair of oval bifocals, the eyes behind them was still a clear amethyst. A tiny frown creased her forehead.
"Karen!" she called, not breaking eye-contact with the young man. "Come get a start on these turkeys. We need to get them in the freezer before the game warden shows up to find out what idiot has been shooting turkey loads during deer season."
She waited in tense silence until Karen entered the room.
"Yes, Miss Roth," she said as she dragged the turkeys over to the drain board. As her only living relative, Jacob called Rachel Roth 'Nana,' but everyone, everyone else called her 'Miz Roth.'
Rachel turned back to the teenage boy.
"I've spent my golden years trying to get you through puberty alive; I don't want you going to jail and ruining all my hard work. Have I not provided for you since your parents died? Do I not keep a roof over your head and food on the table?"
"No worries about the Game Warden, Nana. 'No way he heard me where I was."
The old woman's eyes narrowed.
"So," she said tightly, "Just where were you?"
The young man glanced down, to his left.
"Um, Booger Woods?"
Her voice went up. "Booger Woods? Don't you lie to me. You were in the Wooley Swamp, weren't you?"
Guiltily, his eyes went to his boots, smeared with the rich, green paste of plants and algae from the life-laden swamp.
"Um . . ."
She dashed past him to the table to the dead turkeys and started looking into their eyes.
"Dammit, boy, I've told you over and over to stay out of the Wooley Swamp! Never, ever hunt there!"
He'd been trying to help. He'd been very careful. There weren't going to be any problems. And he was very, very, tired of being treated like a kid.
"Nana," he said firmly, raising his voice just a little, "I've been a good kid. I don't steal from you. I earn my keep. I never lie to you. I study hard. But I'm through doing what you say just because you say it. You want me to stay out of the Wooley swamp when the hunting's so good there; you can break down and tell me why."
Rachel's eyes narrowed further, to slits, and her lips pressed together in a flat line. The only grandchild, only Jacob called Rachel "Nana." A few elite friends called her by her first name. Everyone else just called her "Miz Roth."
She moved to speak, and Karen, from the drain board where she had begun cleaning the turkeys, spoke first.
"He's sixteen Miss Rachel. And he's been doing a man's portion around here for more than two years now."
Rachel's head whipped around.
"You, too Karen?"
The woman shrugged, turning back to the birds.
"I remember what you were up to when you were his age."
Rachel blinked at that.
"I . . . suppose you may have a point."
But her lips remained compressed as she walked stiffly over to the old iron stove and opened the lower door.
"Boy, bring the kindling. I'm going to make some tea."
Rachel stoked up the banked fire in the old iron stove and reached up into the cabinet to get down her tea canister. She set the water on to boil and then methodically measured the tea out with an antique measuring spoon. Rachel glanced sideways at her grandson, who stood in a calm, relaxed stance.
This was a change. In times past when the subject of the Wooley Swamp came up, she could provoke him into losing his temper. He'd stomp off in a huff and come back when he was hungry, the subject closed.
"Not this time," she thought. "And he is as old as I was when it all started. Maybe it's time."
She looked over at Karen, who was just skinning the second of the turkeys. Karen ignored her and began removing the offal. Irritated, Rachel stared at the side of her head as the silence stretched out. Eventually Karen finished and turned to her, face set.
"You know what I think. He deserves to know, besides . . . "
She turned to face Jacob.
". . . tell us what you've seen in the Swamp."
Jacob had been sneaking out to the Wooley swamp since before his parents had died. The very first hunting trip his Papa had taken him out on, he'd been very clear.
"Son," past this old cypress tree, the woods get . . . dangerous. Not just 'gators and snakes, but, well, people just don't go back there."
And it was true. Occasionally, hunters would come in from upstate or off-shore and insist on going into the game-rich area, but they could never get a local guide, and when they came out, it was without prey, and they always looked haunted afterwards. None of them went back into the Wooley Swamp for a second trip. And nobody, even tourists, went in there after dark. There was something off about the murky darkness between the trees that kept people off of the twisted, winding paths when the sun fled the sky.
So, of course, at age of eleven, when the older boys had dared him and he'd crossed the forbidden line. The experience had been confusing. He'd found . . . nothing. The swamp was full of deep shadow broken by patches of bright sunlight. It was rich in game and covered in healthy, emerald green plants. Even at night, setting trot-lines from the old, flat-bottom johnboat, he'd never run into anything scary, or even unusual.
"Um, nothing weird Nana. Really. I don't get the big deal."
"Ever been down to the back end of Carver's Creek? Tell the truth now."
"Well, no. I mean, not much. The footing's really bad there, and the footpaths seem to change with every tide. The hunting isn't as good, so I've never been down there."
Karen nodded, "At least there's that, anyways."
Rachel licked her lips. It was time. Everyone else involved was dead. Karen only knew the broadest outline, and didn't like knowing that, but she had strong feelings about people and kin and history, and she'd tell Jacob soon if Rachel didn't do it herself. She got out three of the antique cups and saucers that her Granny-Nanny had given her when she was just a little girl.
"Sit down, Jacob. Have some tea. This isn't just about the Swamp. It concerns your Grandfather."
Jacob's eyes went wide and his backside slammed into the straight-back kitchen chair.
"I didn't expect this," he thought.
For his Grandfather was a Forbidden Subject. Nobody ever talked about it. Nobody. Ever. It was common knowledge that Nana Rachel had never married, but had bourn a daughter out-of-wedlock in her sixteenth year. That child had grown up to be Jacob's mother, now deceased.
But nobody knew who the father had been, and Jacob had never had the nerve to ask her.
"I told your Mama when she was about your age; I guess it's your turn," Rachel said. "You listen close, because I'm going to explain this once. You have any questions, you ask 'em tonight. Tomorrow morning, this subject is closed, you hear me?"
He lifted the teacup.
"I'd just turned sixteen and the money had begun running out. They'd given me my Sweet Sixteen 'coming out' party, but there was no more money for private school, and I'd had to transfer to the Parish public school."
She shivered as the sun fell lower, glowing a red-orange as it set. She leaned over and opened the door of the stove, the wood fire glowing and providing a dim sort of light in the room. She pulled a black lace shawl around her shoulders and settled into her chair. Karen sat down at the table. Jacob's eyes grew wide again. Karen never sat when members of the family were present. Apparently, it "wasn't fitting."
"If she hadn't transferred the year she did, she wouldn't have met him, and things would have fallen out very differently," said Karen.
"I suppose," Replied Rachel, her back very straight, "But he needs more names before we go on."
"Justine," said Karen, knowingly. "You need to start with Miss Justine."
"Wait," interrupted Jacob, "You mean Justine Lalande? The old witch of the fens?"
Karen winced and Rachel frowned saying, "Justine wasn't a witch. She was just an old woman who knew a lot about herbs, sickness, and injury. And had an urge to help people more than was good for her. It got her a reputation that got her killed."
Karen nodded, adding, "In those days, Miss Justine was the only doctor poor folks around the bayou had to turn to."
"Sorry," said Jacob.
Rachel continued. "Still, you're not too far off either. Justine wasn't a witch, but she was an adherent of the . . . Old Faith."
"Old Faith? You mean, like voodoo?"
"Child," said Rachel severely, "If you don't stop interrupting, we'll never get through this."
"Miss Rachel," said Karen, "he needs to know."
"The Old Faith isn't witchcraft or Devil worship. It's older than that nonsense. It goes deep, deep into the heart of the swamp. Yes, there's some Voudeau in it, and some Hoodoo as well, but it also draws from Celtic traditions that were old when Julius Caesar was just a bad idea in his daddy's mind. Parts of it came to us from the people who lived in these swamps before the white people came and parts of it came from the people who were here . . . before them."
Rachel paused and looked over the rim of her teacup at the young man. He was hanging on her every word.
"Well," she thought, "at least he's listening.
"I kept my mind and my eyes on my books," she continued. "Folks thought I was a snob, but the truth was, I was afraid. My early life was very privileged. In the public school there was no cotillion,  no dressage,  and no finishing school. Just readin', writin', and 'rithmatic. And not much of that. My friends were all gone. I didn't know anybody. I was smaller than everybody. "
"Lots of people have it a lot worse, but I thought I was in hell. I was different from everybody. I didn't even speak the same. Because I kept to myself they called me 'stuck up' and 'creepy.'"
There was a long silence. To fill it, Jacob said, "Sounds, um, hard Nana."
She let out a genteel snort. "I know: 'first world problems; poor little rich girl.' But I'm only telling you so that you can understand what happened next."
It was Karen who spoke first. "She made a friend."
"He was almost a year younger than me," Rachel said.
Jacob's head whipped around in silent surprise, because Nana's voice had . . . softened. It wasn't like Nana was hard all the times. Raising him up, she'd had plenty of loving moments. There'd been enough smiles and laughter in his childhood. He knew she cared. She was just walled off. It was her way. But this was different. Some of the lines left her face as she spoke.
"But this is different," Jacob thought. "Nana sound like . . . a girl."
"He was small, too, just a little bit bigger than me. Sandy hair, freckles, and eyes the color of the greenwood in summertime. His name was Garfield. Garfield Logan."
"Folks laughed at them," said Karen. "He was just the opposite of her. Raggedy clothes, no book smarts, and barely able to read. Also – snaggle teeth and a big ol' melon head."
Nana frowned at Karen. "He was smarter than he let on to most people. And once I started to tutor him, he picked up on a lot of things quickly. He'd just never cared to, before. I think he did it mostly to please me. He laughed easily, smiled all the time, and no matter what I said or did, he never let up trying to make me laugh."
"He was tough, too," Karen continued with a grin, "Had a really thick skin. Good thing, too. He needed it."
Karen ignored her, laughing. "Your Nana gave him down-the-road. 'Wanted nothing to do with him at first. The boy was out of school as much as he was in. He'd come to school for a few weeks, then the mean children would fuss at him about his clothes and the fact that his daddy was nowhere to be seen."
Rachel's face turned almost maroon, but she went on. "He'd run off into the bayou for a couple of weeks until the truant officer went out there and dragged him back. He always knew where to find him."
Karen's face went flat and her mouth compressed in disapproval.
"He was out at Miss Justine's shack – doing . . . things. Miss Rachel, I don't think I can stay for this after all."
She stood. The sun had gotten really low, the disc just touching the horizon. It would be full dark soon.
"Karen," said Rachel, "You started this. I'm not starting over."
Karen stepped into the lumber room and started pulling on a coat.
"I've changed my mind. I'm a good Christian woman, and this is the worst time of year to be stirring up those ashes. Something might be listening."
Jacob started to laugh, but it trailed off when he realized that both women were deadly serious.
"All right," said Rachel. "I'll finish it. We'll see you in the morning?"
She put on her hat and wrapped her scarf around her neck.
"Yes," she said.
The old wooden outer door swung closed with the clack of a brass latch. Her footsteps receded with the crunch of fallen leaves.
"What was all that about?" asked Jacob as he put the two turkey carcasses in the icebox.
"It gets a little weird from here. The Old Faith wasn't just about boiling willow bark tea to get rid of headaches or safely birthing babies."
"Miss Justine," said Rachel, "Wasn't just a Wise Woman, she was a . . . priestess of the Old Faith, and Garfield was learning about it from her. Not just the herbs and healing, but all of it, even the . . . magic."
Jacob laughed, but Rachel just stared at him flatly. A cold wind blew across the back yard as the sun continued to set, scattering and tumbling the oak leaves. The scent of wood smoke, old leaves, and something else permeated the room.
"You're serious," he said.
"Never mind," she replied. "It will make more sense later. Garfield wore me down with his kindness and his generosity, and we became friends, at first. I started to tutor him after school and on weekends. As I got to know him better I discovered that he was smarter than he let on, and wise beyond his years. Strong, too, for his size, and willing to face down a bull 'gator five times his size. My father could not have disapproved more. Not that that would matter soon. The law took Father away not long after that."
"Was that when most of the land got sold?"
"Yes," she replied. "It went for my father's defense, but it turned out not to have mattered. He was murdered in prison soon after he was sentenced."
"I wasn't. He was a mean, selfish, self-absorbed man."
There wasn't much Jacob could say to that.
Rachel sipped her tea and considered her words carefully.
"As time went by, Garfield and I grew closer. I found him to be kind, gentle, and sweet, but with strength of character unlike anyone else I knew. He was mercurial. He had the shortest attention span you could imagine, and yet he also had what turned out to be an indomitable will when it really mattered. That will be important later, too."
Jacob sighed and squirmed in his seat. "Nana, what does this have to do with the Wooley Swamp?"
Rachel slowly turned her head to face him and glared. Jacob subsided. Quickly.
The room grew darker.
"It took a long time, but after I saw how well he could take care of himself and those around him, I came to realized that there was no better boy to be found for the likes of me, and so I arranged for Garfield and me to start walking out together. I allowed him to court me. That was a pleasant idyll. But it didn't last. Nothing lasts. You remember that boy: Nothing in this life, good or bad, lasts forever. All you can do is try to be ready for the change."
"You know I like my privacy, and my books. It was against the rules, but I used to sneak away from study hall and go to the football field. I'd sit up there high in the bleachers, all by myself and read or study. And that was how it started. Have you ever been down by Carver's Creek at all?"
Jacob nodded. "Like I said, not much, but there's possum hunting, and raccoon."
"There's a double wide trailer high above the creek bank, or there used to be."
"The old Cable place," he nodded.
"Nobody lives there, do they? Nobody at all."
"No," he said. "Everybody says it's haunted. Three brothers used to live there, but they disappeared one night, on Halloween. Nobody ever heard from them again."
"The Cable place isn't haunted. It's just empty. But yes, there were three Cable brothers: Cain, Able, and Lot. They were nasty trash: meaner than mean, and not too bright, but with a sort of low cunning, the kind of cunning that can tell when you're working the far fields, so that they can clean out your butter-and-egg money without getting caught.
I was sitting on top of the bleachers. I was supposed to be reading Catcher in the Rye, but I had else something to think about when they came out and hid right underneath me. They never bothered to look up the whole time. I wish they had. Things would have been very different. Anyway, Cain was the oldest. They'd all been drinking, early as it was. I can still hear Cain's raspy voice like it was yesterday."
Fifty Years Ago:
"Ya'll meet me in the Wooley Swamp after school. We're gonna go and grab old lady Justine's drugs and money. My grandmamma got a bottle of poppy oil from her last week for her joints. You know she's gotta be dealing."
The young woman remained silent. Paralyzed, she didn't move a muscle or let out a peep. The three young men sat there and drank more corn liquor until the bell rang again. Then they took off in separate directions. She sat there for a moment, then shook herself, jammed her books in her bag and raced down the stands, her Mary Janes clattering on the steel steps.
"I've got to find Garfield. He can warn Miss Justine."
Garfield was supposed to be in math class, but when Rachel peeked in the window she saw that his chair was empty. She turned and squatted on the ground beneath the window and leaned back against the sun-warmed brick wall.
"Maybe he stayed home, or went fishing."
Off she dashed. Rachel rarely went to Garfield's home, but she knew the way. She skipped over the train tracks and down the gravel road as quickly as she could move, but the tarpaper shack turned out to be empty. He wasn't at the fishing hole, either. If he was out checking trot lines, there was no way she could find him. Even if she stole a boat, she couldn't operate it, and didn't know where to look. And she'd be in trouble now. She'd cut her afternoon classes to run around the Parish looking for him. She wrapped her arms around herself. It was chilly and getting late.
Then she put it all together. In her panic she'd missed the obvious. She couldn't sent Garfield out to warn Miss Justine if he was already out there.
Rachel lit off toward the swamp.
She trotted through the familiar paths of Booger Woods, but when she got to the back, where the ground got low and marshy, she slowed down to a walk. She desperately wanted to get there before the Cable boys, but once in the swamp, she wasn't sure of the way, and had to pick her footing carefully, trying to remember Garfield's description.
Even deep in the Booger woods she could still hear the distant sound of heavy traffic on the nearby interstate: the basso boom of truck horns, the rumbling of diesel engines, and even the whine of tires on concrete. Not so once she passed the big old cypress that marked the boundary into the Wooley swamp. It got increasingly dark as the oak and cypress trees grew closer and closer together. The smell of living things grew increasingly dense. The damp path was twisty, winding back into itself in confusing switchbacks, trying and failing to stay on the higher ground. Smaller paths branched out on both sides, leading off into even darker, danker woods. She began to hear the sound of crickets. Nightfall comes sooner in the deep woods.
Eventually she made her way to the large hummock of land where Miss Justine's shack stood on stilts, high above the edge of the water. A weathered grey picket fence stood around the yard, clearly an effort sometime in the last century to keep the chickens in. An old board and batten shack, Miss Justine's home was shaded on the brightest of days by the thick canopy of the cypress trees overhead, their branches draped with Spanish moss. The tin roof looked rusty but intact and the whitewash on the exterior walls was faded, cracked, and peeling. She glimpsed a couple of pieces of laundry hanging from the rail of the back porch. The water lapped quietly at the pilings as Rachel hesitantly approached the ramshackle steps.
The screen door swung back and forth in the nearly still air. The front door behind it was halfway open. The porch steps creaked and groaned, even under Rachel's tiny weight. She tapped on the front door.
There was a long silence, followed by footsteps. The door swung open the rest of the way. The woman was larger than Rachel, but still small and slender. She wore a shapeless blue and white print gingham dress with a plaid apron over it. Her white hair was pulled back in a severe bun and bound up with a thin black ribbon. Glasses with small, thick round lenses balanced on her nose.
"Rachel Roth," she said her voice thin and a little shaky.
"Are you Miss Justine? Where's Garfield? And how do you know my name?"
Rachel peered at the older women suspiciously.
"Nothing mysterious, my dear. Garfield never stops talking about you. I know you from him. The boy's not here, child; he's out gathering some herbs for me. I don't get around as well as I used to. He'll be back in a few minutes. It will be dark soon, so he'll want to get inside. Come in and we'll have some herbal tea until he gets back."
Before Rachel could open her mouth to speak again the light in the room dimmed. The women turned to the door where the silhouette of a large man blocked the light. The fading light glinted off of the eyes of Lot Cable. He grinned and stepped into the living room. The floor creaked beneath his booted feet. His brothers muscled their way inside, slamming the door behind them.
A snake, annoyed by the muffled, shrill sounds from inside the shack slithered off into the water.
Rachel stared down through the dim light at her teacup, her voice fading away into the twilight.
After a few minutes, Jacob rose and started a second pot of tea. Eventually she shook her head and looked up.
"At first, they didn't believe Miss Justine when she said she didn't have anything more than her butter-and-egg money in the cookie jar on the counter, and no drugs other than her herbals and a little poppy syrup. They found the pint mason jars she kept her corn liquor in for making tinctures and then went crazy. They drank them all down, but there wasn't much, and then they – they beat her. I could hear her bones cracking under their fists. When she fell on the floor they started kicking her with those big, heavy boots. I had to do something, so I jumped on Cain's back and started clawing at his face with my nails. He threw me against the wall like an empty beer can and then dragged me back into her bedroom. Then they . . . took me for their pleasure. When they'd each had a . . . turn, Lot pulled Miss Justine's limp body into the yard. Then the three of them all grabbed her and swung her back and forth and threw her into the swamp. They stood there, laughing high and crazy as the black water sucked her under. I think she was already dead, from the kicking. She – she didn't have to drown."
The old woman swallowed thickly.
"That – that was when Garfield returned."
Her voice fell to a whisper.
"I wished to heaven he hadn't."
Fifty Years Ago:
The disk of the sun had dropped below the horizon. Torches burned around the perimeter of Miss Justine's yard. The full moon lit the yard with a harsh white light as well. Garfield was almost back when he heard the high, mad laughter of the insane. He dropped the basket of herbs and sprinted. He burst into the yard from deeper in the bayou just as Miss Justine's body splashed into the dark water.
"No!" he shouted.
Slowly, Lot Cable turned to look at Garfield.
Lot's eyes were wide and staring. His lips were drawn back in a rictus grin. The tendons on his neck stood out and veins pulsed on his fore head. He giggled.
Garfield's eyes turned from the concentric circles in the surface of the black water to Rachel. Her blouse was torn open from throat to navel, all of the buttons scattered and lost. She held it together with one tiny hand. Her skirt was askew. Both socks were fallen and she was missing a shoe. A tiny trickle of blood flowed from one nostril and a bruise was forming on her cheek. Garfield's eyes flew wide. His lips pulled away into a snarl that was almost feral, revealing white, white teeth and red gums. He charged.
"Garfield!" she shouted, as Lot threw a haymaker his way.
Garfield rocked back, quick as a mongoose, his spine seeming to flex and sway like a serpent. A clean miss. He struck back like a cobra, immediately bloodying Lot's nose and blacking his eye. Lot rocked back under Garfield's blows, and then steadied. But then Able and Cain hit him from both sides, grabbing his arms. Rachel let out a screech and launched herself at Lot's back, but he thrust an elbow back and struck her solar plexus. She fell, gasping, and he kicked her in the stomach. He reached behind his back and drew out a knife, long and jagged. The moonlight turned the wicked blade to silver. Lot walked forward and grabbed the hair on the back of Garfield's scalp and jerked his head up.
"Like the little whore, do you?" hissed Lot, smirking. He traced the point across Garfield's throat.
"Don't blame you. She's pretty good, right boys?"
The other two Cable boys sneered and laughed, nodding. Garfield snarled and struggled in their arms, but the smallest of them had a hundred pounds on him. Unable to move, he spat in Lot's face.
The larger man's face twisted with hate and drug-induced madness. He thrust the knife into Garfield's chest just below his ribs. The smaller man gasped his eyes wide. Lot's thick lips thinned into a smug grin, and he twisted the knife.
"Ah," Garfield gasped as the knife came out, followed by a gout of blood. Black in the moonlight, the blood stain swiftly spread across and down his chest and stomach.
Rachel cried out again reaching her hand out toward her friend, but Lot snatched her off of the ground and threw her over his shoulder.
"Come on," he said to his brothers. "Let's go back to the boat shed. There's food there, and more liquor."
He looked over at Rachel and smiled a slow, greasy smile.
"We'll go and . . . party some more and after that," he chuckled, "'Gators gotta eat."
At his feet, Garfield's blood had begun to turn the sandy earth black. Rachel raised her head and looked into his eyes from her position on Lot's back.
"Garfield," she whispered.
He gathered all of his strength and pushed his hands down, rising to his knees. But the pull of the earth was too strong. His elbows quivered, and he fell forward into the dirt, the stain getting a little larger. Black blood ran onto the dusty yard.
Lot laughed again, kicked dust into Garfield's face, then turned and walked away, following the path back toward higher ground, and Booger Woods.
Garfield's breathing was shallow as the last of the Cable boys vanished out of the circle of light in front of Miss Justine's cabin. It hurt to inhale. His hands and feet began to get cold. He was terribly thirsty and his vision was starting to narrow. Garfield came to the realization that no man his age should ever have to: he was going to die, and soon. There would be no sunrise for him. And Rachel needed him, needed him now.
And so he did something . . . wrong. Some people would say that what came next was a sin, but he did it for the very best of reasons. He did it out of love.
Miss Justine had taught Garfield about the Old Faith, and most people who knew about it knew that it was a "life" faith: all about safe childbirth, healing wounds, and curing sickness. And that was true as far as it went. But Miss Justine was a woman, her body adapted to bringing forth life, the magic of life, of fertility, and circles. But she'd been more than just a hedge witch. Miss Justine had been a priestess, well versed in her faith, and as Garfield was a man, she'd taught him what little she knew about the masculine side of the Old Faith, charged with defending the homes, the temples, and the young. It was the male magic; the angular magic of harm, and of death.
"L'inglesou et Loco, Berstuk et Veles, Joro Astmah, Pachemama Ash!"
Dying, he drew profane sigils and runes upon the bosom of the earth with his own heart's blood. With his fading voice, he called deadly ancient names and made offers and promises. He invoked the Harvester, the Reaper, and the Wild Hunt of the Greenwood. And then Garfield spat out a dreadful oath.
The Greenwood heard him. And was pleased.
Somewhere else . . . things that had not been to Earth in a long, long time heard him, and savored the sweet words of worship, and of sacrifice. They accepted his offer – and his price. A bargain was struck. Cold wind suddenly blew from the deep bayou, and the torches all went out.
Very little time had passed. The Cable boys and Rachel were only a short way up the path. There was a rustling in the brush. But the Cables had poached this land and these waters all their lives, as their fathers had for generations before. They'd killed everything that walked, flew, or crawled for fun or for profit, and knew no fear of the creatures of the Wooley swamp. They gave the noises no thought until they came upon a patch of moonlight across the path. There, in the hard white light of the moon stood a fox. But there was something wrong with it. Its ears were too large, and its snout too long and too pointed. Its lips were drawn back in a grin from too many teeth that were too, too large. Worst of all, its eyes looked human, and shown a deep emerald green. It vanished with a flick of its tail.
"What the hell was that?" asked Cain.
Able shrugged, and Lot led them across the shaft of light and on up the trail. Less than a quarter mile on there was a slow, thick rustling sound in front of them, and something rose up off of the ground. Dark and wide, the undulating shaft rose up off of the marshy soil and silver white flashed as it opened its mouth, a good five feet off of the ground.
Able jerked to a stop. "That's the biggest cottonmouth I ever seen."
The creature swayed back and forth in front of them. Its mouth opened wide, and then wider. Moonlight glinted off of the over-sized fangs that protruded past the lower jaw. The mouth was oddly shaped, forming a wicked, delighted grin that no snake should have been able to produce. Emerald green eyes glowed from oversized bulges on the top of its football of a skull. It wasn't just the look of the thing that was wrong. A cottonmouth is no cobra, to be rearing up in display. A cottonmouth either flees or strikes. It swayed viciously back and forth in the still, dank air. Lot stepped carefully back and onto a side path. They all knew it. It would lead them back to Booger woods, but it would take longer, and take them closer to the deep water before they emerged.
A soft sound drifted on the wind. No one noticed it, but Rachel, bobbing over Lot's shoulder thought, "Laughter?"
The small group moved quietly now, with a purpose. All feelings of fun and thoughts of pleasure were gone.
"S-something's happening," said Cain, quietly.
"Shut up," hissed Lot.
The trio came to a stop in a small clearing.
Lot spoke again, his voice grating, "I don't wanna hear anything else from you two."
But the swamp had other ideas. Out in the darkness, beyond the circle of moonlight came the sound of footsteps. The crunch-crunch-crunch of large feet on fallen leaves seemed to be coming closer, then to circle outside the range of their vision. A cold wind stirred the leaves at their feet.
"WHAT'S THAT?" barked Able.
The other men's heads whipped around. Nothing.
"What?" snarled Lot.
"Um, it – it looked like a giant man – made out of twigs and, stuff. I could see the moonlight shining through it."
Lot just stared at him for a moment, and then said, "Ya'll's drunk. Cut it the fuck out."
"But . . ."
Lot strode back into the darkness and on up the winding trail.
They reached a small shack that sort of marked the edge of the Wooley Swamp in this direction. It stood in a small clearing with a winding footpath leading through Booger Woods and up to the County road. It wouldn't be too far now.
"Ow! Shit!" Lot suddenly shouted.
He dropped Rachel to the soft ground and hugged his right arm to his chest. His brother lit a cigarette lighter. In the light of the tiny flame the boys could make out a dozen tiny darts peppered the back of his arm, tiny little arrows. A drop of crimson blood wept from each one. A chorus of tiny, high-pitched giggles sounded out of the darkness.
"Something's wrong," Lot suddenly said. "They're . . . burning me."
Each of the tiny arrows was stained black from tip to midway up the shaft with some kind of sticky goo.
Rachel had landed with a soft thump on one hip on the mossy but firm ground. Without hesitation she rolled over on her backside and began to crab walk backwards and away as unobtrusively as she could. As she pressed down on the formerly soft, dry ground with her heels she noticed them sink into mud. Each time she moved, the wet spot got a little bigger, as though it was following her. Then Able tried to move.
There was a slight sucking sound and his feet grew cold as icy black water flowed into his shoes.
"Aaah!" he screamed, disoriented, for the ground had been dry a moment before.
Rachel shivered as she watched the breath from his mouth condense into thick clouds of steam. Suddenly, the swamp was unseasonably cold. Visible breath and even frost were not unheard of in coastal Louisiana, but only in deep, deep winter.
Able tried to jerk his foot free of the muck, and although his right foot did come up a little bit, his left foot suddenly sank under his full weight up to his knee. It was then that the laughter started. A voice drifted in from the darkness surrounding the yard there at the edge of the swamp. A tenor, soft at first, then loud, it seemed to circle the tiny open space among the trees. It wasn't a cheerful laugh, oh no. It was something dark, and disturbing. It was both young and familiar, and ancient and wicked. At the same time, it was richly, deeply pleased. All three young men began to scream and cry out for help, jerking up their feet, trying to lift them clear of the cold, sucking mud, but it grew both stickier and sloppier the more they struggled, unable to gain any purchase. Cain threw himself forward in his panic and caught himself on his hands. To his horror, he couldn't remove them from the muck.
The laughter boomed louder.
Cain, already on his hands and knees, was the first to go under. It was eerie, the sudden stop in his screams. One moment he was begging and calling for help, and the next he was silent, his bulging eyes rolling above his nose as he held his breath. He made one last, desperate effort to raise his hands free of the muck, and that pulled him under.
Able was next. In his panic, he'd grabbed onto Lot, who'd responded sharply with an elbow to the chest, throwing him off. Able landed on his backside with a splash, his hands behind him, and, also unable to free his hands, swiftly followed his brother.
Only Lot, the largest, still had his head above water. Rachel pushed herself a little farther back, but strangely, felt no fear. For though she was only about eight feet away, the ground under her feet and fingers was so dry now that it was dusty to the touch. She thought for a moment about what was happening only a foot or so under that black water and shuddered.
Lot barked, strong and commanding.
"ROTH!" he said, "Jesus, Roth, are you just going to SIT there? Help me!"
Then, desperately, Please!"
She looked around. There, right near her hand was a branch fallen from a nearby cypress. Resistant to moisture, it was strong and thick, and almost seven feet long. She could take it in her hand and brace her foot on that protruding rock. She was tiny, but stronger than she looked. She wouldn't be able to pull him free, but by locking her joints she could brace herself and allow Lot to pull himself free of the sucking mire. Her hand reached over to the branch and her feet quested for the rock. Her fingers were about to fall onto the wood when she looked into his flat, reptilian eyes. Like a dragon, they were dark and soulless. She remembered how she had spent the last hour. Her hand never quite touched the branch.
Instead Rachel Roth pulled her knees to her chest and folded her arms around them. She looked Lot Cable in the face, and her upper lip pulled back from her teeth, forming a new expression. But it wasn't a smile. And it wasn't pleasant to look at.
Tall as he was, it took him a while to go under. He struggled and alternated between cursing her and begging her. He offered her money and drugs. His fingers clawed at the mossy earth, but somehow, even though he could just barely touch solid land, it seem to almost whimsically let go, letting him pull up chunks and clods, but never letting him get purchase. Eventually only his eyes showed, rolling and terrified. And then, just his hands showed, still clawing at the air, mud, and water, which roiled and heaved with his struggles. She sat there until the end, because she wanted to be sure.
When the little yard had been silent for a little while, Rachel noticed a soft, green light growing behind her. She turned nervously, but it was only fireflies, dozens of fireflies, hundreds of them. They circled each other, swarming on the other side of the clearing, illuminating a break in the brush in the direction of the county road. It was not the season for fireflies, but she couldn't just sit here forever. Shakily, Rachel got to her feet, clutched her torn shirt about her, and paced across the dry ground to the path before her. It was a startlingly short walk out to the county road. The path was ruler-straight. The ground was bone-dry and there was the slightest of inclines leading out of the Wooley Swamp and Booger Woods. She saw no wildlife of any kind, other than the fireflies that lit her way. Not a thorn caught at her clothing. Not a spider web brushed her face.
Rachel made her way to the county road and flagged down a passing game warden who'd been out looking for poachers. As the glow of the fireflies faded into the headlamps of the warden's car, she heard a soft rustle of leaves and branches behind her. She glanced back. She was not at all surprised to see that the broad, straight path she had come up so easily had vanished without a trace.
Nana sat silently contemplating her empty teacup as the last echoes of her voice faded from the old kitchen. There was a tiny, little snort from Jacob's side of the table. She turned her head and glared.
There was a long pause as Jacob chose his next works with extreme care.
"Well, not, um."
He gathered himself and tried again.
"Nana, you've never, ever lied to me. In fact, I don't think anybody's ever caught you out in a lie anywhere. But it's a lot to take in."
She indulged herself in a snort of her own.
"Fair enough. Here are some facts you can check. Garfield, Cain, Able, and Lot were never seen again after that night. They did find Miss Justine's body, though. She was lying on her bed. She'd been put there all respectful–like, her hands crossed across her chest. Her dress was still wet from the swamp when we went out there in response to my statement. The coroner's report is a matter of public record. He said she was clearly beaten to death and that the 'gator bites were post mortem. But he also said something else. He said that she looked like the gators were at her for less than five minutes, and then suddenly left off, for some reason, like they'd been run off or something.
Here's something else: they never found any of the other bodies. Garfield was gone when I led them to Miss Justine's shack. They said the 'gators must have gotten him, but there were no 'gator tracks where the bloodstains were. I was there. I saw. And we went back to that little shack where the Cable boys died. They dug down eight feet where I saw them sink into the mire. They found nothing but one of Cain Cable's shoes at a depth of seven feet."
She paused, and then looked out into the moonlit backyard. Her voice got lower and developed a rasp.
"If you like, you could go out there tomorrow. It's been fifty years ago, but if you go out by the back of that shack to this day you'll find a spot that's always wet, no matter how bad a drought."
Then she smiled, taking in the stark, silver white light of the moon. She crew quieter. Her voice slithered across the kitchen to him, almost a whisper.
"Or you could go there tonight, when the moon is fullest, fattest and brightest. It's Halloween. You go on to that little yard. And you'll hear three young men still screaming, and the laughter of a younger boy, wicked and full."
Jacob swallowed, for some reason less inclined to scoff and not at all inclined to go out into the dark to listen for ghostly voices at the edge of Booger woods.
"What happened, next, Nana?" he asked.
"There's not much left to tell. The game warden took me home, and Daddy was appropriately outraged, but I got smacked after the game warden left. Apparently, if I'd been behaving like a decent girl, I wouldn't have gotten into a bad situation and 'gotten myself raped.' It was shortly after that that the people from Washington took Daddy away and I ended up in the County Home. But I wasn't there long before I started 'showing,' and they had to move me to a different kind of home. They couldn't have an unwed mother being a bad example to the other wards of the court."
Jacob sighed and stared down at the well-scrubbed table top.
"What's the matter now, boy?"
"I just – I don't like finding out mama was a child of rape. What does that make me?"
She laughed softly.
"For a bright boy, you don't listen very well. You aren't a Cable. There's no Cable blood in you at all. You're too kind, to gentle, and to damn smart."
"But you said . . ."
"What do you suppose I was thinking on so hard in those bleachers that I didn't hear those Cable boys come swaggering up to drink, smoke, and chew? I was trying to decide what to do about it, and what to tell him. You're a Roth. And you're a Logan, should you ever wish to claim it."
Jacob blinked at that. Then he frowned.
"Nana," he asked, quizzically, "Garfield's bargain. You weren't there when he made it. How do you know what he did when you were being carried off through the swamp?"
The shadows in the kitchen were black as pitch, and deeper than the night. Rachel "Nana" Roth was just a silhouette in the moonlight. She turned her head to answer him, and the red light from the open stove colored her glasses, or was it her eyes, the color of old blood. Her teeth flashed in the moonlight.
"Why Jacob," she said simply. "The next month, when the moon was fattest, brightest, and fullest, I just went down to the Wooley Swamp. And I asked him."
 Male wild turkey
 Coastal Louisiana has no fall turkey season.
 The pre-Clovis theory seems to be gaining some ground, but lots of people remain skeptical that there were people here before the Native Americans." new /ne ml
 Ballroom dance lessons
 Formal horse riding.