Old Man Swamp

 /   /  By Emma Birches
Stone Soup Magazine
November/December 2000

By Meredith Allen, Illustrated by Shoshana Leffler

The day was hot and humid, one of those lazy days that always found themselves in a place like Marrisvine. Bare legs hanging off the creaky, wooden porch, head pancaked between her hands, Athena, half in a doze, was watching the dying grass stir in the seldom stirs of wind. The classic sign of boredom. That is all the town held for her. After living in the fun-loving city of New Orleans, the plain little rows upon rows of houses of the suburb were claustrophobic. Yet, her dear mother sought yet another “ideal” life. And there Athena was, sipping her grandmother’s lemonade, watching the grass grow with her best friend Josh. Even he, the class clown, was calm and dull. “You think maybe if it got a few degrees higher the cement will melt?” Josh said, chewing on the end of a weed.

“Change of pace,” the girl responded. She stared over to Mr. Baker’s lawn and Mr. Baker shaping a mustang out of the huge hedge with clippers.

“Think we’ll turn out like that?” asked Josh, who always seemed to read her mind.

“I pray not.”

“Hey,” Josh jumped up, “let’s go down to the trails and find Old Man Swamp.” Athena laughed. It was so stupid. The trails were in the swamp, which was a furnace, especially in mid-July. Athena felt like she was already half fried, but was totally bored. And, it was an idea. Josh was obsessed with Old Man Swamp, an old hermit in the swamp people say went crazy and goes around scarin’ people. Josh thought he was cool. Athena thought he was an insane coot.

Josh and Athena jogged the three miles to the edge of the park, good practice for the annual race New Orleans held each year. They crossed the fallen cypress over the murky branch of the bayou, and hopped on the well-worn path. “You know, they say Old Man Swamp’s son was killed by a pirate’s ghost. That’s why he wanders these woods, trying to take revenge on the spirit,” Josh said. He crossed over the path onto the woods’ floor of dead leaves, darting through the ferns.

“Josh, come back, I don’t feel like getting lost in the swamp,” Athena said with a groan.

“Come on, you baby, where’s your sense of adventure?” Josh retaliated. Athena flinched. She was now obligated to follow, for she took all dares seriously, and Josh knew it. “Besides, you know our man won’t live by the trails,” Josh said, hopping over a vacant turtle shell like he was scaling a long jump.

“OK, but we ain’t introducing ourselves.”

The two had gone pretty deep in the woods when they came upon a wide canal. “Game’s over, Josh, let’s go,” Athena pleaded with him, and Josh looked at her, then at the canal. Chewing on his lower lip, he ran toward it, and to Athena’s dismay plunged into the water.

He submerged in the middle of the canal, hooting and hollering. “It’s cool,” he exclaimed. Liar.

Then, to her horror, she saw it. Two black eyes peeping out of the water where the stream made its bend through the woods. And, it was filling the gap between itself and Josh. “Get out of there, Josh!” she screamed, a lump rising from her chest to her throat.

“Come on, chicken, have a little fun,” he cried, doing a backstroke upstream, near the ‘gator.

“No, Josh, there’s an alligator!” Athena screamed desperately. Josh jerked his head up, looking wildly in all directions. The monster was now only about ten yards away, and in a snap decision Athena raced down the bank, sliding on the muddy slope, running into the water. She paddled as fast as she could, having no clue as to the fundamentals of swimming, trying to make it. Josh was frozen, though. He stared at it dead in the eyes as they continued sliding closer to him in the water. “Josh!” she screamed as she reached his side. He snapped out of the trance, Athena already hauling him back as best she could. Athena looked back, and found herself almost staring down the throat of the reptile.

Swoosh! Something whizzed by her head, narrowly missing it. It struck the beast square on its throat, flipping it sideways. She shot out of the canal, running through the murk and up the bank, not stopping till she almost smacked into him. Not Josh. There stood a stout old man with fur pelts tied around his arms and legs, and a long silvery beard filled and matted with twigs and leaves. He took her by the shoulders to steady her, Athena trying to stifle a scream.

“Old Man Swamp!” He looked past Athena to Josh who had said it, a grin appearing on his withered lips. Old Man Swamp released Athena, who almost collapsed; her knees suddenly turned to Jell-O. Josh, by contrast, almost skipped toward the brute. “How . . . you . . . what . . . ?” Josh asked, stuttering and slurring his words, dumbfounded, and in an odd way, star-struck by the man. Old Man Swamp’s grin broadened into a smile, almost like Josh had complimented him.

“Well, with a commotion like that, I couldn’t keep away,” he responded in a raspy voice that sounded like the dead leaves under his feet. His eyes darted from Athena to Josh, and the immense hulk of a man turned around and strode away.

It took Athena only a second to realize they were lost. She shot Josh a look, and cried, “Um, excuse me, Mister, but we’re kinda lost.” The mountain turned around, giving a critical but quick once over that gave Athena the shivers. Then he jerked his head to signal them to follow, but Josh was already beside him.

Old Man Swamp poeple and trees

Old Man Swamp’s grin broadened into a smile, almost like Josh had complimented him

“It must be cool to live in the swamp.” The comment sparked an exchange of knowledge about nature, Josh utterly entranced by Old Man Swamp, and it filled the long walk back home. Then they finally came upon the black road.

Old Man Swamp scratched his head as if he were in deep thought, looking up and down the road. “That way,” he pointed left, “is Choctaw. The other way’s Marrisville; take your pick.”

Athena, all ready to leave, stopped and almost stared at him, at this elusive figure before her, something out of her land’s past. “Why are you here?” she asked bluntly.

Old Man Swamp stood there, unmoving like this was a question he had pondered himself. He looked upward toward the radiant heavens as a hawk flew from horizon to horizon, and then Old Man Swamp stared at her, finally responding, “Girly, you can’t put it into words, but you can’t get it anywhere else,” and he looked up again. Then he winked at Athena, and stalked off back into the trees.

Athena had known what he meant, but she couldn’t tell you either, for it was deep in the swamp, in the trees, the bayou, the hawks, even the alligators. Something within it and Old Man Swamp that drove the two together. Athena turned to Josh, who appeared confused by the response. Then Athena whirled back around and shouted, “Thank you!” but Old Man Swamp was gone.

As Josh and Athena walked back home, Athena said, “You know, I used to believe this place was boring.”

“Nah,” Josh said, “a boring place can’t hold me, you and Old Man Swamp.”

Old Man Swamp Meredith Allen

Meredith Allen, 12
Harvey, Louisiana

Old Man Swamp Shoshana Leffler

Shoshana Leffler, 13
Bronx, New York

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