Momma always said a devil lived in the swamp, and that she worshiped Him. She said that He was kind, that He once granted her a big favor. Every night, momma would lock herself in her room and pray to Him, and when she came out the frogs would chant. Some nights, when the frogs would croak and sing, she’d tell me that was how she knew He was watching over us. The deepest I’ve slept were the nights I heard the frogs singing outside my window as momma read me her bible.
One night, as the frogs were singing my lullaby extra loud, momma came into my room, climbed into my bed and held me close. She said she’d finally paid off her debt to Him. She explained that after days of searching deep in the heart of the swamp, she found Him and made a deal to have me. I was the one thing in the world she wanted more than anything, but no matter how hard she tried or prayed she couldn’t. She wept and said she loved me, but after she finished the frogs stopped singing.
The next few days, momma tried praying again but the frogs never sang. The whole swamp got quiet around us. We never heard a bird’s call or a gator’s hiss in the distance, and the silence made momma scared. She almost burned herself cooking and was slow to respond to anything I said, if she said anything. Whenever she wasn’t working, she sat in her rocking chair and clutched her bible. I was scared for her and asking her about it only made her look right through me, like she was looking through fog trying to find a spirit.
One day momma and I were washing our hands in the river that led into the swamp before supper. She’d been silent the last few hours and I watched her as she slowly scrubbed her hands in the moving water. Her knees rested on the edge of the bank, her eyes gazing into the river, seeing nothing and everything all at once. I stood up and had started back to the house when I heard she’d stopped washing her hands. I turned around to see her standing, looking across the river and into the deepest part of the swamp. The twilight sky made the darkness of the swamp an abyss, and momma started walking towards it. She was waist deep in the water before I called out for her. As I ran back to the bank I saw her drop and disappear beneath the surface. I screamed to her when her head popped back up, thrashing her arms and trying to stay above as she gasped for air. She turned to me, the blankness in her eyes replaced with fear, and then acceptance. She stopped flailing, and I saw her sink for the last time. The scream I let out almost crushed my lungs, begging the river to stop. My cries echoed off the trees across the bank as they cut through the air and over the rushing water. The river kept flowing, forgetting it had swallowed momma at all.
My knees sank into the muddy bank. I couldn’t go in and save her. Momma couldn’t swim, and she never taught me how. I cried and screamed until I shook. As hours passed, the sun sank below the sky and the darkness of the swamp engulfed me. When I couldn’t cry anymore, I realized the sounds of the swamp had returned. Birds cried and crickets chirped, but from deep within the swamp I heard the frogs again. I looked downriver. It flowed into the swamp’s heart, beyond the marshes and wetlands. The frogs’ song came from there, and they were calling for me, urging me to follow.
I made it back into the clearing where our home was. My tears had dried on my face by the time stumbled through the door and into the kitchen. My stomach growled, and I ate the charred moccasin momma made. I’d killed it the day before. It’d slithered its way to the house and was creeping on momma as she dug through our garden. I’d seen it before it got too close, grabbed the machete by the door and chopped the head off. The fire under it had gone out hours ago and left it cold, but I ate it anyways. I couldn’t go into the swamp unless I was ready. After eating what was mine, I wrapped momma’s in a cloth to eat later. I grabbed the machete from beside the door and took one look back inside. Momma’s bible sat on her chair, but I couldn’t bring it with me. I turned my head back and left.
The sky no longer held any sunlight, only the pale moon above me hanging full. I walked my way back to the river. It ran into the deepest parts of the swamp. Even if I wandered away from the water, all I had to do was listen for the frogs. They’d carry me where I needed to go, all the way to Him. He was gonna help me get momma back.
My feet knew the first part of the way by heart. Momma would walk me down the river when I was young, and I walked it myself when I got old enough. She told me to never go too far out, the swamp was dangerous. In the deep and forgotten marshes, the gators infested the waters and waited for their prey. Stories of men being eaten and only their bones being found kept me up many nights. Even if the gators didn’t get you, the panthers could take you apart as fast on land. They took to the trees, cloaked by the night sky. The only hint you’d get was a growl or, if you got lucky, you’d see their eyes shine through the dark before you were too close.
At least an hour passed before I felt the dirt below my feet become muddy and saw the trees around me grow thinner. When I stepped on it, the grass pushed out water that curled around my toes. The flowing of the river grew louder as it split and gave way to marshy waters off its branch. It started to curve, too, telling me to turn with it so I could go further in. Where the branch started was shallow enough for me to cross with ease. Stones stabbed at my feet, but the water here didn’t go far past my knee. The quickness of the stream caught me off guard, but I forced myself to keep balanced. A little after crossing, I felt the wetland begin. The land was saturated and muddy, making it harder to cross. Following the river was more difficult now, but I could still hear the frogs in the distance. Crossing the small wet patches was easy, but they only got deeper as I went.
When the water of the swamp came above my waist, I heard the hiss. My body froze, the shrill, piercing stab could make your bones grow cold. You can’t stop with gators though, and you didn’t wanna be in the water with them, so I kept moving. I was holding the leftover moccasin high above my head as I waded through. It slowed me down, but I couldn’t let it get wet. The water broke far to my left, telling me something had crawled in. I didn’t know where the nearest bank was, but I knew I had to get there soon. I trod the water hard, my bare feet dug into the weeds and earth below and I fought my instinct to lower my arms to sprint. The splashing water around me made it harder to hear the gator closing in, but I knew it was there. When it brushed a log about forty feet away, the quiet knock of the wood rang like a bell in my ears. It told me I didn’t have time.
A few steps later I could feel the incline of the bank begin to rise. My pounded in my ears, the water sloshing with each step I took blurred my mind. The gator wasn’t far behind. I grabbed the machete from around my belt and used it to cut open the cloth. What was left of the moccasin spilled out and hit the water behind me. Only a second after it hit the surface, the gator struck. Its jaws speared out from the water. The charred meat vanished before it crashed its jaws down with a snap that could crush bone. I tripped and stumbled my way onto the land. My lungs caving as I collapsed on the muddy earth. Looking back, I saw the water still rippling. From the center, I saw the slit eyes of the gator, pure evil watching me, daring me to come back into the water. It sank back down, unblinking eyes locked with mine until they vanished beneath the murky water.
I laid on the bank and tried to shake my thoughts away from my near death. The gator was gone, but I could still feel those evil eyes taunting me, warning me of what would happen if I went back in. As my heart settled and my chest eased, my breath returned to normal. My ears found the river, the stream flowed by me and I could hear the frogs singing even louder. The croaks let me know I was getting closer.
After a while I stood back up and grabbed the machete from beside me. Not having the moccasin would leave me hungry, but I could survive without eating. As I made my way deeper into the swamp, the land under my feet became dryer and the trees thickened out until I came to more solid oaks. The water dripping off my body left me cold and shivering, but I needed to keep going.
Twigs crunched underneath my feet and the sounds of the swamp surrounded me. The song of the frogs in my ears made my eardrums resonate along with them. Like a siren’s call pulling me closer, my only thoughts were the enchantment of the swamp’s sounds. I don’t know much time passed, but I knew I was getting closer to the swamp’s heart and closer to Him. The spell broke when, from above, a branch creaked. My eyes shot up and darted between the branches of the cocoon of trees above me until I saw the reflection of the moonlight in the glare of a pale eye. The panther had set its sight on me, a hunter spotting its prey.
Running wouldn’t do me any good. Cats love to chase, no matter their size. I readied the machete, pulling it from my waist and inching my way to the other side of the trees. If it lost sight of me, I could make my way past and beyond to where the river ran into the swamp’s heart. When I’d made it behind the trees and didn’t see the glint of the panther’s eyes, my progress slowed as I avoided stepping on the fallen branches and leaves. I heard the cat make its way down from the tree, the soft thump of its paws landing on the ground told my ears it was searching for me. It was hungry, but so was I. My stomach betrayed me, its growl striking more fear in me than the panther’s which came after. Not having the moccasin to eat was gonna kill me.
A twig cracked under one of its paws as it stalked towards me. It knew where I was, my stomach had given me away. My only chance was to make it to a shallow part of the river. It wouldn’t follow me there, it would be too slow in the water. Judging by sound was dangerous, but it had to have been at least fifty feet from me when I heard another twig snap. My stomach began to growl again, updating it to where I was. If I ran, it’d run after me, but at this rate it was going to catch me regardless. The sooner I made it to the river the better.
My eardrums hummed again to the frogs’ song as my feet pounded into the earth, carrying me forward. The cat saw me tear past through a gap in one of the trees and let loose another low growl before sprinting towards me. Sticks crunched under me and stones warped my path. My feet were screaming for me to stop but I didn’t listen. My heartbeat pounded in my ears to the beat of my feet, giving tempo to the frogs in my ears. The machete was clenched in my right fist as my arms pumped at my side. The panther was gaining on me. Its long, powerful strides were closing the gap, and the thought made me sprint even faster. The paws crushed everything under them, their thumps making my heart drum even faster. I could hear water crashing on rocks in front of me. I was close to the river.
The sound of the frogs enveloped the air. It was all I could hear when I felt the claws dig into my shoulders. I landed face first into the ground, my arms thrown to my side. Hot breath grazed the back of my neck as razors pierced into my shoulder blades. The sight of momma drowning played in front of me again as I screamed in pain. I needed to get to Him. I had to save momma. I couldn't die here. The panther lifted its left paw and swatted my side. I tumbled a few feet. My ankle twisted and gashes opened across my back where the right claws caught my flesh and tore my shirt. Cats always play with their catch, and this gave me a chance. The machete was still in my hand when the panther pinned me, and I didn’t let go. I glanced up to see panther bounding towards me, ready to pin me down and tear my throat. It pounced and as it was in the air, I lifted my right arm. The panther landed on the blade, driving it through its own chest and into its heart. The frogs screamed in my ear as blood ran down the handle and onto my hand. The weight of the corpse pushed my arm back down as it let out a last, pained cry. The body of the cat rested on top of me, my back pressing into the dirt as its gashes ignited with hellfire.
When I shoved the panther off me and got to my feet, it was hard to stand. I pulled the blade out of the cat’s chest and limped towards the river. My progress was slow as blood trickled down the remnants of the claws on my back and my ankle buckled under my weight. The river wasn’t as close as I thought, I'd underestimated it in my panic. When I’d finally made it to the bank, I collapsed. Frogs filled my ears, my eardrums almost exploding with their cries until tears ran down my face. I curled my body tightly and screamed, and when the cry had burned through my lungs, I didn’t hear the frogs anymore.
I relaxed and looked up in confusion to see a campfire just across the river. I stood and looked around. I saw the river had forked, forming a crossroads of water that encircled the land in front of me. The fire across the water called me, inviting me to come closer and rest. I’d made it to the heart of the swamp.
The pain across my body numbed as I stepped into the water. As I descended, my feet never left the riverbed. Overwhelmed with an impenetrable calm, I didn’t panic even as the water came up to my eyes. I kept walking. The water perfectly covered me for a single step, engulfing me in the calm stream. The next step began the incline, and my head broke the water’s surface again. When I’d made it across the river, I felt no pain. My ankle left me with no limp, and my back had closed the wounds of the panther’s claws. Even the machete was clean of blood, purified by the river.
Water dripped off me, landing on the dry earth as I approached the clearing with the campfire in its center. Two logs surrounded the fire on either side. I sat on the one nearest to me and warmed myself by the crackling flames. As my temperature rose, I noticed the swamp had grown silent once more.
When the water behind me broke, I turned to see what had caused it. My eyes landed on a man walking out from the water, just as I had. His eyes locked with mine for a moment, and the malice in them petrified me. I felt my guts warm and start to boil, and I whipped my head back to focus on the fire and avert his gaze. He crossed beside me, and in the side of my vision I saw that no water dripped off him. He sat down across from me on the matching log across the fire, staring at me.
The silence went unpierced as the fire crackled between us, and past it I could make out parts of his face. Everything was sharp. His jawline and his nose both had distinct edges. He had thin, slit eyes burning with the intensity from before as the fire gave his skin a red hue. An old suit clung to his frame, highlighting that the sharpness of his face went beyond to his entire body. I didn’t have the courage to speak first, so we sat in silence for a while.
“Silent type?” His voice was gravelly, almost soft, but laced with venom. When it cut across my ears, I knew who He was. “Don’t worry, I know why you’re here,” He spit out when I failed to answer, “I can smell the sin dripping off you like water. Your cup runneth over, child.”
“I want my momma back.” The words had escaped me before I even realized I said them, compelled out of me.
“You don’t think I know that?” He cracked.
“Then let’s make a deal,” I replied after a moment, “Bring her back, or send me back and let me save her. I’ll give you anything.” My volume rose with each word, pleading with Him as my voice tried not to break.
He scoffed as he replied, “It don’t work like that, child. I would’ve made you an offer if it did.” My heart sunk as the words slithered from between his lips. His eyes continued to stare into me, His gaze never breaking. He spoke again before I could reply, “I know your momma said I make deals, that I was kind and I make miracles happen. Your momma was a fool.”
The warmth inside me boiled into anger, my muscles tensing as my voice firmed, “Don’t you say that about my momma.” My eyes locked with His, my spite rising to meet His intensity. “I want her back, dammit. I know you can fix this, and you’re going to.”
“You got quite the nerve, coming and looking for me, and threatening me.” His voice was even but loud. Its intensity exceeded that of His eyes, and the fire roared for a moment before settling back down. “I’ll explain this once, child,” His voice was still firm, but had calmed with the flames, “There ain’t no bargaining this one out. I ain’t raising the dead, that ain’t my style. I ain’t sending you back, either. All water returns to the ocean, no matter what stream you put it in.”
“When your momma made the deal to have you, she was as desperate as they come. I couldn’t take away the circumstances that brought her to me, but I did give her opportunity. We struck a deal and I told her I’d take my claim when I was ready. She prayed and tried to appease me, but that ain’t what I wanted. Took me a couple tries, but I got what was mine. The deal’s done. I ain’t taking it back, and you can’t change it, now get over it.”
He hissed out those words, and the intensity in his eyes struck hopelessness into me. I couldn’t get momma back. Silence fell over us again, the only sound being the fire softly crackling between us. All I’d been through was for nothing. There wasn’t a deal I could make to make things better, and I couldn’t go back and fix it. Tears welled in my eyes as I realized momma was gone.
He sat and watched me cry until I couldn’t cry anymore. All the while, the fire dwindled down and burned away until only the embers gave the faintest glow. I couldn’t see Him, but I heard him speak, “Go on home, child.” His voice was soft, almost a whisper, “Dying in this swamp ain’t gonna fix anything.” The embers dwindled and died as the hushed words left his lips, leaving me alone in the darkness
I wiped the tears away, my eyes stinging. After the last of my tears dried, the sounds of the swamp returned and thrummed in my body. Crickets and cicadas chirped all around me and birds cried in the trees, but above all the sounds I heard the frogs’ song. The soft croaks settled in my mind and matched the beat of my heart. Their cries came from behind me, from the way I’d come, calling me back home.