The lovely woman sitting next to me on the plane closed her soft almond eyes and her sexy rose-petal lips, and leaned forward and quietly threw up in one of those white paper airline barf bags.
“I never do this,” she said. She was willowy and tall, soft-spoken and pale. “I am so embarrassed.”
“You mean you never throw up?”
She laughed. “No, I never fly. I am your original stick-in-the-mud, a homebody. I have such deep roots where I live.”
“My name is Michael,” I said.
“Carolina,” she said. She had a brother named Jack. They lived on the edge of the great Okefenokee Swamp.
I went to the stewardess and got some crackers and 7-Up and we moved up front, where Carolina could sit next to the window over the wing.
“Look at the horizon,” I said. “And lean back.”
I opened the knobby air vent overhead so the air would blow on her face. She nibbled a cracker and took a sip of 7-Up.
“I feel so much better.” She squeezed my hand. “I don’t know what I would’ve done.”
She was headed home. I was going to a backwoods music festival in North Florida. My divorce was final, after two years, and I was hoping to meet someone new.
We got off the plane and walked down the long ramp, and she invited me to come visit. They weren’t used to having company, but they would love to see me. I rented a car, and, after spending two days at the festival, drove out to the swamp and parked at the end of a deserted gravel road.
The sun was setting, and I got there just as the last light faded. When I stepped out of the car, the noise was overwhelming. Frogs and crickets and cicadas humming and singing all around.
The swamp was eerie at night. The sky was black, with a million stars. I had never seen anyplace like this. Owls hooted, birds cawed and animals mewled. Things rustled in the bushes. Vague shapes slithered on the ground. I debated whether to get back in the car, but the moon came up and I could see a dim path through the woods. I followed it and came out onto a beach that was white in the moonlight next to a wide stretch of inky black water, a lake or lagoon. Little plopping sounds all around. The place smelled loamy, like damp leaves rotting in the earth. I caught a whiff of dead fish. I took one step off the path and the ground trembled underfoot.
“Carolina,” I called. “Carolina?”
Nothing. The howl of a panther, I think, and the roar of a bull alligator. Chee-chee-chee, the call of an unseen bird.
Tall pond-cypresses and sweetgum trees and black walnuts high overhead. I heard a rustling in a tree-top, and a giant bird spread its wings and flew. A whooshing noise. It must have been six feet wide, huge against the night sky. Smaller birds flew past, their wings ripping the air, like tearing silk.
All this had a ghostly, unreal quality.
Man, I thought, this is spooky stuff.
I followed a narrow road, two pale strips on the ground. My boots crunched underfoot, and I knelt and found the ground was thick with broken seashells that were white in the moonlight. In the distance, I saw a small cottage with a peaked roof. It had a light in the window.
When I knocked on the door, I heard a peculiar lapping sound inside. Like a huge dog slurping water. Then an odd swallowing noise, strange and hollow, like water poured down a well.
My stomach flipped and flopped. My legs were trembling. I thought I might toss my cookies, you know, yackety-yak—throw up.
Then I heard another noise. Zzzzip-flap. Over and over. I couldn’t place it. Like a boy hitting a wall with a wet towel.
Suddenly, silence. A palpable heaviness in the air, which was thick with moisture and hard to breathe.
I knocked again on the door, a big hollow sound, BOOM, BOOM, like a bass drum. Something in there moved. Slurp-whack.
I pounded on the door again.
Something slithered and scraped inside, a sound like a gigantic wet fish being dragged across the floor.
I felt movement behind me and turned. Nothing. Large and high up, the trees were trembling in the wind, but I couldn’t feel the breeze on my face. The sky was thin and jagged with small clouds.
A cloud blocked out the moon. The stars came out, but it was hard to see. I had no flashlight. No matches. No lighter. I searched my pockets. I could feel folding money. Keys. A few coins.
Branches rustled a few yards away, and a shape moved.
“Carolina? Carolina?” I was trembling all over now. My clothes clung damply to my skin.
A dim light shone out from the house. One of the trees moved, inching toward me. I lost it. Warm urine ran down my leg and pooled in my shoe. It gave me a sense of relief. Like a small child.
The door creaked open. I turned to look.
There was a huge man, with dark and pitted skin, his face shiny with water, inside the small cottage, surrounded by leaves, as if in a cave, full of moss and reeds and ferns. He must’ve weighed 400 pounds. The man smiled, his mouth wide and his tongue pink.
A voice behind me said, “Hi, Michael.” It was Carolina, from somewhere in the darkness.
At first I thought, no, this must be a joke, an illusion, a trick they play on visitors. The tree only seemed to be moving. The giant man must be some kind of illusion, a trick of the night.
“It’s me,” said Carolina, from the darkness.
“It’s you,” I said. “And it’s me. It’s me.”
The tree moved again, and everything went dark. I must’ve passed out. When I awoke, lovely Carolina held me in her arms. The sun was up. I was lying in a hammock with my head on her lap. She held a damp washcloth to my forehead. Her brother was swimming in the lagoon. He had long powerful legs and shot through the water leaving a wake that splashed on the shore, lap-lap.
They invited me to stay over. Carolina and I played on the beach and went for a walk in the forest and took a canoe and paddled through the great swamp. Vines hung down like ropes covered with green fur. Alligator eyes watched us. Flamingoes flew past in pink clouds. The forest and the swamp were alive with mango trees and strange creatures under water that looked like fat old men without arms.
At lunch, Carolina drank a strange brown liquid that she said was tamarind juice. It had a foul smell. She offered me some, but I said no.
I was thinking morbid thoughts. But Carolina was beautiful. She had wide almond eyes and high cheekbones, and there was something fresh and natural about her, and—Dare I say it?—she had a transcendent leafy grace about her. She seemed to sway in the gentle breezes wherever we went.
Her brother Jack opened a can of sardines and popped a little fish into his mouth and bit it in two and swallowed it, gulp.
I thought these people were strange but fun.
Night began to fall, and I got scared. Perhaps things would get weird again when the sun went down.
Carolina and Jack spread out a canopy among the trees, to keep me dry and to catch the rain; they said it rains every night here this time of year. On a table under the canopy, they laid out a plate of raw fish and a bottle of red wine and a carafe of fresh water, all for me. They unrolled a sleeping bag in the hammock and rigged up a small reading light.
“We have to go,” said Jack, coughing slightly.
“I hope you have a wonderful night,” Carolina said. Her voice was soft and thick and sweet and she looked at me with big pleading eyes, and I thought, She needs me, she needs me. I swear we were falling in love. She gazed at me long and long, and I remembered an old poem, Let the small rain down come down, or something like that. Let it rain, I thought. I am here and I am alive.
I was afraid, but I told myself to be brave.
“Sweet dreams,” said Jack, and his voice was deep and hoarse, as if he had something caught in his throat.
Carolina went into the forest and Jack went into the house.
I was alone, surrounded by dark beauty.
The forest was quiet and then as the rain started I heard noises from the swamp and pretty soon the night was full of sound, louder than before. Birds cawed, crickets chirped, frogs croaked.
I lay down and slept and then awoke, restless. I started walking in the rain and the darkness. I seemed to know my way, as if something was guiding me, and I walked in the night and the rain, huge trees swaying above me and thunderclouds dark and roiling in the sky. Then the moon broke through and shone brightly on the clouds and they were suddenly white and it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.
I was mesmerized, lost in the night and the darkness.
I found a clearing in the forest and a soft grassy mound and lay down on my back. The forest and the swamp were now friendly all around, as if I had come home. I gazed up into the heavens and all I could see were the moon and the stars and high clouds. I felt myself drawn upward into the night, as if propelled into the stars and drifting among them. I had heard of celestial vaulting but never experienced it before. I was weightless and seemed to fly out among the stars, without body and without fear and with nothing but this intense feeling of joy and splendor.
I seemed to be in a trance. Then I realized I was losing myself here in the swamp, and I jumped up and looked around, hands trembling, heart thudding in my ears. I saw that the roots of a tree were entwined about the mound where I had been lying, and the mound was indented in the shape of a man, my shape, and the roots seemed to be moving.
I didn’t believe it. I must’ve been drunk, or dreaming.
I heard Carolina’s voice, a whisper, saying my name. “Michael… Michael… Don’t be afraid. Lie down. Everything will be all right.”
I fought the urge to give in. The moon went behind a cloud and by the dim light of the stars I found a path through the woods and I ran. And ran. I stumbled over roots and splashed through dark waters and sank up to my waist in quicksand, and I fell and swam my way out of it, and again I ran.
Finally, the moon came out and shone down through a break in the trees. I was in a clearing surrounded by a dozen grassy mounds like the one I had escaped.
The grasses waved in the breeze and I saw that each mound was in the shape of a man. I looked closer and the first one indeed contained a man, and his skin was sunburned, as dark and rough as bark, and his mouth was open and his eyes were closed, and he seemed to be alive still. The others contained men, too.
In the distance I heard something moving toward me. It rustled in the bushes. I ran again, looking for my car, but soon I was lost and stumbled and fell across something and got up and looked in the moonlight and there was the mound from which I had run.
The grass looked soft and warm and inviting and the mound was open, as if waiting for me. I turned and started to run but tripped on a root and fell onto the grassy mound, and the grasses closed over me, and I felt the roots move, and they clasped my arms and legs. I struggled but could not rise.
Carolina’s face loomed over me. “Just close your eyes, Michael. It will be all right.” I felt her kiss on my lips and her hand on my forehead and her warmth all around.
“No,” I screamed out into the night.
I struggled and felt the roots close about me. I fought for hours, pulling and pushing and trying to roll over. I rubbed my skin raw, until I felt blisters on my neck and arms and legs where my skin chafed against the roots. I struggled, and my skin bled, and the blood was sticky on my skin, and it clotted and hardened, and the roots were stuck to me, and I was too tired to move.
Exhausted, I fell asleep.
When I woke, I had no idea how much time had passed. The roots and the grasses and the earth were warm like a blanket, and I seemed to be part of the earth.
I could no longer move. I could feel my roots deep in the earth.
In the distance, I could hear someone swimming in the lagoon. Splashing, splashing.
The sun was setting. And it grew dark, and the moon came out.
Then I heard a car stop and someone called, “Carolina. Carolina. Hello? Hello? Are you there?”
I tried to cry out, but I could not. In the distance, I could see a tree begin to move.