We need a hero. So beyond the trees staggers Randolph in the pasture. The pasture separates the village and the swamp. His unshaven face becomes flexed in derelict study as he navigates tricky obstacles like holes in the ground. He makes it to the swampmouth before dark, where the baby screams become distant but not untraceable. Wind hammers his black field jacket, fingerless-gloved hands gripped snug around his trusty axe, slung heroically but uselessly upon his shoulder. He should enter the woods. Although he dresses the part, Randolph has not, traditionally, played the hero. He does not read books, which some consider a boost; the villagefolk don’t cross the swampmouth so there is no record of transgress. But Randolph isn’t fazed by stories. He roars I AM NOT SCARED OF YOUR STORIES, HELLSWAMP. The swamp does not answer in words; its abyss yawns back purposefully.
In person the swamp is a different thing entirely. Randolph messes his pants. He is drunker than he remembers. The sun sets as he ponders his approach under the cold sky. He has become a drunk on the job, a self-employed nobody. One day he should become sober. I WILL MYSELF TO SOBERITY he says to no one. An ominous wind bites his neck like a nervous hello, catches his attention. Maybe it is urgency of the dead mother, a roaming spirit. Maybe it is a curse triggered to delay him longer. This is not unbelievable. These powers prey in the dark. Mischievous moonlight paints the field with scenes of ancient wars, bloated bodies of male leads cast around like roadblocks from the swamp. He cannot linger on the tapestry of men strewn out behind him like confetti. His therapist gave him coping mechanisms for private use. He closes his eyes and pictures a shut door, which only he can open. Behind the shut door is where the swamp angel lives, he decides, a shadow coaxing the kidnapped child to silence. He thinks the child is not cute. He would cut through the door with his trusty axe. I AM HERE TO GUT YOU DEMON he would bark. But he is no longer lucid. The swamp angel does not heed him. The baby is marked for death in ritual. It is dirty work but the angel had developed a knack for quick executions, his cutting tools laid out behind him in a row. The angel consults the function of each spiked instrument, every oversized blade, picking a fine comb-toothed structure from the collection, raising this slowly overhead while whispering incantations.
The hero used to be extraordinary. Now he is pitiable, pall, eyes shut among the swollen forms, a hidden pasture he daren’t see too close up. Arms and limbs outstretched everywhere like signs of egress. This could be hell, Randolph thinks to himself, or some variant. It’s as if he couldn’t see the bodies so he cuts a perfect path through the mass grave, stopping fearfully at the gaping maw of the swamp. Or else the swamp had burped these disassembled men from its ruined bowels in the night. The weight of it all. He becomes terribly heavy all of a sudden. Randolph is outfitted with crude weaponry against impossible odds; his weapons spill out noisily as he falls end over end into the swamp like a misplaced nursery rhyme and drowns.
He awakes coughing on the bank. The bodies have drawn nearer in anticipation, animated in terrible shapes with teeth marks and severed limbs, some crawling toward him. His field jacket is torn at the shoulder. His heart feels fine as he counts the beats, touches his face. He is alive. His ankle is sprained. He tries to assess the loose arsenal but then he hears the swamp, open and inviting and merciless. It looms eerily big in front of him. His depth perception struggles, sludge plugs his ears. The hero tastes mud, notes of copper, disappointments. Something touches his leg. The floating corpses are flushed around him now, handsome faces masked in agony, and final. He tries to peer through their lumbering forms past the veil of defeat. The hero sheds hope beside an endless open field. The scream waxes and wanes with distance and time. It is morning. Randolph’s exposed eyes adjust poorly to the light, colors swirling together. Above the treeline, something floats.
The scream is in the trees. In the trees is, as ever, the swamp angel, dragging the stolen infant home like a gift. The baby screams and grins at the same time, slick with mud and pollen. The swamp angel moves confidently as if no one follows, one scaly foot in front of the other, the baby screaming and delirious astride him like an accomplice. She hangs midair in his clawed fist not unlike a shopping bag full of goods from market. The swamp angel is annoyed by the noise the human worm makes. But the aged earth moans pleasurably beneath his weight. He presses on, arms swinging wider along the route of his ancestors. A mother, alive, might be worried but the baby is too dumb to tell the difference: the scene could be mistaken for enjoyment, the swamp angel burly and barnacled like some great uncle making airplane noises instead of monstrous grunts. A chorus of crickets dots their escape.
Jason Teal, Publisher & Editor of Heavy Feather Review, is a specter now living in the Little Apple of Kansas. His first book, We Were Called Specimens: An Oral Archive of Deity Marjorie, is forthcoming with KERNPUNKT Press in 2020. He currently hosts Driptorch Community Performance Series + Open Mic with Arrow Coffee Co.