Swamp Boy

· Articles & Essays · ,

by Rick Bass

There was a kid we used to beat up in elementary school. We called him Swamp Boy. I say we, though I never threw any punches myself. And I never kicked him either, or broke his glasses, but I stood around and watched, so it amounted to the same thing. A brown-haired fat boy who wore bright striped shirts. He had no friends.

I was lucky enough to have friends. I was unexceptional. I did not stand out.

We’d spy on Swamp Boy. We’d trail him home from school. Those times we jumped him—or rather, when those other boys jumped him—the first thing they struck was always his horn-rim glasses. I don’t know why the thick, foggy-lensed glasses infuriated them so much. Maybe they believed he could see things with them, invisible things that they could not. This possibility, along with some odd chemistry, seemed to drive the boys into a frenzy. We would go after him into the old woods along the bayou that he loved. He went there every day.

We followed him out of school and down the winding clay road. The road led past big pines and oaks, past the puddles of red water and Christ-crown brambles of dewberries, their white blossoms floating above thorns. He’d look back, sensing us I think, but we stayed hidden amid the bushes and trees. His eyesight was poor.

Now and then he stopped to search out blackberries and the red berries that had not yet ripened. His face scrunched up like an owl’s when he tasted their tart juices. Like a little bear, he moved on then, singing to himself, taking all the time in the world, plucking the berries gingerly to avoid scratching his plump hands and wrists on the awful tangle of daggers and claws in which the berries rested. Sometimes his hand and arm got caught on the curved hooks of the thorns, and he’d be stuck as though in a trap. He’d wince as he pulled his hand free of the daggers, and as he pulled, other thorns would catch him more firmly; he’d pull harder. Once free, he sucked the blood from his pinprick wounds.

And when he’d had his fill of berries and was nearing the end of the road, he began to pick blossoms, stuffing them like coins into the pockets of his shirt and the baggy shorts he always wore—camper-style shorts with zip-up compartments and all sorts of rings and hooks for hanging compasses and flashlights.

Then he walked down to the big pond we called Hidden Lake, deep in the woods, and sprinkled the white blossoms onto the surface of the muddy water. Frogs would cry out in alarm, leaping from shore’s edge with frightened chirps. A breeze would catch the floating petals and carry them across the lake like tiny boats. Swamp Boy would walk up and down the shore, trying to catch those leaping frogs.

Leopard frogs: Rana utricularia.

We followed him like jackals, like soul scavengers. We made the charge about once a week: we’d shout and whoop and chase him down like lions on a gazelle, pull that sweet boy down and truss him up with rope and hoist him into a tree. I never touched him. I always held back, only pretending to be in on it. I thought that if I touched him, he would burn my fingers. We knew he was alien, and it terrified us.

With our hearts full of hate, a terrible, frantic, weak, rotting-through-the-planks hate, we— they, the other boys would leave him hanging there, red-faced and congested, thick-tongued with his upside-down blood, until the sheer wet weight of the sack of blood that was his body allowed him to slip free of the ropes and fall to the ground like a dead animal, like something dripped from a wet limb. But before his weight let him fall free, the remaining flowers he’d gathered fluttered from his pockets like snow.

Some of the boys would pick up a rock or branch and throw it at him as we retreated, and I was sickened by both the sound of the thuds as the rocks struck his thick body and by the hoots of pleasure, the howls of the boys whenever one of their throws found its target. Once they split his skull open, which instantly drenched his hair, and we ran like fiends, believing we had killed him. But he lived, fumbling free of the ropes to make his way home, bloody-faced and red-crusted. Two days after he got stitched up at the hospital, he was back in the woods again, picking berries and blossoms, and even the dumbest of us could see that something within him was getting strong and that something in us was being torn down.

Berry blossoms lined the road along which we walked each afternoon—clumps and piles of flowers, each mound of them indicating where we’d strung him up earlier. I started to feel bad about what I was doing, even though I was never an attacker. I merely ran with the other boys for the spectacle, to observe the dreamy phenomenon of Swamp Boy.

 

One Evening in Bed I woke up with a pain in my ribs, as if the rocks had been striking me rather than him, and my mouth tasted like berries, and I was frightened. There was a salty, stinging feeling of thorn scratches across the backs of my hands and forearms. I have neglected to say that we all wore masks as we stalked and chased him, so he was probably never quite sure who we were—he with those thick glasses.

I lay in the darkness and imagined that in my fright my heart would begin beating faster, wildly, but instead it slowed down. I waited what seemed like a full minute for the next beat. It was stronger than my heart had ever beaten before. Not faster, just stronger. It kicked once, as if turning over on itself. The one beat—I could feel this distinctly—sent the pulse of blood all through my body, to the ends of my hands and feet. Then, after what seemed again like a full minute, another beat, one more round of blood, just as strong or stronger. It was as if I had stopped living and breathing, and it was the beat of the earth’s heart in my hurt chest. I lay very still, as if pinned to the bed by a magnet.

The next day we only spied on him, and I was glad for that. But even so, I awakened during the night with that pain in my chest again. This time, though, I was able to roll free of the bed. I went to the kitchen for a glass of water, which burned all the way down as I drank it.

I got dressed and went out into the night. Stars shone through the trees as I walked toward the woods that lay between our subdivision and the school, the woods through which Swamp Boy passed each day. Rabbits sat hunched on people’s front lawns like concrete ornaments, motionless in the starlight, their eyes glistening. The rabbits seemed convinced that I presented no danger to them, that I was neither owl nor cat. The lawns were wet with dew. Crickets called with a kind of madness, or a kind of peace.

I headed for the woods where we had been so cruel, along the lazy curves of the bayou. The names of the streets in our subdivision were Pine Forest, Cedar Creek, Bayou Glen, and Shady River, and for once, with regard to that kind of thing, the names were accurate. I work in advertising now, at the top of a steel-and-glass skyscraper from which I stare out at the flat gulf coast, listening to the rain, when it comes, slash and beat against the office windows. When the rain gives way to sun, I’m so high up that I can see to the curve of the earth and beyond. When the sun burns the steam off the skin of the earth, it looks as if the whole city is smoldering.

Those woods are long gone now, buried by so many tons of houses and roads and other sheer masses of concrete that what happened there when I was a child might as well have occurred four or five centuries ago, might just as well have been played out by Vikings in horn helmets or red natives in loincloths.

There was a broad band of tall grass prairie— waist high, bending gently—that I would have to cross to get to the woods. I had seen deer leap from their beds there and sprint away. I could smell the faraway, slightly sweet odor of a skunk that had perhaps been caught by an owl at the edge of the meadow, for there were so many skunks in the meadow, and so many owls back in the woods. I moved across the silver field of grass in starlight and moonlight, like a ship moving across the sea, a small ship with no others out, only night.

Between prairie and woods was a circle of giant ancient oaks. You could feel magic in this spot, feel it rise from centuries below and brush against your face like the cool air from the bottom of a deep well. This “buffalo ring” was the only evidence that a herd of buffalo had once been held at bay by wolves, as the wolves tried, with snarling feints and lunges, to cut one of the members out of the herd. The buffalo had gathered in a tight circle to make their stand, heads all facing outward; the weaker ones had taken refuge in the center. Over and over, the sun set and the moon glided across the sky as the wolves kept them in this standoff. Heads bowed, horns gleaming, the buffalo trampled the prairie with their hooves, roughed it up with nose-stinging nitrogen piss and shit in their anger and agitation.

Whether the wolves gave up and left, or whether they darted in, grabbed a leg, and pulled out one of the buffalo—no matter, for all that was important to the prairie, there at the edge of the woods along the slow bayou, was what had been left behind. Over the years, squirrels and other animals had carried acorns to this place, burying them in the rich circular heap of shit-compost. The trees, before they were cut down, told this story.

 

Swamp Boy Could Feel these things as he moved across the prairie and through the woods, there at the edge of that throbbing, expanding city, Houston. And I could too, as I held my ribs with both arms because of the strange soreness. I began going into the woods every night, as if summoned.

I would walk the road he walked. I would pass beneath the same trees from which we had hung him, the limbs thick and branching parallel over the road: the hanging trees. I would walk past those piles of flower petals and berry blossoms, and shuffle my feet through the dry brown oak leaves. Copperheads slept beneath the leaves, cold and sluggish in the night, and five-lined skinks rattled through brush piles, a sound like pattering rain. Raccoons loped down the road ahead of me, looking back over their shoulders, their black masks smudged across their delicate faces.

I would walk past his lake. The shouting frogs fled at my approach. The water swirled and wriggled with hundreds of thousands of tadpoles—half-formed things that were neither fish nor frog, not yet of this world. As they swirled and wriggled in the moonlight, it looked as if the water were boiling.

I would go past the lake, would follow the thin clay road through the starlit forest to its end, to a bluff high above the bayou, the round side of one of the meandering S-cuts that the bayou had carved. I know some things about the woods even though I lived in the city, have never left this city. I know some things that I learned as a child just by watching and listening— and I could use those things in my advertising, but I don’t. They are my secrets. I don’t give them away.

I would stand and watch and listen to the bayou as it rolled past, its gentle, lazy current always murmuring, always twenty years behind. Stories from twenty years ago, stories that had happened upstream, were only just now reaching this spot.

Sometimes I feel as if I’ve become so entombed that I have become the giant building in which I work—that it is my shell, my exoskeleton, like the sea shell in which a fiddler crab lives, hauling the stiff burden of it around for the rest of his days. The chitin of things not said, things not done.

I would stand there and hold my hurt ribs, feel the breezes, and look down at the chocolate waters, the star glitter reflecting on the bayou’s ripples, and I would feel myself fill slowly and surely with a strength, a giddiness that urged me to jump, jump, jump. But I would hold back, and instead would watch the bayou go drifting past, carrying its story twenty more years down the line, and then thirty, heading for the gulf, for the shining waters.

Then I’d walk back home, undress, and crawl back into bed and sleep hard until the thunder rattle of the alarm clock woke me and my parents and my brothers began to move about the house. I’d get up and begin my new day, the real day, and my ribs would be fine.

I had a secret. My heart was wild and did not belong among people. I did what I could to accommodate this discrepancy.

Swamp Boy - Photo by Gerry Thomasen

 

We Continued To Follow him, through the woods and beyond. Sometimes we would spy on him at his house early in the evenings. We watched him and his family at the dinner table, watched them say grace, say amen, then eat and talk. It wasn’t as if we were homeless or anything— this was back when we all still had both our parents, when almost everyone did—but still, his house was different. The whole house itself seemed to come alive when the family was inside it, seemed to throb with a kind of strength. Were they taking it from us as we watched them? Where did it come from? You could feel it, like the sun’s force.

After dinner they gathered around the blue light of the television. Our spying had revealed to us that Daniel Boone was Swamp Boy’s favorite show. He wore a coonskin cap while he watched it, and his favorite part was the beginning, when Dan’l would throw the tomahawk and split the tree trunk as the credits rolled. This excited him so much each time that he gave a small shout and jumped in the air.

After Daniel Boone, it would be time for Swamp Boy’s mother and father to repair his glasses, if we’d broken them that day. They’d set the glasses down on a big long desk and glue them, or put screws in them, using all sorts of tape and epoxy sealers, adjusting and readjusting them. Evidently his parents had ordered extra pairs, because we had broken them so often. Swamp Boy stood by patiently while his parents bent and wiggled the earpieces to fit him.

How his parents must have dreaded the approach of three in the afternoon, wondering, as it drew near the time for him to get out of school and begin his woods walk home, whether today would be the day that the cruel boys would attack their son. What joy they felt when he arrived home unscathed, back in the safety of his family.

 

We Grew Lean through the spring as we chased him toward the freedom of summer. I was convinced that he was absorbing all of our strength with his goodness, his sweetness. I could barely stand to watch the petals spill from his pockets as we twirled him from the higher and higher limbs, could barely make my legs move as we thundered along behind him, chasing him through the woods.

I avoided getting too close, would not become his friend, for then the other boys would treat me as they treated him.

But I wanted to watch.

In May, when Hidden Lake began to warm up, Swamp Boy would sometimes stop off there to catch things. The water was shallow, only neck deep at the center, full of gars, snakes, fish, turtles, and rich bayou mud at its bottom. It’s gone now. The trees finally edged in and spread their roots into that fertile swamp bottom, taking it quickly, and no sooner had the trees claimed the lake than they were in turn leveled to make way for what came next—roads, a subdivision, making ghosts of the forest and the lake.

Swamp Boy kept a vegetable strainer and an empty jar in his lunch box. He set his tape-mended glasses down on a rotting log before opening his lunch box, flipping the clasp on it expertly, like a businessman opening his briefcase. He removed his shoes and socks and wiggled his feet in the mud. When his glasses were off like that, we could creep to within twenty or thirty feet of him.

A ripple blew across the water—a slight mystery in the wind or a subtle swamp movement just beneath the surface. I could feel some essence, a truth, down in the soil beneath my feet—but I’d catch myself before saying to the other boys, “Let’s go.” Instead of jumping into the water or giving myself up to the search for whatever that living essence was beneath me, I watched.

He crouched down, concentrating, looking out over the lake and those places where the breeze had made a little ring or ripple. Then came the part we were there to see, the part that stunned us: Swamp Boy’s great race into the water. Building up a good head of steam, running fast and flat-footed in his bare feet, he charged in and slammed his vegetable strainer down into the reeds and rushes. Just as quickly he was back out, splashing, stumbling, having scooped up a big red wad of mud. He emptied the contents onto the ground. The mud wriggled with life, all the creatures writhing and gasping, terrible creatures with bony spines or webbed feet or pincers or whiskers.

After carefully sorting through the tadpoles— in various stages of development; half frog and half fish, looking human almost, like little round-headed human babies, angry catfish, gasping snapping turtles, leaping newts, and hellbenders, he put the catfish, the tadpoles, and a few other grotesqueries in his jar filled with swamp water, and then picked up all the other wriggling things and threw them back into the lake.

Then he wiped his muddy feet off as best as he could, put his shoes and socks and strainer in his lunch box, and walked the rest of the way home barefoot. From time to time he held the jar up to the sun, to look at his prizes swimming around in that dirty water. The mud around his ankles dried to an elephant-gray cake. We followed him to his house at a distance, as if escorting him.

That incredible force field, a wall of strength, when he disappeared into his house, into the utility room to wash up—the whole house glowed with it, something emanated from it. And once again I could feel things, lives and stories, meaningful things, stirring in the soil beneath my feet.

 


Rick Bass lives in Montana’s Yaak Valley and writes nonfiction and fiction about wilderness and wildness.

From In the Loyal Mountains. Copyright © 1995 by Rick Bass. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

 

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