Whisper in the swamp

June 3, 2008

Florida, 1973: I’m trudging through a Panhandle swamp on an August day with four other guys. Country Boy leads the way. Everyone on the land survey crew calls him this because his molasses twang sounds like gibberish half the time.

Country Boy wants to kick my ass. My machete nicked his hand not far back as we hacked through a hammock of hardwoods and cypress knees jutting from the water. But seeing that I still hold the machete, he only cusses me. If Country Boy knows my name, he never uses it. He calls me College Boy.

The sun is high, but it’s dusk beneath the trees. We push through calf-deep water and curtains of vines. Turkey vultures stare down from high branches. Ahead is an island of damp sand. We collapse there, water seeping from our boots. The heat presses down. I stick my machete in the sand, kneel, and drink from the swamp, the water tannic red but clean. My reflection looks up at me, a ghost. Someone whispers: snnnnnake.

I see it, two feet from my face, a cottonmouth thick as my ankle and long as me. Coiled in a black pile, its diamond head is cocked back like a fist. From the fist a forked tongue flicks the air.

As a boy growing up on a lake, I killed snakes hiding between sand and hull of our beached row boat, flinging their carcasses into the weeds. Most were deadly like this cottonmouth but never as large. Now I feel like I do in snake nightmares, paralyzed prey.

Everything has consequences, I think. Mine is dying here in Tate’s Hell, Nature exacting revenge on Snake Killer. Then Country Boy whispers. I understand every word: “Back away, slowly.” The snake’s slanted eyes bore into me. A twitch ripples across its skin. It uncoils a few inches at a time and slides toward the water. I creep backward, as if we’ve struck a silent pact.

Country Boy picks up a fresh-cut baby cypress. The tree is taller than him. He raises it over his head, hesitates, then slams it down. But he misses. The snake whips away on top of the water, head held high. Country Boy chases it and strikes with the tree again and again, but the snake is too fast. It disappears into deep water.

Long after the snake is gone, its path shimmers on the surface, a long “S” marking the way out.