Eli swung his feet over the edge of the swaybacked porch and dangled them over the murky water. He gazed down the length of a westbound slough to the horizon. He loved the swirling hues of sunset over the Atchafalaya. Violet and tangerine, milky pink and rust, the colors brought him peace, something he desperately needed.
All around him swamp creatures gave voice to the dying day. The resonating, high-pitched uhmmmp, uhmmmp of baby alligators, the deep, hollow grunts of bullfrogs, the chitter of insects too numerous to count, and the splash, gurgle of croakers and mullets slapping against the surface of the water. A family of nutria scurried across a nearby grassy island while a loggerhead turtle, as big around as a dinner plate, settled lazily over a floating log. Overhead a barred owl screeched noisily from a tupelo, and herons and egrets swooped and glided around Eli’s small shack toward their nests.
He watched and listened with a heavy heart. All of his life Eli had felt as much a part of the bayou as any one of these creatures. Now all that was changing. Lately he didn’t feel part of anything. Not the swamp, not even the human race. He felt used up, spent. He barely slept anymore. His dreams, which seemed to be growing more horrid over the last three months, barely allowed him two hours of rest a night. Eli drew in a deep breath and dipped a toe into the water. While he watched the ripples slowly widen and spread toward a cypress tree, he heard the faint whine of an outboard motor. He cocked his head and strained an ear to gauge its distance.
Two miles, maybe two and a half, which meant the boat was just outside Fosey Point, a finger inlet normally clogged with floating mats of water hyacinth. Hundreds of jagged cypress stumps jutted up through the hyacinth like old rotted fingers. It was a boater’s nightmare, and few attempted to cross it for fear of propeller damage or never finding their way back. This one, however, sounded determined, drawing ever closer, which could only mean Johanson was headed his way.
Eli dropped his head wearily.
Thin and seemingly older than moss, Johanson had been a part of Eli’s existence for as long as he could remember. Although the man lived inland, he showed up at the shack every so often in his beat-up skiff and had been doing that since Eli was five years old. Back then, Johanson would bring supplies in from town, then take time to teach Eli about the swamp. They would hunt and fish and most importantly talk, something Eli’s mother rarely did with him. Johanson wasn’t his father, that much Eli knew because the old man had told him so when he’d asked. The two weren’t even related. Eli had always been too afraid to question Johanson further about why he came around if they weren’t blood kin. Maybe the man felt sorry for the young woman and boy who fended for themselves in the swamp without help from anyone. Eli didn’t know and really didn’t care. So what if Johanson’s reason for coming was pity? He just never wanted the old man to stop visiting.
Although their relationship continued to grow and strengthen over time, it had taken on an abrupt change after Eli’s twelfth birthday. Eli woke up that particular morning expecting to find an apple propped on the foot of his cot, the usual birthday gift from his mother. Instead, he discovered his mother sprawled across the floor, ten feet away, dead. When Eli had gotten up enough nerve to get out of bed and investigate, he found bluish-green foam pooling onto the floor from her lips and a half-empty can of drain cleaner near her body. Saddened, but not surprised that she’d taken her life, Eli had waited a few hours before dragging the petite woman’s body out of the house and onto the porch. He rolled her body into the water and allowed it to float away. It didn’t go very far because of the tangle of water lilies and tree stumps, so he’d just watched her caramel-colored face bob up and down until the cloudy waters swallowed her.
Soon after Eli left the watery grave, he went to a nearby island to check on nutria traps. Normally his mother ran ground traps, and he ran the water traps and catfish lines. Now, with only himself to depend on, he’d have to learn how to do both.
Eli’s first ground trap lesson nearly cost him a foot. Still thinking about his mother, he’d walked across the line run without paying proper attention and wound up stepping into a trap that had been hidden under a blanket of moss. Fortunately the contraption had been old and rusted, and when the metal teeth snapped around his foot just above the ankle, it punctured skin and muscle but didn’t crush bone.
After an hour of struggling with the trap, Eli finally freed his foot. The moment it was released, an overpowering urge to spit on the wounds came over him. So he spat…and the puncture wounds closed instantly. For some reason Eli was never able to explain, he had been no more surprised by the healing than he had been about his mother’s death. What did surprise him, however, was what followed.
Copyright 2003-2008 Deborah LeBlanc