Crossing the Swamp
I once read a poem in college called “Crossing the Swamp,” by a woman named Mary Oliver, I think her name was. I remember it opening with the lines, “Here is the endless thick wet cosmos, the center of everything….” At the time, when I first read it, I took so much time trying to interpret the poem metaphorically that I practically ignored the literal aspect of it. I never actually took the time to just sit back and imagine myself in the literal shoes of the narrator. I never actually pondered what it would be like to be wading endlessly through a literal swamp, surrounded and swallowed by endless bog. For here it is: the forever. In infinite mess of phantasmagoric cypress trees beckoning me with their drooping bug-infested Spanish moss, long snake-like yet oddly snake-less vines grabbing at me to simultaneously pull me out of the knee-deep water and push me under, where my waterlogged fuzzy carcass can be absorbed by trees oversaturated with hot sticky amber sap. Pulled down further by the porous mud that I must walk through, pulled down into a mire. And even though I’ve conquered one mire, I don't think I can conquer this one. Because sometimes it's the literal things that defeat you.
I hear a twig snap, and turn to see a fleeting figure flickering through the trees. At first I am frightened, but then I tell myself that it was probably just a deer, even though I haven't seen a single animal yet besides gnats and mosquitos. So instead of allowing myself to be frightened by it, I decide to carry onwards and to focus on getting out of this swamp to treat these mysterious cuts in my abdomen that I don't remember how I got. In fact, I don't even remember how I got here in the first place, but one thing at a time. Right now, I need to focus on getting out alive before I bleed to death.
I trudge on for a few more moments before I hear another twig snap behind me. And as I turn towards it, I see another elusive figure and then another twig snaps, and then another, and yet another. Soon I am surrounded by snapping twigs and fleeting figures racing around me in a dizzying swirl, and no matter how quickly I swivel my head, I cannot catch a decent glimpse of the figures. They get faster and faster, creating a blurred whirlwind around me, and the snapping of the twigs is rising into a cacophonous uproar accompanied by wailing sobs from the figures, getting louder and louder and louder and louder until--
Complete and utter silence. Everything is still. No water stirs, no breeze blows, and no twig snaps. To my left a cluster of reeds rustles, thrusting up an explosion of gnats, and I see the shape of a person walking towards me through the reeds. I hold my breath, scared that it might be someone dangerous, someone who specifically did something to hurt me recently, but I don't know who. But the person who comes stumbling out of the reeds isn't this nebulous person who escapes my memory. No, it is a person who I remember very well, and love very much, but who is changed horribly beyond belief. The person who just stumbled out of those reeds is my nephew. The nephew who I raised as if he were my own son. The nephew that I loved with all my heart. The nephew who broke my heart. The nephew who died more than two years ago.
“A... Aunty?” he gurgles hoarsely through a mouthful of thick Amber tree sap that dribbles down his chin.
We stare in shock at each other, him taking in my muddy and bloody appearance, and I taking in the dusty brown shriveled skin, lipless mouth, soiled suit, skeletal frame, and empty eye sockets that ooze putrescent black liquid.
“I-is that… really… you?” he asks, voice taught and cracked from death.
I slowly nod my head in combined mute horror and refreshed heartbreak. His shriveled head shakes sadly as his gnarled bony fingers unbutton the now-dirty suit that he was buried in. The white button down shirt is stained white, black, and red, and as he solemnly pulls back the shirt, black-red fluid squirts out of the bullet hole in his abdomen, fluid that is a horrifying mixture of liquid rot and fresh blood, trickling down his legs and tainting the water around him as well.
“Why do you show me this?” I whisper tearfully, easily heard over the strangely silent swamp. “I know what happened to you. I know what that man did to you.”
“Don't… blame… him,” he moans, spitting tree sap out of his mouth as he talks. “Don't blame… him.”
“But he shot you and left you to die,” I say, slowly shaking my head in disbelief not so much at his words, but at his presence itself.
At this his head snaps suddenly off his neck, and his hands catch it before it can fall into the sticky water.
“Don't… blame him,” he repeats, sap oozing out of the opening where his neck used to be attached. “Please…. Please… don't blame… him…. God knows… I don't.”
“How can I not blame him?” I sob. “He took away the closest thing I had to a son, and because of him, I had to watch, powerless, as you slipped further and further away!”
“No,” he answers. “I… was… there… the whole… time…. The only thing… slipping… away… was my… humanity….”
“No, don't say that! You weren't there! You were unresponsive, in a coma because you hit your head in the concrete!”
“I was there… Aunty…. I heard… your… sobs… I heard your… stories… and I felt… your... tears… on my arm. But I… couldn't… do anything… except… lay there… in… silence.”
“No!” I wail, splashing to my knees. “No, don't say such things! Don't torment me this way! You're not even real! You're not here, you're dead! You're just a hallucination!”
“If… you… insist…,” my decomposed nephew sighs sadly, crumbling in on himself and collapsing into the stagnant water.
“No!” I scream, running over to where he stood, ignoring the pain in my abdomen. “No, I didn't mean it! I didn't mean it, I take it back! Just please don't leave me again! Don't leave! I miss you! I need you! Please, come back, I’m begging you!” I crouch over to feel for his remains in the water, but collapse from pain and dizziness due to my loss of blood. I painfully drag myself out and crawl towards a sap-soaked tree and curl up against its sticky trunk, bawling like a little girl. Like a little girl who just lost everything all over again. Eventually, after I stop crying, I reapply the mud covering over my wounds to slow down the bleeding, though I know that it guarantees infection.
I can feel the hot sap clinging to my shirt as the mud slowly pulls me down, down into the swamp, down into my past. Back to when I first heard that my sister and her husband had been shot in a break-in. Back to when I took in my orphaned six-year-old nephew after his none of his grandparents would take him in. The mud dragged me through all of the years that I spent raising him, years that until a few minutes ago I’d managed to put behind me. And then I was back at my apartment on that cold, lonely January more than two and a half years ago. When I got the call from the hospital saying that they had my nephew, that he’d been shot and had hit his head on the concrete, and that he was unresponsive. After I arrived at the emergency room, the doctor explained further that my nephew didn’t have any identification on him, and that all of the information they had so far on him was from a nearby store clerk who occasionally talked to him. They suspected that he was in an unresponsive coma, but it wasn’t until after they ran some tests that they were able to confirm this.
At first I visited him as often as I could. I talked to him, I fed him, I held him…. But even though he made no signs of improvement, I always got the distinct feeling that somehow, some way, my nephew was still in there, listening to me and crying silently for help. But there was nothing that I could do except try to accept the fact that my nephew was gone. And so, after about two months, I stopped visiting as often in the hopes of being able to accept my nephew’s situation. Then, in June of that year, I finally gave the doctors permission to “pull the plug,” as they would say.
After that I fell into a deeper depression than I’d already been in. At the time, I’d thought that I’d made the right decision, but after he died I became smothered by a stifling blanket of heart-wrenching guilt and self-hatred. All I could think about night and day was whether or not I did the right thing for my nephew. And then, a little over a year later, I finally made the decision to not beat myself up anymore, to try to forgive myself and move on from the experience. Seven months later I left Nashville and moved here to New Orleans in the hopes of finally leaving that part of my life behind. And I did, for the most part. I got a job, an apartment, started therapy, and actually got myself to a point where I actually felt happy again. Except now, six months after the move to New Orleans, this god-forsaken swamp is trying to drag me back down again. And so far, it seems to have been working.
I get up, weak limbed and light headed, and start trudging my way through the dirty bog water and giant clouds of gnats and mosquitos once more, being careful to use my abdominal muscles as little as possible. To distract myself from the pain and dizziness, I turn my focus instead to trying to remember how it is I got here in the first place. But the truth escapes me, and so instead I try to read what the weather will hold. I look up and am surprised to see that the sky has gone quickly from bright sweltering summer blue to a foreboding dark grey. I slip on some mud at the bottom of the stagnant water and fall onto the stump of a broken tree branch and it jabs me smartly in the shoulder. As I pull up my torn and soggy sleeve to see if it broke the skin, I feel the first fat droplets of rain smack against my head, soon followed by a heavy downpour all around me, and over the sound of the screaming water and pattering leaves, I realize something. I realize that I can remember how I got here.
There was a bad thunderstorm last night, with rain so heavy that it was hard to see and thunder so loud it shook the buildings. I had been in an Egyptian-themed tea shop when the thunder had been the worst, and after it moved away a bit, I left, hurrying home desperate to get out of the torrential downfall. It was then that I was snatched violently into an alleyway. I tried to fight back, and I tried to scream for help, but they were too strong and my screams were muffled by the rain and a strange-smelling rag that the person put over my face. After a few minutes of struggling with the rag over my face I couldn't move and it was hard to think, but I remained conscious as my kidnapper, who appeared to be a woman in black wearing a plastic dust mask, gagged and tied me up. She then dumped into the trunk of a car and drove, my bones knocking together at the joints the whole time. I tried to take note of left and right turns, but they were too many too keep track of, and the drive seemed to last for hours, and eventually I passed out from the intense humid heat in the small trunk, eventually being woken up later by my kidnapper on a road in the middle of the swamp, presumably this one. She dragged me out of the trunk, stood me up, and cut my ties and gag. I tried to run, but in my disoriented state I didn't make it very far before I slipped on the slick mud. The masked woman caught up with me, and held me down, laughing maniacally as I tried to push her off. She then jumped abruptly off of me, and again I tried to run, but after a few moments she caught me by the shoulder, whipped me around, and stabbed me repeatedly in the stomach, laughing insanely the whole time. I collapsed from the pain, and the woman hit me over the head with a rock, knocking me out. Then, what I think was this morning, I woke up half-buried in mud in the middle of the swamp, eyes stinging from the bright morning sun glaring at me through a break in the overhead foliage. I dug myself out of the mud, muscles stiff, head pounding, and abdomen throbbing. I lifted my shirt to see that the wounds from the knife had been clogged by wet mud. However, they were still bleeding pretty heavily despite this, so I applied some more mud and started making my way through this bloated bog, surrounded by silence and an odd absence of animal life.
Exhausted and miserable, I now continue onwards, hoping that by some slim chance I chose the right direction to walk in and can find my way out of this swamp before it kills me. The rain and pools of stagnant water won't allow the mud to dry, so I constantly have to stop and reapply more of this fat grassy mud, becoming more entrenched by the emotions of my past with every glistening paint stroke. I can't get the vision I had of my dead nephew out of my head. He was my all, my everything…. And to think that I may have cut his life short when he could have gotten better is too much for me to handle. I loved my nephew like a mother would love her own son. And that was taken from me by some stranger who wanted to take his money. Yet, my nephew just told me not to blame the man who shot him. But how can I not blame him? He took away the only family I had that I was still close to, and I can never get that back. Not only that, but I had to watch the person I loved most in the world, someone who by all natural rights should have outlived me, lie unresponsive in a coma. But now he says that he was there the whole time, listening and thinking and feeling, but powerless to do anything about it. And now that means that I ended his life for no reason. That he was conscious the whole time and that the doctors were wrong and that I ultimately killed my nephew. If I can't forgive the man who shot him, then how could I possibly now forgive myself?
But… I must move on. Though I’m exhausted, dizzy, and in pain, I must keep going. I must get out of this nightmare of a swamp while I still can. Only then can I figure out what to do with my life now that I know what I’ve done. But I’m weak. And thirsty, but I know I can't drink the water here. I’m feeling increasingly more dizzy and my breathing has become significantly more rapid within the last minute or two. I gently lift up my shirt to see that all of the mud has been washed away, and that blood is pouring out like the Nile river. Vaguely I know that I must cover it with mud, to mend myself like Isis mended Osiris, that I must gather the mud like Sobek the crocodile God gathered Osiris’ body parts. I bend down to scoop it, my head a cycle of the moon around my body, but the world swirls around me and I am sent sprawling onto the ground, face up to the cosmos beyond. I’m not sure where I am exactly, whether in Cairo or Giza, or even somewhere else but I do know that the seasonal monsoon seems to be spinning around me, and that the heavy water stings my face, so I close my eyes to the world to wait for it the season to end, for whatever comes next.
“Aunty? Is that you?”
I open up my weary mudsoaked eyes,
And what unprecedented sight I find
That the the rain has gone and the wind now sighs,
While in his throne is Amen-Ra benign.
“Aunty,” my nephew beckons, now restored,
“Come with us to be together once more.”
I look down to see my love, heart now moored,
Standing next to Sobek from Nile lore,
God of healing, to heal my broken heart;
Blessings of Osiris, a new fresh start.
Up I stand, and firm is the ground I feel,
The water dried by Sobek’s holy grace.
The rain goes on, but there's a set rain’s seal
Here ‘round, so it may not taint our place.
And my beloved dear holds out his hand,
And so I take it joyfully in pace
Towards whatever comes from time’s swift sand.
My nephew smiles at my saddened face,
And now, in our hearts Sobek breathes,
And he makes the swamp a palace of leaves.
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