Crossing the Swamp
The swamp is alive. It speaks to me in the language of yellow galoshes slap-squish-sloshing through thick mud. The swamp is a serenade, it buzzes, ribbets, and plonks as I skirt it, too closely, Mama always says. I want to know how close I can get without losing one of my shoes, without me having to mourn that squeaky sunshine rubber as it sinks down into the thick of the earth.
It doesn't take much. One misstep, and I've lost it. The swamp is pulling on my foot, murky peat-fingers fighting me for the boot, and I am no match for it. I let it go and stumble back. I plonk myself into the slippery stew of leaves on the ground and watch the bog engulf.
The yellow galosh goes peacefully.
I feel like crying, at first, but I get distracted by rustles. I hope to see a toad, but when I walk toward the sound, I rip my sock over a rock that looks like it's been there for a thousand years, immovable. I slash my foot open, too, and I do cry then.
The swamp takes everything in stride. I bleed on it and it forgives me, takes my life-goo and makes it swamp, makes it planet, makes it dirt.
Later, when I am washed clean of the outside, with my aching, pulsing foot almost lost in the sea of my mother's lap, I tell her about the galosh.
"Now the bog man has it," she says to me, and all at once, I am grinning, the sting and foam of peroxide forgotten.
"It's too small for him," I tell her.
"The bog girl, then," Mama rolls her eyes and then the gauze around my foot, "she'll be looking for the second one."
I am relegated to bed rest, after. My mother makes me surrender my adventure gear—my bundles of flowers (the ones that I press between the pages of her books), my thermos (which I fill up every morning with freshly brewed tea, and bring back empty), my bucket, the notebook I made by stabbing a needle through a collection of my mother's scrap pages, my pencils, grimy with my muddy fingerprints.
My mother tucks me under the comforter and puts a pillow under my foot. She tells me to keep the window closed, or I will freeze to death in the night, and the peatland animals will climb in to my room and have me for dinner. When she is gone, I watch the light from the hall creeping its way under the doorframe. The window is sealed shut. I can't hear the buzzing, or the hoots of the owls. I do hear the garden door slam. Father's home. At the end of the day, his heavy boots are more turf than leather. They thunk like masses of lead over our floorboards, but never on the carpet. He knows better.
He'll leave them beside the screen door, and in the morning, the soles will be clean again, as if a faery queen had passed her hand over them. I learned just recently that the faery queen is my mother, just as Father Christmas is Papa with rosy cheeks after three whiskeys and God is whatever Sister Agnes says he is at Sunday school. Before I found this out, Papa and I would leave milk on the windowsill that overlooked the garden. I would place a piece of newspaper on the glass, so the fairies wouldn't think we were giving them dusty milk, and in the morning, my father would wake me early, before daylight stretched itself over the dewy road behind our house.
"Look at that," he'd say, pointing to the empty glass of milk, with the fatty white residue still on the walls, ready to be finished off with a fresh piece of bread. I'd look down at his newly shined shoes and think that some sort of transaction had occurred. My father confirmed this.
"The aes sídhe are happy. They'll let us keep you another day."
Though my bed is right beside the window, I have to slip out from under the covers to open it even a crack. It takes all my seven-year old might, all the muscle of my trembling arms, but I slide it up and let the moonlight in. I hear the shifting night, the bog girl speaking. I hear the swamp squelch, and I am sure she is thanking me. She's hopscotching around on one foot, the one with the yellow galosh.
I wait for Papa to come home, most nights. I creep down the stairs in my wool socks and my nightdress. The socks slip down from my knees to my ankles—too big—I take care not to slip and give myself away. Mama knits everything with purchase, says I grow like her garden weeds, but I don't notice. It seems to me I'll always have to look up to see faces, always have to stand on my tiptoes to reach shelves. When Papa picks me up and spins me around, I'll always be light as a feather in his arms.
"What's this now?"
This is how he greets me, with a smile. I wake on his armchair. Mama has put a blanket over me. I was fooling myself, thinking she hadn't heard me stealing down the stairs. But she waits for Papa, too. She does not begrudge me the same.
"A little woodland creature come to burrow in our house?" he asks my mother. In return, she gives him an empathetic smile, and a mug of stew. There's a crease on her forehead, but when Papa kisses her cheek, the storm passes. The twin waves of Mama's brows smooth into doldrums.
It is late. The fireplace still burns, just barely, as Papa slurps his soup. He drinks it with his head tipped back, uses a spoon to shovel the bits into his mouth. It makes me giggle to see a piece of carrot cling to his beard.
I make room for Mama on the armchair. This is easy. I take up barely any space, just a corner where I wedge. When I stretch them out, my feet end where Mama's skirt does.
Papa sits down on the carpet, where the fire warms his back, and rests his head on the inside of her knee. This is how he starts all his stories.
"There was once a lonesome farmer, who lived on the very edge of his village. Every day, he woke up so early that he got to see the sun in her pale pink dressing gown. She'd wave at him on his way to the fields, and he'd wave back and say—"
"Good morning, ma'am," I recite with all the readiness I can muster in my drowsy state. "A thousand apologies for the intra-intru—"
"Intrusion," Papa pats my head. I lean into my mother's warmth and listen on. "See, this fella wasn't one to walk in on a lady and her toilette," he articulates in his country accent. Mama swats his shoulder half-heartedly at this point.
"But the sun would never answer. She simply rose, and shone, and when she made ready to rest once more, the farmer knew his day of work was done. And when he got home, he would bring out his fiddle, and play a tune as the sun went down—"
I don't last long enough to hear about the farmer falling in love with the sun, or how when he grew old, she made him into a star.
I pull on my raincoat the way I watch my father do it, with dutiful resolve. I have a job ahead of me. I pack a sandwich into a handkerchief. My thermos has been restored to me, so I fill it up with our breakfast tea and stuff it in my knapsack. My foot still hurts, but only if I press on the long pink gash too hard. This means I'm ready to go back. I wonder how the ground has shifted since. A week in bog time is a thousand years. I expect a whole different world when I get there. I expect a new symphony of damp bark, of nesting grouse, and red deer that run much too fast to ever get caught by the tricky, sticky mire.
I expect the bog girl to be seven, just the same as me.
"Mind you don't lose this one," my mama warns from behind her newspaper. It's true. I have a new galosh, just like the first but green, so now when I trudge through the squishy grass, it looks like I am one with it.
Mama holds my hand as we walk to church. It's Sunday, which means I have on a scratchy plaid skirt and shiny black barrettes that squeak when I rub them together. The first thing Sister Agnes does when she sees me is reprimand the state of my shoes, which drag mud into the carpeted chapel's anteroom. She's talking about me, but the sister aims her grievance at my mother.
Mama doesn't stick around for mass. She plants a kiss on the top of my head and goes about her business in the village.
In class, I try to catch a glimpse of the outside through the window. I watch the naked branches of a cherry tree shake, washed red by the stained glass.
"Jesus said to her: I am the resurrection and the life: he that believeth in me, although he be dead, shall live..."
The swamp is a menagerie. When I enter it, I feel welcomed by the grey partridge squacks, and the low-hanging humidity, like a cloud that keeps this little corner of Earth our secret. The swamp remembers me, and I have never been more relieved. I am convinced that the bog girl has carried my legacy. She's told the rabbits that I mean no harm. They stare at me with their ears perked up, as if waiting for me to pay a toll. I take a seat beneath a blackthorn tree and unwrap the sandwich from home, I scatter some crumbs and wait in perfect stillness till the rabbits come to eat them. I dare not move. I dare not breathe. When they are done, I'm allowed to move on.
I pluck a sloe fruit from a low hanging branch and sink my teeth into it, taste the plummy sweetness that is earned only after a hard frost.
I reach the place where I lost my yellow galosh. It is beloved to me now, this patch of broiling earth, though it has changed. Some branches hang lower, some trees have disappeared altogether. This does not seem strange to me, as the fairies take all the best ones for themselves, uproot the birches, blackthorns, the rowan trees that herald winter (the redder the berries, the colder it will be) and keep them in their realm. This is what the bog girl tells me through the crack in my window at night, because she can walk between worlds, hop with one foot with the fairies and one foot here, with me.
She tells me it will be cold soon. She tells me I shouldn't keep the window open. Winter is when the banshees wail.
"Sister Agnes says I blasdream," I tell Papa when he pulls me onto his knee that evening.
I frown. "Blasepheme?"
"Blaspheme," Mama corrects, passing a hand through my hair on her way to her seat. "A girl after my own heart," he grins. Mama shoots him a look from over her book. "Do you believe in God and the trinity, Papa?"
He chuckles. I don't know why. He says he believes in the trinity, "and God," he adds with a teasing smile, the same way he believes in the fairies, the wind, and the swamp.
"Everyone's got a different name for the Almighty," he smiles, "and the inevitable."
I know when I wake up shivering that this will be my last morning in the swamp. I know it because my mother forces me to wear three layers of socks in my boots, and shimmies me into her woolen sweater, so large on me that it skirts my knees. I use the oversized sleeves to swat at the higher branches, but there aren't any berries to knock down. They've all shrivelled up, frozen into the ground. The rabbits have resorted to hiding in tree trunks.
The swamp is quiet.
When I sit down to snack beside my blackthorn tree, I hug my legs to my chest. The ground is still. The sheen of ice cracks under my weight. I've only just put the sandwich to my lips when I hear a whine so pitifully low, I am startled frozen. I am afraid to move, for fear the banshees will get me, nab me from my place, but I remind myself of the bog girl's words. The banshee warns of loss incoming. She's never the cause of it.
I hear the whine again, and this time, I follow it. Against the root of a tree that is roughly the size of me, I find a little kit of a fox, abandoned. I look about, not wanting to touch it and get on the bad side of its mother, but the little creature is so fearfully still, I am half-sure it is dead. This is what the banshees warned, I think, but when I reach out to touch it, it shivers. It's a runt so small that when I bring it home wrapped in my my paisley handkerchief, my mother does not give it a second glance, thinking it is a stray cat, a puppy, or a half-dead sparrow. My mama is used to my sick animals, ignores them as long as I keep them restricted to the garden shed, and don't give them any of our good food. This time, though, the stakes are higher. I give the little fox a hot bath. I offer it warm milk and watch, holding my breath and praying like Sister Agnes taught, as closely as I can remember. I only start to breathe once I see its little tongue lapping at the cream.
My mother screams when she sees the thawed out pup prancing over my pillows. She demands if it's bitten me.
"You'll be rabid!" she shrieks, at her wit's end. The last thing she needs is a wild thing for a daughter. I clutch my token of the bog, I hold my swamp child, and I plead with my mama:
"The bog girl wanted me to find it!"
That night I tell my papa about the keening. Nothing to worry about, he says, it's just a dirge, just a lullaby.
"To us it sounds like wailing, but in the fairy realm, it's different."
I tell him I want to hear it. Papa says we all will, someday.
When my father dies that winter, Mama drapes the mirrors. At first, I think it is so she doesn't have to see the puffy, red rims of her eyes. The empty space he leaves behind is heavy. It weighs on our chests each time we make note of it. The moss green armchair, so worn the stuffing spills out of its sides, the chipped ceramic mug that he insisted on having his tea and his soup in, the hook where his tweed jacket used to hang. When he is lost, his absence becomes oppressive. A vacant seat at the dinner table is no longer a seat. It's the without.
The tweed coat is what he wears at the wake. My aunt sips her whiskey and explains that the mirrors have to be draped, so that other spirits don't get in, but also so my father's soul doesn't get trapped. Sister Agnes, who is there, calls this superstitious poppycock. She tries to tell my mother that the house is freezing, but my mother doesn't feel it.
"We have to keep the window open," Aunt Gerta insists to the nun, "his soul has to fly out to heaven."
Every time she greets a mourner with a kiss, I watch them startle back, having caught a whiff of spirits.
When I look upon my father's ghostly cadaver, I know that he is no longer with me, and though that makes me feel cold and weepy, I am not surprised.
"The ban sídhe warned us," I tell my Aunt, sniffling. She nods and pats my head, too drunk to disagree. It does not occur to me to blame myself. I know that what the bog means to take, it takes forever.
I am left to my own devices, so I perch on the windowsill and let the frost nip at my fingertips. In the wind, I can hear my father singing lullabies.
My Bonnie lies over the ocean, My Bonnie lies over the sea
My Bonnie lies over the ocean, Oh bring back my Bonnie to me
My grandmother's voice rouses me from my slumber on Papa's armchair. Around me, everything is washed with moonlight.
"You need to leave this place," my grandmother continues. She's been staying with us since last Thursday. She cooks and makes tea while my mother stares blankly ahead, clutching her steaming cup. Mama doesn't even drink it.
There is a pause, and by the soft clank I can't help but assume that my grandmother has made my mama put her cup down, that she is clutching her hands. She hopes her daughter's eyes would focus on something, anything but the overbearing vacancy with which we are left.
Grannie sounds near to tears, but I know my mama isn't crying. Her lament is silent. "Deirdre, nothing moves here. Nothing grows," she implores, "Come back to the city with me, love."
I want to burst into the kitchen and tell my grandmother she is wrong. The swamp is alive. It churns, and heaves, and belches. It devours. It births. My father knew it. He felt it in the ache of his bones, in the driving force of the spade in his hand, his callused, peat-cutting hand. He felt it in the weight of his boots.
I still feel it. I feel its vines, its meshes, the memory of the soupy mud pulling my galosh down, pulling me to the Earth's core, pulling me to the fairies.
"I had an imaginary friend as a kid, too," my girlfriend tells me as I point toward the upcoming turn. The sign is overgrown with vines, but I would know it anywhere. "Her name was Tootsie and she granted wishes and told me where my mother hid the cookie jar."
Frankie knows I hear her, and does not expect an answer.
"God, how do you get anywhere in this place?" she squints emphatically, trying to pick out any sign that the surrounding area is habitable. "We're going to have to pick all this mud from the tires by hand."
In twenty years, the bogland has shifted a thousand times over. "I'm sure we still have spades in the shed," I tell her.
"This is claustrophobic," she continues, listing forward over the wheel to get a good glance through the windshield, to see the way that the sky disappears, how the tree cover closes in and forms a mossy dome above our heads. I relish the feeling of being swallowed by swamp, by the warm damp, the soggy peat. Home.
When our truck grunts in disapproval and comes to a stuttery halt, I barely notice. "Great," Frankie sighs, "I'll push, you rev the engine."
We both get out, but I don't hop into the driver's seat. I follow the movement I see in the milk thistle flowers, tufts of red fur that flash between the leaves.
"Siofra?" Frankie jogs to catch up with me, "where are you?"
"Shhh," I smile, putting my hands on her shoulders, "Listen."
The buzzes grow loud, grow close. Gusts of summer wind sweep over the treetops. We hear them over our heads, but they don't reach the little world around us. I convince Frankie to walk the rest of the way.
In the bush, a fox follows. The rustles of its paws in the underbrush sing my welcome hymn.