“Lookin’ fer a ride?” asked the cabbie.
A small carriage, painted black with paint peeling from the humidity rattled gradually to a stop in front of Matthew Baker and his fiancée Anne. He was dressed in his best suit, pocketwatch chain dangling dangerously from his vest pocket and (second quality, he might admit) beaver hat upon his head. Anne wore a full hoop skirt of white with a pink floral pattern, her curly brown hair done up in a pretty fashion.
The two engaged young adults climbed aboard. Matthew went first and made sure Anne’s skirt did not catch on the carriage as she planted her foot on the cast-iron step and mounted it.
The driver was a forty-year-old mustached man with orange hair, although most of it had migrated to his face and other parts of his body. He was decked out in a bowler and a brown-yellow suit. After an uncertain silent pause, he shook the reins and clicked softly as the pair of muscular geldings broke into an impulsive trot.
As the carriage’s leaf springs failed to displace the unevenness of the road, the vehicle rocked and creaked as many buildings passed by. They were new, gleaming, and well-kept; handpainted advertisements adorning the sides of the brick walls in vivid colors.
New Orleans had some of the best architecture in the Union.
“Where’d y’all like t’ go?” asked the driver. He went about his job awkwardly, like he had suddenly changed careers and it was his first day in the driver’s seat.
“The French Quarter would serve us superbly,” replied Matthew, politely. “I’m looking to visit Café La Rose, if you please.” The driver nodded and slapped the reins.
After watching the scenery for a few moments, the couple began to converse.
“What’s was your favorite part of life in Little Rock?,” inquired Anne. Matthew couldn’t help himself from sighing.
“Well, as you can see, big cities are quite crowded, and they can even be a little suffocating at times. They do offer more social opportunities than the countryside, and I’ve used that to my advantage with the architecture, but although I miss my village at times, I never quite regretted moving to Little Rock.” He nodded his head in unconscious commitment. “It’s never-ending, the buildings, I swear; new ones up every day.”
“Yes,” she said, in a higher tone than usual. “I’ve enjoyed it, though, out in the countryside. Our plantation may be an enclosed environment, but it’s as pleasant as can be. One of the best in the parish, if I say so myself.”
Matthew smiled to himself, happy he had found the girl while she’d came along on a family business trip. Her Southern manner had immediately captivated him.
“But agriculture isn’t what it used to be,” he said “and I’ve been pleased enough in the cities, with all the life and activity.” The conversation was taking a less innocuous turn.
“I’m not entirely sure if I agree with you,” she said, voice rising. “Agriculture is good business, even now, and you do not have to be employed by any arrogant, unfair bosses if you’re in it.” she responded firmly. “And there’s something nice about being alone.” Her features softened.
“I do agree with that, but I always considered myself a city boy.” Matthew replied.
“You’ll see what it’s like out here. It’s different, particularly when you get out of the city.” She spoke in a noble tone, trading the heavily-accented rustic Creole speak for a more English-influenced dialect.
“Yes, I suppose.”
Anne stared around, forgetting any conversational rebuttal. Matthew started again to look around him, as well.
Many of the people in New Orleans were well-dressed, in suits and dresses. They talked and laughed, having a fine old time. To the left, by the seashore, the fishing industry was booming, and steamers and sailboats amassed on the crowded waters.
Dotting the streets stood a number of old bars. Thin crowds of the middle-aged and older surrounded them. On the corners of the streets and hidden inside crevices between the buildings lived the homeless. Most of them were black, set free from the War and unable to find jobs, but there were more from various other races.
“We’re goin’ to be about five minutes” the driver predicted spontaneously, his comment shattering Matthew’s train of thought. “I know a shortcut that will get us there in half the time it would take the competition.” He cleared his throat. “They take fifteen minutes to get there us half the time. J.S Peterson Carriage has a commitment to quality that never ends.” Although he had just commenced his job, he already had the tired, repetitive tone of someone who had repeated that phrase innumerable times.
To the couple’s surprise, the horses quickly lurched into a dark underworld of a street. Untamed mosses and vines swallowed up the dilapidated, vacant houses, which bore signs of antiquated engineering and design. They were slowly sinking into the soft ground, as Nature took them back from Man.
Matthew quickly began to feel very uneasy, especially considering the slow pace the carriage was moving in. The horses were not happy either, and several times spooked at invisible objects. They were now moving much slower than a running person.
One of the properties was an old mansion of the Gothic style, which would have been very nice had it not been abandoned for some reason by its owner. The white paint was turning yellow with time and was slowly peeling off the walls.
The sun was setting lower in the sky, as it was six-o’clock, but the shadows of the house beside it shaded the mansion almost completely. It felt rather unnatural. Matthew noticed a bunch of moving black shapes in the shadows next to the mansion. They appeared to be slowly drifting towards him. The architect was very concerned.
“Driver, sir, can you please speed up a bit?” he asked, his polite tone wavering. The driver looked back at him, confused. He stopped the horses.
“What?” Matthew repeated his request even louder. “Yessir. One moment.” The driver took a hip flask out of his pocket and leisurely took a drink.
Matthew noticed the shadows were actually a group of people. The walked up slowly and maliciously towards the carriage. There were five in the group, talking hurriedly amongst each other. Matthew stood up.
“Driver, get those damned animals moving!” Matthew yelled. The driver slammed the reins down with all his might, and the horses reared up in the air and screeched, kicking their legs out in front of them.
Suddenly, the crowd rushed towards the three, swinging oaken clubs. They yelled violently.
“I know who you are, John Nielsohn! You are going to die!” The group leader jumped onto the carriage ferociously and tore at Matthew’s arm. He struggled, but was hit on the shoulder with the club. Anne and the driver tried valiantly to get the angry man off of Matthew but it only made him more infuriated.
“I’m gonna kill you!” he yelled furiously. Matthew was instantaneously dragged off the buggy onto the street. Anne screamed. The architect’s mind raced from the sudden brutality of the gang. Everything happened so suddenly and inexplicably, and he had no idea how to stop them. The men pulled him into the shadows behind the mansion. Waiting there were a few horses.
“Be quiet, or I’ll bash your brains in right now.” whispered the leader of the gang. He brandished his club for proof, unnecessary as it was.
“Conor, get me the rope right now.” He had a powerful Irish accent.
“Yes, Bill.” One of Bill’s companions handed him a length of manila rope. He proceeded to painfully tie up Matthew’s arms and legs.
“I reckon now ye ain’t gettin’ away from us, ya bloody scag!” Bill threw Matthew up onto his horse.
“One word from you and it’ll be your last.” commanded the leader. Bill’s friends snickered.
They quickly mounted their horses and galloped away from the taxi carriage. They were headed southeast, directly towards the bayous. The violent thumping, exactly twice a second, shook Matthew to the core as the horse powered on ahead.
Bill had no interest in chatting with his subservients. However, Matthew got a good look at the changing scenery. They continued down a small alleyway, down for ten minutes, then on a larger road which bordered the city. After that, all Matthew could see was a rutty red dirt trail, raised four feet above the flooded landscape. They passed many farmer’s fields of rice and cucumber as the land slowly metamorphosed into dense, desolate swamp. The sun offered progressively less light.
The road suddenly ended and Matthew said a prayer to God the police, or anyone, would find them in time.
“Here you go. I reckon we will get you out into this swamp and beat you to death! No one will ever find your body.” He smiled. “N’ I’m only telling you this because I believe people shouldn’t keep secrets.” Bill and his boys laughed heartily.
“Now, Conor, take him out in the swamp. I don’ wanna dirty my boots.”
Huffing, Conor picked the architect up and carried him facing down, so he had little idea where he was going. It hurt slightly less than the horse but was still extremly uncomfortable.
“I be takin’ your pocketwatch also,” he said, snatching it with his dirty hand. It took an extremely long time for Conor to get Matthew to where he wanted him. The sun slowly set, and with it, all of Matthew’s hopes to survive. The colors in the air consisted of dark orange and pink. In what seemed to be an eternity, Conor threw Matthew down into the black water. He struggled to stay afloat. Conor noticed his plight and untied the ropes.
“You have the wrong person! I don’t even know who you are,” said Matthew.
“I’ll see you later, John!” replied Conor.
“I’m not John!” interjected Matthew loudly. “You have the wrong person! Take me back!” Conor waited for one moment.
“But that’s just what John would say, too!” Conor retorted. He readied to slam Matthew over the head with his club.
“Please!” Conor waited one more moment, contemplating Matthew’s insistence. Somehow the architect felt a ray of hope.
A shot rang out from close by, and Matthew’s eyes beheld Conor’s head burst as his body was slowly absorbed into the swamp water. Blood poured out in rivulets, mixing with the murky muck.
Knowing this might be his only chance, Matthew stood up quickly and saw a boat with two hunters in it. He hoped to use them somehow to get away from danger. Upon closer inspection, though they looked very poor, with missing teeth and ragged clothes. The first held a musket and wore tattered overalls, and the second was shirtless with long hair and a beard. Their bodies were thin and sun-fried. The man with the rifle laughed eerily at Matthew.
“Looks like we gots dinner on our plate tonight!” he said to his companion. “You just gon’ stand there where I reload? Mighty kind!” he yelled to Matthew. The architect only heard the second sentence, and watched as the swamp man stuck a ramrod down his rifle barrel and proceeded to prime the percussion lock. His friend rowed the shoddy wooden boat a few feet closer.
“Ain’t it my turn to shoot?” asked the bearded man. Matthew wondered why they would want to shoot again, or what they would be interested in shooting. He felt increasingly vulnerable.
“No!” shouted the other. He took aim at Matthew just as he started running and dodging frantically away. The second man tried to wrest the gun away from the hunter and they fought a moment over possession. After a moment the bearded man emerged victorious, and aimed again at Matthew, who was now considerably farther away. He fired and the shot ricocheted off a tree directly behind the architect.
As he put more distance between himself and the wretched boat, Matthew noticed exactly how dangerous the bayou was. He caught a glimpse of a bathing crocodile only twenty feet away and saw something that looked like a water moccasin out of the corner of his eye. From far away he could still hear the hunters, as sound travelled eerily far in the unpopulated wilderness.
“Look a’ dis club! Heh!”
“Give that to me!”
Matthew walked northward. Mosquitoes buzzed around him in thick, hungry clouds. The bayou was creepy to say the least. It smelled terrible, and had many exotic flies and wasps flew around excitedly. His feet sloshed in the ankle-deep water. There was a gross film of algae on top of it, which made Matthew want to get on some regular land.
“Look at this new shirt. I’m keepin’ it.”
The voices slowly grew more and more remote.
“No, I get the heart!”
Matthew was happy to have avoided them. He drew a sigh of relief. Now, however, what he could see of the sky through the live oaks was dark purple and blue. In a few moments he would not be able to see anything, and he needed somewhere to sleep for the night. Looking desperately for shelter or dry land, the architect found himself sorely disappointed.
On top of a log in front of him, Matthew saw a twisted, small branch, covered with green moss. He stopped there a minute to catch his breath, put his hand on the log and looked closer his surroundings. Abruptly, the branch spun into the air towards Matthew as pain shot through the man’s body. It was a snake! The creature slithered away into the water as speedily as it had bit him.
Over the agony, Matthew summoned the courage to look at the bite. It had bitten him right in the calf muscle on his right leg. Matthew remembered Anne telling him that if a snakebite had only two marks, it was from a poisonous snake.
To his horror, he saw a pair of deep incisions.
“Damn all of this!” he said, punching the log. Sound waves fluttered throughout the swamp. He was frustrated and almost hopeless. The pain was unbearable. Matthew’s leg was a battery sending shockwaves through his entire body.
For the next minutes, Matthew ran as fast as he could towards what he thought might be dry land. His faculties were turning confused and he felt distant from reality. He really didn’t know where to go, but staying in the dirty water would surely infect the wound. Slowly, it became more difficult to run, like he was wading through a pool of molasses, and Matthew began swaying like a drunkard.
“Help!” he yelled, summoning up as much strength as he could. He slammed into a tree headfirst and fell onto a pile of wet moss around the base of the treeroots.
The world spun around, a mix of ugly greens and blacks, until it was slowly obscured by a black veil.
He tried to open his eyes, knowing he was awake, but his mind could not seem to tell his body what to do. Sluggishly, he managed to pop open his eyelids and gradually look around the room. It felt vaguely familiar, like he had seen it in a museum or a dream. It had a number of old European paintings adorning various spots. The walls were yellow, but the paint was starting to peel away. Matthew heard footsteps. He wondered to himself what had just happened and who it might be, and felt rather afraid.
“Ain’t y’ awake? Ou iz you?” It sounded like an old lady. He cleared his throat.
“What?” Matthew couldn’t understand her. She entered the room, a lady of around sixty, wrinkled skin and long white hair. She walked with a small amount of trouble and wore simple, outdated clothing. Her manner was almost completely foreign to the Arkansan.
“I found you out in de bayou. Don knew if y’ die ou iv’ iz jes a snake baht.”
“What? Are you speaking English, ma’am?” he said quietly.
“Yip. Mais je parle en francais si tu prefere,” she laughed. Even her French was accented. Matthew had a confused expression. He looked at his leg and saw it neatly bandaged up.
“Ye’ah. Thought you iz dead, ah did. But you ain’, an ah ‘pose ah should get you some dinnah. Ah cooked up some swimp fo’ dinnah wit spahciz. You iz’ hungry?”
“Swimp.” Matthew looked at the old lady. She had probably been one of the first pioneers in that area of the bayou.
“Umm, I ain’t too sure that I’m hungry.”
“Ah, mais ah guess ah just won’ get you none.” She seemed displeased and turned away.
“Ma’am, what’s your name?” inquired Matthew.
“Mah name’s Charlotte.” He stirred slightly to get a better view of her. “What exactly did you do to keep me alive?”
“Mais, ah took de poison out a’ ya.” She chuckled cryptically.
She took a breath, before speaking again in her fast drawl.
“Ah take de rubber in cups, an’ suck de poison out. Ah cain’t barely believe you iz still alive! De poison was getting to you!”
Matthew waited a few seconds to regain some strength.
“Yes… Who else is here?”
Charlotte looked at the ground. “Ah live alone. Ain’ alotta others round he’ah.”
“Who else is around here, then?” inquired Matthew. She looked very uncomfortable.
“Not many. Husband, but he ain’t nothin’ lok he use t’ be.”
Matthew waited a few moments, contemplating what to say next.
Matthew didn’t understand, still. “Is he still around?”
“So, then, what do you think of your husband? Do you love him?” Matthew was regaining some of his strength. A cold, steely look shot over Charlotte’s eyes. She was clearly resistant to talking about him.
“Bah.” She walked away as mysteriously as she had came. Matthew fell back asleep.
The next time he woke up, the architect felt much clearer and healthier, although he was quite hungry. Charlotte was fiddling with the drawers in the room as he opened his eyes.
“How are you?” he asked.
“Bien,” she replied. Matthew shook his head, remembering something.
“So how’s your husband doing?” he asked, smiling to himself.
“Ahh, he ain’t too bad. You won’t see ‘im. Kain’t leave the bedroom and talks nonsense, but he ain’t too bad. Don let ‘im out, though. That maht cause a bucketload of trouble.” Her voice wavered slightly. Matthew wondered about how Husband got to be the way he did.
“How did… Husband lose his senses?”
The old lady hesitated again. “He ate them poisonous mushrooms ‘few months ago. I told him they was the wrong ones an’ he still doan listen. Ah don’ have no idea how he came across ’em. The idiot.” She threw something on the ground with force. “I’m going to retire to bed. Have a good naht. That there iz some food.” She pointed to a tray next to him on a Federal period coffee table.
“Thank you kindly for dinner.”
“Husband is o’re where yer’ sleepin’. Don’ let ‘im bug you none.”
Matthew noticed he had went twenty four hours without doing anything. He got up and walked around, leg feeling stiff but tolerable. He had an insatiable curiosity to explore the dwelling.
Walking quietly to the outside of his room, Matthew saw the living room a ways in front of him and a door to another bedroom immediately to the right. He opened the door, which made a soft squeaking noise.
Inside was yellow floral wallpaper and a lot of empty space. Half the area was blocked off by a crude set of prison bars. Inside this enclosure was a man in his fifties, cowering in the corner and scarcely wearing anything. Matthew was flabbergasted and bewildered. Not able to say anything, he tapped on the wall with one finger.
“Another stranger” said the man suddenly, turning to Matthew. He had blue eyes and a brown wrinkly face almost the same color as his short pants. His head was bald.
“I’m Matthew Wilson. Nice to meet you.”
The prisoner stared at him unnaturally. He seemed quite impolite.”
“She calls me Husband. SHE. Because to me she is Wife and to her I, Husband. But Husband is not truly I.”
“Why is that?” asked Matthew, quietly.
“Names… Not reality. I have been pondering.”
“The sky is blue because the spirits of the blue dragonflies are slow in their movement up to Heaven.” Husband looked dreamily at the sky. “This I have seen. See it now I do not. I have little liberty, only what I allow myself to have. My name is Husband, but names are not real!” he yelled. A fire glowed in his eyes. Matthew was nervous that the old lady could hear him.
“It’s okay, quiet down a little, Husband,” encouraged the architect.
“But neither are we. We are all in a dream. But Charlotte is contained in a dream in a dream. She is imprisoning me in this box! I am awake. I need freedom in the world. They should not think they can take my liberty, giving me no due recompense. One pound of freedom is a hundredweight of bacon.” He laughed. Matthew tried his best to ignore Husband’s ramblings, but found it difficult. After a moment, he continued.
“People do not need fake lights! They need to feel the fire of the sun and the Lord burning their corrupted souls.”
“What do you mean by fake lights?”
“The lights! They are coming. They will be here soon.” Husband was melancholy for a moment, and he stared sternly at the ground. He quickly changed the subject.
“Perhaps you do not have corruption in your soul. They do.”
“The two. The men who take heart. Heed.” Matthew thought on this for a moment. He patted his pant leg.
“Clothes are a shell in which to enclose ourselves! We do not see each other. We see fakeness. We need honesty! Have a good night. I am soon going to the realm of travelling souls. If you don’t let me out by next morning, your head will never rest from the birds singing inside it.” Husband snickered to himself, sure his insult was perfect.
“Goodnight,” called Matthew. He walked back through the hallway to his room. As he laid there, one thought never left his mind.
You’ll see what it’s like out here. It’s different, particularly when you get out of the city.
After an uncomfortably long time, sleep took hold of him.
Several days later, the bed shook like thunder. Matthew woke up quickly, yawning and getting sick of this routine.
“Get outta yer’ bed this minute! What are you doing still asleep at eight in the mornin’? Ah iz thinking yer from that place New Orlins or summit! Dey doan sleep dis late anywhere else I knowa”
In a few short minutes, he was doing more housework than he’d done in the rest of his life. It was uncomfortably hot and humid, as the house had no cooling, but that afforded him no respite.
Back in the old days, a maid cleaned his house. Now he was getting a sample of the work that classes lower than him used to do.
It was Matthew’s part of the deal that let him stay at the house. He knew Charlotte did not want him there for long, so she bossed him around severely in order for all her ideas to be put into action. She was still secretive about Husband and assumed Matthew had never seen him.
Once, he had started making howling noises, so Charlotte quickly took him outside on some vague pretense.
It was hard work, all the rearranging, moving, and cleaning, and took a considerable toll on the architect’s muscles. He was starting, however, to feel stronger than he had before his bizarre trip.
Matthew wondered how, since Husband had stopped being a productive member of the household, Charlotte managed to run her household. The truth was, it had been in a disarray until the young man was brought there, and was only just starting to get presentable.
The old woman made a vast array of Creole dishes, some of them quite tasty and others disgusting.
At the end of the work day, Matthew walked outside for a while to see how far he was from civilization. He was happy to be leaving the house soon, but to his disappointment, it seemed like he was scarcely in a better location than when he had first been dragged out into the swamp. It felt like he was slightly more inland, as there was a small amount of dry land mixed in with the bayou, but he had a feeling he was even farther East, away from New Orleans. After heading back into the small house, Matthew had some tea then sneaked into Husband’s room as Charlotte was gone.
He sat in his little cell and stared at the wall. Matthew could not think of anything to say, but Husband broke the silence.
“I was the one who carried you. I felt your muscles, your warmth,” he said.
“There is no time; only now. But it was a different now, that I can barely remember.” The old man was pensive.
“That makes sense,” said Matthew, starting to better understand things. “So there is a key.”
“Yes.” He suddenly snapped. “I’m not crazy! I tell you, I may have visions of blue-eyed hopping bonnets in a land of silver glue, but I am not crazy!”
Matthew was unconvinced. “Then what are you?”
“I suppose, I am awakened! I know that in the red room of the mind music plays from thin air. The cattle roam madly through the field… I feel it all! Aggh!” He shook as if electrocuted and collapsed to the ground.
“How can I believe you?” inquired Matthew, unsure of himself and his companion.
“You can; here’s proof,” replied Husband quietly. “I don’t even have to be around what I feel. I know it’s happening right now. Charlotte is reading, by an artificial light, on how to kill.” Matthew was vaguely repulsed, and fully unbelieving. “She has entered.”
“Let me see if your theory holds true,” said Matthew, unsure whether to be nervous or lighthearted. The architect stood up, walked over to the door, slowly turned the bedroom doorknob, and crept into the kitchen. Peeking around the corner, he saw Charlotte sitting in her lolling chair, reading a book on hunting. As he had just reshelved the volume, Matthew knew immediately which one it was. The young man was flabbergasted, previously supposing Husband was nothing more than a typical madman.
“She was reading a book about hunting” relayed the traveler, back in his room. “I can’t even believe it. How did you know? You haven’t been out of there since days ago.”
“I told you she would be. SHE is the crazy one, not I. My brain travels, or is it something else.”
He waited a moment. “I need freedom! You’ve seen my powers. Release me from my prison! I am sure Charlotte will not have any misgivings about it.” The last sentence was spoken with a sardonic nuance.
“That sounds like it may have bad consequences. Charlotte does not like me being in here. How long have you been in that box?” Husband replied in his typical slow, mysterious voice.
“Forty-eight and a half cycles of the sun. Diseased minds would call them days; I am beyond them!”
“Wait here.” He realized the absurdity of this request. “I will get you before dawn and we can escape together. If you stay around me and assist me in getting food, I’ll try my best to keep you out of harm’s way until we’re rescued from this swamp.” Husband smiled warmly, almost too warmly. “I will be freed! You mustn’t stop improving; you are becoming a better person than you were when I first met you.” Husband laughed. “The birds will not sing inside your head anymore.”
Matthew went to bed but made up his made to arise early.
The next morning while it was still black out, the young man made his way to Husband’s room but noticed a hole in his plan– he now had to search for the key to get the old man out of his cell. He looked in his dresser drawers, but couldn’t find it there.
“It is under,” said Husband.
The old man was quiet. After that, Matthew tried the closet, with no more success. Finally, he looked under his bed and found them under one of its legs. Matthew grabbed the old key, took it quietly to the room and slowly unlocked the door to Husband’s cell. It creaked rustily.
“Stay with me avoid making any noise. I’ll write a message to Charlotte saying thank you for the food.”
Matthew looted the kitchen for survival supplies, since he now knew from his last excursion what he would need, and wrote out the note. The two men made it through the front door, and with its slam closed a chapter of their lives.
Outside, it was still quite dark out, even though the sun was starting its ascent. The swamp was still asleep, except for the bugs. It was hard to see the sun through the dense canopy of Spanish
moss hanging over the oak trees. Their silhouttes were barely visible, a more weighted black than that of the sky. Gradulally, however, from what little glimpses the men could get of it, the sky was starting to take on a pretty pink color.
The pair found that some parts of the ground were soft enough to walk on, although sections them squeaked like old boots at every step. It was still much better than the portion of the land where the terrible snake incident had happened, Matthew thought. After a few minutes, the cautious architect noticed that while he was constantly on the lookout for sunbathing snakes and alligators, Husband would rush headlong into things, without giving any thought to them whatsoever.
“Husband, why don’t you watch more for dangerous creatures?”
He replied, “I know the animals will flee from my approach. Now that I am free, I will be safe. Most of me will be safe, in the least. Charlotte entrapped you, just like she did to me.”
Matthew’s response was hot-blooded. “No, she didn’t. How do you know that?” Husband smiled eerily.
“You’ll see. She’ll be after both of us before very long.”
“Then why did you tell me to let you out in the first place?”
“Because I cannot survive there,” replied Husband shortly.
Matthew found himself staring for long periods of time at the gargantuan live oak trees. Tons of moss hung off them like drapes off a runner. They slowly waved in the wind, impervious to the incoming danger. By the time the two had made it a few miles north, they stopped to catch their breath. Husband stated something out of the blue.
“I feel the crow coming. We have to leave soon, hence it will find us.” His eyes were wide.
“I don’t think a little crow will bother us out here” replied Matthew, feeling all the smarter. Husband gasped.
“I joketh not. Our lives are now in danger.”
Matthew considered his words, and thought of saying he hardly believed him. Soon, a rustling sound came out of the bushes, and Matthew had a bad feeling in his head.
“It is true! The crow beckons.” Husband was ominous. Suddenly, he got up and started to sprint away. Unfortunately, Matthew didn’t get up so quick as the nimble man. He wheeled around and saw Charlotte twenty yards away from him, holding a tarnished Henry rifle. Husband was nowhere to be seen, but a few plants swayed from his movement through them. Matthew was paralyzed for a moment, then started running in the same direction as Husband. He heard the gun go off into the air.
“Get back ‘ere Husband! I’ll shoot! I need you t’ get back ta de house where you belong! What you doing out ‘ere?”
The world quickly started to whirl past Matthew as he took off after the surprisingly-quick Husband. He started to hear ear-shattering bangs from behind him. One bullet hit a tree several feet away to the side of him. Matthew kept going as far as he could, fueled by adrenaline and terror.
After six shots, Matthew noticed that Charlotte had ceased her shooting.
“She must be out of ammunition,” said Matthew. He ran along the edge of a large bowl of water, and the ground mushed with every step. The traveler took a quick glance backwards and found that Charlotte was far away, more than a hundred yards. He breathed a sigh of relief. After going forward for another minute, Matthew saw a thicker forest ahead of him, bordered on the left by a pool of semi-clean water.
On the edge of the water, dangerously close to it and standing on old stilts, was a rundown, dilapidated shack. It seemed like it might be the safest place Matthew could hide in. He knocked on the door and received no answer, so he opened the creaking port and sat down by one of the windows. Charlotte was just barely in sight, and she seemed to be yelling for them to come over. He could not tell if she knew where he was or not.
“Matthew, ‘usband, get o’re here raht now!” She was slowly walking towards the shack.
“Husband, Ah know yer’ in that buildin.” Matthew’s eyes clouded up, and his heart began to race again. Charlotte was coming directly towards him! He looked around the one room of the house, and found nothing suitable to hide in, just a wooden chest, stove, shoddy desk, and bed towards the watery side of the house.
“Usbin? Get out a’ there!” The old lady sounded like she was within a few feet of the door. Matthew was immensely confused but thought of something just in the knick of time. He dove to the left of the door and sat down just to the outside of where it opens. Charlotte knocked violently and Matthew heard a cocking gun.
“Any people in there? ‘usband, you in there?” She tried to push the door open.
“Husban’, tell me rot now an’ I won’t shoot you!” She battered the door with her rifle stock. Matthew almost laughed. He tried one last tactic, quite a dangerous one.
“Wer’ busy,” he said disguising his voice for a deeper one. “Stop buggin’ on the door, old lady!” Charlotte was silent for a moment, and it seemed she might be considering walking away when the doorknob turned and the door blew open, swinging almost into Matthew. He could hear Charlotte standing there a foot to the right of him but the door blocked their view of each other.
“What?” she said to herself. She stood there for one more minute, then walked away, crestfallen. Matthew watched her depart through the window.
The shack was very small, only a single room, and by far not the largest one Matthew had seen. There was junk everywhere and pitifully little furniture. The plank walls were partially missing and starting to rot, letting bugs in at their discretion. The red roof had a number of holes in it. A feeling of depressed poverty enveloped the air. At the southern end of the house, a splashing sound was heard from the water rubbing against it. The stilt in that end had long since rotted, leaving the whole building tilting slightly into the water. A foot of water sneaked onto the floor from the river. The shack was slowly sliding into the swamp.
“If I just just get onto some flat, dry land!” said Matthew, frustrated. “It’s disgusting.”
One other thing was missing- where was Husband? Matthew’s mind desperately buzzed, thinking of places where he could be hiding. The young man paced around the room, his hand on his forehead. “If he ran farther than I did, he might not know where I am, and that would be quite terrible! What if Charlotte got a hold of him after she went past this little building?”
While he waited, Matthew paced around anxiously whilst looking through the house to see what was in it. There wasn’t any food, or much else that was useful. He was about to open a drawer when he heard a snapping of branches outside the door. Matthew hid in his same spot, waiting unsurely. Suddenly, someone rapped lightly on the door. Matthew prayed it wouldn’t be Charlotte. He looked stealthily through the window. Husband was standing there, looking as creepy as always.
Breathing a sigh of relief, Matthew let Husband into the house.
“Where were you? Did you see her?” he inquired.
“I hid in the bush. I have bad news to herald for you,” solemnly declared Husband.
“What is it?”
In a way, Matthew did not wish to know.
“Their arrival will be concluded will violence! It is coming. They are coming!”
“Are you talking about Charlotte?” Husband stared right into Matthew’s eyes.
“No.” His voice was much more serious than usual. It was like he was a normal man for a minute.
“The people are arriving here!”
“Who?” asked Matthew, befuddled. “The trappers of wildlife!”
After wondering exactly what he meant, Matthew asked Husband if he had any ideas about their next course of action.
“It is the best decision to be on the lookout for food and eating, because eating is of benefit to people!”
Matthew shook his head for what felt like the thousandth time.
“So you’re saying we should go hunting?”
“Yes. We need to procure the nourishment. Perhaps it will taste like food, if we’re lucky!” Matthew’s eyes narrowed.
“Husband, if you don’t talk normally I’m not going to shoot you, instead.” Husband was silent. After a few minutes, he spoke again softly.
“Normalcy is not the way of good people. It will not get you far.”
“I don’t get it, you weren’t making the slightest bit of sense at the house, but out in the wild you start talking almost like a regular person.”
“Captivity is detrimental for the human mind. Houses are artificial environments, and they’re just as bad as artificial lights!”
“Anyhow,” said Matthew, more serious, “Do we have any weapons or traps at all here?” He thought about what had happened to the owners and shivered.
“Yes!” shouted Husband with undue force. Matthew raised his eyebrows. The architect raided the house and eventually found, in a drawer, an 1860 Colt Army revolver. He pointed the barrel right beside his head and saw the tops of six lead balls in the cylinder recesses.
“That is not the safe manner!” said Husband. “Use your fingers.”
Matthew was embarrassed. He had only used a firearm once in his life.
“We only have six shots; I don’t know how to load a black powder pistol.”
It was a heavy but finely-machined object, weighted towards the front, constructed of brass and steel. Matthew left the house and looked around the immediate area to see if he had missed any interesting phenomena outside.
“What do you think we should eat?” asked the architect. “I know Charlotte was always cooking up crawfish. I wish I’d taken more peppers from her garden.”
“We must go in the water!”
Matthew walked to the edge of the bank and found a flat metal boat floating in a nook under the house. It had a pair of oars on opposite sides and seemed to be in good shape. He smiled as he untied the knot and the two men barely noticed the water on their ankles as they pushed the craft out into the water and lifted themselves into it.
Behind the pond the house was situated in commenced the mouth of a slow-moving river, the first one to be seen as the land was now dry enough to entertain the prospects of streams and small hills. It was surrounded on one side by live oak and cypress trees, and by a grassy little island on the other.
Matthew slowly rowed the boat across the water. The paddles made a quiet splashing sound as they skimmed the lake. Dragonflies hovered above the shoreline. The morning was quite cool and refreshing. Husband whispered quietly to himself.
“Do you suppose this river goes up north to dry land?” asked Matthew, hopeful.
“Yes,” replied Husband. Matthew thought to himself that that was the first simple answer Husband had ever given. They continued on, making barely audible splashing sounds.
“See anything to catch?”
Husband was silent.
Further on down the river, Matthew found himself getting very hungry from all the rowing.
“Would you mind taking a turn?”
Husband begrudgingly took the oars and they continued travelling for a moment, when Matthew looked over the water, and found a log floating about twenty feet away. Right next to it, using the wood as camouflage, was a five-foot alligator.
“Ever eaten alligator?” asked the architect.
“Yes. It has taste,” replied Husband cryptically. Matthew shook his head in exasperation.
“You paddle, I’ll shoot,” Matthew replied inexpertly drawing his gun, and attempting to aim it at the animal’s head. He concentrated intensely, waiting for the sights to align perfectly. An ear-shattering noise permeated the swamp, and a cloud of smoke partially obscured Matthew’s sight. The alligator wasn’t moving.
“Yes! I got it!” he exclaimed. They rowed over to the motionless creature.
“Husband, you haul the gator up, and I’ll balance the boat.”
Husband made a grunting sound as he leaned over and grabbed it by the tail, but the animal quickly spun around and latched on to Husband’s arm. He shrieked.
Matthew shot several times, nearly as quickly as the could. By the time he was done, the beast had three holes in its head. Husband jumped back into the boat and began crying in agony.
“My hand has been eaten!” he yelled, “I’m going to die from it!” A look of horror was stuck on his face. “My soul is slowly departing from the world!”
Ironically, this was in the same tone he used when talking about absolute nonsense. Husband lay down and thrashed around on the deck of the boat.
“Kill me now! It is taking too long! The pain hurts! Oww!”
Matthew tried to keep his composure. He felt on one hand like laughing and on another like crying. “Husband, you’ll survive as long as we get out of here soon.” Matthew tried to think of the many insincere hope-inspiring words other people might use in this sitution, but couldn’t bring himself to let them out.
For the chances of Husband recovering paled in comparison to the chances of him slowly dying.
Matthew determinedly put his gun back in its holster and began to row the boat back to the house. He muscles were on fire as he finally arrived, going as quickly as possible. Husband’s wound bled profusely and he constantly screamed.
The boat smelled terrible. Running frantically into the house, Matthew found one bandage in the closet and a piece of cloth to function as a tourniquet.
Quickly moving back to the boat, Matthew bandaged the end of his companion’s arm and tied the tourniquet to secure it. The bleeding slowly eased off. However, it was still up to God if he would survive for long without more medical attention.
Matthew, having never skinned an animal by himself in his life, was very apprehensive of the task. He found, against all odds, his pocketknife in a neglected pants pocket and took it out, wondering what to do whilst incessantly opening and closing the blade and feeling the metal burrs in the action.
“Wilson. What is done must be done,” spoke Husband.
Matthew sighed and started cutting from the jaw downwards. Shortly, he had a semi-properly skinned animal in front of him. He noted that they did not need much meat so only cut a portion of the highest-quality looking flesh and took it inside to cook in the oven.
In the cabin, Husband still made pain-filled sounds but they were not as severe as they were previously. It took a long time to cook the meat, but at length, the architect pulled it out of the cast-iron oven.
“Enjoy your revenge. I’ll bet it tastes better to you than to me.” Husband tried to take the plate with his left hand, than noticed his hand was gone and took it with his right instead. He ate ravenously. On the other hand, Matthew noticed the baked alligator paled in comparison to Charlotte’s cooking. It was just barely edible.
They ate silently for a few moments. It tasted like a bizarre, tough mixture of chicken and fish. It was a rather confusing taste but Matthew was famished enough to dine anyway.
“No!” yelled Husband without warning.
The front door flew open. Three swamp people were on the threshold. The father was carrying a rifle. “What in de holy tarnation ah’ y’all doing in mah house?” the father yelled.
“I was lost in the swamp, and I needed somewhere to stay.” replied Matthew, desperate to get out of as much trouble as he could.
“The visitors have arrived!” shouted Husband spontaneously.
“Stop your blabbering, Husband; we’re the visitors here.”
“No!” Husband screeched, infuriated. Matthew got up from the desk and quickly slapped Husband across the face. The old man looked dazed and confused. Matthew saw the people smiling and snickering to themselves at the door. In a moment, however, they became serious again, intent on removing the trespassers.
“Y’all get outta he’ah” commanded the man. Matthew’s world was spinning around him.
“We’ll go if we have to. But look at this man. He just got his hand bitten off by an alligator. He’ll die from it if he doesn’t get help.” The man’s eyes narrowed, but the wife understood the situation better.
“I said ah don’ want y’all in mah’ house no more” His wife interjected in a higher voice.
“We caught you an alligator,” said Matthew, getting up to leave. As he left the house, he mustered up one more question.
“How do you get to dry land?”
The husband pointed quickly to the north, into fresh territory.
Husband stood up, still in a lot of pain. Matthew took one more glance back as they stepped out of the shack.
There was not more than two hours of daylight left, so Matthew and Husband continued north a long distance for half of that time. They walked over grassy mudbanks, into ankle-deep water, stopping to stare at the exotic tropical plants and orchids growing in the water and on the little islands.
After a while, they found a spot where a number of partially-fallen trees had converged on a single spot, and built it up into an acceptable lean-to. They had no ability to make a fire, and even if they had a flint, the deadfall would be too wet.
Matthew tried sleeping that night, but his mind would not stop running around in circles. He thought about Arkansas, his family there. He thought about Anne, and knew she was definitely missing him and probably thought he’d died. Above all, he wondered what would happen to Husband.
Matthew roused his companion, who had finally gotten some sleep. He thought Husband had been awake the whole night, but the old man had actually been sleep-talking.
That night, Husband was incoherent even by his standards. He mumbled total gibberish, and it made Matthew feel depressed that it was only the start of the injury’s effects.
“Pinenut stew make the men’s wills stronger. I like it. His back is covered with sweat. Kill the alligators… all of them…”
The next morning had a particularly Southern peacefulness to it. In the window, the sun’s rays were visible in mid-air, the same look that happens at times an hour before sunset as the sun’s rays poke through the veil of cloud behind it. Outside, the bayou looked like it was viewed through a nostalgic yellow lens. The birds tweeted drowsily. The cypress and oak trees were standing, strong sentinels, in the water or on the drier parts of the swamp.
It was a very pleasant contrast to the day and night before it.
As the two progressed towards higher land, the brush became thicker. It was harder and harder to cut a path through the numerous shrubs and saplings wildly replicating themselves. Then, at a gradual pace, Matthew noticed he could see the sky through the tops of the trees.
There was hardly any water on the ground. Matthews spirits rose; it felt more like home.
The two saw a glimpse of a red road through the trees and stumbled onto it. The hilly countryside stretched on and on for miles.
They were on the edge of civilization.