Last night, I returned with four other guys from a three-day trek along the Appalachian Trail through the Great Smokey Mountains. We imagined a fine stroll in the woods, a few days breathing good air and overlooking mountain vistas, but we ended up with cramped calves, blistered feet, and weathered shoulders. While it did not bring the calm or enlightenment that some people claimed, the mountain trip taught me a lot about expectations, companionship, and the nature of nature.
Below is a direct transcription of the little journal I kept throughout our hikes, including crazed ideas, admissions, and swear words. The entire journey proved harder than any of us thought, but we made it out alive and mostly intact.
June 9, 2013
Spirit Quest. Walkabout. Seeking.
Whatever cultural term might be used to describe a spiritual journey in the wilderness, this is not it. Rather, this will be a walk to death, the ascension to the hangman’s noose. Like many other confused, existential, directionless Caucasian males in their teenage prime, we chose to amble up into the Smokey Mountain National Park, hike a few miles of the Appalachian Trail.
The sky has decided to piss all over us, and I admit I’m not ecstatic to begin walking through muck and cold rain and liquefied misery.
After a wrong turn, we found ourselves lost along the highway. Using our smart phone devices, we found a new way to the entrance to the park. After picking up a map and looking through the visitors center, we are preparing for the hike.
Having entered the trailhead at 2 pm, we have not yet reached our destination. I sit along, awaiting the slower leg of our group to catch up. I need their water. I am unsure how much further it could be, but I hope I am close. The hike has been far more strenuous than I believed, heaving a fifty pound pack uphill. The incline never ceases, and even when I think I have reached the summit, the trail continues up. The last 1/3 has been tame, but exhausting. The first three miles went up a creek, the water rushing past our soaked shoes as we scraped our legs on rocks and climbed hand and foot. We did not prepare for, certainly did not anticipate, the sheer pain of going on and on, trapped in a steaming hallucination of green.
We spotted a single snake, but our worst enemy is the streams. Some have simple brides or even fallen trees to cross, but many we fall into, slipping on the rocks or moss. At the beginning of our journey, just past the first friendly mile, I took off my shoes to clear the stream, clinging to branches as I skirted along the clumsy rocks. My sleeping bag splashed into the stream, soaked through, and for a mile, I carried the bag draped over my shoulders.
I hear my comrades approaching and admit the time to sit has been restful. Like with every new horizon, I pray the campsite lies just beyond.
Steeper. The camp is nowhere in sight, and I feel my body and mind slipping away. My shoulders bulbous and raw and red.
This trail mocks me. Every tree masquerades as a peaceful meadow, but is only another sharp turn up this damned mountain. The Devil hovers behind every boulder, beckoning with bread, with rest, but there is nothing.
It is dark and grow darker. A storm brews in the distance, and not for the first time today am I considering whether I will die here.
I am taking more frequent breaks as I begin to lose hope. I sit on a log observing the first sign I’ve encountered in hours. Ricky encountered me on the trail, on his way to locate Stephen who had disappeared long ago. The sign says there is only a half mile left to the campsite, and I remember believing we had only 1.5 miles left after the 3 mile marker, but we crossed that at 5pm.
My feet are blistered, numb. Even to curl a toe takes great exertion. But Ricky’s presence made me feel better.
It just started raining.
Inane thoughts, rambling.
As I neared the site, I stepped wrong, rolling my angle. I could feel my muscles stretch unnaturally, snapping loudly. “Arrrgh. Fuck.” I collapsed, thinking the worst: that my ankle was broken, that I was trapped.
Three weeks before in La Habana, Cuba I had sprained my ankle and been unable to walk properly for a day– it still affects me now. If I suffered the same fate on the trail, we would be stranded. Alone, I called out the names of my friends. No one could hear me.
Clutching my foot, I assessed the damage. This did not feel as before, and I suspected I could walk given time. Putting weight on the foot, I hobbled across the trail until I felt comfortable walking upright. Then I hefted my pack onto my shoulders and plod on. Each step sent a jolt through my leg, but by now, that sort of pain felt irrelevant.
Funny to think, but while making the final stretch, I thought of how I could transform this experience into a lesson, the sort of clear, cut-and-dry morality imposed in a standard college essay or fable. Nothing came to mind except that I had overestimated myself– we all had.
We were weak, broken by strain, and lost. Five inept white bys, wondering the dark, dangerous forest.
I reached the camp where Tim and Ricky were, and I set up a tent with ease. While waiting on food, I spilled a bag of granola in my tent, and I cursed myself for bringing rats and other vermin to me.
Ricky showed up with Stephen, both exhausted, and we ate soup. Stephen, like all of us, had at once lost hope on the trail, sitting down on the side, refusing to move. In that way, we are relying on each other to keep going, and I hope we can continue to do this tomorrow.
We learned that the estimation of the trail (4.5 miles) had been wrong and instead we had hiked 6.7 miles. That was why my mind suffered delusions after mile 3, because I thought I was nearly finished. But the I had not even been half-way. Not even half-way up what we learned was the second-highest mountain in the entire park.
We talked for a long time, eating a type of soup that warmed itself when you shook the can. It began to rain in earnest, and we retreated to our tents.
June 10, 2013
Woke up to my tent filled with water, my shoes and much of my clothes soaked. I could not sleep in my wet sleeping bag and so made do with two towels covering me.
The others still sleep.
Not all is misery here. I trekked up a hill to the mountain’s peak, though a good view is impossible through the thick of green leaves. But finally I am feeling a bit of accomplishment at climbing this damned mount.
Waiting for clothes to dry. Packing up.
Our first leg of our journey proved easier than yesterday, a few brief inclines but mostly flat trail. The descents are no easier, and we move slowly to avoid tumbling down. I packed my bag better with the mostly dry sleeping bag packed inside. We rest now on a bunch of logs. We overlook the mountains draped in white gauzy mist.
We have stopped to cook lunch. My shoulder burn again under the strain of a heavier pack. The trail has been tame, and most of yesterday’s rain has evaporated. No more sliding, spilling, and falling.
The mountain we climbed yesterday was one of the highest in the range, more than 5,000 feet. Hopefully, we will not continue to underestimate this wicked place.
For lunch, we’re eating from a giant canister of beans and rice. I admit I’m quite hungry, and we will not eat again until nearing nightfall. The sun is very warm in this spot, the wind refreshing.
We arrived in the campsite an hour ago. I have set up my tent. Others are currently setting p theirs. Very hot at the moment, but the bulk of the day’s strain is behind us. The final miles was perilous and muddy, and we hiked through more creeks.
Woke up from a nap. Cooking chicken, rice, and beans with pita chips.
The others have decided against spending a day to explore the area. There is not much to explore we have not already, and we will want to come home soon. The adventure might end prematurely, but it has been an adventure.
We started a fire and sat around it, some of us smoking cheap cigars we bought at the Cherokee Indian Reservation. We’re going to sleep now, as tomorrow might be the longest leg of our journey yet.
June 11, 2013
Woke up late at 10am with a stiff back and throbbing head. We encountered an old man hiking who simply grunted in our direction. Now we have learned that he hiked a mere 0.3 miles from a highway to our campsite; we had the opportunity to simply hike out, then hitch-hike, but instead we are already headed in the opposite direction. I do not particularly like this loyalty to the direction we’re headed because we’re unsure how far we must travel.
We left at 12pm and made decent time to the sign we’d encountered before. 1 mile uphill was more difficult than yesterday’s 4 miles down. We have stopped for lunch now– rice and beans again.
Making lunch now that Kevin and Stephen have caught up. Cooper Creek Trail is at 1.5, then there will be more space before we reach Mingus Creek Trail. Hopefully not too far. Though we feel nearly finished, we have a long way to go.
We have decided to eat at Waffle House once back in civilizations, and the thought of a sizzling burger will hopefully keep me moving forward.
Walked another 3.6 miles since lunch. The first 1.5 to Cooper Creek felt easy, so when we reached the crossroads, we kept hiking without stopping. The next 2.1 miles almost killed me.
Half a mile in, we started uphill, back up that damned mountain we climbed the first day. This was a place called Deep Low Gap, a huge elevation change between two high mountains. We spent the morning going down one, and I just spent three and a half hours hiking up the other.
I slowed, dehydrated, exhausted, and eventually I fell behind Tim and Ricky who took the lead. Our pack spread thin, stretched across miles of mountainous terrain. I took many breaks, fearing I could not make it.
700 feet before this intersection, I stopped, plopping down. I saw nothing, my mind turning to mush, but I came to two realizations in that moment of desperation:
1.) I could not go on.
2.) It didn’t matter.
Even though I thought there was no way I could go on, it didn’t matter. I had to go on. I needed to stop, but I could not. This mountain cared nothing for what I thought I could or could not do– it never considered my limitations. The thought of it growing dark again, being trapped here, haunted me. I stood up and kept on, not because of any resolve or new-found strength, but because there were no other choices. Soon, I spotted Ricky and Tim at the intersection, and I collapsed next to them.
Here, there was nothing to learn, but what pain could teach me, and somehow, despite the fact I knew deeply I could not make it, I had made it. And there were still 3 more miles to walk, heaving that pack.
We worry about Kevin and Stephen who have not reached our stopping point yet. They have fallen behind. Ricky and Tim have walked back down the path, sans their packs, to locate them.
We reached the end, after plodding through creeks, and I rolled my ankle again. We waited for ten minutes and continued. Seeing the parking lot brought great relief. Everything did– sinks and toilet seats and the promise of air conditioning. I dresses in fresh clothes I had kept in the van. We washed our muddy legs in the restroom.
We took the Blue Ridge Parkway, which gave us views of those mountains of wicked beauty, all the view we never got climbing them.
Strange to think we camped at the second-highest campsite, seeing these mountains tower over us now. In a way, we feel like conquerors. Weakened by war, but victorious.
Saw an elk on the side of the road. A much more interesting animal than ever we saw trudging through the trail. Up there, there were deer, snakes, and bugs– mostly bugs.
We’re sitting now at a Waffle House, that wonderful bastion of civilization, that beacon in the distance we each crawled towards. We may not return home until very early tomorrow morning, but that seems a little irrelevant now, as the smell of hash browns floats under our nostrils. Mostly, we’re broken, though mostly, we’re exhausted, though mostly we’re satisfied. Never mind– mostly, we’re just hungry.
A video of a performance at MAD Studios of “Sob Stories,” a poem about stories and the tales that bring us closer as a species, the need to share mysteries and explore through poetry the nuance of the human heart.
An extra video of my first poem, “Sacred.”
We’re all hungry for something more
And not just enough jumbo-sized pizza
Or calorie-rich milkshake from McDonald’s
Or another side of cheese-and-bacon fries.
But instead for the light at the end of the tunnel
That was foreclosed in the recession,
for the fingertips that brush our hair back
When we fall asleep in the passenger’s seat,
and for the words no one ever says
That could disrupt the void of silence
Fill the aching pit our stomachs reveal
When we realize we want something else, something more.
They say the whole country’s obese,
So the question is:
For what are we so desperately starving?
When summer ended, Momma wanted me to start attending school again. I was already a year behind, after being pulled out in the middle of the night and moving down to Louisiana. My mother woke me up, and we rode a train until dawn, climbing off in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I think something haunted my mother, something she needed to escape from. A monster. She felt paralyzed, that ole Boo Hag plopped on her chest.
She always told me stories, ways to keep away spirits, but now she practiced her storied rituals with a fatal frankness. I prayed she hadn’t gone crazy, though she chanted and sprinkled salt. In the swamp, she built a shabby Praise House where she stomped her feet, shrieked, and danced with abandon in a form of some esoteric worship.
Squirrel walked with me three miles to the school bus stop on a dirt road every day. Weeks into the semester, we trudged home from the stop, too exhausted for adventure, following a dirt path cut though the swamp. “You ain’t looking for monsters, are you?”
The herpetologist glided over the dark water, propelling with a long cane pole. He rode in a narrow boat, like a canoe, its bow curved like on pilgrim’s shoe. He wore the same patchwork rags that looked like dregs of dead moss.
“We ain’t looking for anything,” said Squirrel.
“Hm. Well, maybe you could help me search for something. The red-back lizard, endemic to this habitat. You can climb trees, yes?”
Squirrel nodded, glancing at me for approval. “We could help, long as we get home before dark.”
We climbed into the snake man’s boat, and he poled away from the shore, the bow pushing back tall reeds and bluish saw-grass. Studying the branches for snatches of scarlet.
“There, you see it?”
A gray-green lizard hung on the underside of a knotted-trunk cypress, the reptile’s back narrowing into a crimson arrow near its head. The herpetologist took it gently and lowered it into a mesh trap, crammed with leaves, twigs, and clods of soil.
The afternoon passed quickly as Squirrel and I took turns catching lizards. The scientist entertained us with stories. “The Boo Hag, huh? That makes you Gullah?”
“Momma is,” I told him.
“Hm, well, every heard of the Plat Eye? Displeased souls forced to wander their graves, tricking hitchhikers, sometimes to their deaths.”
“Uh huh, I heard. Some giant, floating eye.”
He nodded sagely, turning his direction to the swamp. “It lurks in the wild, shifting shapes, deluding. Like all truly dangerous things, it is an illusion, unable to cause physical harm. An illusion: it becomes something to draw you in. Surely, nobody walks toward a giant eye, but as a treasure? A beautiful woman? Perhaps one might follow after.”
We shuddered at that fate, that we may be insinuate our own demise, be the hangman and the executed.
As the day ended, we stood again on the man’s quaint island. He opened the door and gestured inside. An excruciating stench filled the room, a mix of body sweat and formaldehyde. “Either you want a beer?” he asked, crouching next to a dismal ice box.
“Momma would be mad.”
“Of course.” He attempted a feeble smile. “I forget at times. Being alone makes you forget how to interact in pleasant society, being out here in this swamp.”
I pushed back the curtains and studied the caramel sky. “We should get going.”
He nodded, the watched us. “Yes, okay. I’ll take you.”
Beer in hand, he hopped back into his boat. After a minute, Squirrel asked, “Is this the way home?”
“I don’t know your way home.”
“Just take us where you found us,” I said. I did not want this man to know where we lived. An uneasiness crystallized in my chest, spreading through my stiffening veins.
But then we were back, safe on shore, waving warily as he poled out of sight. “He’s harmless,” Squirrel said, as we sprinted down the path home.
My Superman watch blinked in digital numbers 2am when a man began pounding against our door, then running again and again against it to force his entry.
“Remy! Belinda! If you in there–”
How foolish to assume we could seek asylum forever in a swamp, where each step threatened sinkholes and snakebites.
When I woke, I feared the snake man had come, and I knew he was no scientist, probably instead some hobo swamp-grifter. Something more sinister.
My mother screamed from the adjacent room. Her rituals had not worked to keep away the monster, the man at our door, my father.
Crack. The door gave in. I sprung up, peering through the pink-bathed room, his shadow filling the doorway. “Remy, get up.” He snatched me off the floor, gripping my hair, pressing me to his side, and his stench screamed whiskey and sweat. Once outside, he shoved me against the ground. “Think you can run away?” He slammed his fist into my gut, and I receded into a ball, coughing and unable to breathe.
My mother sprinted toward him, slapping his head feebly. Turning, he smirked, then struck her powerfully. She fell, screaming. “You bastard! You bastard!” He kicked her hard in the face, blood bursting from her nostrils, her screams faltering into whimpers.
Squirrel scurried out the door, ducking under my father’s arm and lingering by me. I tried to stand, but the world shifted dramatically, disrupting my balance. My father raging, his face contorting. “Remy, I was only ever there to protect you.”
Then I saw the figure emerge, floating from the swamp as if from its soul– a man with burning blue eyes. My father stared in awe, and we stared also as black smoke enveloped the man until he became a human raincloud. Then a massive eye appeared, floating without a body over my father who promptly fell, shielding his face with his arm. Mumbling and screaming.
Its cerulean iris glittered sinisterly, the pupil expanding until the eye loomed larger than the monster. The Plat Eye collapsed into a sphere of dark smoke and dissipated into the swamp.
We crossed the sink pit again but found no crumbling shack– only an abandoned mud island and a void of silence. The herpetologist had gone, though I swear I sometimes still glimpsed his silhouette passing through trees, poling his boat through the swamp. But not real, only as pervasive as a myth.
The authorities dragged nets through the swamp but found no body, and they chided my mother condescendingly for her “visions.” The other swamp-dwellers gave testimony that she had already begun acting crazy long ago. As for me, I said nothing; I pretended to remember nothing, transforming the memory into a story.
Just a tale about a mysterious swamp monster– not the kind I was supposed to fear.
Squirrel struggled against the mud, but the earth consumed his body at a furious pace. “Help! I’m stuck. Help!”
The figure turned, his hood falling back, and he bore his blue-ember eyes into mine.
His face creased like a day-old newspaper. His clothes hung to his skeletal frame like sheets of discolored tar.
He floated toward me, wispy white hairs flapping against mottled scalp. The snakes slithered through the brush, pressing their cold rough bodies against my ankles. My resolution turned brittle, my body tingling to flee, but some invisible force rooted me to the spot.
Splash– the man with flame-blue eyes submerged into the sink pit. His arms thrashing, wrapping like black serpents around Squirrel’s chest.
With the boy firm under one arm, he emerged, stumbling and spitting. Then stare at me, his face now fully illuminated– a roadmap of scars and pockmarks and sparse gray hairs. “What are you doing?”
“We–” Squirrel squirmed away, joining my side. “We didn’t mean nothing– Didn’t see.”
“Didn’t see what?” A snake banded in corn-yellow and red crept from the bush, contorting between my feet and slipping into the swamp. “What’s with the snakes?” I asked.
He raised an eyebrow, chewing deeply on the raw side of his cheek. “Snakes? Them I let go? I study ‘em. Capture them and study them. But you two–”
“You a Boog Hag?” Squirrel examined the swamp man critically.
“I don’t know what the hell that is– I reckon I ain’t. I’m a scientist– study reptiles. Herpatologist, it’s called.” He shrugged. “Ain’t it late for kids to be wandering round here. Where do you live?”
I cut Squirrel off. “Ain’t your business.”
“Well, looks like you two were spying on me, and that ain’t none your business.”
“We thought– well, are you the Gumbo Man or something? We’ve been looking for swamp monsters. We only thought, well, maybe you was one.”
The reptile scientist gave us curious looks, bending down and lifting the snake coiled at his feet. He gripped it firmly at its head, between its thumb and forefinger. “You see this little beast? The snake– original Eden-spoiler. And see these fangs?” He pried apart the snake’s hinged mouth, revealing two long, dripping teeth, curved as a pair of scythes. “That’s the monster you need to see. Not no Boo Hag or no Gumbo Man.” He grinned, his teeth a rotting mesh of yellowed shards. “You understand?”
I stared the snake down, its flared fangs hovering inches from my trembling lips. Something intensely real in its slit-eyes, something that couldn’t be contained in a story.
“We– we– Momma would want us home,” I said, gripping Squirrel’s arm.
“‘Spose she would,” said the man. “Go on, now. Get on out of here.”
We nodded, then clambered up a nearby tree, tumbling blindly across branches, until we arrived home, and our mothers shrieked and beat our hides raw. We didn’t say anything about the mysterious snake man.
Even after we moved to Louisiana, settling with family friends who lived at the edge of town immersed in a swamp, my mother still sprinkled salt across the threshold of our home. She feared monsters, spoke of them in a hushed voice wrapped in nightmare, wearing fear like an ashen pall. She walked around the house with pronounced agitation, reciting myths of my childhood.
My mother’s friend’s son– his name was Squirrel, because he had become especially apt at climbing trees. He grappled nimbly from cypress branches at the edge of the swamp, and I watched him climb from a safe place on the shore. He hovered over the algae-crusted swamp water that bubbled and churned like some primordial ooze. “You know how old the swamp is?”
The swamp resembled the verdant marshes of South Carolina, where I grew up, a place of moss and snakes and answers. But the swamp echoed an even more ancient wisdom, a prehistoric sense of fatal knowledge. “I don’t know. Didn’t know a place could have an age.”
Squirrel laughed. “Nope, it’s eternal. Momma says it’s forever-years-old.” He grinned smugly back at me, clambering down the trunk and plonking next to me in the mud. He was nine, two years younger than I, but he thought he knew everything in the world, or at least more than me. “Remy, you think your momma’s crazy?”
“Hell no, she ain’t crazy. What makes you sat that?”
“All the salt, she’s always sprinkling salt and putting out straw and mumbling to herself.”
“She’s just superstitious. That’s how people are where I’m from.”
Squirrel lolled back his head, splashing his toes in the black shallows. “You’re not like that. What’s she so superstitious about?”
“Well, some things you just can’t understand, cause you ain’t grew up with the stories.”
“Swamp’s full of stories, though, just none you heard. We got the white alligator and the Gumbo Man and voodoo witches and all sorts of creatures. I don’t know what sort of stories there is in South Carolina.”
I nodded. “But you don’t believe none of that, do you? About magic and monsters?” He shook his head meekly. “You know why my Momma’s always sprinkling salt every night? And puts straw in the window?” Again, he shook his head, and I leaned against him, lowering my voice to a deadly whisper. “You ain’t never heard of no Boo Hag?”
“No, not really. We don’t got those down here.”
“Like hell you don’t, They love quiet, wild places, just like the middle of this swamp, where they live in shacks. They cast spells over people, their spirits lifting out of their bodies and attacking, pressing down on their chests while they sleep. You could wake and not be able to move, paralyzed while the slip-skin hag sits on you, making it so you can’t breathe. You want to scream, but you’re breathless, cause you’re getting the life sucked right out of you.”
He trembled at every word. “I don’t like this story, Remy.”
“Don’t worry. I know what they look like, always lugging around a ghost-light. And there’s magic you can use to get rid of them. Momma knows it all, and that’s what she’s doing. You sprinkled salt at the door to keep the Boo Hag away. The straw keeps it busy, cause it wants to count everything. It gets too busy to attack.”
“Why would it wanna count straw?”
“It just do. That’s how the story goes.”
“That just a story?”
I nodded. “Ain’t nothing to be afraid about.”
Summer arrived in a muggy haste and passed like a racehorse, a blur of colors and sweat and fierce competition. Squirrel and I competed at everything, whether it be zipping across the cool mud flats behind our house or climbing tall mangroves in the swamp or spinning exaggerated yarns of fantastic sights and experiences. Stories about monsters fascinated us, whether they be grotesque ghouls or wicked witches, becoming more fearsome and imaginative with each telling.
Squirrel lounged against the indent of a gray-mottled willow, sharpening a stick with a dull pocket knife. “If I see any swamp critters, I’ll just stab ‘em in the eye,” he said, gleeful as a savage.
“Wouldn’t be able to reach, you’re too short.” I snorted, and he poked me in the leg with the blunt end of his weapon. Howling, I clutched my thigh and yelled, “A fatal wound!”
Afternoon melted into a cool evening, the sun balancing indefinitely on the horizon. “Why you wanna go home? Two house before it even gets dark.”
I shrugged. “I’m hungry.”
“But we can’t just go home yet. I got something to show you.” He paused for effect. “I found the Boo Hag’s shack.”
“Ain’t no such thing.” I sighed; why had I told him that story?
“But you said–”
“I didn’t say nothing. I told you them ain’t real. And I’m hungry, let’s go home.”
“But I found a shack, and there was someone– something– living there.”
“We seen the whole swamp, and I never saw no shack.”
“Sure there is, on an island past the sink pit. You never been, but I can take you.”
We scurried over calcified tree roots jutting from the inky water, hopping from fractured stumps to moss shores, then trampolining into tree branches. I clutched the sturdy overhangs like monkey bars, though I struggled to cling to the branches Squirrel rocketed from. “Just here, climb up.” With a tremendous leap, Squirrel leapt from a high branch and grappled an above branch, hanging precarious over the sink pit. Then an acrobatic tumble to the opposite shore.
I crouched, folding my body like an accordion, then sprang; my arm stretched far, my fingers brushing the branch. Falling– I was falling. “Ahhhhh!”
I splashed into the sink pit, flailing my limbs, my legs vanishing beneath the earth with a watery slurp. “Help,” Squirrel spasmed with anxiety, pacing the sure and wiggling his fingers as if he were casting a curse. Then after a few moments of uncertainty, he unsheathed his pointed stick, gripping one end and shoving the other end toward me. I grasped, clawing against the muck that rose to swallow my torso, and Squirrel dug his heels into the mud, wrenching me back to the surface. Plop, I came up and stumbled next to him, wiping slick mud from my pants.
“Be quiet,” he warned. “The shack’s just past those trees. Don’t want her to hear you.” I peeked past the veil of foliage, where a decrepit shack sat on a flat rock outcropping. “She lives there.”
Pleated floral curtains hung thick with cobwebs against cracked windows, and crooked planks stacked against a hobbled frame constituted the building’s simple architecture. We ducked behind a spare bush as the flimsy door swung open.
A figure draped in gray rags shuffled out the shack, heaving a cloth sack bulging. Holding the bag aloft, the figure reached inside. Something inside the sack was moving, squirming like a hostage. The man clutched its bottom, turning it upright and dumped coils of striped ropes onto the soil. No, not ropes– snakes.
They collided against the ground, a clump of writhing colored cords, unraveling and dispersing into the grass. When I jockeyed to gain a better view, I turned and saw Squirrel had fled with his arms flapping.
Plunk– into the sinkhole.
We’re just getting off the ground again here on Word Salad, first with the seven-part short fiction series “Submerged.” If you’re interested in other works, check out another series “Memoir Insert Grandiose Subtitle Here”. This two-part story focuses on the drama of the Snyder family, all precocious writers with different agendas and ideas about storytelling. This might be the first look into their family drama, as I plan to write more using these characters.
Check out this excerpt:
A few days ago, my brother threw a vintage typewriter from the second floor window of the public library. The window a circular feat of glass-engineering, stained green and bubbled-out like a submarine porthole. The typewriter an indulgent gift from our parents, a rusted antique that had been meant as a decoration. My brother, however, could not be convinced not to loudly pound on the stuck keys.
You can also find a short story called “Bait for the Dammed” at Vergelive.com, where I published a short story a few months ago. Check out last June’s issue.
Lastly, I’m leaving until the end of May, which means Word Salad might look pretty dead for the next two and a half weeks. I, however, will be busy studying in Cuba. I’ll write extensively about that trip upon my return. I’ll be taking the trip with ten other International Scholars from the College of Charleston and spending most of my days in Havana. Look forward to hearing about adventures, though I won’t be updating as I go (limited access to the internet).
Until June, readers, have a wonderful summer.
General Bates let us sleep in a tent with Jaime, though we used our own blankets. The summer air clung so fiercely to our skin, though, I could not keep covered. Instead, I lay shirtless against the ground, studying the seams along the interior of our shelter.
“You’re angry, aren’t you?”
“Maybe. Just disappointed. I just– what are we going to do?”
Ethan shuffled. “We can give them the seeds, the medicine. Some of it. We don’t need it, and then we can go back to our island. We can just–”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“About what?” He breathed heavy beside me, and in my side-vision, his chest rose and fell rapidly.
“About needing to register. What were you running away from?”
“I– if I were living like that, where they accounted for everything you did? You don’t know how nice you have it out there in the marsh. You’ve never lived in a city, not like they’re like now. We’re all rats, scrambling on top of each other for some sunlight. And men patrol the streets and beat you if you say anything to them. That’s what passes as police.”
“That’s why you left?”
“I left because I had heard about something else, something simple. I thought maybe if I stole that boat, rowed out to sea, I’d find something better. And I did.”
I resettled against the ground, soothed by the crescendos and decrescendos of Jaime’s snoring. “There have never been simpler times. Never civilized either. It’s always been difficult: existence. Whether you’re stuffed in a polluted city, mired in poverty, or stuck out on an island, rooting through the ground for a vegetable to eat, something to kill and clean. No life is simple, and it never has been that way.”
When morning came, I tracked down General Bates and showed him half of our supplies. If Jaime might return us to our island, I told him, he could have our supplies. Some of the stronger medicines and the seeds too. Hemp seeds and corn, though I kept the majority of the rice seeds– I could plant rise in the marsh, harvest every year. I kept a lot of the allergy medicine as well and a pocketful of pain-killers. The general took the rest gleefully, shuffling from the tent to wake up Jaime.
Jaime waddled crankily from his tent. “You want me back on the road again?”
“Sure, sure. Take these two back where you found them. Or wherever they might want to go.”
“Do you have a boat?” I asked. “We could also really use a boat.”
The general shook his head. “We need all of our boats. Now, get out of here before I take the rest of the stuff you hid from me.”
Once loaded back into Jaime’s truck, we sped down the road, crisscrossing through empty highways and abandoned interstates. He allowed me this time to sit in the cab, leaning against the window, my forehead pressed flat.
“Still torn up, thinking you was going to be a rich man?”
I ground my teeth, watching the pine trees as they vanished behind us, the truck picking up speed. “Rich? No, maybe not. Maybe so. Not so sure I ever believed that plan could have worked– I should realize the world has changed. It also changes, even when you’re not a part of it, and it keeps churning on. All that time away, you don’t realize what happens, what happens to everybody else, the whole world. Places disappear, and people do too. Entire societies collapse, and new ones rise. Back when I was a boy, we never thought we’d live like this, constantly at war. Sometimes, it’s not just land that gets submerged, but the past and your perception of the present. If you think you know what’s going on, pretty soon the water’s up to your neck, and you don’t know anything anymore.”
He nodded along politely.
As the hours passed, I scanned the trees for our boat, a way to get us home. I prayed to encounter none of the soldiers Jaime described, a barricade along the highway. Looking back through the window, I could see Ethan wiggling his head in the wind– only the second time he’d ridden in an automobile, so he told me. And then I kept watching the road, dreaming of my island and my home and my marsh and that little boat, about paddling back out to Charleston and exploring the city lost. I didn’t belong in the land of the living, but instead at the bottom of the sea, in that city of ghosts.
The truck woke me, its trembling motor roaring in my sleep. Again, the underwater dreams, those lucid moments beneath the surface of consciousness, drowning in the ceaseless churn of a storm. Then I could make out above the hollow crash of waves a burping, mechanical clatter that unglued me from sleep and sent me bolting upright, staring into white-bright headlights.
“What the hell’s goin’ on here? Why you sleeping by the road?” A man stared back at us, his lips puckered at a peculiar angle and his eyebrow cocked. His skin was black as the soil, his clothes tattered. He stood beside a shuddering, rusted truck.
I clawed my throat for words, but none came. Ethan spoke: “Is that a truck? You driving a truck?”
The man reached into his cab, turning off the motor and flipping off his headlights, leaving us into the dim illumination of early morning. “It’s my truck. Personal business. None of your concern. Who y’all fighting for? Soldiers?”
Clearing my throat, I stood up, pushing the blankets off of me and limping toward him. He was a massive man, though old, wearing a broad plaid shirt and jeans caked with mud. “We’re– we’re headed to Atlanta.”
“Alright, so what? You’re gonna walk there? Where are y’all from?”
“We live not so far away. On an island.”
He nodded. “How long?”
I looked to Ethan. “I’ve been there, well, about eight years now.”
“Then you don’t know– it’s illegal to live out here now. Radiation zone, they’re calling it.”
“I– I haven’t seen any radiation.”
“You can’t see radiation.”
“But I never felt it or nothing. I mean, there are fish. Birds and snakes.”
The man snorted. “Best not tell them that, they’ll come root you out of your island. It’s been illegal for more than three years ago.”
Slowly, the gears of mathematics churned in my brain: how long had Ethan lived with me?
“You never told me that,” I said, turning to him.
He shrugged. “What do you think I was running away from? They wanted to register everyone, otherwise you’re not considered a citizen, don’t got no rights.”
I thought about this for a moment. “You said there was some sort of soldiers?”
“Couple, running around these parts.” He shrugged. “The Continental Army, sweeping through pretty often.”
“Another rebellion going on?”
He nodded. “I’m running guns to an encampment fifty miles up the coast. Stole some canisters of gas, so we have a few trucks making trips through roads where the army left alone.”
“We need a ride, if you can spare it.”
He gestured to the bed of his truck, where a pile of black guns lay. “You can ride back there. Got any way to repay me?” I rifled through the bag and tossed him a bottle of Oxycodone. He checked the label, then watched me, startled. “This stuff real?”
“Pretty real. Can we get a ride?” He nodded to his truck, and we gathered our blankets, stuffing them into a bag and hopping aboard.
Five hours we bounced against his back windshield, metal guns sliding across the bed beneath us. Guns made me nervous, though the smugglers carried guns for protection; men would kill each other with these weapons, to claim sovereignty over land that was being slowly covered by the ocean. Their military encampment looked like a small village of pop-up campers and trailers shipwrecked on concrete blocks. The man driving us, his name Jaime, stepped out of the truck and approached a tent big enough for a circus show. A moment later, a stocky man with iron-gray buzzed hair stepped out, wearing shredded Army greens and old combat boots.
“You the stragglers he found on the road?”
“We’re on the way to Atlanta,” I explained.
“You don’t want to be traveling the roads. There’s a war going on.”
“But there’s always a war going on. Isn’t there someone to buy what we have to sell?”
“Sell? With what? What do you want? Food? Guns?”
“I don’t know,” I said, feeling incredibly naked in front of the men filing out of the tank. “Money.”
“What’s the use of money? Jaime says you live in a swamp.”
“‘Spose that’s true.”
“You live in a swamp, and you don’t know what’s happening.”
“It doesn’t matter, damn it. I just– I just–”
Another man spoke up. “He said you gave him medicine. What do you have?”
“I– I don’t have anything. Nothing I can give away for free, I mean.”
The Army guy grinned, knuckling the toe of his boot into the dirt. “You can’t just come into a rebel camp, say you got medicine, and not share it. Why would you want to go to Atlanta? That’s dangerous.”
“I have things to sell– more medicine. We’ve been living on an island, but we wanted– we thought–”
“No one to sell it to.” He paused. “I’m Bates, by the way. General Bates, if it please you. Commanding officer of this outfit for the Free States.”
I began to grow frustrated. I didn’t care about their petty rebellions and lurches for power, their killing and bombing and gassing. Once I sold the seeds and medicine, I could buy a new boat, return to my island. Get as far away from this disaster as possible.
“Alright, General Bates. Just point us in the right direction; we’ll be on our way.” I began to back away from the truck, eyeing Ethan, clutching the duffel bag tight to my chest. “Which way to Atlanta?”
“Told you, you don’t want to go near Atlanta, less you want to die. Whole place is devastated. That’s why we moved out to the coast, the Continental’s have closed in on us. And Atlanta– that was blown apart a year ago. Nothing left but radiation and a black hole in the ground.”
My grip on the bag loosened as his words sunk in– the war. Because of the war, there would be no one to shell out millions for seeds. We wouldn’t sell a thing, and everything we’d hoped for had been destroyed by a nuclear bomb twelve months before we began searching.