My feet are sliced. In the dark, I don’t know if it is twigs or broken glass which cuts at my soles. I’ve never been to the swamps. I’ve lived so close to them and yet have never traveled into their wilderness. Where the wet trees hang spanish moss like curtains to hide prying human eyes. This place is not for us.
But it is now for me.
When I was a girl my grandmother warned me of this kind of wild. The moist and humid wild that hides the beasts with poison and fangs. With jaws that snap in hunger although already gluttonous. I was never to enter these parts. Yet here I travel.
My summer dress is torn, straps no more.
I think it might’ve been the night that has done this. My grandmother warned me about the night. She told me darkness will take a sane man’s mind and twist it into a tumbleweed. She said it turns righteous women into whores. It’ll steal children with its shadows, and lure the beasts from their graves.
My inner thighs itch as the blood dries.
I hadn’t listened to my grandmother. I didn’t like the crosses that filled her walls. I didn’t like her sermons, and how she hit with one hand and prayed with the other. I hated her blue eyes hidden behind useless glasses on her saggy face. The chewing of air in her mouth that always frowned.
I was warned by her. Never leave when the sun does. But she’s been dead for so long. I’ve been alone for so long. I wanted to know. To feel. What is this touch I’ve read so often in books? What if there are men so kind, their fingers were not tipped in hot oil as she told me they would be.
Grandmother was right.
I push through the Spanish moss. Flip back the curtains of nature. I ignore the branches of trees that slice at my arms. That slap my legs. That stabs my sides. I ignore the chattering of raccoons who laugh at me with their sharp mouths, point with their tiny fingers. I ignore the bats that scream as they dive, jokes for joking sake.
I wore makeup tonight. My mother’s makeup, who was, as grandmother put it, a whore. I slid the red over my lips. Thickened my lashes in black. Pressed pink powder onto my cheeks. Curled my hair big and tempting. I wanted to be seen.
Just not by them. Not like that.
Grandmother warned me that at the end of the haggard trees and arrogant animals, there’s a swamp. A single swamp. That stretches into the mouth of Hell itself. Dark waters that light refuses to touch. A pool possessed by alligators filled with the wicked souls of sinners. She warned me that you can hear them calling if you get too close. Calling you to the water. Whispers of mercy.
I am without mercy, now. Without grace. I have sinned. My cheeks burn from the streams of my eyes. My lips hurt. Cracked. My body is sore, painted in splotches of purple. I can’t breathe in the sobs I don’t hear myself make. Only feel.
Feel everything over and over and over.
Oh, my daughter.
I hear a whisper before me.
I see you, my daughter. I see you with a body broken and soul undone. Come.
The ground is heavy with water. The mud eats my feet. Licks at my ankles. I drag my legs to the voice. She sounds like my mother. I’ve never heard her voice, but I know this is how my mother would sound.
Precious daughter, what have they done?
I am faced with an endless black pool. Stretching into an infinite darkness. There is no end to the swamp. The toads and their songs, the crickets and their coughs, they echo in the great distance. I see pairs of white lights. Stiff in the waveless pool. Unblinking.
I drop to my knees. Water and mud splashing my chest. I hide my face with my hands, now I hear my sobbing.
“I’ve been ruined. I’m so sorry, I’ve sinned,” I weep.
Ruined? I see no ruined woman before me.
The voice says in the water, many more agreeing behind her.
“But … but,” I touch the inside of my thighs, battered and bruised in the shape of hands.
No sinners live in these waters, my daughter. No bodies can be ruined here.
The pair of lights closest to me moves forward. The head of an alligator peaks over the surface. A massive, oily black relic of perfection. It’s scales hardened, too hard to be pierced by any metal. It’s teeth jagged, thick, in a mouth heavy enough to crush bones with ease. A voice leaks out.
Why did you come here, daughter?
“To be punished for my sins,” I whimper.
But if you are without sins, how could you be punished?
Come into the water.
I stare out into the swamp. I see bubbling disrupting the surface. Bodies rise from the depths. Corpses. Limbs chomped. The corpse of the men from the bar. The corpse of my grandmother. Of my mother.
Come into the water. We will give you what you deserve.
I strip my clothes from my body. The bits of it left. The alligator floats backwards, allowing me to step in. This is what I came here for. Punished as I must be.
As I step into the warm liquid, my feet no longer sting. They feel as comfortable as if set before the fireplace. I look down and can see my skin lift from my body. Unraveling. Melting away in the water. The deeper into the pool the more I am stripped of my flesh. The more I hardened. The water reaches my lips. My mouth extends. My teeth pushed from their gums, becoming ash in the subtle waves of my becoming. I lower my head into the pool. I open my eyes.
The alligators are with me in the water. They open their mouths. Within their jaws are heads. Living heads of people, women, children, and men. All who are as I am. All smiling in their welcome.
It is everything I deserve.