The muggiest months had passed, and the end of October 1864 loomed over the small town of Fayetteville, Louisiana. It weren’t long after the war had ended in early April that the children began to disappear. First was young Bartholomew. He were a good kid, with high aspirations. His father was a confederate who fell at Blair’s Landing a year ago, so it was thought that some Union boy or some freed slave had come down to finish off the bloodline. It were a common thing, though not widely known. Course, when Jonathan, the son of a union boy went missing there were some confusion. Then Samantha. Timothy and Bella, Faye, and a host of others went missing over the months.
October were the worst: six children in one month. They was saying how they was just wondering out into the bayou and getting eaten by some large gators that moved in from the everglades. But six children? Ain’t no gators that eat children that much . Ain’t no child gon wander off into the bayous when there’s gators about.
When my nephew Samson went missing, I just knew then that something weren’t right.
Samson weren’t an adventurous kid. He was sickly and weren’t fond of wandering too far out of town. He was fraid of the bayous, seeing as he was away from them, and only moved with me once my brother died fighting the union in Kentucky. His wife weren’t too far behind him, with a rope ‘round her neck. He weren’t the type to wander into the swamps for no reason.
He was acting strange the days afore he disappeared. He was talkin’ about how his parents was comin’ to visit him on the edge of the town. I told him he was dreaming, but he assured me that he weren’t. I shoulda listened.
I told the townspeople this, but they weren’t havin it.
“Just some gators, John. They’ll leave soon ‘nuff.”
“It ain’t nothin to worry bout. Sorry about your nephew.”
But we had already killed the gators in the area. Already looked for the bones. But they weren’t there. None of the gators we killed was big enough to have eaten ten children. Must be more, they told me.
But I don’t believe it. Six children missing in one month? Ain’t right. Samson gone? Ain’t right at all.
So, the morning of October 20th, 1864 I set forth from the town and into the bayous, I was going to find him. Dead or live. He deserved a proper burial if he were at least. Ain’t no good rotting out in the swamp.
It was hot for October, the humid air stuck to me as closely as my own skin. Mosquitos buzzed loudly around my head, though I tried swatting them away, they still bit. The toads and frogs croaked loudly. Louder than I had ever heard them afore. No gators stirred in the waters as I crossed through the waters, the muck sticking to the legs of my pants, nearly tearing my boots off my feet as I walked on.
The sun sailed high, it’s light shimmering through the bayou trees. It sailed and sailed, until noon came and I found nothing. It sailed and sailed until evening came, and the sky turned a damp orange, and I found nothing. It was about the time the orange began to disappear into violet, that I decided to head back. I had walked a good ten miles round the town, that day with no signs of the children.
I had always kept the town to the north of me, however, walking around in a circle, making arrows and x’s along the way to detail which ways I went, so I wouldn’t get lost on my way back. And so I turned and looked for my markers…but they weren’t there.
No arrows, no x’s nothing. There was nothin’ around me but swamp. Deep. Deep swamp. I lost my breath…had I forgot to put one on a tree? No. I still had my knife in my hand. Cypress bark still clung to it’s blade…
I looked around for what felt like hours, until the sun had completely extinguished it’s last hold on the sky. Where was I? How far away was I from home? Miles? Tens of miles? Hundreds? I didn’t know.
The night went quiet, and something behind my left shoulder caught my attention: a white glow. It weren’t no lightning bug, no, this thing shone as bright as the moon itself, hidden by the canopy of cypress leaves. It danced and bobbed like a child playing in the waters of the swamp.
I had heard of them before: the will-o-wisps. I had thought they weren’t nothin real, something that my parents and grandparents told to me to keep me out of the swamps. But here it was. Dancing. It’s white light reflected off the bayou waters, shining into the darkness like a lighthouse’s flame piercing the veil for some lost sailors.
Weren’t they supposed to lead you to safety? Like a guardian angel for those lost in the swamps and bogs of the world? It seemed to be beckoning me. I had to follow it. I had to get out. I took a step and it moved backwards. Yes. Yes. It was leading me out. I knew it.
Another step, and it led me down. Another, and it led me further. Soon I would be out of the swamps. Soon I would be home. Another white light soon jumped to life at my side and sprinted to join the one in front. The light was blinding, but i knew I was lookin’ at the light of angels. Another step. Another step. The night didn’t seem to progress, but that didn’t bother me none. I would make it out of there eventually.
Soon more and more lights joined those in front, like a sun flying through the swamps. I was following Michael himself to get out of those swamps. I knew it.
The muck clung to my jeans, up to my belt-line, staining even my shirt. But I followed. I followed ‘til it was up to my neck. And then…I got out. It weren’t the town, but it weren’t the swamp neither. It were a clearing. Ten tall trees stretched around the clearing in the middle of the swamp. The lights stopped, and they split up. Ten small lights now, dancing over the grassy knoll, surrounded by swamp water.
I had ran for most of the night it felt: my lungs burned and my legs felt as if they would fall off at any second, as the muck dripped off onto the green grass.
Where was I? I had explored these swamps thoroughly as a kid, and as a younger man. I had made my way through them at one point, to New Orleans. But I ain’t never seen this place afore. There was no canopy of leaves above us, and the moon shone behind a canvas of clouds above. The only lights were the wisps, dancing in the middle, around a giant pumpkin.
Now, I had seen my share of giant pumpkins in the day, but this weren’t like none other. It was twice the size of a man’s chest. And the ten wisps just danced around it like, like flies around carrion. It had a large green stem, and a vine attached to the ground itself. My eyes followed that vine, and it rain in ten different directions, towards the edge of the clearing.
And oh lord…when the moon peeked from behind the veil, and it’s full light shown on the clearing. My heart near dropped.
All around the clearing was ten trees, as tall as any I had ever seen. Knotted, and full of holes. The vines stretched to these trees, wrapping it’s way like a serpent climbing to find it’s perch to strike, and burying themselves deep where the roots of these cypresses had to be.
I followed these vines, turning in place. One, right behind me, was a sapling. And underneath the sapling, a large hill of soil. Large enough for a child to be in.
I ran. I ran like the hounds of hell themselves was after me and dug at the soil there. I dug ‘til my fingers bled, and then…there he was. Samson. The vines sticking to his skin like leeches. His face were pale and frigid to the touch. I had seen corpses before. I had seen how they bloat in the water. It weren’t like this. His skin barely clung to his small body. I shook him to no response. It was too late. He was gone.
A yell broke from my throat as I tore at the vines to get off him: red liquid poured from the inside, and they seemed to recoil as I pulled them off. The night smelled no more like the swamp: the gasses and the water mixing. No. It smelled of copper.
The wisp beside the tree grew frantic as I pulled out the vines. Flying around me, trying to blind me. To get me to stop. It were cold, like the breath of death itself had come to life.
It flew through me, and I felt my energy sap. I stopped my pulling as it flew through again. And again. Each time it did, I felt more tired. More like I was going to sleep…and soon…I would. I fought the urge to close my eyes, but it was a losing battle…
It stopped as my head nodded down. But something stirred in the night that shook me awake. The ground began to shake, and a great amount of soil became up-heaved as the vines retracted from all the trees. Every white light stood still. Even the frogs had ceased their croaking. And the mosquito their buzzing, as the pumpkin rose.
It was the head of a giant fiend, made of pure wood, and green vines. It pulled at it’s stem, tearing it clean off, and the all the wisps flew in. Two deep recesses formed on its surface: two eyes, piercing with white light stared at me. Another gap formed on the orange surface, as if the pumpkin was rotting inward, shriveling in on itself into a malevolent grin.
It’s wooden foot stepped towards me and I sprang up. Ain’t no way it would catch me. I sprinted for the swamp and dived right into its water, scaring the fish and the silent frogs along the way.
I daren’t look back, but I could hear the rustling behind me as it gave chase, and see the white lights of its eyes burning like the fires of hell reaching out to consume me. I didn’t stop. No. No matter how hard my legs ached. No matter how badly my lungs felt like bursting. I wouldn’t stop.
Soon the light of day burst in the sky, slowly the grey of dawn chased away the violet night. And the rustling stopped, and I stopped too. I looked back, and sure enough there weren’t nothin’ there. No wooden fiend giving chase, and no white fire burning through the swamp. Only the sun peeking through the walls of cypress.
To my left, I saw it: an arrow, pointing me away from where I was. I followed it until I had found another. Then another. And another. And soon enough I was finding them all over the place. When the sun held in the southern sky, and noon beat over me like a heavy fog, I found my way home.
They questioned me: where had I gone? Did I find the children? But I couldn’t tell the truth…they would think I were mad.
“Gators,” was all that I managed to spew out through my stutterin’.
They asked why I had been gone for the last week. Week? No. I had been in there a day at most I told them…but sure enough, it were the first day of November when I emerged from those swamps: my boots covered in bog water and mud. And my legs soaked to the bones.
I moved away from there, that year. Inland. I never wanted to see another swamp again. So I moved to a small town on the Appalachian Range…that was a good thirty years ago.
Today a child has disappeared and his parents tell of him seeing white lights in the woods.