Christmas and the Swamp
from Songs of Gentle Sadness
By Buie Seawell
“Swamped,” my Mom said. “I’m swamped with too much to do and too little time to do it in . . . Christmas!” My parents could get a little nutso at Christmas. They wanted it to be so perfect for us – me and my five year old sister – that they darn near ruined it. It was best to stay clear of them in the season of joy and panic.
So Billy and I slipped away to our boat, into the unexpectedly warm December waters of the Big Swamp. It should have been cold, but like many times in eastern North Carolina at Christmas there was a brief warming before the cold of January set in. Our flat-bottomed boat was a gliding escape from overstressed parents and runaway expectations of our own at Christmastime. Christmas Eve 1950.
We loved the dark cypress stained waters of the swamp. There Billy and I could just be. All sounds were dampened by trees and Spanish moss and the swish of breeze and swirl of paddles. Just moving in our own time and space, boys being boys. Nothing said. Everything felt.
Swamps are special places. Nowheres of being. And going into them is magic. Colors of infinite diversity — our boat was light blue-grey; the cypress trees mixed brown with thin leaves of evergreen; the water dark yellow-brown; the sky only here and there through the canopy above showing soft blue with grey clouds. In swamps there is no way in and no way along and no way out. This time we didn’t take tissue to dab on trees the way we came. We just drifted softly in, softly along. Almost not moving our paddles.
Seeing this mosaic, this labyrinth of modeled moving colors, we saw nothing and all. And we drifted into a 13 year old oblivion. After a while Billy said, “Guess we better get back.”
“Guess so,” I said from the back of the boat, and pushed the paddle out to my right, turning us left and around.
“That’s the wrong way,” Billy said.
“What’s the wrong way?”
“Shouldn’t we be going over there?”
“I don’t know,” I said softly.
“Do you think we’re lost?”
Billy said, “Shit.”
He almost never cussed. But you could do that once and a while in the swamp. Especially when you had gotten yourself lost on Christmas Eve!
“Wonder what time it is?”
“It’s getting dark.”
Billy cussed again. New word. Same sympathy.
Deep near the winter solstice dimness slithers quietly into the swamp. It was dark before we realized it was late.
“Now what do we do,” Billy wondered? “We didn’t even tell anybody where we were going.”
When darkness comes to the swamp the cacophony of greens, browns, yellows, blues, grays, becomes a single smudge of awfulness. Then you listen. But in winter the sounds are soft and without direction. No sharp frog chirps. No edgy crow calls. No heron’s bark. Only soft wind in the cypress. And far, so far away, highway sounds: a truck grinding out the last few miles to home; and then a mournful horn or maybe the whistle of the Wilmington train. It’s getting cold.
We, of course, had brought only light jackets. No water. No food. No flashlight. Not even our 410 shotguns. We always brought the shotguns. But there we were. But where there was, we had not a clue. And it was now both cold and dark.
Light gone; sounds too diffuse for direction. And I smelled something. Sweet almost putrid. Warm smelling.
“What you boys doin’?” First a gruff old croaky voice then a flashlight. “You lost?”
The light right into our eyes, and then down on the water. And there was land, a small hump of ground just above the water. Behind the lowered light, standing at the water’s edge was an old gray-bearded man with tobacco stained creases in his face. He hadn’t forgotten his shotgun — doubled-barreled, 12 gauge. Behind the old man was a small shed. Smoke rose noiselessly from a rusted stove-pipe, the smell was that of sweet corn mash.
“Uh, yes sir, we’re lost,” I said.
Billy said, “We don’t know where we are . . . we couldn’t find our way back here to save our souls. Can you help us?”
“What I outta do is shoot you. But being it’s Christmas and all . . . you follow me.” And he pushed his old boat into the swamp. “Stay close.”
“Yes sir,” two squeaky voices answered.
And like magic, with a few evasive twists and turns, we arrived in less than an hour at the old wooden bridge where the swamp runs into the Lumbee.
“Now get your asses home. And don’t you never come ’round here again. You hear me?”
“Yes sir,” our unison response.
It was late when we got home. Way too late! Dad was pacing back and forth. Mom was about to cry. My sister squealed, “There he is.”
Dad said, “Where have you been? We’ve been frantic. It’s Christmas Eve. What do you mean running off and staying so long?”
Mom said, “Malcolm, let him speak. Why he’s crying. Spook, come here.”
I hated she called me “Spook.” It didn’t matter. Thirteen or not, my sister seeing me or not, I ran into M’ Tan’s arms, and just held on.
“Billy and I got lost in the swamp,” I managed. More tears.
“What in the name of God . . .”
“Malcolm, it’s Christmas! Just hush. We’ll talk about it later,” said Mom. “Spook, get dressed we’re going to the Christmas Lessons and Carols at the church. You scared us half to death. Now hurry.”
I know God isn’t an old guy with a gray beard. Some grown-ups think there’s no snowy bearded Santa either. And of course neither of those august gentlemen run off ’shine in the swamp. But one Christmas Eve in my 13th year, I was given an extraordinary extension of traditional belief.