Imagine yourself on a flat-bottomed boat gliding through the Louisiana swamps of Barataria when you bump a log. Feathering the paddle against the sides of the pirogue, you slow and steer yourself towards the gap in the moss-draped oaks. A rasping causes you to pause. Wrong move. A claw shoots from the murky water, grasping the gunnel. Before you can react, the claw yanks the pirogue, which rocks, swamps, and you’re thrown floundering into the hyacinth-tangled water. The vines circle your neck, you’re going down . . .
On the lone high spot created from piled oyster shells, you gather sticks for firewood. When you finish, smoke will rise like ghosts into the trees. You’re thinking about the swamp rabbit you tricked with the rope snare. Stringy but better than nothing, which is what you’ve had to eat for a while now. You reach for a thick mottled stick, and it moves, curling towards your reaching hand, fangs bared.
You were in a hurry, you couldn’t wait. You took off into the swamps by yourself. Didn’t help that you were being chased. In a panic you fled for the cover of the densely grouped trees. Quickly, you become lost, turned around. You know these bayous, but they’ve changed since you roamed their edges. Your days were before the oil companies cut access canals and the water level rose. You splash forward. So much water.
The artifacts you’ve found! The mast of a ship, probably a pirate vessel. And a rounded cannonball, plus a fully formed pirogue preserved in the mud. You’ve been feverishly digging, not sleeping, hardly stopping to eat. It’s as if time were tapping you on the shoulder, thrusting its watch in your face. So much to be discovered and hauled from the muck, tagged, shipped out. Your foot on the shovel, you pause. What was that? A bird? Birds don’t whistle, not that high-pitched piping sound. Time clears its throat, and you thrust the shovel into the soggy ground, shaking away your worries. All around you the ghosts gather, shuffling nearer, the leader clenching a silver fife between his teeth. Someone’s about to dance a jig, and it’s not him.
You slap at your hair. Damn spider webs everywhere. The leaves crackle. No big deal, just the swamp sighing. A varmint scurries past, clinching something in its teeth. Muskrats they call them, but they’re nothing but water rats. Piling on top of each other, slinking through the swamp. Better than the nutria, bellies swollen from gorging on bullfrogs. They’ll get theirs sooner or later—see the vulture watching them? Or . . . is it watching you?
We hope you’ve enjoyed your swamp tour today. Please exit left as you leave the boat. And watch your step. You never know what might be lurking in the shadows.
Images from Jean Lafitte Museum and walking trail in Jean Lafitte, Louisiana