Over the next few days before school started, Jeb and I wandered all over Charlton County, exploring everywhere. We joked and laughed at everything; getting to know each other. Jeb sometimes liked to needle people – stick his pin in them to see their reaction; get their adrenalin flowing. It was his way, and once I got used to it, I realized we were still good friends.
One day, despite Pappy’s warnings, we crept into Okefenokee. We were up early that morning, fed the chickens and made breakfast. Jeb and I seemed to intuitively know, that would be the day for our swamp adventure. No words were spoken, just an odd, silent understanding. After breakfast, I pulled out my jackknife; got up, went to our what-not drawer, pulled out the sharpener and honed the blade a little. Jeb watched me intently, every step of the way. He followed my lead; got up and sharpened his jackknife; the grin on his face said everything. Cool dudes? Oh, yes.
Outside, I pulled on a pair of gumboots. Still, no words were spoken as Jeb did the same. We walked out past the garden, the corn patch, and the orchard; skirted Uncle Bob’s farm on our left, and kept going until we reached the barbed-wire perimeter fence. Then we turned north and followed the fence. Still, no word spoken. My imagination, and all that silence, added to the atmosphere that morning. I’m sure Jeb felt it too.
There was a strangeness, almost magic, in the air. On our right was un-farmed scrubland; comfortable country, soft and warm in the morning sun. On our left, everything was different. The swamp had a pensive aura. It was challenging us. Couldn’t see much beyond the fence. Hundreds of trees were leaning over it; each one staring at us; lichen dripping from its branches – like fingers straining to touch us. It was dark and brooding over there; as though there were a blanket or shroud over everything. And yes! It also looked exciting – inviting too, in some mysterious way. We were ready; armed to the teeth with our freshly sharpened jackknives.
Suddenly I stopped, and uttered my first words since leaving the kitchen. “I got this scary vision, Jeb. You’re ridin’ on the back of this monstrous ‘gator, wrestlin’ with it, doin’ your best to subdue it, usin’ just your pocket-knife.”
He laughed and nervously said, “I ain’t no Davey Crockett!” in a phoney Georgia accent. “We aren’t even in there yet, and Okefenokee already looks ominous.”
I became serious. “Jeb! Before I show you my way in, you gotta promise, on pain of death, that you won’t show this secret to anyone else.”
“On pain of death, huh! That’s pretty serious.”
“Okay. Not on pain of death. But if I find out you’ve told anyone, you’re gonna have to give me your shiny, black boots.”
“Oh, no! Not those boots. Pa gave me those boots. Besides. They won’t fit you.”
“Maybe not yet, but soon. If you really want to go into the swamp, you’ll have to promise me those boots.”
I looked him straight in the eye and said, “I bite my thumb ‘til it hurts. That’s the way we seal a promise here in Georgia. Go ahead! Bite your thumb!” Jeb thought about it for a long while, then slowly his arm came up and he bit his thumb. I could tell it hurt. Promises are important.
It wasn’t far to my secret entrance; an odd place where the barbed-wire had become completely overgrown with bramble. A huge clump came right over the fence and we would have to walk around it to avoid it. The air smelled sweet; blackberries were in season – ripe and juicy, so we stopped for lunch. When we had eaten our fill, I said, “See anythin’ special?”
He glanced around and said, “Nope!”
“Good. My secret entrance is right here!”
On many previous visits, I had painstakingly carved out a tunnel with my jackknife. Jeb and I began by carefully edging our way, on hands and knees, under the bramble, parallel to the fence. After about ten feet, I was able to twist and wriggle my way under the barbed-wire. I wondered about Jeb. He made it – all ‘seven foot’ of him. We crawled along my small tunnel through that thick clump of bramble and emerged on the other side, avoiding the most vicious thorns. We were in!
Jeb stood up and blinked. “I can’t believe it. This is absolutely the best secret passage I’ve ever seen. No-one could find it – unless you were a rabbit.”
I was proud.
With each step we took, Jeb’s eyes grew wider and wider, full of wonder. He was very curious, and many times urged me to go that little bit farther. Although I had been in Okefenokee many times, I was always cautious, sometimes frightened, and never ventured more than a hundred yards, or so.
That day was different. Jeb was our adventurer; I was our guide; and we went too far for my comfort. I became more and more frightened, less and less willing to take the next step. But I kept going; determined not to show my fears to the older, wiser, and more experienced ‘swamp-rat’, Cousin Jeb.
The air was damp and cloying, definitely cooler than outside, and the sun didn’t reach down to us very often. Sounds were the first thing that raised our anxieties. The air was full of the chatter of birds and other animals; always in the distance; never near us. Close by, everything was eerily quiet, occasionally interrupted by the rustle of a nearby bush. We saw nothing.
I spoke to Jeb in a whisper, “I can’t see them but they’re all around us, peerin’ at us, wonderin’ who these strange creatures are; askin’ each other if they think we’re good to eat or whether they need to jab somethin’ painful and poisonous into our neck.”
“Come on, Kid. Don’t do that. I’m nervous enough as it is. This is a mean place, a lot meaner than the Louisiana swamps.”
“What are you sayin’, Jeb? I thought you were our well-seasoned swamp-rat. I’m countin’ on you to know about everythin’ around us. And I’m countin’ on you to get us out. Alive!”
“Yeah? This place is different – so different.”
The whip-like crack of a tree branch snapping from somewhere high up, suddenly broke the unnatural silence near to us. We heard the crash as it fell to earth on the path ahead, close enough that we felt the vibration from its fall. We rounded a corner and came upon that branch – thick as my leg. “What kind of animal is big enough to cause that branch to break?”
Jeb replied, “I don’t know. This is your swamp. You should know.”
“Me? I ain’t never...”
We felt, and occasionally saw, eyes looking at us; animals lurking, hidden in their copses, perhaps dangerous to us. We didn’t know. Suddenly, on our left, a large, yellow and green snake, slithered down from above. A python! The slimy reptile was dangling; its head on a level with our eyes; its tail securely wrapped around a tree limb, thirty feet above. Fangs were protruding from its open mouth; its long tongue spitting at us.
I whispered, “Pythons can eat people. Pythons can eat whole alligators. I seen it on TV.”
Jeb lips moved but no sound came out. He reached out! Was he preparing to touch it?
“What are you doing?” I screamed in an almost inaudible whisper. My heart was pounding as I was fingering my totally useless jackknife. I pulled him and we quickly edged by, before it had a chance to drop right on top of us.
Over there, a ‘possum crawled up a tree trunk; might have been Walt Kelly’s ‘Pogo’. Pogo was not so scary, but he still elicited some nervous laughter when he hissed at us and reached out a paw, angrily. Even friendly little Pogo had half inch claws and, if given the chance, would happily have removed a few layers of skin from our faces.
A dead, half eaten White-tail greeted us around a bend in the trail. Where was the large, many toothed carnivore that had recently brought down this poor, unsuspecting deer; devoured the other half, and only scurried away as it heard us approach? Was it hiding only a few feet away; tense and ready to spring at the two of us?
I prodded Jeb to move on. He agreed.
Strange smells everywhere! Foetid odors of something rotten, or rotting – not frightening, yet none too pleasant. Other odors! Some repulsive. Some sickly sweet; supposedly enticing. All left us dizzy and reeling.
Sticky things drooped from the trees, sometimes with thorns two inches long. We didn’t dare touch anything, nor let anything touch us, certainly not brush against our bare skin. We knew that such seemingly casual contact, even from an apparently inert plant, would be neither accidental nor innocuous, but part of a sinister plot to sample some tasty, rarely enjoyed, human flesh.
And the insects!
Gargantuan, almost Tolkien-like spiders; webs set to trap some unsuspecting trespasser. Beautiful, absolutely beautiful butterflies and moths – beautiful and grotesque – the size of your outstretched hand. Big, yet not so big to avoid being trapped in those ferocious spider’s webs – webs that sprang back and didn’t collapse when touched. They resisted our fingers; needed our jackknives to sever their strands. Even Pogo would have found it wise to avoid those webs.
Flies, yellow-jackets and mosquitoes, everywhere. Human blood was an exotic and succulent feast to them all. Some of those successful suckers were so bloated with bits of Caleb and Jeb that they couldn’t fly. As they staggered drunkenly from our arms, they became immediate snacks for eagerly waiting bull-frogs; frogs with unbelievably long tongues that could reach an over-full and floundering gnat from three feet away. Now, even bull-frogs had tasted human blood, albeit, second hand.
We didn’t speak.
Was that the hiss of a black panther? Panthers normally hunt at night, but what do they do in the daytime, particularly when the day was as dark and dank as the Okefenokee on that day? I grabbed Jeb. “That was a panther, wasn’t it? Do panthers eat people?” I thought they did. Jeb didn’t know and didn’t want to know.
Possibly it wasn’t a panther but simply a male racoon, warning us we were in his territory, letting us know his displeasure. Were we venturing too far into his part of the swamp?
“Jeb?” I asked. “Do you know the way back?”
“Uh, yeah! Sure! It’s back that way. But let’s go this way. Follow me!” All those butterflies were having a field-day, dancing in my stomach.
Suddenly, Jeb grabbed me by the shoulder and pulled me back. I didn’t understand. In front of me was this soft, green, velvet blanket – a carpet of small-leafed plants with thousands of tiny yellow-orange flowers. Very beautiful. We had reached a part of the swamp where I was beginning to feel more relaxed. I thought we’d rest a while and sit on this carpet, the most alluring part of the swamp we had seen so far. The air around us was very heady – slightly hallucinogenic. I wanted to sit down and close my eyes for a few minutes.
Jeb whispered frantically, “Don’t step there! It moved!”
“What? What moved?”
“It moved! I saw it move!”
Jeb was getting anxious. I was nearly hysterical.
“Look! See it move!” he said. “That whole beautiful, green carpet is moving. Watch!”
He broke off a small branch from a nearby tree and slowly poked it into the carpet. The stick went down, and down, and down – at least three feet. Then he brushed everything aside. The carpet floated away, and there, underneath, was this pitch black goo. My senses returned with a jolt.
Jeb said, “This is not the most beautiful, green carpet you’ve ever seen. It’s almost like algae floating on top of the water. All around it’s the same. But what’s making it move?
“Look! Way over there. What do you see?”
He pointed to where a small patch of sunlight had forced its way through the trees to shine on this beautiful, lime-green lagoon. “Do you see those eyes?”
In that pool of sunlight, two large, red eyes peered at us. Those eyes; the only part that was visible above the surface of the water. Those eyes; warning us to stay well clear. Those eyes; hypnotically inviting us over for lunch – his lunch. Oh, yes! We knew what it was. Humans, particularly young, tender, teenage boys, were sweet meat to those big alligators.
The whole lagoon was undulating slightly. I looked back at those eyes, shaking as I whispered, “He’s closer than he was a minute ago. Reckon we need to move on?”
We did not stop for a rest at that spot.
Eventually, we entered a seemingly friendlier and less frightening area of the swamp. No snakes, no spiders, and no big, red eyes, sizing up their prospects for a meal. At least, none of those things could we see. We were able to breathe and speak again, our heartbeats slowing. Even then, we spoke rarely, and only in hushed tones.
Groves of Cypress were everywhere; Jeb was staring at them.
“Have you never seen a Cypress before? Okefenokee is full of them.”
“No, I haven’t. We don’t have these trees in Louisiana. They’re weird. They look like a herd of elephants, all with their trunks stuck into the water having a drink.”
Apart from the Cypress, Jeb seemed to know his way around. Like me, his fears had somewhat abated. He knew the names of almost everything we saw. He knew what berries we could eat, or thought he knew. Blackberries and huckleberries were in season, so we stopped for a snack. Mistake! Huckleberries, although big, red, translucent, and luscious-looking, tasted rancid, as though rotting while still hanging from their branches.
We tasted blackberries. These were fat and juicy too, like those we found outside the swamp. But these seemed to have no sugar in them. A bitter taste, along with some unidentifiable flavor, left them inedible to all but the denizens of Okefenokee. We humans must dine elsewhere.
After carefully negotiating our way around a massive clump of Cypress, we were startled by the sudden flapping of wings as a great white egret took flight. That egret, taking to the skies, made us jump well back. There was no sound of a splash, but, splash or no-splash, we began to slowly sink into a thick, black, bubbling ooze. It wasn’t water but an oily mud that stuck to everything.
We were lucky. We only sank up to our knees. With great care, first Jeb, then I, slowly pulled our feet from the mud and helped each other to climb back onto more-or-less solid ground.
Miraculously, we managed to keep our boots on, now full of smelly sludge along with our feet. Swimming in the sludge were miniscule fluorescent bugs that neither of us could identify. They looked like they were deadly poisonous, but who knew? One good thing! Those boots did allow us to avoid nips on our ankles from irate snapping turtles who considered that part of the swamp their private domain and lunch room.
We quickly removed our boots, pored and shook out their contents. Then we realized we were going to have to put those putrid boots back on. We carefully rinsed them in a nearby pool of what we hoped was clean(ish) swamp water. We had to! In no way were we prepared to go back in bare feet, stepping on unimaginable things as we made our way back to our secret entrance.
I moaned, “This spells trouble when we get home. Pappy’s gonna smell the swamp on us and there’ll be the dickens to pay. We’ll have to hose ourselves down, our clothes, boots, everythin’, and let it all dry out, before we get home.”
“How’re we going to do that, before we get home?”
A light came on, “Hey! I got an idea. Let’s go swimmin’.”
“What? Here?” exclaimed Jeb.
“No. Let’s go real swimmin’. In a real lake.”
“That’s a ‘real’ good idea.”
We finally came to a decision that I had been worrying about for at least the past hour. It was time to go back and I had no idea which way was back. Jeb said he knew, so here I made a mistake. I told him I would release him from his promise about the boots if he would find our way back. Of course I did!
Jeb was confused about the route when we started, and for a while, I thought we would end up being something’s prey before the day ended. Things got better. Jeb found the way, or at least a way that worked. I know we didn’t pass that beautiful, hypnotic, alligator lagoon again.
As we made our way back to the secret tunnel, we noticed an increase in the sounds around us. It began with a couple of woodpeckers digging grubs from a nearby tree. Then we saw a dead Cypress, still standing with its leafless branches laden with a ‘venue’ of vultures. Must have been three hundred of them, all murmuring noisily, waiting patiently for something to die. No part of the vultures moved – only the eyes. We shuddered as those evil, greedy eyes slowly turned and stared hungrily at us; following us with every step we took; each one, probably wondering what a rotting teenage boy might taste like.
Roars, we heard – thankfully distant. An occasional plaintive scream disturbed us – undefined, yet sounding much like a young child in extreme distress. All were telling each other about the couple of unwelcome visitors in their territory. I felt sure they were trying to decide if it was time to chase us off, or follow the alligator’s lead and invite us to dinner.
It was time to go. One last corner to round before we exited.
Suddenly, there on the trail in front of us, loomed a large black bear. When he saw us, he reared up on his hind legs, towering over us, and let out a horrendous roar. We stopped, too frightened to turn and run, convinced our life was over. Unbelievably, that huge bear did not attack. Why? Instead, he turned and jumped into the shrubbery beside the trail, and disappeared before we could react. We were numbed – frozen to our spot – forever forced to listen to the sounds of that big bruin crashing through the underbrush. The extreme fear of that experience stayed with me for many years. I wondered if the bear also had similar nightmares about us.
I glanced over to Jeb. His eyes were big as saucers, and he was gripping his jackknife in a very sweaty palm. We both broke out in a nervous laugh. The intrepid hunters.
“What’re you goin’ to do, Davey, grin it to death? Let’s get out of here.”
We left the swamp for that day, crawled back through the bramble and under the fence.
Outside the confines of the swamp, the sun was still shining, the air still warm, and the blackberries still delectable – sweet and tasty. And we could breathe again. The world was, once again, a happy place – almost. We still worried about our feet squishing bits of sludge in those boots. And we still smelled of the swamp.
No more than a quarter mile from my secret tunnel we came to ‘Boy’s Pond’.
“Why do you call it Boy’s Pond?” asked Jeb.
“There’s another pond, like Boy’s Pond, somewhere in the woods south of Dinkins Road. It’s called ‘Girl’s Pond’.”
Jeb’s eyes lit up so I continued, “You wanna go over there...see what’s goin’ on?”
“I think that might be fun.”
“Well, you can think again. You don’t ever want to get caught snoopin’ around Girl’s Pond. If they see you and report you, you’ll get to spend Saturday on Kitty’s Post – guaranteed. My buddy, Blake, was caught there, back in May. He got ‘The Post’. Us boys nervously laughed at him, and none of the girls in our class would talk to him. He was nick-named ‘The Lech’.” Jeb shuddered, and we wisely forgot going to Girl’s Pond.
It was a warm summer day so I was certain we’d meet some of my gang. They were there all right – Blake, Joe, Frank and Biff – splashing around in the water, all stark naked. As we approached, they slowly came out of the pond to come and stare at us, but they wouldn’t let us get that near. They all began complaining about how much we stank of the swamp; told us to go around the other side and swim on our own. We did. In we jumped with all our clothes on, boots and all. We paid special attention to getting those cooties out of our boots, checking each other’s feet, making sure there weren’t any little red welts or other sores or stings, or any creepy-crawlies lodged between our toes.
It wasn’t too long before our boots were clean enough and the swamp odors disappeared, so we returned to where the other boys were enjoying themselves. Jeb finally got a chance to meet my gang. We all had a great afternoon, after the expected comments like, “How tall are you, Jeb? Say somethin’ in Cajun so we know you’re from N’Orlins.”
Later, on the way home, Jeb confided, “You know, Kid? I got worried in the swamp today. It’s quite dangerous to us humans, more dangerous than the parts of the swamp I know from Louisiana. From now on, whenever we go in, I’m going to take along my hunting-stones.” I just nodded. I had no idea what he was talking about.