The baying of the hounds echoed through the bayou. Chained at the ankles, Robin and Ian stumbled through the murky swamp water. Swarms of gnats and mosquitoes buzzed around their heads.
“They’re still on our trail,” Robin said, yanking Ian’s arm. “We’re not stoppin’ now.”
Ian stumbled along, frequently dipping below the water and then rising up, gasping and spitting out the foul tasting water.
They got closer to the bank and climbed over the exposed, thick, claw-like roots of the cypress trees that lined the swamp. Robin pulled Ian with one hand and with his other hand he brushed aside the long strands of Spanish moss that hung from the tree branches.
At a small stretch of soggy moss-covered bank between several trees, Robin pulled Ian out of the water and fell onto the spongy earth, pulling Ian down with him. They laid there for several minutes, their eyes closed, restoring their breathing to normal.
When Ian opened his eyes and looked down at his bare chest, he let out a shriek and began to frantically brush and pull leeches from his skin.
“Quiet,” Robin said. “Stand up.”
Standing, they pulled leeches from each other’s backs and then lowered their black and white striped prison pants and removed the leeches attached to their legs.
When their bodies were cleared of the blood suckers, Ian sat down, his entire body shaking. “This is a nightmare,” he said.
“I told you it wouldn’t be easy,” Robin said as he rubbed his skin with a clump of green moss, wiping away the spots and streaks of blood on his upper body.
Hugging his body and rocking back and forth, Ian said, “How far is it to the island?”
“We’ll get there eventually,” Robin said. “Chocolate said we’d find it if we left the road gang where we did and just traveled this direction for a day or two.” He sat down and bent over and rubbed his ankle. “This cuff is cuttin’ into my skin. We have to find a way to get these chains off.”
Ian looked up at the sky. Streaks of dark purple, blue and blood-red fanned out across the twilight sky. The screech of a hawk was followed by the hoot of an owl. “I haven’t heard the hounds in a while. Is it safe to sleep here?”
“Safe as anywhere in this swamp,” Robin said. “We can take turns sleepin’ to watch out for snakes and gators.”
Ian laid back with his arms behind his head and stared up at the star splattered sky. Frogs and crickets filled the air with their discordant croaking and chirping. “You never told me. What landed you in prison?”
“I murdered a man who tried to cheat me out of my gamblin’ earnins,” Robin said.
“What kind of gambling?” Ian said. With his hand he smashed a mosquito that was feeding on his cheek.
“Ya name it, from craps to cards to horses,” Robin said. “Who did you kill?”
“My stepfather,” Ian said. “It was payback for all the abuse he did to me when I was a kid.”
“Have you always been so puny?” Robin said as he laid back. “I’m surprised you survived bein’ in the prison.”
Ian had fallen asleep.
Morning light broke through the gray mist shrouding the swamp. The deep tones of heron and egrets, sounding as if they were being tortured and strangled, arose from the distance.
Robin awoke with a start and sat bolt upright. Ian was curled in a fetal position facing Robin, his chained leg extended out and against Robin’s. Robin punched him in the chest.
“Wake up. You were supposed to be keepin’ watch,” he said.
Massaging the spot where Robin had hit him, Ian slowly sat up. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes. “It got so foggy I couldn’t have seen an alligator even if it had me in its teeth.”
“It’s not just the gators,” Robin said. “Chocolate said some strange people wander these swamps at night.”
Ian sat up. “People? Why didn’t you tell me this before?”
“I figured bein’ told about the gators and snakes was ‘nough to keep ya awake,” Robin said. This island we’re goin’ to is supposed to have people livin’ on it too.”
“That I know about,” Ian said. “Is it them who wander the swamps?”
Robin stood up. “How would I know?” He yanked the leg with the cuff on it, sharply pulling the chain attached to Ian. “Let’s get going.”
Ian stood up and stretched, and then began scratching the mosquito bites that spotted his arms and chest. “How come the mosquitoes don’t bother you so much?”
“I was born and raised not that far from here,” Robin said. “The skeeters has had ‘nough of my blood.”
Ian said, “Since you’re both from around here, how come Chocolate knew about this island we’re going to and you didn’t?”
“I was raised on a farm and Chocolate was born and raised in this swamp,” Robin said. “It’s the difference between livin’ on the moon and livin’ on Earth.”
As they began walking over the wet ground, a hot, humid breeze blowing through the trees made the Spanish moss flutter and dance above their heads. Dragonflies buzzed in their ears.
Late afternoon they found themselves walking on kudzu that blanketed the ground and smothered the small grove of tupelo trees. The sore under the cuff around Robin’s leg was bleeding and made him limp, throwing off the stepping pattern the two had established earlier. Both were drenched with sweat.
Ian dropped, landing on his butt on a mattress of kudzu. “I can’t go any further,” he said.
“You’ll go further even if I have to drag you,” Robin said as he wiped sweat from his face with the back of his hand.
“What’s the point?” Ian said. “We reach the island, then wait for the law to catch us there?”
“Chocolate said the law never comes to the island,” Robin said.
“Why not?” Ian said.
“He said it’s protected by some kind of powerful magic.”
Ian burst out laughing. “You gotta be kidding me.”
“You knew Chocolate. He never kidded.”
The distant, frenetic barking of the prison hounds pierced the silence of the grove. Ian sat up.
“They’ve crossed the swamp,” Robin said. “Get up now or I’ll chew off yer leg while yer still breathin’.”
Ian quickly stood.
Two hours later the two men stood on the mossy bank of a fetid smelling, slow moving tributary of the swamp. The spiny, black and dark green backs and tails of alligators were seen just beneath the surface of the water. A narrow walking bridge made of hemp and entwined with kudzu stretched from one bank to the other. On the other side of the bridge the land had been cleared of trees and kudzu. Thirteen dilapidated shacks and a small church with a short steeple stood on an island surrounded by the tributary. Between the shacks there were fenced in gardens. Pigs, goats and chickens ran free. There wasn’t a person in sight.
“That’s Snake Island,” Robin said. “Just as Chocolate described it.”
From the direction of the church there was a low, steady humming.
“I don’t like the looks of this place at all,” Ian said.
“If you ever want to get back to Ohio, you’ll need to start here,” Robin said. He grabbed Ian’s arm and together they crossed the bridge that swung from side to side with every step. Beneath the bridge, alligators stretched their heads out of the water and snapped their jaws filled with jagged teeth.
Stepping onto the island, Robin said, “Everyone must be in the church.”
Not giving Ian a chance to protest, Robin started down the path to the church, dragging Ian with him. At the bottom of a small flight of stairs, they stopped. The last remnants of white paint was peeling from the boards of the facade. A large wooden cross with an ornately carved wood snake curled
around the base, was attached to the wall above the door. They slowly walked up the steps. Just as Robin reached for the handle on the door, it blew open.
Sitting in the pews, the residents of Snake Island turned and stared at the two men. On the dais stood a very tall, thin black woman wearing an unevenly dyed red skirt that covered her from the waist down to her feet. Her upper body was bare. Her hair was snow white. She had her arms outstretched and a banded yellow water moccasin was wound around them, extending from one wrist, around her neck, to her other wrist. The snake slowly slithered around the woman’s upper limbs. At her feet was a small copper bowl filled with blood. A dead goat lay in front of the dais.
“Bienvenue,” she said.
Cockroaches crawled in and out of the thatched flooring of Mother Jacquina’s shack. In one corner a small pot of boiling liquid sat atop a small metal grill with flames burning a stack of kindling in a small pit underneath. The wisps of smoke and steam curled into the air and floated out of a hole in the ceiling. Mother Jacquina slowly stirred the liquid with a twig from a tupelo branch. Scars from snake bites freckled her arms, neck, hands and above her breasts. She had changed into a threadbare cotton shift that covered her body from the breasts down. On each of her toes there was a gold ring in the shape of a snake. She sat on a small stool in front of a boiling pot of pungent liquid. The men sat on the floor.
“Ah, oui, cher T-Chocolate is missed. I’m his na-nan,” she said in a combination of thick Cajun, French and English.
“He does very well in prison,” Ian said. “Everyone’s afraid of him so he gets whatever he wants.”
“As they should be,” she said. “Even as a boy he had the power in him, but he not use it, but if he ever choose to, heaven help ses ennemis.”
“Chocolate said you’d help us,” Robin said.
“I understand,” she said. She stirred the liquid then lifted the twig and held it over the chain connecting the two men. As the liquid dripped on the metal she closed her eyes and muttered a few indecipherable words. The chain broke. She did the same to the cuffs around their legs. Freed from the chains, the two men hopped around gleefully.
“What’s that liquid?” Ian said.
“Is a mixture of snake venom from copperheads, water moccasins, coral snake, cotton mouth and rattlesnake,” she said. “Will kill anyone who swallows it.”
The men sat down where they had been sitting.
“Chocolate said you could help us get out of the swamps,” Robin said.
She threw the twig aside, and then closed her eyes and held her hands over the pot and mumbled a few words. She then picked up the pot and drank the concoction. For a moment her entire body convulsed, then she became perfectly still. As if nothing had just happened to her, she said, “If
T-Chocolate was on the same road gang as you when you escaped, why he no escape also?”
“The guards stopped him,” Robin stammered. “We ran off without bein’ seen.”
Mother Jacquina gazed at him appraisingly, and then stood up. “A place for you to sleep outside is being arranged. I will give thought to how to help you get out of the swamp.”
Sitting in a lean-to made of tree branches and vines of kudzu, Robin applied to the sore on his leg the homemade ointment given to him by an elderly white woman who said she was Snake Island’s doctor.
Robin had asked her, “Did you go to school to be a doctor?”
“No. I’ve never been off this island. Only Mother Jacquina has healing powers greater than mine.”
The ointment was in a small, cracked bowl and was mustard yellow and smelled like rancid pork.
Ian was lying on a thatched mat next to him. “What happens if she finds out Chocolate is dead?” he whispered.
“It’s not our fault he and that idiot Clarence, who he was chained to, couldn’t keep up and had to be left behind. We’re not responsible for the guards shootin’ them,” Robin said. “She won’t find out if we say nothin’.”
Ian swatted at a mosquito that landed on his chest. “What is a na-nan?”
Robin tossed the bowl out into the dirt and laid back. “It means she was Chocolate’s godmother.”
“Chocolate never told me about the snake handlin’ and havin’ any powers like hers,” Robin said.
With the steady croaking of bullfrogs coming from every direction and a slow humid breeze sweeping across the island, the two men went to sleep.
In the middle of the night, before he opened his eyes and lying on his back, Ian heard the rattle of the snake. Opening his eyes he saw the rattlesnake coiled by his side, its eyes fixed on his and its tail raised and shaking. Mother Jacquina was standing a few feet away from the lean-to. A black cottonmouth was wound around her left arm. A dozen residents were standing behind her, their eyes closed and mumbling in prayer. Paralyzed with fear, Ian didn’t move or speak. Peripherally he could see Robin lying beside him, facing the other direction. Beads of sweat ran from his forehead. When a mosquito landed on his ear, almost involuntarily he lifted his hand to swat it. The snake bit him in the throat.
Robin awoke to the sounds of humming coming from the church. He rolled over and looked at Ian who was staring wide-eyed at the lean-to’s ceiling, with his mouth wide open and a gurgling sound emanating from his throat. Robin sat up quickly, and then saw the bite marks on Ian’s throat. He scrambled out of the lean-to, stood up, and then ran to the bridge. Standing in the kudzu across from the island were several prison guards with their rifles raised and the hounds at their sides. Chocolate was standing in front of them.
“Chocolate,” Robin yelled as he ran across the bridge. As he stepped off the bridge, Chocolate vanished. The guards fired their weapons. Struck by the bullets, Robin spun around and saw the island overgrown with kudzu-choked trees, all signs of it being occupied erased. He fell into a writhing, snapping mass of alligators in the swamp tributary.
Steve Carr, who lives in Richmond, Va., began his writing career as a military journalist and has had over 200 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals and anthologies. Sand, a collection of his short stories, was published recently by Clarendon House Books. His plays have been produced in several states in the U.S. He was a 2017 Pushcart Prize nominee. He is on Twitter @carrsteven960. His website is https://www.stevecarr960.com.