08 Oct A Cabin in the Swamp
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"A Cabin in the Swamp"Written by J.D. Lucien
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Estimated reading time — 16 minutes
My brother and I bought the camp in Des Allemands for a song. It was an old trapper’s cabin, set back down a bayou, well off the main lake and back in the swamp. It had no electricity, no water, no modern appliances, and needed some work. A while back, the old man who’d owned it couldn’t manage the taxes and was run off. We only had to pay a small fee and what he owed, which really didn’t amount to much.
At the time, we thought it a real steal.
The paperwork was finished on a Wednesday, and my brother and I met in Lafayette to sign everything. We loaded the bateau on Friday afternoon after work and left the launch about suppertime for the weekend.
It was hot—Louisiana hot—and even as the sun dipped to touch the treetops, the heat was merciless. A. Lee turned the bateau north and opened her up. The wind in my face was cooking me thoroughly and I could feel my skin crisping in the sunset. I looked back at my brother in the stern, his hand on the throttle of the old Evinrude as it purred and pushed us up the lake. He has our father’s complexion and was as dark and tan as aged cypress. I am more like pine—our mother’s color—and he had been after me about sunscreen from the moment we left the truck.
A heron leapt from its perch at the sound of our motor and I dipped my fingers in the passing water. It was black as good coffee, and but for the curls of pale foam, impenetrable to the eye. Alligators are plentiful in Des Allemands, and this evening was no exception as they cruised the lily pads and marsh grass for supper. A. Lee was keeping to the right-hand side and every now and then the brown and green of the swamp was broken by the surprising white of an egret. I took a deep breath. The air was full of the odor of life and decay, of the living and the dead.
Maybe half an hour later, we sighted the surveyor’s tape that marked our path. He turned the bateau up into the bayou, barely slowing, his hand sure. Nearly instantly, the cypress and Spanish moss cut the sun, leaving us in the humid shade.
An alligator slid into the water from its place on the muddy bank among the palmettos. It churned the grass, but by the time we were past, there was no sign on the water of its going.
I turned back to my brother and smiled. He raised an excited hand, thumb up.
We reached the cabin maybe an hour before full dark, and A. Lee slid the bateau against its weathered pilings so I could tie us off. A rickety ladder allowed us to climb to the porch, built high to keep the inevitable tidal surge of the hurricanes from washing the house away. The Evinrude puttered and died, and the chorus of tree frogs and insects swept in to fill the absence. Spiders’ webs were stretched from piling to piling, full as shrimp nets with writhing bugs.
“Get your ass up there, Joseph!” My brother was laughing. “We ain’t got all day!”
I grabbed the spare rope. A particularly fat spider scurried away from my hand as I gripped a rung. I watched it disappear into a wide crack between two beams.
“God damn but you’re slow!” My brother was impatient at the best of times.
I climbed to the porch, letting the line down to A. Lee so that he could pass up our gear. It was all easy enough except for the full cooler of ice and water, and my brother and I struggled mightily to get that up.
A. Lee’s head was just visible above the deck as I pulled the key from around my neck and unlocked the new padlock with which we had latched the door last week.
“You going to open the door or what?” he said. I could hear the excitement in his voice.
“Quiet down, old man! Don’t make me put you in your place…”
If you have a brother, you know how the banter goes. I watched him step onto the deck and dust his hands on his pants.
“I’d like to see that,” he laughed, opening the lid of the cooler and tossing me an icy bottle of water.
I pushed the door open and stepped into the sweltering heat of the cabin. It was dark and still and all the more uncomfortable for it.
The cabin wasn’t big—twenty by twenty or thereabout—but it had a largish table and a few serviceable wooden chairs, a bunk, and a wood burning stove. It smelled musty. It smelled like it had been closed for a long time.
It smelled like the family vault in Abbeville.
I shook this thought off and took a long swallow of water. I could feel the cold coil itself through my guts. A few mosquitos had already found their way through the open door and were buzzing around my head despite the lacquered coating of Deep-woods Off.
“We need to get on that screen, pronto.”
A. Lee nodded and swallowed.
“Damn, but it’s hot!” he yelled from the porch.
I returned to the deck and grabbed my work belt. He unrolled the screen as I opened the windows and called out the numbers on my tape measure. A. Lee cut the screen to size and held it while I hammered a few staples in to fasten it flush with the wood. My eyes stung from sweat and I rubbed my wet forearm across my face in a dubious effort to dry them.
I turned to drop my belt on the table just as a filthy, white cat walked through the door. Its hair was matted in clumps, dirty with only God knew what. It eyed my brother and me, its lips curling back slightly to expose its teeth.
A. Lee stomped his foot, feigning a leap.
The cat hissed and stood its ground.
I tried to edge around, putting myself opposite the cat and the door. I hoped to flush the cat out onto the porch, but it had other ideas and rushed past me into the cabin.
“Where the hell did it go?” my brother asked.
I turned. Again, the cabin is a single room—table, chairs, bunk, and stove, but no cat.
“There must be a hole somewhere,” I said.
“Yeah, maybe behind the stove,” my brother said, crossing the room to inspect it. With the windows open, there was enough light to see, but the shadows were deep enough to hide a cat.
On the porch, I unzipped my pack and found my headlamp. I tossed it to A. Lee and watched as he searched behind the stove. I heard him shake the stovepipe, heard its firm contact with the wall. He shook his head.
He drew the beam of the headlamp over the bunk and corner in which it lay. The wall was good there, too.
“Fuck it, then,” I said. “The cat’s gone.”
“Good enough,” he replied.
The sun was down by the time we had our stuff in the cabin. A. Lee lit the propane lantern and set it on the table.
I used my pocket knife to cut the tops off the empty water bottles, scooped some ice from the cooler into the makeshift glasses, and poured a few fingers of Crown Royal into each. A. Lee smiled and took a sip, smiled again, and took my hand.
“We got ourselves a camp, brother!” His eyes twinkled in the lamplight.
We dusted off two of the chairs and set them side by side near the table. There was no sense putting the cap back on the bottle, at least not this early in the evening. We sliced cheese and dried sausage, sipped whiskey and re-told the misadventures of our youth.
Outside, the frogs were singing their hearts out.
The bottle was about half full when our conversation turned to the trapper.
“I wonder what happened to that old guy,” A. Lee mused. I could see that he felt sorry for him, sorry in some sense that the old man had lost the camp the way he had. He was always a fan of underdogs.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m sure he moved on.”
A. Lee freshened his drink. “You know what was strange?” He looked troubled and his eyes tightened in that way he has when he’s thinking.
“What?” I asked.
“That cat wasn’t wet.” My brother paused and took another sip of whiskey. “Out here. On the bayou.”
It was my turn to sip and think.
“Maybe it lives in the cypress? Jumps from tree to tree?”
“Maybe,” he said.
“You wishing on a colander?” I asked, smiling past my cup.
We both knew what that meant. Down here, the loup-garou is the bogeyman that keeps kids up at night. Supposedly, it’s a bit obsessive compulsive and stops to count all the little holes before it can enter a house at night. The more superstitious have been known to hang a colander or cheese-grater by the door for just this reason.
Suddenly, A. Lee laughed. “Ain’t skeered of nothin!” he said, twisting his voice into his best imitation of a Marksville hillbilly we used to know.
I joined him, jumping to my feet. “Nothin!” I yelled.
Just then, the hiss of a cat strangled our laughter. It was a long, sharp sound that carried through the walls of the cabin, and something in the tone of that angry wail was almost human.
The swamp creatures felt it too and the frogs went silent.
Neither of us said a thing for a few seconds.
A. Lee nodded. “Yeah. I think so.”
“Fuck’s right,” he said, setting his drink on the table. Beads of condensation rolled down the side of the plastic and onto the table.
“Wish we had a .22,” I said.
My brother nodded and mimed shooting. “Pop-pop!”
A breeze rose and stirred the palmetto leaves into their characteristic growl. The air was thick with humidity and A. Lee’s shirt sagged with damp. Mine was much the same. I ran the side of my plastic cup across my forehead and the whiskeyed ice numbed my skin in a few seconds.
God bless the man who invented the cooler.
The frogs’ voices rose in chorus again, supported by the low growl of the corrugated leaves.
“Whiskey?” I asked.
A. Lee lifted his cup and I sloshed in a few swallows. He took a sip and sighed.
“We got ourselves a camp,” he said.
Another quarter of a bottle of Crown later, I threw a sleeping bag over the bunk. A. Lee pulled a chair over to the bed and secured a mosquito net from one of the exposed roof beams. We’d want that, even with the windows screened, until we could do something about the door.
We peeled our clothes off and stretched them across the backs of the chairs.
“Fuck, it’s hot,” I said. I took a handful of ice from the cooler and mopped my face with it, relishing the momentary cool.
My brother grunted an affirmation. “Rethinking the generator?”
“Now I am.” I flopped into the bunk next to him. “Now I am.”
My dreams were troubled as I baked and turned like a rotisserie chicken. By morning, I was well done. I heard A. Lee rise at dawn as I drowsed in half sleep.
“Fuck you!” he laughed, shoving the bunk with his foot and startling me awake.
“You know what, asshole!”
“No, really,” I said, wiping my eyes and yawning. I sat up.
“The table,” he said.
“What about it?”
His mouth twisted for a second and his eyes narrowed.
“Come see,” he said.
I rolled out the bunk, found my feet, and joined him. In the center of the table, cut into the boards in rough letters, were two words:
My pocket knife was open, stuck point-first just above the “T.”
“You’re telling me you didn’t do this?” my brother said, looking me in the eye. I could tell by his tone that he wasn’t kidding around.
I shook my head. “No.”
A. Lee nodded and pulled my knife from the wood, folded it closed, and handed it to me.
“Don’t leave it out again,” he said.
I was spooked. My brother was spooked. Hell—who wouldn’t have been?
Folks down here have more truck with the weird—that’s a simple fact. From voodoo to hoodoo, from loup-garou to traiteur, we’re immersed in the strange. Some tread water, some dip their feet in—hell, a few dive deep—but it’s like the heat south of I-10: there’s no getting away from it. Maybe that’s why we, spooked or not, wordlessly gathered out rods and tackle, our Off and sunscreen, fished a few nearly frozen Starbuck’s canned espressos out of the cooler, and started the bateau into the patch of swamp that never really became ours that Wednesday, when A. Lee and I signed our names in bold blue ink at the realtor’s office in Lafayette.
The cypress knees rose from the black water like the lower teeth of some great monster.
Here and there, small lagoons of lily and still black water broke the swamp. A. Lee cut the Evinrude at the most promising and sent a sparkling white rooster-tail in a long, slow arc to land next to stump with a soft plop. Within seconds, he had a strike, and seconds later, a fat sac-au-lait was wriggling in the bottom of the bateau.
The sun sent fingers through the cypress that fell on the water, the lilies, and us. A bright blue dragonfly, iridescent in the sun, settled on the bow next to me, still as stone. I watched it for a few seconds between casts. The fish were biting, and I made a stringer from a length of bank line and a few fresh twigs cut from a low branch. It was soon heavy with our struggling dinner.
I was feeling better and so was A. Lee.
“We got a mess of fish,” I said.
A. Lee smiled.
“You want to clean them here or back at the camp?” Fresh fish guts in the water wouldn’t hurt the fishing any, so I decided to do it now. Out came the pocketknives and off went the scales. Bellies were slit, entrails pulled, and A. Lee—always meticulous—scraped the back of their cavities to remove any sign of the bitter innards. As we worked, we rinsed our catch in the swamp water, and every so often, a flash of silver-white told me that a cannibal was feasting just below the surface.
My brother fired up the motor, spun us neatly around, and brought us back to the camp.
I took the stringer of fish and climbed the ladder. My head was just even with planks of the deck when I saw it: the white cat stood just by the door in the dark of the cabin. We had forgotten to close and lock the door.
It hissed a warning to me, long, pale teeth bare to the gums.
“Shoo!” I yelled. “Scat!”
The cat hissed again and turned slowly, watching me with its green eyes as it slunk farther into the cabin.
I dropped the fish on the deck and pulled myself up.
“The cat?” A. Lee asked.
I could tell the spook was back on him. In truth, the hairs on my neck were straight and stiff.
“I don’t know, A. Lee…” I began. “Maybe we should just go.”
“Fuck that,” he said. “This is our camp.”
The cat hissed from somewhere in the cabin.
“Ours,” A. Lee called from the ladder.
I dug through our gear for a skillet and a bag of fish fry. From the porch, I watched my brother unscrew the lantern from the propane tank and replace it with a small camp stove.
“Joseph, you going to help or what?” he asked. His mind was set, and like an anchor, kept me falling farther into the spook.
It took an effort, but I made my legs move and managed to cross the threshold.
I was picking the last bits of flesh from the bones when A. Lee poured the whiskey. I nibbled the tail—fried hard and crisp—and took a long, slow sip of cold Crown.
“A. Lee,” I said.
“We got to do something.”
“We ain’t got to do nothing but have a good time,” he said. He touched his plastic to mine as if he expected the fine ring of crystal. “Drink up and I’ll pour another.”
“Maybe we should talk to Richard,” I said, saying his name like we do: Ree-shard. “He knows about things like this…”
“Nobody knows about things like this. Hell, this ain’t even a thing. Just some fuckin’ cat in an old cabin.”
Neither of us mentioned the table—it wouldn’t bear mentioning, if you know what I mean. I noticed, clearly for the first time, that my brother had covered the carved words with a cutting board.
A. Lee sensed my fear.
“It’s just a cat in a cabin, Joseph. Drink up.”
I did, emptying my cup in slow swallows. A. Lee poured more whiskey over the ice.
“We may have to make a run for more Crown,” he said, forcing a laugh. “Don’t want to run dry.” He sloshed the last few fingers in the bottle for emphasis and then caught my eye.
“Our camp,” he said. “Ours.”
The hair on my arms prickled and despite the heat, I shivered. Behind my brother, a dark shadow hung suspended from a ceiling beam: a man on a rope, his feet swinging inches from the floor.
“What?” A. Lee asked. “What’s up?”
I could feel the blood leave my face and pointed. A. Lee turned and the shadow was gone, but it hadn’t been my imagination; I was sure of it.
The rope—I knew it was a rope.
A hanged man.
“A. Lee…” I said, my words a whisper.
“Fuck that,” he said, taking another long sip of whiskey. “And fuck you.”
He wasn’t talking to me.
My brother is a stubborn man and he will have his way, come hell or high water.
We did indeed make a run for more Crown. Down the bayou again, Spanish moss dancing in the wind. Clouds were building and the sky was a blue-gray tinged with black and purple. The lake was already rough, and the wind was teasing the waves into small crests.
“Storm’s coming,” I said, as we pushed off the pier.
My brother nodded. We needed to get up the lake in a hurry or risk swamping, and he opened the throttle and the Evinrude roared into action. This time I sat in the stern near him to avoid most of the spray, and we took turns sipping from the bottle, swallowing whiskey like it was medicine, which I suppose in a way it was. It was grim revelry and our mood was as dark as the sky.
Our camp, A. Lee had said. Ours. It didn’t feel like that, though—blue ink in Landry’s Realty or not.
By the time we reached the shelter of the bayou, the lake was nigh impassible for a small boat. But here, the close trees and swamp sheltered the water, and though the cypress were cutting a rug above us, the bayou’s black water was as still as the grave.
A. Lee raced the storm and the swamp whipped past. There was an excitement to it, an anxious, fearful energy crackling before the storm. Lightning pealed overhead, and the sky opened up, spilling rain in great drenching sheets.
The cabin came into view as we rounded a last bend, and my brother waited to release the throttle, sliding us between pilings and under the camp. I batted webs away with that terrible feeling you get when you just know a spider’s on you when the silk’s in your face. A. Lee was having none of it and seized a piling, bringing the bateau to a stop.
I felt stupid and childish. I stopped fighting the spiders and tied us off.
We had bought some more ice for the cooler at Lucky’s, and A. Lee threw the bags over his shoulder and climbed the ladder without a word. I grabbed the bottle and followed him up.
We both paused after I unlocked the door, rain streaming down our faces, shirts plastered to our skin with water. My brother broke our paralysis, giving the old wood a push with his foot. I looked—and I’m sure he did too, though he made an effort at nonchalance.
The cabin was as we had left it.
I could breathe.
In we went, the wind now howling in the trees. The rain beat the roof in a steady drumming, revealing copious leaks.
A. Lee had the lantern going shortly. The cloud-dimmed sky wasn’t giving much light.
I cracked the ice on the floor a few times to break it up, tore the bags open, and spilled it loudly into the cooler. My brother scooped our plastic cups full and poured a hefty measure of Crown into each of them.
He pulled up a chair and stirred his drink with one of his meaty fingers.
The storm was raging across the swamp.
“Do you remember Erline’s doll?” he asked, still spinning the ice.
“Oh yeah,” I said. Our Aunt Erline had an old doll with a porcelain face that she kept in a chair in her bedroom. Its painted features were weathered and worn, its glass eyes terrible and deep. It had a pull-string on its back, but we never dared to discover what it might say. We used to dare each other to pull it, but neither of us ever had the nerve.
“It’s like that,” he said, taking a sip. “Just like that.”
“What do you mean?”
“This cabin. It’s spooky, but it ain’t gonna hurt us none.”
I considered that as I swallowed a mouthful of Crown. We never pulled that string—but here we were, pulling on something that felt far worse.
“I suppose,” I said. But A. Lee is my older brother: even as a grown man, if he said so, I had faith—old school, kneeling on pine plank faith.
“This is our camp,” he said, tapping the table for emphasis. “And I aim to enjoy it.”
I needed to piss something fierce, which is not a good sign when whiskey has been your only beverage. I made my way to the half-open door, and wet as I was already, stepped onto the deck to pee off the edge.
Lightning flashed brightly against the dark sky, and the thunder hurt my ears and sent my head pounding.
I turned to see A. Lee—that lightning had been close.
What I saw froze my mouth and it was as if my heart struggled against a firm grip, one crippled, sideways thumping beat at a time.
There was a man behind him, on the other side of the table, an old man in raggedy clothes. He had long, white hair. But what struck me most was the coiled noose around his neck and the dangling rope, lost beneath the shadows of the table.
I tried to call out; my mouth opened but no sound slipped out.
“GET… OUT!” roared the old man, his voice like a storm wind.
The door slammed shut, loud as the thunderclap had been.
A. Lee was inside his camp.
I felt a cold hand on my neck and I was falling fifteen long feet to the bayou. I hit flat and hard, felt the slap of the warm water, felt the embraced of its black arms…sinking…sinking. I tried to kick but something had me, something cold as the ice in our cooler. It was pulling me down and down, deeper into the muddy water.
I was going to die right there, right then.
But then I thought of A. Lee, in the cabin—his cabin—behind that closed door. I couldn’t leave him, not like that, not in his cabin.
I kicked viciously and worked my arms like mad. Whatever it was let me go and I rocketed to the surface, my head breaking water in the rain. A few strokes had me to the ladder and I pulled myself onto the lowest rung and climbed for all I was worth.
I am not a small man and I hit the door like a hurricane. It held. I backed up and hit it again. It resisted for an instant and then swung open, spilling me to the floor.
Lightning flashed. The propane lamp was dead. A. Lee was on the floor.
I grabbed my brother by his leg and heaved him across the floor to the deck. In the dim storm-light, cypress whipping in the wind, I looked down at my brother’s open eyes and dead-pale face.
He can’t be dead. He can’t be dead. He can’t be dead. He can’t be dead.
“Lee!” I yelled over the storm. “Lee!” I slapped him hard.
He choked and sputtered, and drew a loud, halting breath.
“Joseph?” he asked.
“Yeah. It’s Joseph.” I cradled his head in my hands. “I got you, brother!”
He had to close his eyes from the rain.
I slung A. Lee across my shoulder and tried to stand. My legs burnt with the effort and my bad knee gave a sickening pop, but I got to my feet and staggered to the ladder. I’m not sure how I managed to get us both down, but I did. I let my brother into the bateau as gently as I could, untied us, and got the Evinrude going. It sputtered to life and I gave it gas.
I bounced the bow off a piling, got us clear, and launched us out into the rain. I swung the tiller hard and had the motor roaring, thunder pealing, into the bayou toward the lake.
I risked one look back—I wish I hadn’t.
There, in the doorway, was the trapper, his rope whipping in the storm like a lash. His mouth was moving, and though I couldn’t hear him over the engine, I knew what he said.
We spent a long, wet night in the swamp. I ran us aground under the thickest stand of cypress I could find, but I knew we couldn’t risk the lake in this weather. The wind and rain beat the swamp all night, but at least it kept the worst of the mosquitoes at bay.
A. Lee soon regained his senses, roused almost as if from sleep, and sat up in the bateau.
“Yeah, Lee. It’s alright. We’re good.”
That seemed to satisfy him. We sat there, in the dark, huddled in the bateau till first light. Needless to say, we didn’t go back to the camp. When it was light enough to see, I started up the Evinrude and took us to the launch. It was a long, silent drive home.
We’ve never been back to the camp.
I don’t expect we will.
You can believe whatever you want: that I was drunk and fell from the porch, that my imagination conjured the trapper, that a gust of wind shut the door, and that lightning struck a bit too close to A. Lee that night.
But I know what I believe. I know what’s true.
On paper, we still own that cabin. By law, it’s ours.
But it’s not. It never will be.
And it will be till the whole thing slips beneath that thick, black water and is washed away in a storm.
Maybe even after that.
CREDIT: J.D. Lucien
Second Place: The Blaganschlor
Third Place: The Tavern on the BorderlandsThank you so much to everyone who participated! A number of entries were not in the top three, but are still scheduled to be posted in the upcoming days. We had a really great turnout this time around!
🔔 More stories from author: J.D. Lucien
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