Estimated reading time — 4 minutes
From the window I can see the wide green and gold of the bogland stretching as far as the horizon. Between scattered rocks and narrow channels of peaty water some dark shape moves, or is it only shifting clouds and a trick of the dying light? I can never tell.
Gabby plays on the rug, weaving another story from drift wood and clothespin dolls. We’d been on the beach every summer day, early, before the waves washed the good stuff out to sea again. I’d spent hours in Gran’s thread box choosing colors for wrapping the little clothespins while Gabby changed her favorite color from blue to purple to lime green.
One last breath from the old sun sends a long streak of light shooting out over the marsh, turning it all to mirrors, and then it’s gray. Nothing moves. It’s dead.
“Gran?” I say, not sure she’ll be there. But I can smell cooking, lamb and potatoes in a big pot on the stove, and there she is. “Gran,” I say, again.
She looks at me with blue eyes, watery and hidden behind round glasses shining in the lamplight. Smiling, she says, “Get yourself to the basin, Jamie, and wash for supper.”
I run cold well water over my hands and think how to ask her my question. I haven’t decided yet when she’s set the table or when we’ve sat down and Gabby’s dug her spoon into the broth and come up with lumps of carrot. I haven’t decided when we’re lying on the rag rug in front of the fire, Gran in her chair, rocking and knitting long skeins of gray lambs wool.
“Tell us about the bog-men,” Gabby says.
I shiver. I hate the story of the bog-men, but Gabby loves it. I hope Gran decides she’s too tired to tell it. But she only smiles gently, clicking her needles together like a song, and says:
“On a grand soft day, your Grandfather was cutting peat out in the marshes.”
This is how she always begins.
“And as he cut, the wind began whining down and a fret rolled in from the sea, covering all the grass and red lichen on the rocks until he couldn’t see more than a step in front and behind.”
I lived in fear of those sea frets once. The sudden, wooly mists that cover the whole world in seconds used to keep me close by the weathered garden fence and well away from that trackless mire.
“But your Grandfather had lived on this island his whole life and he knew the way of it better than anyone, so he hefted his spade across his shoulders and turned once to the left and started walking. Sooner or later he’d come to the sea, if he could keep out of a bog.”
“But he couldn’t!” Gabby chimes in.
“No, not he. The bog-men couldn’t let him go. They came from their beds, long fingers in the mud, pulling themselves along with their dead hands.”
Gran makes scratchings on the arm of her rocking chair. I want to put my hands over my ears, but I don’t, because Gabby might laugh.
“And who are the bog-men?” Gran asks.
Gabby bounces on her knees. “Travelers!” she says. “Wanderers and the unwary. Lost people who sank in the mud at night.”
Gran nods, picking up her knitting again and rocking. “That’s it. They come back up in the frets and on moonless nights. The bog-men gripped your Grandfather’s ankles with both hands and dragged him down.”
“Why?” I ask.
Gran doesn’t answer. She just rocks and finally she shrugs. “Nobody knows the why of it. The marsh takes what it takes and how it takes it is none of our business.”
I say nothing. Gabby crosses the wooden floor on her little bare feet, climbs into the window and presses her face against the glass.
“You won’t see anything,” I say. “It’s too dark.”
“I can see the bog-men’s lights.”
I don’t want to see them. I turn my face away as my feet take me to the window. Gabby puts her hand in mine, taps the glass, pointing. “See?” she says.
I see little green flames, round, glowing lanterns in the dark. Blowing in the salt wind off the sea they dance and bob along the ground, close to the mires. A dozen or more.
I don’t like it. Gabby won’t let go, so I jerk my hand free. She pouts. She’s too cute to be so ghoulish. Gran puts her knitting in the cradle-shaped sewing box beside her chair and stands. “Time for bed,” she says.
So I climb the corkscrew stairs to bed, and take off my shoes and put on my pajamas and climb into the big bed that’s all mine. I wait for the creak of the floorboards that say Gran has gone to her bed. I wait for my eyes to see in the dark, wait for the wind to rise and moan around the gables.
I hear the soft pad of bare feet and the faint sigh of her breathing, standing near the bed. Most nights I would try to ignore her, but tonight she climbs in next to me, snuggling down where it’s warm, without asking.
“Gabby,” I say.
She wiggles round so we’re face to face in the dark. I shut my eyes to shut out thoughts, but memory doesn’t work like that.
“What was it like?” I ask.
“When?” She says, her high pitched whisper close to my ear.
“When they dragged you.”
“Oh.” She pauses, thinking. “It was scary. And cold. Their hands were hard and pinching. I didn’t like it when I couldn’t breathe, but then it was quiet.”
“Oh,” I say. I finally decide to ask my question to Gabby, not to Gran.
“Why don’t you leave?”
She snuggles closer, small arms around my neck. “We’re lonely outside,” She says.”You left us out there. You ran, and Gran and me couldn’t.”
In the morning, a man comes from the mainland. Tall and thin, wrapped up in a brown wool coat against the autumn wind, he looks like a scarecrow. He has a case in one hand, shakes my hand with the other.
“I’m so sorry,” he says.
I nod. He’s here to take me away from this place, so I’m glad of him coming. We walk up the grassy hill, along the gravel path, through the dying garden to the house.
The man comes up the steps, stops, points to our door. I painted it this summer in deep green, and I was proud of it, so I look too.
“Do you have a dog?” the man asks. “We can take him back with us on the ferry.”
I see it, then, the long marks on the new paint. Deep scratches in the wood itself.
“No,” I say. “We never had a dog.”
I know what they are, though. They come from their beds, long fingers in the mud, pulling themselves along with their dead hands.
The marsh still wants what it wants. Even when you run.
Credit: Rosemary Hamend