They made her a grave, too cold and damp
For a soul so warm and true;
And she’s gone to the Lake of the Dismal Swamp,
Where, all night long, by a fire-fly lamp,
She paddles her white canoe.
— from A Ballad: The Lake of the Dismal Swamp,
by Thomas Moore 1779–1852
Working for your soon-to-be-ex must surely have some advantages but, driving the rental vehicle away from Norfolk International Airport, Triste Fanon couldn’t think of one. Her research assignment involved a place called Lake Drummond in the Great Dismal Swamp and you couldn’t make that up. The bastard had handed her the file straight-faced, only smirking when he waved her off with “Watch out for alligators.” Whatever. She would rather have the company of real alligators than the foul-mouthed reptile the man she’d once loved had become. Great dismal swamp, indeed, that defined her marriage nicely.
Triste turned off Route 17 to pick up her rented canoe before heading south to the ramp at Arbuckle Landing, which led onto Dismal Swamp Canal.
One space remained in the parking area. The setting sun sparkled off her windshield, reflected from the Feeder Ditch, the only access to the Lake Drummond camping area. She checked the time, only forty minutes to sunset with three miles to paddle. Regulations permitted nobody on the water at night.
Maneuvering the canoe to the ramp and from the ramp into the tea-colored water took all Triste’s strength and determination. She had loaded the canoe believing she was alone when a male voice hailed her from the shadow of a nearby recreational vehicle.
“It’ll take some tough paddling to reach the campsite, before nightfall, lady.” The speaker appeared — a huge man in blue jeans and red check shirt — carrying a canoe on one shoulder and a kitbag on the other.
“I’ve trained in kayak skills, thank you very much,” Triste snapped, boarding her canoe with the paddle raised more like a weapon than a means of propulsion.
“Maybe, but you got yourself a canoe, ma’am, and there’s a big difference.” He set his own canoe on the water and stepped in. “Besides, I know where you rented that one. Those people haven’t got the best reputation for maintenance. So you take care, little lady. Folks have been lost without trace in Dismal Swamp.”
The giant paddled off along the Feeder Ditch into lengthening shadows, a sparkling chevron of ripples in his wake.
Before she’d pulled a hundred paddle strokes, Triste felt her canoe getting heavier and her feet wet. She did consider shouting but pride overruled that idea. By the time water reached her crotch the other canoe was out of sight anyway. Reasoning the ditch was narrow so the bank couldn’t be far away, she dug deep with the paddle and heaved the canoe between tree trunks bordering the clear water to where the bank should have been. In the deepening gloom of the swamp she found only more water and foul mud.
Close at hand something slithered and plopped with a soft after-splash. Gurgling and bubbles surrounded Triste as the canoe settled to the bottom, leaving her neck-deep in chill water, feet flailing in weed and slime.
Rhythmic splashing accompanied by the snort of heavy breathing approached out of the now total darkness.
A beam of white light probed gaps between tree trunks and foliage, settled on her life preserver and found her face.
“Alligator,” was all she could say through fear-frozen lips.
“Hello, little lady.” He chuckled. “I didn’t notice earlier, you’re English.”
“Get me out of here, please.”
“Don’t you worry yourself about alligators.”
“I heard… Never mind. Just help me out.”
“Snakes. We got snakes. Little old cottonmouths, a lot of copperheads and a few canebrake rattlers, but we got no alligators in Virginia.”
“Stop talking and pull me out, you stupid man.”
“Hey, there’s no cause to get sassy,” her savior moaned, his voice high pitched for such a big man. Grasping Triste beneath the armpits he hoisted her clear of the swamp and rolled her into his canoe.
“All my gear and spare clothing is in that canoe,” Triste groaned, as the big guy powered them toward the Lake Drummond Reservation camping area.
“No problem. Tomorrow we’ll go back and see what we can salvage. Tonight, I’ll light a fire. That’ll dry you out some and stop you dying of exposure. My tent is big enough for two.”
“Now look here… What is your name?”
“Mike. Mike Elwin.”
“Mike, you saved my life, but there’s a limit — ”
“Quit worrying, lady. You’re safe.”
“Look, I’m no lady. I’m Triste.”
“Trust me, Triste, you’re safe. I’m gay.”
Leaving her rescuer sleeping, Triste unzipped the tent and crept out into a misty early morning world of wonder. Her previous stressed-out state must have blinded her to the beauty. Fall had decked out the majestic cypress trees and Atlantic white cedars of the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in glorious golden tones, enhanced in their reflections by the amber, tannic water. The swamp was no longer threatening, but a magical place of Native American legend and American history.
Mike had proved to be a font of knowledge about every aspect of the lore, nature and history of Dismal Swamp and Lake Drummond, an excellent campfire cook and surprisingly good company. Triste stretched out her arms and wrapped his enormous red shirt tight around her. She grinned like a contented cat. Mike Elwin was also a liar.
It seemed that the other great dismal swamp in Triste’s soul had all but vanished, replaced now by a bright sea of possibilities.
But oft, from the Indian hunter’s camp,
This lover and maid so true
Are seen at the hour of midnight damp
To cross the Lake by a fire-fly lamp,
And paddle their white canoe! *
Oscar Windsor-Smith has fiction, non-fiction and poetry published in print and online. He was a finalist in the 2012 New York City Midnight Short Story Challenge and was short listed in the University of Plymouth short fiction competition 2013.
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