By on Oct 7, 2012 in Fiction

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Swamp with superimposed boy


“Don’t you run from me,” he tells me, and I hear the grayheads in the boat titter, but nervous, because Captain Tip Barstow scares them like he scares me. I can see that. They paid to go on this boat with him, and now they’re in the middle of the river, way down toward the Gulf, so they’re stuck and can’t get off.

He’s got north in his voice, Captain Tip Barstow. And in the roughness on his face he’s got the drinking.

Only the red-haired lady isn’t scared. She’s staring at me through those spectacles with her forehead wrinkled, worried, and I like her, even though I wish she’d tell Captain Tip Barstow to drive away and leave me alone. But that boat is right close to me now, and she talks to me.

“Will you say your name?”

I look at her, quiet, because I’ve got my out-loud name, and I’ve got my whompus-working name, which is secret. And then I’ve got my back name, which is Pickens, so I’m of the Pickens tribe out here, although us Pickenses whompus with the Tulls and the Morgans and the Pettigrews, all of us in the Carmichael Clan. Also, me Pap warned me, you keep clear of Outsiders or that’s big trouble. So I just look down.

But I like the kindness in her face. So I want to give her something.

“Ebenezer,” I tell her.

Then I look down again.  

“I work for the county school system, Ebenezer,” she says, not mean, but worried. “In guidance counseling, and the law says….”

“I’ve got schooling!” I tell her. “Uncle Zeb, he teaches me, all the numbers and letters and ciphering, and Pap teaches me fishing and gator trapping, and Mam teaches my little sister, Pansy, who’s Uncle Zeb’s woman, to do the cooking and…..”

Her eyes go wide and her mouth opens up, like there’s murder.

Ebenezer, she says, how old are you? I tell her twelve, to prove I know my numbers. And how old is your little sister, she asks? I say eleven. And she gasps.

Captain Tip Barstow gives that mean laugh.

“What do you expect from lizards?” he says. “Hey, I’m an entomologist, used to be, anyway, and the bees we studied in Michigan had more civilization than these Swampers.”

Then he starts speaking on bees, in that gator-croak voice, going on, about how they talk among themselves by dancing, and they’re all watching him, even the red-haired lady. I think it’s because he’s like a rifle with cartridges in it, lying quiet there, but nudge it wrong, boom! So while they’re all paying him attention, all quiet, I row away, soft, no water slap, around back of that island to where they can’t see, and then I row hard to the next island, around it to the next, and then two more, going home.

This time, I’m glad to get back to our island, and slide the skiff into the opening in the mangroves. I’ve got the day’s mullets, too, so Pap won’t whap me. But, when I look back, two islands off, there’s the front of that raft-boat poking out, “Captain Tip Barstow’s Hapacoochi River Wildlife Tours.” So I know he followed me, just putt-putting that Evinrude, and maybe he saw where I went.

But I don’t tell, because I did real wrong. Pap would club me sure for that, and I’d have the aching head a long time, and we’d have to move to another island, and start over. Maybe they’d even do a whompus on me for that, the one that sucks out a bad person’s soul and puts it deep down in the mud. And I think, well, maybe he didn’t see where I went, and maybe he doesn’t really know our island now. But it leaves me feeling sick inside, because I know I’ve done a terrible thing, and even the club wouldn’t be enough, and I should get the whompus, or I ought to be shunned away, to live alone. Thinking that, I feel even sicker inside. 

I think about that red-haired lady, too, looking at me so worried, and that dizzies me.

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Richard Wolkomir is a long-time contributor of award-winning articles and essays to magazines, e.g., Reader’s Digest, Smithsonian, Woman’s Day, National Geographic. Now he’s turned to his original interest, fiction, with stories appearing in a variety of literary magazines. He’s especially interested in fiction with a speculative flavor, because our world seems increasingly permeated with the stuff of science fiction, and fantasy is everywhere. Richard lives with his wife, Joyce, in the Vermont mountains, where he keeps an eye out for oreads. You can find more information at RichardJoyceWolkomir.net.