The boy grew up in the tangle of the bayou, in a township known as Rue Moret. His mother had married a farmhand, but his father wasn’t the same man. The boy told himself that these things happen when life loses its luster and we create complications to bear it. He wore a small woven hat wherever he went, and he went many places for a boy of his age. He walked to school most days, alone because his half-sister had been lost in childbirth. The boy still spoke to her, believing if she’d lived that they might have walked alone together, past the tupelos and the cypress groves, and she would greet him every day after class with a magnolia blossom from the tree outside the second grade annex, and only she would know he was failing math because of Virgine Beuze, who sat in front of him and was far more interesting. She would’ve worn a hat like his—his grandmother had stitched it for him when she was alive, and surely she would have made his sister one to match. But his sister was still dead, and he was still walking alone, past the tupelos and the cypress groves. It was preferable to the closet, where the mildew crept into his clothes and he could see through the slats, see his mother and his father, who wasn’t the man she’d married. She never took off the ring, and he never asked her to, and since the boy was not scolded for being late, only for being present, he always took his time returning home.
There were rumors among the higher students of an old house, decayed and twisted within the algae and the murk, bent and broken like the inhabitants of Rue Moret. They said the devil lived there, but the boy took no account of it. He’d walked the route many times, repelled innumerable demons with a sturdy branch, stomped cockroaches by the dozen, but he’d never seen the devil, not once.
A day came when the boy was delayed leaving school, the inevitable result of his growing obsession with Virgine Beuze and his shrinking grasp of basic math. His teacher, who had not made the connection, insisted on private tutoring after class and sought out the boy’s mother, who said she would come for him in the evening. The child did not blame the teacher for trusting his mother and leaving him at the school, and he did not blame his mother when she failed to pick him up. He would walk home, same as always.
But darkness transforms even the most familiar things, and the boy found himself lost along this trail he knew so well. He spoke with his sister until the chirps and croaks of crickets and bullfrogs drowned out his voice. He hurried on, feeling for cypress roots or sinkholes—these were the true dangers of the bayou, he kept reminding himself—brushing aside Spanish moss that seemed to cling to him and bristle over his body. The fen tightened around the boy, threatening to crush him as he had crushed those helpless roaches. He called for help, but the swamp echoed back, mocking him, and the child began to believe that the true danger of the bayou was something quite different from cypress roots and sinkholes, and he began to run, though he had always walked, wary of the boscoyos protruding from the ground, daring travelers to trip upon them, and this is just what happened to the poor boy that night, and he tumbled into the mire, striking his head on a rotted log, and the algae sealed around him, and he was gone.
The child awoke to the glow of a small wood-burning stove near the center of a fisherman’s cabin. He was soaked, but he was also alive, which seemed strange because he was certain that he must have drowned like that Holcomb man they dredged up from the swamp last year, bloated and blue with eyes like glass. But the boy had none of these symptoms, and, arriving at the conclusion that it must have been a miracle, began to thank God for sparing his life.
“You, boy, have you eaten?”
The child looked around and found the fire’s light extending to all corners of the tiny cabin save for the one nearest the stove, and from this corner, blanketed in darkest obsidian, the voice asked again, “Have you eaten?” and the boy, too afraid not to answer a second time, responded, “No sir, I have not.” The old man—because his voice was just that, the strained rasp of one on the verge of death—asked the boy what he would like to eat, and the boy said anything would do, because anything had always done.
“You are alive, and life is cause for celebration.”
The boy agreed with this, and he remembered his grandmother’s pwason sale, which she had learned from her great-grandmother who came from Seychelles, and as he asked, a platter of fish was pushed from the darkness. “Eat,” commanded the voice, and the boy did, finding the dish identical to his grandmother’s preparation—better, in fact, as though all the lost subtleties she had failed to recreate in her great-grandmother’s original recipe had been suddenly revived.
The child ate until he could stomach no more, and he fell back, and it was some time before he remembered the old man, who had not spoken again. The boy asked if he was still there, and the voice of a young girl responded, “I am,” and this frightened the boy terribly. “It was not my intent to alarm you,” the girl said. “I thought you might prefer this.” The boy asked which was real, and the voice responded, “Both. Neither. None closer to life than the other, none closer to death. I sought only to comfort.” But the boy was not comforted, and told the voice that he felt he should leave.
“Have I been unkind?”
“No, but my mother will be expecting me home.”
The little girl laughed, and her voice changed as she did, and a man answered the boy, “You are not expected, child. Stay with me. I pulled you from the mire. I warmed and fed you.” The boy asked who the voice was, and the voice said he was many things, but above all, he was forgotten, like the boy. “The difference is that I do not live, and I do not die. I do not love, so I do not hate. I do not suffer, so I feel no joy. I do not change, and in this way, I am pure.” The boy began to remember the rumors he’d taken no account of, of a house, decayed and twisted within the algae and the murk, and he asked, “Are you the devil?” and the voice laughed again.
“There is no such thing,” it replied. “The devil is an invention of man, an excuse for his hatred and his suffering.” And the boy, who knew only one other option, asked, “Are you God?” and the voice laughed a third time.
“There is no such thing,” it replied. “God is an invention of man, an explanation for his love and his joy.” And the boy, while very smart for his age, felt he had no answer left for who this was, and before he could say this, the voice told him, “I am want. I am desire.” The boy said he did not understand, and the voice said “I will show you,” and the door to the cabin opened, and a soft breeze guided the boy outside.
The breeze wove a path through the Spanish moss, and the boy followed. “Want breeds the greatest hatred, for those who have what you most desire are mortal enemies.” The child continued after the voice. “It is the foundation of love, for what is love but the desire of another’s heart?” The boy began to cry, though he couldn’t comprehend the cause. “To have it withheld is suffering, to receive it, the most profound joy.” The boy pushed through a curtain of moss and found himself before a circular pond where the path had ended. “And want is good, and want is evil, and it is God and the devil all the same, and that is who I am, boy.”
From the pond a figure rose, frail and withered and coated in silt, and this figure clutched something to its chest, and as it approached, the boy could see plainly that it was a girl no older than him, but he was too afraid to run. The girl smiled at him, the sweetest smile he had ever seen, and the boy felt that all was suddenly right with the world.
She drew closer while the voice encouraged him, “You could linger here, talking of what she has missed, what is still to come. You could walk alone together, past the tupelos and the cypress groves.” The girl leaned close, unfolding her arms and extending them to the boy, and in her hands she held a perfect magnolia blossom. The boy reached for it, but upon his touch the golem lost all form and collapsed back into the swamp, as though she were fabricated from it. “But that can never be.”
And the boy cursed the voice for ever bringing him to this terrible place, and the voice changed to that of his sister’s, though the boy did not know how he knew, and she told him that she was born, despite what he’d been told, to his mother and to a man who was not his father, who in her case both agreed that neither wanted a child, and so she was thrown into the waters of the bayou. And the voice said it knew what he desired most, and now so did the boy, though he was too horrified to utter it, and he stumbled backward over one of those wretched boscoyos. The boy emerged from beneath the fanned leaves of a dwarf palmetto. He called to the voice, but it was quiet, save for the bullfrogs and the crickets, who had tired of tormenting him and harmonized softly in the background as dawn’s first light seeped through the canopy. The boy searched for the fisherman’s cabin, but found only the trail he knew so well, which he must have been following all along, and realizing that his clothes were dry and he had no scratches or injuries from his fall, he concluded that he must have dreamt up the entire scenario and hurried home.
Unwelcome as he was, the child was confident that upon his return he could slip into bed unnoticed, but finding the door to his home open, wondered if his mother had gone out searching for him after all. He began to feel guilty for worrying her and announced his arrival, knowing a flurry of curses and beatings would follow, but no one replied. The boy checked his mother’s bedroom first and found the bed made. He checked the kitchen, then his own room, and finding them empty as well, moved to more specific locations like the bathroom and the closets, until he could say with absolute certainty that his mother was not inside the house.
The boy checked the front of the home, and finding nothing more than a few stray marks in the dirt, thought that she must have gone to his school to fetch him, so he changed clothes and walked to class as he always had. He was praised by his teacher for his early arrival and completely ignored Virgine Beuze in math, which made her ignore him less than usual. But no one had seen or heard from his mother, so at the end of the day the child headed back through the bayou, back to his home which was still empty, and he stood on the porch and stared at the faint marks in the dirt and began to fret over them, small as they were, began to think they formed a more curious pattern of five and five, spread wide and continuous, and he followed them a short ways, until he came to a bog around the back side of his house, and saw that they had grown deeper and were heading towards the water.
The boy approached the edge of the swamp, where the marks dug in and splayed out across the dirt, and he peered into the water, and between the thickened algae, a glimmer caught his eye. He swirled the pool, clearing the murk away as he reached in and clasped a small beacon, drawing it up from the silt, and in his hand, the boy held his mother’s wedding ring, and he remembered, in his dream, what he’d wanted more than anything.