Siren In The Swamp
Those Who Hear the Call Are Forever Changed
Sawyer County, Wisconsin
Isaac said the fog was a good thing. According to him, Omaha’s legend told of fog being one of the protections of the silver mine. Isaac had been chasing this treasure for six years and knew all there was to know about it. He said there were other natural warnings, clues rather, telling us we were on the right path: pallid mushrooms, dead trees, the fog-I did not like it. The stuff seemed to come out of nowhere when we crested the last hill. We had stalked in the woods for an hour and that was after hiding near the washout to make sure no one saw us leave. Sundays in the logging camp ain't nothing to waste, we don’t need anything else hampering our treasure hunt.
Shadrach had his peashooter, which matched his stature. Being the greenhorn, I was bringing my Remington, rope, knife and all kinds of sundries. Meshach, that behemoth, who knows what’s on him besides chisels and hammer. Isaac wasn’t much for guns, but he never went anywhere without his buck knife. A course, this was only a scouting trip. ‘Reconnaissance’, Isaac had said. That man is just full of interesting words. Still, best be prepared; never know what you're gonna find in the woods.
“There is supposed to be an outcropping of rock,” Isaac spoke confidently as we marched through the misty woods. His keen eyes were ever alert and his broad shoulders made me oddly comfortable.
“How are we supposed to see it in all this fog?” Meshach had been panting since the onset. Lugging that huge frame can’t be easy, let alone those tree trunk arms.
“Use your nose,” Shadrach chided his brother and wrinkled his weasel nose. “I can smell the metal!” he stalked, unabated by the fog. Isaac smiled oddly and pushed down the hill after him, I followed. Trees were ghosted in white and gray; the tops could have been a mile away. A slight wind wrestled my hair and made me pause. Odd for gusts to be this deep in the woods. We pressed on.
“Is this it?” Meshach shouted from the east. I could hear Isaac sprinting over the leaves.
“Let me see,” Isaac was inspecting the large black boulder when I reached them. It was wide and seemed to crest out of the earth as if it were swimming in the soil.
“Well, is it?” I was thrilled by the thought of the silver mine and to have the good fortune to fall in with Isaac.
“Give me a minute,” Isaac patted the granite as he walked and inspected. His fingers bounded over the weathered rock, and he side eyed the outcropping at different intervals. Moss on the north side shrouded the stone and another stripe ran along the middle. I wondered how far the rock went down. Millions of bits of grey and mica glinted off the rock.
“It has been a minute,” Meshach chided. Isaac lifted his knife and pointed it at Meshach’s face.
“Next person brings me agita is gonna get my initials on their eyelids,” I swallowed hard; Meshach just laughed.
“OK, boss. OK,” Meshach stepped off.
“How did you get him hired in the first place?” Isaac glared at Shadrach.
“I told Danny Holcomb what I tell everyone,” The older brother leered.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“That Meshach is a good bargain; if one of Holcomb’s oxen goes down, he has a replacement in Meshach,” Shadrach laughed with spite and let the tension fall away. Lingering ringing sound far off, or was it singing? I wanted to ask them if they heard it, but I was too embarrassed. Before I could muster the courage our leader spoke.
“Yep, this is it,” Isaac slapped the rock.
“How do you know?” Shadrach pressed, “Are you certain?”
“I will be in a minute,” Isaac stared at his partner.
“How?” Shadrach pushed in once more, defiant.
“Because look here,” Isaac pointed to the greenish, moss colored streak running the length of the stone. “Omaha says this rock was pushed all the way from Lake Superior.”
“By who, Paul Bunyan?” Meshach snickered loudly and I laughed?
“That’s 80 miles, Ike,” Shadrach joined us with a giggle.
“Go ahead and laugh, I'm just learning you what I know. I just assume keep it to myself if that's how you gonna act.”
“Please, go on,” I blurted out.
“Go on, go on,” Meshach said, “Please!”
“Easy, boys,” Shadrach said smiling. “We will get to the gold.”
“Silver,” Isaac corrected.
“Whatever. Just tell me how you know this hear rock is the magic rock.”
“It's not magic; I never said magic,” Isaac said defensively.
“How did this rock, big is a barn, get from Lake Superior to here?” Shadrach yelled.
“Glaciers, you idiot. If you'd shut your fool mouth, I'll tell you what Omaha and his people believe.” Silence came over us. I was hoping Shadrach and Meshach would shut up so I could get the lowdown.
“Glaciers, I'm listening,” Shadrach mocked putting his hand to his ear. As he said that, I was sure I heard a woman's voice on the fog. Or was it a bird? My head began to swim as Isaac told of the stone’s origin.
“Story goes, tens of thousands of years ago, when the glaciers took hold up north, they chased Omaha’s people out of there. For thousands of years his people flee south as the ice crushes everything in its path. Greedy and mean, the ice grinds the Rift Valley of Superior and churns out rocks from the ancient lava field. Rocks of the Keweenaw, of the copper faults, pushed ‘em right here.” Isaac looked to Shadrach as if it should mean something.
“I don't see no copper,” Shadrach waved his arms. Isaac stood calmly.
“You are not looking very closely,” he smiled and looked to me. “Bitney, you got the lemon and salt I told you to bring?”
“Yes, sir.” Finally, time to earn my keep! I dug into my pockets and tossed him the satchel.
“Good man, Bitney,” he said pulling out the lemon. “You’ll make it out of this hellhole one way or another,” Isaac dug his fingers into the lemon letting the juice splash onto the stone. Then he took out the salt and sprinkled a generous portion on the green slab.
“I didn't know you were making flapjacks,” Meshach joked, “Here I am without a plate.”
“Did you bring your handkerchief?” Isaac snapped.
“Surely,” Meshach handed over his hanky which Isaac used to rub the spot. “Hey!” Meshach complained.
“Just watch,” Isaac rubbed in a circular motion allowing the grits of salt to cut into the moss, but it wasn't moss at all. The green was patina, and it was coming off quickly to reveal a warm copper luster.
“Well, I'll be jiggered,” Shadrach stepped closer as Isaac made larger swipes to show a gleaming streak of metal fading back to green. Isaac stepped back and beamed.
“Believe me now?”
“Never doubted you, boss!” Meshach cheered.
“So, where is the entrance to the mine?” Shadrack was almost ravenous with his words. Isaac tossed me the satchel with the remaining salt. He proceeded to follow the stripe of green and pace to the edge of the rock.
“About a mile that way,” Isaac extended his arm in the same direction the strip was pointing.
“A mile!?” Meshach tossed his head. “We already come two miles. You said this was the spot!” The oaf pouted and flopped himself onto the slab of stone. Isaac was brimming with disdain.
“If you don't have the gumption to come with us, you are welcome to head back to camp,” The thought of going on without Meshach was unsettling, he was a human breastwork when his chisels were out.
“Uhhnn,” Meshach grunted. From what I knew of him, that meant he needed a moment to rest.
“Isaac?” It felt odd to say his name aloud, as if I should not deign conversation with one so complete. “If it’s not magic, what it is?”
“This here is a milestone, Bitney,” Isaac said. Omaha's people say it was a gift from Mishi Peshu, the great Water Panther.”
“Sure, Water Panther, got it.” Shadrack spat at the rock.
“I'm just telling you what I know,” Isaac saluted him with the knife and began walking towards the direction of the mine. I followed quickly into the fog and kept my head on a swivel.
“They say this rock was positioned by the cat himself,” Isaac’s voice was cloudy and far away but I was glued to his words. “This rock was to aid Omaha's people upon return, point them to the silver mine that would hold the currency of the future. So Omaha and his people could always have hope.”
“I got hope, boss!” Meshach shouted and could be heard moving through the leaves.
“And soon, will have a bit of that silver!” When Shadrack said the words, a humming began inside me. I saw all the riches of a future me. A grand house, my view was astounding. I did my best to shake myself from the vision, but it was so vivid... we tromped through the leaves, the ground seemed soft, the air was thick with moisture.
“Son of a…” Shadrack yelled from the side. I looked past him to where the fog was the thickest. He must had stumbled upon the shallow part of a swamp.
“What did you do?” Meshach bounded up alongside me.
“Just reach me a stick!” Shadrach had found an especially soft spot of ground and sunk into his knee with the right leg.
“Alright, give me a second,” I started to unload my gear.
“Stop playing around,” We could barely see him, and his voice was damped, but Isaac was still moving toward the direction of the mine.
“I will anchor,” Meshach directed. “Bitney, run the rope around that tree and toss the slack to Shadrach.” A seasoned Jack would have known not to wiggle a swamp tree. I did as I was told, tossing one end to Meshach and the other to Shadrach.
“Hold on, I can't get a grip,” “Shadrach took a step, and his other foot found the same deep muck. “Dang it!”
“Did you get your socks wet?” Meshach’s voice carried real concern.
“Shut up and pull!”
“Bitney,” Meshach nodded to me. “Ready, and go!” We tugged hard but Shadrach wouldn't budge. “You been eating those apple fritters again?” Meshach laughed hard at his own joke, wiggling the taut rope.
“Pull, you ninny! Or, maybe you’re not as strong as you used to be,” Shadrach shouted. That was just the mustard Meshach needed. He shoved me out of the way and wound the rope around his waist and then his forearm. Shadrack did the same. Meshach dug in with his boots and yanked. Leaning back on the rope, he pressed with his huge legs. The tree we used as fulcrum was swaying hard.
“Help, Bitney!” the big man gritted through his teeth.
I ran to Meshach but didn't notice the powder puff mushrooms I had disturbed. Little tufts of smoke emanated from them and joined the fog. A tingle of delight sprung in me as I joined in pulling the rope.
I felt strong and dizzy, but I was set on helping Meshach. What an outstanding man. What a charmer. We need men like him, on all fronts. Sure, he can be brutish, but who can blame him in a world so harsh. I was lingering on his wide back when I heard a crack from the canopy. Had I been an experienced Jack, I would have known that sound. I know it now; it is the sound a widow maker branch.
If the fog wasn't so thick, we could have seen it a second earlier. Maybe two. Isaac heard it and screamed to take cover. But his voice was so far away, and I wanted to hear the singing anyway. I had only a moment to view Shadrach alive one last time, as the widow maker crashed on his skull. He did not have time to scream.
But I did.
“What in the hell?”! Isaac raced up to a bewildered Meshach. I was grunting in disbelief.
“He got stuck, the rope. We- I-“ I pointed at the tree. The rope was slack. I wanted to help, do anything. So, I started to roll up the rope. Dust was everywhere.
“Stop!” Isaac yelled, but it was too late. He pointed to the ground where I had just crushed more powder puffs. Within seconds the stinging in my nostrils was awful. Shocks of white flashed in my eyes and I choked out a cough. Then I vomited. Isaac and Meshach did the same. My eyes felt itchy, we all rubbed them hard.
“Get out. We have to. Get-“ Isaac was woozy as he looked to Shadrach’s body. Meshach careened with his hunky arms but stood fast. Weirdly, my first notion was that there would be more treasure to split now that Shadrach was dead. “Leave him- Get him on the way back.” Isaac’s statement sounded fair. I nodded and we started to collect our gear.
Then the singing came, and we stopped moving. I wanted to turn to Isaac and know he was hearing it, too, but I was fearful the sound would go away. I stayed still. The notes were human like, certainly feminine. Sounds moved through me like water through a sieve, leaving only a residue. I yearned to grab hold of their taste as they trickled through me.
I was hungry for more; the remains were not enough. The sounds passed and I shook my vision out. Things were slow, but the sting in my nostrils was gone. My nose felt stuffy, thick with mucus, I heaved a deep breath, and the trees began to spin. I looked to Isaac; he was staring straight at the base of a tree. Shadrach's body lay under the fallen limb a few feet away, Meshach was staring into the mists of the swamp.
I wanted more of the song. The lusting of the silver mine had turned to the treasure of her song. My fantasies got the better of me and I became determined to set eyes on the songstress. I left Ike and Shach to their staring and wobbled out of the muck. My ears were electric, senses on overdrive. The wetness on the air was palpable as if I were walking through water. Something deep within me told me to run. Things were not right. Then the song returned to my ears, and I was at ease. I turned to seek out its creator. ‘This way’, I think it said
There came a struggle within me as my mind was telling me to go to the water, but the swell from inside said stop. The voice in the wind said, ‘Come closer,’ I stepped towards it. In a flash I was standing before Isaac. He was turning his knife over and over.
“What have I done?” He held the heavy blade and whined. “I am a bad leader. And a bad friend. Shadrach. Shadrach!” Isaac’s howl moved me. I was wrong, too. I should've never lied about my age. I should not be in this camp. I'm not strong enough to be with these men. I looked to Meshach, he was looking at his dead brother, still under the fallen limb.
“I am a bad brother,” Meshach declared. “I never should have gone with the plan. Now my brother is dead,” He started to cry big, blubbering tears. Meshach held up his hammer and chisel in outstretched arms. “Eye I for an eye, right brother?” Meshach brought the chisel up to his eye. With one huge swing he pounded the chisel through his eye socket. Not even a grunt, Meshach looked to the mist for a moment before dropping to his knees. Blood dripped from both sides of the wound, there came a shuddering of the swamp, something was moving below the surface.
I almost wanted to applaud him. The voice said, ‘Closer.’ Isaac was now at the waters’ edge.
“I, too, have failed,” Isaac said. “I should never have let you sign up for this. I knew you were too young, but I have made a fine living on consuming ignorance. No more,” Isaac stepped into the water and grabbed the handle of the buck knife with both hands. He turned the blade toward himself, raised the hilt, and plunged the blade into his own stomach. I nodded as I watched him rip the knife up and down, tearing vital organs as he fished for his heart. He sighed and bent, finally sitting in the knee deep water.
All I could do was approve. The songstress said, yes, so I said, yes. I wanted to contribute as well, but I had no forlorn over Shadrack. He was of little consequence to me, but as I watched the two remaining members of my team let their blood seep into the swamp, it right to go with them. After all, I brought the rope, I must play some sort of culpability.
‘Eye for an eye’, I heard Meshach say again; or was it the wind? I stepped over the mossy roots into the water. The song was beautiful. ‘Come’, she said. Finally, I figured out how.
I fastened the quick loop around my neck and tossed the other end over a branch. I caught the rope and wound the slack on my forearm till it was taught. The first tug cut off my airpipe and pulled me up to my tip toes. Sound swirled into a hum and my body began to tingle with delight. A few tugs of the rope and I had myself off the ground. I wiggled in the air but tried to be calm. I pulled tight, eager to see my songstress. A crescendo of ethereal vespers sounded all around and for a moment I was awash in warmth. Glory was mine. Then in a flash I was wet and cold. Her angelic sound was muffled, far away. No!
I found myself face up in the muck of the swamp. Mud had seeped into my ears and distorted the song. The rope above was still dangling on the branch. I did not account the for the release of my grip when I passed out. Usually, the neck is broken in a gallows, but this is no gallows.
Angelic sounds of moments ago were now discord, the muck in my ears distorted the music, which now was a pattern of hisses and gulps. I turned to see Isaac, still knee deep in the water, now slumping almost completely. In horror, I watched as tentacles rose around his body, caressing Isaacs every pore. Pulling him deeper into the water, his face was almost submerged when I saw a glint of life in his eyes. The tentacles swarmed and pulled him under the water for good.
“Meshach!” I shouted splashing out of the water. He was still on his knees staring into the fog over the swamp. Hammer in hand he seemed fine, save for the chisel sticking out both ends of his head. I tried egging him, but he would not move. He must have crossed a wire when he slammed the chisel through his head, because he had not stopped staring into the mist.
“Meshach!” I yelled again. I tried to lasso him but missed wide. The water’s surface began to ripple, and tentacles came for Meshach, too. They wound around his massive trunk and arms. I scrambled back to my kit to grab the Remington. I shot into the tentacles, and everything screamed. I fired again and the tentacles retreated, but only for a moment. A roiling screech came from the water. The air rang with tinnitus like I have never witnessed. I dropped the gun a covered my ears. Meshach, still kneeling in the shallow water, grunted as if trying to wake from a dream.
Ravenous splashing pushed from the center it came close to us. Fog made it difficult to see, but I could make out something like a giant face that was all tentacles, some 40 feet long. I could not make out what propelled it but there was an eye on both sides of its head. Frothing water pulsed around Meshach, hammer at the ready, he pulled another chisel out of his pocket and started hacking at the beast. The tentacles were too much for even Meshach’s strong arms. He struck the creature aimlessly till he was submerged, and the struggle ceased.
Watching the event made me oddly jealous that Meshach got to be so close to her. There was a push and pull inside me-I wished to go to the water, but I knew better. In a fury Meshach broke the surface. He tried to scream but the tentacle on his neck choked him silent. I was being lulled again by the songstress, but Meshach's face brought me out of it. They struggled for a moment, then Meshach disappeared for good. Dazed, I stumbled into a tree. Still drunk with song, I ran back to camp, regretting not kissing her the whole way.
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About the Creator
Jordan J Hall
I write Historical and Speculative Flash Fiction. Nature and society's underbelly are the focus of my work. My writing can be found at FoxHollowStories.com and The Spectre Review Literary Magazine. Check out jordanjhall.com for more.
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