I’ve never liked shallow water.
I’m a strong swimmer, raised in South Carolina near the ocean where I learned to navigate rip tides by the time I was ten. I’ve never minded the thought of the abyss below me, hundreds or even thousands of feet through azure water to the bottom. Instead, I found that insulating layer of water comforting. There’s something about the ground underneath, about the undisturbed muck, that makes me recoil. I’ve always dismissed the feeling as irrational, alwayswished it was irrational, but there are times where human instinct is right beyond all reasoning.
When I was fifteen one Saturday, as the humid days of summer departed and the first leaves of fall fell, my father decided to take the family on a camping trip towards the inland. I was in my room when he told me, painting my toenails with red peace signs though I typically was into more outdoorsy than girly activities. I guess at that age I was at a turning point, with freshman year of high school right about to start, where my eyes started turning more to dresses and less to the interesting types of bugs that roamed under my family’s front door mat.
“Angie,” My father called, opening my ajar door with one of his thick fingers, “Impromptu vacation. Your mother’s business trip was canceled, so we’re going camping. Pack up- we’re only staying overnight, so you won’t need much. Calvin is already waiting in the car.”
My father left, and I heard his figure bouncing off the walls of our hallway like a bowling ball. He was broad shouldered, kept muscular by his work as a construction foreman, and always developing plans at the last possible minute. My mother said his spontaneity was on of the reasons she fell for him, and I could see the charm in that. As low level executive at a nearby health firm, every minute of her life was structured, and I think she enjoyed the break from a rigorous schedule.
Within thirty minutes I was in the car, a small pack tied together with a ribbon on my lap, Calvin, my six year old brother, to my left and my parents ahead. My mother laughed and swatted at my father as he lurched the car forward in a fruitless attempt to smoke the mini van’s tires on asphalt. He had long christened the minivan as The Red Streak, and my mother rolled her eyes as he fibbed to my younger brother about the days when he had come second in place with it down at the NASCAR tracks, and if mother had let him buy the Dodge Charger he wanted then he would have come in first. Calvin was too young to protest the story, nodding along and asking questions in a reedy voice that always stuck out in a crowd.
“What happened next dad? Why didn’t you take it to race again?”
“Well, son, when Angie was born I had to stop racing due to the dangerousness of the sport. I was the best driver, but your mother always pleaded for me to stop, and I can’t imagine how she would have made it on without me.” My mother nudged him in the ribs, but he continued. “So I retired The Red Streak fourteen years ago. But if you can convince your mother to trade this one out, after fifteen whole years of owning it, for a car that can go zero to sixty in less than a year, I’d go back into racing just for you.”
“Your racing days are over, honey.” Said my mother as we pulled into the gravel road of the campground. Outside the window, I saw the sign directing towards the ranger building, where my father parked and obtained the necessary permits. As he talked with the ranger, I let my eyes wander, and read the warning signs on the side of the building.
Respect the wildlife, and it will respect you.
Warning: This area is known for particularly high levels of snakes and snapping turtles, please thoroughly investigate campsite upon arrival.
Within the hour I was helping my father pitch the two tents while Calvin explored the campsite. Every few minutes he stopped to reign Calvin in, as my brother had a tendency to wander farther than he should, and I kept one of my eyes focused on him as well. A few sites over there was a cabin that he was exploring, with a sign on the front indicating that it would be renovated in the next month with running water.
Dark was approaching at a rapid pace, and my shoes were had already collected a considerable amount of mud. There had been a thunderstorm the day before, and the camping area had nearly turned into a swamp, with an overflowing creek that generated long, murky puddles along its bank, particularly near the cabin. Some years ago, the ranger had said, the area had been a swamp before it was drained, and now perhaps it was remembering its past ways.
The wind picked up as we ate a dinner of hamburgers, howling through the site and whistling as it swirled about the top of my father’s beer. The moon had risen, making flashlights unnecessary despite the night, and our fire sputtered as interspersed clouds spat fat rain drops into its coals. Calvin had gone to bed a half hour before, his eyes barely able to stay open after the excitement of the day, and as water seeped through the outer layers of my rain jacket I too stood up.
“I’m calling it a night,” I said to my father, and he nodded.
“Sorry Angie, weatherman predicted it would be a clear night. I’ll see you in the morning.”
I unzipped the opening to the tent, the wind throwing the flap wide open and the moon illuminating my sleeping brother inside, and climbed into the warmth of my sleeping bag. With my hair fanned out on my pillow, I let sleep take me. And without the screams, I would have slept straight through the night.
The first scream jarred me into consciousness, pushing sleep from my mind to be replaced by confusion. It sounded like the wind, but more reedy. A reedy voice just like my brother.
“Angie!” I thought I heard among the rainfall, coming down much more steady now. I turned in the tent, and where my brother should have been, there was no one.
With a start I threw off my sleeping bag, rolling out the still open flap of the tent and onto the wet ground in the direction of the voice. I struggled through the mud, making my way towards the cabin and stream. Thunder cracked above me, and lightning illuminated my way as I waded in the puddles along the bank in my bare feet, water reaching up to my knees.
But there was no Calvin. There was only me, alone, with my toes sinking deep into the muck.
And as I stood there, I felt a hand grip my leg. A hand larger than even my father’s, and bone hard.
I screamed, yanking my foot, but I had already sank too deep into the puddle. Another hand joined the first, reaching up to my thigh, and then my father was in front of me, reaching out to me and pulling me from the puddle by fy forearms.
The mud resisted, but with a pop I felt my heel break the suction, and the hand receded. Then, just as my toes were about the clear the barrier, there was a sharp pain in my toe. My foot cleared the water and there, where my pinky toes should be, there was only a bloodied stump.
My father carried me back to the tent, where my brother was asleep with my parents. He had never walked out into the night, but instead had entered my parent’s tent when I was asleep and the storm had started.
From there the ranger took us to the hospital.
“Most likely a snapping turtle, miss. Them snappers can be brutal. It’s happened to some of our campers before, and we’ve taken every precaution against them. Sometimes they’ll even take fingers, if they can get a hold of em. I’m very sorry.” He said from the front seat, while I cried in the back.
The hospital patched me up, and all talk of the hands that had tried to pull me under was attributed to shock and the heavy pain medication they injected into me.
A month later, my father received a phone call from the ranger about a certain article on the news about the camping site’s renovations.
While rebuilding a cabin so that it could have running water, several skeletons were found in the underground path where they would be inserting the new pipe. They were over two hundred years old, with muskets beside them, and indian scalps preserved still in their hands. According to historians, it was an indian hunting party that had become lost in the swamp, and swallowed up by the muck during a heavy storm. It was peculiar though, as scattered inside the remains of one skull, there were bits of fingers and toes that did not belong to the original bodies.
One historian voiced that perhaps the soldiers took indian appendages instead of the normal scalping. But it was strange, he commented, that an indian should paint the peace symbol on their nail.