He held the shoe box high above his head, swamp water up to his armpits. His spine tingled with the fear of the water, snakes, gators ... hell, who knew what all was in there? Cypress knees began to look like dinosaurs and, worse, like the things that lived only in his mind. The light was fading, and John was beginning to think he wouldn't make it. He didn't really care. Still, it was hard to be brave while shoulder deep in thick, green mystery.
He walked steadily. He put one foot in front of the other, making sure that each step was secure before shifting his weight. John had grown up in the swamp. He had been more sure-footed in his youth, however. Less fearful. Funny what the years do.
Seventy years, give or take. He wasn't quite sure, but he knew he was at least seventy. Doreen had always been the one who remembered. They had been the same age. John was always more concerned with people, with his work, with family - numbers annoyed him. He didn't like locking anything down. Can we keep this turtle, Daddy? The memory rose slowly in his mind. Anne. She was all power suits and business jargon, now, but back then she had been his partner, sun-kissed and always laughing. Daddy's girl. That sure changed.
He'd told her no. No, they couldn't keep the turtle. No way. It wasn't right. He tried to tell her how he didn't like locking things in. Like the numbers. No freedom in numbers. No safety either. He couldn't let her lock the turtle up. The turtle belonged in the swamp, not chewing lettuce in a cage. She had tried to smile in that tight-lipped way that almost concealed the quivering. Ok, Daddy. It had broken his heart. He wondered if that had been the beginning of it.
The sounds of the swamp were the sounds of his own heart. He didn't hear them anymore. Or they were all he heard. Something. They were a part of him. He knew that. They lived in him. The swamp ran through his veins. Sometimes, he wondered who had been in charge all those years. The trapper? The hunter? The fisherman? Or the place that made it all possible?
They had lived a good life for a long time. When Anne started to pull away, it seemed to loosen the bonds of everything. The swamp wasn't the same anymore. Money was killing it. Greed. Anne did not call him Daddy once she hit middle school. He'd spoken of it once to his sister, who had grown up in upstate New York with their mother. She didn't understand the big deal. And it wouldn't have been a big deal up north. But it is hard to accept that when you hear a girl yell for her Daddy, there is no longer a need to turn around. Dad smacked of distance. Which is exactly what it was.
The distance grew. Anne read books in her room and rolled her eyes at the things John loved. He didn't fault her for it. The world was changing.
He had talked to her not a week before. She couldn't come down, she said. Things were just crazy - she was so busy. John wondered if it would have been different if the roles were reversed. If Doreen had called about him.
Lost in his thoughts, John stepped into a sinkhole. He tried to pull his foot free. Tried to balance. To stay calm. He did not have the strength to pull himself up, and he began to sink slowly. He held the box as high above his head as he could - his chin went under and he held his breath. Slowly, the sun-cured arm descended into the thick murk beneath the surface.
No one was there to see it. An Arthurian perversion. The old man of the swamp. The sun dropped and the box hit the water, ashes spreading out on the surface in a thin film. Beneath, John was dying, but he was happy. He knew Anne would be fine. Better than fine. She always had been. He had always belonged to the swamp. And he had always belonged to Doreen.
There are many mysteries in the swamp, they say. Folks from up north smile and nod. The locals blanch and shake their heads.
Everyone has something buried in the swamp.