The Swamp King, By Laura Diaz de Arce
Once there was a rickety, old house between a large orange grove and an ancient hidden swamp. It was a small cottage that sat on stilts to account for the times the nearby river flooded. It always seemed a little unsteady, and if a hard storm came, the walls would creak and the house would sway this way and that. The people who lived inside could live and die by the strength of the storm, always fearing that a harsh one would blow them over.
This cottage sat next to an orange grove, when the wind blew west the air would smell like sweet fresh citrus. But when the wind blew east, it would be the hot, moss-ridden breeze of untamed wet air and decay. The swamp had a fierce reputation for the people who lived near it. It was filled with poisonous snakes, alligators, and predators of all kinds. If the rain came there was no safety from the climbing waters. More than one hunter had disappeared in that swamp looking for game, and search parties were often too afraid to go near. They said that in that swamp was a cursed King, who reigned over the wilderness and kept people at bay. That this Swamp King traded in fearsome and unruly magic that ran amok in and around the swamp.
In that rotting little cottage lived Silvia and her step-father. While most fathers love their daughters, and most daughters love them back, Silvia and her step-father carried no such affection. Silvia's father was as cruel to Silvia as he had been to her mother when she was alive. When Silvia's mother had finally dared to try to leave, promising Silvia that she would come back to her, she was found frozen by a mysterious spell a mile away from the cottage. In her worst nightmares, Silvia still remembered her mother's horrified face behind that strange block of ice that refused to melt in the heat of summer. Silvia desperately wanted to escape herself, but she feared she'd be frozen as well, or worse. That fear kept her imprisoned to her step-father, frightened of the beasts and wild magic that lay out there.
Until one day that fear could no longer keep her safe from the ever-lingering gaze of him. In that years since her mother had passed, Silvia had grown into a beautiful young woman. She had delicate long limbs like the roots of a mangrove and lips as red as a scarlet snake's collar. Her dark hair trailed behind her like as the leaves of a willow as she swept and did the cleaning. Silvia had a habit of sneaking off and climbing up the orange trees like a spider to gorge herself on the fresh sweet fruit. One day, with the juice of the fruit on her chin, while the wind blew east, Silvia's step-father grabbed her wrist, looked her in the eye and said, “You know, you look a lot like your mother when we met.”
That night under the large, low-hanging full-moon, Silvia decided that she needed to get away. Despite her overwhelming fear of rogue curses or fearsome creatures, she crept out of the cottage and gazed at the shadowed lands. If she went east into the orange grove, she could easily be caught by her wicked step-father. In the west, the swamp's moonlit pine trees beckoned. Those branches seemed to call to her while they swayed in the night-summer breeze.
Silvia set out into that vast swamp, less afraid of the poisonous critters than of the shadow of her step-father. She walked for miles, avoiding snakes and dangerous footpaths. Every few steps she heard a new and more frightening noise, like the lingering hoot of an owl or call of a turkey vulture. Vines hung down low, seemingly clawing at her in the dark. She waded in the shallow waters, saw grass cutting at her sun-tanned skin, making a million little incisions. At last, mosquito bitten and exhausted, she paused before the early morning light in the cradle of a cypress tree.
When she awoke it was to a low sound like that of a bullfrog. But it was not a harmless amphibian. Instead, staring at her from a few feet way on the water was the largest gator Silvia had ever seen. She looked around as the creature swam closer and closer, its tail lapping the water, sending currents to the shore of the small lake. Silvia wanted to get up, she wanted to run but something in the gaze of that gator kept her fixed in place. The knees of the cypress, which last night cocooned her in a comforting embrace, now acted like a prison. The gator made its way to shore and climbed up to the nook where Silvia cowered. He opened his massive jaws, jaws that could swallow Silvia whole and said:
“What are you doing in my kingdom girl?” The gator's voice was a deep croak.
“I was running away from my stepfather, who wants me to take my mother's place," Silvia replied, suddenly regretting her decision to run.
“And so you ran into the swamp, where my subjects can eat you up and use your bones like toothpicks.” When the gator closed its maw, she could see he had milky-white, blue human eyes and along the top of his head were jagged lumps of scar tissue that looked like a rough crown. She had thought the tale of the Swamp King a fantasy, but now she had come face to face with that very legend.
“I had nowhere else to go. Are you going to eat me?”
“You've entered my home during a full moon, uninvited. Our laws are clear that you are fair game. How lucky for you that I am a kind King and that I just ate.”
“Thank you your highness,” Silvia said, dazed for a moment. “How do I repay this kindness?”
“A human, wishes to grant me a favor then?”
“Yes,” she said, not knowing what exactly she could do for the King.
“What is your deepest wish?”
Silvia did not even need to think, “I want my father gone.”
The Alligator thought silently for a moment. Then he slammed his tail one, two, three times until two small ibises came to chirp in his ear. The ibises then bowed low to the Swamp King and flew off. He thought a moment longer, reading something invisible in Silvia and then said “I can give you my skin to use, to destroy your father if you would grant me a favor.”
Silvia took a second to consider the Swamp King's proposal. She wanted to be free of her step-father but she was wary of the kind of bargain a fearsome Swamp King would make. In the end, nothing seemed worse than the possibility of being caught and dragged home to that evil man. “What is the favor?”
“That will happen after I give you my end of the bargain.”
Silvia took the risk with a nod of her head.
The Swamp King let out a roar that shook the very ground and shed his skin. The Swamp King's skin became a large greenish and brown spotted coat. In his place was an old man, with a white beard that fell to the ground. He had an ancient, rusted crown atop his head and he sat down in the crux of the cypress after handing over his skin. The Swamp King looked up at her and said, “To use my skin, you must put on the coat after the moon comes up. And you must return to me before the light comes. If you do not return in time the Swamp will make its displeasure known.”
Silvia agreed and then turned and marched east to the little cottage. It was sunset when she reached her home. Her father was nowhere to be seen, so she hid behind a ripe orange tree and waited. When the sun finally set and the large moon climbed over the tree tops Silvia shouldered the coat. For a moment, nothing happened. Then she began to feel a great tingling all over her body. She looked down at her hands, and she no longer had them, but lethal claws. She went into the cabin to find it empty. Her massive footsteps made the stilts of the cottage creak under the pressure. Looking into the mirror she did not see the gator she expected, but something beastly in-between. She had the skin and maw of a gator, but the stature of a great black bear. Silvia had become a grand, powerful monster and she no longer feared seeing her stepfather.
Silvia's stepfather came home well past the stroke of midnight. In the dark, Silvia could see his form by the light of the moon. He seemed smaller than she remembered, and for a moment she almost felt pity. But then she recalled how he had dragged her away while she had screamed, begged and cried from the frozen corpse of her mother. She took her massive tail and swung it, hitting the lecher straight in the stomach and knocking him over before his eyes had even adjusted to the darkness. He screamed and tried to hit Silvia the beast with his fist, but she was too fast and cut off his hand with a single swipe of a claw. She saw the fear in his eyes, and the beast in her smiled a crocodile's smile. Silvia wasted no time chomping him in half and tearing him apart. She dragged what was left of his body to the orange grove and buried it beneath a fallow tree.
But it was getting light and Silvia remembered her promise to the Swam King. She began to run, fearing she would be too late. As her heart quickened she started to feel incredibly light, and she slowly realized that she was no longer running but flying. The Swamp King's coat had turned her into a grand heron and she made it to the King just moments before sunrise.
As she removed the coat, she paused, wishing to keep it. She had never felt such power or safety as she had in the disguise. It allowed her to be what she needed to be – what she wanted to be. Then the Swamp King took the feathered coat in his crooked hand and looked up at Silvia.
“Are you ready to make up your end of the bargain?”
She looked at the old man, whose limbs twisted and creaked, and she nodded.
“You must break this spell that keeps me here. I have been the ruler of this swamp for three hundred years, and now I am old and tired and no longer wish to be king. I hope to rest here forever. But you must willingly take that burden and that power.”
Silvia looked at this frail, old man whose flesh had grizzled from age. She thought about how she may never see another person again, forever tied to a swamp. Then she also remembered the freedom she felt in flight, and the power she'd felt in her monstrous form. Her decision was clear. Silvia held out her hand and the old King handed her his crown. In her hands, it became a wreath of orchids. With that, Silvia became the Queen of the Swamp.
It time, that little cottage by the orange grove was overrun with ivy and disappeared into the nature surrounding it. But now the swamp has a new reputation. When the wind blows east, it has the sent of magnolia and jasmine. They say that the Swamp Queen is loved and respected by all the swamp creatures, from the tiniest gnat to the spoonbill, to the panther. Even the humans nearby look upon that swamp differently. They say that the pure-hearted, if they are brave, can cross the swamp in peace. If they are in trouble, they can even ask the Swamp Queen for a favor. But villains who trespass may find themselves between the jaws of a gator.
They say that you should never eat an orange from that grove on the full moon, for those oranges can sometimes bleed.
Laura is a native South Florida author with a love of the fantastic. You can find her on Twitter @QuetaAuthor and @SmokingMirrorP