The twisted roots of the mossy cypress trees drained my courage deep in the vast swamp. Six years had passed since my older sister had run off into these parts with a bearded raccoon trapper. In all that time, no one in my family had heard from her. Inside my backpack I had the sealed envelope I’d promised my mother on her deathbed that I’d deliver to my sister if I could find her.
I had begun my search right after sunrise. Clues to my sister’s whereabouts eluded me. Angry squirrels on tree limbs barked at my presence. At one point, a poisonous snake slithered across my path. The swamp stubbornly guarded its secrets.
After a long hike, I stopped on the trail, cupped my hands around my mouth, and yelled her name. No reply came. I walked past some stagnant water and raised a chorus of croaking bullfrogs.
Then, a little farther along, I found something that gave me a brief hope. I thought I spotted my sister’s childhood roller skates lying under a dead tree near a small embankment. I remembered how I’d knocked off the wheels with a hammer when she was eight years old. I made my way over and examined them carefully. I realized my mistake. They were just some worn-out shoes. I threw them off the embankment into a deep pool of black water where they sank to the bottom.
I followed the trail for another hour or so until something else caught my attention. It looked like her prom dress hanging from a thin tree branch. I had caused an embarrassing cranberry-juice stain on the dress moments before her date had arrived. I went over and yanked it down only to realize it was a discarded tarp.
I stuffed it into a dark hole in a tree trunk.
I moved deeper into unfamiliar regions. For the better part of the afternoon, I trudged through foul-smelling mud and swatted at clouds of mosquitoes. My hiking boots had rubbed painful blisters on my ankles.
Then I spotted something not far off the trail on top of a rotting cypress stump. I was sure it was the key to my sister’s first car. I picked up the jagged piece of metal and thought about how she had moved into the passenger seat one Saturday night so that I could drive. In an attempt to show off, I’d wrecked the car. The accident had left a scar on her chin. But it wasn’t her car key. It was someone else’s key. I closed my hand around it and threw it out into the swamp.
The difficult terrain impeded my progress. In utter exhaustion, I paused to try to focus on what lay ahead. Suddenly, right in front of me, between the trees on some high ground rising out of the swamp, I spotted a dilapidated dwelling with a rotting porch.
I made my way over to the haphazard structure that had been ravaged by termites. An open window allowed me to look inside. The cramped room contained a wooden table and two chairs. I went around and spotted a broken raccoon trap underneath the front porch. I went up to the rusty screen door and pulled it open. Suddenly, I was face-to-face with the bearded trapper. He aimed a shotgun at my chest.
“Don’t shoot!” I said, raising my hands.
His eyes narrowed and I thought he might pull the trigger.
“I’m her only brother,” I said.
When I mentioned my sister’s name, his expression changed. His eyes widened and turned watery. He lowered the gun. He put the firearm on a rack on an inside wall and then stepped outside. Tobacco juice stained his blue overalls. A broken shoulder strap exposed half of his hairy chest. He was taller than I was, and barefoot. An unintelligible word died in the back of his throat, but he managed to point to a place under the trees. I looked in the indicated direction and saw the single tombstone erected in the earth. Cut flowers surrounded it. I walked down the steps and went over to stare at my sister’s grave.
Then I heard a child’s laugh. I looked beyond the trees into a small clearing. Out there, in the late afternoon sun, a little girl in a blue dress and red galoshes tried to make a panting brown puppy obey her commands. I looked back at the trapper and he nodded to confirm what I had guessed: the girl was my sister’s child, my niece.
I took off my backpack, unzipped it, and got out my mother’s envelope. I ripped it open and let the torn paper fall to the ground. Then I unfolded the note that had been inside. For the first time, I read the words my mother had written to my sister. It contained a single command:
“Apologize to your brother for all you’ve done to him.”
At that moment, I didn’t know what to do. I thought about leaving the note with the trapper. But it didn’t seem right. I went back and told him I had to go. He looked down for a moment and nodded. He went inside and closed the screen door behind him.
I carried my mother’s note along another leaf-strewn trail leading away from that place. At a certain point before evening fell, I stopped and reached inside the side pocket of my backpack to take out a cigarette lighter. I knew I’d make it out of the swamp. I was certain of it. I just didn’t realize I’d never find my way home. I set my mother’s note on fire. A quick, bright flame consumed the paper except for the corner edge, which I dropped in order to avoid burning my fingers. The scorched triangle fluttered down and landed at my feet. I watched the last tiny embers burn out in the dead leaves and mud before I walked away.
Photo by Rachel James