“You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today.
And then one day you find, ten years have got behind you. No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun”
The marshy ground of McFrilly’s Swamp was obscured by a layer of thick fog. That’s why I was so surprised when my foot sunk up to my knee. I struggled to free myself from the unrelenting mud. After a few minutes of pulling and grunting it proved a worthy opponent. I gave my boot to the earth and slogged through the ground with my sock.
It was the summer of 1971. Led Zeppelin IV was rocking the charts, cigarette ads were just banned from television, and the latest polls showed over 60% of Americans opposed the Vietnam War. I had just received my draft notice, guys my age were dropping like flies. That’s what first led me to McFrilly’s Swamp. I knew of the folklore surrounding the bayou. The kind of stories you only hear by growing up in rural Louisiana, hanging around the old gator hunters after an evening of heavy drinking. A lot of it was bull- but there was one legend that always caught my ear. Supposedly there was an old cabin deep in the swamp. They say there lived an old man who could make your wishes come true, for a price. It was my last option. I didn’t want to be some nameless casualty in some dark, secluded spit of jungle.
I trudged onward, my sock slapping the mud loudly with each step. The dull moonlight partially illuminated a pathway of mossy planks, elevated above the sludge of the swamp. I stepped onto it. The soft wood greeted me with an unsettling creak but I trusted it to hold. The planks weaved through the cypress trees and over bubbling mudpots. At the end was a tiny cabin held above the marsh by a few rotting posts. A candle flickered in the window. Someone was home.
I followed the path up to the door, then took a deep breath. Here we go.
I gave the door a few forceful taps with my knuckles. Its wood planks were soft to the touch.
A voice greeted from the other side of the door.
“Ah, come on in. I’ve been expecting a visitor.”
I opened the door to a humble, but cozy den. A long rectangular rug covered the wood planked floor and a small wood stove kept the temperature agreeable. Jim Croce played on vinyl in the background. Tending the fire and rocking in his chair was a elderly black man in a corduroy suit.
His aged face was unforgettable. Every dry wrinkle above his brow seemed to tell a story. Stories of a hard, unforgiving life. His hair was grey and curled into itself. Small brown freckles dotted his nose and cheeks. But the most memorable thing about him were his eyes. Milky and dull, looking at them was like seeing my reflection in a greasy spoon.
“Greetings there youngin’. What can I do ya for?” He smiled with pearly white teeth.
His eyes taken by cataracts, I had dismissed him as blind. Yet he looked straight into my eyes. But, more importantly, he just seemed like a normal old man. Nothing supernatural or satanic was going on here. The thought crossed my mind that in my desperation I had intruded in on the life of a hermit who simply wanted to live alone, in peace.
“I’m sorry, I think I made a mistake-”
“There aren’t too many cabins this far out in the bayou. You came here because you want something don’t you?” The old man chuckled to himself. “Well. Out with it boy!”
“I don’t want to go to Vietnam. I-I can’t. I can’t go to Vietnam.”
“Is that all?” The man burst into a boisterous cackle.
He threw his hand onto my shoulder and howled. Eventually he settled down and talked to me in a low voice.
“Time is a fickle thing. You see time is a linear thing from your perspective. You live your life confined to three dimensions. To you time is a nuisance, an obstacle. You run like water through a pipe. Would you like me to cap the pipe?”
“What are you saying?”
“I’m sayin’ that I can take the time off of your hands. Save you the hassle.”
“So, if I wanted to dodge the draft. What would I have to do?”
“I’ve already seen it. You’ll go to Vietnam, and you’ll die with a bullet in your back. No one will find your body. But hell, you’ll be a damn war hero!” The old man threw his head back and settled back into his hooting chuckle. “Let’s find our way around that nasty bit. You won’t have to die then if you just stay here with me a while longer. You see, time is a fickle thing. You have plenty of life to live. I can show you.”
“Then what’s the problem? Let’s do it!”
His entire demeanor changed. The room went quiet except for the crackle of the fire. An icy shiver ran up my spine. The old man’s eyes opened to an otherworldly stare. They were blurry at first but I could see lifelike figures dancing in his dilated pupils. As I peered deeper the figures transformed to dancing lights. Every bounce told a story, a marvelous spectacle to behold.
“All you have to do is take my hand” The man extended his arm slowly.
In a daze, I slowly lifted my arm to clasp the outstretched palm. The lights were mesmerizing. I was about to grasp his hand when the lights went out.
Suddenly and entirely. It was terrifying.
I snapped out of my trance and immediately bolted for the door. He resumed rocking back and forth in his chair. I could hear his chilling howls of laughter echo through the moonlit cypress trees. I ran as fast as my legs could carry me from that cabin in McFrilly’s Swamp. At the last minute I had changed my mind. I’d rather risk my life fighting overseas.
After that my life went on.
I went to Vietnam. It was hell, but I made it through. Made some good friends along the way, lost some as well. After spending three years wallowing in the jungle I came home to a hero’s welcome, parade and all. I met my wife shortly after that and we had three well behaved children. Life went on.
“The sun is the same in a relative way, but you’re older
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death”
I lived the American dream. I had two cars in the driveway, the ideal nuclear family, a stable job at the plant, and a predictable routine. My kids inevitably all grew up and moved far from home. My wife and I live alone in our big empty house in rural Louisiana.
“Every year is getting shorter, never seem to find the time
Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines”
It is now the fall of 2016. David Bowie is dead, ads for marijuana are on television, and 44% of Americans oppose the War on Terror. I am 63 years old and any minute now while I lay asleep in my bed tonight a man with a drug addiction will slit my throat and rob my house. I saw it in those dancing figures many years ago. I’ve seen my entire life unfold.
“Time is a fickle thing.” A voice rang in my head.
I opened my eyes – a sharp pain pierced through my chest as I gasped for breath. I regained focus in time for me to catch a glimpse of his milky eyes again.
“You can leave now,” he said as he released my aged hand.
The young black man leaned back in his rocking chair and flashed me a pearly white grin. The wrinkles on his brow had smoothed, his hair was slick and jet black. Everything had changed about him but his eyes. The cataracts slowly faded into black, but his eyes remained eerie and soulless.
I stumbled back in a blur. I looked down at my arms; they were frail and withered. Something deep in my gut screamed at me to get the hell out of that room. I turned and stumbled down the old wooden path in the morning light. The planks creaked with every step but it paled in comparison to the sound of the joints in my legs grinding. I couldn’t get away fast enough. Beams of harsh light cut through the cypress branches. The blinding light sent me spinning. I slipped off the edge of the path into a bubbling pool of mud.
Who would find me in this secluded swamp? I thought as I sank below the surface.
“The time is gone, the song is over, thought I’d something more to say”
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