The Swamp

I think about her a lot, sitting on the train every morning quietly reading her Bible.

In a moment of distraction she pauses to look up from a verse, wondering when she will see him again.

On this particular Wednesday morning, the train is unethically packed. I watch droplets of sweat slide down a gentleman’s face as he punches buttons ferociously on this phone. The train jigs and jags, sways and bumps to a rhythm that I have become accustomed to. The smell of damp skin, hairspray and cheap cologne musk the already warm air as men, women and children try not to molest each other unintentionally in the tight space.

The woman is seated between two very awkward humans who suspiciously follow my gaze. To her right a small, frail looking boy squints his eyes as he pulls on the handles of his yellow backpack, ready for school. To her left, an elderly white woman with a gold encrusted Chanel bag and dark over-sized sunglasses keeps crossing and uncrossing her arms in haste.

All through this, the woman turns the pages of her Bible adjusting her reading glasses every minute or so and whispers, “amen.”

The woman will die today, yet she does not know it.

New York is a hard city — a dreadfully hard city that two hours from now, you and I will forget her story.

She left her ancestral home ten years ago to find a life that would provide her a way to take care of him. New York was not on the list, but convinced by the ability to get work easily and by a mischievous villager, she boarded a bus from the church courtyard and never looked back.

The day she left her ancestral home, the man known as The Cutter — because he was the one in charge of cutting the long weeds that often grew across the wet path near the swamp so that the young children of the village could walk to school — was bitten by a mysterious snake named Nimrod.

Being new to this particular path, Nimrod had become confused at the road crossing alongside the trees and hoping to avoid a lorry carrying sacks of rice, he turned right instead of left.

The Cutter had been sorting some weeds into a pile near his bucket of tools as he always did on Sundays, for even though it was the Lords day, he did not believe in God and therefore considered it a protest against religion to work on the designated day of rest. Raising his right arm to level an unruly shrub with his machete, he accidentally sliced the tail of the confused snake causing such a panic for both of them.

In a moment of fury and a need to protect himself further, Nimrod snapped his head forward and bit The Cutters right hand.

Overcome by a fright he had never experienced, The Cutter ran from the swamp and back onto the main road clutching his right arm and foaming at the mouth.

On that drastically hot Sunday, The Cutter died right there on the dirt red road as the bus carrying her to her final destination drove on in the opposite direction.

Before his last breath and in a measured state of miraculous findings, The Cutter and the woman exchanged knowing looks. She peered into his eyes with a blankness that showed no mercy for which he could only understand.

“Stand clear of the closing doors,” the trains conductor bellowed from the speakers as she collected her belongings, maneuvering her large frame through the sea of busy New Yorkers at 66th and Lincoln Center.

She was sweating that morning, a wet pocket just now pooling under her arm and staining her green blouse. By the time she got off the train and made her way down the six blocks to the westside home, her entire shirt would be soaked through.

At the end of the six blocks she would breathe deeply, sit on the stairs at the bottom of House 7 and change her shoes.

She knew that the wife would be standing at her bedroom window watching her while sipping her first cup of green tea. Once into her house shoes, she would stand up and clap her hands twice, a signal to the wife watching from the third floor window that she was going to enter.

Her clapping was also a reminder for him to leave quietly through the kitchen on the ground floor that lead into the alley adjacent the Starbucks where he worked on Fridays.

Pulling his shorts on and covering up the eagle tattoo on his inner left thigh, he picked up the three hundred dollars on the nightstand and looked worriedly at the mess of pillows and disheveled bedsheets.

Turning around, he pulled open the door and made his way down the spiral staircase under the gaze of portraits of grandfathers and great grandfathers. As he descended onto the final fourth step of the second floor, he stopped to meet the eyes of the husband who stood in front of him like a shadow.

Outside, she picked up her bags and climbed the front steps of the west side town home. Unlocking the green double doors with the spare keys she had been given ten years ago, she entered the house to find it as quiet as the grave and did not dare announce herself.

Walking through the large foyer that smelled of fresh lilies and thyme then into a hallway that lead to the kitchen in the back, she saw the wife sipping yet another green tea in a white robe, counting her pills of the day on a porcelain plate.

Setting her bags down on a nearby counter, she picked up an apron that the woman had given her as a gift four years ago for Christmas, tied it around her waist and began unloading the dishwasher.

The wife, distracted by a sudden feeling of despair turned to look at her and asked:

“Are you happy, Betty?”

“Yes ma’am. Very happy,” she replied.

“Good. My husband and I want you to be happy here. You’re family,” the wife continued, now looking out the back window into the alley noticing that the trash can outside the Starbucks was still full.

For the last ten years, the wife had asked her each morning — as if a way to greet her — whether she was happy and for ten years Betty had responded the very same way.

It was easy for Betty to lie to the wife for she alone understood that happiness was life’s greatest mistake.

Before his accident, Betty had allowed him to run through the village with the other children everyday after school. He was her only child and she had loved him with every fiber of her body, though she had never told him so.

On one rainy afternoon, the kind that was both hot and foggy that one wiped sweat from all crevices of the body, he had run through the swamp by himself hoping to beat his neighbors to the village. Stumbling on a piece of wood that had drifted for days down the river, then once ashore, dried like banana leaves but with the weight of cassava, he fell forward putting all the pressure of his small body onto his left hand.

The pain shattered through his tiny veins alarming his heart which sensed that danger was nearby watching.

Before he could fully understand the severity of his predicament, he felt a large coarse hand grab the back of his neck and pin his face into the ground.

Because it had rained the night before and through the morning, the mud was more water than sand creating a creamy paste that seeped into his open mouth and choked him each time he gulped for air.

The feeling of cold hands descended onto the small of his back as his green shorts were pulled down to his ankles. Fearing this new presence, he lay still suddenly thinking of his mother and worried that she would be upset having to call out for him with no answer.

He would forget the moments that followed for the rest of his life and would often be overcome by a nausea he could not explain each time the wind blew into the bedroom from the swamp.

He had been found unconscious with blood seeping down his legs hours later by the village pastor who screamed the names of his ancestors as he carried the limp boy along the dirt road.

The pastor, the boy and the mother had traveled to the hospital 100 miles away in the back of a pick-up truck that smelled of millet and cow dung. The driver, a God fearing man who was banned from his village two cities away for defying his parents and marrying a Berber girl, could not bring himself to look at the boy and would often plead with the pastor to stop crying in front the mother.

Hours later, doctors would determine his condition as fatal and tell Betty that he would never walk again. Even with the influx of modern medicine and progressive ideas, people in the village still did not talk about the thing that sometimes happened to young children in the swamp.

For the next few years and for fear of shame, the boy would sit in his wheelchair on the veranda of his mothers house watching his fellow age mates run alongside each other with a bitter jealousy that ate at his heart.

Opening a white cupboard above her head and placing a set of china away, Betty heard a thump upstairs coming from the room belonging to the daughter who was away at school.

Exchanging a worried glance with the wife whose lips were so dry, one could see the blood stained cracks from his earlier bites, Betty turned to go upstairs and find out what was happening.

Ascending the spiral staircase under the gaze of portraits of grandfathers and great grandfathers, she turned left on the second floor and walked towards the closed bedroom door at the end of the hallway.

Her heart raced as she cracked it open to find him naked at the foot of the daughters bed, shaking, his eagle tattoo on full view. The husband, surprised by the sight of Betty, stood awkwardly over him holding a bloody broken glass.

With an expression that could not be calculated, Betty glared past the boy and to the husband, realizing that there was nothing she could do.

Severely beaten with eyes of a man who knew he would soon breathe his last, he looked back at Betty without shame.

A feeling of intolerable anger washed over Betty’s skin for she could not stand the sight of the boy crying. To her, it was a pity to waste ones tears on what God had already planned.

Standing there in that bedroom, she remembered the day that the Pastor had carried the limp body of her son as if pieces of his flesh were falling off. She had allowed her son to witness the wrath of God by paying a debt for a crime only she knew she had committed.

Without warning, Betty walked across the room to grab the broken glass out of the husbands hand, fighting with him to let go.

Mistaking the sound of a loud bang with that of a slamming door, the husband, unsure of what Betty was doing, threw himself on the ground.

As a sharp and quick pain enveloped Betty’s back, she thought of her son; of the cassava leaves that she used to sweep off the veranda in the summertime, and of the swamp where she had become a woman.

There, on the second floor of House 7, Betty died.

Outside on the street, a garbage truck slowly made its way past the townhouse with two men hanging from the rear of the vehicle, their voices echoing loudly as they debated the score of the Yankees game the night before.

Later, while brewing coffee on the communal 8th floor kitchen, I would hear from a colleague of a fatal shooting at a townhouse nearby and shrug it off as another New York City scandal — forgetting the face of the woman and her Bible on the train that morning.

At that very moment, thousands and thousands of miles away, the sky began to call a storm he knew so well as he sat on the veranda in his wheelchair.

Shuddering from a wind that smelled of both blood and sinew, he looked in the direction of the swamp and wondered why God had chosen to sacrifice his only mother.