The belly of Florida is a swamp, and I was born there, in the Wilds.
My birth season runs through the warm sconce of August, when the bougainvillea blooms and orange tree branches bow, weighed down with fruit; it’s when you can hear cicada song rising up like steam from a swamp, rising to a harvest blue heaven, and magnolias fall to the earth like summer snow. Melony was born then, too. We shared a womb, fruit on vines braided together like wet hair, a ripe placenta pulsing between us like a collapsing star.
It’s family folklore that I died for one minute when I was three years old, sixty seconds of oblivion. I was saved by my brother, revived by the Florida air. I don’t know if it’s accurate to say I was dead for a minute, that seems dramatic. After that my mother was suspicious as if the absence of fear in my tiny body made me a liar, a snake in the grass.
“How are you so in love with swimming when you nearly died from drowning,” she would snap. What my mother did not understand was that I was afraid, I am still, just not of water. Sometimes I imagine it. I’ll see my three-year-old self tottering beside the swamp behind my childhood home, my hair still blonde, my face bright, touched. I would have leaned over the slope to the water’s edge, unsteady on my pink, bare feet. Or maybe I had dived in, unabashed and brave. It must have been hot that day in August. Sometimes, too, I imagine that my mother pushed me.
The water would have been the murky dark of aventurine, foggy and strung with weedy veins. I must have struggled while slumbering gators and docile snakes remained stationary—that is because the Wilds would never let me die. It’s likely my brother pulled me out amidst muck and lily pads, my mother watching as I vomited gray water onto my father’s chest, my sister, Melony, crouching by his side. They thought I died, even my mother at first. That, at least, seems true. The Wilds swallowed me that day, embraced me like a parent, a protector. The Wilds would never harm me. It knows my name, it has known me before I was born. Yes, I am afraid, just not of water.
CHAPTER 1: CERULEAN MOUTH
I pull mulberries from low-hanging branches in my father’s backyard, a place that bleeds into swampland. I hand clusters of the black fruits to Marvel, my sister’s daughter, who takes each offering by repeating a soft thank you, her head slightly bowed at my hip. Wind curls through the loblolly and sweet gum trees, whispering through the cabbage palms. The bald cypress trees look like kneeling druids in the shaded distance. The wetland pressed into the earth behind my father’s house is a terrestrial planet of jade and salt, a viridian moon, another world to peer into. My sister, Melony, sits in the mulberry tree, her mouth moving in a constant, silent phrase, a scowl sinking her brows together, her bare feet dangling. Today she is in a hospital gown and nothing else. She has been dead four years now.
Marvel stores the berries in her shirt by holding the front hem up, forming a pouch, her belly button exposed. We’re a safe distance from the swamp’s edge that shudders breeze, but close enough to count the lily pads. Melony’s ghost freezes, her mouth still, like she is waiting for something, listening, her hands grip the mulberry branches. I look away from her. If I stare at her ghost for too long my head will ache, like I’m glaring into the sun. I breathe in the scent of the world around me. The Wilds’ hot air is sweet as sunlit magnolias, soil, and orange tree leaves. Marvel and I squish over fallen berry clumps. Juice stains our bare feet in bruised silhouettes, like bleeding beneath a top layer of skin, all in different shapes, but the same. Of the three mulberry trees in my father’s yard, only one has grown tall and supple enough to give fruit. Marvel wants to know how old I am. My sister’s ghost turns away, tired of watching us. I can see her dangling feet, glad her torso and head are shadowed.
“Guess how old I am,” I say.
“Fourteen?” she asks and I laugh. “Sixteen?”
I tell her close. I am twenty-seven. Marvel is four. A breeze weaves through the cattails and pampas grass, making the piece of pristine sky visible in the distance glisten, and the water lap. We sit down on the ground cross-legged and sort all the berries into an eat pile on my lap and a discarded pile in the dirt. There is a lone gator in the swamp, at night you can hear it bellowing beneath black silt and balmy starlight. It’s May. Mating season, my father will shrug whenever bloated grunts curl inside the house from the humid air outside, but he’s wrong. I can recognize what a lonely cry is, what it feels like in your breast, that sensation of reaching out a hand, even though you know, you know, nothing is coming. The gator hisses and roars from its throat, its heart a drum, a clock, a weight bearing down. It makes my chest want to open and sing. Marvel and I consume the blister-thin fruits together, juice runs down our chins. The trees shudder, the gator slumbers, and the Wilds sings around me. I lick the juice off my fingers and Marvel copies me. I tell her I could eat that shit all day and she gasps, then laughs. My father steps off his back porch. He thumps over to us, blocking out the sunlit green, that sky of trees. The left side of his mouth droops. He looms there, like a wraith, hovering above the ground.
“Swamp’s dryin’ up.” My father juts out his chin. My sister’s ghost leaps off the tree and fades from view before she can hit the ground. She would never miss a chance for a dramatic exit, even if I am her only audience.
“So am I.” I let the words hide under me as I stand, I let them stay in the dirt. Marvel gets up too, her face and fingers glisten with sticky mulberry, her yellow shirt ruined. He says something about getting Marvel cleaned up for dinner. There is a pause, even Marvel stays still. He wants me to do it, give her a bath, put her in pajamas, brush her hair. I ignore him and look out at the swamp, feeling the sleeping gator. Marvel walks to the porch. Father and I follow. I’ll be back, I whisper to the Wilds.
Inside the chill from the air conditioner is jarring, like stepping in snow, it sucks the Wilds right out of my skin. My father has a spacious and overpriced terracotta house in a manicured suburb. The smell of coffee grounds and mildew on paper overwhelms my senses, everything chemically cool and electric blue. Stacks of old books line the far-left wall, they were not here the last time I was here.
“Where did the books come from?” I ask the back of my father as he heads down the hallway, holding Marvel’s hand. She’s whining about taking a bath. He does not hear me. I make myself a tequila with ice from the bar cart positioned between the kitchen and the living room. There are no dirty dishes lingering around the sink, but there are canned goods stacked on the counters, piles of mail unopened, two dozen empty mason jars. The house is slowly slipping into disrepair.
The old books stacked like towers are thick with yellowed pages, I pick one up, interested until I read the cover, Whose Who in the Bible. I set it down, and pick up the next, The Rapture, the Reaping, and the End of Times, and another Understanding Evangelicalism, a Divine Document. There must be a hundred crumbling texts with the same theme. I wonder if my father is holding these books for his church.
Wholly uncurious now, I sit on the couch and sip my drink. Being in this house makes me think of my mother, Madalin. Tequila gnaws at the crawling feeling under my skin, my teeth throb from the ice. I think of the mother wound, about the pain my grandma Lilith passed down to my mother, and then the pain Madalin passed to me, my inheritance I carry around like a tumor in my breast. I hear Marvel scream at my father, all I can make out is Mama. Melony appears on the couch beside me, her eyes bearing into mine, beseeching me.
Sara Doty received her Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from Stetson University in 2022. She is a United States Marine Corps veteran. She writes fiction and poetry.
Want to read more? A full excerpt of The Wilds is published in EXCERPT Magazine - No 1