This story first appeared on the Nosleep Podcast, Season 15, Episode 13. The podcast did a great job adapting the story to an audio format, and I encourage you to go listen to the episode. You can also download this story as a PDF.
The woman standing under the awning isn’t speaking to you in particular when she says, “The marsh is cruel.” She just comes out and says it. “I once saw the pluff mud swallow a bird whole. Fool thing swung down for a crab and got stuck, then kept sinking.” She spits. “Took twenty seconds, the poor bird flailing the whole time. It was a seagull, all pretty and white, and then it was part of the mud.”
The wind picked up twenty minutes ago. Then came the lightning. Then the rain. Now, you huddle under the awning in front of a restaurant, trying to stay dry, standing beside this woman. You do not remember when she joined you and you have not seen her before. She is dressed in a white cotton dress that twirls about her body in the wind.
“This’ll let up soon,” she says. “Another summer storm in
Charleston.” She laughs a laugh you don’t want to hear again.
The street is turning into a river of muck. The rain mixes with what you suspect is manure from the carriage horses, judging by the smell. You can smell the rot of the salt marsh, too, a street over. The wind gusts in from that direction and sprays rain across your face. You take a further step back under the awning. A car splashes water onto the paving stones of the sidewalk and soaks your jeans from the knees down. You can’t tell if is the water that muddies her white cotton dress or if it was muddy already.
“All this was marsh, too,” she says. “We filled it. We keep fighting the marsh and she keeps coming back. What if she ain’t cruel? What if we are?” She spits again, this time at your feet, and you step back again. “She don’t care. Is she cruel, if she don’t care?”
You don’t answer.
“My Danny was down at the docks. I told the fool child not to run off and work the docks, but he did anyway, at only 15 years old. He worked down at the docks like my husband did. And I would bring him lunch every day, like I did for my husband.”
“I knew the boys at the docks well. I knew the foreman as well as I knew my husband, take my meaning. They were friends before the docks, but my husband always was mad as he himself didn’t get promoted to foreman. Came home late and came home drunk, he did, and angry, and violent. I didn’t cry many tears for him when he died, but I cried a few because we’d had good times, too. I cried most for me, because now I was on my own and I had to pay for Danny.”
“And Danny knew that, and that’s why he went to work at the docks. To help pay. And one day, the dockhands are loading something off a boat, and it falls in the marsh. It floats, because it’s wood and it ain’t too heavy. They have to get it, and they call everyone together. The foreman draws a spot on some paper, and they tear it up and throw it in a hat and pass the hat around. They made it real fair. Whoever draws the spot, goes gets the box. Real fair.”
She spits again. It is thick and dark. It hits the pavement and holds its shape by your foot. “My boy draws the spot. He’s the youngest and lightest and freshest, and so happens he draws the spot.”
The wind has not died down at all, and the rain has not slowed, and the river of horse manure has not stopped.
“So, they tie him up a rope around his waist and he starts to wade out. He slips and gets stuck and then gets unstuck, and fights the mud, and they all laugh at him and he laughs too. He gets out to the box and he can’t move it because of the mud. The boys on the dock tell him to untie himself and tie the rope onto the box. He does, and the boys start hauling the box back in and my boy follows. But he walks over the same place he got stuck before and he gets stuck again, only this time he doesn’t have the rope. The dockhands pulling the box laugh at him. They tell him, hold on and sit tight and don’t go anywhere, we’ll throw
you the rope as soon as they get the box back up on the dock.”
“He doesn’t move, my boy doesn’t, and they’re pulling the box and then he hollers, my boy, and he’s up to his waist. They throw the rope and miss, and he’s up to his chest and he’s flailing, and they pull the rope back in, and then he’s up to his neck. Then he’s under. The foreman goes out with the rope for him, but my Danny is part of the mud now, and the foreman, well…”
The storm is slowing. The woman was right. The river of manure keeps flowing, but the rain is light, now, and the wind is almost gone. The clouds are breaking. Sunlight dapples the sidewalk. Parts of the road rise above the river of manure, and steam rises above the road.
The woman turns and looks at you. “I show up, right then, a minute too late to see my boy one last time. I have his lunch and I ask after him and they tell me he’s down by the docks and I walk out the dock. I see the group. I see the foreman, climbing out. But not my boy.”
The rain stops. The wind blows warm.
“I walk down, and the foreman stands up. He sees me and rushes over. He says it wasn’t supposed to happen. He and the hands were only playing a little prank. They were going to give him a beer at lunch and welcome him to the team. They did it to everyone. But I keep asking, where is he? where’s my Danny?”
Her voice is loud, in the silence left behind after the rain. The sun has almost beaten back the clouds.
“And they tell me where, and they point. The foreman apologizes and I cry until I laugh and tell the foreman how Danny wasn’t only my boy, but his too. I grab the rope and I jump into the marsh and I push through the mud until I get to the spot they pointed out. I reach under the mud and I can’t feel anything but more mud, some marsh grass. I can’t feel him. I reach deeper, and now I’m up to my chest. I’m holding the rope, and I reach deeper, and now I’m up to my neck. I let go of the
She sighs, spreads her arms, and then drops them again. “I have searched a long time.” She turns, and she looks in your eyes.
Her eyes are grey, and they are deeper than any eyes you have ever seen. She spits again, between the two of you. You look down. Where she spat on the paving stone, you see a thick glob of mud.
“The marsh is cruel,” she says.
You do not look back up. You do not speak. You turn away. You push open the door of the restaurant.
The manager greets you with a wad of napkins. “Thought you might need these,” she says.
“Thanks,” you say as you dry your jeans.
“Glad you finally came in.” She laughs. “Hell of a long time to stand and watch the storm by yourself.”
You look back over your shoulder. Through the glass pane
of the restaurant’s front door, you see only steam, twirling like a
white cotton dress in the summer sun.
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