The Red Light
The swamp is a beautiful place by day. Filled with an abundance of life, by day it is exploding in colours. Multitudinous flowers splash blues, reds, yellows and whites throughout an enveloping jungle of countless shades of green. Waterways lace their way throughout the foliage, reflecting the vibrance of life in their silvery black depths. Ripples might spread across their mirror-like sheen when the sleek form of a leather olive alligator silently pierces the water’s surface. Long-necked birds raised their heads up high and spread their wings before leaping to touch the sky. Their hoots and chirps and warbles fill their air, accompanied by the clacks and whirrs and trills of innumerous insects.
But don’t let the beauty fool you. It is still a dangerous place by day. But at night, it takes on an entirely different level. Already treacherous footing on oft-sparse solid land soon becomes impossible to find, predators wrap themselves in the cloak of darkness and lurk in wait, and unscrupulous individuals take advantage of this same concealment to engage in activities in which they’d rather not be espied.
For all this, we loved the fen. My brother and I would slip away for hours to explore its expanse, and though we knew it like the backs of our collective hands, we were always able to find new and exciting things in hidden places we’d not yet delved. We did our best to always be home by dinner, and we never stayed out after dark. As much as we were loath to stumble upon some quicksand, or into the jaws of a gator, we dreaded mother’s retribution even more should we violate our curfew.
Boys will be boys, though, and we were certainly no different. Always pushing our limits, we loved to survey well beyond the range to which we were nominally restricted, and, well, sometimes this made us late for dinner, and more than once we came tumbling through the front door just as the sun dipped below the trees and darkness spread across the cabin.
It was on one of our more far-reaching forays when we found ourselves losing track of time, and, predictably enough, we hardly noticed the dimming of daylight and ‘twasn’t ‘til day had turned to night that we realized we weren’t anywhere near home. We did at least have a couple flashlights between us, as there are stretches within the marsh underneath interlaced willows and cypress where very little sunlight made it through the canopy. We also had with us, as always, or beloved bloodhound Buford.
He’d been hard on the trail of something that clearly intensely interested him, with his snuffling nose pressed hard to the ground, and we were doing our best just to keep up with him. Which we usually did when he was scenting hard like that – it inevitably turned up something that we would find immensely entertaining, at least for a short spell. Snifting and a-sniffling e went, completely oblivious to everything but the fragrant spoor that only he could detect. Over and under looping roots he led us, splashing through shallows waters, dashing across islands and along strands of springy moss. Through patches of darkness and light, until the gloom grew and the daytime dwindled. Soon, the night ruled all.
Undeterred, Buford forged on, determined to find that tantalizing aroma that twitterpated his nostrils so. And we boys – we just did our utmost best to keep up with him in the gathering gloom. Unsure footing and frequent slips into muddy morasses soon led us to fall further and further back, and we followed him by sound alone, the beams of our flashlights searching the murky night in vain for his fleeting form. But as we pursued him, his barking voice became ever fainter, and his splashes ever softer. It wasn’t long before we no longer heard him at all. But press on we did, as we had to find our dog. Perhaps it wasn’t the brightest thing we did, but we couldn’t bear the thought of coming home without him.
It was some time after having lost all trace of Buford when my brother Beau held his finger to his lips and shushed me, motioning me to a stop at the same time.
“Shhhh! Listen to that!” He whispered.
“What?” I said, my natural curiosity leading me to disregard his instructions, but listen I did.
What I heard was unexpected – we were deep into the marshland, well away from any habitations. But I clearly heard the sound of metal clanking against metal, and the soft susurrus of voices in the distance. As on, we doused our torches, and stealthily we crept forward towards those not normally nocturnal noises. They slowly began to resolve as we closed, and the tinkling of glass joined the more metallic medley. Soon, dim light filtered through dark leaves, lending to the marsh a mottled mossy luminescence which cast deep twisted shadows.
Closer we crept, and as we did, the shadowy outline of Buford emerged from the gloom – he was patiently sitting just our side screen of brush at the edge of a clearing, his head lowered and hackles raised. He didn’t so much as turn his head to acknowledge our presence as we approached, instead keeping his gaze unflinching upon that which lay on the other side of the screen of foliage. We knelt on either side of him, each placing a hand on his back while we leaned forward to peer through the gaps in the boughs.
In the clearing just beyond, what we saw at first conjured images of a moonshine distillery – copper and glass tubes twirled through the air, winding their way from bubbling beaker to sealed tin tanks. But at the center of the maze of tubing and piping lurked an immense pitch black wrought iron cauldron, fierce flickering flames licking its bottom. In amongst the labyrinth of glass and copper wove seven stout figures, each shorter than either my brother or myself, but each near broader than Buford was long. They each had the nose of a pig and the ears of an ass. A thick ridged forehead protruded above great bushy brown brows, and thick yellowed tusks jutted out of thin almost lipless mouths.
But more disturbing than the appearance of these creatures was the poor elfin individual suspended above the cauldron, limbs spread-eagled and bound to an obsidian St. Andrew’s Cross. Possessing androgynous features, waifish being’s limbs were long and lanky, and flowing gold tresses spilled from its head in a shimmering windfall of sunshine. Sharp-pointed ears both framed and extended the knifed-edged, tapered jawline and cheekbones of its fair face, whose features were dominated by a mixed expression of agony and distress.
Steam from the cauldron enshrouded the elfin form, and it seemed every single one of the dozens of tubes terminated in various points of its body – arms, legs, abdomen, chest, neck and head. In the glass sections of tubing, it could be seen that an incandescent incarnadine liquid burbled through the loops and turns. To my eyes, it fully appeared they were siphoning the very life blood from their tortured victim’s body.
Involuntarily, we both gasped in astonishment, then, Beau whispered, “What are they doin’ to ‘im?”
“I don’t know, but we’ve got to help ‘im. There’s gotta be somethin’ we can do,” I replied quietly. He came close and we put our heads together in conspiracy while I slipped Buford’s leash on around his neck. After several minutes, we’d formulated our plan.
We hugged tightly then he patted Buford on the head affectionately. Beau hauled himself up as straight as he could get and took in three huge deep breaths in succession as he steeled himself for his role in our scheme. Then, satisfied, he flicked on his flashlight and pushed through the screening verdure before breaking into an outright sprint straight through the camp, whooping and hollering at the top of his lungs as he did. Lashing out at the various vats and beakers and tubes as he passed, he left a swath of crashing chaos in his wake, with a shattering of glass and clanging of metal amidst a rushing hiss of steam. Before he’d made it halfway across the clearing, the steam was already obscuring sight of him, and the stocky pig-men were in an absolute uproar and scrambling over spilled equipment in a vain attempt to stop his path of destruction.
They squealed and screamed and stumbled and tumbled amongst the carnage Beau’d left in his wake. He burst across the camp, and into the overgrowth on the other side of the clearing, the debris sufficiently slowing his porcine pursuers that he had quite the head start before they too plunged into the greenery after him. First one, then two, the three, then four darted into the brush. Then five and six and seven and soon they had all disappeared from the camp, and the sounds of their pursuit crashing through the marsh faded rapidly.
Once I could no longer hear my brother or his followers, I led Buford carefully through the screen of green and picked my way through the wreckage toward the splayed elf. I kicked the cauldron out from underneath him with a slow heave, spilling its frothing contents across the metallic mess. Some of it splashed into the fire, dousing it as it did, which thankfully made my task that much easier. Surprisingly, the campsite was not left in darkness with the quenching of the flames – that same luminescent fluid that covered everything now that the tubes had been broken seemed to provide ample illumination. Then, not know how better to proceed, I began to yank the tubes from the crucified creature.
It yelped in pain, then in the most musical notes, it pleaded, “Please, hurry, please, please. Let me down now, before they come back.”
And let it down I did. Finding a knife beside one of the upturned tables, I reached up and sawed at its bonds. First one, then two, then three, then all four bonds snapped and gave way beneath the blade’s bite, and the prisoner fell to the ground. But to my surprise, he lithely landed on his feet with catlike agility then, with a knowing, almost feral grin and wink, he bounded off into the overgrowth, in a direction perpendicular to that which the others had fled. My job done, I too turned and fled, back the way I’d come.
Leaving the wan red glow behind, the depths of the marsh soon consumed my sight, and I was forced to flick the flashlight back to life. And while this provided me the means to avoid roots and deadfalls, it didn’t help any to dispel the downright frightening shapes and shadows that now leapt out at me at every twist and turn through the bayou. I ran for what felt like ages before I finally slowed my stride to a stop. When I did, I realized I had no idea where I was, and for one so familiar with these environs, that was quite a disconcerting feeling.
Not sure what to do, I sat down on a protruding root and thought. And thought. And thought some more. After quite a spell of introspection, in a silence punctuated by crickets chirrups, frog bellows, and owl hoots, I came to the conclusion that my brother was not going to find me at all where I was, nor was I going to get home any sooner by sitting there. So up I rose, and with a resolute chin forward, I set out once more, determined to find my way home. I hoped Beau was able to do so as well.
I wandered through the swamp for some time, jumping at every unseen snap or crackle, before I began to finally regain my bearings. But regain them I did as things became more familiar, and so my posture became increasingly more confident. That is, until I came across Beau.
Or what was left of Beau. I could tell it was him, because they hadn’t done anything to his face. But what was left of him was strung up from the low branches of a willow tree. He’d been completely gutted, and a rictus of terror was frozen on his face. I vomited.
And then I ran some more. As fast as I could, I ran towards home, until I heard a snuffling and a grunting, and, thinking it was the pig-men, I veered off course, and crashed through the brush, heedless for the stinging of nettles or the soaking my shoes and pants got as I went thrashing through pools I normally would have gone around. All the while, Buford kept pace. I ran until I heard loud squeals in the distance, what sounded distinctly like hogs in pain, then I ran some more, until I felt I couldn’t run anymore.
When I finally stopped again, I doubled over and panted heavily, desperately trying to catch my breath. I heaved and heaved, and when I was finally able to return my breathing to a regular rhythm, I listened.
Not even the chirrup of the cricket, or the throaty bellow of the frog, or soft hoot of the owl pierced the night. None of them. Just absolute, complete silence. Even the rippling of water against the plants was noticeably absent.
Then, I began to notice that the leaves around me faintly reflected a soft red glow. I turned around, and off in the distance, from whence I’d come, I saw hovering some feet above the ground, an orb of crimson light. It seemed to grow in size, as if someone were approaching bearing some hellish torch. I loosed Buford from his leash.
“Go get ‘em, boy!” I yelled, trying to put confidence and authority in my voice, hoping it and Buford’s barking would scare off this new terror.
My bold bloodhound bravely surged forward, rushing the hellglow, barking and bellowing as best he could. Despite its fluorescence, I still lost sight of Buford in amidst the shadows of the swamp, but soon it seemed he was upon it as the character of his barking grew more aggressive. Until it suddenly turned into the yelps of a scared puppy.
And then suddenly he was back, the most terrified look on his face I’d ever seen, and he flashed right past me, as if I wasn’t even there. Off he ran, as fast as he could, in the direction of home. Needless to say, I wasted no time in following suit.
And that red light followed.
I pumped my exhausted legs, and kept pushing them well beyond what I’d ever done before. I daren’t stop, for I didn’t want to find out what scared Buford so, what made those pig-men squeal, and what it might have been that’d wreaked such horror upon my brother Beau. Aching and burning my legs carried me, and, when I thought I might not be able to run any more, the welcome sight of the frame of the house finally appeared from the gloom, though even it seemed to take on a demonic appearance, dim-lit as the plank-wood house was by that infernal crimson glow.
On failing legs, I crossed the clearing between the marsh and my house, near slamming into the door as I half-fell upon it. With clumsy fingers, I fumbled open the door, Buford dashed inside followed close by me, and with a slam I pulled it shut fast behind. Quickly I bolted the door, the sped about the house, closing and latching any open windows quickly as I could, screaming for my parents as I did. There was no answer – but how could they not be home, lest they were out in that doomed marsh looking for Beau and me. I dared not hold that thought for long, so I squelched it in short order, replacing it with hopes that they had just gone into town for one reason or another.
Outside, the crimson light grew brighter and brighter, ‘til it veritably poured through the windows on the facing side of the cabin, casting everything in shades of red and black. Buford and I hid under a bed, and no sooner had we done so than first the sounds of the front door thumping as something tried to open it fell upon our frightened ears. For several minutes that continued, then a short-lived silence preceded the rattling of first one window, then another, then another, each in succession, each separated by another too short-lived silence. And with each window’s peal, the hellglow moved about the house.
Around and around the house it went, in circuits trying each and every window, retrying the door, rattling and shaking and thumping and banging. The crimson-lit shadows circled around the bed, and a great wailing arouse, filling the air and thrumming through the cabin.
This went on for hours, has gone on for what feels like days. It is still out there. The cabin is still hell-lit by its infernal red glow. And it is still banging upon the windows and the door.
Why won’t the sun come up?