Taking some time off to resolve a long-time ailment of mine (an ill-tempered stomach, never more than a bite or two of rich fair removed from gastronomical reenactments of San Francisco 1906), I repaired to the South and my family’s estate, there to walk the swamps that bordered our lands on native trails, the gravel and wood mashed down into the bracken and trimmed on either side by long stalks of saw grass, to wander in contemplation.
Recuperation eluded me. Some sulphur in lemon water and a bit of biscuit were my daily breakfasts, and all, for the longest time, I might have dined on. But so long as I introduced my palate to no cuisine more daring than a buttered roll or well grilled and unseasoned knot of chicken, I avoided such indigestive calamities as I was wont to, and continued my rural perlustrations, in pursuit of what I knew not, being of a mind merely to wander, removed from the city, but as charmed me to pretend, exiled from that place and my rigid accounting firm.
Thus taken to fancy and the pastoral, one Sunday I found myself treading farther into the swamp than in previous forays, until I happened upon a wide creek, its shores edged in the emerald slime common to this region of the Union. The algae flowed along the shores while its center was rapid and black, sharp rocks dividing its glassy current with fresh white froths, and the overhanging willows reflected in the smoothness where smoothness was to be found. I followed the river until I came to a house, not much more than a shack, its porch built out over the river, and a canoe tied to its back door.
Three men sat around a table playing cards, the table set on the edge of the shore, one leg buried in the bright green slime, one man seated practically to his shins in it, yet grinning, gold tooth luminous in the hot summer afternoon, his unwashed hair and threadbare garments lending him the appearance of a runaway marionette. His two companions were dressed much alike, though one affected to wear a powdered wig. The center of their table was piled with their tokens; instead of chips or coin they played for strange articles, the shapes of which I dare not describe.
“What ho!” said the man in the powdered wig. “Dost thou come to play at the bayou, gentleman?”
“Gentleman?” said the man in the slime. “No gentlemen ever come to share our bayou games, my sweet. If’n he has genteel look about him, might be it’s a kind of glamour.”
“Glamour?” said the third man. He wore a tricorn hat and a loose cotton vest, its sleeves torn or snipped away, his arms covered in coarse black hair. “Glamour, as in fairy-like?” This one, whose face from one angle near shore appeared as coarse as his hair, now near the woods as fine as clay, studied myself and my walking cane. “He’s too big to be a fairy.”
“Fairies come in all sizes, I wot,” said the man in the slime. “Maybe he’s come to cheat us off our valuables.”
“Prithee,” said the man in the powdered wig, “are you fairy, gentleman, or thief, man?” He and his compatriots slid their cards facedown on the table to peer at me.
Such was the depth and intent of their curiosity that I found myself, who had passed the hours in silence since entering the familiar swamp, absolutely speechless, as a stranger to English or any tongue as the frogs on the riverbanks. But when at last their direct stares became unbearable, I gathered the fortitude to say, “No, I am not one of these things, though gentleman perhaps will serve. I am, er,” I stuttered, “a man, only.”
“Only a man, eh?” said the man in the slime. “Well might be you can join our game. And drink this.” He snatched up a bottle from the table, of an ornate green glass. The bottle was a wonder, as if carved from emeralds, the liquid inside taking on this aspect and shimmering from the rays of sun cast by the willows’ motive fingers.
“Sirs,” said I, “I am not in the habit of playing cards. Nor am I,” I insisted, “one who favors strong drink. My stomach does not allow for such.”
“Weak stomach, he says,” the man in the powdered wig scoffed. “Does he not know then? Tis strength in the bottle, go on! And a hand of cards may make us love you better, man. Absinthe makes the heart grow fonder, aye?”
And I awoke on this side of the swamp in the company of three supercilious frogs. From the way they croaked, and their bulbous eyes hinged in such sinister manner, I understood a little of what lawlessness exists in nature, not sense as you and I know it, but an outlandish simulacrum of the same, one apt to play games in light, semi-aquatic, by both land and sea comfortable, its mutability its saving grace and maddening indulgence. The drink had ruined me in the city, and its moist fingers, like that thick slime on my shoes, were ever thus to follow my waking or my slumbering senses, which no lemon nor sulphur might sweeten.