He dreamed of water in all scales. Unlucid, he moved where sleep took him, between wetlands and underwater caverns, beach dunes and rivers. In creeks, the gators floated low in mastered stillness, incised eyes reflected by boat lights. Down by the gulf, casinos of mangroves grabbed deep into the saltmud with their talon roots. In swamps, the will-o-the-wisps buzzed as filament in cracked light bulbs, ghost orbs pulling him down to wet murk. The seascape changed, but he stood still at its edge. He feared the dark water, things swimming beneath he could not see – the lack of light and the unknown depths, invisible mandibles reaching up toward his legs. Then, a cry, circular in its ahh, ahh, ahhs, penetrated his sleep until he found himself awake, vertical, frantic, looking out his window at the new moon, chest tight and throbbing.
The black moon barely popped from the sky. It looked stranger than the moons seen from his condo back in the city, some hyperreality sold as “being closer to nature”. Out here, the stars were known, named. He bought the timeshare at the water’s edge of the Everglades to write—to indulge in the fantasy of being away from the noise and the lights. He was crafting a story about a pet snake, abandoned in the bog, grown too long, its open mouth as large as a dinner plate. It was eating children. The people of the town were looking for a serial killer, a man. They never expected a snake! His agent loved it. This locale was annual research for his writing. It was not the cure. The row of bungalows surrounded by swamp created an unkind tableau. Each night, he wound down toward sleep in a state of terror. What better way to create a murder mystery than by telling yourself it would happen to you?
And now, awake again, the clean chalkboard of night alarmed him, the same darkness in the oceans of his sleep appeared before him. There was a parliament of crickets somewhere in the grass below, and behind him the heavy clicking of a fan. He fumbled his feet and fingers, flicked the light switch. It was four in the morning somewhere between summer and fall. The cry from before occurred again. The strange caws that awoke him were not part of the dream where danger was negligible. He felt calmer to be away from the bed, but bothered by this phantom bird, fleshed and feathered and somewhere in the Everglades, as far from sleep as he was.
In the kitchen, he listened to the cereal strike clean against the ceramic of the bowl. There was a small pleasure in all the noise he created in the quiet of each room. Usually, at this hour, back in Miami, he heard the wails of all the drunks being exorcised from bars. Knocking over trashcans, shouting in a fiery tongue. But here, he had himself and his manuscript, which often felt more like a hostile guest. The presence of his laptop warded the threat of being so far from others. But without others, who would harm him? He thought of his snake pushing through a window screen and approaching a crib. With a spoon in one hand and his other fingers tracing the keyboard, he went to work. The glowing white page of the Word document reminded him more of the moons he knew. His thoughts went from moons to snakes then birds. The bird! Every few words the bird would alert him of its presence. He tried to ignore the whoops and whistles, the occasional arpeggios of the avian mystery. Sentences became paragraphs in literary mitosis. He was struggling to only be aware of the page before him. He moved through the same words over and over again in a circle, like the Ouroboros that eats itself forever. He focused on the act of focusing. Is this what it meant to meditate? The snake was mythological, prehistoric, growing wings. He minimized the writing from before him, pulled up a search engine, entered night birds into computer. The screen returned to him answerless.
The noises were more frequent. It was an entire score composed for him. The high notes as he spritzed bug spray along the length of his arm, the lows as he refilled batteries in the tube of the flashlight. He knew the squawks of frogs and the childlike cries of peacocks. He knew the banshee barks of red foxes. He did not know this. Was it injury or ecstasy? He had read about a mockingbird’s nocturne, a song seldom heard, and only when one bird had lost its mate. It could have been a whippoorwill, but those were known for saying their own names over and over. This was not them. He rattled the flashlight against his thigh until the beam blinked on. He tugged at the invisible string on his finger, attaching him to whatever bird talked through the distance of night.
The driveway was a long gradient of concrete to dirt. Somewhere in the middle it cracked, transitioned. Black racers were resting, nesting in his path. The concrete absorbed the sun all day, and even at this hour, still had not let go of all of its heat. It drew the snakes’ bellies near. He walked heavy, stomping, and the spirals unwound and bolted, their onyx skin caught in the light, then gone. It was strange to see the things themselves after considering their shapes for so long in story form.
There were two houses, one on each side of his, and then none for half a mile. To his right was The Family. He had only met them once, the girls loading inflatable tubes into the back of the van, the father saying, “Let’s go, let’s go,” with a vein rising from his forehead like out of a cartoon. They owned beach property; the father was some sort of park ranger. He knew nothing else of them.
To his left was The Witch. Her name was Maritza. She called him “Handsome,” said to call her “Zaza”. He didn’t. He had known women like her in Miami, or at least, known of them. It was the end of the eighties and all nerves had been electrified with talk of animal sacrifice and daycare cults. Keep your dogs on a leash; lock your cats in the bathroom! And your children, your children.... He had a chart of characteristics, a vague spreadsheet in his head – something Catholic, Hail Marys, the cross made over hearts. All white, sometimes. Saints and spices and herbs and spells. He knew enough of these occultish figures to feel aware, but he didn’t think of them differently, or dangerously. Growing up with the god of science (mother: chemist, father: engineer), these things were otherworldly and unalluring. Either all religions were fringe, or none were. However, there were outliers. Zaza was a point on the furthest X and Y of the plane. She was one of those people that started off with the congregations and the guidebooks and split off to unlock a universe of her own. She was the junk drawer of keys in a room with no doors.
Years ago, when he had first done this thing that he did, his retreat, his solitude, he talked with Maritza in her driveway, sewing something between them. He was trying out a supernatural thriller, trying mysticism on like a pair of shoes. Why not? Ghosts were the perfect killers—no fingerprints, no barriers. Maritza was his accidental research, his example, his first saintmaker. She was a strange woman who invoked in her driveway and lit prayer candles each night. He didn’t like her, but he liked the idea of her. He imagined her as a guide in his novel, translating the foreign language of death.
He had complained of the swamp’s mosquitoes in the attempt of conversation, said, “The house I’m renting has bad vibes, it feels like someone was murdered inside.” He had never said “bad vibes” before. It felt right at the time, when the book was going to happen, when she was useful. Later, he caught Maritza grinding a brick on his doorstep, saw her through a side window sloshing a bottle of perfume against the threshold. When she left, he cracked open the door, inhaling lemon and lavender and clove. There were small bones arranged in a circle off to the side. The sweet, sick smell triggered something. She was suddenly a human formed in dangerous dimensions. His little conversation heightened her affection and communion. Blessing or curse, this action was threatening. This action was no good. He trashed the manuscript and returned to pathologies, tangible killers with method work. Avoidance was acceptable, because she had done something real, different, become full and fleshed as The Witch.
And now, there she was, her face glowing purple under an electric lantern. Insects were crackling, stars exploding in a tiny galaxy of Tesla coils. The zapped bugs added percussion to her humming, offset by the distant birdcries. He stood and said nothing, listening to the noise of night. She was holding a machete, and it was four in the morning, and this was a lesson in self-preservation. On a foldout table were three serpentine bodies in various states of mutilation. They were fat like cottonmouths, but the light was too dim to tell. He imagined infants on a stone, her in a dark robe ceremoniously slicing them. He knew this was Hollywood in his head, ignorance’s bubble, hysteria fucking everything over. He knew he should not be scared, that he should not other her, that she was the same as him, yet fear was a muse that pumped life into him. He wobbled the flashlight a little.
“Handsome boy can’t sleep,” she said, chuckling as if a joke were told.
He wanted to say something about the machete to feel less like a potential victim, but small talk was an unlearned skill. Acknowledgement saved. The language failed. He wondered if he wrote because he thought everyone was going to kill him, or if it was the other way around. He felt calculating.
“Why are you still awake?” he asked.
“Too many snakes this year. Bad ones. You take the venom and the meat and cast the Devil away. You take the blood for Shango.”
He turned his light off and moved closer to the pale blue hold over the table. The Witch scraped the table with the flat of the blade, blood dripping into a mason jar. A tiny altar was constructed in a corner. There was a statue of a saint he did not know, her face unimpressed, a chalice in one hand, a dagger in the other. At her feet, a bowl of something that looked like sugar, explaining the influx of insects, the lightning death. He wished he understood the iconographies, the symbols, but felt good in this distance. This proximity to something so foreign drew an apparition of happiness inside. The birdvoice burst in scales, scratchy and wooden like a güiro. The Witch turned in its direction, as if noticing it for the first time.
“You haven’t been by since you’ve come back,” she said, in a voice neither angry nor hurt. He motioned towards the machete, eyeing the congealing surface. She laughed, no, hooted. “I am doing the good work! Besides, who could harm that handsome face?” She rubbed the back of her hand against his face. "Mi guapo coco... piel morena, blanco dentro. Another year and he still don't know Spanish. And from Miami too?" She tsk-tsk-ed, opened her mouth wide in a yawn. He was surprised at how perfectly aligned her teeth were. Maybe he was too fascinated with the idea of the crone, forcing her form into something more an odd woman who lived alone for too long. She was cleaning, wiping the blade, scattering snail shells in a half circle around the saint’s foundation. Maybe she was more.
“Do you know what kind of bird that is?” he asked her.
“No, no, could be an egret or an iris. Sounds like it. Sounds like something got it in its jaw. Not all of it though. Not the voice.”
One leg locked in a gatormouth, one leg locked in some labyrinthine vine—he pictured varied snares and the night bird’s flapping madness.
“I can’t sleep until I find it,” he said. She tucked the machete into a paisley fold in her skirt, touched him there with the edge of her fingers.
“We’ll find her,” she said.
The unrealness of predawn dark – he felt a clock moving inside him, pictured the disc’s hands rotating and rotating. The night did tricks. In a couple of hours, the sun would rise and break, separating the black from the black. But now, his flashlight cast shadows everywhere, the immovable moving. The Witch hacked at twining diagonals, moved further in the growth where all things slithered and sank. Webbish things touched his arms, the cusp of his neck. He brushed himself over and over, invisible spiders falling off. This was the Florida he feared the most.
“Move the light over there,” she said. He stopped, his feet slowly sticking a half-inch into the murk. She bent, picked a weed-like growth, shoved it in a pocket along her skirtline.
“What’s that for?”
“Protection,” she said, and said no more.
He considered that, considered it was him who needed protection. He should have stayed home, finished his chapter. Or slept. The children weren’t going to strangle themselves while he was out pushing through humid brush like this, hunting what, some bird that they might not even reach? But he could not put another word down—or return to his bed—if the bird cried, and the bird did and was. He thought of all his novels, of the failed ghost story, the Witch in a tattered corridor, hunched with lantern in hand pointing the way. Before him, she stood straight, and he held the failing flashlight. He thought of sailing on Biscayne Bay, loading groceries in the trunk of his car. He thought of all the things that would make this version of himself in the now seem crazed by comparison. The contrast of himself against himself didn’t stop the drive further into the landscape.
The bird was no longer a bird but a broken instrument of wood and brass. It was wind pouring through a deflating tube, yet growing louder and louder. Unscrewed, he felt, spiraling in a Fibonacci sequence toward this sound, to this unknowable bird on the other side of sleep. What was this logic—this rope that tugged him past all the night things that could harm him, kill him with venom, poison, one bite? Black widows and rattlesnakes hid; The Witch discovered.
They came into the clearing, sawgrass surrounding. Black water stretched to a secret endpoint. An upside down paddleboat touched the shore, crushed beer cans marking a sigil in the wet, sloppy earth. And there, where the beam of his light hit, a large, white bird nailed to a tree.
Thick metal pinned bone to bark. Its feet did not kick; its body only rising as much as its body allowed. Its long swanneck curved in a downward V and convulsed, squawking in terror. White droppings and blood painted the tree.
He reached his hand, feeling the air, trying to figure out what to touch first. The bird bent a little and opened its sharp mouth toward him. He retracted.
“Her neck is broken,” The Witch said, in a voice both angry and hurt. He moved the flashlight in circles, pointing to all pockets of the growth, as if whatever did this would do them too. The Witch took his wrist with a skinny hand and pointed it at her face. Lit from below, her wrinkles and age showed. Her eyes, seacold, opened and closed in prayer.
“Do we forgive these people?” she asked. His default thought was a sociopath hiding somewhere, waiting with hammer in hand. But he knew that who did this was no longer near. The air was light with the smell of beer, and he thought of teenagers, drunk and bored and unaware of their own mortality. He had been younger and crueler once. On another timeline, it could have been him that caught the wounded creature and pinned its body to the tree – yet, when he looked at the struggling bird, he knew he never could have done the act.
His arm was hot with sweat; The Witch had not let go. They were conjoined by righteousness. He saw her features, one by one, and knew she was more than some archetype he shaped in his head, more than the herbgatherer, smokeburner, outcast. Maritza. Maybe it was the lack of slumber, this peculiar trek in the dark, or his own vanity and ego—but he felt he knew what drove this woman to disappear from others, to stretch a religion with rules of her own, to hide where the only fellowship was with a god who struck down the wicked. He knew why she was. She let go, rummaging in her skirt, his hand still lighting her ghost-story face. She snapped off a piece of the protective herb with her teeth, recited something. She fed him too, the bitterness curling his tongue in a communion. He didn't resist. If this was madness, let madness consume.
“I don’t forgive them,” he said, in a voice that was almost childlike. He was exhausted and confused and pulled into something he still did not have a word for. Maritza scanned him with her untelling face. She pulled his hand away from her, turned it toward the unfixable bird and watched it writhe. It looked like a bizarre stagecraft under the spotlight beam. The bird tried to straighten itself in a loop of disjoined thrusts, but nothing worked. It looked at them out of the corner of its bead-eye and closed its mouth—not quite all the way. The only sound in the night was its struggling wheeze.
And then, with one gesture, it was neckless. The blood filled like a cup at the shoulder’s hole, but did not spill over. Its body looked so abstract, attached to a tree like that. He turned the flashlight off, unable to look at it anymore. He could still hear its tremolo call, the notes playing over and over. And then, he only thought he remembered what it sounded like. Maybe that wasn’t it. The conclusive quiet from the swamp felt inorganic. Maritza picked up its beautiful, ophian neck, wrapping it around her waist like a belt. He didn’t know what she was going to do with it, couldn’t ask. Protection?
The sky was pinkish-grey. All objects in the now formed a third dimension and almost looked real again. The sun was rising somewhere, but not here, the Everglades preserved in the formaldehyde of sleep. Maritza moved back towards their crushed, hacked path, walking on without him. From the sound of wet leaves under her feet, he knew she didn’t hesitate, look back, and she knew he wasn’t going to follow. They were connected in something that no longer needed the conclusiveness of contact. He imagined her wrapping the neck around the altar, flies summoned over sugar and dead snails, birdneck. Some god was being pacified or conjured. The thing he did – hours bowed before a glowing screen connecting words to words – he suddenly felt small.
The mass of water before him felt more familiar than before, suddenly measurable. He pushed the shell of the boat out into the water, watched it move out of his light and into the muted expanse. Nothing else stirred. No water moccasins slid sleek and black over the water toward him. This was not the dream itself, or the novel. He moved from right to left: shoe, sock, shoe, sock, stripping, stepping into the dark water. A few cans rolled down too, barely floating, him on his back, floating, unafraid.