I’ll be able to remember much of what we saw during mine and Matt’s honeymoon in New Orleans, but our tour of a nearby swamp will be my most vivid memory from the trip.
We set out late one morning for the Honey Island Swamp on the other side of Lake Pontchartrain. The sun shone on a fairly pretty day — even in the middle of winter, the livin’ is easy there — and charming music of the southern persuasion kept time during our pleasant drive.
Upon arrival at the launch site, Matt and I got our first glimpse of the vessel and its captain who would ferry us throughout the silky brown waters.
The boat, though a sound one, seemed gnarled with dents dotting the hull. The rugged captain was the very picture of a swamp tour guide — a grizzled gray beard and craggy eyes beneath a battered hat, all atop an oft-worn sweatshirt and carelessly fastened toggs and mukluks.
Those eyes would appear to pierce through whatever befell them. We had the impression that this captain missed nothing.
His quick eyes proved useful in the swamps as the motor roared to life and we eased into the river — he spotted a Great Blue Heron and could tell, just from its call, whether it traveled alone.
“The ardea herodias,” he said in his gruff, emphatic patois.
His voice rambled us over the quiet waters. We gazed past the clumps of trees, including the occasional bald cypress — the state tree — searching for wildlife. Would the American crocodile make an appearance this early in the season?
The captain said it was not likely, though he would do his best to help us find one. Meanwhile, he enumerated the types of animals that call the swamp their home. Even the usefulness of the swamp life did not escape his explanation, as he told of how the oldest bald cypress trees were harvested from the land
“The taxodium distichum makes for excellent timber,” he said. “What remain are the younger, smaller trees that would not have been as attractive for timber to the foresters. They range in age up to 300 and 400 years old.”
Only when the boat paused could we ask questions of our guide.
“How do you know so much about the swamp and wildlife?” asked one passenger.
“You mean where was I educated on it?” the captain asked. “I’ve had some formal education and I do a lot of reading. If I see something, I go home and look it up, read about it, find out why it is the way it is.”
“Has a hunter ever been eaten by an alligator?” I asked.
“There are no — zero — fatalities on record in the state of Louisiana for an American alligator attack,” he replied. “Though the loss of extremities is not unheard of.”
This amused and comforted us, the indulgent visitors to this tranquil and mysterious place.
After guiding us along the river for about an hour and a half, our captain announced he would take a detour from his usual route in the hopes of finding an alligator on the surface for us to see. The thought of coming face-to-face with an alligator, even from the relative safety of our aged boat, chilled me.
“Is it getting colder?” I asked Matt.
Before long, I knew it wasn’t just my thoughts — the temperature had definitely dropped and the sky was darkening. One look at the faces of the other passengers told me they had noticed it, too.
“What happens if we get caught out in a storm?” one man asked.
“Don’t worry about it,” the captain barked. “We’ll be fine.”
I could almost swear he muttered something about spoiled tourists. As rain began to drum lightly on the tin roof of our craft, the buzz of discontent began to spread amongst the passengers.
Suddenly, lightning crossed the sky as thunder seemed to crack around us. Some of the glowering passengers were alarmed enough to shriek. The captain pressed on, further and further away from the launch site. Perhaps he knew a back way?
The rain was pouring and no end seemed to be in sight in our mad sluicing through the swamp.
“What’s going on?” the woman beside me yelped.
Abruptly, the captain jerked back on the throttle. Passengers were slung to the floor or into one another. One man struck his head on a metal support pole. Echoes of the smack of skull on metal and the scuffle of people were all I could perceive in the gloomy swamp.
As heads began to clear and people righted themselves, it became apparent that the captain had positioned the boat in the center of some kind of nest.
Fearful, I turned to look at the captain. Had he parked us in an alligator nest? I know next to nothing about the creatures, save what the captain has told us. Is he trying to scare us for his own amusement?
“Where are we?” yelled one man at the same time Matt was growling, “What’s wrong with you?” at the captain.
In response, our guide stared out into nothingness, an intense look on his face. Our host, the swamp, picked up the song of the wind — and something else.
The ferns surrounding the boat at the prow were moving eerily, as if something rather large were moving through them. Assuming it was an alligator, those at the front hastily crushed into those of us at the back.
In the susurrus, I heard a chuckling. I turned back.
As I was staring at him, the captain, who was still staring into nothing, a cacophony of screams erupted amongst the other passengers. I turned to the front and my eyes found what the captain had been staring at. It wasn’t nothing.
It’s straw-colored fur made for a mute change from the background of the green nest. Fur covered the creature from its glittering diamond eyes to its wide, heavy feet. The creature leered at the passengers, mouth slightly open, drool glistening on its ragged teeth. It locked eyes with the captain and something dawned there.
I turned to face the captain again and, through the gloom, saw the slightest smile on his face. He was not fearful or panicky. He seemed almost … content, as if he had merely completed a task.
Was this planned? Did he bring us here intentionally to encounter this creature? Something else nagged at the back of my mind.
My observations lasted a mere second or two. I was wrenched from my suspended state by a blood-curdling scream at the prow.
With its long and terrible claws, the monster was reaching for the nearest person, a petite woman clinging to a metal support pole. The massive beast’s sudden speed was terrifying. It leaped onto the boat with agility and wrapped its fingers in the woman’s hair, dragging her into its grasp.
The passengers were in an uproar. Panicked, I reached into my purse for my pepper spray. If all else failed, I could pepper spray the captain and navigate us back to the launch site. I wasn’t unfamiliar with a boat, after all. Matt kicked his snakeskin boots against the wooden bench and his jackknife was revealed.
With that paltry weapon in hand, Matt moved forward, pressed by the surge of people pinwheeling away from the monster.
“Matt! What are you doing?!?” I screamed.
The creature already had the woman in the water. Through the flailing crowd, I caught a glimpse of its jaws locked onto her collar bone. Then blood. All blood, it seemed.
I couldn’t reach Matt, but the grizzled captain saw his motive and moved quickly and sprightly toward Matt.
“Matt, look out!”
Matt turned just in time and met the captain…with the knife. The captain doubled over, clutching his stomach. The knife remained in Matt’s hand, covered in dark blood. The look on his face was one of horror.
“Ted…” the captain gargled while reaching for the creature.
Ted slipped back into the swamps as stealthily as he had arrived.
Sadness filled the captain’s eyes as blood gathered around the corners of his mouth.
I took to the wheel and turned the key. The engine sputtered several times — while I held my breath — and finally caught.
“Hold on!” I yelled as I put the throttle into reverse, backing us out of the nest and into open waters. We sped back to where I thought the launch site was. The darkness made it difficult to recognize the landmarks, but we made it back.
The passengers scrambled out of the boat as soon as it was docked. Matt and I tied it down while the bloodied captain lay pale and silent, curled up on one of the wooden benches. I wanted to leave, to run and call the police, but first I needed to talk to our captain, our guide, the man who was supposed to lead us gently through still waters, but who punished and tortured us instead.
I approached the captain. Matt grasped my arm, but when he saw the look in my eyes, he knew I would not leave without finding out why this had happened to us, why that woman had to die.
The captain peered up at me as I hovered over him.
“Who was Ted?” I asked him.
He stared back at me, expressionless, for so long that I thought he would not answer. Finally, he did.
“My brother,” he said.
Sirens wailed in the distance.
“Come on,” Matt said. “We have to go.”
I still don’t understand what happened that day, or why. But I am certain I will never forget my visit to the Honey Island Swamp.