Despite the stories, I headed out onto the rickety dock that night.
I held my lamp high to light my way, but it seemed after about ten feet the swamp consumed everything. I could smell it: that distinct putrefaction of damp and natural mush. It wasn’t necessarily bad.
I got to the end of the wooden walk, and I hung my lamp from a little hook extending from a curved pole to my left. And then, I sat, the boards creaking beneath as I lowered myself.
How could uncle Roberts live in a place like this? In a shack with nothing but these dark pools, cold trunks, and sorrowful bird calls. I could tell my parents wanted to leave as quickly as possible, get the funerary arrangements sorted out swiftly.
They thought of expediency, while I thought of the stories Uncle Roberts used to tell me. Stories of bird men, tree people, swamp creatures that had somehow escaped from time. He spoke of spirits returning to this place when they died.
But how could my uncle return to this place? He hadn’t come from this green place.
I told him he should write these stories down, and I think he did, but only occasionally. I did see some drawings though, the goings of tree people arranged into panels. I had no idea Uncle Roberts had an interest in comics.
Off in the distance, breaking through the mist and the dark, a flame.
I gasp, and scold myself for the thought that has leapt to mind: Uncle?
I’ve heard of the phenomena of the will-o-wisps, though I have never seen it.
The flame is dull, hardly illuminating the dank woods around it. It does not look particularly, soul-like, I think. It clearly emanates from the water, a strange ignition, a curious happenstance.
But the feeling that tugged in my gut when I saw it made me wonder. I hadn’t known Uncle very well, but I’d known him. I’d known him just enough to have this feeling I carried now: not overwhelming sorrow, but a regret of not having known him better. The gently lapping water, the shadows between the branches, were not helping. Cloaked to the last.
I hear a splash, far off to the left.
I grip my legs tighter to myself and look.
There is nothing, and then, there is something.
Barely visible in the light of the flame is a man’s broad back facing me, though it looks bulky and gnarled, nearly indistinguishable from the bark and brambles around him. The water sloshes a little as he walks along the opposite shore. Once he clears some overhang, he steps out into a pool up to his knees. His skin is dark and, for a moment I think, lumpy and rough like bark. I cannot see eyes, and his face juts out near it’s centre in a triangular fashion. Without another movement, wings with bones of branch and feathered leaves unfurl from his back. There is a splash that makes me start as he takes to the air, silhouetted by the moon for but a moment before he disappears behind the trees.
I sat there, still in shock and riding out the last echoes of the splash. I wondered if I had just learned something about my Uncle, and what exactly it was.