In the marshes, the mud and mulch sucked up to the rim of our boots like leeches sucking blood lollipops. Flies and lightning bugs and coiling, hissing snakes buzzed or led or stalked between our feet, between our limbs, our skin. As did the air, the fog, the mist of the bog. The mists that colored the world slate and the tall reeds a brackish green.
“One wrong step,” my brother claimed, “and you’ll slip on the bodies I’ve buried and become one yourself.”
Whenever he said that, he’d often try and trip me with his foot, sending me tumbling into the soft dirt, cackling as I pushed myself out of the grime, pushed away stray limbs newly buried that wouldn’t last long in the ravenous mulch. But tripping over bodies that weren’t buried an hour ago or less was a ridiculous notion, because those bodies already belonged to the bog, to the never ending marshes of salt that consumed all that lived but oh-so especially loved the dead, the limp, the never-moving, the never-escaping. By the next day after the bodies were buried, they were already gone, digested, the soil purring like a well-fed house cat.
And yet, life thrived on the marsh: me, my brother, a tiny, impoverished, plague-ridden town made of crumbling wooden cabins and a graying white chapel. And in said chapel, everybody prayed, prayed for relief from illness and the darkness of the marsh. Whispers in the town surrounded by the marsh spoke of a witch in the reeds, a wicked one who could control the mud and mosquitoes and illnesses that crept in with them.
“I heard the girl in the good doctor’s house has a third eye in the back of her head,” whispered the milkmaid.
“I heard she feeds dogs and pigs and goats to the marsh,” gossiped a spinster.
And on the edge of the mulch, where muddy soil met water and became river, lay our manor—the only well-kept building besides the chapel—strangled in vines and moss and imported kudzu. Inside, the walls were lined with shelves, the shelves lined with books, the books filled with lore of medicine through the ages, of ancient and modern law, of herbs and their uses, of the marshes, of salt lore. And upstairs lay our bedrooms, separated by thin walls, so thin I couldn’t hardly whisper to myself in my own bedroom without him listening, hearing my curses and bitter murmers. And up in the attic were the patients, the plague carriers, the victims, the dead.
These outsiders—the orphaned, the bastards, the supposedly sinful—those whom the town never notice are missing, those whom they’d prefer dead. Those were the souls whom my brother never healed, whom he infected with plauge and spirits them away, playing with their bodies like ragdolls made of human flesh, poking and prodding to see what makes them tick and eventually croak. Those were the souls forever lost, forever locked away in a dark attic of rotting wood, dead rats, cobwebs, and human bones. Scant light hardly crossed the unholy threshold through the one and only window covered by thick grey drapes. And overseeing the window was a bloody cross, slightly tilted, the wood scarred. In the night, the still-living prayed to it for mercy.
And so, in the night, I awoke.
My brother once claimed that the mulch bled sin from the ground, stole away the sinful, and led them astray to the Devil. It’s why he buried the bodies in the mud, between the unclean, sticky, sickly grass, the bodies covered in plague puss. But really, the mulch took any and all dead, gorging itself on the sacrifices my brother gave it. Not even the Devil himself dared mess with the marsh’s offerings. According to the salt lore, the marsh always hungered for a sacrifice. Otherwise, it would grow weak, weary, starved. Then it would do more than suck at the rims of our boots.
But when it was full, it acted as a guide. The marsh was full of treasures if one knew where to look. Comfrey, meadowsweet, bee balm. Each herb was a grace to the sickly in the attic. Each soothed. Each healed.
And each day, my brother bemoaned their bettering.
“The sinful deserve sickness,” my brother said. “No mercy from the marsh should save them.”
“What makes you worthy of deciding who is and isn’t sinful?” I asked.
My brother cackled. “Sinners see sinners.”
Once, after nurturing the sick in the attic, I grew infected with plague, and my brother made me sleep out in the middle of the marsh so as to not sicken the manor. Exposed to the elements, my skin sagged, clothes grew damp, plague puss burst as my body seeped into the dirt. My brother warned me not to ever stay still, lest the marsh smell my sin and take my still-body for a corpse, slowly chewing me away. He must have thought that I’d slowly waste away, but instead the muddy mulch slowly healed me, nursed my wounds like a midwife nursed a sickly newborn.
Then one night, he came to check on me and I pretended to be dead, and in the darkness he tripped over my body. The mud left red rashes on his skin, scarred any open wounds, filled his nostrils and lungs. Even though he got up as quickly as he fell, it took him three weeks to recover from the attach, particularly because I refused to nurse him, as I was attending to the sick in the attic after all. My brother claimed the marsh loved the sinful, and it clearly loved the taste of his skin. And what other creature was more of a devil than the good doctor of the marsh?
I saw no sin in the marsh, though I didn’t see virtue either. I heard the whispers of the breeze between the leaves, the rumbling hunger of the twisting mulch beneath me. Grass caressed me, parted itself to guide me. The salt told stories and I listened. Listen to the salt lore and wealth comes thy way. Listen to the tall grasses and the reeds. Others watch me do such, watch in fear and in awe. But they only saw illness in the reeds, illness in me.
But they never saw the fleas that infested their dogs and cattle, never heard the rats and roaches and their cupboards, never felt mosquitoes on their exposed skins. And they never saw my brother after dark, up in his attic, keeping the ill as ill as can be without killing them. Until finally they drop, a colony of flies in a jar out of oxygen. Then they’re given to the marsh.
Because the marsh is always hungry.
The townsfolk believe that the witch and the Devil danced in death, but the salt lore tells another tale. They danced in life, and dueled for blood, for who felt the tip of steel in their gut first. The marsh waited for one or the other, waited ravenously for their power to stuff their gull. But the Devil and the witch kept dancing, for neither could make a move without risking their own neck. But still, the marsh demanded a sacrifice. The marsh was always hungry. The marsh was always watching, always waiting.
The night was a welcome time for nightshade tea, which was not a concoction common in the marsh. Perfect to drink above a bony body, fed to the marsh. Of course, my brother never knew what he drank had nightshade. He merely thought it was his ordinary lemon tea. My brother once said that death tasted of sin, and yet never noticed the taste of sickly sweet poison. Though then again, sin begot sin, and the marsh wasn’t one to keep waiting, for it sought to satiate its hunger. The marsh always needed a sacrifice, and that night it sought the Devil. Come morning, a lily would bloom where my brother once lay. The bog was full for now.
Pushcart Prize nominee Bryana Lorenzo is a Junior at Boone High School in Orlando, Florida, a Junior Editor at Polyphony Lit, and a storyteller at An Insipid Board of Ideas—a storytelling blog and nonprofit dedicated to spreading awareness of social issues through short stories. Her fiction has been featured in Outlander Zine, The Graveyard Zine, Rhodora Magazine, Le Château Magazine, The Literary Canteen, Pile Press, Agapanthus Collective, Block Party Magazine, Novus Literary Arts Journal, io Lit, and The Talon Review, and is forthcoming in White Wall Review. You can find her on Instagram at @bryanastarwrites, or on Tumblr at bryanastar.tumblr.com