Child on the Marsh

I worked the river’s slick banks, grabbling   
in mud holes underneath tree roots.   
You’d think it would be dangerous,   
but I never came up with a cooter   
or cottonmouth hung on my fingertips.   
Occasionally, though, I leapt upright,   
my fingers hooked through the red gills   
of a mudcat. And then I thrilled
the thrill my father felt when he
burst home from fishing, drunk, and yelled,   
well before dawn, “Wake up! Come here!”
He tossed some fatwood on the fire
and flames raged, spat, and flickered. He held   
a four-foot mudcat. “I caught it!”
he yelled. “I caught this monster!” At first,   
dream-dazed, I thought it was something   
he’d saved us from. By firelight, the fish   
gleamed wickedly. But Father laughed   
and hugged me hard, pressing my head   
against his coat, which stank, and glittered
where dried scales caught the light. For breakfast,   
he fried enormous chunks of fish,   
the whole house glorious for days   
with their rich stink. One scale stuck to my face,   
and as we ate he blinked, until
he understood what made me glitter.
He laughed, reached over, flicked the star   
off of my face. That’s how I felt
—that wild!— when I jerked struggling fish   
out of the mud and held them up,   
long muscles shuddering on my fingers.
Once, grabbling, I got lost. I traced   
the river to the marsh, absorbed
with fishing, then absorbed with ants.   
With a flat piece of bark, I’d scoop   
red ants onto a black-ant hill
and watch. Then I would shovel black   
ants on a red-ant hill to see
what difference that would make.
Not much. And I returned to grabbling,   
then skimming stones. Before I knew it,
I’d worked my way from fresh water to salt,   
and I was lost. Sawgrass waved, swayed,   
and swung above my head. Pushed down,   
it sprang back. Slashed at, it slashed back.   
All I could see was sawgrass. Where was   
the sea, where land? With every step,   
the mud sucked at my feet with gasps   
and sobs that came so close to speech   
I sang in harmony with them.
My footprints filled with brine as I   
walked on, still fascinated with
the sweat bees, hornets, burrow bees;   
and, God forgive me, I was not afraid   
of anything. Lost in sawgrass,
I knew for sure just up and down.   
Almost enough. Since then, they are   
the only things I’ve had much faith in.
Night fell. The slow moon rose from sawgrass.   
Soon afterward I heard some cries   
and answered them. So I was saved   
from things I didn’t want to be
saved from. Ma tested her green switch   
zip! zip!— then laid it on my thighs,   
oh, maybe twice, before she fell,
in tears, across my neck. She sobbed
and combed my hair of cockleburs.
She laughed as she dabbed alcohol
into my cuts. I flinched. She chuckled.   
And even as a child, I heard,
inside her sobs and chuckling,
the lovely sucking sound of earth
that followed me, gasped, called my name
as I stomped through the mud, wrenched free,   
and heard the earth’s voice under me.

Andrew Hudgins, “Child on the Marsh” from After the Lost War. Copyright © 1988 by Andrew Hudgins. Reprinted with the permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.
Source: After the Lost War (1988)
More Poems by Andrew Hudgins