When I lived in the swamplands, rowing from one place to the next, I met the devil. The locals swear if you stick around there long enough, you see him. They say he’s tall, dark, red, with claws, with teeth; that one day you’ll feel him tapping your shoulder or tickling your ankle. So you start to look for him in every toad that croaks, every crane that lands softly on a mossy shore beside you, every mosquito that buzzes past your ear.
But that’s not how you come across him. Instead, he’s just there one day, passing you in his pale, splintered, blue-bottomed boat. Not an apparition. Not sudden. He’s just a neighbor, though one you don’t usually pay attention to. A piece of the background suddenly brighter in your eye, with the same old muddy jeans, his buttoned-up shirt. And he always has a hand down, stroking one of the basil plants he grows onboard. They curl and sway, slices of emerald against the dull green water. The boat overflows with them, with the atmosphere of them; you see all that basil and you feel lush. You feel vital.
The boat overflows with them, with the atmosphere of them; you see all that basil and you feel lush. You feel vital.
He feeds the basil with swampwater. With firefly bodies, crushed between his fingers. With moonlight, so the leaves grow curved, like they are cupping the thick air around them.
I passed him one dark afternoon in my rowboat, just trying to get from coast to coast like every other Tuesday, when I’d bring my sick brother dinner. But as I passed, he lifted a hand and reached out to the edge of my boat to still me. I stuck to the side of his hull and our boats were side by side, bobbing along in the narrowest part of the waterway. Not a single being seemed to stir around us: the deep curling ferns, the foamy, nearly black surface of the water, swallowed all sound. There was only the lowest hum of the insects, the occasional thrash of a floating wren, thinking it saw the shadow of a crocodile under it.
I smelled the basil and my mouth went dry with longing. He eyed me. Not sinister, but curious. Patient. His other hand was still on the basil, rubbing the scent out of a single leaf and making my nose stir. When I climbed onto his boat, he let mine bob beside his. He was kind enough to leave me the illusion of escape.
How much? I said, and he didn’t grin as in the stories, just put a hand on his half-shaven face the way any salesman would when considering the price of his wares.
I’ll give it to you for almost nothing: you just won’t be able to see birds anymore.
Yes, he said. They’ll still exist. They’ll still fly past your head, still sing. Still build nests in branches. You just won’t see them.
I put my hand on my own chin, trying to think of a counteroffer, but could not. Birds? Would I miss birds? Did I ever really pay attention to them?
Okay, I said, after a time. My brain felt fogged; I could not think in all the green. I thought I’d die if I didn’t taste it. He plucked a sprig of basil with two pinched fingers and held it out to me. Instinctively, I leaned my head back, opened my mouth, closed my eyes.
Later, there were only a few instances when I noticed what I gave up. Four times my cat chased down and ate something I could not see. Twice my nephew held up a cage to show me his new pet, and I had to pretend the cage was not empty. Occasionally, as I walked or rowed under the strange bowed branches of a bald cypress tree, leaves flickered above me, stirred by the wind of something that was but was not there. But that wasn’t what burned me in the end.
When my brother got sicker and I moved in to take care of him, he became a sliver of himself. Not just physically—his ribs did poke out under his shirts—but the illness took his voice. Suddenly, the brother who in our childhood was a loud and raucous kid was so silent it disturbed me. While I took care of him I could feel myself filling the space he left with words. I talked about when our father taught us to row, when he taught us which leaves in the swamp were poisonous and which weren’t. How on one of our outings, we once found a trunk half-sunken in bog water with old papers inside. I tried describing, best I could, the memory of the smell of our mother’s cooking. I read and sang to him. I told jokes like he used to tell and laughed at them by myself, sometimes pretending in the midst of my laughter that I could hear him laughing too. But he did nothing but sleep and stare out the window, never engaging, never looking me in the eye. I kept his son out of the room as often as I could, telling him his father was tired and needed his rest.
There was one day, though, when, in the midst of my brother staring out the window, he straightened up suddenly. His eyes focused on something on the sill. I flinched, not having seen him move that way in months. I asked if he was in pain, if there was something wrong with his head, his back, his stomach. He kept staring. He pointed out the window and said to me: Blackbird.
I looked out the window and saw nothing. His eyes remained fixed on the sill, a smile forming on his cracked lips, hand still outstretched and pointing. He repeated it: Blackbird.
He died a few days later. At the funeral, and for months after, I could not stop thinking: Was there a blackbird on the sill, or wasn’t there? Was my brother hallucinating in his fever, or not? His son wasn’t in the room, so he wouldn’t be able to tell me. But I had a feeling. I had a feeling something was there. That I could not see the last thing we could have seen together, could not share the last thing my brother wanted to share with me. I did not see a blackbird. I did not see anything at all. Instead, I tasted basil in my mouth. Felt it fill my nose. Saw green tendrils in the corners of my vision.