In Sympathy

Ken Poyner

I have always believed the rumors.  I have talked to half a dozen people who have seen it themselves.  Nash says he took a shot at it.  I’ve been hunting with Nash often enough to know he shoots at loose shadows and misses even those, but I’ll take his word on this one.  Anything could be in the woods and swamps that swallow up our little bit of tenuous civilization.  There are places in the swamp that not even the dumbest of hunters or backwoodsman stumble, drunk or sober, onto.  Who knows what mightily mysterious thing could be living out there?

Where the legend is centered, in location, is generally called Sympathy.  Unincorporated.  No sign.  Maybe the name is just a local custom.  Maybe someone named Sympathy once lived there.  Doesn’t matter.  For the longest time there were just three houses there, dropped casually on the land as though out of a passing vast cargo plane:  one with a school bus out back that sometimes squatters would claim: squatters who sometimes became quite friendly and did odd-jobs for the real owners. Day traffic on the two-lane road runs from the cities north to the beaches south, sometimes turned out to be a reason for locked back doors and an eventual shot over the hood of the bus.   Most people catch it only in the rear-view mirror.  Alongside the road, the swamp runs mostly up to the pavement, except for the huge drainage ditch.  It’s been said there are alligators in that ditch.  I’ve never seen any, never looked for any, and I’m not pressing my luck.

In Sympathy, those three small-plot farmers have built the land up, can actually create dust with a tractor. In summer, they put out a roadside stand and sell produce to the tourists.  Cars park in their front yards or precariously on the tilted strip of ragged wild grass between the drainage ditch and the pavement:  depending upon how the car is tilted and the recent rains, all those infesting the car have to get out of the same side of the vehicle.

The swamps, however, grow strong right up to the last of the tilled sections.   The residents spend part of each week beating the wilderness back. Ten feet into the bramble, if you are not familiar with the land, you could be lost until next season.

I do not know why it was particularly there, in Sympathy, that the Swamp Man was rumored to stay.  People say it has a long legend, but you only hear that from people alive today, and they can be mistaken or given to embellishment.  Embellishment or not, what matters is what people still here, with the power to act in the present day, believe —and enough think there is sufficient collectable substance to the story for it to stick.  We’ve got a lot of dark to fill around here.

Pretty much the description of the Swamp Man matches those of any of the nation’s other anthropomorphic monsters:  Bigfoot, Boggy Creek Monster, Old Stinky, Grassman—all the other shadow monsters seen in unabridged half looks.  Seven feet tall, upright like a man, size seventeen feet, shaggy, smelly.  Given to low growls which everyone who has heard them swears is not the wind.  Hard to see for someth,ing that size.

Every time a raccoon gets into someone’s trash, it gets blamed on the Swamp Man.  Girls, who have gotten a little too much on track with their dates’ plans in a car parked at the edge of the woods, have backed up by hearing the Swamp Man breathing about the car.  Boys, who didn’t get as far along as they would like to be bragging to their friends about the next day, say the Swamp Man showed up just as they were rounding Third and were steaming octopus-like Home:  thud went a paw on the car and the moment was gone.  Drivers on the road who zigged when they should have zagged swore they did so to miss the Swamp Man racing to his own dark decisions between both far sides of the road.

More fun to think it true than not.  Better to be put out by a monster than to strike out on your own.  If he is not real, at least he is convenient.

At some point, it became fashionable to go looking for the Swamp Man.  Friends would gather their shotguns and head for Sympathy:  a cooler of beer, a box of shells.  You had to park alongside the road, far enough down from the houses that you would not shoot anyone accidentally, sitting angled just towards the ditch so as to be out of the road, and just towards the road so as not to slide into the ditch.

Many a detail about the Swamp Man grew out of coolers going nearly empty; and many a cloud, if it was hanging a little low, was well seeded with poorly aimed buckshot.

The county police asked us to be a little less liberal with our shotguns, as we would often stay close to the road and the farmers’ houses and our vehicles where the coolers yowled; so the trip to see the Swamp Man was determined to settle on the coolers of beer, not the opportunity to see if the rumored monster was immune to buckshot.

Someone a little later, just past the last farm on the left, put in a gas station/convenience store, with an asphalt parking lot—betting on the beach tourist traffic going by and maybe a little on the Swamp Man interest—and they would let cars stay in the lot an hour or two if someone in the car bought gas or beer or some trinket at the store.  All over-priced, but where else did we have to go?

A six pack doesn’t last long enough to get warm, so suddenly a cooler was no longer required.  The convenience store stocked everyone’s favorite.  The whole Swamp Man phenomenon moved to the back corner of that parking lot, and boys in twos and threes would head there mid-evenings to search from their cars for the Swamp Man, or at least take advantage of the store’s desk clerk’s liberal ID policy.

They renamed the store “Swamp Man Convenience”, and many wondered why the owners did not start with that name.  Some nights the store was slinging self-service gas and rock-solid national brand beer nearly as fast as if it were located twelve miles up at the tourist strip that hugs the beach like a cheap fake-fur stole.

I kept waiting for the run to peter out, for Swamp Man to become again something parents might trot out to scare children, teens might reference to get closer to their dates—but there was a simplicity, and even an authenticity, about the Swamp Man legend that gave it dark-blue momentum.  Couples would go out to catch the Swamp Man, sit half the night at the dark end of the store’s sufficiently barely-lit lot, illuminating the near woods with flashlight, illuminating the rocking cars three empty parking places over where you could catch now and again a body part or head thrust up to window level, perfectly entertained for only the cost of batteries, a six pack, and, if luck were with them, one ill-fitting condom.

It was inevitable:  the store began to sell Swamp Man memorabilia.

Then, bracketing the residents, someone plowed out, at the other end of Sympathy, space for the Swamp Man Lounge.  Just a shack with a small grill, cooler and a dancer runway.  When it finally opened, featuring over-priced burgers and over-priced beer and three short sets of topless entertainment from nine to midnight, the Swamp Man story moved again, coming to rest just out of view off the back corner of the lounge’s back parking lot.  For a legend, he was fairly particularly about where you should go to get a glimpse of him.  There were some who were loyal to the convenience store, but the legal age crowd gravitated to the lounge.  And it was assumed Swamp Man was of legal age, and would probably slink down to the lounge end of the developing commerce strip.

Laugh at the idea of Swamp Man if you will, but the Swamp Man convenience employs four locals; the Swamp Man Lounge hired another six, and it is rumored that when the lounge’s current contract for dancers expires, they might freelance local talent.  All the wives know where their husbands are when they say they are going out to hunt the Swamp Man.  And, if Nelly’s saucy cousin achieves a performance contract with the lounge, everyone will soon know if the plus-size rumors about her are true, too.

Given that Swamp Man is still out there, I wonder what he thinks of all the commerce and commotion. I suspect all the extra trash and the abandoned half-empty beers in the lounge and convenience store parking lots probably make his night-stalking a little less important, a little more dangerous for him—and his need to pop out at the unsuspecting has probably slipped behind his need to understand how to pop open a half lazily locked dumpster.  All creatures get a little lazy when the environment changes for the easier.

But if he is still out there, I bet it is not long before he curls at a flashy trot, accidentally or with some resurrected purpose, across the lounge’s dead-end parking lot, exposes himself to a closing-time dribble of stupefied customers who might not believe, who might be thinking all this Swamp Man hype is good local color for the tourists.  Swamp Man, with his almost human gait, showing to all in Sympathy that at least he believes in himself.

Heck, I’m rooting for him.  Sure, Swamp Man lives!  I’m rooting for all of us.

Ken Poyner's collections of short fiction, Constant Animals and Avenging Cartography, and his latest collections of speculative poetry, Victims of a Failed Civics and The Book of Robot, can be obtained from Barking Moose Press,, as well as Amazon and most on-line book outlets. This summer he will be assisting his wife as she tries to reset her own world raw powerlifting records, as well as trying to find a publisher for Gravity’s Children, a collection of SF/speculative poetry.

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