The darkness always comes more quickly down in the swamp. I’m always amazed to come out of the dark woods at dusk using a flashlight, and then upon entering the open fields, realize there is still a good deal of daylight left. Deep down in the woods, the evening shadows rapidly spread through the swamp. When you are alone, there is no darkness quite like the lonely night that fills Crooked Bayou swamp at dusk, especially if you are there alone.
This particular evening I’m not alone in the swamp. I’m sitting, with my youngest son Terry, on the bank of Crooked Bayou. It is the first day of February, and this is our last squirrel hunt of the season. We sit with our backs against a large oak, squinting through the gathering darkness for any sign of a cat squirrel jumping from limb to limb. The trees are completely leafless, a sign that the depths of winter are here. As I look around at the bare and desolate woods of winter, I recall a story my dad, who is a better writer than I am, once wrote about this time of winter in the swamp. Here are his words:
I went into the woods the last hour of today. I said I was hog hunting, but I really went to recall the strange, maybe eerie feeling that the last day of hunting season used to give me. Something about the barren stark form of trees that have changed so rapidly from the greens, red, and golds of October and November, speak of the passing of pleasures- Pleasures of the crisp smell of early autumn and all of the Saturday morning hunts. Now the tall trees stand naked against the gray sky with a few old weather-beaten deserted squirrel nests hanging precariously to their branches. Gone are the acorns, hickory nuts, and beech mast for another year. The swamp has taken on an entirely new and very somber personality- the silence of impending night settles so easily with only robins in the distance and gusts of wind whipping and whistling through the bare limbs to remind you that it is now deep winter.
As I think about dad’s story, the cold winds send a shiver through me. I’m not really sure I even want to shoot a squirrel today anyway. I’m like him in the fact that I’ve come to see the swamp in the grayness of winter. It’s hard to say the desolate woods are beautiful during the bareness of winter, but there is an attractiveness that is hard to describe.
I’m also glad to have an excuse to be in the woods with my son. I’ve picked this spot, for Terry and me to sit along the creek, for a purpose. We’re not sitting here because it is the best squirrel hunting spot. No, I’ve picked it because this is the old wash spot. Down in the black water of Crooked Bayou, I see four old fence posts sticking up and am reminded why this is such a special place for my family.
This particular bend in the creek was pointed out to me by my dad as where his great-grandparents washed clothes in the days before electricity and washing machines. Looking into the nasty stagnant water, I wonder how they ever washed clothes in that water. Then I recall stories of how this bayou once ran clear and free flowing when the underground water table was much higher than it is now. I remember stories of how they floated logs down this creek and caught fish of all types. That’s hard to imagine as I look into the dark water.
Then I recall the stories of my dad’s mother, my precious Grandma Pearl. In her memoirs, she described wash day at this very spot, as carried out by her grandparents-in-law, John and Sarah Wagnon, and their daughters, Theodosia and Louise:
Wash day was always a picnic day. Uncle John took the drudgery out of this hard day’s work by making it an event that involved everyone in the family. They would take the clothes down to Crooked Bayou where the water ran swift and clear. There was a log across the bayou that Uncle John had smoothed the top off of. On the near bank of the bayou sat a large cast iron pot.
First, the clothes were put in the iron pot and boiled with homemade lye soap made by Aunt Sarah during hog-butchering time. There was much care taken during the boiling of the clothes, so the soap was always stirred by only one person or it might ruin the soap. This was usually the job of Louise. After the clothes were boiled in the cast iron pot, they were taken on wooden paddles, like canoe paddles, and paddled first on one side, then the other, in the cold clear creek water by Uncle John. This rinsing process was done for each article of clothing.
On these days Aunt Sarah would pack a picnic lunch, to be shared by the family on the bank of Crooked Bayou. If blackberries or huckleberries were in season, they were gathered by the bucketful, for when ripe, they were plenteous along the creek.
Today you can still see the place where the family gathered on wash days. A fewpickets remain at that crook in the bayou, protruding from the brackish water, giving little evidence of the once clear stream that coursed through these banks and served the family well on wash day.
All of these thoughts come back to me as Terry and I sit in the gathering darkness, right where the iron wash pot once sat. I think of my great-great grandparents, John and Sarah Wagnon, and how I would love to have known them. I recall stories of their younger daughter, my Aunt Lou, who died just before I was born. I relish the seven years I knew their other daughter, my great-grandmother Theodosia, or as we called her, “Doten.”
Terry snuggles closer to me, and I know he is ready to go back to civilization, lights, and a warm house. The cold wind picks up in the towering pines, beeches, and oaks. I strain to hear a far off sound.
Above us, I hear the sound of a distant jet flying over. From its sound and direction, I surmise it is beginning its long descent into Houston, one hundred-fifty miles to the west. I try to imagine this planeload of passengers cruising along at thirty-thousand feet. Looking out their windows, they can see the lights of southwestern Louisiana coming on one by one. These passengers, probably mostly city folk who’ve never sat in the woods at dusk, would think we are pretty strange. Little do they know, or probably care, that down here in the darkness of Crooked Bayou swamp sit two humans- a father and son. One is ready to go home, and the other is wishing he could just stay and sleep right here tonight in the swamp against this oak.
Then I wonder at how strange my ancestors, Grandpa and Grandma Wagnon, would find our lifestyle. They’d be amazed that this airplane, six miles high, could safely land humans in Houston, in the same amount of time it took me to walk out of the woods and drive to my home five miles away.
The sound of the jet fades away, and the moaning wind begins its song once again. Nearby a lone owl hoots. Once again, I strain to hear a sound that seems to resemble music. My mind goes back to being a small child and accompanying my dad hunting. Many times at dusk, as I wished for the comforts of home and my mom’s supper, I’d hear what I called, “woods music.” Across the swamp I’d swear I could hear the sounds of far off music. I never told my dad this because I was afraid he’d make fun of me. In my fertile imagination these sounds could be coming from Indians, elves, or some strange swamp creature.
I smile as I recall woods music, and wonder if Terry hears it right now. I lean my head back against the beech tree . . . and faintly hear it . . . the clear crystal ring of an old country fiddle playing a lonesome mountain ballad. There’s nothing more haunting than a slow and mournful fiddle song.
In my mind I see her- my great-grandmother- as I remember her in the later years of her life. She tucks the old fiddle under her aged chin, shuts her eyes, and slowly begins to play. It seems she is a thousand miles away as she slowly sways to this sad song. There are no words to this song because lyrics aren’t needed. The mournful notes tell of lost love, lost dreams, and the pain of loneliness. This song came across the Atlantic from Scotland or Ireland. This same song came down through the highlands of the Appalachian Mountains southward. It came with my ancestors from Georgia and down the Natchez Trace, across the Mississippi, the Red, and the Calcasieu rivers. Finally this song settled here along Crooked Bayou, where it became part of my family.
It’s a fiddle tune Doten was taught by her parents, who had earlier been taught it by theirs
I shake my head. The sound of the wind dies down and so does the song. I look down into the water at the four pickets that mark the old washing spot. One last time I see my great grandmother. But this time she is standing across the creek and is no longer the older woman of my childhood, but is once again the young child I never knew- laughing, playing, and singing on wash day on Crooked Bayou. She wrestles with her sister Louise and splashes water on her mother. There is simplicity and peace to the scene as the four of them just enjoys being together.
Then, suddenly I’m awakened by the sound of splashing in the creek. Terry has thrown a stick in the water. This is his polite way of telling me he’s ready to go. I quickly notice it is much darker now. Because of the darkness, we’ll need to carefully feel our way along toward the Old House. I regret not bringing a flashlight. We pick up our guns and begin the trek out of the swamp. I tell Terry to lead us, and with his good sense of direction, he correctly points out the way toward our truck.
After walking a while, we begin to see the lights of my parent’s home- the house where I grew up. As always, it looks so inviting after being in the dark woods. We step quicker now, sure of our destination and direction. One last time, I turn to look back toward the swamp. All I can see is darkness, but through the tall trees I hear the wind blowing softly, and one last time I believe I hear the sound of fiddle music right back there at the old wash spot on Crooked Bayou.