Free Story

Swamp Familiars

There was a boy in the forest. Maga first saw him days ago, a brief glimpse deep in the swamp foliage, a flash of his black hair through green leaves. At first she thought he was just someone passing through, it wasn’t unheard of.

Just because Grandma never had any visitors and people tended to steer clear of her land, didn’t mean the occasional person didn’t make an appearance. The swamp was full of travelers and camps of people, Maga just didn’t see many of them. Once she’d lived among them but now there were an irregularity. She certainly never saw anyone more than once.

But he didn’t just make one appearance. She spotted the boy’s curly black hair and blue eyes everywhere she went. It was as if he was following her, though Maga knew he hadn’t spotted her yet. She had a talent for camouflage.

The boy was everywhere, most often in her thoughts. Maga’s previous hobbies, which included spying on Grandma, foraging or stalking any animal she could find, dwindled. Her thoughts and time were now devoted to the walking anomaly.

She didn’t think he knew about Grandma, which would explain why he was intent on settling in the area. No one lived within at least a four mile radius of Grandma. Maga didn’t know whether it was the old woman’s doing or something about the area that kept people away.

For the first couple days, Maga kept the delicious secret to herself, sure that as soon as Grandma knew she’d scare the boy off somehow. It couldn’t be a coincidence that no one lived near them. She spent less time watching Grandma and more time watching the boy. Locating him each morning was always a game tinged with the fear that she wouldn’t find him- that he would be gone.

Eventually, when not a day went by without her spotting him, she knew for sure he wasn’t going anywhere. She also knew that it was only a matter of time before he spotted her or stumbled through the thick foliage which hid Grandma’s house and kept it safe. It was only a matter of time before she solved the mystery of the boy. Maga didn’t want it to end but she didn’t want him to be sent away either. It was time she told Grandma.

‘There’s a boy in the forest.’

Grandma spent most of her days tucked away in her work room. Maga knew better than to penetrate any further than the threshold without express permission.

‘I know.’

Maga frowned at Grandma’s answer. The old woman only occasionally left the clearing and not at all since Maga had first seen the boy.

‘How do you know?’ Maga asked, her words addressed to Grandma’s back.

The old woman turned to stare at her, the white hair swept away from her face with undecorated bone combs.

‘I can see,’ Grandma said, her mismatched eyes boring holes into Maga’s brown ones.

The little girl shivered. She’d only been living with Grandma just over two years now, left by her parents when she was six. The sight of Grandma’s eyes still unnerved her and Maga couldn’t help but stare. Grandma’s normal blue eye was a bit faded and grey but it was the other one that still gave Maga nightmares. Small, black and surrounded by puckered flesh, the tiny eye was impossible to look away from.
Maga stood there a moment longer to see if that was all Grandma had to say. Grandma’s one-eyed bird stood on its perch and stared at Maga. When the old woman didn’t speak again, Maga gave up waiting and headed for the door. It seemed as if her caretaker wasn’t going to interfere.


That day, after her short conversation with Grandma, she found the boy perched on an island of firm ground not too far from the clearing. Maga was covered in swamp ooze, mud dripping down her face. She didn’t want him to see her; she still hadn’t decided when or how to introduce herself.

The boy didn’t look prepared for the swamp. While the swamp was the least dangerous place left, with only an infestation of the stupidest zombies, it was far from safe. The boy didn’t have a blindfold, a necessary item to have at least hanging around the neck. The head’s ability to mesmerize its prey was most of what made the stupid things so dangerous. But the boy had no blindfold or weapon. He didn’t even have a bag. She wondered how he was surviving out here without food, surely he had to be eating something.

Normally an anxious and fidgety girl, Maga was experiencing a patience she’d never had before. Grandma despaired of her attention span, unable to get her to sit still long enough to learn anything. Maga knew the time would come when she could but she just wasn’t ready yet. There was still so much playing and exploring to do.

Through the muck, an ominous hum filled Maga’s ears and her brown eyes widened, watching the boy to see what he would do. When he continued to sit there, staring into space, Maga started to get worried. The hum was getting louder and the boy only just noticed. He twisted around, trying to see where the noise was coming from.

Maga launched herself out of the mud. She tackled the boy to the ground and wrestled him into the swamp. He was stronger and bigger than she was but Maga was desperate to keep them both hidden. She hadn’t brought a weapon, it had been a long time since she’d needed one.

‘Get down!’ Maga growled at the boy.

He got away from her but looked up in time to see the flickering of the flying heads through the trees. He gasped and he dove down beside her. Maga scooped mud onto his head and pushed him deeper into the water. They closed their eyes, squeezing them tightly, hoping they wouldn’t be noticed. 

The humming hovered by the island they’d just tumbled off of and Maga held her breath. Their empty, scarred eye sockets held no eyes but that never slowed them down and their pinched, withered nostrils looked useless but they could ferret out a hiding human with precision. No one really knew how the flying heads worked, not even Grandma. Maga slit one of her eyes open, looking through her eyelashes to watch. If they had to fight, she wanted some warning.

The boy trembled next to her, their hands tightly clasped together. She felt a whimper building up in his throat and she crushed his hand, hoping to keep him silent. The heads bobbed above the swamp floor for a second or two longer before disappearing. Maga didn’t get up and didn’t let the boy rise up either. They stayed in the cool, slick slime until Maga was sure the heads weren’t coming back.

‘It’s ok, they’re gone,’ Maga said, pulling the boy up with her.

He was even bigger now that she had time to look at him. He towered over her though he didn’t look much older. He looked down at her, his eyes standing out from the muddy face.

‘What were you doing?’ Maga asked when the silence got too much for her. ‘Don’t you know anything?’

‘I was just sitting,’ the boy mumbled.

‘Didn’t you hear them?’

‘I didn’t know what it was.’

Everyone knows that sound,’ Maga said. ‘Just how long have you been here?’

The boy shrugged and didn’t reply. When it was obvious he had nothing else to say and no real explanation for his stupidity, Maga huffed and grabbed his hand.

‘We should go get cleaned up,’ she told him. She didn’t think Grandma would mind having the boy in the house.

The boy followed her sedately back through the foliage which protected the clearing. He looked unsure as they approached but when Maga wriggled through a hole in the hedge, he followed.

Once they’d cleaned up and the boy’s damp hair was starting to spring back into its curls, Maga found some food for him.

‘Thanks,’ he said, snatching the rice cake from her hand.

She grinned, hopping up onto the other rough chair at the table. The wooden seats were worn smooth in places but the danger of splinters was always present. Neither Grandma nor Maga was good with wood.
They sat and stared at each other. Maga replaced the rice cake five more times before he slowed.

‘I’m Maga,’ she said, her elbows propped up on the table, her chin resting in her palms. She couldn’t stop staring, entranced by his presence.

‘Doxin,’ the boy said, looking at her, his expression torn between wariness and awe.

‘You don’t belong in the swamp,’ Maga told him.

He didn’t reply but continued to sit there and watch her. After a while Maga couldn’t take the silence any longer. There was too much silence in the clearing.

‘Wanna go play?’ Maga asked.

The boy nodded hesitantly but got to his feet once Maga was on hers. She led the way back out through the clearing into the swamp. She only knew how to play by herself so they did what she enjoyed doing. They climbed trees, stalked animals and swam through the swamp. Doxin was never far behind her and while he didn’t smile, his eyes were lit and she could see something lurking inside.

The end of the day came quicker than she thought it would and they were dangling from a tree when she noticed how dark it was getting. She didn’t know where Doxin spent his nights but he survived this long and she wasn’t sure she wanted him staying at Grandma’s.

‘Sunset! I better get going. See you tomorrow, Doxin!’ Maga said, hopping down out of the tree they’d been swinging in. She waved when she got to the ground and disappeared into the hedge. Maga could feel him watching her from the top of the tree.

Maga climbed into her bed, unable to stop smiling. Grandma came in, as she always did to say goodnight, stooping to blow out the tallow candle. The moon shone in through the window, lighting up the floor.

‘I had the best day ever, Grandma,’ Maga said as the old woman pulled up the blankets gathered around Maga’s feet. ‘Do you think he’ll stay?’

‘It depends,’ Grandma answered.

‘On what?’

‘Was he a nice boy?’ Grandma asked. Her voice was rougher than usual and Maga wondered if she’d spoken all day. She was used to Grandma’s roundabout way of talking and seeming inability to answer the questions asked.

‘I don’t know. But his name is Doxin and we’re going to play again tomorrow.’ Maga snuggled down into the blankets, smiling beatifically up at the ceiling.

‘Are you ready?’ Grandma asked, wiping the smile from Maga’s face.

Maga didn’t reply, only turned over in the bed, presenting Grandma with her back. Maga tucked her hands up under her cheek and scowled at the wooden wall. Grandma stood there for a heartbeat before leaving the room.

Maga didn’t know how many times she’d been asked that since she first arrived two years ago. Grandma never explained what she meant and past conversations revealed that she wouldn’t. It was supposed to be something Maga figured out on her own. After two years of the same question, it never failed to irritate her and make her angry, though she couldn’t quite explain why.

When Maga woke in the morning, the scowl was still scrawled across her face. Grandma was at the table and Maga wasn’t sure if it was because the old woman had woken up late or that she, herself, had woken up early.

Breakfast was silent and Maga could feel Grandma’s gaze on her face. She never raised her eyes to meet the mismatched ones across from her. Maga planned on eating quickly and storming out of the house but the old woman beat her to it and disappeared into her work room. Maga could hear the squawk of the woman’s familiar and the frown deepened.

Maga finished her food quickly, some of it getting stuck in her throat. She washed it down with nettle tea Grandma left on the table. Growling, the little girl entered the clearing, still inexplicably angry about last night.

‘He better still be here,’ Maga muttered to herself.

Doxin was right where she’d left him. They stared at each other, one in the tree and one on the ground. Maga’s foul mood wasn’t any better and she glared at the boy. He scowled back, the expression made for his face.

‘Well, are you coming down or not?’ Maga snapped.

Doxin stood for a moment, his feet precariously balanced on a limb, before he slipped down through the tree to land in front of the girl. Her scowl didn’t lessen and neither did his. They stood, arms crossed against their chests, glaring at each other.

Maga didn’t know how to handle Doxin frowning at her. Grandma never had moods and tolerated Maga’s with a patience Maga didn’t share.

‘What are you so angry about?’ Maga snapped.

‘Dunno, what are you so angry about?’ Doxin replied.

His questions brought her up short.

‘I dunno,’ she said slowly, testing the answer in her mouth. She stood there, wondering about her mood. It suddenly dissipated as the two of them stood there. Examined in the light of day, she had no reason to be mad at Grandma. She didn’t know what she was supposed to be ready for but someday she would and until then, it wasn’t something she had to worry about.

Doxin stared at her curiously as she stood silent, thinking. When he saw her face lighten, his own scowl fell from his face. He waited.

‘I’m not angry anymore,’ Maga said eventually.

‘Good,’ Doxin replied.

‘Wanna see something cool?’


‘Let’s go, then,’ Maga crowed before diving into the swamp. She rarely wore the clunky boots others found necessary as she rarely went far and her slight shoes provided all the protection she needed. Maga didn’t want the heavy boots weighing her down, though she did own a pair. Doxin was similarly clad and neither of them had any difficulty sloshing through the swamp waters.

Maga was thrilled to lead the way, delighted to have someone to share her secrets with. Doxin followed behind her without any questions and she led him further and further from the clearing where she lived. Maga knew exactly where she was going.  

She froze on the edge of the water, her destination spread out in front of her. Cradled in the swamp was a dark pool that held the objects of all her fascination. Until Doxin came along, Maga spent many of her days perched in the trees, watching. She flung up a hand when Doxin tripped over a root, making too much noise. Doxin paused in the act of climbing to his feet, his breath stuttering behind her. He’d finally seen them
Bright yellow eyes blinked into existence, their slit pupils staring at the pair of children. Maga held her breath, her palms sweating and her face flushing. They were magnificent as they rose up from the depths of the pool, their black flesh peeling back the surface of the water, their nostrils flaring.

‘Gators,’ Doxin breathed as he stared, spellbound.

Maga grinned. ‘Gators,’ she agreed.

Doxin didn’t seem as pleased as she was, grabbing her arm and pulling her down into the mud, dragging her away from the pool. The alligators rose, their interest piqued by Maga’s scream. Doxin rolled, his body covering Maga’s. Their heartbeats pattered against one another. Neither of them spoke as the first gator touched the mud inches from their frightened faces.

Maga had watched the creatures, but she’d never gotten this close before. Her face was frozen in a rictus of fear and fascination. Of all the animals she’d ever seen, the gator was her favorite and she longed for the day she might understand them the way Grandma did.

Maga found herself shuffled further under Doxin’s body until her face was hidden against his chest. She knew Doxin was staring into the golden eyes. The gators growing ever closer, she could feel his heart pounding. At least he knew not to move or look away as two more gators reached the mud embankment. Sweat dripped from his face to land on Maga’s arm. It burned but neither of them moved.

The first gator opened its mouth, the wide grimace revealing jagged teeth and fetid breath. Doxin tried not to choke at the salty smell of decaying flesh.  They stared at each other and Doxin was afraid to look away, in case it lunged at him. Instead it crept closer and closer until the edge of its snout was only a fingerbreadth away from Doxin’s nose.

The ground trembled under the belly of the beast and a growl erupted from its widespread mouth. Doxin couldn’t keep the whimper in his throat and the gator snuffled in response. It was laughing at him, Maga could tell.

She could hear everything that was going on. They were being toyed with and she wasn’t happy. Her irritation rose up against the fear. Her eyebrows snapped together and she could feel the scowl forming itself. She scooted out from under Doxin, rolling until her head rested under his chin.

Maga glared at the gator and its eyes left Doxin’s to meet hers. She could see surprise in the yellow depths and that did nothing to calm her. She snorted at the gator and it reared back. Doxin’s heart picked up speed and he leaned heavily on Maga. She fought back and snorted at the gator again.

Then she opened her mouth and bellowed at it, her frustration and anger tingeing her tone. The gator froze for a moment before snuffling once again. Soon all the gators were chortling, their laughter bubbling up through the water. The three who had emerged from the water shuffled back down into it, their eyes never leaving Maga’s until they were covered in the black water. The yellow, golden and brown eyes winked out as they disappeared again until there was just the one set staring. The gator winked and then closed its eyes and sunk until only its nostrils were visible.

Doxin broke form first, scrambling backwards away from the water, pulling Maga with him. She let him drag her through the swamp and whenever he tripped, she hauled him up and hurried him along. As they broke back into familiar ground, she stopped and leaned against a tree, holding her sides and panting.

Doxin looked at Maga, her hair tangled in a halo around her face, strands dripping down over her shoulders. Maga stared back before breaking out into laughter. Doxin watched for a moment before joining in. They rolled against the tree, the nervous laughter getting louder and louder. Every time it looked like they might stop, they caught each other’s eye and started all over again.

‘I can’t believe you,’ Doxin panted in between breaths.

‘Me either!’ Maga agreed.

When the laughter finally ran its course, the two children were relieved and elated in turns. Instead of staying outside, Maga made a quick decision and grabbed Doxin’s arm. He let her drag him through the swamp, following as closley as she’d allow. They pierced the hedge surrounding the witch’s clearing and Maga bounded up to the work room she knew Grandma would be in.

The door flew open under Maga’s enthusiasm but Grandma didn’t turn away from her roughly hewn table. The woodpecker turned its head, cocking it at an impossible angle, fixing them with its one, beady, black eye. It trilled and Grandma finally looked up from whatever she was holding. Her back straightened and they stood on the threshold, both frozen in anticipation. Doxin wiped a sweaty hand on his dirty shorts, smearing mud.


‘Hello, boy,’ Grandma said, ignoring Maga. Her attention was fixed on the ragged, muddy boy.

‘Hi,’ Doxin replied, his voice barely audible.

The old woman turned to better study at the children. A hank of white hair had fallen over her face, covering the black eye. She reached a wrinkled hand up to put it back in place. Doxin gasped when he saw what the hair hid. Grandma grinned at him. All her teeth were in place, white and incongruent in the withered face.

‘So, you found him, did you?’ Grandma asked Maga.

Maga’s brow wrinkled. She wasn’t sure what Grandma meant. The woman spoke in riddles and Maga was still learning all the layers.

‘I told you there was a boy in the forest,’ Maga reminded the woman. ‘Can I keep him?’

Grandma looked at Doxin, shuffling closer to see him better. She squinted, grabbing his face and holding it up to the light. The woodpecker hopped over to look as well. Their black eyes matched and Maga tried to keep her shudder at bay.

‘You’ve chosen well,’ Grandma said. ‘Unusual, but not unheard of.’

‘Is that a yes?’ Maga just wanted to know if he could stay. She hadn’t even bothered asking Doxin but she knew he’d want to stay with her.

‘How about we have some lunch and you two tell me where you’ve been,’ Grandma said, a hand on each of their shoulders as she spun the children away from her, marching them next door.

Once they were all seated, Doxin on a stump they sometimes used as a table, Grandma repeated her question as the kids dove into their soup, a lumpy piece of bread clutched in each hand.

‘Well, Doxin and I went exploring,’ Maga started. ‘I thought I’d show him the gators.’ Maga went through the events, talking faster and faster until she reached the climax of the story. ‘And then I bellowed at him and he went away! Doxin was shaking like a leaf, but I wasn’t afraid,’ Maga bragged.

Doxin rolled his eyes but let her finish the story. Grandma sat there silently, her spoon suspended above the bowl. Her eyes flicked between the two of them, though the bird stared fixedly at Doxin.

‘You ok with staying, boy?’ Grandma asked Doxin.

He nodded as he chewed on the bread, hunger overtaking any manners he might have had. Maga still wasn’t sure where his family was or how he’d survived so long in the swamp but at least if he stayed, he’d be safe and with a family of sorts.

‘Well, not what I expected for your familiar but not a bad choice overall,’ Grandma told Maga.

‘My familiar?’ Maga had heard the word before but it had little meaning for her.

‘Are you ready?’ the old woman asked, ignoring Maga’s question. The old woman had never asked during the day before, always at night, just as Maga was about to go to sleep. Something had changed and looking over at Doxin, Maga thought it might have something to do with him.

Maga furrowed her brow, not snapping as she usually did when Grandma asked. This time it was different though she couldn’t say how.

‘I…’ Maga started, unsure how to finish. Her gaze flicked over to Doxin’s face. He wasn’t paying any attention to her and Grandma. Soup dripped down his chin but he didn’t seem to mind, bent over the bowl as he was.

‘I…I think I am,’ Maga said, the sentence sounding caught between a question and a revelation. She wasn’t quite sure what she was agreeing to but it felt right, she felt ready for whatever lay ahead of her.

‘Good. Then the two of you should go play because we start tomorrow,’ Grandma said, dropping her spoon and getting to her feet. ‘That goes for both of you,’ Grandma pointed a finger at Doxin and he froze mid-bite. He nodded and she smiled toothily at him before leaving them alone in the room.

‘Come on, Doxin, eat faster!’ Maga urged him, feeling light and unburdened. Something had happened, something had changed but she didn’t want to examine it, she wanted to be playing outside with her new friend.

Doxin slopped through the bowl, stuffing the last of the bread into his mouth.

‘What starts tomorrow?’ he asked, his mouth full.

Maga’s smile vanished and she looked as puzzled as he felt. ‘I’m not sure…something important though.’

No comments:

Post a Comment