The Creature at Marble Marsh
"He's got fire in his eyes," said the old corporal, "smoke pouring out his nose, death's black tail, and claws that'll skin you before you even scream. They call him Magoon. He lives just yonder through the swamp. If you don't bow down to him," he turned toward Johnson, "he just might eat you too."
Johnson laughed. The corporal was a fat slob of a soldier, toothless and a stinking disgrace to the Confederate uniform, which he never laundered or even bothered tucking in. But the Yankee prisoner seemed to be taking it all to heart, the bug-eyed fear in his face visible with every flicker of the campfire. He couldn't have been a day over eighteen and Johnson was sure he had never been this deep into the South before. The swamp was a breeding ground for tall tales and tellers of same.
"Yessir," said the corporal, plopping on the cypress knee beside the shackled yank, "I do believe you'll be just to his liking: young, not too much fat," he ran his hand over him, "and a virgin for sure. Yessir, Magoon sure do like them virgins, says they's sweeter than sugar cane."
Johnson laughed again. "Finger-licking good?" he joked.
"Yessir, sarge," agreed the corporal, "finger-licking good." The corporal had such a frightened look about him. He was quite a showman.
Johnson had met the corporal only a week ago, yet already he'd had his fill of swamplore. He thought him amusing though, what with the way his eyes widened and his hands wandered when winding through fable. But Johnson was nobody's fool. He was a Tar Heel, and doubted that the corporal even knew there were swamps in North Carolina too.
"Go on," goaded Johnson, even though he'd heard the legend of the creature at Marble Marsh before. He knew the young Yankee private had not.
The creature at Marble Marsh," said the corporal, throwing his arm around the young yank, "yessir, here in the swamp they is many a monster--"
"Like the talking alligator?" interrupted Johnson.
"Yessir sarge, like the talking gator," said the corporal.
"Here in the swamp they is many a monster," he began again, "but none like the creature at Marble Marsh. They say he was born of the swamp, in the hollow of a cypress, and that his maw had hair made of Spanish moss. Some trappers, a couple fishermen, even a fast-talking egret all claimed to seen him. But it weren't till three girls in town disappeared, long ago, that anybody ever really seen the creature.
"Sheriff Broussard--Grandpaw Broussard--set out a searching in the swamp for...he didn't know. He was hoping maybe he'd find the girls' bodies; what he found made him wishing he had."
The prisoner's eyes never left the corporal, who was now shuffling his feet and spitting as he spoke.
"What he found was the creature, the creature at Marble Marsh. You see, the creature--being hungry as he was--creeped into town late one night when everybody was sleeping and snatched up the girls, one by one. He took 'em back to Marble Marsh where he stripped 'em naked and did unspoked-of things--" the corporal rattled the Yankee's chains--"in shackles. Then, he ate 'em."
Johnson thought that an especially nice touch.
The corporal leaned over and met the Yankee eye to eye. "You see," he said, scratching his head, "the creature, well, he was just hungry, and people, well, they was just to his liking--simple as that."
"What'd the sheriff do? prodded Johnson.
"Well the sheriff, as tuff a man as he was, saw clear he might lose every one of his deputies just trying to bring the creature in. So the sheriff being a thinking man, he struck a deal. He would leave the creature be. In return the creature promised never again to leave Marble Marsh. The sheriff would bring him food, but only murderers, horse thieves, and the like. That was long ago, but nothing's changed."
Johnson loved the story's ending.
"Now we feed him Yankees, and they's very much to his liking." The corporal ran his hand over the prisoner again. "He really likes you's virgins."
Johnson slapped his knee. "And how far are we from Marble Marsh?"
"By pirogue," said the corporal, "it's just through the swamp to the next high ground." The corporal called them pirogues; Johnson called them canoes.
"Magoon's there," said the corporal. "He's waiting."
Later that night--as the swamp slithered in a chorus of reptilian song--Johnson was sure the young Yankee was not sleeping. He read his orders again. The man they were to deliver the prisoner to was indeed named Magoon. He was not General Magoon, nor colonel nor major, so Johnson figured him to be of some political importance. Maybe he was a connoisseur of interrogation. Johnson's captain must have had something special in mind for the Yankee, but then again the captain wasn't a man of many words. Johnson thought the corporal had said it all quite well.
Johnson eventually fell asleep. The corporal did not.
Their destination was nothing like Johnson had pictured. There was a structure all right, but not the gun mounted walls he had foreseen. He quit paddling as the canoe drifted toward the colossal mansion. Its weathered, gray columns stood tall, streaked with mold. Odd looking for a prison, Johnson thought; but then again, things were done differently in the swamp. He heard the young Yankee breathe a sigh of relief.
"I wish I was back in civlization," mumbled the corporal, "back on the bayou."
A knock on the enormous front door brought a white-haired, hunched over Negro who never spoke a word. They were invited inside and the ominous grandeur throughout, from the dusty old grand piano to the musty marble fireplace, sent chills down Johnson's spine. Even the moldy floor was of solid marble. They were shown into the study where the old Negro inched his way to the opposite end, hugging the wall all the way. The door closed gently behind him.
The corporal sat the prisoner down and shackled him to an oak chair. Bookshelves ran across and high upon the walls, double-stacked to excess. In a bookcase in the corner there were many rifles displayed. Magoon must have been quite the avid sportsman. But there were no mounts to be seen. Maybe he wasn't much of a shot, or maybe he ate his prey entire: tongue, eyes, and brain to boot. Then, a frail looking, elderly gentleman in a black tuxedo entered the room.
"Corporal," said the gentleman, adjusting his bow tie.
"Yessir," said the corporal.
"How delightful to see you."
"It has been too long."
"Yessir, too long."
"And with whom do I have the pleasure?" said the gentleman, turning toward Johnson. Fat, green veins in his ashen face ran from his age-spotted brow to his white-splotched lips, with his hollow eyes set far back in his skeletal head.
"This here is Sergeant Johnson, sir," said the corporal.
"How do you do, sergeant?" said the gentleman, his head jerking uncontrollably. "I am Jonathan Magoon." He didn't make eye contact.
"Good to meet you, sir," said Johnson, extending his open hand. But Magoon did not shake it; he only stood holding his hands behind his back like a gentleman of stature.
"The sarge here is from North Carolina," said the corporal.
"By God you lads are doing a commendable duty up there. But don't underestimate our boys. You wouldn't need to tar their heels for them to fight."
"Yes sir," said Johnson, now noticing that Magoon had neither eyelashes nor brows. He still wasn't sure exactly who this man was, but at the very least he was to be called sir.
"And this is?" said Magoon, turning anxiously toward the prisoner.
"Caught him three days ago over by Port Hudson," said Johnson. Must have gotten separated from his regiment. We haven't heard anything about no Yankees near there yet, though."
"Well you just leave him to me sergeant," said Magoon, running his hands over the prisoner. "Folks don't come around here often, but when they do, they sure do their share of talking."
"Yes sir," said Johnson.
"Now then," said Magoon, "perhaps you gentlemen would care for a bite to eat." "That would be--" began Johnson.
"Thank ya sir," interrupted the corporal, "but we gots to be getting back--orders."
"Ah yes," said Magoon. "Well then, perhaps a short snifter of brandy."
Johnson began to speak, but felt the corporal's hand hitting him on the back.
"Thank ya sir," said the corporal, "but we got--"
"Orders. Yes, I know."
Magoon was elegant in his stride, lighting a cigar as he escorted them to the door.
As the corporal stepped back on the porch, he turned toward Magoon. "Thank ya sir," he said, then he bowed down before him. Magoon outstretched his bony hand. The corporal kissed it. Magoon nodded with smiling approval.
Then, Magoon turned toward Johnson. The corporal tugged at Johnson's arm. Johnson hesitantly bowed.
Magoon outstretched his hand and Johnson kissed it--then he saw. Magoon's fingernails were long and sharp.
Johnson looked up into Magoon's eyes. They were bloodshot--red like fire--and cigar smoke poured out his nose as he smiled wickedly, his gums oozing with blood.
Johnson leapt to his feet. He turned toward the corporal, but he was already gone. Then Johnson looked toward the swamp, his legs carrying him close behind the corporal as he heard the heavy door slam.
On the way out, by a rotting white fence, hung a sign. MARBLE MARSH, it read. Through the window to the study Johnson could see Magoon standing over the prisoner, playfully running his fingers through the shackled Yankee's hair as he slid the bandanna slowly from his neck. Smoke poured out Magoon's nose and his black tuxedo tail raised as he leaned over the delicious young yank, blood dripping like drool.
Johnson hurried to catch up with the corporal, now paddling away in the pirogue, who had warned him time and time again about the talking gator of Cypress Swamp.