Y ou’re alone in a marsh on the eve of Halloween, and it’s almost dark.
You’d been driving down Ella T. Grasso Boulevard when a flurry of light agitated your eyes, pulled them west towards a waning sun and the thing it illuminated, made you turn into the nearest parking lot and cross a busy street on foot.
That was an hour ago.
Blooming Phragmites australis—“common reed”—had drawn you in. A whole forest of it, countless tufts of thin feathery strands shimmering and billowing in windswept light. Then something else: a lone tree in the distance, rising up from the fluffy expanse.
It was a strange tree, you could see. Leafless but dense, its branches had branches and those branches had branches, dividing like arteries into veins into capillaries. Not blushing like blood or ashen like bark, it was a shadow, a silhouette before the low sun, spreading, reaching, stretching in a wide arc.
A ball of gnarled black lightning. A compelling tree, as in: the kind that compels. You felt a longing to get closer to it. Your eyes drifted downward, spied an opening in the intervening growth. Was it a path?
It was. Someone had been here before, had tamped down this trail in their wake. Peering in, you saw the track advance before disappearing into a crowd of reedy, leafy stalks, some as high as 12 feet, almost none below eight.
It would be very easy to get lost in there, you thought, then stepped inside anyway. Prickly plants tugged at your jeans, pulling you back the way you came. Creepy-crawlies skittered off, unseen but heard. Rustling vegetation hissed serpentine whispers, raising hackles on your neck, arms, chest.
Some twenty yards in, you found a small clearing, and a crossroads. To the left, what looked like a dead end, and before then a mound of dark droppings just waiting for your boot. You don’t have to watch out for black cats, but you do have to watch out for black scat.
You took the rightward path. It was darker there, sun blocked by reedy wall. At the crossroads, the ground had been muddy but tolerable, a layer of trampled stalk and leaf keeping the muck at bay. Now each step sank sopping into earth, met by churning, bubbling water. The frigid liquid—Hopefully nothing else.—got into your boots.
Finally, a stroke of luck. The long path curved leftward towards your destination, then emerged onto solid ground. Here, shrubbier plants—mostly brown, shriveled things—had taken over, letting the sun in. Long green tendrils sporting tiny fingers with tinier red berries at the ends, like pedicured frogs’ feet, had fought their way in as well. Beyond them was a tree—though not the one you were looking for. Its trunk cleft almost to the roots, tiny birds jumping restlessly between its limbs, beyond it appeared a great watery surprise.
The West River.
It hadn’t been visible before now. At water’s edge, a small break in foliage gave clear sight to the river’s golden-hour glory, sun catching every ripple, easing your mood after the uncertainty-filled trudge through the marshy maze.
And then you saw it: the tree you’d come for. Downriver, standing on the opposite bank, across 40 yards of water. Out of reach.
But you could still get closer. Through sharp-toothed bramble, past inert ponds, over tentacular bunches of hard sprigs popping out of the ground, you made your way directly across from that gnarled black lightning, just as the sun met the horizon. A few minutes later, a bird’s caw heralded an exodus: they’d been hanging out in the tree, and it was time to move. For a moment they filled the air around those arteries and veins and capillaries, hovering up and down, pumping them like a heart.
You’re alone in a marsh on the eve of Halloween, and it’s almost dark, and yes, it’s a little spooky.
Marsh Trail at West River Memorial Park
Across from 945 Ella T. Grasso Blvd (map)
Written and photographed by Dan Mims.