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Great Dismal

Linda Falorio, 1990


"AL-LA-TH-E-A-AAAAAaaaaaa . . ."

She started when she heard her name drifting through the trees, palpable as smoke upon the wind. Her pale skin crawled as the strange, inhuman voice wailed mournfully again through the moon-dark desolation of the Swamp. Its eerie, far-off sound had come to her like this before ... sometimes in the reassuring bright of day, but most often as she heard it now, echoing through the stillness of deep Night.

"AL-LA-TH-E-A-AAAAAaaaaaa . . ."

With a shudder she threw aside the twisted sheets, damp with the sweet, sharp scent of nervous perspiration. Her bare feet touched lightly on the weathered coolness of soft pine. Palmetto bugs as big as mice skittered crazily away into the night. She moved through the opaque blackness of the cabin's narrow hall with the alertness of a cat, now straining at the blank screen door that gaped onto the looming darkness of Great Dismal Swamp.

The Spanish moss shone lifeless gray among the tangle of dark shapes that rose motionless before her, exuding praeternatural stillness like a viscous, deadening sludge. Live oak and silver cypress she knew them to be by the familiarity of daylight, gnarled roots sucking deep into primordial mud and mire, the impenetrable Swamp that swallowed men alive and left no trace. Then her eyes shifted into infra-red, as might those of a nocturnal animal, and all became unearthly, weird, beneath the thin, wan light of a failing Autumn moon.


The haunting voice pulled her with a strange insistence, and she listened, straining to penetrate the Void of Night with all her senses. How she had come to be here was a curiosity to her, for she had never liked big forests. She found something faintly sinister in all these trees. One by one in gardens or in cities, they seemed innocent enough, even indifferent; yet en masse in untamed wildness they were discomfiting. In the heavy, brooding silences, in their Ancientness of Days, in their wordless, timeless consciousness she felt them loathe the alien life-form that constitutes Humanity. For before we to be came here, it was They who possessed the slumbering Earth. Creatures sprung from Her very body, bristling hairs that line her veins of rivers, run along Her mountain bones; trees crowd the canyon yonis, contentedly lapping at the bright, clear water of her blood. Menacing and cold, they only watch and wait for the fleeting irritation that is Man to fade into eternity, when trees will once again, at last triumphant, feed alone upon the Mother Earth.

"AL-LA-TH-E-A-AAAAAaaaaaa ...

This time the disturbing sound rising, falling gently, trailing off into a breathless moan seemed to originate not from the Swamp, but from deep within some painful recess of her brain. She started, inhaling sharply, for a moment fearing it to be a phantom of an overactive mind about to crack. For she had read somewhere that 'voices' were the first and surest sign. She shivered, although the night was still and sultry. The creatures of the night were breathing, exuding their strong odors, mixing with the pungent scents of earth and mouldering swamp. Moving steadily into the dense, black thicket of encroaching ferns, she ran slim fingers along their jagged edges, now listening with the quietness of Death.

The moment took her strangely out of time, as if she'd been here always for centuries and untold generations listening, straining towards that frightful moaning in the dark, hoping and yet half-dreading that it must signify something real beyond the limits of her twisting, reeling mind. It seemed that she hardly knew herself, perverse and warped as she had become. Now, squatting naked in the stifling dark, listening with deathly stillness to the noises of the Swamp, it all seemed too unreal.

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She had come here just a year ago, wanting to write, to find herself after what she liked privately to call her 'nervous breakdown'. But none of it had worked out the way she had planned. At first she had done no writing whatsoever. Instead she would spend long hours sitting in her battered jeep, staring out to sea from the lonely coast of Hatteras, pondering the past.

She couldn't say that it didn't bother her the memory of the Visions, the disturbing dreams that finally unhinged her, the feeling that her mind, her entire personality was dissolving like Fizzies in the rain. Perhaps she should have told them, confided in her family and friends; but her terror of being locked up in a mental institution, drugged-out, even given shock therapy, had kept her from it. Instead, quietly and with neither excuse nor explanation, she had left her job of running the computers at the bank, opting instead for some quiet time spent by the sea.

The monotony of wind and wave had eventually calmed her, the tightness in her throat had slowly relaxed. The disquieting dreams, the waking hallucinations of dark and unknown forms that moved inexorably upon her through endless, brooding Night, had at last faded from her mind, leaving a blank. But then, slowly, into that blank there had come unwanted strangeness. Against all her gentile upbringing she had been moved to fix a knife into her belt; and her curly, jet-black hair had, unnoticed by her, grown quite long and wild, tangled and salt-laden with the wind. Having no desire nor real need for human contact, she had spoken little to those few whom she had encountered; and slowly, imperceptibly, her mind had then been pulled from the thundering wildness of the sea into the deathly-quiet wilderness and desolation known as Great Dismal Swamp.

Impulsively, she had taken a vine-grown shack that hovered at the edge of the Swamp, a fishing camp, complete with cartoon-like 'foam' bottomed boat pulled haphazardly upon the muddy bank, and antique four horse-power motor. The rental agent, a dourly-proper Southern gentleman, had shaken his head with nervous disapproval, inquiring whether she was sure that she would take it, "a pretty thing like her out on her own" quite unprotected in the wildness of the Swamp.

Truly uncivilized and wild, the place had had its problems. Much-hated cudzu vines had long since pushed through the red, rusting tin of the roof, broken up the rotting, wooden rafters, grown over broken windows, and had finally crumbled the brick chimney into dust. The 'bathroom' was but a dank pit dug into the floor; on hot and humid nights its rancorous smell of mouldering earth had steamed through the widely-spaced floorboards, filling her lungs and consciousness until she choked upon the foetid smell of human putrefaction.

And yet she had loved all that about it. The remoteness of it pleased her; the ruggedness had struck a stark and savage chord. When she was hungry she would eat, when tired she would sleep, and day and night soon merged into an endless round of plying the dark, surrounding waters in the cartoon boat. Becoming a brown-skinned native of the Swamp, she was seldom clothed, and the light and shadows of her body would melt into the unruly tangle of roots, vines and trees. She seemed a ghost, hardly more than a moon-lit apparition, as ephemeral as dust.

She had learned to fish for catfish, to take delight and pleasure in sifting her slim fingers, scratched and callused with neglect, through the murky depths of the Swamp to bring up tender morsels prehistoric denizens, slithering through primordial slime, that she would eat live and raw, relishing the crunch and rush of taste as Life met Life. She had sketched ancient, lifeless trees on paper bags, on anything to hand, until the little shack was papered with the barren visages of trees . . .

Perhaps it was then that the Voice had first begun. It was hard for her to know, the time had been so vague, no boundaries, her ears tuned like those of a cat on a moonless night. She could not quite remember, then, when first she'd heard her name called softly through the trees, remote, its echoes lost within the darkness of the Swamp. But she remembered well the first cold chill of recognition that it had stirred, as if something dark, perverse and loathsome awoke within her.

Fearful, yet unbearably enticed, she had sought to put a name to the uneasy deja-vu evoked by the eerie beast-voice ringing through the Swamp, knowing somehow that it was not human. But just as her mind would be about to grasp a word, to seize upon a furtive meaning, its essence would elude her; ephemeral, obsessing. Capricious as a naughty child and heedless of the danger, it had soon become a game to her like catching one's shadows after dark, or reading UFOs into the ever-shifting shapes of smoke upon a wind. Perhaps unwisely, too, she had laughed off the amorphous sense of desperate need and lost desire that nightly threatened to erupt, cracking through the mask of civilization, which even then had been all too thin. And steadfastly she had ignored the chthonic energies corroding the fiber of her soul. Through each day, and each long night beneath the sullen, down-turned crescent of the moon, she had been drawn as if against her will yet further into the forbidding darkness of Great Dismal Swamp.

In her other life, the whole thing would have frightened her. The terrible, unhuman voice, its disturbing undercurrent of desire; the vague, uneasy dreams that left no memory; the loathsome urges that hovered so near consciousness, the inexplicable changes in her personality all these would have made her think that she was going well and truly mad. But in that remoteness, unmindful of the rules of civilization, unhampered by the decency of "ordinary folk", the bizarreness of it all had merely served to pull her further into darkness. Seeking out depravity as if it were a tonic to her soul, she had stalked the elusive creature lurking in the vastness of the Swamp, who somehow knew her name.

Brazen, intoxicated: against what should have been her better judgment, she would place a chair for it at the table, teasing, daring it to come. And then at night, she would stand outside the cabin door, flagrantly inviting the Dark in to have its way with her. Laying in bed, she would dream of Darkness waiting out there for her. Yet it had always managed to remain beyond her reach, across some kind of chasm, a self-created psychic barrier of sorts, taunting by the nearness of its presence. Troubled in her sleep, she would catch no more than a fleeting glimpse of Dark, as it retreated through thick shadows, obscured by the ghostly gases escaping from the constant putrefaction of the Swamp.

For she'd long imagined it to be a creature of the Swamp that she pursued, who seemed to want her perhaps as much as she wanted it. Hairy, enormous things those strange and magical Beings found in the remotenesses of Russia, Oregon and Tibet were also claimed to haunt the swamps and bayous of the South. And so she had dreamed of him being tall, muscular and dark: eight feet tall at least, His eyes golden, His features indistinct but for the spiral horns emerging from the broadness of Ms temples, His huge hand beckoning ...  Then she would awake in blinding terror at the things that she had done, some small, still-active comer of her consciousness sensing the abhorrent danger and screaming out in bright alarm actively reviling the strange creature that she had become.

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In panic she had fled the little shack, pointing the battered jeep north on Route 17, heading for a Virginia Beach hotel. She had gone too far, and her mind had finally snapped, for it had never been fully recovered from the nervous breakdown anyway. They had been right: no one should spend so much time alone, it wasn't healthy ...  Then she had hoped, had prayed to anaesthetize herself with endless hours of television and alcohol, to somehow smooth it over, to forget the decadence, the slattern that she'd feared she had become, wondering at her traffic with the Dark. However, deep inside her the fear had taken hold that she had long since gone too far along the path from civilization to recover her lost sense of being human, ever to feel just ordinary again. Already she had wandered too far afield from the common herd to yet return . . .

It had been no good from the beginning. Locked up in her tiny room, television blaring inanely, she had still longed, stubbornly, perversely, for the desolation of the little shack, huddled in the vastness of the Swamp. There had been an unexpected sense of loss, a shocking wave of grief as she had left its darkness and solitude, and hit the crowded highway. The crash of humans and machines had been a strange cacophony, compared to the soothing, intermittent noises of the Wild; and the gleaming pastel concrete buildings, those high-rise hotels that blocked her vision of the sea, had sickened her.

Staring into the deadened faces, the soulless eyes of sunburned, bloated tourists, only made it worse. Thronging T-shirt shops along Atlantic Avenue, they had made her feel as if she had, all along, been living on the moon, had in the interim become of an altogether different species. Then the dread agoraphobia had burned its paralyzing terror through her veins, so that she had fled the open spaces and the crowds, had sought blindly the safety of the hated high-rise, squatting on the border of the sea.

Suddenly, the nightmares had returned: those Dark Beings, who again approached relentlessly through endless, violet night, would not let her rest. And she felt sudden, overwhelming hatred for the loathsome creature lurking in the darkness of the Swamp, that had so marred her life, turned her fondest wishes into junk. She had smashed her water glass against the wall with the rising tide of anger and disgust; and something in her mind had then come loose, something in her personality had cracked. All that she had been was burned away, setting free the utter darkness in her soul. Perversity, an obsession with the creature, had then welled within her, and she was possessed by the Unspeakable. A strange elation had filled the blankness of her soul. Her eyes had altered, becoming foreign and remote, as she gazed upon them in the hotel mirror. And quietly, efficiently, she had gathered up her things. She would leave Virginia Beach. Drawn like a moth into the flame that means its death, she had returned to the Dark, and the Great Dismal Swamp.

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Her heart leapt; frozen in the darkness, her pulse raced, her chest heaved with anticipation. And then she heard the welcome crashing sound through the thicket, the unmistakable suction of swamp mud. Was it two debauched and lustful eyes that she then found staring from the darkness, keen with bright desire? Watchful, golden, unearthly? Were those His spiral horns that glinted in the wan light of the down-turned crescent moon, His huge hand beckoning ... ?

The thought was mad, she knew it, but perhaps they would be kindred spirits after all. Alathea smiled as she threw herself at the Unknown.

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The End


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All articles and art Linda Falorio unless otherwise noted


Linda Falorio / Fred Fowler
Pittsburgh, PA 15224 USA