There was magic in the Old Wood. A quiet sort of magic that ran through the red clay of the earth. The locals called it the Old Wood, though it was given that name hundreds of years ago by the first Houma people. The people who knew of its rainy and wet lands. The people who used its red clay to make pottery and discovered the dangers of the muskeg. There was an age-old life in the folklore that had been intertwined with these swamps.
The trees. The ancient trees of the bayou. The tupelo, the cypress, the Spanish moss, the loblolly pines. Thousands of years old, they stretched towards the sky, bigger and more hulking than even the gators skulking in the marsh. They proudly stood in the still air. They watched and they listened. One tree in particular, a 3,500-year-old cypress, overlooked the tepid waters of the bayou. He was one of the oldest trees in the marshland, older even than the bayou itself. He watched over the land like the mountain watched over the valley. He considered himself the keeper of the bayou and all in it.
Two figures ran toward the Old Wood. Giggling all the way. They ran between the trees, like thread through a loom, weaving in and out of the tupelos. Trey shot out his arms and pretended to be an airplane while Fran trailed not far behind. For children, there was one rule of the bayou. Do not climb the trees that grow in the water. Do not.
Deep in the swamp, a mythically enormous alligator lurked just below the surface of the water. At least fifty feet in length, he stirred up the sludge at the bottom of the pond with his powerful strokes. He prowled, swiftly and ever so quietly through the water. He broke the clear film at the surface with his snout and let out a low exhale. He was hungry.
Trey and Fran ran a lot farther into the swamp than they should have. They lost track of the path they had taken, the path that would lead them back. Suddenly scared, the brother took the hand of his sister and continued to walk, unknowingly, further into the dark. They ventured where their tiny footprints immediately filled with water in the ground. They advanced farther into the marshlands. After wandering the Old Wood for some time, Trey thought he had a brilliant idea to climb a tree and look above the tree line to find the way out. Fran, tired and sore-eyed, trudged alongside her brother. He had to get them home.
That was when he spotted it. A huge old cypress. Just over a hundred feet tall, with thick branches, perfect for climbing. It must have been at least 3,500 years old. From the tallest tree in the forest, he would be able to see over all the others, they could find the way out. But it was in the middle of a marsh. Trey told his sister to wait along the bank where the soil was still solid. He waded into the muddy waters and then began to swim to the tree. He had seemingly forgotten the one rule of the bayou: do not climb the trees that grow in the water. Do not.
Soon, the alligator awoke to a disturbance in the water. Something was moving about. Food.
Trey reached the tree and began to climb. Up. Up. Up. He was an expert tree climber, he’d been doing it all his life. He placed one foot here, another there, and hoisted his small body higher and higher. His sister watched him from the bank. Neither were aware of what lurked below him.
The trees, however, sensed the danger. They knew the rule of the bayou. If they could talk, they would have screamed at the little boy to not climb the old cypress in the water. But they were just trees. The water-logged wood in the old cypress could not hold the weight of a young boy, nor were its roots secure in the loose red clay. As the boy climbed further and further up the tree, the old cypress knew something was about to give way. Even the old cypress, the protector of the forest, could not stop one of his branches from snapping beneath the boy. As the boy fell, the old cypress could not will his limbs to move and catch the falling boy. Down. Down. Down. The boy fell into the water below with a sickening splash as it swallowed him up. Do not climb the trees that grow in the water. Do not.
The boy swam to the surface of the boggy water, temporarily paralyzed after the shock of falling. His sister was shouting from the edge of the bank, worried and frightened. The alligator moved towards the ripples where the boy had fallen. Closer. Closer. Closer. Trey flailed about for an instant and then began to swim back to the bank, back to his sister. He had to get her home. Closer. Closer. Closer. He did not sense the alligator gliding towards him. But the trees. The trees knew. The old cypress felt the water stirring against its roots. It had let this boy fall and it knew that the boy would perish because of its one broken branch. It knew he had to get his sister home. It mustered all of the old magic left in its husk and pulled at its roots. It pulled and pulled and pulled its roots from the thin earth. It leaned and leaned and leaned with all of its ancient might. It leaned until the soft red clay gave way to let the old cypress, the keeper of the bayou, fall harshly over the alligator.
The boy looked back at the fallen tree from where he was treading water and saw a motionless snout lined with rows of unforgiving teeth.
Seeing the children in need, holding each other and crying on the muddy bank, the trees felt compassion for the little pair. When the children began to walk again, the wind brushed against the siblings to push them along the correct path while the trees swayed to show the children the way back. The trees watched over the children and saw them safely out of the bayou.
As the days went on, the trees grieved for their fallen brother and mourned over the loss of his great magnificence. Even the rain poured in lament for the lost guardian whose roots stood in the upturned mud of the bayou and reached towards the sky.