SI Vault
William Humphrey
July 26, 1976
Two naked men take on a monster in an attempt to keep trespassers away from a primeval swamp in East Texas
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July 26, 1976

Guardian Dragon Of Sulphur Bottom

Two naked men take on a monster in an attempt to keep trespassers away from a primeval swamp in East Texas

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In my time, Sulphur Bottom, in the East Texas woods, remained much as it had been from the beginning. Clearing was confined to its edges. Within it towered virgin oaks. Rattan vines connected the trees in webs that looked as though they had been spun by spiders from the age of the mastodons. Cane grew rooftop-tall in brakes as dense as fur, impenetrable. Its guardian monsters had kept the place inviolate.

But now, in the mid '30s, signs of change were appearing, and my father, the man most responsible for them, was the one to whom they were least welcome. Game bags of the size he brought out of there emboldened others. Motor cars—kept running by him—got more men there more easily. To discourage these trespasses upon what he considered to be his private preserve, my father periodically shot and put on display at his garage a particularly big water moccasin, propping open the mouth to show its fangs and its deathly white interior. Or...but for this he needed help.

Whenever my father needed help in anything, he got it from Wylie West, his carbon copy. Wylie had no more sense than he had. Wylie would have walked through fire if my father had gone first.

Wylie worked for my father. He worked at my father's garage. However, he did not work for the garage, he worked for my father. To Mr. Barton, my father's partner, Wylie paid no mind.

Had he been asked what his feelings toward Wylie were, my father would have said, "That's none of your business." In fact, Wylie was the one man he liked, trusted and respected. But the code governing relations between the races forbade that he show this, or even altogether admit it to himself—although my father was just enough of a maverick and enough of an outsider, without all that much social standing to lose, to test the code to the breaking point. Thus he saw to it that other white men, his customers at the shop, treated Wylie with a difference, which must have galled them, and he said to Wylie that if any of them gave him any trouble, to let him know.

With himself, of course, he expected Wylie to know his place. Wylie had gained my mother's approval by never turning his back on her, or on any other white woman. He bowed himself away from her back door. He mistered me. We took such deference as our due. We never questioned that Wylie did, too. Just one thing bothered me. I liked Wylie to an unacceptable degree, beyond what was tolerated. I had heard the term "niggerlover" and the contempt and the hatred with which it was spoken. I had to be on guard against letting my fondness for Wylie show. In town, that is—another reason for my love of the woods. There, with no one to see us, we could be more free and easy with one another.

Whenever my father felt that too many hunters were poaching on his preserve, it was Wylie he took with him—and, once, me—there to find something to put a little caution in them.

The time they took me with them it was early fall. We boated in. We were going in deep because alligators, although there is the occasional odd maneater, mostly shun people widely. We took with us a live duck. It was one of the flock of wild mallards my father kept penned in our backyard for use as decoys.

A boat seemed hardly to be necessary on that water. It was so thick, so motionless with mud, it looked as though it could more easily be walked upon. The river led straight through the woods like an aisle, and down it we passed as silently as barefoot believers, our shoes left outside on the temple porch. When we had paddled a short distance, it was as though a door had closed behind us, shutting out the sounds of the world: a door as heavy as a temple's, a silence in which to have spoken would have been an irreverence. Yet it was not an empty but a populous silence, an attentive, even an inquisitive silence, one sensed. I felt myself to be an explorer, a discoverer.

The stillness, the sea-calm silence, that was the thing that struck me first about the deep woods, which, as it steadily deepened, steadily challenged and put in doubt my sense of myself, of everything. Timelessness hung like a vacuum over that vast unvisited domain. For me, time was associated with sound, inseparable from it—the chatter and bustle of human affairs, the dependable chiming of my town clock, which I had heard within, at most, a quarter of an hour after coming into the world—and with the comforting conviction that others were regulating their lives in synchrony with mine. Time was people, social life, the sharing with others of measured portions of the day—at school, at work, at play. Time was schedules to meet, anniversaries, celebrations, communions. This journey into silence was a journey into timelessness. And because time was commitments, responsibilities, I understood as never before the lure of these timeless woods for that half-wild father of mine.

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