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Text - "Aaron in the Wildwoods" Joel Chandler Harris


The sound of one alien footfall is enough. It is the signal for each secret to hide itself, and for all the mysteries to vanish into mystery. The Swamp calls them all in, covers them as with a mantle, and puts on its every-day disguise,-the disguise that the eyes of few mortals have ever penetrated. But those who stand by the bargain that all key-bearers must make-whether they go on two legs or on four, whether they fly or crawl or creep or swim-find the Swamp more friendly. There is no disguise anywhere. The secrets come swarming forth from all possible or impossible places; and the mysteries, led by their torch-bearer Jack-o'-the-Lantern, glide through the tall canes and move about among the tall trees. The unfathomable blackness of night never sets foot here. It is an alien and is shut out. And this is one of the mysteries. If, when the door of the Swamp is opened to a key-bearer the black night seems to have crept in, wait a moment,-have patience. It is a delusion. Underneath this leafy covering, in the midst of this dense growth of vines and saw-grass and reeds and canes, there is always a wonderful hint of dawn-a shadowy, shimmering hint, elusive and indescribable, but yet sufficient to give dim shape to that which is near at hand. Not far away the frightened squeak of some small bird breaks sharply on the ear of the Swamp. This is no alien note, and Jack-o'-the-Lantern dances up and down, and all the mysteries whisper in concert: "We wish you well, Mr. Fox. Don't choke yourself with the feathers. Good-night, Mr. Fox, good-night!" Two minute globules of incandescent light come into sight and disappear, and the mysteries whisper:- "Too late, Mr. Mink, too late! Better luck next time. Good-night!" A rippling sound is heard in the lagoon as the Leander of the Swamp slips into the water. Jack-o'-the-Lantern flits to the level shore of the pool, and the mysteries come sweeping after, sighing:- "Farewell, Mr. Muskrat! Good luck and good-night!" Surely there is an alien sound on the knoll yonder,-snapping, growling, and fighting. Have stray dogs crept under the door? Oh, no! The Swamp smiles, and all the mysteries go trooping thither to see the fun. It is a wonderful frolic! Mr. Red Fox has met Mr. Gray Fox face to face. Something tells Mr. Red Fox "Here's your father's enemy." Something whispers to Mr. Gray, "Here's your mother's murderer." And so they fall to, screaming and gnawing and panting and snarling. Mr. Gray Fox is the strongest, but his heart is the weakest. Without warning he turns tail and flies, with Mr. Red Fox after him, and with all the mysteries keeping them company. They run until they are past the boundary line,-the place where the trumpet flower tried to marry the black-jack tree,-and then, of course, the Swamp has no further concern with them. And the mysteries and their torch-bearers come trooping home. It is fun when Mr. Red Fox and Mr. Gray Fox meet on the knoll, but the Swamp will never have such a frolic as it had one night when a strange bird came flying in over the door. It is known that the birds that sleep while the Swamp is awake have been taught to hide their heads under their wings. It is not intended that they should see what is going on. Even the Buzzard, that sleeps in the loblolly pine, and the wild turkey, that sleeps in the live oak, conform to this custom. They are only on the edge of the Swamp, but they feel that it would be rude not to put their heads under their wings while the Swamp is awake. But this strange bird-of a family of night birds not hitherto known to that region-was amazed when he beheld the spectacle. "Oho!" he cried; "what queer country is this, where all the birds are headless? If I'm to live here in peace, I must do as the brethren do." So he went off in search of advice. As he went along he saw the Bull-Frog near the lagoon. "Queerer still," exclaimed the stranger. "Here is a bird that has no head, and he can sing." This satisfied him, and he went farther until he saw Mr. Wildcat trying to catch little Mr. Flying-Squirrel. "Good-evening, sir," said the stranger. "I see that the birds in this country have no heads." Mr. Wildcat smiled and bowed and licked his mouth. "I presume, sir, that I ought to get rid of my head if I am to stay here, and I have nowhere else to go. How am I to do it?" "Easy enough," responded Mr. Wildcat, smiling and bowing and licking his mouth. "Birds that are so unfortunate as to have heads frequently come to me for relief. May I examine your neck to see what can be done?" The strange bird fully intended to say, "Why, certainly, sir!" He had the words all made up, but his head was off before he could speak. Being a large bird, he fluttered and shook his wings and jumped about a good deal. As the noise was not alien, the Swamp and all its mysteries came forth to investigate, and oh, what a frolic there was when Mr. Wildcat related the facts! The torch-bearers danced up and down with glee, and the mysteries waltzed to the quick piping of the Willis-Whistlers. Although the Swamp was not a day older when Aaron, the Son of Ben Ali, became a key-bearer, the frolic over the headless bird was far back of Aaron's time. Older! The Swamp was even younger, for it was not a Swamp until old age had overtaken it-until centuries had made it fresh and green and strong. The Indians had camped round about, had tried to run its mysteries down, and had failed. Then came a band of wandering Spaniards, with ragged clothes, and tarnished helmets, and rusty shields, and neighing horses-the first the Swamp had ever seen. The Spaniards floundered in at one side-where the trumpet vine tried to marry the black-jack tree-and floundered out on the other side more bedraggled than ever. This was a great victory for the Swamp, and about that time it came to know and understand itself. For centuries it had been "organizing," and when it pulled De Soto's company of Spaniards in at one side and flung them out at the other, considerably the worse for wear, it felt that the "organization" was complete. And so it was and had been for years and years, and so it remained thereafter-a quiet place when the sun was above the trees, but wonderfully alert and alive when night had fallen. The Swamp that Aaron knew was the same that the Indians and Spaniards had known. The loblolly pine had grown, and the big poplars on the knoll had expanded a trifle with the passing centuries, but otherwise the Swamp was the same. And yet how different! The Indians had not found it friendly, and the Spaniards regarded it as an enemy; but to Aaron it gave shelter, and sometimes food, and its mysteries were his companions. Jack-o'-the-Lantern showed him the hidden paths when the mists of night fell darker than usual. He became as much a part of the Swamp as the mysteries were, entering into its life, and becoming native to all its moods and conditions. And his presence there seemed to give the Swamp new responsibilities. Its thousand eyes were always watching for his enemies, and its thousand tongues were always ready to whisper the news of the coming of an alien. The turkey buzzard, soaring thousands of feet above the top of the great pine, the blue falcon, suspended in the air a mile away, the crow, flapping lazily across the fields, stood sentinel during the day, and the Swamp understood the messages they sent. At night the Willis-Whistlers were on guard, and their lines extended for miles in all directions, and the Swamp itself was awake, and needed no warning message. Sometimes at night the sound of Randall's trumpet fell on the ear of the Swamp, or the voice of Uncle Fountain was heard lifted up in song, as he went over the hills to his fish-baskets in the river; and these were restful and pleasing sounds. Sometimes the trailing cry of hounds was heard. If in the day, Rambler, the track dog, would listen until he knew whether the cry came from Jim Simmons's "nigger dogs," from the Gossett hounds, or from some other pack. If at night, the Swamp cared little about it, for it was used to these things after the sun went down. Mr. Coon insisted on gadding about, and it served him right, the Swamp insisted, when the hounds picked up his drag-as the huntsmen say-and brought him home with a whirl. He was safe when he got there, for let the hounds bay at the door of his house as long as they might, no hunter with torch and axe would venture into the Swamp. They had tried it-oh, many times.

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