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SWAMP LIFE – Day Four: The Ominous Stench of Death

The View at the End

I camped in the swamp — alone for five days — with few comforts to enjoy. Could I handle the disruption? Could I live more heroically? Today recaps Day Four.

(Click here for Day One, here for Day Two and here for Day Three.)

The lime-green juice sac pulsated & writhed. Tiny red pincers pierced its flesh, tearing off chunks with a merciless greed.

It’s my fault, I thought, unblinking. Everything – this whole situation. It’s because of me.

* * *

I woke up on Day Four with a chill. The night creatures had retired, and the early bird had not made progress toward the worm. It was 59 degrees now, and everything in the tent had a slight dampness to it. I crawled out, stiffly, with a handful of books and made my way to the folding chair.

No sand gnats. That’s nice.

A trio of flies flitted at my ears. I hadn’t seen flies before today.

Now that I had skimmed through wilderness survival book number three, I could now build a pretty impressive fire. I did so, and I sipped on hot herbal tea and ate a re-hydrated breakfast skillet in a bag. Things felt different.

When the mourning dove began, I decided to answer. I hadn’t really spoken human since mid-afternoon on Friday, so this felt like a better fit. I clasped my hands loosely and blew into them, making slight adjustments to match the dove’s pitch. This was a trick my father had shown me in Africa.

A dove responded, adding one extra tone to its echo. Still got it.

We went on like this, off and on, as I digested the words of Jefferson and Habito. The red ants scaled my legs like puppies who missed their master. Buzzards circled over the marsh.

Shoulda taken a second bath, I thought, as their pattern tightened.

The mourning dove cooed from a dead oak at the edge of my camp. I raised hands to my mouth, and it cocked its head, blinking. Busted!

The dove said some choice coos and fled. Somehow, it persuaded the entire forest full of chattering birds to abandon me, in silence, for at least an hour.

On my left leg , I noticed an inch-long, green caterpillar—the kind with tiny, stiff hairs all over its back. I flicked it as far as I could.

You’re better off without me, I thought, remembering last year’s tobacco worm massacre in my backyard garden. It wasn’t my proudest moment, though I didn’t have enough tomatoes for salsa, let alone to share.

The caterpillar, now alone in the sand, turned back on itself and began pulsating back in my direction. I scoffed, walking away to fetch lunchtime sausages and granola.

An Unspoken Rivalry

When I was nine, I have a distinct memory of Saturday-afternoon shenanigans in the back yard. This usually included blowgun target practice on green army men, swinging on a tire, and climbing up a rope ladder to my plywood castle in the sky.

One day, as I was picking out which cat would have the honor of riding up the pulley bucket, I began to scale the ladder. A dangling rope at the top swung over and slapped me in the face.

OW!

Clinging to the rope at eye-level was the fattest lime-green caterpillar I had ever seen. I still haven’t been able to identify the type. My face burned, my eye swelled shut and my fascination with critters was quelled for awhile (at least until I decided to collect black widows in a jar).

The Agent of Death Volunteers

Reading Jefferson’s truncated account of Jesus’ trial, I saw movement between my feet. The young caterpillar had made it back already, and it was swarmed by my red-ant pets. I watched, wondering what my role should be in this: bloodthirsty spectator or reprimanding pet owner? The caterpillar flailed. I sighed, anticipating painful swelling as I gently rolled it over, tapped the ground for my pets to scatter and cradled it in my palm. I returned it to the thigh it had scaled to before.

No movement. I noticed dark, swollen splotches across its torso. I became more aware of the tickles moving up my shins. Down, boys! I nudged the caterpillar a bit, and it retracted slowly. I bet those ants have already pumped so much venom in its body that there’s nothing I can do.

I slowed my breathing, wondering when I had become so emotionally attached to bugs. Bugs, really, had been the only things to come in the perimeter, if you count their cousins, the ever-migrating fiddler crabs. The damage to this one had been done. I should make things right by letting the ants have their kill and putting an end to the caterpillar’s pain.

Flashes of a nine-year-old boy, patting his swollen right eye, tears streaming.

I lowered the motionless caterpillar to the sand, watching the first eager red ant’s discovery. The hordes descended. The writhing commenced. He’s still alive.

Why do I insist on injecting myself into someone else’s story?

My crimson feet were searing, so I moved the chair, turning my back to the feast. Red flittering on writhing green. The holiday-themed stuff of nightmares. Bits of bright, juicy flesh were being torn off, far too slow for my comfort. Why won’t he die?

“This is my body, broken for you.”

Not now, Jefferson!

I slammed closed the book and grabbed a twig, surgically smashing the green head into the ground without hurting my pets. It had to die. Surely, it wanted to die with no hope of survival.

I picked up Habito’s book, forgetting how to breathe. He described the parable of the Good Samaritan through a Buddhist lens, and my chest muscles tightened.

Did the caterpillar even want to be put out of its misery? Did I have any right to determine that for him? What am I doing out here anyway? This isn’t my ecosystem. How long do humans need to exist, anyway, before they become part of any ecosystem? Are there unspoken rules of nature that one must follow at the risk of being banished forever?

Had I just banished myself from this paradise?

I shook the ants from my body and walked. Barefooted, unconcerned with what might be lurking on the trail, I walked. I sought breath. I walked harder, my breath pulsing to the tune of Complicated.

I hated myself even more for bringing up Avril Lavigne at a time like this.

In the dead oak ahead, I saw a commotion. Two massive buzzards had landed after meticulously circling all morning.

Ominous buzzards

Really?

I glared, their accusatory eyes unblinking. My bare feet began to move.

Further down the trail, I found the geocache bin and opened it. I rifled through the melted crayons and signed a guestbook. Something schmaltzy and encouraging to drown out the angst.

I chuffed. I should put that line on my business cards.

Death Sharpens the Scythe

By the time I came back, my breathing had slowed. My thoughts were less jumbled, but the dread was still there. I finished the rest of my Living Heroically 5-Day Challenge worksheets, and I felt better in my skin. I was nearly done with Jefferson and Habito when a leaf crunched.

Across the creek bed, where I had seen the doe yesterday, emerged a raccoon.

The raccoon.

It was real.

This was the first I had seen of it since the rainstorm, even after several smelly meals of canned meat. It ambled my way in its nonchalant-though-determined manner, and I noticed that it still looked like a wet dog.

Oh no, I thought as it wavered, then plopped onto the straw in the clearing. Its head drooped like a bored lapdog while the pair of buzzards spiraled high above.

This is not good.

The raccoon returned to its feet—still averting its eyes beneath a sunken, greasy mask. It walked toward the bank and descended directly across from me.

 

 

I stood, but the raccoon had disappeared somewhere under the overhang where I stood. Maybe it was just tired. And maybe it actually lived in a den right under my camp, at the edge of the creek. If I was a raccoon, that’s what I’d do. I’d have all the food I wanted, right beside the front door.

My mind flashed to its emaciated frame as it had meandered past succulent fiddler crabs and steadily-trickling water.

I craned my neck to see under the embankment, but nothing stirred. My bare feet inched closer.

What does it mean when your spirit animal’s dying?

I turned on my phone, pacing up and down the bank, as my thumbs battered the screen.

Do you think he’s dying? my wife texted back.

Unless he’s a Phoenix-coon, spirit animals aren’t supposed to die.

What does it mean when your spirit animal dies?

I grinned bitterly. You don’t wanna know.

The raccoon re-emerged further down the creek bed, ambling along, still shaky, yet still determined to keep moving. It wavered and plopped next to a shallow pool.

When I called the park ranger’s station, I was consciously preparing to hide my concern for the beast. My voice cracked, raspy from disuse.

Don’t get close to it, the ranger advised.

I’m not. So can you come check it out? Or is there… maybe something I can do?

Silence.

We’re not allowed to interfere. We can’t. No matter what, really. It’s best that way.

I don’t see any foam, but I think it might be rabies.

Yeah… Just stay away, alright? You gonna be okay?

Yeah… Yeah I’m fine. Thanks for your help.

By this point, the raccoon had made it out of the creek bed and was walking just along the back perimeter. He fell with a thud before the edge of my woods.

Just hours earlier, I had perfected the construction and burial of a “cathole” (though I told my mom I wouldn’t go into detail about what that is). Would this space—marred by my shovel and waste—be the final resting place of my spirit?

What was I even doing out here?

What Does It Mean When Your Spirit Animal Dies?

When Ruben Habito – a Jesuit priest – was sent to Japan, he began learning Zen practices. His breakthrough moment – a rare incident of transcendence – came after meditating on the Mu Koan for days. This ancient story involved a student essentially asking a wise old master, “Does a dog have a soul?” and the master responding with “Nah” (or “Mu” in the original language). This was particularly perplexing to hear from a Zen master, who would have spent many years contemplating the tenets of his religion — tenets that included the belief that everything was connected and sacred.

Like all koans, the Mu Koan is designed not to give a definitive answer on the spiritual mysteries of life. Instead, it’s designed to be contemplated from all angles, to be turned over and over and have all its contradictions both explored and revered. In this process – however long it may take – the koan eventually breaks down the ponderer’s shell of identity, allowing him or her to accept new insight.

What does it mean when your spirit animal dies?

Was that my koan to ponder? To determine my relevance in the whole scheme of things? To embrace my lifelong obsession with the mortality of Scooby-Doo ghosts?

What does it mean when your spirit animal dies?

Sitting Vigil

I stood in reverence for as long as my attention would allow. Thom hadn’t given me the cheat sheet for this sort of thing. A tick crawled up my tricep, so I flicked it into the creek bed. Turning back, I witnessed the raccoon stand and then collapse again. About 30 minutes later, it vomited a small amount of blood and returned to its shallow breathing.

BREATHE.

Why couldn’t I catch my breath after so much practice?

A red ant bit my sun-fried toe. Red ants don’t bite.

I felt betrayed. Did the raccoon feel that way, too? Maybe it had accepted that this was truly its end. A flail of its legs proved the opposite.

The tree shadows lengthened, and the songbirds returned to their homes. A pair of nosy cardinals lingered to gawk. The buzzards had given up hope and moved on.

Slowly, I collapsed my chair and moved it to this side of the camp, watching in silence. Shallow breaths, followed by stillness, and then a flailing to stand and the shallow breathing once more. I wrote feverishly – three-and-a-half pages on every details of the death, and every thought that accompanied it.

What could it mean when your spirit animal dies?

I thought about the raccoon’s drive to keep moving – to fight steadily, but not desperately, for its next breath of air.

It’s an instinct that all creatures share, thanks to the “lizard brain” or limbic cortex that sends us fighting or fleeing when a response seems appropriate. But how determined was this creature’s fight! For days, it seemed, this nocturnal animal must’ve known its death was certain as it trudged ahead like a zombie mailman through rain and torturous sunlight.

And now, it would simply conserve its energy to stand and then fall. When the energy faded more, it would save up some so it could flail. With nothing left for movement, it breathed.

Shallowly, haltingly, it breathed.

And that’s how we remained for at least three hours. Two isolated creatures in the woods, waiting and breathing, preparing our bodies for the inevitable unknown. I didn’t dare eat that night, in the face of my friend’s distress.

As the sun was dipping beneath the marsh pines, a mourning dove cooed. I clasped hands to my mouth, but no noise came out.

The dove cried again as I watched my spirit animal breathe, shallowly, alone in the coming darkness.

Tune in tomorrow, if you dare, for the FINAL day of my journey — Day Five: “Resonance”

 

(Check out yesterday’s post here. Day Two’s post can be found here, and Day One’s post can be found here.)

 

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About the Author Mark Ezra Stokes

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