by Beth Burrell

A week of fiction begins today. Welcome our first story.

by Andrew C. Miller

For as long as Bonnie could remember, most weekends her father disappeared into the swamp behind their house for hours at a time. When she asked what he did there and why he went, her mother never answered, just shrugged her shoulders. The next time he headed toward the swamp, Bonne ran after him, although she was only wearing short pants and her favorite pink tennis shoes with teal-colored laces. He didn’t send her back, but hefted her onto his shoulders and kept on walking. Hands clasped around his neck, she bumped along with him through moist swales and patches of saw palmetto, around cypress and sweet gum trees toward the Suwanee River. When they reached a grassy knoll overlooking the river, he slipped her off his shoulders. They sat together on a fallen sycamore log, watched the black water amble past, a squadron of geese pump by overhead, necks outstretched as they assembled their V.

The next day he brought her a pair of knee-high rubber boots, yellow as the breast of a goldfinch. They began hiking into the swamp together, through ankle-deep mud, over narrow ditches, around exposed roots and fallen branches. He’d pause to point out wildflowers, butterflies, and trees. He showed her how to distinguish birds by their songs and calls, to approach turtles quietly so they wouldn’t splash into the water. At the end of their ramblings, they would stop at the grassy spot by the river. Sometimes they carried lunch, ate bologna and cheese sandwiches, drank warm sodas out of cans.

On her sixth birthday, he gave her a box of crayons and a tablet of white paper. At the dining room table he taught her about colors, composition, and balance. Bonnie began carrying her crayons and paper into the swamp, and while her father or read or watched birds, she sketched herons and egrets, muskrats and raccoons, sprawling live oaks draped with Spanish moss. Bonnie’s mother never went with them. She hated mosquitoes and ticks, feared snakes and alligators. She stayed in the back yard, tended tomatoes, okra, and butter beans, fussed over her muscadine and scuppernong vines.

When she was twelve, her father bought her a set of pastels and a sheaf of toothy, cream-colored paper. He taught her about shading, perspective, and negative space. Her drawings began to appear in their house, attached to the refrigerator with magnets, in the living room, the bathroom, the hallway that led to the bedrooms.

Her grandparents were bothered by Bonnie’s long walks and her attention to art. They thought she should be socializing with friends, going to parties and dances. Or, why not help your mother in the garden: plant azaleas, rhododendrons, and camellias? Bonnie said no, it was the swamp that she treasured—the milkweeds, marsh marigolds, and irises—to be captured with chunks of red, yellow, and blue.

In high school she studied watercolors, oils, and fabrics, molded silhouettes of kingfishers, bullfrogs, and snakes out of slabs of red clay. But pastels were her passion, like the swamp was for her father. Colored dust accumulated under her fingernails.

One day her English teacher asked the class to write about love. Most described grandparents or pets, boyfriends or girlfriends, paintball battles or plans for the prom. Bonnie wrote about traipsing the swamp with her father, pastels and paper under one arm. Told how they slogged through cattails, sedges, and bulrushes, passed logs layered with turtles, anhingas with outstretched wings.