THE SWAMP PALACE by Jake Lancaster

There’s a boardwalk to the water through the swamp and the swamp is full of white birds on skinny orange legs and there are plastic bags everywhere and Dew bottles and it smells like we’re in a Roman candle fizzing out—that smell, what do you call that? Not carbon. It’s kind of earthy but chemical too? It is…It is…My son says this is like walking to the queen, or the king, or the palace, because the mangroves arch above us kind of imperially. I say the Swamp Palace and he says, Yeah. Once we get to the water an osprey dives down and misses a fish. There’s a crab dancing down in the water. (Later, I’ll tell my daughter we saw a crab dancing and she’ll say, Like this, and do a little dance and it’s funny, and I feel good about being a dad for a minute, like I’m doing ok at it.) We see a needlefish that’s glowing all alone and I say he’s a bit of a lone wolf, and my son says, Yeah, like what a sad deal he seems to be thinking by his tone, this lone wolf needlefish. I tell him it’s ok to be alone sometimes. That osprey crashes down again and maybe it got something this time? I can’t tell. I can’t tell if there’s anything in his talons. Maybe just seaweed? Or a popsicle wrapper or some shit? Before walking back out we stand at a set of three stairs that descend from the boardwalk into the swamp. The impenetrable swamp, just mud and malarial-looking water and tangles of mangrove branches and trash, like where would you go? Where do you go from here, my son asks, standing on the stairs. I guess if you had some rubber boots or waders or something you could make a go of it, I say. Someone had to bust through here at some point. That’s how they discovered Florida. What’s discover mean, he asks. It means to find out. How do you find out, he asks. Just walk around, I say, keep your eyes peeled. Sulfur. That’s what it smells like in here. On the way out some kid with a white-powdered face and black lips is kind of blocking the trail and I’m like, Oh gawd, but then he stands to the side and as we pass he says, Trail’s good today, huh. And I’m like, Yeah, man, yeah, it’s good. The trail’s a raised boardwalk platform kind of thing, made from fake wood, so it’s always good, but anyway. My son asks me why the kid’s face was painted. I don’t know, I say. It’s his style? What’s style, he asks. It’s like, your essence made visible. He asks me what essence is. It’s like, the main thing, I say. Can I take my shirt off, he asks. I say yeah, then teach him a little trick, how to fold it over and slip it into the back of your shorts. Oh great, he says, now I have a tail. But he keeps it tucked in there. In the parking lot he flexes his muscles at the car door, which shows his reflection. That osprey again, I think, overhead, still no lunch. I remember flexing my muscles in mirrors. I remember being a boy. My hair golden from the sun just like his, dripping down my neck. I remember walking through swamps, to the palace to see the king and the queen. I remember asking for pardons and reprieves. I remember getting down on my knees.

Jake Lancaster is a recent graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where he was awarded the Henfield Prize for Fiction. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in the The Common, Southampton Review, The Sierra Nevada Review, and Forever Magazine. He lives in Minneapolis.

Art by Bob Schofield @anothertower

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