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Folded in Light

By Elizabeth Broadbent in Issue Twelve, December 2023

“Most people couldn’t make out what David was babbling when he ran outta that swamp. Partly ‘cause he was buck-naked, but mostly ‘cause he’d sawed off that hand. But I heard him.” Buddy planted his elbows on the old counter. “He was going on about black rocks and witch birds. I know it. I seen it.”

Blake had only stopped to top off at Lower Congaree’s Gas N Go, but Buddy’s gossip snagged him, and he leaned close. The clerk’s Skoal reeked sickly of mint tobacco.

“David came in here telling me you can see those hunger stones in Germany,” Buddy continued. “And those standing stones in Spain. He said that sure as shit the water level’s dropping in that swamp. You think there isn’t something back there? And I said, you come get me when you find it.”

Buddy added that last detail like David’s sawn-off hand wasn’t enough, and Blake fumbled for cash. He’d be marked tardy at school if he lingered.

Congaree High roiled with rumor. Gossip peaked during lunch when most kids ate outside on splintered picnic tables. Staked trees drooped a dark, exhausted green, and the concrete courtyard sucked heat and held it. Blake contemplated his sandwich. The twin miseries of temperature and talk killed his appetite.

“He was so bloody that at first they didn’t realize he was naked,” Isabelle Gray said from a nearby table.

“Bullshit,” said Blake’s best friend Maddox, barely glancing at her. “You can’t miss a swinging dick.”

“You could if it’s covered in blood!”

“A dick’s a dick.” Maddox fixed his big, dark eyes on Blake. Girls went crazy over those eyes. Maddox ignored them, and they went crazier. “I wanna know what he saw out there.”

A slice of meat hung like a tongue from Blake’s sandwich. “Maybe he snapped.”

“David pulled straight As and Carolina scouted him for a baseball scholarship. No way would he up and lose it.” Maddox’s voice dropped low. “I think he really found—whatever drove him nuts.”

Blake shoved his lunch away. It happened like that now. Mad would say, I have this great idea. Blake would reply, That’s a terrible idea. Then Mad would tell him, Evelyn’s doing it, and Blake would agree to his dumbass plan because he couldn’t wuss out in front of Evelyn Benson. Their usual trio had shifted into something Blake couldn’t quite trust. Maddox’s shuffling feet and Evelyn’s crossed arms said they recognized it, too. None of them discussed it.

“Fine.” The sun shone red behind Blake’s lids. “I’ll go into that goddamn swamp with you and Evelyn. When? Saturday? You wanna go Saturday?”

“Why not skip and go tomorrow?” Maddox asked. “And how’d you know Evelyn said she was coming?”

When Blake finally opened his eyes, Maddox’s head tilted. He seemed so intent on an answer. “I just knew,” Blake replied.


“So, what’re we doing?” Blake asked after he parked at the Gas N Go. “Are we taking a trail, or . . .?”

“Ask Mad.” Evelyn’s red hair hung long and loose; her hiking pants and boots suited a long tramp through the swamp, but her low-cut tank top didn’t. Blake tried not to notice. “It’s his idea.” She grabbed her daypack from the seat.

“There’s a deer trail around here,” Maddox said as he slammed his door. “I thought we’d follow that and mark our way as we went along.” He pawed through his pack, then held up a can of spray paint. “And yeah, I brought an extra.”

“I’ve got enough bug spray for all of us.” Evelyn stepped away, and Blake backed up as Deet stung his nose. “I figured you delinquents would forget it.”

Don’t go into the swamp. It was a childhood commandment in Lower Congaree, as known as the other ten, and probably better obeyed. Folks said snakes out there grew thick as a man’s thigh. Gators sunk down in the muck, old gators, deadly gators, and feral hogs would strip a man to bone. But something else lurked there, and it was that something else older kids warned about. It watched, they said, and it waited.

No real trails led to the deep swamp.

Blake stayed silent as they walked toward the tree line.

A low, early fog promised another hot day. As birds tuned up, Maddox edged along the woods’ weedy hint. He finally stopped at a gap between two bald cypresses.

“This is it, I think.” He pointed to brown splatter staining the left tree’s pale trunk. David had slammed his stump against it.

“Oh God, Mad, did you have to?” Evelyn wrinkled her nose. “I could’ve lived without that.”

“Whatever. C’mon.” Maddox strode into the swamp. Evelyn went behind him, and Blake tried to keep up. Their path stayed faint, mostly dried mud churned by animals’ feet and matted with dead leaves. Most brush had browned in the heat, but thorned smilax tore at them. After twenty minutes, blood beaded on their hands, and they hiked with their fists balled. Poison ivy twisted in leaves and hairy vines. Maddox stomped hard to scare off canebrake rattlers. He also marked their trail. When they’d nearly lost sight of their last blaze, he sprayed another.

Blake didn’t mention, and if she noticed, neither did Evelyn, that Maddox wasn’t tracing hints of game trails. He followed bloodstained tree trunks.

As they roamed deeper, as the sun rose higher and their phones lost all bars, insects buzzed and hummed, rising to a whirring shriek. Flies bit, despite their Deet. It wants our blood, Blake wished he could say. But Maddox and Evelyn would’ve laughed and asked what, exactly, he meant. Blake couldn’t have answered, other than the swamp. The swamp wants our blood.

They would’ve laughed harder.

Evelyn knelt. “Deer tracks,” she said. “Maybe hogs. And I’d say that’s a dog but it’s too big.”

“C’mon,” Maddox called. “Blake, you okay back there?”

“Yeah, sure,” he said.

More brown stains. The birds hushed. Blake smelled mud, a reek of silt rotting in the sun. When their faint trail disappeared or split, Maddox would pause and scan the swamp, sometimes meandering forward a bit. Then he’d shout, “This way!” and they’d catch up.

Maddox was searching for David’s blood. Evelyn had to know.

Blake’s neck prickled. When he whirled, three crows exploded from a swamp tupelo’s branches in a raucous fury of caws.

“Goddamn that scared me!” Evelyn clutched her fists to her chest.

Maddox huffed. “Stupid crows.”

The insects quieted around noon, and Blake’s neck went cold again. He peeked behind him. Three crows again, all watching them. Eventually the swamp silenced. “It’s really quiet out here, y’all,” he finally whispered.

“Yeah, ‘cause nothing’s stupid enough to be out in the middle of the day.” Maddox threw him a lopsided grin.

But that hush seemed more than the quiet of heat-wracked woods. Too many trees looked lightning-struck. Too many thin, grub-pale mushrooms bloomed in the shadows. Didn’t mushrooms need rain? Turkey-tail fungus fanned on fallen logs—not striped turkey-tail, but flat black. Occasionally, dry cane rattled. There was no wind.

Blake paused. “We should go back.”

“We’re not going back now,” Maddox said over his shoulder.

“Why, Mad?” Evelyn spoke too loudly. “‘Cause the bloodstains are getting worse?” Crows burst from a treetop: one, two, three of them. “I don’t wanna find it. I don’t wanna know what did it.”

Maddox halted, then faced them. “So why’d you come?” He held her glare.

“If she’d rather go back—” Blake began.

“Oh, so you wanna go with her.” Maddox gathered himself up like he did when they were little, like he was tired of playing a game. He stalked off. “Fine!” he called over his shoulder.

Evelyn crossed her arms tight. “If we let Mad go alone, he’ll end up like David.”

“Yeah.” Blake blew out a long breath. “He will.” No matter what was going on with the three of them—even if Evelyn picked Maddox instead of him—Blake couldn’t let Mad face whatever was waiting alone. “C’mon, then,” he said.

It wasn’t far.

Bald cypress knees stretched chest high as they trudged down into what had clearly lain submerged before the drought. As their trail twisted, they stepped into a clearing. Dark silt had cracked into hexagons, and a double circle of black standing stones gleamed with tiny, pitted crystals. Several stones were missing, shattered, or split. Those maimings pained Blake. Like ruined teeth between lovely lips, their ravage seemed worse for the beauty around them—a stark, strange beauty; a dry, sublime beauty of earth and stone and sky, but a beauty nonetheless.

It was nothing he’d ever expected.

Knowing it was futile, he stepped up to a heap of broken stone and tried to fit its pieces together. The sun beat high and hot. A sole cricket sang. The stone was far taller than he, and long crumbled. “I can’t fix it!” Blake shouted.

A crow landed in his shadow. “Fix it, fix it,” the bird chanted.

Behind him, next to him, Evelyn and Maddox were working to fix stones, too. Blake collapsed onto split-silt dirt. “I just came out here because you wanted me to.” His voice caught. “I came because you said she was coming, so I had to.” He forced himself up. He had to help this single perfect stone.

“I came because you asked me,” Evelyn said somewhere behind him. Was she sobbing? “If you ask I have to say yes.”

“I asked because Blake wouldn’t come without you!” Blake nearly stopped to look at Maddox, but his work was too important. Mad was weeping. Maybe his tears, like Blake’s, fell on stone. “It’s the only way I can be around Blake. It’s not that I don’t like you, I do, I love you, but Blake—I have to pick, it can’t be both, and Blake, I—”

The stone wouldn’t fit. The stone would never fit. Blake’s scraped hands stung. “I love you both. I can’t pick.” Why hadn’t Blake known? Being with Mad would be good—different, and a little scary because it was different, but still good. It had never occurred to him. “Why doesn’t anything ever go together? It never goes together!” Blake kicked the shattered stone away and faced the circle’s center.

“What are you doing?” Evelyn gasped, a short, sharp sound. “You can’t do that! You’ll ruin it!”

The sun, once so punishing, folded him in its light. He could be part of something. The useless scrambling would end.

“I can.” Blake understood everything. “It scared David, but he was alone. We can, together. Then everything will fit.”

He undressed. Maddox tilted his head. “Yes,” he said, and shucked his shirt.

Tears streaked the stone-dust on Evelyn’s face. “I don’t understand,” she said.

Maddox picked a rock so far gone it seemed pulverized. “Here. Evelyn, C’mon.”

Scuttling upright, her back hit a cypress knee on the garden’s edge. “Don’t!” she shouted as Blake strode toward the center, toward Maddox. “Blake, don’t! Don’t take him away!”

“Aren’t you tired of that?” Blake asked. He couldn’t stop for long. Maddox was waiting. “Don’t you want it to end? C’mon. It’ll end, right now.”

“Don’t!” Blood caked her broken nails. It was almost as dark as David’s. “You’ll ruin everything, Blake!”

Her grasping wouldn’t let her see. Turning from her, Blake took Maddox’s hands. Maddox smiled wide as he pulled Blake close. Skin to skin, feet to earth, they fit against each other. Far away, a person screamed. Slowly, in stillness and wonder, they shifted from that stubborn resistance of flesh. To become was beautiful, to fit sublime; they joined not only their sibling-stones but each other. Time slipped. If they ever looked back to their other life, it was with puzzlement. A stone knew no loneliness or fear. What was uncertainty to the earth? Sun warmed them. Rain bathed them.

Water returned. In love, in union, the stones waited.

© 2023 Elizabeth Broadbent

Elizabeth Broadbent

Elizabeth Broadbent escaped the wilds of the Deep South for the Commonwealth of Virginia, where she lives with her three sons and husband. Her speculative fiction has appeared with, or is upcoming in, HyphenPunk, Tales to Terrify, Penumbric, If There's Anyone Left, and The Cafe Irreal. In summer of 2023, ELJ Edition published her novelette, “Naked & Famous,” about teenagers faking appearances of the South Carolina Lizardman. Her nonfiction has appeared in The Washington Post, Insider, and Time. In 2025, her novella, Blood Cypress, is set for publication with Raw Dog Screaming.

Fiction by Elizabeth Broadbent
  • Folded in Light