Signs marking the town where I grew up listed its founding as 1851, but everyone in my neighborhood knew of a graveyard down the old swamp road that was older than that. Weathered gravestones listed death dates in the 1830s. No one knew where these early people had come from, or why they lived on a small island in a cypress swamp when there was plenty of dry land elsewhere.
Mrs. Johnson, my neighbor, claimed they had been gypsies running from the law. That’s what she had heard growing up, and she was over eighty-years-old. But Mr. Tucker at the fire station swore they had been witches—they lived in the swamp so no one would bother them, and they made potions with water moccasin venom. We weren’t sure if that was just a story told to scare us, or if it was true.
Sometimes, we’d hear strange noises coming from the swamp, mostly on calm evenings just past sunset. This was the twilight time folks called dark-thirty because that’s when the spirits roamed. Some said the sound was a moaning ghost; others thought it was more like crying, a child’s or a baby’s cry. My parents said it was just the wind, a screech owl, or maybe a lonesome dog. It did sound lonely, but it didn’t sound like any dog I had ever heard. It made me feel cold inside, even on a warm summer’s night.