The Cottage in the Marsh – Book One of Lottie’s Ballad
Chapter 1 – Sucked In
My name is Lottie, twelve years old.
Life’s hard, but I can cope.
I’m short and skinny for my age
But tough as sailors’ rope.
My brother Wade has turned fifteen;
Though sweet, he is not clever.
I fear one day the greedy marsh
Will swallow him forever.
We live with Gramps, my mother’s dad,
Who’s very nearly blind,
But he has known this town since birth;
There’s nothing he can’t find.
This town is Fenmere-by-the-Marsh,
A marsh that keeps us fed,
But it can swiftly suck men down
And feed on them instead.
At dawn, I sharpen Gramps’ old axe
And split logs for the fire.
I swing the blade, log after log;
My arms begin to tire.
I carry stacks of chopped up wood
Into the cooking shed.
I’m happy to be hard at work.
It numbs my sense of dread.
I fetch the water from the well
And fill the cookpot, deep,
That hangs above the fire pit,
From which the flames will leap.
My Gramps has built the fire up,
And soon he’ll make it burn.
My work is done; now I must wait
My brother’s safe return.
My brother’s gone into the marsh
To check his nets for eels.
We make a jellied stew from them,
A source of tasty meals.
The baker buys up all our stew,
For she is smart and wise.
She uses it as filling in
Her famous tasty pies.
While Gramps still had a little sight,
He taught his skills to Wade,
So Wade could join the boggy folk,
Whose marsh craft is their trade.
To know the way to read the marsh
Is seen as quite a gift,
For nothing stays the same in there;
Each day the paths can shift.
Last year, when Gramps’ eyesight had failed,
Wade went out on his own.
I pestered him to take me too,
So he was not alone.
He took me walking through the marsh;
I learned the boggy life.
He teased me that I loved it so
I’d make a boggy wife.
But all that changed one month ago,
And I’ll go there no more.
The first warm day of spring had come;
The ice began to thaw.
I followed Wade into the marsh,
Along a twisting track.
I placed my feet where he had stepped,
My eyes upon his back.
He used his staff to test the earth,
Before each step a prod.
The ground was like a soggy sponge
And squishy where we trod.
The melted ice refreshed the marsh;
New life was bursting free.
The birds went darting through the reeds
As happy as can be.
A warbler chirped a merry tune;
He was a cheerful fellow.
He nestled deep among tall grass,
His breast a blaze of yellow.
The bird was perched close by a patch
Of vivid purple flowers.
I grinned because these plants were rare,
And they had healing powers.
The petals boiled up in a soup
Would help relieve the sick.
They bloomed for just a single day,
And these were mine to pick!
They grew so very near the track,
Three steps from where I stood.
I never thought to call to Wade
But strode across the mud.
It was as though two hands of ice
Had grabbed my ankles tight.
My shins slid down beneath the mud
As I looked down in fright.
A whimper bubbled from my throat;
The shock had made me freeze.
The cruel marsh that sucked me down
Had swallowed up my knees.
The ooze slid up above my thighs
And grasped me round my waist.
The flowers stood beyond my reach
And mocked me for my haste.
A jolt of terror broke my trance.
My scream ripped through the marsh.
To die because of one mistake
Was terrible and harsh.
Wade had not known that I had stopped,
I had not told him wait,
And now I heard him dashing back,
But he would come too late.
I thrashed out at the stinking mud
And yelled with wild alarm.
My struggles only helped me sink,
While Wade cried out: “Keep calm!”
The mud was now above my chest;
This was my time to die.
The flowers that I’d tried to pick
Were level with my eye.
I raised my hands high in the air,
As if to grasp the light.
My fingers nudged against Wade’s staff;
They curled and gripped it tight.
Wade dragged me from the deadly mud;
The work was hard and slow.
The marsh still tried to suck me down;
It would not let me go.
At last I lay sprawled on the track;
Relief then made me laugh.
Wade looked annoyed and snapped at me:
“Why did you leave the path?”
He said: “How could you be so dumb?
The first thing that we learn
Is even one step from the trail
Can mean you don’t return.”
I wept because I felt ashamed;
I knew that he was right.
His kind heart smoothed his anger out.
He sighed and hugged me tight.
A frog was croaking in the reeds,
While birdsong filled the air,
And life was busy going on
As though I were not there.
Wade led me trembling from the marsh;
I shook but not from cold.
I feared the savage, great green beast
Might yet renew its hold.
I’ll not go near the marsh again,
It chills me to the bone,
But Wade is still a boggy man,
And he goes there alone.
I dread it when he’s in the marsh;
My stomach starts to churn.
One day he will step from the path,
And he will not return.
Chapter 2 – Love and Eels
The sun is rising in the sky;
I note my shadow’s length.
It tells me how much time has passed;
My worries grow in strength.
“Wade should be back by now,” I say.
“He’s taking far too long.
Perhaps, he’s never coming back,
For something has gone wrong.”
Gramps sighs and says: “Just calm down, Lot.
You are a girl who frets.
Remember, it’s spring fair today;
Wade’s laid out extra nets.
Each eel takes time to gut and pack,
And that’s why Wade is late.
Be happy that his catch is good,
And don’t get in a state.”
I hear a squawking in the street
And someone running hard.
My brother, grinning ear to ear,
Comes dashing through the yard.
He dives into the cooking shed,
No time for any words.
He slams the door tight shut against
A flock of hungry birds.
Gramps and I scare the birds away
Then slip inside the shed.
Wade says: “The birds knew I had eels
And wanted to be fed.
I caught so many eels today,
They overflowed my sack,
But I found lots of clever ways
To let me bring them back.”
His leather sack is bulging tight;
His clothes are bulging too.
He pulls an eel out from his shirt,
A funny thing to do.
His shirt is holding five more eels;
I don’t know what to say.
His hand goes down his britches’ front;
I have to look away.
Wade says: “I think there’s six more eels
That I have stored below.”
“Please keep that to yourself,” I say.
“I do not need to know.”
“I’m nearly done,” Wade says, at last,
“And I deserve a clap.
Let me produce my final eel.
It’s coiled up in my cap.”
I’m dressed like Wade, a boggy man,
In clothes he has outgrown.
The shirt and britches of his craft
Are all I’ve ever known.
I even have a boggy cap;
It’s leather with a brim.
Girls tease me and say I’m a boy;
How sad, their wits are dim.
Gramps lays the eels out on a bench
And tests them with his fingers.
He’s checking Wade has gutted them
And nothing nasty lingers.
He takes his blade that’s razor sharp
And cuts eels into slices
Then gently rubs into the flesh
A mix of special spices.
Though blind, Gramps works with skill and speed;
I’m one impressed granddaughter.
I take the first batch to the pot
And add them to the water.
We let them boil a little while,
And leave them well alone,
Then prod them and if they are done,
The flesh flakes from the bone.
Wade adds cold water to the pot;
This makes the eel fat rise.
I ladle off the slimy stuff;
It is not fit for pies.
We pour what’s left into large bowls
We’ve laid out on the floor.
Our first batch fills up two of them,
Which leaves another four.