Ossie is the runt of his litter, and so shy that he's never spoken a word! When he's wounded and left orphaned by a snake attack, it looks like the end. But Ossie finds an unexpected friend: Uncle Will, the old gator who is a legend in the swamp. Surprisingly, Will adopts the little rat and takes him all around their world, teaching him the swamp's lore, and introducing him to its colorful residents and its rich stories. But even Will can't do anything about the terrible drought that's drying up the swamp—nor about Bubba, a crabby old stork who decides Ossie is the perfect scapegoat for their troubles. In the end, Ossie has to do what his father always told him he'd have to do: find his own way.
About the Author
Carter Crocker lives in Ojai, California.
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THE TALE OF THE SWAMP RAT
Change always comes on a Wind; good, bad, or indifferent, it comes on a Wind.
When the whole thing began, it was dark. It was as dark as it's ever been or ever will be. Not a moon, not a star, not the blink of a firefly to light that smothering night. That's how it was when it all began.
And out in a sawgrass prairie, on a small island, there was a flustered heap of twigs called a lodge. A Rat-Father crawled from his home, into a night soggy with orchid-scent. He nosed the ground, for grubs, for bugs, busily digging the soft soil.
And then, he stopped.
He stayed there, where he was, not moving the least little bit. Something wasn't right in the forest. He didn't know what-but he knew something was wrong. He smelled the night air and smelled no danger. He listened and heard only quiet.
Suddenly he felt how still the darkness was around him. He had never known the forest to be so dark and so still, and it puzzled him. Something was not right. He sensed that some change was somehow coming in the swamp. But he did not, could not know what sort of change it was.
The Rat-Father moved on, in that careful, watchful way small animals have.
Now, sooner or later the sun was going to rise. And sooner or later it did, at first a milky glow beyond the trees, a slow dim dawning. And in the gloom the small rat didn't see a shadow move within a shadow, high in a dark tree.
In a quiet flashing of wings, an owl slid from the branches and down to the swamp rat.
The Rat-Father heard a rustling of feathers, and jumped to hide among cypress roots. Sharp claws cut the air just over him. The owl dove at him once more and the rat raced across the swamp forest floor. The bird lunged again, and again the Rat-Father darted away. He leaped for the safety of thickgrown grasses. There were feathers filling the air now and the owl had worked itself into a fury! But he could not reach the Rat-Father.
By the time the owl had flown back to the tree, the rat was back safe in the lodge. He could hear the old bird far off among the trees, hollering at him and the world in general, "D'you think I care!? Only a measly little rat! Wouldn't have held me till lunch! D'you think I care!?"
The Rat-Father huddled in the twig-nest for some long time and as he sat, he worried for his children. He worried over one more than the rest....
It was light before long, a day in early Spring, slow moving and heavy with heat. There were gray-bellied clouds to the east, but none with good rain. There hadn't been much rain the season before and the swamp was going dry. Even rats could walk long stretches of it.
A black snake glided across a small pool, smooth and wordless. An alligator bellowed in the far somewhere, a long-off sound and pleasant. Two yellow butterflies, pale as that morning sun, passed in fidgeting flight. The nesting trees were full of ibis and egret. Dragonflies danced to dragonfly music.
For the swamp rat called Ossie, it was his third week in the world.
He was born one of twelve and it was he that his father worried over. Ossie was small, much smaller than the rest, and skinny as the reeds. A runt is what he was. A pitiful runt. He was shy and unsure and quiet. He was very quiet. Within a week, his brothers and sisters were chattering without pause, yet Ossie had not spoken a word, not made a sound. The Rat-Father and Rat-Mother wondered if he ever might.
Did Ossie have a voice? Who could say? He was shy. The simple thought of sound tangled in his throat and made him ashamed and made him not try. Did Ossie have a voice? Even he didn't know. That's how shy he was.
When the swamp rats were out of the lodge that Spring day, they played and played hard. They ran, they chased, they hid, they sought, they fought, they laughed. Except Ossie. He stood, he watched. Quiet.
The Rat-Father saw and he wondered about this odd child, silent, alone, born to a Time of Drought. What would the Prophet say?
I should explain about the Prophet, an old Ironhead Stork. This bird, it was said, had great powers. This bird, it was said, could understand omens and read signs. He was called Bubba. He lived on an island many miles off; but he moved from place to place, explaining the truth and revealing mysteries. Folk brought fish in trade for his prophecies and Bubba brought peace to their troubled minds.
Bubba was a big bird, body of white, pure and clean, but his neck and head were dark, wrinkled, and without feather. His eyes were bottomless black; you could not look away from them. Wherever he went, folk looked and listened and he liked that.
"Listen to me!" he would shout, and folk would listen.
(I must also tell you that I have known many Ironhead Storks in my day and they've been good friends, every one. They are fine birds, majestic in their way. They are loyal folk and decent, through and through. But Bubba, he was something altogether else.)
Once way back, when the Rat-Father was young, the Prophet Bubba had come to this island. Someone had found strange tracks in a clearing. Someone had called for Bubba.
The tracks formed a giant pattern, a circle in a circle, on and on, like rippling rings in the water. The Prophet understood. It meant disease would visit this place. It would come in four weeks, same as there were four circles. It would stay on the island four months. Each family would lose four of its own. The only hope, he said, was to ring the island with tamarind leaves, laid five deep.
They worked together, side by side. Birds pulled leaves from branches and brought them to rats, who carried them to the island's edge where raccoon, possum, and mice made a giant circle.
They waited. Days passed into weeks. Four months came and four months went. There was celebration then. No disease had found its way onto the island. Bubba's magic had worked.
Now, the Rat-Father knew he'd made those tracks himself, late in the night, when a sick stomach kept him from sleeping. He had gone out in the dark, wandering in half-dreaming circles, till he burped a foul burp and the ache was gone from his gut.
But folk believed the Prophet. And who was he, this one little rat, to say they were wrong, all of them wrong?
What would the Prophet have to say about Ossie, he wondered.
In time the Rat-Father called the children in and led them into the forest. He was going to teach them the ways of the swamp, he said. He would show them how to find food and not become it. They moved across the small island, turning leaves, digging the spongy soil for grubs.
But Ossie's mind soon drifted from this. There was too much else to see here: trees, vines, flowers, all of them incredible; the sky, a bottomless blue; and the air, beautiful to smell.
This was an exceptional world and he wanted to see more. The silent little rat moved past a giant fern and a field of silk grass, past a tree dying in a slow embrace of the Strangler Fig. He saw it all with dreamer-eyes and touched each thing to make it real.
He ate a berry that was half gone bad and the taste stayed with him all day. He climbed the side of a cabbage palm and fell and knocked the wind out of himself. He scared a twig-skinny lizard and its half-dozen young ones, babies as tiny as blackberry leaves. Overhead wide flocks of egrets passed and songbirds were everywhere.
Around him, below him, there was a small and less-seen world. Hidden among the grasses and folds of leaves, there were bugs and tiny frogs no bigger than bugs. From them came a chorus of countless voices, melting to one, skree-skree-skreeee, ratcheting, rising, falling. It was a never-ending noise, like some grand machine that made the whole swamp run.
An exceptional world is what this was.
Ossie had wandered off the island, out where the water had been, with no thought to where he was or where he was going.
He walked the dried muck until he reached a deep channel, still full. The water was smooth, a perfect mirror. Ossie leaned and looked and saw himself and behind him there rose a great forest, a whole full world, the upside-down of his.
He turned. A gray cypress grew from the water here and around its trunk were gnarled knobby knees. As he hopped onto one, he began to hear a low rushing. The sound was new to him and strange, but soon he understood....
It was wind, a long slow wind, making its way across the swamp. He listened, carefully, as if it were sharing some secret with him. The warm wind brought a smell of sawgrass and water, trees and sky, plant and animal, yesterday and tomorrow, and everything in between.
And then, in another blinking of an eye, the wind whipped on and with it came butterflies. And more butterflies, more and more, thousands upon thousands, more than Ossie could dream. The sun dappled through them as it did through cypress leaves. They were the same color, but each caught the light a different way and they were every color. Their wings beat the air, a million pair, but made no noise. They were going somewhere, for some reason, and he heard their tiny insect voices. "Will it be better there?" "How much farther?" "Are we there yet?"
He sat and watched as they passed and he wondered, Where are they going? What place are they looking for? How could it be better than this? Then he noticed something across the water, on another island, only a few dozen feet off. He wasn't sure what it was. Until, through the butterfly-cloud, he saw. It was a rat like himself.
Or not like himself. It was a girl-rat, about his age he guessed. She saw him across the water. She smiled. He smiled. He wanted to say something, but couldn't. Then every butterfly was gone, as if they'd never been. The girl was still there. Only she and Ossie had seen them, had shared them. Then she disappeared in thick plants and he was alone.
Ossie hopped to a taller cypress knee and the next. But he never got to a place where he could see her again. He saw a homely armadillo rooting around the loose soil. But no girl.
He wondered if he dreamed it, the whole thing, the girl, the butterflies and all. He didn't notice a couple of wasps hovering around his head.
"Little Rat," said one, "what you doin?"
Ossie said nothing and was embarrassed to hear it.
"What you lookin to find?" the wasp went on.
Ossie hopped down the cypress knees, back onto land.
"I'm Tim," said the other, "this is Tom. We're brothers."
"And have been," the first one said, "since we was infants."
"Who would you be?"
There was no answer.
"I'm thinkin," the second wasp said, "this fella's not a big talker."
They floated over him, lazy legs dangling, and he watched.
"You in there?" said one.
"Anybody home ...?"
"What's the matter with the Little Rat?" said the other.
"I believe he don't like us," said the first.
But of course he liked them. He had no reason not to. The wasps gave up and flew off.
Ossie went after them and lost them once and saw them again by an old inkwood tree, where the ground was woven over with fallen branches. He struggled over limbs, one after another, and at last caught up with them in a clear flat spot.
The second one saw him first. "LookoutTomarat!" "WhereTimwhereisit?"
Maybe, Ossie thought, he'd found a couple of different wasps, different wasps named Tim and Tom.
But there was something he didn't know. And it was this. A wasp has two moods. And that's all. They're either pleasant and curious, eager to know every last thing about you. Or they're crazy mean bullies. There's no middle with wasps.
"What you doin there?" one hissed. "why you sneakin up on us?" the other spat.
Ossie stepped back, but the wasps flew at him. They flew tight circles around him, tighter and tighter, knocking into him. There was nowhere to run.
"I'm thinkin," one was saying, "Little Rat don't know what it is to get the sting of a wasp!"
"Two wasps!" the other yelled. "How you like the sound of them apples, huh?"
Ossie was even more quiet than he had been. "My brother axed you a question, why don't you answer!" the first one screamed.
"Why don't you answer my brother why you don't answer!" the second one screamed.
Ossie had no answer.
"How come he won't say nothin, Tom?"
"I'll tell you how come, Tim! He's a high and mighty little snob, that's how come!"
"That's how come?" Tim hollered at Ossie. "You think you're better than us!?"
They flew around and around him, jabbing their stingers closer and closer to him.
"Forget them," from still another voice. It was under Ossie's feet. It was the voice of a mole, a cousin of mine. He pushed from the damp soil. "They're nothin but talk."
"Who asked you?" asked Tim.
"Yeah, who?" asked Tom.
"They won't sting you just to prove a point," my cousin told Ossie. "Even a wasp isn't that ignerunt."
"Says who!" said Tim.
"That's what you think!" said Tom.
"They get one sting and they die," the mole went on, "so the last thing they're goin to do is sting you. I mean it. The Last Thing."
The wasps lost their tempers then. "Lousy mole! Let me at him, Tim, just let me at him!" the first one screamed.
But the mole only laughed. He called out, small, defiant, "Let the mangroves take you!"
Now that, in this swamp, is a very serious thing to say. No wasp could let a mole talk to him that way. A mole had to pay for saying a thing like that. They flew at my cousin and he slipped back in the earth.
The wasps crawled over the ground, cursing him, trying to find him.
"Ow, Tom!" said one.
"Ow what, Tim?" the other asked.
"You stung me, you MOron!"
"Who you callin MOron, you MOron!" yelled Tom.
"Takes a MOron to know a MOron!" yelled Tim. "And I'll prove it! I'll sting you right back! So there!"
There was silence. It was sinking in on them, what they'd done that they shouldn't have. Ossie moved quickly off. And two wasps with bad tempers chased each other out over the dry grasses and dropped into the swamp channel, where they went floating toward the mangroves, quiet, lifeless, morons.
He had meant to find his family after that, but Ossie found himself thinking of the gift-rat. It was odd, how she stuck in his thoughts. He hadn't met her, only glimpsed her. He didn't know anything about her, only that she was exceptional, remarkable, amazing, full of something like light, the only one of her there was. It wasn't fair to have seen her so quickly. Not fair at all.
Ossie wandered on and saw still more of the island. Tattering sheets of Spanish Moss hung from trees.
Excerpted from THE TALE OF THE SWAMP RAT by Carter Crocker Copyright © 2003 by Carter Crocker. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
|Part 1||A Child of the Fern||5|
|Part 2||Pahayokee, the Grassy Water||79|
|Part 3||A Hardshell World||159|
|Part 4||The River Wide & Pure||189|