Over the River and Through the Wood

I grew up celebrating Thanksgiving on the edge of a Florida swamp. Our cabin was perched in the crook of a bend of the Little Withlacoochee River. It stood on eight-foot posts because sometimes the blackwater river would come out of its banks and spread through the swamp. You’d have to wade to the cabin then, shuffling to find the hidden logs, your legs lost in the dark water. It was pretty great.

Thanksgiving Day was spent fishing, exploring the woods and making holiday crafts my mother devised. One year, we traced each other’s outlines on butcher paper. Everyone, even the adults, went home with life-sized paper dolls of themselves dressed as Pilgrims and native Americans. Another year we made cornucopias filled with nuts and dried corn cobs that the squirrels dragged away and ate.

We even had turkeys for a while, in a pen on the edge of the woods. My dad was still building the cabin, and they gobbled whenever he hammered.

Blam! Gobble gobble gobble.
Blam! Gobble gobble gobble.

I ate their giant eggs for breakfast. Then one day, we didn’t have turkeys anymore. Something came out of the swamp and tore them to bits.

When I reach for writing inspiration, the swamp and river emerge again and again. Florida swamps are layers upon layers of living and dead things. The trees are covered in lichens and air plants. Their roots are sunk into dark muck, built from the decomposing bodies of leaves and other living things. Water runs through it all, giving life to some things and drowning others. It’s fertile ground for monstrous stories to grow.

Fall nights came early at the cabin, hemmed in by swamp. Creatures lived in the woods that roamed at night, and you could hear them rustling just outside the lights of the cabin. From the porch you could here things sliding in and out of the river, and occasionally a splash from something too large to be a fish.

On Thanksgiving, consider that the true horror story isn’t whether the turkey was properly cooked. It’s the story of how they were torn to bits by something that came out of the woods. The storyteller’s question is whether you would rather see the monster, or do you want to keep wondering what’s there.

Keep listening to it rustle. Try to make it out amongst the trees. And wait.

Over the River and Through the Wood is an American Thanksgiving poem by Lydia Maria Child.


  • Christine French
    November 24, 2017

    Great piece! I currently live in Orlando (grew up in Los Angeles). We are going horseback riding near Sanford this afternoon, through the Florida woods. I love your descriptions of the living forest. I, for one, never walk in black water in Florida! You never know what is lurking under the surface…

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