Bollygoggle shook his head so hard his pointed hat almost fell off. “The shorter way means that we are all going to be killed.”
Harnswiggle just ignored him and started walking. Mavis and Roger looked at each other, but they didn’t really have any choice but to follow.
Harnswiggle cut across the front yard, sticking her tongue out on the still reclining tabby cat, and heading into the azaleas that Grandma had planted on the east side of the porch. Mavis had never actually seen those azaleas, but she had heard about them. They had been wedding gifts and Grandma had tended them lovingly for decades before the Big Freeze had killed them on one evil day.
Mavis had seen what was one the other side of where the azaleas had used to be. There was a little stretch of dirt road (some neighbor who lived farther in’s drive way), and then there was the smooth green lawn of the Coleman house.
At least, there was supposed to be. When they pushed through the azaleas, there was the dirt track just where it should be, but no lawn and no house on the other side, only magnificently old Live Oaks bejeweled by Spanish moss.
“Where is the Coleman house?” asked Mavis, trotting to catch up to Harnswiggle.
“It’s not there,” said Harnswiggle, still walking at her determined pace. She had turned to walk down the trail, and nothing seemed to slow her down.
“But why isn’t it there?” pressed Mavis. “Grandma’s house was there!”
“Grandma’s house!” cried Bollygoggle. “She is thinking that that is Grandma’s house!”
“But, isn’t it?” asked Roger.
Harnswiggle snorted. “Grandma is living there. But the house rightfully belongs to your grandpa.”
Neither Mavis nor Roger understood why that was such a big distinction, so they just made mental notes of it to ask someone a little less cryptic later. If they could find someone a little less cryptic.
“Keep up, humanspersons!” called Harnswiggle, and veered off of the main track and into the forest.
It wasn’t long before solid ground gave way to squishy ground, and live oaks gave way to cypress and palmetto. Great clumps of ferns began to spring up everywhere and gigantic air plants hung from the trees like strange accessories.
“We’re in a slough,” said Mavis, looking about herself in wonder. There was no slough close to Grandpa’s house--only more rural houses that gave way eventually to urban houses and then finally parking lots. Esperanza had been right. They were in an Otherworld, a between place where only the best things existed.
Soon the ground got even gooier and the green air became muggy and still. They had moved beyond the slough, Mavis realized, and into the swamp. They began sloshing through knee deep water, the giant banana spiders beckoning all comers to their webs. An iguana lay on a tree branch, his eyes half closed in contempt, his claws only lightly gripping the bark. Roger pulled a face at him. Still, Harnswiggle kept her nearly frantic pace.
“Stop,” said Harnswiggle suddenly, so they stopped. They were on the bank of some deeper river or pool, because in front of them the water deepened to a foreboding black.
“We are going to have to cross without killing the humanspersons,” said Harnswiggle to Bollygoggle.
“Come again?” asked Roger.
“You’d better not kill us ‘humanspersons,’” said Mavis, “seeing as saving me is kind of the whole point of this entire thing.”
“Don’t worry, don’t worry,” said Harnswiggle. “There is a very safe way to cross. There is no problem at all, is there, Bollygoggle?”
“No problem at all,” agreed Bollygoggle, “as long as you don’t call the Marshwallow.”
“Oh,” said Harnswiggle. “That is exactly what I was saying we ought to do.” She didn’t wait for Bollygoggle to argue with her, because he most certainly would have. She just started yelling as loudly as she could. “Marshwallow! Marshwallow! MARSHWALOW!”
Harnswiggle seemed determined to keep calling until she got some response, so Roger and Mavis began helping her, even though they had no idea who they were really calling to. Roger half expected it to be a dragonfly with a leaf boat for them all to shrink down and ride in, but Mavis was thinking more along the lines of some sort of wise spirit of the swamp.
Both of them were very surprised to hear a distant sniffing.
“Is--is someone crying?” asked Mavis.
“Goody!” said Harnswiggle. “He heard us! Marshwallow! Stop sulking and show your face to the humanspersons!”
There was a great sloshing, and a huge ring of ripples, and then a face began rising out of the water. Not a friendly face, but not exactly an evil one, either. And it was most certainly not a face like anything that either of them had seen before. There was a great mouth, with moss growing at the corners, as if the Marshwallow often forgot to wipe his face after he ate (which was the very case). There was a crooked green nose, barely discernible. And there were two great yellow eyes, like those of an owl, only not nearly as wise and brimmed with tears.
“I bet his eyes are as big as King Zepher’s,” whispered Roger. “You know. In Hobo Stew it says that they are--”
“Shhht,” said Mavis.
The Marshwallow was sobbing.
“Don’t cry, dear Marshwallow,” said Harnswiggle. “Everything is all right. In fact, you will be helping to make that so.”
“I can’t help it!” sobbed the Marshwallow, and two great tears plopped into the quivering water.
“We need your help, see, to do something of the greatest importance,” said Harnswiggle gently. “Just keep thinking, what must it be like to be a great hero!”
“I’m scared of being a hero!”
“But Marshwallow, you are a great big swamp monster. You are stronger than a Whumtroll and taller than a Whifflin. And you are the only one who can help us!”
“Aaaaaaahhhh,” wailed Marshwallow.
“Pull yourselfness together!” snapped Bollygoggle.
The Marshwallow gulped in surprise.
“Harnswiggle went and messed something up again,” said Bollygoggle. “And now her being herself as she usually is being, she’s gone and roped me into helping her fix this dreadful mess. If I have to help her, then you do, too. We have to cross, and you are going carry us. Understand?”
The Marshwallow nodded, slowly at first, and then faster under Bollygoggle’s withering gaze.
“Alright then, be a good swamp monster and blow your nose.”
With a hitherto unexposed paw, the Marshwallow brought a very green, very yellow, very crusted with salt scum handkerchief, up to his nose. When he blew, there was a minor earthquake that skewed a young cypress sideways.
“Pick us’ins up,” commanded Bollygoggle.
He put his great paw down into the shallower water where they stood and let them climb, one by one, up his arm and onto his back. Mavis had the decided sensation of climbing up a live oak branch, the kind that are covered over in exotic green mosses and resurrection fern. She thought that she would feel scared to ride this strange creature, but once she was up, she found plenty of nooks and crannies to hold onto and brace her feet in. And it was so broad, and so green that in some ways it was like sitting on a living hill. A living hill that every once and awhile would heave as the Marshwallow sighed.