“But when the Night had thrown her pall

Upon that spot, as upon all,

And the mystic wind went by

Murmuring in melody —

Then — ah then I would awake

To the terror of the lone lake.”

— Edgar Allan Poe, “The Lake”

When I was little, living in Elizabeth City, we’d drive up to Norfolk every few weeks, for shopping at the mall, Military Circle.

On the trip, we drove along the canal at the eastern edge of the Great Dismal Swamp. During the day it’s quiet, with a beautiful, savage kind of loneliness.

At night, it’s as black and unfathomable as the imagination of Edgar Allan Poe, who in 1827 wrote the poem “The Lake” about the mysterious Lake Drummond in the center of the swamp. The lake’s origin is a mystery, as there is no known source of fresh water leading into it, only seven small ditches leading away, vanishing into the dark impenetrable wilderness beyond.

Coming home from Virginia at night terrified me. I was positive that in every bend of the isolated road Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, or the werewolf would emerge from the trees, and …

And that was as far as my phantasmic vision went. I may not have had the courage to think this thing through to the end, but nowhere in the 1930s monster movies on which I was raised did the “enter stage right” of one of those guys mean good news or happy endings.

I’m glad my father waited to tell me about his own more chilling episode of what we called the “canal bank” until I was in (early) middle age.

Around 60 years ago, my dad was a young man stationed at the U.S. Coast Guard base in Elizabeth City. Evidently, he had gotten liberty and decided to visit Norfolk, a really swinging port city with tons of other military guys.

Apparently, he returned to the base without a ride. In his defense, back then young people hitchhiked without fear of becoming dog food or a ghost story.

So one very late, very moonless summer night in the early '60s saw my father-to-be in the middle of the canal bank road, hoofing it between rides.

It was almost too dark to see even himself. As he walked, he began to wonder if there’d been a vicious summer storm which had blown through earlier in the day. With every step he heard a rustle that he assumed were sticks and twigs blown onto the road during the tempest.

He walked for a while until he saw the headlights coming his way that might mean a ride home. He waited on the side of the road until the car pulled up.

Then Dad stepped up and raised his thumb. As the car began to pull over, he glimpsed a scene that still made him laugh nervously when he related the story 20 years later:

A writhing mass of snakes slithering off the road and into the darkness.

What Dad assumed was broken foliage he was walking through was actually thousands of serpents lying in the fading warmth of the tarmac.

The approaching lights had both frightened and illuminated them.

In addition to horrific true stories, legends from many different people shroud the swamp like a cloak, a thick fog for millennia.

Native Americans lived and hunted among the cypress trees 13,000 years ago.

For 300 years, escaped slaves, or maroons, used the dark mystery of the Dismal as a hidden stop on the Underground Railroad.

And back in the ’70s, a frightened, imaginative little girl in the back seat of a Plymouth Duster with nothing but a half-read Trixie Belden book for protection.

Thanks for your time.

Contact me at d@bullcity.mom.

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