Banana trees grew on the other side of the fence next to a small Bassa community, and a magnificent swamp landscaped our neighborhood. The pepper bird awoke the mornings, and Bertie and I morphed into white fairy princesses who often waded through the swampy waters on the backs of African boys.
We raised our eyebrows at the thought of a snack, even though we had no idea what a kissmi was.
Benjamin and Saturday walked through our gate one morning and asked if we wanted to go to the swamp with them. They were brothers, the latter named after the day he was born, and looked to be about ten and eleven though they couldn't give us their exact age when we asked. They promised if we went fishing with them for kissmis they would cook them for us. We raised our eyebrows at the thought of a snack, even though we had no idea what a kissmi was.
Mommy warned us about the swamp's hazards and forbade us to go in. If our feet touched the mud-caked marshland, we would undoubtedly get a spanking, except Mommy didn't carry through with her threats. On the other hand, Daddy would send us into a bush to cut our own switches if we disobeyed. But that only happened once.
Falling out of favor with Daddy was all the motivation we needed to stay in line. But Bertie insisted he had never actually told us not to go into the swamp. "It's Mommy's rule," she said.
"Besides, they aren't home. Let's go."
I always wanted to obey, but my rebel-born sister had a unique way of dragging me into the perils of her plans. She got in my face, stuck out her tongue, and marched after the boys through the front gate. And so I followed them—out of the yard, down the hill on the narrow path to the murky waters.
The air tempted my senses with croaking frogs and buzzing insects. I gazed longingly at the chocolate-colored lake but worried about getting dirty and having to explain it to Mommy. "We should go back," I told Bertie, but she caught me by the arm before I could turn back.
The brothers motioned us to climb on their backs. "Don't worry. We won't let you get wet."
Benjamin squatted. Bertie climbed on his slender back and wrapped her arms around his neck. He cuffed his hands under her knees, stood up, and waded into the shallow water. An empty tin can hung around his neck by a rope, and it swung back and forth.
Saturday placed his hands and knees on the ground and beckoned me. "Georgie, climb up."
I hiked up my dress, straddled his back, and he pulled himself to his feet.
I squeezed my first and second toes around the thong of my flip-flops to keep them from falling off.
Bertie and I held tightly to the boy's shoulders while they walked through the mire. They shuffled, slow and steady, while our legs dangled above the surface of the black water. As we moved deeper into the swamp, the ground grew softer and more unstable, causing the brothers to sink deeper into the muck. I squeezed my first and second toes around the thong of my flip-flops to keep them from falling off.
When we got to the midsection of the swamp, the boys deposited us on islands of scorched mud from one dry spot to another while they searched for the tiny snails. Benjamin took the tin cup hung around his neck and handed it to Bertie. He pushed his hands deep into the muddy waters and pulled up a handful of gunk. Bertie held the tin can away from her body, and he stretched as far as he could toward her and plopped his findings into the cup.
I squinched my nose to rid my nostrils of the stinky water. "Yuck."
The boys laughed and continued to sift through the water for the slimy slugs. I wondered what they would taste like and why they were called Kissmis.
We hadn't been gone very long when I heard the echoing of our names come across the top of the water.
I saw Rosy standing outside our iron gate at the top of the hill, waving her arms in circles.
She and Becky fussed over us like mothers, and Rosy doted on me as if she had birthed me. We would be in trouble if Daddy and Mommy came home and found us in the swamp, and she always tried to protect us.
The brothers worked quickly and dug out more soil than snails, filling the cup to the brim. Benjamin took the now-heavy tin can and slung it over his neck. Bertie stepped off the island and onto his back, and I climbed onto Saturdays. I rode across the swamp and tried to keep my toes in the air, for the water had now risen.
The boys struggled to pull their knees above the water with every step, dragging our slippers through the slush. One of my flip-flops fell in, and I wasn't going to risk getting any dirtier to retrieve it, so I let it sink.
When we reached the shore, I scrambled to my feet and ran up the hill toward the house—my heart drummed in my chest.
Rosy met me at the gate, arms flailing and switch in hand. "Georgie, why did you girls go into the swamp? I looked behind me and pointed at Bertie, skirting past Rosy, knowing she couldn't catch me, no matter how hard she tried. Her running was more like skipping. She kept tissue in the toe of her right shoe to keep her foot, which had been affected by polio, from sliding out when she walked.
Benjamin washed the snails under the spigot near the kitchen window while Saturday gathered a few sticks and stones and stacked them together. I ran inside and grabbed a box of matches from under the counter. Becky's hands were buried deep in dishwater. She pulled one arm out of the suds, dripped water all over the floor, and pointed her finger at me. "You're supposed to be helping with the dishes."
I ignored her reprimand and ran back outside. We needed to get the kissmees cooked and eaten before Daddy and Mommy got home, and we had gone through too much trouble already to be stopped.
Saturday got a small fire going, and before long, the water and the snails in the tin can were boiling. At first, we didn't know how to eat the slender snails.
"Put the butt end of the Kissmi to your lips and suck out the meat." The boys said. The noise of the slimy snails sliding through our teeth made a hissing sound. Benjamin smiled and shouted, "Kissmi. Kissmi." Bertie and I held our tummies and laughed and laughed.
The forbidden marsh brought Bertie and me a world of adventure that day, and many more followed during the years we lived in the green house.
~ a draft excerpt from my WIP memoir