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Antoine pressed the swamp grass down with the side of his foot and reached forward with his poking stick. The log had rotted completely through, so he was careful not to break it into bits as he nudged it over.
"Rats." Still nothing. Of course not. It ain't even mushroom season.
He continued to plod through the mud with his eyes on the ground, scanning the area for the characteristic red-and-white caps that marked a cluster of poisonous fungi. He was also sure to look out for gators, snakes, and killer bugs. Antoine was terrified of the swamp.
He wasn't thrilled to be the one chosen for this chore, but a part of him was delighted to know that the village needed him. "Antoine got good eyes," someone had said. "He find mushrooms all day, all the time. Send him lookin'." The murmurs of assent had surprised him, but he was happy to come forward at that point and volunteer. As he made his way through the reeking slop, though, he was beginning to wish that he had declined.
"Ho, boy," said a phlegmy voice behind him. Antoine whirled in place, his poking stick at the ready, only to see a scraggly old peddler approaching. He lowered his stick, embarrassed.
The man had a dozen skins hanging off of him, and a large leather pack was wound around his torso. He was dripping with sweat and appeared to have warts all over his face and neck. Antoine's first thought was that the man looked like he had been moving quickly through the humid swamp.
"What you doin' out here?" the man asked.
Antoine didn't see the point in lying. "Mushroom hunting."
"Ain't mushroom season."
The peddler considered Antoine warily. "So what you need ‘em for?"
"I don't need 'em. Bayou witch don't feel so good today. She needs ‘em."
The peddler's eye twitched, then his mouth broke into a wide smile. "That so? She ain't out and about today?"
"Nope. Needs the mushrooms for her medicine first."
The peddler slapped his thigh. "Well, boy, I'd say that's some real pretty news. I been movin' through the area as fast as I could go, you know, for obvious reasons. Didn't want to get caught up in that bayou witch business. Looks like I can slow down, though, as there was never nothin' chasing me."
It was Antoine's turn to smile. "Yep."
The peddler leaned against a tree and allowed himself to slide down until he was seated. He took a deep breath, wiped his brow, and began fumbling through his packs.
"You need water or anything?" he asked.
"Just mushrooms," said Antoine.
The peddler stopped digging through his things and appeared to be lost in thought. "You know, I seen a few back that way," he said, indicating the way he'd come.
"That so?" asked Antoine as he stepped closer.
"Sure, sure. Under a willow, maybe. I forget." The peddler went back to looking for his water, out of breath from the mild exertion and small talk.
He didn't notice as Antoine raised his stick and brought it down on his head with a deafening crack.
Antoine knelt by the man and reached for his stuff. Which one of these bags got the mushrooms? He had been worried about his inability to find the mushrooms, but it made sense now. A frightened outsider in the area? He'd be sure to pick anything poisonous he came across, just in case.
Antoine found the mushrooms in the third pack he checked. He stood and, feeling a twinge of pity for the man, nudged him back into something resembling consciousness.
"Bayou witch likes poison mushrooms. That ain't gonna keep you safe. You get moving, old man."
The peddler nodded wearily. Antoine figured he'd be okay.
* * *
"You done good, Antoine."
"Thanks, Bayou Mama." Antoine mashed the paste one last time to ensure that it would be palatable for her.
"I needed this one bad. Can't be sick. Gotta be out. There's folks movin' in and out, think they can travel beneath my nose. Can't have that."
Antoine shifted uncomfortably but kept his focus on the task at hand. "I know, Bayou Mama."
He scooped the paste into a bowl and carried it over to the hunched shadow in the corner of the cabin. A gnarled hand accepted the medicine from him, and a single, arthritic finger scooped it out of the bowl and into a trembling mouth.
"How you traveling tonight?" he asked.
"Gonna take the sky way where I need to be." With that, the bayou witch's eyes rolled back into her head, and she began to convulse. Her limbs stiffened and relaxed in a curious way, as if something were trying to break free of her body. Soft gurgling noises could be heard from her sagging throat.
Antoine waited patiently. Once she finally stopped seizing and slumped in her chair, Antoine took the bowl out of her lap. With great care, he reached for her frail hand and cleaned her paste-covered finger off.
He wondered where she was off to this time.