It isn’t just a pastime. It’s an art. An outsider might wonder just why worm fiddling is such a big deal around here, but that’s what makes them an outsider. If you grew up in Break-A-Leg, you would know that not only is it the quickest route to local celebrity, it also keeps your family fed and fat as hogs. My uncle Josiah has been practicing at it for over thirty years.
Uncle Josiah has a twin brother named Obediah. They live on opposite sides of an invisible boundary in the swamps. Josiah wakes up before the sun, wearing stained overalls and galoshes, bucket handles splayed in his fingertips, cutting a proud silhouette against the dawn. Obediah sleeps until noon. Uncle Obie wanders around Castle Chinkapin in a velveteen cape he found at a thrift store. He likes to lounge out by the alligator moat, leaf through books on architecture and design, and pop his glass eye in and out when he’s thinking hard about something.
Uncle Josiah considers Castle Chinkapin an eyesore and an embarrassment. He’s never forgiven Uncle Obie for abandoning the family tradition to build his trash palace. We’re a worm-grunting family. That’s what Josiah says. He’s held the championship title for the past ten years. Before that his daddy, my grandpa, was the official Worm Fiddling King. It runs in our blood. Uncle Josiah says to be a Pierce is to be a born and bred worm charmer.
Sometimes I feel torn between the two of them. I like Uncle Obediah’s sense of disheveled artistic whimsy. And I’m impressed by Uncle Josiah’s dedication to craft and skill. Here in Break-A-Leg they are local celebrities. This puts a lot of pressure on me to choose a legacy and carry it on. My uncles have raised me ever since my mother ran away from Break-A-Leg and left me behind.
My best friend is an alligator wrestler named Sweets. That’s his nickname, of course. His real name is Stanley Sweets. His mother also left Break-A-Leg when he was just a boy, and his father disappeared into the swamps one day and was never found. That happens from time to time, especially in the alligator wrestling business. Sweets lives with his gran a few trailers down from Josiah. We’ve grown up alongside each other.
Sweets loves listening to my uncles bicker and brag. One time, I overheard Gran Sweets saying they were like fathers to him. He goes to every worm charming competition that Uncle Josiah competes in, and he’s helped Uncle Obie with a lot of the handiwork around Castle Chinkapin. Sweets was the one who found the old shrimping trawler way out where the swamps meet the sea. He helped Obediah convert it into the Boat in the Moat Café. Now it serves as a snack bar for hungry tourists.
“Lemon!” Uncle Obie calls. “Where’s my coffee?”
I pour two cups and hurry back to where he’s stretched out on his recliner like swamp royalty. Under his cape he has on swimming trunks that are a few sizes too big for his skinny frame. The sound of the cicadas rises up around us in the warm morning. The alligators floating in the moat watch us with dull eyes as we sip coffee in silence.
I’m sweating already. Break-A-Leg is like a steaming pot of black waters, bullfrogs, mosquitoes, Spanish moss, and wet earth. And worms. I peer across the moat looking for Sweets’ old pickup truck. We’re going to be late for school again.
“I’ve been thinking,” Obie says. “It’s about time you went to work. What would you say to a full time job in the Café?”
Sometimes Uncle Obie lives so much in his fantasy world that he forgets about reality. “I have school,” I say.
“We’re talking careers here, kid. I’m offering you the chance to be a princess.”
I tread carefully. “I don’t think I’m ready for the responsibility,” I tell him, scratching at a bug bite on my knee. “That’s serious business.”
Uncle Obie nods. He seems to accept that. “Maybe in another year or so then. If someone else doesn’t snap up your position.”
“Don’t tell me you’re getting involved in all that worm nonsense.” He pops out his glass eye and rolls it around in his palm.
The best way to handle this is always to change the subject. “There’s a Break-A-Leg pig roast on Sunday,” I tell him. “The high school is raising money for the library.”
“Books are important,” says Uncle Obie. I sense he’s about to make one of his grand gestures. “I’ll donate a pig. Or an art piece.”
I’m relieved to see the sun gleaming off of Sweets’ truck as it rounds the corner. “Sorry, Lemon!” he says, pulling up beside us. “Hi, Obediah. Nice day out.”
Obediah holds up his coffee cup in a cheers. “Feels like a devil’s fart.” I wave goodbye, climb into the truck beside Sweets, and we tear off through the pumpkin-colored dust.
“We’re going to be late.”
Sweets nods and grins apologetically. He has the tanned skin and strong features of the Seminole Indians on his gran’s side. His eyes are the color of muddy water in the sunlight. I resigned myself to being in love with him a long time ago.
I notice one of his arms is freshly bandaged. “The Swamp Ghost?” I ask, lifting an eyebrow.
“She’s getting big,” Sweets says. “And strong.”
Ten summers ago, Uncle Josiah found a creamy-skinned, blue-eyed alligator hatchling and gave it to me and Sweets to raise. White alligators are really rare. This is the first one we’ve had around these parts in several generations. She’s not an albino, but a real leucistic white gator, a genetic anomaly, stronger and swifter than her pink-eyed doppelgangers. The Seminoles call them Swamp Ghosts. Some people think they are magic. Some people think they’re bad omens. Sweets thinks this gator is the ticket to making it big in alligator wrestling. He spends all of his time with her, to the point where he’s been neglecting all the other gators he’s trained over the years.
“It’s just a nick,” he says, seeing my look. “She barely grazed me.”
I have a completely rational fear that Sweets is going to end up in a gator hole of his own making. He’s got no objectivity anymore. It’s like he’s forgotten that the Swamp Ghost isn’t just a mysterious and mythical piece of folklore, she’s an aggressive apex predator. If she doesn’t get to him, it’s only a matter of time before one of the hundreds of bellowing male gators trying to court her does. You can hear the racket all the way from Uncle Josiah’s trailer. It’s like the jaws of hell have opened up. Entire congregations of suitors, hulking and sinewy, pine with frustration for her precious moon-white osteoderms.
I’m so caught up in gloomy scenarios I almost don’t notice the letter stuck under the ratty old windshield wipers of the pickup. Sweets sees me notice and grabs it first. I try to tear it out of his hands, but he stuffs it down the side of his seat before I can get to it. A love letter, no doubt. Girls love him. More so because he doesn’t seem to notice or care. He’s much more interested in his alligators.
“Come on, Lemon,” Sweets says when he notices my sulky expression. “I don’t ask you about the boys hanging around your locker or trying to walk you to class. What are you so worried about? Nothing is ever going to change us.”
This is part of what I’m worried about.
“Come have dinner at Gran’s tonight,” he says. “She’d love to see you. Bring Josiah.”
We don’t get in trouble for being late to school. Sweets is good at dazzling the teachers. He hates school, preferring to spend his time outdoors, but I always feel relieved when I step in the front doors of Break-A-Leg High. The swamp seems to recede some beneath the weight of learning. School is my way out of here. I want options for myself that don’t include trash castles or charming worms.
The outside of Uncle Josiah’s trailer is filled with huge tubs of worms that shimmer and stink in the sun. The worms boil around in quivering masses of tangled annuli. Thousands of them burrowing in and out of each other helplessly.
“You’re just in time to help me sort,” Josiah says. “I caught some big ones. Must be close to a foot. Something in the soil these days.”
I’ve been helping him for so long that I know exactly how much a handful of worms weighs. Sometimes I check myself with the scale for the satisfaction of it, but I never need it. This makes Josiah proud. He says it’s proof I’ve got worm-fiddling blood.
“How’s that crazy brother of mine?” he asks.
“He had his glass eye out when I left,” I say. “But he’s offered to donate a pig to the school barbecue.”
I know Josiah is thinking he’ll donate two pigs.
“He been getting visitors out there?”
I nod. No one was more surprised than me when tourists actually began visiting Castle Chinkapin. Uncle Obie charges a lofty ten dollars for admission. To Uncle Josiah, ten dollars equals about twenty packaged containers of worms, and the appeal of a coat-hanger menagerie is completely lost on him.
I try to distract him. “Do you know Aristotle called earthworms the intestines of the earth?”
Josiah grins. His gappy smile is gentle and proud. “Smart man,” he says. “And you’re a smart girl, Lemon. You shouldn’t spend so much time over at Obediah’s. How about you come fiddling with me tomorrow morning? The contest is coming up soon. You need your practice if you’re going to take the title this time.”
I nod. We finish the worm sorting and Josiah heads off to make his deliveries while I start my homework. My mind wanders as I try to study. The bellows of the alligators and trickles of sweat on my body are distracting me. I turn the little rotating fan on high but it only seems to circulate the heat. I get up and prowl the length of the trailer, my skin goose-fleshing at the deep bass rumbles coming from the Sweets property. Alligators use infrasound when they call for their mates. It’s a frequency similar to a tuba or a pipe organ. When they really get to roaring it feels just like the ground is rattling.
I drink a can of Coke out of the fridge and feel a little better. I go outside where the sun is finally relenting and see a few straggler worms wriggling about the dusty driveway. Few things kill earthworms aside from a good drying out, so I pick them up carefully and walk down to the edge of the swamps to set them down where the soil is moist. “You’re the lucky ones,” I tell them as they burrow sightlessly into the warm belly of the earth. “You’re going to get out of here.”
With the sun filtering down through the swoops of Spanish moss that drape the graceful cypress trees, and the dark mysterious shine of the water, the swamp looks suddenly beautiful and golden. The water lilies are turned towards the last rays of the sun. The smaller, spindly never-wets are beginning to bloom in yellow clusters above the opaque surface of the water. Everywhere I see things living and breathing. Moving. In the soil, on the trees, under the water. It’s almost overwhelming.
That night, over the roaring of the alligators, Uncle Josiah and Gran Sweets discuss the size of this spring’s worms. She’s made fry bread and a cabbage salad from her own garden.
“Even the cabbages are large,” she says, as if to prove a point.
Sweets and I look at each other and roll our eyes. I wonder if we’ll have conversations like this one day. I try to listen to their mind-numbing talk. Cabbages and worms. If there are any hidden meanings, they are well encrypted.
“When are you going to make it official and enter your Swamp Ghost in a real wrestling contest?” Josiah asks, the conversation finally turning our way.
Sweets’ eyes light up and I suffer a jealous pang. They have never lit up that way for me. “She’s ready,” he brags. “She’s already past the weight qualifications by a mile. She’s bigger and stronger than any other alligator her age.” He sounds the way dopey parents do when they think their kid is the smartest thing in the world.
“Christ’s sake,” I say. “That’s only because they mature more quickly in captivity.”
We all know this already. The Sweets family has been raising alligators for generations. I just want them to realize that the Swamp Ghost is not so special. Neither are the worms this year. Or the cabbages. Break-A-Leg is the same predictable place it’s always been.
“Language, Lemon,” Josiah scolds.
Sweets looks genuinely hurt.
“A real Swamp Ghost only comes along once in a few generations,” Gran Sweets says softly. “They are gifts from the spirit world. To stare one in the eye is good luck. To wrestle one is to become a man above all men.”
I use the only defense I have against Seminole folklore. “She’s just like any other leucistic animal,” I say. “She has reduced pigmentation from a recessive gene. Other than that she’s nothing but a plain old bad-tempered adolescent female gator.”
Gran Sweets gives me a look that lets me know the Swamp Ghost isn’t the only bad-tempered female around. Usually I like her stories and superstitions. I guess the heat has gotten to me today.
“Come on,” Sweets says, clearing the empty plates and starting the coffee maker. “I’ll take you out to see her. She’s really something in the moonlight.”
Outside the sky is clear and star-filled, but the air is hot and heavy. I imagine our bodies leaving imprints on the night. The guttural croaking and bellowing of male alligators is deafening. They surround the reinforced pen, climbing on top of one another to press their snouts against the layers of heavy wire. Sweets has built a little platform outside the back of the trailer that is high enough for us to stand on and keep clear of snapping jaws and thrashing tails. It shudders to the beat of their heartsick serenades. All alligators bellow in B flat, the musical essence of reptilian lovemaking.
“You’re pissing off Gran,” Sweets says. “You know she hates it when you talk like a scientist.”
I see the gleaming white ridges of the Swamp Ghost’s broad back. She is basking in the moonlight, wallowing in the chorus of grunts and roars. She’s much bigger than the last time I saw her. Her tail is fat and glorious and gleaming beneath the stars. A tail made to initiate death rolls and propel her impressive mass fearlessly through dark waters. She turns her head to the side and regards me with cold-blooded malice.
“She’s creepy,” I tell him. “And she wants to mate. Why don’t you just let her go?”
Sweets stares at me as if I have lost half my brain. “Because I need her. You know that. I can make my name wrestling a Swamp Ghost. It will make Gran proud.”
I look at Sweets and try to think of a reason to touch his face. He’s staring off toward his alligator with a dreamy expression. I smack a mosquito on his cheek.
The Swamp Ghost is watching. She opens her jaws in a clear act of menace. The bugs are swarming us and the croaks and snarls of the alligators surrounding the pen are too much for me.
“I’ve got to go,” I say. “I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”
I leave without Uncle Josiah. Sweets stands on the porch and watches me disappear into the darkness. I don’t stumble on the way home. I know every cypress knee, muddy bog, and twisted tree root of this swamp. When I get back to Josiah’s trailer I find a note from Obediah on the door that reads:
I need Lemon this weekend. I’m working on a top-secret project. It will be the most magnificent art installation that Break-A-Leg has ever seen.
In the morning, me and Josiah set out with our buckets before dawn. Wearing overalls and galoshes, we trudge deep into the thickest part of the swamps, where the ground is rubbery and thick with moss. I have my own set of fiddling sticks, consisting of a wooden stob and a flat rooping iron. They aren’t quite as large and unwieldy as Josiah’s but they do the trick. I chose the wood, hammered the metal, and carved the notches in them myself. Every Pierce, with the exception of Obediah, has his own worm charming technique and equipment.
We set to work in large patches far enough away from each other to maximize our efforts. By the time I’ve got my stob pounded into the ground, my ponytail is sticking to the back of my neck and my shirt is soaked through. Worm fiddling is hot work. I begin the slow, steady sawing motions, rubbing the rooping iron back and forth against it, creating a tempo that sets the swamps humming. Uncle Josiah is more of a grunter. He uses a metal plane for his stob and releases low-groaning staccato vibrations into the earth––the bass to my soprano.
All at once, the swamp is alive with shivering earthen melodies and the ground around us erupts with worms. Glistening, roiling masses of worms, like the earth is spewing up its insides. They wriggle toward the surface, turning up mud and soil in their desperation. A trained fiddler can imitate the underground vibrations of voles, moles, and even digging armadillos, causing the worms to flee the safety of the earth as fast as they can until they are exposed and squiggling in the sunlight. They break out of the soil in a panic-stricken blind quiver. They think they’re escaping an underground symphony of predators.
We work in a practiced rhythm. When Josiah and I work like this together it feels like a habit as old as time. We never talk. We move in unison. Once there’s a thick layer of worms covering the ground, we pause to scoop them into buckets, then continue on with our work. Every so often Uncle Josiah looks over at me proudly. I know what he’s thinking. He’s thinking we’ve got this year’s worm fiddling title in the bag.
I fill my buckets quickly. I even beat Josiah.
“You’ll take the title this year, Lemon,” he says. He’s covered in dirt and slime but he looks happy. “You’re going to be Queen of the Worm Fiddling Festival.”
But I don’t want to be the Worm Fiddling Queen. It surprises me to realize this. The sun is out and tendrils of mist and moisture steam up from the ground to burn off in the sky. “I need to get home and shower before school.”
“I’m not worried at all,” he says, as if I haven’t spoken. “You’re a Pierce. Worm charming is in your blood.”
Sweets is quiet on the way to school. He has a new bandage, a big one on his shoulder. It’s so fresh that a crimson bloom has stained his shirt. The Swamp Ghost is playing with him. The sight of it makes me feel sick, so I stare out the window blankly.
Today I skip lunch to read in the library. The biggest species of worm is found in Australia. The Giant Gippsland Earthworm can grow up to seven feet long. Its eggs are cork-sized and the worms are purple and blue. Aside from that they’re just like Break-A-Leg’s worms. Sightless. Thoughtless. Compelled by nature to spend their lives recycling earth. The book doesn’t say whether or not you can charm a Giant Gippsland.
The day takes an unusual turn when Uncle Obediah arrives at school dressed in military finery and delivers a slaughtered pig for the weekend barbecue. He rolls the pig directly into the office using a wheelbarrow. A slippery trail of blood decorates the linoleum floor behind him.
“Lemon,” he says, catching sight of me in the hallway. Students and teachers are staring. The hall’s full of rubberneckers. “Did your uncle get my message? I need you to come to the castle after school today. I’ve got something big planned. Inspiration has struck!”
This causes as much buzz as the pig carcass. Everyone wants to know what Uncle Obediah has planned. In a town the size of Break-A-Leg, any news is big news. Of course Uncle Obie knows that. He thrives on all this attention.
“What do you think it will be?” Sweets asks on the ride home. There’s another letter on his windshield, but I don’t grab at it today. I feel a streak of irritation coming on. So far, what I’ve learned about love is that it consists mostly of mood swings and unpredictable emotions.
“Who knows?” I say.
As we pull into Uncle Obie’s driveway, Sweets’ tone gets serious. “Lemon, I need to tell you something.” When we reach Castle Chinkapin, he parks the truck under an old oak tree and turns toward me. “I’m wrestling the Swamp Ghost at the Worm Fiddling Festival next week. Your uncle and Gran decided on it last night. It’s about the only time Break-A-Leg gets any real publicity. And… she’s ready.”
My shock is dulled by the heat. “That is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard, Sweets. You shouldn’t even be play-tussling with her right now. She wants to mate. It’s too dangerous.”
The Swamp Ghost started out as ours. Both of ours. Before transforming into his own personal obsession. And she really is dangerous. She’s been cooped up for a decade and denied all her natural she-gator instincts.
His defensiveness is immediate. “I don’t think that’s what’s bothering you Lemon.” He fiddles with his dressing and pauses a long moment before turning those muddy brown eyes my way. “I think you’re worried I’ll take the attention away from you winning the competition. I think you just aren’t used to sharing the spotlight.”
My mouth hangs open for a moment and then snaps shut. It’s like I’m talking to a stranger. Sweets and I have been best friends since we were babies. We were abandoned together. We grew up together. I’ve loved him for nearly as long as that and a thousand times more than worms, championship titles, or being the heir to Castle Chinkapin. Loving Stanley Sweets is the one thing I’m sure I want to do in this world.
“Stanley Sweets.” My voice quavers. I draw the words out carefully, calculating just how much I’m going to let him have it, but I chicken out and twist my anger into sarcasm. “Why would I care about sharing my worm-fiddling fame when I am already the princess of all this?” I gesture out to the beribboned mess of garbage around us. The trash castle in all its aluminum-turreted glory. The glow-in-the-dark painted garden, the alligator-filled moat, and the coat-hanger menagerie.
Uncle Obediah is passed out in a tin bathtub drunk as a lord, sunburnt and snoring, his cape pillowed beneath his head. A few scattered tourists peruse the grounds in bemused wonderment, taking pictures. A peacock struts past the truck and fans its tail at us.
Sweets is red-faced. He is just as unfamiliar with arguing as I am, but it seems like he needs to get something out. “You act like you’re too good for this place, Lemon.”
I take that like a smack in the face. We stare at each other for a moment before I get out of the truck and walk over to my uncle and shake him awake. Apparently the tourists have not paid admission, because the instant Obie’s eyes snap open he leaps from the tub, his cape flapping behind him, and proceeds to hoot and chase the interlopers. “This is not a low-rent charity!” he yells, corralling them toward the ticket booth. I don’t turn around to see Sweets leave.
It takes a while to restore order at Castle Chinkapin. Once Obediah has collected his dues and settled down, he unveils his plans to me. We are going to make an enormous paper-mâché rendering of the Swamp Ghost. Huge. Larger than life. Big enough to take up an entire room in the castle. Uncle Obie has designed a series of casts and molds, as well as collected an assortment of plaster and balloons to use for the project. I stare at the heap of odds and ends while he wanders off to charm some new visitors.
“They call me the Rembrandt of Refuse,” I hear him say. “The da Vinci of Debris. The Wizard of Odds… and Ends!”
The Swamp Ghost. Of all the art projects he could have thought up. She is the literal representation of my problems with Sweets. My guts ache. I glare at his sketches and kick at the mold that is going to be her snout.
I don’t cry much. I grew up with worms and alligators and men. Instead, I pick up rocks and hurl them at the tin-plate walls of Castle Chinkapin. With each dent my sadness turns into something tangible. Something solid. Uncle Obie watches me from the sidelines for a bit before joining in. He finds some rusted shovels for us to really bang up the aluminum with.
“Performance art,” he says to the bewildered tourists as we smash away. They beeline back to their cars and speed off.
“Nice,” Uncle Obie says, once we’ve exhausted ourselves. He gets his pipe and examines our handiwork. “Now it has texture. I believe I’ll spackle some gems into these rivets.”
The week before the Festival, Sweets stops picking me up for school and I have to borrow Uncle Obie’s corn-fueled motorcycle. As if sputtering up to the curb smelling like greasy French fries isn’t bad enough, on Wednesday, I see Stanley Sweets holding hands with one of the girls we used to dismiss as a pageant peacock. Tiffany-Ann, or Ann-Marie, or some other prissy double-barreled name like that. Big lamb eyes and curly blond hair. Just the kind of girl he used to think was ridiculous.
The day of the festival, it’s like the swamp is in agreement with my mood. We get an early summer storm that boils up in the sky and hangs there, threatening to pour down upon us at any moment. The tree limbs bow with the weight of the moisture in the air. The crickets and cicadas are extra loud, the way they always are before it rains. The atmosphere is crackling with pent up electricity.
I’ve been up since dawn, prepping with Josiah. He’s a big believer in finger flexing and hand exercises at times like this. He’s a real pro when it comes to competitive worm fiddling. “You’ve got this, Lemon,” he says. “You’ll be the first queen in the history of this town. Your momma would be real proud.”
The sleepy dirt roads of Break-A-Leg are positively swarming with activity. The front lawn of the high school has been turned into an arena for armadillo racing. Stalls line the streets, selling lemonade and fry bread and swamp cabbage stew. Uncle Obie has designated his palace grounds for overflow parking and is charging double the admission. Pretty much everyone in town has found some way to capitalize on the worm fiddling market. There are t-shirts and posters, plastic baggies filled with gummy worms and stuffed alligator children’s toys. We get more visitors today than we do the entire rest of the year. As the reigning king, Uncle Josiah gives a few interviews to the local newspapers about what it means to be a cornerstone of folk tradition. His chest puffs up with pride as he looks over at me.
Sweets is slated to wrestle the Swamp Ghost just before my competition. There’s a heavy turnout of Seminoles from the reservation this year just for that reason. I know this is important to Sweets. He’s been looking forward to this moment since we were kids. Despite Josiah’s advice about staying focused, I make my way over to the alligator-wrestling ring to watch.
Stanley Sweets and the Swamp Ghost have the crowd enthralled. I have to push my way past the throng of cheering onlookers to see. Sweets is shirtless and barefoot and his legs and feet are stained with mud. He’s dancing around the Swamp Ghost, trying to wear her down as she swivels from side to side, snapping her mammoth jaws and hissing. She’s a behemoth. A real prehistoric monster. Her creamy white flanks ripple and contract as she moves.
Sweets performs a simple frontal catch, holding her jaws closed with one hand, and the crowd goes wild. It’s a simple enough move, but the Swamp Ghost bucks his hand, sweeps around and takes him down with her muscular tail. Sweets recovers himself and wrestles her into the submission position, sitting astride her back, his fingers forcing her eyes down into their bony sockets. He demonstrates a few of the old Seminole techniques for trussing and tying alligators before he gets down to the good stuff.
He pries her jaws open into the Florida Smile, a showy maneuver that displays all eighty of her giant teeth and the closed glottis valve at the back of her snowy white throat. Then he hooks his chin over the top of her snout and holds out both hands in the air. This leaves his head and neck completely exposed to her mercy. I hold my breath along with the crowd as he slowly extends his face between her massive jaws. The seconds seem to tick by into eternity. Mercifully, the Swamp Ghost holds her pose until the moment Sweets pulls his head back. Her jaws snap together with a staggering two thousand pounds of force. Enough to crush metal. The audience cheers and hoots. People begin chanting Sweets’ name.
He stands there beside his alligator looking glorious and triumphant. He grins at the girls swooning in the stands. He waves at the shrieking children. Blows a kiss to his gran. He ignores me completely if he sees me at all, and suddenly I know that this is where Stanley Sweets will always want to be standing.
I trudge over to the fiddling grounds feeling as if my sneakers are lined with concrete.
“Everything go okay?” Josiah asks, and I nod.
Worm fiddling doesn’t have the same pomp and glory of alligator wrestling. Still, there are banners and lanterns hung in the moss-draped trees. People have ringed the staked off squares of swampy turf with folding chairs and upturned buckets. Families have laid out plastic tarps on the ground where they can sit and watch us. We get into position as the commentator introduces each of us to the crowd. Then there’s a little history on the tradition, function, and art of worm charming. I know this spiel by heart. Uncle Josiah helped write it.
“All right fiddlers,” the announcer says. “Ready your stobs!”
There are a couple dozen of us. We all pound our stakes into the ground and wait.
“Ready. Set. Roop!”
The forest is filled with deafening vibrations, hums, groans and grunts as we furiously work our rooping irons. There is nothing quite like the sound of a swamp full of fiddlers. The crickets and cicadas take up our rhythms. The crowds tap their feet and cheer. The rain starts to fall. Each drop hits the ground to the beat of our fiddling.
I notice that Josiah is watching me more than he’s watching his sticks. This is a classic rookie worm-charming mistake. Josiah knows better. He’s trying to let me take the lead. But my heart just isn’t in it. As the chorus of grunting crescendos, an older fellow from Texas that usually places second starts to lap us. His square of soil is glistening with worms. His eyes are closed. His weathered skin gleams with perspiration. I scan the crowd for Sweets, but he’s nowhere to be found. My hands slip a couple of times and I completely lose my rhythm.
When the announcer calls time, we gather up our worms. I don’t wait around for the counting. I can tell just by looking that I’ve lost. I turn in my buckets and leave my sticks on the ground.
“It’s all right, Lemon,” Uncle Josiah says, though his face betrays his encouraging words. “You’ll get it next year.”
I skip the Worm Fiddling Ball. I don’t want to see Stanley Sweets and the pageant girl holding hands. I don’t want to hear the platitudes of well-meaning Break-A-Leg folks trying to soften the blow of my colossal failure. I can’t stomach the look in Uncle Josiah’s eyes. Instead, I go home to Castle Chinkapin and smash up Uncle Obie’s half-finished paper-mâché tribute to the Swamp Ghost.
I sequester myself in my princess quarters and look out the window. Outside, the air is warm and vibrating with echoes of the day’s fiddling. The cicadas and the crickets thrum with leftover melodies. The cypress trees quiver under the wind and rain, tapping against the glass in a mournful rhythm. The sad song of the whippoorwills punctuates the wet skies while, beneath it all, the alligators slide through the darkness, saturating the night with their deep, lovesick bellows.