Look down fair moon and bathe this scene,
Pour softly down night’s nimbus floods on faces ghastly, swollen, purple,
On the dead on their backs with arms toss’d wide,
Pour down your unstinted nimbus sacred moon.
One hot afternoon in July of 1965, Jim Larkin and his wife JoAnn were slowly paddling their small green boat upstream on the Styx River that drains the northwestern corner of the Florida panhandle. Having spent the several hours around noon lazily fishing in a favorite spot, half a mile downriver from their blueberry farm, they were bringing back enough bream for themselves and half the town of Babylon besides. Jim’s widowed mother, Evelyn Larkin, was back at the farm, taking care of their son Jerry, eight years old, and their infant daughter Margaret, born only the year before.
JoAnn Larkin, who had pale skin and dark red hair, and always wore dark red lipstick and matching nail polish even when she was working in the patch, had already started to clean the fish, and was idly scraping scales back into the water. Her husband, Evelyn Larkin’s only child, paddled slowly, and kept his face turned away from the sun. He had to be careful about burn, and considered that it was a sore trial for a farmer and his wife to have fair skin.
“What’s that?” JoAnn said curiously, and pointed at something in the water, twenty feet away.
“It’s a croker sack,” Jim Larkin replied, and turned the boat a little so that they would come nearer it.
“It’s not one of ours, is it?” she said.
“I don’t think it’s one of ours. Who’d be throwing our croker sacks in the river?”
“I don’t know. We ought to take it back. Good croker sacks are getting harder to come by every day. Looks dry. Must have just fell in from somewhere.”
JoAnn leaned over the prow, and snared the sack. She swung it over the side of the boat, and set it between herself and her husband. The string that held the top together had already come loose in the water, and the sack fell open in her hands. With dampened rattles, five snakes slithered out over the lip of the burlap.
The man and woman drew back in fear, pushing frantically against the rattlesnakes with their feet. Each was bitten several times, and probably would have suffered more had not their thrashing panic overturned the small boat.
Jim Larkin dived deep, and in a few seconds attempted to come up for air. Among the dead bream that floated on the surface of the water, he could see the snakes coiled and waiting. Their tails swaying slowly in the water beckoned him upward. He lost consciousness and drowned.
JoAnn Larkin swam to a sandbar, crawled across it, and fell into a sand-sink, which are as common as leeches along the margin of the Styx. She was sucked in slowly, and all the while never left off calling her husband’s name. But she gave over all resistance to the sinking sand when she saw his corpse rise suddenly to the surface of the water, and bob among the dead fish. His head was thrown back, his eyes wide, and one of the snakes pushed its way into his slack mouth.
Their bodies were never recovered. JoAnn Larkin’s skeleton, white and contorted, still lies frozen in the sand a dozen feet below the surface of the Styx. Jim Larkin was spun a couple of miles downstream, and then wedged into a rocky crevice in the bed of the river; there the normally sluggish black waters of the Styx, rushing through this submerged ravine, industriously pried the rotting flesh from his bones.
Evelyn Larkin had nothing of her son and daughter-in-law to mourn over and bury. The overturned boat, protecting the nested croker sacks and two drowned rattlesnakes, told no plausible story of their deaths. One July morning they had rowed down the Styx and simply failed to return.
Though she had no remembrance of her parents, Margaret Larkin never went swimming in the river, for fear that she would be dragged down to the bottom by her drowned mother and father. And her brother Jerry never after crossed the bridge over the Styx without glancing uneasily among the pilings, dreading to see there his parents’ decayed corpses. Yet they said nothing of these irrational terrors to one another, nor to their grandmother, who never lost the feeling that her son and daughter-in-law were still to be found somewhere in the river’s meandering length.
Eventually, a small cenotaph was raised in the Larkin family plot in the Babylon cemetery. It was marked with the names of the couple and bore the simple legend: LOST UPON THE STYX. 14 JULY 1965.