The South |


by Christine Utz

The summer storm crouched behind them while they stared at the gator in the mud. It was hard to say how big he was; only his flat, u-shaped snout appeared above the water line. The rest of his body was obscured by the tangled mass of weeds.  She hadn’t noticed him right away, leaning her body over the railing of the boardwalk that extended just beyond the lake’s edge and scanning the other bank for water birds. A wall of cypress trees barred her line of sight, their limbs draped with shawls of Spanish moss.

Laurel pointed to a flutter of wings above a dead log and Tom told her it was probably a tri-colored heron. He was at the other lookout point twenty yards to her left. The exposed skin below his ball cap and above his shirt collar was reddening under the sun. When he joined her and their elbows touched, their skin stuck together from the sweat and moisture in the air. His body emanated even more heat than the swamp mud below. She pulled their skin apart and pointed again to the bird that was too far to see without binoculars.

Tom aimed her eyes down into the sludge beside the bent palm tree.

“There’s a gator,” he whispered.

Following his finger, Laurel caught the unmistakable eye of the reptile staring back at them, its pupil a narrow slit against the mottled gold of its iris.  Several of the teeth protruded, the white enamel more obvious against the blackish scales of his bottom jaw.

“I didn’t even notice him there,” Laurel said.

If she stared long enough, she could catch its blink. The water around the gator was covered in a thick film of sponge-like algae. Small bubbles formed in the clear spaces beside his jaw. For a top predator, this particular gator seemed lazy and stupid. Even as she and Tom moved about the boardwalk, taking pictures of a banana spider and her small mate, or munching on bits of granola from their pack, the gator never moved. No readjustment or display of aggression. It only kept its eye on them, making her feel as if it weren’t a danger.

Tom removed his bird guide from the pack and began flipping through its pages, searching for the bird they’d spotted on the other bank.

“It’s a green heron,” he announced, flipping the book around to show her the picture.

She looked at the penciled notes in the margins, the fresh entry in his sightings log.

“How can you be so sure?” she asked.

They’d left the binoculars in the car. Tom wore glasses. Her eyes were the better of the two and she hadn’t seen anything resembling the bird in the picture.

“Didn’t you get a good look at the head? Looks just like this.” He pointed again to the book, reading the bird’s description to her. She looked beyond the edge of the page at the gator. It had shifted its snout to face her more directly. The difference was slight, but she was sure it was hoping for her to join it in the water.

It hadn’t been a particularly long ride out to the swamp. She’d spotted the sign for the trailhead off the main road and it had said, “Swamp” in jagged letters. Just that morning they’d ridden along the Sink Hole trail hoping to find the earth collapsed, a giant chasm a mile deep and trees clinging to the side of it with their roots, wanting somehow to crawl out of the nightmare. When they arrived the sinkhole was no more than a mud pit. The earth sloped downward at a reasonable grade and there was debris and thick clumps of dirt throughout. A sign designating the sinkhole printed the answer to a frequently asked question: “Why does the sinkhole look like a trash pit?” But neither of them stopped to read further. Below in the small gully, they heard grunting.

“Wild boar?” she said, and Tom said, “Maybe.” So they hopped on their bikes and rode on.

“I’ve seen better ones,” Laurel said. “I saw an entire gas station collapse once. It cracked right down the middle, like a ship, and was swallowed by the earth.”

“I bet you didn’t,” Tom said.

“I did. It happens all the time here, because of the ground water.”

“That’s right, underground erosion. Happens sort of like a river.”

“How do you know that?” she said. The gears of her bike kept shifting on their own, spinning the pedals with self-generated momentum.

“I read about it at the welcome center,” Tom said.

A young man and his small boy approached the boardwalk, the boy at a run. He stumbled over the boards and came to his knees. They all waited to see if he would cry. He didn’t. Tom asked the little boy if he was all right, and the boy said yes.

“There’s a gator over here,” Laurel said.

The boy came to her side, picking up a stick from the dock and waving it around.

“Where?” he asked. 

She bent to his eye level and pointed to the shape on the surface of the water.

“We seen three over there,” the boy said, pointing in another direction.

He held the end of his stick and began poking at the water. Small fish scattered from the space he’d created. She thought to reach her arm around the boy, tell him to be careful. But she didn’t want to say it out loud or touch the boy while his father was looking.

Tom spoke to the boy’s father about fishing. Laurel thought of herself slipping away through the cracks of the boardwalk and into the soft mud beneath them. Humans didn’t have much natural camouflage; she’d have to mask the stink of her flesh with the compost of the swamp. Learn to breathe out of her nose like a snorkel, head resting above the water level only enough to see that gator in front of her and look for others cruising closer. Her teeth were sharp and her reflexes fast enough to take on a small gator should it decide to pursue her. Down in the muck, at the same level, she could watch him too and plan her next move. Tom bragged about being able to wrestle a gator even though he’d never seen one until now, and he’d never swum with them like her father had.

“Look at the guck!” the little boy cried, and she was pulled from the mud by his sticky hand on her leg.

“The what?”

“A guck!” he cried. She looked to his father, but he wasn’t willing to translate.

“A duck?” she said.

“A guck!” He smiled. She asked him if he knew what gators liked to eat. He thought for a moment, and said “People.”

Tom came to her with a story about the gar that lived in the river. “Some as big as the gators, or bigger!” he said. “That guy said he’s hooked one.”

“You can’t fish here,” Laurel said. She pointed to the sign sticking out of the shallows of the swamp. Her fingers were inches from the little boy’s hair.

“It’s only a damn sign,” the father said.

Tom’s shoulders shook while he laughed. He took Laurel’s arm to say, take it easy. The boy began picking at the mold on the dock with his small fingers, gathering green under the nails. The father was on the phone, maybe with the boy’s mother. Or not his mother.

“Do you like it here?” Tom said.

She watched his ankles. Mosquito bites appeared like hives.

“Sure,” she said.

“I like it here,” he said. He kept his smile from her, redirected it at the boy and his father, but she knew the contortions of his face and knew he was looking away to spare her. “In fact, I love it here,” he said.

“I think it’s going to rain,” Laurel said. This was her home, her birthplace.

“Would you move back here?”

She said, “I don’t know,” but her own uncertainty scared her. She’d already forgotten about the weather patterns, the regular midafternoon thunderstorms. They hadn’t brought a poncho.

“Can’t you imagine living on the water, somewhere like this?” He swept his arm over the railing imagining a scenario she’d often pictured for herself.

“I don’t know!” she said, louder and more violent. The boy turned to them when he heard the hell in her voice.

“Alright, alright,” said Tom.  

The father told the boy it was time to go. He slid his hands beneath the boy’s armpits and lifted him to his shoulders. They waved so long and the swamp noises took over for the boy’s short breaths.

Following the vines that slouched along the path, it was difficult to tell what was plant and what was animal. The ranger had warned them to beware of low-hanging branches, as snakes often dropped from the vines when startled. And she realized she was seeing a snake, a small golden ribbon amidst the palms and gumbo limbos. Tom’s phone hovered over the edge of the boardwalk, taking pictures as the tree snake extended its body toward another branch like a flattened coat hanger. The outline of Tom’s shirt against the greens and browns of the forest made it clear how out of place they were. She remembered being a good swimmer, but it was years since she’d entered water deeper than her thighs. She also remembered being a good talker, but that muscle was also out of practice and growing fat and lethargic like the gator. The still air made her thoughts sag. It wouldn’t be that horrifying jumping into the water. She only needed the courage to climb the railing.

They heard a motor in the distance. A disturbance moved across the surface of the water and from around the invisible bend came a small riverboat, a man and a woman on board. The man killed the engine, allowing the boat to drift toward a thin tree growing a few feet out in the water. He crossed to the prow and looped a rope several times around the trunk. At the back of the boat the woman was undressing. She was close enough to begin a conversation, but didn’t greet Laurel or Tom. She sat down on the built-in ladder that led from the back of the boat into the water and dangled her feet. Several yards to her left lay the gator, still mostly submerged, his eyes on Tom and Laurel. Laurel knew the gator could feel the small vibrations of the woman’s toes in the water. The man disappeared below deck and the woman leaned over as far as she dared to peer into the semi-clear deep. If she was looking for gators, she was missing something. They both waited for her to jump in.

The man returned and together he and the woman stared into the water. The two on the boardwalk looked at each other, deciding if they should warn the people on the boat about the gator.

“Don’t they know better?” Tom said.

“It’s their own fault if they get bit,” said Laurel.

Each time the woman looked into the water they held their breaths, waiting for her to jump in. She didn’t and they were disappointed.

The woman had finally gotten brave enough to stick her legs in, tracing circles in the water when a clap of monstrous thunder sent her retreating back into the safety of the boat. It started to rain. Laurel and Tom stood on the dock, their eyes following the thousands of droplets landing on the swamp. The forest around them went quiet, the animals taking cover beneath leaves and branches. The couple was hidden below deck, but the gator stayed right where he’d been.

Tom slid the backpack beneath a bench as the storm picked up intensity. The rain was pelting them with small silver beads. Their shirts were soaked and she could taste the rain that had traveled from her hair down her cheeks and into the corners of her mouth. It was salty, but also tasted like her shampoo. The air that before had been unbearably thick and warm was cooler and thinner. Her skin lost its gumminess, and so did Tom’s. The rain on the leaves generated a roar louder and more beautiful than any rain stick. And they were the ones to experience it. While every one and every thing else had sought shelter, they stood and embraced the storm and not because they didn’t have a choice. She wanted to be there on the dock. At this rate, the water would rise above the platform and overwhelm their advantage, making them level to the gator. Tom would want this. She wanted it too.

The storm picked up dumping sheets of water on them. Tom pulled her close to him beneath a single palm frond. Around them the water rushed to meet the ground. It continued to flood their shoes and slide down their legs. Within the small shelter their heads were somewhat dry. Their breath entwined sending clouds of carbon dioxide up like flares, but the mosquitoes didn’t dare fight the rain. With this wall of water surrounding them, Laurel and Tom found their arms around the other. Wetness sopping up wetness, and cold skin warming against the other’s cheek. Laurel kissed his neck and felt the desire that she hadn’t looked for since she’d decided only one of them could be happy at a time. He felt it too and kissed her back, working his way toward her ear.

It was happening. The rain was bringing them closer to the water so they wouldn’t need to jump over the railing or slide through the boards. And if he was in the mud and she was in the mud, there was only the gator to worry about. When the time came to face it, she would know more about its habits and would be able to distract it while Tom made the kill. She felt for the knife in her pocket while they kissed, prying open the blade to be ready.

Another urge came from her pelvis and overpowered the need to kill the alligator. A dead gator what nothing but a dead gator. She pulled herself from Tom’s lips and the rising water and their bikes, which would surely grow rusty from this kind of exposure. And she realized where they were, that the boy and father had gone, the man and woman were inside the boat, and they were miles from the ranger station. Tom felt her sucking back but let it go.

She pulled on a branch from a nearby tree, wrenching it left and right, and then spinning it clockwise to sever the flesh that remained. It was barely as tall as her and when she tested its reach she knew it wouldn’t be long enough, not by half. From the edge of the boardwalk, she extended her arm and part of her body out over the water. With the stick in her fingers, she reached toward the leaves and algae. The gator blinked at her, holding its place in the shallows beside the palm. She wiggled the stick, dancing the tip on the surface of the water. The rain was letting up. The thunder had already moved on. Tom was counting the distance of the storm beginning with the streak of lightening—one one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand, four—and ending with the grumble of the thunder.

“Its about four miles off,” he said.

“I counted that too,” Laurel said.

“Want some help?” he said.

“I can do it myself.” She stopped reaching and began slapping the water with as much force as the thin stick could produce.

The gator drifted a few inches, but stayed on the surface. A hand touched her shoulder and when she turned to shake it off he handed her a piece of dead log. She didn’t know why he hadn’t kept it for himself. It was a good log, heavy enough and it would be easy to throw. She gave herself a brief wind up, measuring the distance, accounting for her slight right curve, and hurled the log just to the side of the palm tree. The gator sensed what was coming and ducked under as the log hit. The people in the boat came up on deck to see what the commotion was.  

“Just a fish jumping,” Tom said and waved at them.

They waved back and Laurel said, “The rain’s clearing.”

“Looks like it,” the man said.  

While the swamp started to come back to life the two aboard the boat brought out towels and beers. Laurel and Tom didn’t have to tell them about the gator because there was no gator. The woman jumped into the water and resurfaced. She invited the man to come in. From the dock Laurel scanned the surface of the water for bubbles, a sign that a gator was somewhere below. It hadn’t returned to its spot under the palm. It wasn’t in the shallows beneath the boardwalk. Maybe what she saw was only a trick of light dancing on the water, but Tom said he saw it too: a small trail of bubbles leading to the woman and the boat.