Graveyard Dead

By O.Victor Miller

The thunder of a magnum revolver reverberates through the cypress pond in sync with the rocking canoe.  John and Brent, marginal English students, stare into the fizzing swamp water where the eight-foot alligator disappeared. Their awed faces, illuminated by a spotlight held down in case a game warden should happen by, seem grotesquely innocent. Brent’s forefingers are twisted into his ears past the first joints. “I think you got him, Mr. Miller!” he shouts.

“Keep it down,” I tell my wards. “The gator is properly shot precisely through the medulla oblongata.” I holster the forty-four, reaching into the cooler for snorkel gear John iced down with the beer. “Let’s recover our quarry and vacate the premises post haste and ahead of the law. A good hunter never abandons wounded prey.” I hand the mask and snorkel to Brent.

Wounded?” he bleats, handing it back.

Dead, I mean, “Graveyard dead.” This metaphorical misrepresentation I hope will deploy Brent to the bottom of Cottonmouth Pond. Strictly speaking, neurons, or brain cells, distributed throughout a gator’s reptilian nervous system are only slightly more concentrated in a brain the size of a peanut, enabling this prehistoric anachronism to demonstrate prodigious physicality after being rendered, for all but a few practical purposes, kaput. I’ll bring the boys up to speed on all this during the debriefing. Right now we just need to raise the carcass and get out of here before the DNR shows up to toss two young asses and one old one in jail.

This isn’t my first nocturnal outing to this South Georgia wetland.  Before Brent and John loitered after English class wringing their ball caps and asking me to take them on the current expedition, I’d been to Cottonmouth Pond twice before. Dr. Charlie Hare brought me and his son Tal here in 1950 when we were under ten. No stranger to outings with his father, Tal nagged him to abandon the enterprise for ice cream. The gator Doc shot sank to the bottom. He probed around for it fecklessly with a gig until close to near closing time for the Arctic Bear. I’m still haunted by corpus delicti disappointment a half-century later, a memory intensified no doubt by the dubious closure soft serve provides. A timid touch to the cold mosaic belly of a recovered crocodilian might well have discharged the hoodoo. Perhaps I could’ve led a normal life without fixations for human and reptilian night life that have warped my passage through the world.

 I’m no gator hunter. Local legend has vested me in borrowed robes. Over the years I’d hand-caught plenty of small ones, taken them to class before releasing them back into their habitat or into private ponds to keep down snakes and turtles. I had not, after six decades on the planet, logged one confirmed gator kill. The gator I shot with Tripp Sylvester’s duck gun fell in with Dr. Charlie’s as a probable, though infected with a life-long herpetological fetish, up until the moment I try to pass the icy baton to Brent my reputation as a gator slayer was absolutely unsubstantiated. Nothing like Herbie Santos’s, a high school classmate of mine and John’s mother who financed his desultory tenure at UGA poaching gators and fencing hides.          

Still, inexperience isn’t the sort of thing a college professor confesses to students seeking expertise. “Alligator hunting is against the law,” I pointed out dutifully, “as indeed it should be.” They knew, but had permission from the owner’s son to kill all they want. One will do, I predicted. One gator is a full night’s work.  “The appellation derives from an anglicized corruption of el lagarto, Spanish for the lizard,” I pontificate. “If we go, the excursion will be treated as a field trip and you’ll be expected to write essays.

“The main consideration is a clean kill,” I continued on the way to my office. “A gator must be shot from behind–never in profile. A bullet of ample authority must strike precisely the point where backbone attaches skull, the medulla oblongata. This separates limbic ganglia and jaws from the rest of the luggage, shorting out the system. You don’t want to jump on a gator with a medulla oblongata in tact,” I assured my students.

*

Forty years after Doc Charlie infected me with obsession, Tripp Sylvester and I decided during cocktails at the Sylvester’s plantation home to take his son Bud gator hunting in this very pond, a finger of which bordered the property. Southern men get early starts encouraging their sons to break the law. Bud’s mother Bitsy didn’t want her eight-year-old gator hunting with tipsy fathers or at all, but the boy raised such a stink she could protect him from his father only by going along. Gynecological etiquette, the same practice that moves women to powder their noses together in public restrooms, dictated that whomever I was married to at the time go too. 

              Tripp stoically lashed together two aluminum canoes, tossed in a thermos of strawberry daiquiris and a 12 gage duck gun primed with buckshot.  We launched the makeshift pontoons– two couples dressed for cocktails and an eight-year-old kid, the wives strictly forbidden to make a peep. Right away our spotlight found dozens of paired eyes and some singles in profile, a boy’s fortune of alligators, fixed and winking taillights leaving a stadium after the game. Through Bud and a synchronistic intrusion of déjà vu, I revisited the past–the enchanting symphony of night I’d first heard with Dr. Charlie and Tal. The chorus of owls, woodwind cicadas and tremolo mosquitoes, bass harumps of bullfrogs harmonized into the tenor whonks of roosting birds. The same insects swarmed us, bewitched in artificial light. Jeweled eyes of crawfish set into tendrils of coontail moss. Quicksilver waterbeads on lily pads. It was exactly the same. An identical water snake, its head tugging a silver V across a glassy surface minnows etched at from below.

Tripp sculled up to an acceptable specimen, and I blasted it with a charge of double-ought. Pungent pond water rained upon us. The wives shuddered. The same gator Doc Charlie misplaced, or one like it, sank perfunctorily to the bottom. Not to be robbed twice, I took off shirt and shoes, donning the dive mask I’d borrowed from Bud.

“Don’t go swimming,” the boy warned. “He’s bound to be mad. He’ll eat you up and we can’t hunt arrowheads any more.”

Through the kiddy snorkel, I uttered distorted words that will haunt my dreams.  “Don’t worry, son. That alligator is graveyard dead.”

Indeed, it should have been dead. I’d dispatched it at close range, lifting off the top half of its cranium. Probability mandated that at least one pellet the size on an English pea had deactivated the medulla oblongata. Illuminated in spotlight periphery, the wives rolled their eyes. Bitsy pinched a moth from her slushy drink. I eased over the side into tepid water.

 “Goodbye,” Bud squeaked, chin trembling.

 “Hey buddy,” I honked, bobbing the ping pong valve, “I’ll be right back.”

 Lungs and cheeks full of night air, I plunged like Beowulf eight feet to a bottom covered in mulched leaves. The tannin-smirched water, dark as café solo at high noon, was absolute pitch after sundown. Bud’s goggles could’ve been full of tar. My third dive to the bottom found the gator motionless as a petrified log. Gingerly I fingered my way up rough scutes to a pair of chunky shoulders. I aimed the comatose gator toward the moon and I kicked us up like a surfboard. Nothing to it.

When we broke the surface, however, the reptile revived, lashing mightily and spinning away. It ploughed a wide, slow circle through moonlight, returning to where I hung dumfounded to the canoe. Wives screamed, spilling their daiquiris. “Hurry!” Bud cried. “It’s coming back to eat you up!”

With what specifics of dexterity I kipped into the canoe before the gator bashed it in remains a geriatric mystery, but a shotgun, I concluded, while effectively disrupting the reptile’s equilibrium and dispelling its natural fear of humans, lacked the surgical precision to disconnect the medulla oblongata.

So, for the current adventure Brent brought a .243 deer rifle. For backup I toted a magnum .44. John brought beer. The boys now suggest we find another gator to shoot, a small one in shallow water. Refusing the snorkel gear, Brent sits on his hands. “You said you was going to teach us how,” he says.

*

The fact that Cottonmouth Pond has been infested with alligators since the Jurassic was inconsequential to the DNR and to John’s mother, who’d gone to Albany High School with me, disapproving of John’s choice of English professor in the first place. She held some very unequivocal views of our field trip. Gator poaching was still against the law, just as it was when Doc Charlie brought me here in 1950 when game laws were  enforced less vigorously.

John’s dad, an accomplished business man and outdoorsman himself, was more philosophical. “Boys being boys,” he sighed. “Let him sew his wild oats and outgrow it. At least we finally got him in college.”

Maternal opposition to a boy’s passage into manhood is generally excluded from coming of age literature—the reluctant mother, broken birth cord and apron strings. I will learn of John’s mother’s sentiments from a subsequent essay. Brent told his mother he was going to the Dairy Queen for soft serve.

There’s something about hunting alligators that runs diametrically contrary to motherhood. My own mother raised the same holy hell Mrs. Hare, Bitsy, and John’s mother did–there’s something in a mother that doesn’t like a prehistoric reptile. Even mother alligators protect their offspring from fathers who left to his own appetite will gobble up the whole gene pool.

“Outgrow it? What if he doesn’t live long enough to outgrow it? What if he gets put in jail with hardened criminals? His teacher hasn’t outgrown it. He’s older than I am, scheduled to retire. When do you think, he’ll finish sewing his wild oats?”

 “Now, now,” soothed John’s father, “At least he isn’t adverse to spending time with students.”

“His students are the only humans left in Dixie naive enough to spend time with him!” John’s mother lashed back.

“Well, it’s hard to flunk somebody you’ve broken the law with,” his father reasoned, which for all practical purposes shut John’s mama up.

*

As we launched Brent’s canoe, repetition being key to learning, I re-briefed my protégés. The night is spangled with glowing red eyes, even more than when Tripp and I brought Bud, even more than when Doc Charlie brought me and Tal, hungry for soft serve, to Cottonmouth Pond. Alligators are less endangered now that Herbie Santos has been removed from the environmental equation.

I wiggled my light on a pair of ruby eyes. “Ease up to that one,” I told John, who paddled with one hand, sipping beer.

The gator floated parallel to us, only a gnarl of eyelid and knob of nose above the water, more than a foot between the two, indicating a seven to eight foot specimen. “OK Brent, he’s giving us his profile. Wait until he starts swimming away.”

When a gator floats, very little is up. To submerge, it sinks on its tail. When it swims, its back and neck rise, exposing the intersection of skull and spine where the well placed bullet disconnects jaws from running gear. The gator moved away, dragging a wake. “Good, good, a little closer, John. Crosshairs on the medulla oblongata, Brent. Easy now. Take a deep breath, let half out. Squeeeeze the trigger.  Let her glide now, John.”

“Mr. Miller,” Brent whispered. “Where’s the medulla oblongata?”

No time to scold, I touched the occipital bump at the base of Brent’s own skull, the switchboard center of his own limbic shenanigans. “Backpaddle, John!”

“We’re too close,” Brent hissed, “I can’t see nothing in the scope!”

Standing precariously in a squirming canoe, I drew my .44, steadying on Brent’s shoulder. The gator, three yards away paused. “Notice how we do this,” I whispered, blasting the reptile, ringing Brent’s ears for the semester, alerting game wardens over three counties.

The stricken gator drenched us in fetid water.  “I think you got him, Mr. Miller.” Brent tilted his head, pounding his temple with the heel of his hand.

“That, my boys, is how it’s done.”

 “What?” said Brent.

*

This eight-footer after lashing a wall of white water sounded straight to the bottom, as gators will, and because neither boy has actually pulled the trigger, both are reluctant to jump into a pond still fizzing swamp gas, and perhaps they have a valid point.  Tripp’s gator’s revival was a freak of nature, I tell myself, that won’t happen again in thousand years. Gators fed marshmallows in state parks or chronically disturbed by golfers at water hazards can’t always be counted on to retreat, but wild alligators almost never attack unless protecting their brood. Plus I’ve been haunted by a half century of failure in the alligator department. A thorough search won’t be required, anyway, just a perfunctory face-saving dip made brief by a possible run-in with an investigation official from the DNR.

“You said…” Brent begins.

“Hush,” I say.

             Trapped in my own rhetoric I strip to my underwear and flop into the chest-deep water. Weightless as an astronaut, I moonwalk through itchy moss, ginger footsteps launching farts of methane, and—Jesus!—I step barefoot slap on the son-of-a-bitch. It erupts through reflected constellations, reborn to boiling mayhem.  For the moment I’m lost in time. The gator– maybe the same one that bashed Tripp’s canoe or the octogenarian beast Dr. Charlie lost—circles, wagging its head. Disorientated and unable to stay submerged, it porpoises toward me yawning spastic jaws.

          “Help! Goddammit! Help!” A gator’s orientation must be seated in the medulla oblongata. Like Tripp’s gator, it wallows the surface, unable to swim straight or synchronize its jaws. But it can open them, and does, orbiting with wagging mouth agape, I dance back as it passes, reaching timidly for a trailing leg. It responds with a terrific slap of tail and a white explosion of déjà vu. If I can catch hold, I deduce, I’ll know which end’s which and where it’s at. “Shine the light!” I scream. “Shine the light!”

A gator shot precisely in the medulla oblongata can lose its natural fear of humans, I recall. It yanks away and boils the water. This is an enterprise for younger men. Faint angina nags my throat and jabs my jaw. More than death by coronary infarction, I fear a laughable end to a questionable career in academe—eaten alive while breaking the law in my underwear in the witness of freshmen assigned to write about it.

Hopping backwards in matador fashion, I avoid the beast once, twice. Urgency inspires colloquial diction: “If either of you little sons-a-bitches wants to pass English,” I wheeze, “you better jump in here and get you some alligator!”

Brent’s semester 78 puts him in fair stead, but John, on the precarious hump of a unwavering 69, is the better candidate for the task at hand. And John has crawled around a six-pack of beer. He splashes with graceless valor into the fray. Lusty screams follow: I got him, John! Oh, Jesus, he’s got me! Hold him, John! Hold him! Help, Brent! Hot Damn! Give us some light! This way! This way!

Crocodilians are capable of uncanny and energetic death throes, but cold-blooded critters shoot their wads, so to speak, quickly. A monster encumbered by a overweight professor and a borderline student primed on beer soon wears down, but not before I do. Brent oars over to administer a coup de grace with the pistol, enlisting me and John into a granfalloon of temporary deafness. I hang gasping on the canoe, demanding nitroglycerin from a small brown bottle iced down with beer. Brent places the tiny tablet under my tongue where it sits like a splinter of dry ice as I’m hauled with the defunct reptile into the canoe.

 Skinning the thing takes all night. It slaps and claws us butchering it. Forbidden flesh–white as crabmeat and pearly pink at haunches–twitches in guilty hands emphasizing life’s persistence and the shame of snuffing it. We’ll eat it, of course, but without celebration or sanction of law.

What else?  The stinking hide is kept a week and buried. The boys pass English with gentleman C’s provisional to discretion, but I’m not sure what I taught or learned  beyond the obvious—that alligators are too much work to break the law for?  Will one dead reptile free me from the void a lack of closure brings? Will Brent and John be spared the fetch of ponds and poetry late at night? From dragons rooted deep in human hearts, adventures dared to free ourselves from us.  

(end)

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: