Folk Art


Returning from Steinhatchee, Fla. , from the Native American steen (man) + hatchee (river), on Memorial Day, KK and I see metal sculptures on the side of Hwy 19. Thrilled to find some American folk art at last (even the folk crafts for sale in Georgia State Parks’ gift shops are imported), we turn the Goose around to visit. A middle-aged white guy with a gray beard strolls up offering to help.

“Are you the artist?” I enquire. “I’ve been wondering where folk art had wandered off to.”
“No.”
“Owner?”
“No, I just work here.”
“Where’s the artist?”
“Mexico, I reckon. All this stuff is trucked in from Nuevo Laredo.”

I picture a Mexican blacksmith hammering away in desert heat, providing tacos for his family, pausing once in a while to wipe his brow and ponder what a norteamericano turista might covet for his backyard outside of Thomasville, Georgia. The sculpture exhibits, I think, a wonderful marriage between need, inspiration and vision. I’m awed by the work, still trying to make conversation: “I guess we get enough Mexicans down here we’ll see a rebirth of folk art in the US.”

“Shit!” says the vendor balling his fists.

“We better be getting on down the road,” says K.K.

Things That Bite In the Night

by Douglas Bernon

 If you’ve spent all day knocking back high-octane chicha – fermented ceremonial corn – at an islandwide jamfest celebrating a Kuna girl’s first menses and it’s the middle of the night and you’re on the throne in a rickety outhouse perched over the water’s edge, you’ve neither time nor reason to determine what kind of Paleozoic monster has reared up from the depths and is ripping flesh from your leg. When this happened to a Kuna named Demasio, despite his wounds he leaped up, broke free, and, trousers bunched at his ankles, lurched down the dirt street – screaming.

Photo by K.K. Snyder

 Playon Chico, an island off Panama, had been aflutter for weeks, fearing for the safety of its children, because some nocturnal beast had been stealing ashore and eating dogs. Now, with the sneak attack on Demasio and the beast’s obliteration of a privy and dock, the fiend was known, and Kuna elders were faced with a call to arms. An event to mythologically and psychologically perfect – what youngster hasn’t feared surreptitious attacks from the toilet bowl? – plucks its own rescuing knight.

Destiny provided St. George in the form of cruising sailor O. Victor Miller, from the Kinchafoonee Creek in Leesburg, Georgia. A most untweedy retired professor of literature, Victor is a single-hander who, for part of each year, works on his writing while living on Kestyll, his CSY 44, anchored in Ukupseni Bay, across from Playon Chico. One of the deftest hands in the “Grit Lit” movement of contemporary Southern literature, his droll tales of hunting and fishing in Gray’s Sporting Journal and his collected short stories, in a volume called One Man’s Junk, make me long to have been born south of the Mason-Dixon. He’s also well armed, and because of his many volunteer projects in the village, he’d already become an adopted son of the Kunas in Playon Chico.

 Dragon slaying has probably always required a seasonal hunting license from some fool bureaucracy, and not much goes down in the San Blas islands without the overview of the Kuna Yala island chiefs. Aware that hiring heroes can be a tricky business, the sahilas approached Victor for help and asked the pertinent question: “Have you killed crocodiles before?”

 “No,” he swaggered. “We don’t have crocs in Georgia, but what’s a crocodile but an alligator with an attitude? If he ain’t bulletproof, we’ll bring him in.”

 Licensed to kill, and hoping to bring home major bacon for a community that doesn’t see much protein from meat, Victor assembled his weapons and a small Kuna posse. On the second evening of their hunt, he tracked his quarry to a nearby mainland river and baited the ambush by tying a dog to a tree. Hours ticked by. Suddenly the dog became agitated. Victor spotted “a long, green log.” He eased in the direction of the suspicious log, which disappeared, leaving in the mud a flat, smooth area with claw prints. “Meanwhile, that ol’ dog went crazy, tore itself from the tree, and took off. My headlamp ignited a bright red eye floating on the water. I blasted it with a round of00-buck. A warty, conical head, like an outsized wizard cap, erupted from the water, followed by an interminable length of crocodile, shaggy as a pinecone, big as a Pontiac.”

 Wounded, the monster slipped under water. Victor blasted it with a .44. Thought he killed it. Bet down, grabbed it around the neck, and began dragging it to shore. But the croc spun wildly and knocked him in the water. “Suddenly,” he said, “I’m on the other side of the river, trying to yell for help around a mouthful of mud.” Humming with endorphins, he draws his .44. Again he shoots it behind the head. Again it slides back into the water. He shot it three more times before the beast called it quits. After it was over, Victor felt a melancholy “that I knew wasn’t going to go away, something that comes with age to hunters who come to love prey more than killing it.”

 Lately festooned with a croc-teeth necklace, Victor is now a full-fledged superman in Playon Chico. Many Kunas proudly point us to the nine-foot hide drying on a hut roof, and everyone gives Victor wide smiles as we walk around together. The village is peaceful again. Kids play and splash once more near the shoreline. Damasio limps a little, but he’s healed up pretty well, and the Kunas have a new story to tell, about the big gringo who came on his sailboat, slayed their dragon, and decided to stay awhile.

 Published in Log of Ithaka – Cruising World Magazine – August 2003

 

Down in Mexico with Chief Vic, Big Blue, and Bernadette

by Clyde Edgerton

(Written in 2004)

www.clydeedgerton.com 

 We stop to get groceries at a little grocery store in the village of Zapata, southwestern Mexico, near the Pacific coast.  A big wooden barrel full of brooms sits just outside the wide front opening to the store, and just inside are bins of fruit almost chest high.  I’m tempted to stand at the fruit bins for a while—the smells are sweet and some are strange: cantaloupes, tiny bananas, mangos, and papayas. 

The grocery store reminds me of the one my father ran back in rural North Carolina in the 1950s.  A “reacher”–a long handled, two-fingered metal hand–retrieves goods from top shelves.  Anybody can use it. 

This little town has no paved streets other than route 200–a two-lane hard top, the main road down Mexico’s west coast.  The nearest town with paved streets is more than an hour away. 

We’re here to pick up Diet Coke and ice cream.  My buddy, Vic Miller, will be speaking the Spanish I wish I could speak.  We’ve just been fly fishing on Rio Caliente.  No luck, but the riverbanks were plush with dark green plants, weeping willows, and the water–as clear as air.  Before fishing, we managed to get our rental car stuck in sand and a friendly Mexican holding a machete walked across the shallow riverbed and helped us push the car onto firm ground.  Vic talked and joked a while with our rescuer, who, when we returned from fishing, was bathing in the river, a little board resting on the riverbank holding soap and shampoo.

Over a decade ago I was stuck in a river in Florida in Vic’s Jon boat with a tub of weeds wrapped around the engine propeller.  Vic stood, waist deep, with the engine tilted so that the propeller was out of water, unwrapping weeds while his seven-year-old daughter, Maisey, cried in frustration over a halted adventure.  My daughter, Catherine, also unhappy, was along. 

“Sing something,” Vic said to me.

I started in on John Prine’s “Spanish Pipedream:”  “She was a level headed waitress on the road to alcohol.  I was just a soldier . . . Blow up your T.V., throw away your papers, move to the country, build you a home.”  Maisey stopped crying, and Vic is forever remembering that day.

One night about five years ago several friends and I were on a small houseboat that putted very slowly along the bank of the Apalachicola River.  Vic, just ahead of the boat, waist deep in the water, walked along holding a spot light in his left hand (the light bound to the boat by a long extendable cord plugged into an electrical outlet) and a .38 revolver in his right hand.  He was stalking a bullfrog for next morning’s breakfast.  We could hear the frog bellowing on the bank in the weeds not far ahead.  A big branch caught the top of the boat and stopped it.  Vic kept walking, the light cord comes unplugged, the light goes out, a few seconds pass, and only then, in black darkness, there’s a gunshot.  In a few minutes Vic appears at the bow, dead frog in hand, shot between the eyes.  Had I not been there, I wouldn’t believe it.  There’s still something implausible about that incident, but it gives me faith in some other Vic stories.

Vic has revived a dying dog with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation; he fought a bull in a bullring–and lost.

He quotes Shakespeare, Keats, friends.

He’s had several open heart operations, he’s sixty-two, he’s been told there can be no more operations and he lives every day as his last.  He’s been married more than twice.  I’ve never asked him how many times.  He’s been bruised and stitched up after all sorts of encounters, at least one with a crocodile, and another with a wild boar.

 My wife’s Uncle Duke, a New York movie producer, owns a villa in the Careyes resort area.  It’s near the little grocery store where we’re shopping.  Duke is generous to friends and family.  My family is staying in his villa for ten days, and I’ve asked Vic to join us.  Knowing about the relative isolation of this part of the world, the dangerous and wild rocky coast, I figured way back when we were invited that if I could get Vic down here, just sort of turn him loose and follow him around for a few days, something would happen.  I knew Vic would bring his fly rods, snorkeling gear, maps, walking shoes, and his warped sense of living on the edges of normality.

A few days before, on the hour ride north from the airport in Manzanillo to the villa, Vic, my wife Kristina, my son Nathaniel, and I left no room for a car seat in our tiny taxi.  Nathaniel must be held in the back seat.  I sit up front holding the hand rest and dashboard because the driver tailgates, swerves around slow trucks, and takes the inside of sharp curves.  Vic talks about how his truck caught on fire last week.  He put the fire out with beer.  His truck is fine, though. 

It’s fun to ride along and listen to Vic tell stories, though I’m worried about Nathaniel not being in a car seat, yet not worried enough to rent another taxi.  There are no child seat laws here and for some irrational reason that makes me worry less.  I hold on, listen to Vic.

He shot a duck a few days back, just before dark, and left his hat on a branch in the woods to mark approximately where the duck went down so that he could return to find it.  He will kill nothing he doesn’t eat.  He came back next day, parked the truck, looked for but couldn’t find his hat, then couldn’t find the truck.  He finally found the truck, but then got stuck in the swamp. 

The taxi driver was crazy, I decided.  Kristina, behind the taxi driver, handed Nathaniel over Vic’s case of fly rods–propped lengthwise in the taxi—to Vic, who was behind me.  We were speeding along.  Vic was bouncing Nathaniel on his knee and talking to him.  Vic’s door came open; he yelled and slammed it shut.  Nathaniel had opened it.

Vic lives with the Kuna Indians in Panama.  Not exactly with them—he lives in a sailboat just off the coast from their village.  He enjoys their company, entertains them, eats their food and celebrates with them.  He’s now visiting his hometown, Albany, Georgia, for a while but will return to the Indians after taking in as much American life as he can handle.  He likes the way the Kuna live, the way they treat their children and each other.  He’s trying to develop a commercial market for their art. 

Vic recently sailed his forty-four foot sailboat back to the states.  He told us about the trip as our little taxi sped north on Route 200 from the airport.  On that trip back to the states he was blinded for a few days after being accidentally gouged by a thumb.  He tried to navigate by the “feel of the wind against my cheek,” and one night as his vision returned he barely made out Polaris, the North Star, and changed course.  His ragged blind navigation saved several days on a trip, which still took five weeks, rather than the normal two.  He was in trouble once during that trip and a harbor patrol boat sent from Grand Cayman came to his rescue but Vic refused to allow them to tow him in.

   When we arrive at the villa from the airport we are greeted by Kristina’s mother, Hannah, her father, P.M., sister Merritt, and family friend Maggie.  Hannah informs us that a guide will take us ocean fishing the next morning at nine-thirty.  I’ve been counting on Vic to do the guiding, to track down a boat, and to run the nature show, but this little fishing trip will be a good way to start.  Vic can talk to the guide; find out places of adventure, things to do.

The first night at dinner, Vic tells of how he came to live with the Kuna.  The chief, named Brown, was talking with Vic, and Vic noticed that he kept scratching his arm.  Vic offered Neosporin.  The chief used it and then took off his shirt and asked Vic to apply some to his back.  Vic did.  Soon a group of Indians lined for his “magical” medication.  He ran out of Neosporin, but to continue to please them, he reverted to dabs of toothpaste.  They came to trust and like him, and he set anchor.

    The fishing guide’s name is Sergio and he and Vic talk fishing, weather and ocean tides in Spanish.  Along for this initial fishing outing is my father-in-law, P. M.  I pick up Spanish pieces of a story Vic told us earlier and is now telling Sergio:  When Vic flew in to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, in 1960 (he was eighteen), twenty years or so before Sergio was born, on a DC-3, the co-pilot sat on a milking stool, and the landing strip was dirt.  When the aircraft took off, it didn’t have the power to clear the mountains on a straight out departure so it just corkscrewed up into the air until it was high enough to make it out.

    We’re trolling with heavy-duty rods and reels.  The coast is mostly rocky bluff with occasional sandy beaches.  In the rocks are crevices and caves.  Swells move into the rocks and leave waterfalls, crash into crevices and caves.  Plumes of water, like geysers, spurt into the air. 

After about thirty minutes we have a strike.  P. M. brings in the fish, a species of tuna that Sergio says we should throw back because it’s no good to eat.  The meat is too dark.  There’s a discussion between Vic and Sergio.  We’ll keep the fish and cook it.

Headed south along the rocky seashore, we pass the Goldsmith estate high on a cliff (twenty-three thousand acres, thirteen thousand set aside as a preserve).  There’s a round tower on the estate that reminds Vic of an abandoned astronomy tower on the north Pacific border of Costa Rica.  It was once rented by the owner as a honeymoon suite.  A parrot lived in the tower and would occasionally come to the owner’s table for dinner, singing, “Ooooohh, ahhhh, yes, yes, yes.”  Occasionally, the parrot flew down into the village below, but was unable to fly back up out of the valley.  The owner would walk through the streets and listen for it.

    We pass sandy beaches with coconut groves, and Vic tells about an Indian he knew in San Blas, Panama.  The man was called Iguana.  His legs were withered and useless.  He climbed up palm trees after coconuts.  He would climb down from the top of the trees shoulders first, like an Iguana. 

    Vic talks about diving among feeding sharks at a reef in Walkers Caye, Bahamas. Distracted by the view, he found a shark tugging on the belt of his equipment.

    P.M asks him what’s the weirdest thing he’s ever caught, fishing.

Vic thinks for a few seconds. “A cadaver. I was with a group of folks in a boat looking for a drowned man in the Kinchafoonee Creek in Leesburg, GA.  We were using long poles with big treble hooks on the end and just as we got underway I thought I’d hooked a stump, and asked what to do.  ‘Bring it on up,’ somebody said.  I did, and as I pulled up I leaned over the side of the boat.  I was looking for the stump but instead suddenly there was a big swollen face staring me in the face.”

We’ll catch two more fish on our half-day outing:  a tuna and a jack.  Vic will fillet the two tuna, cut the fillets into chunks and fry them in a spicy flour and cornmeal mix.  Next day he’ll convert a large flowerpot into a smoker and smoke the jack.  The tuna was pretty damn dark.  I can understand why the locals don’t eat them.  The smoked jack was delicious. 

 On the third day we collect tiny gray fish, each not much larger than a fingernail, from a near-by beach.  It’s easy, in the seawater that collects among the rocks as the waves come in, to catch them in a shallow pan and then pour them in the plastic bottle for Nathaniel.  We’ll return them to the sea after a few hours.  But there is one beautiful tiny fish that seems impossible to catch—they are scarce and very skittish.  They look as if they’re squeezed from a tiny tube of dark blue paint and their bellies are orange.

The problem is how to catch one.

I realize I’ve stumbled into an adventure, perhaps the adventure of the trip. I will use clichés of big game fishing—the fish exploding on a power run, my fighting the big fish into submission, stopping the initial run, owning the fight, taking a 300-pound big eye on 80-pound tackle—use those clichés to write about catching our quarter-ounce “Big Blue.”

But how do we catch it?

Vic’s idea is to invent a “slurp gun” that will work something like a hypodermic needle in reverse and suck Big Blue safely in to a small chamber.

We look around Uncle Duke’s villa.  On a shelf is a clear plastic tennis ball container holding two balls.

“If we put a hole in one end of that,” says Vic, and then pull a tennis ball backwards somehow, with a clothes hanger or something, it’ll create suction, won’t it?”

“Should.  We’ll have to cut a hole in the tennis ball.”

We look at each other.  “I haven’t seen any tennis courts around here, have you?” says Vic.

“Nope.  So these balls and container are probably here for a slurp gun.  Uncle Duke won’t mind.”

I find my Leatherman and go to work, cutting holes and designing.

“Let’s try it out,” said Vic.

The living room to the villa is open on the ocean side and built into the low wall which keeps you from walking off into space is a small swimming pool, about the length and width of a taxi. 

We find a box of raisins in the kitchen and drop them into the pool. I moved the gun with-in a couple of inches and pull back on the straightened clothes hanger that passes through and curls up on the far side of the ball.  The raisin moves away from the end of the gun.

“What the hell?” says Vic.

I try again.  Same thing.  I examine our gun.  “The ball’s not in there tight enough.  Water is rushing around it and out the hole.”

For three hours we re-design and experiment.

Finally, after failure upon failure, we come up with a gun that sort of works.  The principle is like our original, yet we are working with a two-liter plastic water bottle, thin and tall.  The tennis ball container is discarded.  Two halves of a tennis ball–slightly smaller that the opening they’re in–will be pulled back (with straightened coat hanger) from near the small mouth opening of the plastic water bottle, and behind the tennis ball is our design discovery that allows suction:  a partially inflated plastic freezer bag that is up against all walls of the bottle interior.  The back of the gun, i.e. the entire bottom of the plastic bottle, is open; we’ve cut off the bottom, and the “pulling back” is done with a curved hand grip in the coat hanger.

This slurp gun looks somewhat like our first one but it will actually pull a raisin into the opening–about fifty percent of the time.

We head to the beach.

I crouch among the suitcase-sized and smaller rocks along one section of the otherwise clear beach.  Small waves wash in, leaving clear water in little pools.  I look for Big Blue.  Finally, after about ten minutes, I see one.  I stalk Big Blue.  What a beautiful fish.  It darts out of sight below a rock, back in sight, then into a tiny cave.  I wait.  It comes out.  I slowly but steadily move the slurp gun into range.  Big Blue darts away, disappears.  In the next twenty minutes I try and miss six times.  I move to other pools.  Plenty of little grey fish but no blues.  Ah, I see another.  I’ll use a new tactic.  I hold the gun still near the area I think he’ll swim by soon.  I wait.  I wait.  He swims toward the lip of my gun.  I pull the coat hanger.  He swims away.  I wait again.  In a few minutes he boldly swims to the lip again.  I pull.  I pull the entire innards of the slurp gun out of the water bottle and low and behold flapping on top of the plastic freezer bag that I’ve caught between my elbows is Big Blue.  I scream to Vic.  He’s nearby with a pan, catching greys.  He comes running, and I manage dump Big Blue and the freezer bag into the pan.

We take Nathaniel his batch of fish in another plastic water bottle.  He’s delighted.  We all admire our catch for a few hours and then return them en masse to their home.

 Two days later, Merritt suggests a group hike at Turtle Beach, several miles away.  She drives Vic, Maggie, and me to a narrow dirt road exiting Route 200, marked with a handwritten sign, “Polo.”  We drive along for a while and then through a gate near the yard of a private residence.  This seems to be a kind of checkpoint, but no one is on duty.  We drive through thick gnarled, scrub oaks and underbrush to a fork—“Polo” to the left.  We go right, and finally emerge on a wide grassy plain that leads to the ocean.  We find a magnificent, crescent shaped beach at least three miles long with rock outcroppings at each end.  No humans, no structure in sight.  We remark that its beauty has probably doomed it to be a future resort spot.  We decide to walk to the northern tip where there may be a river or creek for fly-fishing. 

The beach is high and wide.  A kind of plain leads from the level flat beach downward to where very tall, powerful waves are breaking. After each wave thunderclaps down, tons of water flow rapidly up the incline and, in places, onto the flat top. The water then rushes back down the incline creating a terrific undertow; the tall waves suck up sand and shells as they break–extremely close to shore.  But the middle and upper parts of the waves are light green and translucent.

Right away we see a lone, little sea turtle headed across the beach for the water, something we’ve seen in films but not live.  We scan for others but there are none.  We follow him along.  He makes the wet sand, is washed back ten feet or so by the surf, twice.  We refuse to help him—he will need the strength he’s building–and finally he disappears, sucked out to sea.  The surf is extremely foamy.

Merritt looks north.  She points.  “Something just ran into the ocean up there.”  

“Probably the way the water was breaking,” I say.  “That’s a powerful undertow.”

“No, it was something alive, like a log.”

We continue north.  In a minute I see the log.  “It was a log,” I say.  Not very big, washed back onto shore.  It suddenly rises on four short, stubby legs and runs into the ocean.

“Crocodile!” says Vic.  He’s been mainly looking for fossils, quietly and patiently scratching in the sand.  It’s as if he were struck by lightning.  He is new.  He scrambles into his flippers, grabs his mask and heads for the beach.  “They think you can’t see them underwater,” he says over his shoulder.  “In the water is the best place to catch him.  Boy oh boy, won’t this be something for Nathaniel.” 

Merritt points again.  “There he is.”  The croc is floating about forty feet out, nose and eyes above water, just beyond the breakers.  The water is so clear you can see the rest of her.  She appears to be a little over a yard long.  Vic calls out, “Hang on, Bernadette, I’m coming to get you, sweetheart.”

(Backstory:  Early in our vacation, my mother-in-law Hannah asked Vic.  “Could you please shave?”  Or “Don’t you have another shirt?”  Something like that.  All in fun.

Vic’s response was, “You sound like Bernadette.”  One of his ex-wives (name changed to protect the innocent).  All in fun. 

From then on, when anyone gave orders about anything, the response was, “Don’t you go Bernadetting me.”

A big wave knocks Vic on his ass and drags him underwater, out of sight, up toward us, until he appears—rolling in the surf.  I notice that he stays relaxed, doesn’t fight the water.  He charges in again, manages to stand, and dives beneath a great wave.  He surfaces beyond the breakers and swims toward where we last saw the croc.  But Bernadette is now out of sight. 

After fifteen minutes of searching, Vic gives up and is washed in to us.  We walk along looking for Bernadette in the water.  No luck. 

We give up for the time being, thinking we might see her on the way back up the beach.

“It’s pretty simple,” says Vic.  “You just catch them around the neck where they can’t get their teeth back to you.  And then grab that tail and get it under your arm, so they can’t get all that torque going.” 

As we walk north we notice a swampy area ahead and to the right. It’s about three hundred yards from the ocean, across the beach.  Bernadette’s home, probably.  As we approach we see a pond with brackish, brown water.  Vic unpacks the fly reels and we begin fishing.  Merritt and Maggie continue walking north along the beach.

When it’s finally clear we’re not likely to catch fish, we walk back toward the ocean, headed toward the north end of the beach.

From the sand, close to the breakers, I look behind us and there, a hundred yards or so back, resting on the beach near the top of the long incline down from the flat beach, is Bernadette—or a log.

“Vic.  There’s Bernadette. Or a log.”

Vic looks.  He crouches.  He’s new again.

At this spot on the beach, where we are—but not back where Bernadette is–the tide has washed a four or five foot vertical wall into the sand.  Vic slides down it, gets as close to the water as possible, and starts creeping toward Bernadette.  He moves slowly, like a cat.  But the surf, even knee deep is powerful enough to stagger him.  She turns and runs into the water.  Vic comes back and we move away from the water to the top of the flat beach, out of sight of where Bernadette will, we hope, come back to rest.  And there she will surely watch for innocent little sea turtles.  Or Vic.

We wait five minutes or so, and sneak back to where we can see.  Bernadette is back. 

“There’s that big washed up stump back up on the beach on a straight line from where she is,” I say.  “Why don’t we just go back up the stump—she can’t see us from there—and then charge.”  What am I saying, I think.  “I mean, then you can charge.”

“Because she’ll outrun us.  They’re fast as hell.  But only for short distances.  The only way to do it is cut her off from the ocean, come in from the ocean.  That’s what I need to do.  And you be ready on the beach in case she heads for the swamp.  They won’t attack you unless they’re cornered.  Just have a stick to hold her off, in case.”

“In case of what?”

“I don’t know.  Just in case.”

I’m thinking, he’s going to try to make it out through that impossible surf and then come back in on Bernadette through that impossible surf—maybe washing right on top of her. 

Bernadette rests on the beach at the far reach of the waves, but just below the crest of the beach, where the incline up from the water meets the flat beach top.  Occasionally, surf washes around her.

“I don’t think you can make it out through that surf.  It’s rougher that it was an hour ago.”

He’s donning snorkeling equipment.  Not listening to me. 

Maggie and Merritt are walking toward us from the north.  I point south.  They understand and move so Bernadette won’t see them.

Vic tries to make it into the ocean.  He’s rebuffed in an almost violent way.  He tries again—same thing.  He gives up.  He’s shaken.  We sit on the beach and talk.  I’m afraid he’s going to try again.  He stands.  Merritt and Maggie are near-by, watching.  This whole thing has gotten a bit more serious with those savage giant waves, waves like the ones you see on surfing movies, but they are breaking right onto the sand.  While Vic stood before one a few minutes ago, he had to look way up to see its top.  He looked very small in front of it. It brought him back in and now I know him well enough to know he’s going to try again no matter what I–or anyone–says.

“I wouldn’t do it Vic.  It’s too rough.”

No response.  He’s putting on the damn flippers.  I suddenly see how the original Bernadette was perhaps “Vicked”—more than once.

We’ve discussed what I’m supposed to do.  Cut off Bernadette if she heads for the swamp.  I visualize the film:  Bernadette heading for the swamp.  In front of her:  me heading for the swamp.

As Vic starts for the ocean I start up the beach toward Bernadette but out of sight of her.  I know she’s near that big log that I can see.  I’m thinking, I will not wait here until Vic is safely to sea, or drowning.  Because if he starts to drown, I may be crazy enough to go after him, and if Vic can’t handle the surf I know I can’t.  We’d both drown.  I don’t want to drown, so I walk south toward Bernadette.  I don’t even watch Vic enter the ocean.  Then it strikes me—if he gets in trouble, he’ll probably be washed in close enough to pull out.  I stop and turn.  He’s beyond the waves.  I walk slowly south as he swims in the same direction beyond the breakers.  The waves come in as great swells, and Vic is riding the swells as I walk. 

I get to the log and stop.  Vic is straight out from me.  I picture Bernadette resting between us.  Facing me.  The crest of sand prevents me from seeing anything but the tops of the waves close to shore.  I hear the thunderclaps of their breaking on the beach.  I wait.  Vic turns toward me and starts swimming in.  He’s wearing the goggles and the snorkel is in his mouth.  I see his head above water looking at me as he relaxes, letting the swells bring him in.  I give him a thumbs up.  He responds.  Now he’s close enough to bob up into sight at the top of a swell and then out of sight.  I’ve got to get my timing right.  I will be able to see when he’s on his last swell just before it breaks and then I’ll have to pause, then walk toward the ocean.  Because, if Bernadette sees me before seeing Vic, she’ll have that early jump toward the ocean that we don’t want her to have.  Vic’s job is to cut her off and pounce on her.  Somehow.  My job is to watch.

Vic is at the top of a swell, in sight.  Down, out of sight.  Up.  It’s the wave that will break.  He and the wave disappear; I hear the “boom,” and pause:  thousand one, thousand two, thousand three.  I walk toward the ocean.  Over the crest I see the vast ocean and surf and Vic, on his knees, embracing Bernadette.  He’s holding her neck and tail.  He stands, staggers.  And walks toward me with the prize. 

“My goggles,” he yells.  I look.  Flippers and goggles are being sucked into the ocean.  I go after them.  My knees are recovering from racquetball injuries.  I’m not in shape.  But I manage to retrieve the flippers.  They float.  The mask is gone and will remain gone.

Back up on the beach, I get a close look at Bernadette.  She looks like . . . well, like a crocodile.

I see how Vic is holding her.  “Get your rods and stuff,” I say.  “I’ll carry her to the car.”

“Be sure you hold the tail.”

I take her.  She’s heavier that she looks.  The eyes are magic. I turn her on her side.  She’s very relaxed.  The lid closes over the eye on top. 

I’ve got my adventure.

“I want you to be the one to take her in and show her to Nathaniel,” says Vic.  “We can put her in the swimming pool, get a leash.  Then we can bring her back, tonight.”

My arms are so tense they begin to go numb and I give Bernadette back to Vic.  We wrap her in t-shirts—she seems to be asleep–sneak her into the villa. 

“I think she’s asleep,” I say.

“Don’t count on it.”

I will refuse to take her into the villa.  Nathaniel will see the true catcher carrying the caught.

We reach the gate, the checkpoint.  A man sits in a white truck.  We throw up our hands.  He nods and waves us through.

Everybody at the villa is astounded.  Especially Nathaniel.  Vic promptly places Bernadette into the little swimming pool and gets in with her.  This is not quite the modeling behavior I want for Nathaniel, is it?

But on the other hand…in a few years I’ll tell Nathaniel this story and let him know that without Uncle Vic, our trip would have been far less memorable, and it Nathaniel is lucky he’ll get to spend more time with Uncle Vic and see what it’s like to live a day like it’s your last.

A shorter version of this story was published in “Southern Fried Farce”

Dream Catcher

By O. Victor Miller 

…the awful lonesomeness is intolerable. The intense concentration of self in the middle of such a heartless immensity… wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world gilded to and fro before his passive eyes…Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad–Melville.

A gift from Fabio, the Kuna stowaway, the dream catcher favors an oversized crown of thorns with a hair net stretched across it. White feathers snatched from an unwary water bird and a tiny plastic skull dangle from the frame of twisted vines. I turn it over in my hands, poking a forefinger through the reinforced sphincter-like orifice for funneling dreams. I wiggle the finger, grinning as the Argentine work-aways cringe.

“Aren’t dream catchers unique to Plains Indians,” I ask of the gift horse, squinting into the sparkle of gilded incisors. “like Sioux or Apache?”

 “Kuna make this one,” Fabio mumbles.

My Argentine crew, two nomadic couples, speak a Buenos Aires dialect that substitutes vos for tu and changes double L and Y sounds to SH. Conspiring, they sound like a washing machine with a loose belt. Before I can discern content from the lisping palaver, they’ve moved on to the next mutinous paragraph. Guadalupe, the loose-jointed beauty that leads the pack, translates by dropping or adding hisses and hushes and shouting louder.

We’ve had high seas and rain, shoovia, since the dream catcher came aboard. Fungus invades dank armpits and crotches, and teeth acquire green patina. Morale is low, though we’ve been out of sight of land for only a day or two, three at the most. What the Argentines can’t blame on me they ascribe to the dream catcher.

Lupe interprets my orders even more subjectively since I candidly confessed this crossing is only the second time I’ve commanded my own yacht out of sight of land. Soon even my suggestions are categorically ignored unless Lupe already agrees or can linguistically customize them to her liking. This nebulous link in the chain of command makes her, for all practical purposes, captain of the vessel and me a parrot on her proverbial nape.

                                                              *

“I hope you got the hoodoo calibrated for shining sea as well as fruited plains,” I grin.

“Indians iss Indians,” Fabio informs me. “What good for Sioux, good for Kuna–big medicine for captain and sheep.”

Ship?”

“Iss good for them, too. I selling it Gringo tourists, who doan know nothing, give you this here one gratis.”

            “Well, I’m not your typical tourist,” I smile, “you know, being the captain of a sailing yacht and all.”

            Fabio cuts his eyes to Lupe for affirmation. She nods—a jerk by any other name is still a jerk.

“It find much luck too,” the Indian adds. Someone has told Fabio to talk like Tonto if he wants to sell trinkets or lie.

“Good luck or bad?”

“Heap plenty luck.”

Lupe’s faction, artisans and venders as well, view the dream catcher as a bad omen. A superstitious lot, they plan to give it the water test as soon as I look the other way, but for the time being it hangs on the butt of the mast that it passes through the galley table where I write. Maybe it’ll snag inspiration from a passing muse or capture a pretty dream from heaven’s stronghold should I dose off during the twilight of literary creation.

  We’re sailing for Portobello, named by Columbus when seeking shelter in a tropical gale.  Like his square-riggers, Kestyll navigates best downwind in following seas, though a beam reach is possible with real sailors aboard. The closest thing we have to one of those is Fabio, whose ex-squaw’s dugout is powered by a patched shower curtain on a bamboo pole.

 Beside being Italian descendents, Lupe and Juan, Carolina and Fernando, who call themselves Ches, share other basic characteristics with the lost navigator who discovered a hemisphere more civilized than his own and claimed it. The Ches are as scurvy-looking a hodgepodge as any Cristobal could assemble.

Huddled in mutinous conspiracy, the Ches touch foreheads to form a treasonous circle of crania. Lupe’s copper dreadlocks flame her leonine head like a solar storm. Her consort Juan, with wide dark eyes, shaved dome and a single earring, suggests a Latino genie released from a flotsam demijohn. His Spanish is too strange sometimes even for Lupe. Fernando’s noggin, except for a bushy ponytail, is also depilated. His significant other, the petite and doe-eyed Carolina, whose wispy curls coil tight in tropical humidity, projects an air of Gypsy virginity–a condition still possible, according to Fernando, Gypsies stone new brides suspected of prior carnal knowledge. Displaying a collective epidermis pierced, studded and profusely decorated with jewelry and tattoo, the crew wear multicolored Jockey briefs, the girls sometimes adding a bra.

 To distinguish himself from crew yet still conform to the dress code of lower latitudes, the captain wears sporty boxers with discrete one-button fly. A deadly grin of green-tinted crocodile teeth hangs beneath his Adam’s apple. His wind-tangled locks, stained with sun and silver, reveal no hint of baldness to anyone under six feet. The Leatherman he usually wears on his hip has strangely disappeared.

                                                          *

            Still unaware that syntactical subversion has scuttled my command, I swing below to  reckon position, the dream catcher dangling over my navigation instruments. Hmm, calculations indicate we track toward Morocco, not Panama. I could better reckon our exact whereabouts if I knew how many days we’ve been sailing, but I can’t consult Lupe without alarming the crew. The yacht’s previous owner left a sextant in the forward cutty, but I doubt Lupe knows how to use it since this is her first trip on a vessel of any kind.

 I return to the cockpit. “Prepare to come about!” I cry.

The crew moils indolently, loosening a line here, coiling a sheet, waiting for Lupe. Juan has found my rivet gun and is decorating a bare area of Fernando’s left ear.

 Taking the helm from Fabio, I cross the eye of the headwind on a starboard tack. The bow weathers back and we’re becalmed, mainsail and Genoa hanging like discarded condoms. Then with a pop the canvas blossoms, boom and jib sheet still to lee, shoving us backwards into stern-sloshing waves.

  Whoa!  I crank the diesel, resuming a forward motion and a vague bearing toward Central America. In the magic of coincidence, the trolling rig on the fantail rail shrieks like a mechanical alarm clock. “Fish on!” I cry. “Fish on!”

Juan, who has never caught anything but the clap, drops the rivet gun and rushes astern, where the stubby rod arks, pulsing mightily as monofilament rips drag from a Penn reel the circumference of a family size can of beans. Snatching rod from the holder, he mounts the handle, a full third of the rod’s bucking length, which starts clubbing his crotch relentlessly–Uh, UH, Aiee, uh, UH!—launching him into a ginger bunny hop over the afterdeck. These piteous interjections are the first communication from Juan I’ve fully understood.

“Tighten the drag!” I order. Poor Juan, astraddle a broomstick horsy with a tack in its ass, tries to dismount before wooden handle pulverizes options of paternity, but he can’t hike a leg without additional exposure. Lupe rushes to the rescue, the 250 lb test monofilament still singing off the stern.

“It’s sounding!” I yell. “Stop him! Don’t let him have more line!”

“He run for bottom,” Fabio assures me.

“The bottom is two miles down,” I inform the Indian, “maybe three.”

 Lupe mounts behind her man, reaching around his waist to tame the rod. They buck in tandem on a tireless rail, the recoil pumping Juan’s ululating yodel a full octave higher per whack.

  To move the boat off the sounding fish, I throttle up. Maybe I can drag and drown it if the Ches can tighten the drag, but increased RPMs drive the monster to wilder frenzy, doubling the speed of its descent. The couple vibrates, blurring tattoos and jangling trinkets. Fernando grabs the rod tip, snatching back when the line burns his palm.

 “What a fish!” I declare. “Hold him! Hold him! Wow!”

 I back off the throttle. The fish slows; rod bouncing into a slower, steadier tempo that sets the owl eyed couple warbling on a stick. “O bebe! No, no, Oh bebe! No! Whoa! The fish crawls steadily down, stripping more drag.

 Abruptly, the engine stops. Why? There’s plenty of fuel. No fish in the Caribbean can stall out a 65-hp Perkins diesel. Yet eerily soothed, as though its powerful heart were synchronized to the pulse of the throbbing auxiliary, the fish quits its run, lying beneath us in some deep layer of cold dark. The line, tight as a banjo string, slants obliquely into infinity, just forward of the rudder.

The dancing couple digs in heels, pumping the rod against dead weight. “That’s it!” I shout. “Keep the pressure on! He’s resting! Move him! Move him!”

            “He’s estop!” observes Lupe, her caramel thighs pressed against goatish knees. The strained rod is still wedged into the yin and yang of combined crotches, the trembling tip divining an immovable weight that drifts with the boat. The fish, or whatever it is, stubbornly rests up for a prodigious run or deeper sounding.

 Suddenly a new and totally unacceptable idea dawns on me—holy mackerel!—what if we’ve backed over the fish line and fouled the prop?

I restart the engine, which runs flawlessly in neutral. I ease into reverse, kicking Juan and Lupe into the air about a yard. Their legs bicycle over the slippery afterdeck until the engine stalls again, confirming my worst suspicions. A pall of irrefutable reality engulfs the ship’s company. With one-hundred-and-fifty yards of 250 lb nylon line wound around prop and propeller shaft, we are becalmed, bewitched and baffled, bobbing like a balsawood chip over a chasm nearly three miles deep. The Argentines glare down through the companionway where the dream catcher pendulums. The tiny plastic skull, a bleached knuckle, clinks against the mast.

“Who knows SCUBA?” I inquire.

Lupe, the rod still locked into the inverted Y of conjugal haunches, translates dubiously. For the first time since we left Cartagena, the crew appears not to understand our great captain’s captain.

“Iss three-and-a-half kilometers of deeps down there, man.” she begins, freeing one hand to point through the deck. “The bottled air and frog feets iss some thing us Ches doan know the touch of it.” The others shake their heads. “Or clearly I make it myself, pronto, this thing you must to do.” The others nod. Her dark eyes and eight more are fixed upon me.

 “Iss clear work for the sheep captain,” she concludes.

|           “The prop is only a few feet down,” I try. “It doesn’t make any difference how deep the water is after it’s over your head.”

            Fabio peers over the side. “It over my head,” he reports.

 “Well, we’ll wait for a calmer sea, anyway,” I decide. 

The eyes lift to a bruised heaven. “It maybe get badder.” Carolina has worked the math in her head. She bats bristling eyelashes. “Iss thirty-five hundred meters deeps in this ocean!”

 In a flash Juan and Fernando deftly assemble SCUBA gear, laying out mask, fins and weight belt. They lower the dive ladder, which plunges violently into each trough, thrusting up the next crest slinging lacy foam.

“I’ll need something to cut us loose with.”

Juan hands me my Leatherman, missing since Cartagena. “Hey, what the hell are you doing with that?” The gadget, a going away gift from novelist Clyde Edgerton and his expectant wife Kristina, is as crucial to my uniform as a yuppie stockbroker’s cellular phone. I wear it on a hip holster belted over boxer waistband. Besides being an indispensable tool, the Leatherman is the baton of passage at the fork of diverging roads where two autumnal writers entered their sixth decade, Clydes blessing for my metamorphosis—in the tradition of Melville –from schoolteacher to salt-seasoned mariner. I’ve been searching high and low for the goddamn Leatherman since the Ches came aboard.

 “Well?” My fists are on my hips.

Juan shrugs, deferring to Lupe. Fernando, the valet, holds shoulder straps open.

 “Pronto,” she snaps in Mexican Spanish now. “Andele pues.”

                                                     *

The keel rises and falls above me, an upper jaw toothed by barnacles I intended to scrape before we set sail. Caught between these conical fangs hang tentacles nettled with stinging cells and gelatinous clots raked from Portuguese men of war. I gaze through foggy facemask into foreboding blue horizons. Plunged and dunked like a Salem witch, I dangle from an umbilicus of spindly arm where propeller shaft, bearded with seaweed and poisonous fringe, enters the packing gland and the internal privates of Kestyll’s belly. Bubbles of compressed air mushroom against the crusty eco-system growing beneath my wandering bark. Beneath me and a sizzling keel is an infinite, soul shrinking depth of all-humbling sea.  I’m nothing but a single cell protozoan between unfathomable dark and limitless sky, a dinoflagellate whose anonymous life sparks and dies unnoticed back into lightless oblivion. Oh unspeakable void! How totally alone I am on and in a deep, wide sea, rising and falling beneath a dozen tons of barnacled encrusted hull, spewing bubbles, quixotically hacking away at a fouled propeller with blade, beak and can opener in one hand, the other raised in fencing posture above my head.

Overwhelmed by my unspeakable insignificance, I relax my grasp. The fanged hull’s ponderous descent grazes buttocks, shredding my boxers. Truncated jellyfish flagellate with fiery tentacles the bare cheeks of my deeply lacerated ass, the blow hammering me deep into eclipse of a dim and distant sun, engulfing me in a yawn of Leviathan darkness three miles long.

Now, with other excretions, there’s blood in the water, minute particles of plasma drifting down into the nose holes of God knows what predators. Hyperventilating at a rate to empty my bottled air long before I can free the propeller, I imagine starving sharks layered according to kin and kind, comatose in cold blooded hibernation until a few warm corpuscles waft down to awaken drowsy appetites to frenzy. Oh Jesus! And whales, incarnations of Moby Dick, must haunt these bottomless chasms. Killer whales too have been sighted in these waters, cone-toothed Orca, not to mention giant squid, swarming schools of blind pac-men bristling with teeth and the sea monsters advertised in uncharted margins of antique maps– Here be dragons. The slanted shadow plumbs an abyss deeper than human soul can fathom.

*

Clyde’s young wife carries their unborn son in the tranquil waters of her womb. He a best- selling novelist on the brink of possible literary immortality and sure genetic continuation– while I, at his same age, hang like a soulless ape from a plunging propeller shaft, courting embolism and anthropophagi over a yawning abyss, tempting the toothed and foamy maw of oblivion.

With renewed urgency I hack away at the nylon tumbleweed with blades and beak of the Leatherman. A peppermint Rapala on its wire leader still jiggles from a backlash of course angel hair. I clip the wire and watch the lure flutter out of sight, hoping it will be sucked in by some lurking predator that, writhing with indigestion, will incite cannibal hunger from peers, diverting appetites from lonely me.

The prop freed of its last stiff curlicue, I rise still hyperventilating to the lunging ladder. Distorted images of Fernando and Juan reach with clear, refracted hands through the thin skin between bilateral infinities of space and sea. The hands shuck my SCUBA gear and grasp me beneath tender arms, hauling me aboard.  I find myself staring into the black eyes of Juan, where to my horror I find no self reflection. I feel as little black Pip must have, lost to himself by a glance into the abysmal deep, grasped by the Satanic Ahab, who envisions in the distracted child a messenger of heaven. I sprawl on Kestyll’s heaving deck, slashed by barnacles, welted comprehensively by ox goads of chemical fire. Confounded by a peek into inky eternity, lungs saturated in oxygen and a fairly solid bonk on the cabeza.

Yet I’m comforted, like Ishmael in the protective embrace of savage Queequeg, by tattooed arms and legs surrounding and touching me. Reborn as from Jonah’s gastronomical oblivion, I rediscover my reflection, not in Juan’s dark eyes but in the blacker orbs of Gypsy Carolina, who kneels to sprinkle angry welts with vinegar and Adolph’s Meat Tenderizer. She turns me over, my head in her tiny lap while the well-intentioned Juan stands ready to directly administer ureic acid, the folk antidote for coelenterate poisons. Lupe, reassuming her role of acting master, lifts her hand to stay the remedy, it being a breach of all maritime tradition to piss upon an honorary captain.

*

Landfall at last at Portobello’s ancient fortress, where corroded canons still threaten the bay. The crew is anxious to spread their trinkets outside Church of San Felipe, where other hawkers sell hot dogs, candles, and kewpie doll replicas of the Black Christ, the town’s most celebrated tourist attraction. Years ago the life-size wooden statue with wide wild eyes, the Cristo Negro floated face down into the village, saving it from bubonic plague or something. The Cristo wears the demented expression of still another abandoned sailor who, having glanced into the limitless abyss can’t focus on the world at his feet or shake the omnipotent loneliness from his soul.

We lower the dinghy. The dream catcher floats by, a small ballyhoo gilled in the central aperture. I’m caught between believing that the dream catcher actually causes misfortune and the notion that it escorts me living through the misfortunes in my path. I shake the dead fish loose, restoring the wreath to its place at the foot of the mast. The Argentines cross themselves as pagan Fabio puffs with pride.

            The village holds a single attraction for me. Zaraya lives here, the lovely dark-eyed Spanish naturalist I impressed in San Blas by killing, at the request of Kuna chiefs, a maverick crocodile with a sweet tooth for village dogs. The only obstacle to surmount besides the crocodile and a 30-year age gap is Zaraya’s nuptial engagement to a much younger man in Madrid. With the logic of his 16th Century forbears, I’ve laid siege on his novia’s affections, although Zaraya, a modern woman, has parried my attempts to plunge a banner into her sovereign sands, so to speak. She does, however, eventually consent to supper, having put me off as long as Spanish propriety for senor citizenry allows.

At our outdoor table I gaze into her uncomfortably wandering eyes, confirming my restored existential link to mortal humankind, when suddenly Zaraya’s lovely eyeballs light up like flashbulbs. A horrendous thunder clap follows a second later, the time required for sound to travel the 1100 some odd feet from Kestyll’s anchorage to our ears. The dream catcher, lacking a human conduit for its visions, has sucked a bolt from an otherwise starry sky into the mast top, setting Kestyll aglow with St. Elmo’s fire and frying the electronics from compass to vaginal vibrator. A wisp of moonlit smoke issues from the scorched birthmark where weather vane and VHF antenna have been blasted from the mast, as by a single shot from a corroded Spanish canon, to tumble slow somersaults into the tranquil bay. Kestyll floats in a luminous green circle of supercharged phosphorescence, a pond of boiling light.

Leaving Zaraya to her paella, I rush back to a glowing yacht fetid with traces of ozone and sulfur. My crew, scattered like fiddlesticks, are confounded as witnesses like me, Pip and the Cristo Negro, to a limitless and lonely void. Carolina’s gypsy locks have drawn into misshapen lump like an electrocuted poodle, her eyelashes kinked. Lupe’s dreadlocks radiate like the Statue of Liberty’s spiked crown. Fernando’s scalp lock is erect as a show pony’s bobbed tail, and Juan’s tattoos have darkened against a blanched pallor. Fabio has disappeared altogether.

 Dazed Lupe spanks the culpable dream catcher like a tambourine against her hip, shaking loose its power to harm, then sails it like a Frisbee off the stern. I wrap my arm around her quivering shoulders. The jettisoned wreath of bones, feathers and damnation, disheveled from tossings overboard and boathook retrievals, floats on the bosom of the ebb tide like a road-killed albatross. The sky darkens, extinguishing in a gentle and merciful rain the silver moon’s stippled reflection upon a bobbing circle of dreams.

                                                         (End)

The Soul’s Damp November

By O. Victor Miller

…having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world…Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul…–Ishmael

A long sleeve khaki shirt plastered to my back, I drag an enormous duffel bag, a backpack, a couple of canvas carry-ons and a fly rod case down the gangplank, last in a slow line of passengers through BVI customs and immigration. Apathetic officials unzip the drab green bag, peek in, sniff, stamp my passport and yawn. I exit the back door near the dock to re-board the ferry and continue to Road Town, where I’ll take a cab to Tortola’s East End. A single van waits in the alley, manned by an Island Mama with shoulders like a linebacker and beaded braids of radiating hair. She wags her wide face out the side window. “You wanna taxi, baby.” This isn’t a question.

Unaccustomed at 60 to the appellation baby, I look around, finding myself alone on the boardwalk. “No thanks,” I answer. I’m on the Road Town ferry.”

“You wanna you taxi to Rowtown, den.”

“Don’t you understand me? I stopped off here to clear BVI customs. I’m getting back on the ferry.”

“Sho, I honnerstoon you, baby.” She grins, “Bot dare go you ferry-boot now.” Two blasts from the departed launch, a cattle boat with plywood seats, punctuate her announcement–Waaaaaannk, woooonnk! “See now de bootmon he waving hot you bye-bye, mon.” The letters painted across the transom of the ferryboat get smaller, the stern dragging a wide white wake from the dock. “You wanna you a taxi to Rowtown, you goin dare. De nex ferryboot doan be coming tah tomorrah eat O’clock.”

“Hey wait, you sons of bitches!” I’m paid through to Road Town!” I yell, shaking my fist at the ass end of the ferryboat. (I’ve since learned to call the rear end of a boat the aft, stern or fantail.) Early in my sailing career, like a week before I took actual possession of Kestyll, I mistook aft end for ass end., and nobody among succinctly bred British yachtspersons corrected me for the entire month I lived aboard her waiting for my childhood friend Cochise, who had gone to sea some time around to onset of puberty and more or less avoided terra firma until rather late in life. Cochise and his son Simon Coconut would fly in from the States to teach me everything I needed to know about sailing while helping me deliver my newly acquired yacht from Tortola BVI, where he found it, to a Kuna Indian village in the San Blas Archipelago off the Caribbean coast of Panama. Father and son would stay by my side until I became a flawlessly accomplished seaman or until Simon had to return back to school from Spring break, whichever came first. Then I would take off alone to circumnavigate the globe.

I bought the boat pretty much over the telephone, depending on Cochise to find me the right one, since I knew zilch about sailing or the kind of boats that do it. All I could tell him was since hometown divorce lawyers stole my home. I wanted a movable residence that could outdistance the long and greedy arm of lawyers, who for some reason find me irresistible, moving in every decade or so to pluck me naked of whatever sparse plumage I’ve been able to accumulate between since the last depilation. I was mad at my neighbors on the jury and tired of my job. I wanted a change of scenery and needed to get out of Dodge. “Find me the best yacht I can afford and the biggest one I can handle by myself,” I told Cochise, “one that will safely circumnavigate the planet Earth until I leave it.”

Vowing not to live the watered down life of retired colleagues, I’d venture out to sea, the watery two thirds of the planet I’d learned all about from reading–even teaching—literary giants like Conrad, London and Melville. At sea unforeseen new challenges would keep me on my toes, tone my muscles, burn the fat off my soul. Growing insightful with new wisdom, I’d turn lean and bronze, savvy and strong. Reborn to new life, I’d stay young this time around. And single.

 Cochise figured a retired junior college teacher recently shorn couldn’t afford much in the way of a luxurious yacht or even the upkeep on a vintage one long in tooth and seasoned by storm. He also knew I couldn’t handle a styrofoam Sunfish by myself. When I told him how much money I had, he scratched his head, spit out a couple of gnats and squinted into the Georgia sunshine. But, being an old friend, he called around for a year or so and eventually found, with help from old friends acquired from his previous life, a twenty-year-old cutter, a CSY 44’, built in Tampa for charter service, reputed to be virtually bulletproof. It had less living space than a doublewide but more than the Airstream I’d been living in, he said. A cutter! Until I actually saw a photograph of my new boat, I thought Cochise had found me something at a surplus sale at a Navy shipyard. “A cutter? No shit? Guns and all?”

“A cutter is a sloop with two jibs,” Cochise informed me.

“Uh, well, OK, but why’d the Coast Guard quit using them?”

Handing a certified check to the previous owner, I smiled tolerantly as he quoted the old saw about the two happiest days of a sailor’s life being the day he buys his first yacht and the day he sells it. Grinning widely, he was clearly in a happier mood than I was, even before the check cleared. The most superficial glance into the submerged body of empirical wisdom under the visible tip of that iceberg smile would have sent me smoking back to Georgia, but at the time of the transaction I figured living in the tranquil tropics on a yacht had just made him a happy, happy guy.

“You need you a taxi, baby,” says the Tortola mama in the van.

 “How much to East End?”

“You tella me you gonna Rowtown.”

“I gotta go to Penn’s Landing Marina in Road Town—I mean East End.”

“What for you wanna go East End? Rowtown much betta for you. I take you Rowtown. You lack hit betta ova dare. Dot’s where we goin.”

She looks like she’s fixing to argue until the last trumpet about where she’s taking me. “I’ve got a boat docked at Penn Landing. How much is cab fare?”

“A sell boot? You goin Fat Hog Bay, den.”

“Yes, how much?”

“Thirty-forty dollar. You doan look leeka bootmon, baby.”

“Thirty dollars? Listen, I ain’t going to Cuba. What’s a boatman look like around here?”

“He doan look nothing like you, dat’s sho. I charge you owney twenty-fie, baby, because wit dat I know you gonna tip me so good. Whatcha doin wit a sell-boat, you cain catch de Rowtown ferryboot, mon?”

 I hoist four bags into the van and drag the duffel bag to the sliding door.

“Help me load this goddamn duffel bag,” I wheeze. We wrestle one end to the entrance of the door. The bag narrows in the center like a gigantic OD peanut. We heave the ass end, doubling the bag at the waist and leaning the foreword half against the rocker panel. My new friend wraps her solid arms around the bag, driving it with powerful knees into the van like a tackle sled at football practice.

“Deem bag way too heavy. Whatcha got dem bag?” Her wide face shines like a chocolate mint.

“Everything I own, everything for the boat. Scuba tanks and tools, books. ”

“Dem bag sink you boot, mon. Dat why the ferryboot leave you behin’ him. De bootmon him no wanna carry dese bag back up de gang plank, mon.”

“The son-of-a-bitch didn’t take the bags down the gangplank. You’ll get your tip if you get me his name and badge number.”

“Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! Mon, you killy me. He jus name De Bootmon. What De Bootmon want wit a badge fo. Ellybody know him de bootmon. Even when he dronk an drinkin, he know him de bootmon, yas. Me, I got me business cods you wanna ring me up sometime. I give you dat. Badge nummer! You know you a fonny, fonny mon. Ha, ha, ha, ha.”

             She hands her card over the back of her seat, weaving one-handed through stray goats and cattle, letting squawking chickens slough feathers and fend for themselves. She turns her back to the windshield, smiling widely with big white teeth reinforced by gold.

 The card reads:                           

Stoutt’s Taxi Service:

                 Lorilee Stoutt

                         Office, home and cell telephone numbers follow. No fax.

The threadbare asphalt road cuts into the edge of a cliff over the winking Caribbean.  Lorilee’s speeding van swipes sea grape branches that encroach the left hand shoulder, launching astonished sparrows from their perches in confetti bursts of shredded greenery.  Beneath us, gulls, buzzards, frigates and terns circle the dragging nets of fishing trawlers and even the distant ferryboat, one chalk colored gull sailing up from the bay to gawk at me through the window. Frigate birds, swept winged and scissor-tailed–dark and draconian—cruise like pterodactyls in updrafts from the wrinkled bay. Unable to dive for fish or land on the water, they soar and swoop with accomplished and larcenous dexterity, dive bombing gulls, terns and the occasional buzzard to intimidate them into fumbling their catch, which the frigates pluck shivering from the air.

 Speeding down the British two-thirds of the left lane, we risk collision with fallen rocks, stray cows, goats, chickens and other demonic taxi drivers. I decide that we are more likely to sideswipe the vertical cliff right-of-way than plunge to the tide-laced rocks far, far below. I slide to dead center of the van, bracing hands and feet against the back of Lorilee’s seat as we clang through potholes and squall around curves. It occurs to me that just because we are more likely to chisel the cliff or climb a cow before we sail off into oblivion, doesn’t necessarily mean that we can’t manage both, given the right sequence.  

 If I wasn’t so angry and terrified, I’d enjoy the panoramic view of volcanic mountains rising from the turquoise sea, the bright flowers, the rainbow bending iridescent light from a cumulous cloud. We are neck and neck with the ferry captain a thousand yards beneath us. I want to ambush him at the Road Town dock, maybe murder him. At least get my money back and scream at him in public. I figure the husky Lorilee Stoutt will provide good backup in a confrontation with de bootmon. I want to keep her with me, or stay with her, until I settle with the ferry captain. Then I’ll get her to carry me to Fat Hog’s Bay at East End. “You want to join me for a Coke, Ms. Stoutt?”

 She yanks the van off the shoulder into the shallow niche cut out for somebody’s front yard and slams on brakes, scattering emaciated dogs and cats, narrowly missing the stick fence, raising a mushroom of limestone dust. “…when we get there?” I hasten to add. “To Road Town. They’ll be a bar at the ferry landing, won’t there?”

 Lorilee lurches back onto the highway, spinning rocks and more white dust. Soon we have descended again to sea level, rushing like a giraffe from a wildfire along the narrow coastal road, Lorilee’s monomaniacal joy framed in the side view mirror, our horn blasting noise at every living animal or human, at every vehicle we hiss by narrowly or overtake on stingy curves. Waaaaaak, waaaaaooow, mee-beep-maaooo!

Just outside the town limits, Lorilee slams on brakes when she sees three men by a seaside shanty weighing a dented pan of fish. White coral dust from the shoulder covers us in a cloud then drifts and disperses over the bright water as a road-flushed iguana scats up a cieba tree.

“Yalla-tail!” she shouts. “You gettus dee Coke in dis roadside stow dare, baby.”

“No, I want to get the Cokes in Road Town.”

She shakes her braids, her face rising over the back of her seat, emerging from eclips. “De ferryboot dock be close now, too late. I fine me son goot yallatail fish. Doan worry; beee hoppy.” She exits the van and bulls through maguey and mangroves, waving her arms until the fishermen recognize her and back away from their fish. I climb down, buy two faded red cans of Coke from a lean-to inches off the asphalt lip, returning to the van to wait in the muggy heat for Lorilee Stoutt, who shouts at the cowering fishermen, shaking her formidable fists with one hand pointing to the kettle of fish with the other.

She returns, handing me a cardboard box of fish, saluting me with her coke, grinning. She drains it and crumples the can into a tight ball with one hand as the ferryboat returning now to West End drags a cotton wake through the turquoise water, blowing the whistle. Lorilee Stoutt, hunkered over the steering wheel and hauling ass down the center of the pockmarked road, waves happily. I fume, suspecting cahoots and conspiracy, a soggy pasteboard box of fish in my lap.

 But no! I catch myself. I won’t start out like this. The whole idea is to slow down to the speed of favorable winds. I don’t have to be responsible anymore. I don’t have to kick ass, get even, swim upstream to spawn or teach grammar. No regret, no fear, no more wasted life, I decided when I sloughed my former existence. Regret and dread spoil the living now– the present, the cutting edge of what precious few years of living I have left. No fear, no sorrow. I notice the dayglow orange blossoms of flamboyante, the purple bougainvillea, and bright red tropical flowers infested by hummingbirds. I notice for the first time the silver scallop of chop on the turquoise and emerald Caribbean. I notice that my stiff neck and my arthritis have eased since the Atlanta traffic and commercial airline flights, that I’m bouncing around in Lorilee’s van like a karaoke ball with only a shadow of chronic nagging pain of joint and bone.

We pull into Penn’s Landing Marina. Lorilee swings out to help with the duffel bag. The heeled van rights itself. “I ain’t tipping you, Lorilee, but I’ll pay for half of your yellowtails. That way you can think about me when you and the ferryboat captain eat supper. How much were they, the yellowtails. “They twenty-two dollar, but dem my feesh, babymon. Aine nobody gonna ate dem feeshes but me, Lorilee Stoutt, mmmm, muh! De bootmon, he get his own dom feesh. You know you some crazy mon. What you boot?”

Kestyll.”

“I know dat boot,” she smiles–a little ominously, I think. “You call me some dey you wannah taxi, needah frien. I come to de boot and we hava drink. I teek you where you wanna go, yas baby.”

“Thanks Lorilee, enjoy your yellowtail.” I drag the duffel bag across the parking lot toward the dock. I can see my boat, my new home, rocking softly in her slip, her bright yellow beam stripe cheerful and proud among finer yachts. Far away from friends, students, family, today is the first day of new life. Bee hoppy! I tell myself, Doan worry, Bee Hoppy!

(end)

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)

Smoky Mountain Bear

It wasn’t a very big bear, but it was bigger than me, not a cub, but maybe only two or three seasons old, like maybe a teenie bopper bluffing his way into a gang, foraging on a steep embankment over the park access road, minding his own business. KK stops the truck and I get out. The bear ambles away through the rhododendron. Stealthily I follow along the blacktop. I’ve never been close to a bear before. It seems intent on getting away, looking over its shoulder once in a while. It turns, looking dead at me. I stop.

                Only moments before, KK asked me what to do if we encountered a bear. It’s too hot for trout. We’ve been riding around looking for bears.

Photo by K.K. Snyder

                “Look it in the eye,” I said, “and don’t run away.” I’d read that in Field and Stream. Or was it don’t let your eyes meet his and retreat rapidly. Maybe that’s it. “Determine which way he’s headed so you don’t enter his territory or seem to cut him off. Bears are very territorial.” I’m bullshitting. I don’t know the first thing about bears.

                “How do you know where his territory is?”

                “Well, you got to figure out where it’s not. You know you weren’t in it before you saw him or you would’ve seen him sooner. You backtrack to where he wasn’t, facing him the whole time without looking him in the eye.”

                The bear pokes his head through a V between the trunks of two trees, looks at me and roars. Awrrrll. I began backpedaling from whence I came. The bear was telling me something and giving no ground. It stands on its hind legs, slapping the tree. It climbs a foot or so and really roars: AWRRRL. I backpedal some more. Actually I’d haven’t really stopped backing up since the first roar. Now, I’m retreating obliquely with a scissoring high-step shuffle. The bear lowers himself to all fours, lumbering down the clay embankment into the road. Cubs don’t lumber. There isn’t a centerline on the blacktop, but the bear began walking down the center of the road. Steadily toward me although it isn’t rushing.  I’m not rushing either but I’m trotting backwards, a non-aerobic sort of shuffle. The road can’t be in the bear’s territory, although I’m willing to let him have all of it he wants. Just seeing him standing on his hind legs and roaring has clarified my status in the food chain.  He’s close enough to see the whites of his eyes if he has any. He doesn’t. His eyes are angry obsidian chips.

A middle age couple on a three-wheel Harley rides up and I’m glad to see them. Maybe the bear will eat them instead of me. It shrugs, waddles off the downside shoulder, vanishing into the rhododendron. They stop. “What is it?”

                “Bear.”

                “Beer?”

                “Bear.”

                “Where?”

                “Here, I think. Somewhere in that stand of rhododendron just off the road. Right here.”

                “I’ll cut the engine. Maybe he’ll come back out.”

                I don’t want them to think I’m rattled, but I’m having a little trouble with my legs. I turn and let them take me back toward the truck. Man, I think, that was a thrill. An actual bear. Humming with adrenaline, I want my voice back down before I get back to KK. I stand flatfooted in the road, where the centerline would be if there was one, forgetting the Harley. Thinking about that bear.

                Awrrrr! The deadly roar envelopes me from behind. Right behind: Awrrr-rooom!

“God and Jesus!” I’m standing above the road on the embankment where I’d first seen the bear.

                “Didn’t mean to scare you,” the biker says.

                “I was just getting out of your way,” I peep.

                Back at the truck KK inquires, “How’d you get so close to that bear?”

:               “I probably know more about bears than anybody you’ve ever met,” I confess.

“Uh huh.”

“Five minutes ago I didn’t know shit.”

(end)