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Edited by Frank Burton
© Tom Hamilton 2012
Shock was better than forgetting. It was more like never knowing. A great natural defense mechanism; the mind’s way of turning off the projector, canceling any image, benign or malignant, which could cause the flickering brain pain. All tragedies muffled in the hum of a vacuum. His oblivious sphincter tightened and eased until his was like the soul of a tiny fetus curled up sleeping inside the abandoned, crustacean shell of a full grown, yet absent man.
There was no getting away from it, of course. He had to come around at some point. Yet it was June inside the cocoon; a warm uterus filled with comfortable wine colored water. But no... not red water... yes – red water, green and then red ... green water? And there it was: a vague shrug tugging at his subconscious, dragging his memory back towards that cataclysmic day. A little at a time like a pink tropical bird eating bread crumbs off of a sand trail with its hard curved beak. Tiny rays of sharp, penetrating pain from a hurtful and depressing sun crackling through the loving gloom and sheltering darkness, until the unstoppable dynasty of his loss lay twitching at his mud caked feet.
Sometimes he could even sense the approaching dread, as if he were a tired passenger on a dark ocean liner, cruising at a steady pace towards the hidden vortex of a nighttime hurricane. NO! He would will himself to turn the wheel starboard, like a fisherman in a rubber coat twisting away from a wall of waves; snatching and grabbing at the slippery rocks until he was back deep inside himself. Away from the beaming face of his beautiful daughter, her honey hair fidgeting on the palm raked wind. So beautiful before the shocking terror, before a great dark monolith, which had survived tens of millions of years of prehistoric evolution, rose up to claim her.
There wasn’t anything wrong with his sight, at least nothing that the doctor’s could diagnose as a physical ailment. Still, he had been blind for the first twenty four hours; squirming around in the circling blackness like a crab, happily oblivious to egregious recent events; an instant addict to the calming sedatives which the nurses flooded his cracked heart with.
On the second day he could see again, albeit rather blurred, like looking through the hull of one of those tourist trap glass bottom boats. Lying on his back in the hospital bed, staring at the roof as if it were the calm surface of a fresh water lake, he tried to fend off the ascending madness within the dawning recollection. He rubbed his forehead and for a second the trepidation took flight, like a pack of mosquitoes that you shoo away only to watch them land back in the same spot an instant later.
After a while of this agony he heard a soft shuffling in the hallway, prompting him to turn his head slightly. He could barely make out the long, fuzzy coat of the doctor – Dr. Burke, he thought it was.
“Dan? There’s someone here to see you.”
Accompanying him was a second shape: a uniformed form with garb the same color the swamp had been. Dan did not have the strength to sit up in bed and it was difficult to focus on the figures from his back. When he squinted at them they honed down until they were a horizontal line. Like images on a maladjusted television screen. He forced his eyelids to open wider and the people popped back up and he could see the men better. That’s when the doctor said,
“Don’t take too long, he’s suffered a severe trauma.”
The other man nodded. He was holding a cap in his hand which was the same color as the uniform and it occurred to Dan that he might be a police officer. Dan ran through a list of paranoid non-offenses in his mind, trying to figure out what he might have done in order to get himself arrested.
“Hello Mr. Glass,” the man said through a heavy Cuban accent. “My name is Ranger Soto.” Dan looked at the man dumbly and when he opened his mouth to answer found that he could not.
“I know it isn’t much consolation to you,” the ranger continued, “but we got ‘em.”
Dan could only stare, no comprehension of the words registering in his psyche. “Whatever the charge is officer,” he said, “I’m sure I’m guilty.”
“No sir,” the ranger said. “I’m sure you don’t understand. I’m not here to arrest you. There aren’t any charges filed and furthermore,” he concluded politely, “I’m not a policeman.”
The ranger stood there as if he expected some sort of response to this, but when Dan didn’t move or react in any way he finally said, “I just felt that you’d want to know: we got ‘em. I mean, we destroyed it.”
Dan seemed to lose comprehension of not only the situation, but also of consciousness itself. A line of spittle ran from the corner of his mouth as he sighed into a sudden sleep. Still the ranger continued talking as if to himself or no one. “Bout a twelve footer I’d say. You see, sometimes during the rainy seasons, the swamps overflow into the ponds. That’s how they get in.” The ranger paused, as if he didn’t know if he were saying too much. “We keep tellin’ people, over and over again, all the time, don’t feed ‘em.” The white coat drifted into view again, the color of foam.
“Perhaps it would be better if he rested now.” The doctor said, seeming to confirm that perhaps the ranger had said too much. The stern voice of the physician nudged Dan back awake.
“Of course.” The ranger nodded graciously at Dan and, as he turned to leave, the patch on the shoulder of his uniform could be viewed clearly. Dan’s mind came back from whatever island it had been on and his bloodshot eyes focused on the moniker; he studied the design whether he wanted to or not: it was a cypress bush turned up like a southern belle’s fan. Building an umbrella over white letters with green piping: EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK. And just like that it all came cascading back over him; not just bits and pieces, but all of it, like a full fishnet being sliced open and its slimy contents spilling out onto a deck. A flash bulb flood of fear and searing light forced Dan to turn away as the water from the swamp crested his eyes and ran down his cheeks
After the funeral, she sat on the fuchsia colored couch. Dan had never much liked the color, but the vote around their house was always the same: 1 to nothing.
She shivered over the coffee table where an ashtray sat dangling over the edge. It was still filled with stubbed out cigarettes. Usually she chain smoked, one Virginia Slim lighting the next, but she had not had a drag in several days, nor had she eaten, drank or slept. Well, she did writhe serpentine in the bed until all the covers lay on the floor like a rumpled and discarded dress. Her red eyes visible even in total coal mine darkness.
Dan walked into the kitchen and loosened the Winsor knot on his black tie. Now that he could see again he longed for blackness. He had read somewhere that the eels of the Atlantic Ocean gathered each year near Bermuda where they would mate in the Sargasso Sea. Yes, that sounded real good to him: he wished to be a non-electric eel squirming and side winding down, down into the infinite depths.
He poured himself a glass of water and, in almost the same motion, tried to gulp it down, but his dry throat closed around the first swallow and a fit of coughing commenced.
He stumbled slowly back out to the living room. She was still sitting there like a dog shaking on a rainy doorstep; her nicotine yellowed fingers still gripping a conspicuously absent cigarette. He did not sit down, or attempt to put his arm around her, or try to comfort her in any way. Instead he walked over to the window and surveyed the blockaded panorama of the drawn blinds.
“Why weren’t you watching her, Dan?” she asked pointedly while still shaking and staring down at the ashtray, her arms folded under hunched shoulders.
Dan felt as if he were shaking his head no but, unbeknownst to him, his neck was not moving.
“Coyote,” he began, “he was havin’ a fit, ya know, he... kept barking and all.” It was at that very instant that Dan first realized why the dog was barking – and what at. “I just couldn’t... I couldn’t get the door of his cage open.” He felt Novocain numb, empty after filling buckets with his tears.
“You were going to let him out?” she asked.
“Jesus Dan!” She got up and started pacing. “Didn’t you know you were in the Everglades ... The Florida Everglades!”
He answered the sarcasm submerged pitch as if it were just an ordinary literal question.
“Yeah, yeah,” he said. “I knew that.” He didn’t blame her for blaming him. Not really. Under the circumstances, he thought that she was holding up especially well.
“The Everglades, the Everglades,” she kept repeating, as if trying to experiment with different ways of sounding the syllables.
“Do you know what those monsters do Dan?” she began as she plopped back down onto the fuchsia couch. “They take their prey to the bottom,” her words cracked and she began to cry and come apart yet again. “They ... t-t-take the prey to the ... bottom to d-drown them.” He imagined her limbs falling off of her body from sheer grief; her arms and legs flailing and disjointed on the carpet. He shuffled out into the foyer, glad to be away from her.
They trudged up the manure driveway in the cold bruise of a Wisconsin dawn, until the massive heads and huge faces of the cattle stared out at them from the open end of the half shed. The scent of liquefied waste hung high and sweet in the chilled air like butane gas. Outside, near a pile of blackened, pushed aside snow, lay the lifeless body of a dead calf; a silver dollar sized circle of blood-tainted snot dried inside its leathery nostril; eyes like a taxidermy trophy. The other side of its ruined face sucked down into the abundant mud.
“Is it dead, daddy?” the little boy asked.
The father shook his head yes and adjusted his orange hunter’s cap. The little boy turned his attention from the expired animal to the line of cows who were nonchalantly chewing crud.
“What happened to it?” the little boy wondered aloud as a cold wind tugged at his ear flaps.
“Wasn’t born right once.” The father shook his head as if searching for reasons himself. “Just God’s way of ... correctin’ his own mistake.”
The little boy continued to stare at the herd. They were licking hay from a long wooden bunk with their grainy tongues. Their movements were slow and stupid enough, but not altogether random; big black eyes like wet tiles.
“But isn’t one of the cows that baby’s mother?”
“Yes,” the father answered. “That one right there. No. 23.”
The little boy searched out the matriarch. A yellow tag with red numerals was stapled onto its ear ‘23’. It was chewing a mouthful of golden silage and, although it was resting on its knees, did not appear any more upset than the others.
“But isn’t it sad? T-t-to see its baby lying there dead, all covered in mud?” As the little boy asked this a loud stream of urine shot out from in between the black and white buttocks of one of the Holsteins.
“No!” the father said flatly. “That thing’s brain is no bigger than a lima bean. There’s no way it can comprehend somethin’ like that.” He then rephrased the statement, choosing words that may be easier for a child to grasp. “It’s not smart enough.” The little boy considered this for a moment.
“I don’t believe that,” he said after a pause. “I don’t believe that it’s not smart enough to know that its own baby’s dead.”
The father tried to move on. “Well that’s the way it is,” he said. “Now we got ta take care a these chores. Let’s go.” He started to walk away, but the child would not follow. Instead he walked over to the partly buried calf, his rubber boots squishing through the bile and his eyes wide like two boiled eggs floating in a pot. He put his hand on the furry, ice glazed carcass, pulled his cap over his brow and began to weep softly.
“Sit down baby. We’ll be at Granny’s soon,” Dan said. “Hello Granny down in old Miami,” he sung to himself.
But Allison would not sit down. She continued to buck and kick against the constraints of her car seat.
“Sit down back there!” Dan tried to instruct her from behind the wheel, but the four year old would not listen.
“I gotta go pee pee,” she said.
“All right,” Dan said casually, almost musically. “Alright.”
EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK – REST AREA – NEXT RIGHT.
Allison started crying.
“OK, it’s OK baby, were pullin’ off right now.”
Coyote wasn’t acting much better. He’d been barking pretty regular throughout the trip and sticking his wet nose in between the tiny openings in the links. Dan thought that it was pretty cruel trick to stick a Jack Russell Terrier inside a car cage for the duration of a trip from Bradenton to Miami, but the alternative was to have the animal roaming around free inside the cab, chewing up the mini-van’s upholstery or maybe even relieving itself on the floor.
Dan curled off of the exit ramp, parked, and got the baby out of her car seat. For the moment he left Coyote bound up in the cage. “Don’t worry buddy, you’re next,” he promised before walking with his child into a humid restroom with black block walls. “Jesus, these things ought to have air conditioning,” he complained out loud and wondered why in the world his wife had dressed the child in a skin tight body suit. It was such pain in the ass to get it pulled down.
By the time they got back outside and opened the mini-van’s door, Coyote was biting at the wires of the cage. Dan sat Allison down on the sun faded sod. “Okay Pooch,” he said as he turned his attention towards the latch.
“LOOK DADDY!” Allison cried out and pointed at some exceedingly colorful tropical flowers which sprouted from ankle-deep water at the edge of the rest area’s man made pond. Moss-covered swamp trees surrounded it. She ran down to the shore, where several off-brown logs covered in green slime and draped with kudza were partly submerged.
“Allison!” Dan shouted after her. “Get away from that water!” His instinct told him to go after her, but she stopped short of the shore, her tiny sandaled feet still on the singed grass. He thought that she would come back towards him or else he would definitely have enough time to retrieve her once he’d freed the dog to do its business. But the latch was ... it was ... stuck or something. The pooch had pushed it out or bent it somehow. Coyote continued to howl as if flames were licking the dog carrier; as if a thousand obnoxious rabbits thumbed their paws across their noses in his field of vision. “Alright!” Dan screamed at the dog and jiggled the latch but it would not give.
“It’s OK daddy,” she said calmly, taking two small steps back towards him. He would remember these as her last words. She didn’t even have time to scream. The only sound Dan recalled later was the sloshing of the water. The latch finally separated and Coyote rushed out the side door, his short legs skittering across the brown ground towards Allison but he too was too late.
As Dan turned to walk to his child, who was innocently beholding a swatch of flowers at the foot of the tea colored pond, one of the logs leapt to life. Before he could even bat an eyelash the log latched onto his daughter and dragged her into the shallows. Too stunned to even scream, Dan stumbled towards the pond with Coyote barking and yelping at his side. But by now the predator and its prey were already twenty five feet out. The alligator went into its death roll, a flash of the little girl’s pink body suit tragically out of place in the grays and oak greens of the dreary scenery. The child’s innocent blood shone brown on the garnet surface like spilled oil.
Dan waded in, panic driving his limbs. He saw the gator’s underbelly freckled in beige; the long moon-colored rows of teeth with his baby ensnared, the grotesque midget short legs, the bumps with knife slits which worked as eyes, the thick shield of the scales, and horror sung to his bones and vibrated throughout his skeleton.
The tail spiked up like a serpent as the monster and his daughter continued to twirl with the violence of a tumble dryer. Then they were gone, vanished beneath the dirty surface. Dan held his breath and dove – held his breath and dove, but he could make nothing out in the sightless murk, could hear nothing aside from Coyote’s frenzied barking back on shore. He dove again and the hot water flooded his nose and ears, like a submerged bucket filling up with filthy liquid. Weeps of seaweed reached for him and chopped blades of palms prodded his ribs. Helplessness drove him on like a man looking for a diamond in a city of shattered glass.
NO! he raged, NO! and swam even harder, plunged even deeper, until he could see nothing, hear nothing; not even the canine or the cars on the highway. He swam until there was a kind of comfort in it. For she was here, somewhere in this pond. He didn’t have to leave here ever. No one could make him. And he swam so fast that the dark green swirled into a blonde light, yellow like the sun through a tattered green blanket, his clothes heavy with the swamp and his eyes searching and searching for his perfect preciousness. His sense of direction tipped askew in his own whirlpool, until the bottom of the pond was the heavens and that sky was black.