Marsh MadnessJanuary 27, 2017
The heron stalked through the flooded marsh, eyes intent on movement below the muddy surface. Beak aimed like a javelin. It stopped, poised to strike. Patient.
The heron flinched before it burst out of the water, thrust from its huge wings leaving a mist like a jet’s contrail as it soared to a safe height over the maze of marsh islands.
Out of the haze of fog drifting over the water emerged a man. Behind him, as if he had bore a tunnel through the thick gloom, were woods with ancient oak trees twisting out into the bayou. Long tendrils of dull gray moss snaking down to the mud seemed to vibrate with a dissonant buzz; hundreds of thousands of insects clung to the trees and brush along the bank, belting out a chorus that was randomly broken up by disturbances in the water.
Hunched over, dull gray beard hanging like moss from a sun-weathered face, the man blazed a trail of silence, stepping through the muck with a heron’s patience. His eyes, black and stretched wide, had an unnatural gleam in the twilight.
An alligator hide rifle case was slung across his back, one hand holding the butt close to his flank, silencing its movement and that of his rubber waders. With his other hand he pushed aside sharp blades of grass that would have sliced into most people’s skin.
He came to the edge of the marsh island and stilled himself. Standing tall, a scarecrow overlooking a huge field of dead corn stalks, his eyes shifted to the left as theme park music began playing in the far distance. A ferris wheel stood above the fog bank, lights from several small rides glaring up at it, giving the entire fairgrounds a faint glow. The high pitched, tinny notes penetrated the thick gloom, floating along with it.
The man bared his black gums in that direction for a moment. Deep wrinkles spread from his eyes and mouth. Absently, he rubbed his ear; a twisted, misshapen scar ran right through it.
A dog barked. The man’s head turned forward in a blink, wrinkles deepening with a smile. Across the narrow channel was a large dog standing on a low wooden pier. A golden retriever. Behind the dog, on top of a hill, a dark gray mist shrouded a small mobile home. A breeze pushed out of the woods, momentarily showing a porch, a yellow light struggling to illuminate steps. A swing set, barbeque grill and trampoline were haphazardly placed in a large overgrown yard that sloped down to disappear into the high tide.
Claws ticked and scrambled over broken, failing planks. The dog barked at the water. A wave of silence spread rapidly throughout the marsh. The insects started up again. The dog’s panting could be heard clearly across the channel.
The object of the dog’s interest was three feet below the end of the pier. Sticking up like an old stump was the head of a bull alligator. The dog, unafraid, seemed to play a game familiar between the two. The barking, clawing and loud panting continued. Around the man frogs had joined the bugs, quieting after barks, as if considering how to reply and join in their game.
“Mario! Mario! Dummy. Get away from there.” A small boy materialized in the mist at the top of the yard. A screen door creaked and slammed on the trailer. He ran down to the pier, stopped and whistled, clapped his hands. “Come here, boy. Mario!”
The retriever glanced at the boy, tongue lolling. Started wagging his tail. His head swiveled back to the alligator, mouth opening, closing, tip of his tongue wiggling with each pant. He barked again, pawed the pier. Bounced up and down, darted from side to side.
The man hadn’t moved. He observed the alligator, peripherally tracking the boy and dog.
“Stupid dog! Come on. We’re not supposed to play on the pier. Mom’s gonna yell at us.” He wrung his hands, chewing on his lip.
Mario kept barking and wagging at the alligator. The boy stepped carefully onto the pier, looked over his shoulder at the trailer, then ran to the end of the pier, leaping a jagged hole. His sneakers thumped to a stop, arms encircling Mario’s neck. “Come on… What are you do-ing?” He looked down into the water. Wide-set emotionless eyes looked back at him. “Whoa! Crud! The alligator – !”
The dog turned to lick the boy, rear end wagging, and threw him from his feet. He shouted as his hands and chin banged hard on the planks. His shoes splashed in the water, legs sliding in. The alligator’s head disappeared in a swirl of black.
The man moved quickly. Grabbing the top of the rifle case he unsnapped it, slid out a crossbow and unfolded the arms, locking them. Loaded a bolt. Brought it to his shoulder, aiming through a high-powered scope at the boy’s legs.
“Mario!” All the boy’s breath burst from him in a single scream. Around the man the marsh creatures scattered into the grass or water. The boy tore at the planks with his tiny fingers, shoes thudding into the water behind him.
The dog wore a puzzled expression. He chuffed, pawed the pier in front of the boy. Then he stretched and bit the collar of the boy’s shirt, jerked and snatched him back onto the pier. The boy’s shoes cleared right as the alligator popped up under them.
“Whoa! Shoot! Whoa! WHOA!” The boy staggered, gripping his shirt, pushing at Mario until he let go.
The big dog abruptly spun and ran off the pier.
The screen door slapped shut from the trailer and a tall sandy haired woman in jeans and flip-flops walked down to the water gesturing with a hair brush. “God-damnit, Sam! Really? I told you to not play by the water, and specifically not on the pier. And your freaking clothes are wet? Get your ass in the house and get changed! You’re going to be late for the bus.” She stuck the brush in a back pocket. Whistled loudly, clapped her hands. “Mario! Let’s go, boy. Get your ass in the house! You better not be wet, too.”
Mario barked and waggled, looking at the woman. Then he bound up the yard and raced past her.
The woman turned to follow her chastened son and the man aimed the scope at her ass. His lips peeled back, blackened gums catching light that darkened them further, lines branching from the corners of his eyes blending into single deep furrows. Jeans stretched over hips, dug into buttocks at 70x.
The man’s finger caressed the weapon’s trigger.
The stump appeared in the water again. This time where the yard met the water. The dog zoomed past the woman and boy, barking up a storm.
The man tracked the alligator as it moved slowly towards the yard, crosshairs centered just behind its eyes. Mario, bounding downhill, tongue lolling in a toothy smile, barked his I’m-a-Good-Dog-Let’s-Play bark. As he came to a sudden stop, the man brought the crossbow up slightly and shot the dog in the front leg.
Gravity and momentum were against the big dog. He pitched over into the bayou.
The stump vanished. The dog never surfaced.
The splash made Sam and the woman stop and turn around. They didn’t see Mario. The woman frowned severely. The boy looked alarmed. When Mario didn’t respond to his name being called Sam ran back to the pier. The woman followed, flip-flops slapping hard against her feet.
The man took aim at her chest, shirt straining against her swaying breasts. His finger moved faster, though still gently, over the trigger.
“Well, where the hell is he?” The woman planted her feet, fists on hips. “Mario!” She demanded for Sam to find his dog and get his ass to the bus stop, wet clothes and all.
Sam, completely bewildered, looked from the pier to the water. Looked at his mom and shrugged. He squinted at the woods. Leaned over and peered intently through the fog, at the marsh across the channel.
He gasped and jerked upright. A sob caught in his throat as his eyes moved back to the pier. To the water.
He turned toward his mom. “The alligator, Mom. The alligator!”
“The alligator? What about the alligator?” The woman muttered “Shit” and walked down next to Sam. Frowned at the water. Her eyebrows lifted. She put a hand to her mouth. She almost said, But that old ‘gator and Mario are friends… But Sam knew better, and so did she.
Sam took a deep, sharp breath and let out a wail that pierced deep into the bayou.
The heavy fog began lifting. A fresh breeze billowed Sam’s wet pants as he clung to his mother’s leg, sobbing.
The man’s smile broadened to a full grin, tiny pinpoints of light refracting from his jet eyes and gums. One eye closed and he looked through the scope once more. A dry suction emitted from his throat, tongue pressing into his top gum, unsticking.
Carnival music, louder now that the fog was lifting, tinkled on the breeze as the man studied the woman’s backside again. She bent over to pick up her crying son and carried him up to the porch.