One of the best versions of myself is the version in which I’m an alligator. When I’m an alligator, I can digest the bones of a large man in under a week due to incomparable levels of gastric acid. Let me tell you how it happens.
When I was young, I hid from the world under a canopy of water hyacinth. I would look up and see their purple blooms marbling the stormcloud swept sky, and I would know that I could not be hurt or inflict hurt under such beauty. It is hard to say exactly when that became such a rare and desperate feeling, but it did.
So when the hyacinth scatter and the sky turns dark with the shadow of something I don’t know but recognize, I snap and chomp at whatever comes my way. When it’s over, you wouldn’t believe how quickly the water becomes still again. And there isn’t a sound. You can’t even hear my guts so hard at work.
The only thing that’s more quiet than the water around me is the mud below, the mud in which I sink my feet and feel the silt polish my nails a luminous bronze, while Robert stays nestled under my arm.
The spines in Robert’s dorsal and pectoral fins become entangled with the fine hairs of my armpit. I let out a rare laugh.
“What’s the word, Robert?” I say.
“Dredging,” says Robert.
“Don’t,” I say.
Robert wiggles out from under my arm. When the cloud of disrupted mud dissipates and settles, I see Robert suspended in front of me. His eyes look tired. His eyes always look tired. He takes a deep breath. He starts telling me about how he wanted to travel all the way to Lake Itasca.
“Where it all starts,” he mumbles. “But I’ve become too scared.”
The last time I’d crept from the water to see people, I saw many reasons to feel the way Robert feels. Through the coverage of the tall grass, I stepped slowly and kept close to the ground until I came to a freshly paved highway not more than twenty feet from the water’s edge. The smell of the tar burned the back of my throat.
There on the highway stood a few of them in a circle, wearing dungarees and boots made from the skin of others. They encircled an engine which was loud and pumping water from one hole in the road to another hole in the road. I stayed hidden in the grass and watched. After throwing some cigarette butts on the ground, a plastic bottle or two, they got in their big machines and drove off, leaving the pump running. I was curious about this water, where it came from, where it was being moved. I figured I’d go and investigate. Once I got close to the pump and the two holes, I could see that the water was being pumped into one hole only to flow through a pipe back into the hole from which it came. “What madness is this?” I said aloud to myself.
That was just the other day. But now:
Now, waking from this memory and seeing Robert still floating there in front of me, it feels as if we could be stuck in our fears together forever. I don’t want this to be how it happens. I let my buoyancy carry me a little closer to Robert so that I feel his whiskers tickle my snout. I give him a kiss and I see him smile for the first time in a long time.
“Close your eyes,” I say, “And imagine how much easier it would be if everybody believed in our lives like they believe in their own.”
“I’m not here to play make believe,” Robert says. He shows me a scar on his lip. “It’s not something I feel I can afford to do.”
I can’t argue with that. My bet is this though: If we put ourselves under a pirogue, we can navigate our way through the cypress. The light that reflects off the smacks of jellyfish will show the way around the shoals. It isn’t foolish to imagine we can feel safe enough to lounge and let our legs twist among themselves and the dripping paddles.
The next day I wake late in the morning with a sharp pain under my arm and see that Robert is gone. All that remains of him is a scratch from his sudden departure – one last kiss from his sharp dorsal fin.
In his absence, throughout the day, I’m bombarded by schools of things that seem too bright and clean to be true.
Robert’s disappearance is a void that obstructs, confuses what is, what isn’t, and how I should conduct myself. The only thing I can believe in is the scratch because I feel it burn so.
If I remind myself to spend more time remembering what good has happened, I’m comforted and I won’t grow angry. But sometimes the healthy thing to do isn’t the right thing to do. Maybe I should be angry.
I try not to be: Once, during a storm, we had taken shelter together next to a fallen cypress entombed in monofilament. It protected us; the tree and the nests of fiber softened the turbulence of the water, but it also ensnared my hind leg, which Robert freed after many hours of patient finagling. Oh, what fins he had!
This memory provides me with a little solace, but it isn’t going to serve as a lesson for me. I don’t want patience. I want revenge.
I try to be wise, to see beyond the times that are in such close and easy proximity. It works until I spot the remains of Robert resting on a pillowy bed of silt and algae at the base of a piling – his head and the bones that domino from it, bare and stripped of their flesh. I discover that I can go days without sleep, without blinking, staring at Robert, indulging in one last game together. After many days, I finally let him be carried off by the tiny creatures that do these things for all of us.
I miss him. I remember one time when Robert had invited me over for a barbecue. He’d taken the food off the grill and marched over to me holding a platter of grilled meat. “Wings!” he said. “I made wings!”
It turned out they were turkey necks, a pile of them. But they were still very good, and I didn’t have the heart to tell him they weren’t wings.
It’s early morning. The grass is itchy against my belly.
I grab the men from the asphalt road, and their screams are drowned out by the loud humming of the engine. I leave what I don’t eat to circulate in their man-made whirlpool. This isn’t meant to be a scary story, but it would be wrong to not admit how such things happen.
What of Lake Itasca? There is a way. What would I be doing to go there? I think it’s more about what I would be doing on my way there.
I don’t want to live with this anger forever, but I’m not sure it’s even my choice. People will say that I’m a maneater, a threat to public safety, that I should be euthanized.
How many perspectives are we required to take seriously?
I was six years old when Dr. Ellen Helms, a physicist that grew up on the banks of my same waters, walked on the moon. She wrote a book about it, which I never read. But growing up I heard about her often because she spent her early retirement studying the adventurous behaviors of animals all over North America.
Dr. Helms researched and, while entertaining visitors on her dock, shared stories like the one of Claire, a Grizzly bear that had been tagged near Eureka, Montana and then found four years later dining on snook in the Florida Everglades. The Florida man that saw Claire was so shocked that the only thing he could think to do was to shoot and kill her. Dr. Helms researched other stories of adventurous animals like Claire and they all ended the same. The last time I saw Dr. Helms she was sitting alone on her dock crying.
Dr. Helms believed that all creatures have an innate longing to explore. The only thing that made Dr. Helms different, and that made Claire different, was that she prioritized the longing and acted on it.
Robert didn’t act on his longing, but he didn’t ignore it either, and I think it ate him up a little bit every day. And then he was gone.
It is evening, and I’m still full of the men from the asphalt road. I set off for Lake Itasca. I know I’ll be hungry again. I also know that I have an open heart, to give somebody the chance to change my mind about where the world is going. It might only take one instance. After all, the real reason I’m going to Lake Itasca is because I believe some part of me is still worth sharing, and that there is somebody worth sharing it with.
Jane Molinary is a graphic designer and writer living in New Orleans, Louisiana. She holds an MFA from the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Her graphic design work can be found on her website, janemolinary.com, as well as on instagram, @janemolinary. Her writing can be found in Fourth Genre, Harpur Palate, StepAway Magazine, and Art + Design.
Peyton Burgess is the author of The Fry Pans Aren’t Sufficing.