• The Alligator (and The Bone Man) | by Margaret Ward McClain

    The Alligator

    “Let’s go see the alligator!” my grandfather called to me, and I came running. He was already choosing a hat from the hundred crammed on a rack by the sliding glass door. He slid the door open and in a second he’d be gone and I’d better hurry up and put some shoes on and get there fast. When I caught up with him, breathless from churning my stubby legs, he was halfway down the long slope of the yard, headed for the water. The yard was a peninsula, surrounded by the brackish, green-brown water of Clearview Lake. The lake is a man-made inland body of water, far larger than a pond but navigable across its full length in about 20 minutes at the speed of a trolling motor. Ringed by live oaks, pine and brush, the lake was and is today a haven for a multitude of creatures that fly, slither, crawl and swim. King of them all was The Alligator, a big old male who lived down at the end of the lake out of sight of the house, near the dam.

    We were headed for a small flat-bottomed wooden boat pulled up onto the mossy bank of the lake. In its glory days the boat was painted dark green, but the paint had chipped and flaked from the hull, exposing wood weathering and in spots as mossy as the bank. A little wider than a canoe, it had two benches, one with a live well, and a squared-off stern to accommodate a small trolling motor. I scrambled across the bow onto the second bench and held still while my grandfather slid the boat into the flat green water and stepped over the side. As we began to float sideways, parallel to the bank, I moved forward, grabbed the long oar from the bottom of the boat and pushed us off. He moved to the stern, cranked the little motor and pointed the bow up the lake towards the dam. He’d brought his rod with the spinning reel and some heels of bread, so I figured he’d let me drive for a bit while he tried for a bass and we’d feed the mallards. But first we’d see The Alligator.

    Around a bend in the lake, past a small cove and next to the dam is where we’d look. As we rounded the bend, he cut the motor. I handed him the oar and peered at the bank as he paddled. “We’ve got to be quiet now, let’s see if we can see the old alligator,” he instructed. I gripped the gunwale of the boat and leaned slightly towards the bank, my heart beating a little faster with excitement. Four times out of five, we’d see nothing, but that fifth time . . . “there he is!! you see him?” I whispered as loudly as I could. My grandfather always let me spot him first. The gator looked like a huge gray log lying up on the bank, sunning himself as we glided past. I’d ask to get closer, and we’d turn and paddle by again. The massive presence on the bank fascinated me, and I’d lean close as I dared without tipping the boat. “Not too close now, we don’t want to bother him – you know, he’s more scared of you than you are of him.” I wasn’t scared of him at all. I knew my grandfather respected The Alligator. If the old beast seemed to regard us, it’d be a “we’d better turn around now.” The motor would crank back up, and we’d be gone.

    It would be dusk by the time we had finished harassing the wildlife and slid the boat back up on the bank. I’d run to the house, slide the back door open and shout for my grandmother. “We saw The Alligator! We saw The Alligator!” She always acted surprised. “You did?!” When my grandfather followed me through the back door, he’d get a look and her voice would rise sharply in interrogation: “did you let that child get close to that alligator?” “Aww, heavens no, Margaret,” he’d say, and give me a conspiratorial look.

    Years later, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources decided The Alligator had outgrown his home at Clearview Lake. Rumor was that the Tucker’s dog went missing and half a dog was found. The DNR enlisted my grandfather to help find the gator and haul him out to the swamp. The mission was accomplished with a tranquilizer gun, yards of rope and duct tape. In the photograph taken before he was loaded onto a truck and carted away, The Alligator is stretched out full length on the bank in the back yard, longer than the wooden boat. His mouth is duct taped closed, and ropes tied behind his front legs extending from his grey body immobilize his massive tail. My grandfather stands balanced on The Alligator’s back.

    The Bone Man

    Some thirty years after The Alligator, I met the Bone Man. The Bone Man is a classically trained artist, a painter, photographer, and writer. His clapboard house stands under the crooked branches of live oaks on a plantation on the Ashepoo river. He is artist-in-residence there, taking care of the place and tending to the horses. His art in traditional forms includes meticulously drawn portraits, haunting photographic portraits and landscapes, and paintings of striking realism suspended in surrealist dreamscapes. The Bone Man lives inside his art. The house is an installation, every surface covered in artwork, photographs, collected pieces. A New Orleans funeral parasol hangs from the ceiling; walls are all paintings, bones and feathers. Each object is immaculate and carefully placed, each angle and sight line its own new and startling composition. Everything he sees is a picture.

    copyright Tim McClain

    copyright Tim McClain 2013

    The snakeskin of the five-foot rattler on the wall is easy to spot, but less so are the delicate bones. The Bone Man’s less traditional medium is the skeleton. Part engineer, part sculptor, he is expert in cleaning, preserving, and articulating animal bones. It is a dirty, smelly, time-consuming and tedious process. And why? These aren’t dinosaur bones or hunter’s trophies. Still, on a table near his door he has the bones of a rattlesnake killed on the property The triangular white head floats above an arc of winglike ribs diminishing down a seemingly infinite chain of vertebrae that spirals into a coil and emerges, a tail crowned with dry rattles. The perfect architecture of a magnificent animal remains in a few ounces of bleached bone.

    Three alligator skulls rest on a table by the window. The Bone Man picks up the largest and places it in my hands. The head itself is easily two feet long and a foot wide, intact with long jaws, heavy eye sockets and ridged poll. The bone looks porous, like it should be light, but it’s heavier than a bowling ball and awkward. For a second I struggle with it, afraid I’ll drop it. “Turn it over,” he says, “this way,” and tilts the base of the skull upwards. In the center of the back of the skull is a small cavity. “Put your thumb in there.” He brushes a finger over the cavity. “Go on, try it.” I shudder to do it. My thumb just fits, barely past the first knuckle. “That’s his brain cavity,” the Bone Man says. “This guy was twelve feet long and weighed more than a thousand pounds and his brain was smaller than your thumb.”

    The Bone Man has articulated many alligators, including one for a local nature center. He also accompanies the hunters who take them. The skull in my hands, its companions, and the buckets of bony scutes on the back porch came from alligators killed on the plantation. Landowners are permitted to control alligator populations on their property and each year are issued a certain number of “tags,” or permits to kill. The Bone Man has been on many alligator hunts, but the one that produced the skull I’m holding he remembers. “That guy was was bigger than the boat. They shot it and it refused to die. They had ropes around it and it was trying to roll. I stay out of the way, but they called me over to help them get it up out of the water – they had four guys and it wasn’t going anywhere. I know more about alligator anatomy than anybody, and I was telling them where to shoot it to kill it quickly, right at a place where the skull joins the spine. They shot it with a rifle right there and it still didn’t die. After a couple of hours we finally got it tied. It was still alive when we loaded it up on the truck. It was still alive when we cleaned it. We didn’t kill that alligator – we tortured it to death. I wasn’t going to let him die for nothing.” He articulated the beautiful bones.

    (Tomorrow: Margaret concludes “The Alligator.” Don’t miss it!)

  • The Long Road to the Last Goodbye (conclusion)

    In a recent public conversation about young educated people leaving West Virginia to find their fortunes elsewhere, I heard someone say, “Maybe someday they will appreciate the security of these mountains.” The word security struck me as strange, and so I asked the speaker what she meant. “That word you used, security, why did you choose that word? Because I don’t see this place that way. Help me understand.”

    She never answered me, and while I thought several times about going back to prompt her again, I let it end there. I let the question linger in the air because that is its natural place. It is a place between mountains like echoes.

    This place is security.

    Why do you say this is security?

    Silence. Repeat the assertion. Repeat the question.

    And so my heart returns to Charles Edward. I do not know very much about him at all, but in some ways I think I know enough. He was the father of 10 children. He had one devoted wife. He was a coal miner in West Virginia and he died at a young age. I imagine he gave his all to the people he loved, and that all probably meant very little of his true self left over for his own use. As a mother, in some ways I can relate to that. I imagine him drifting off at night to a hard-earned rest: Did he dream of his own boyhood, of what he thought the world would bring? Did he drift off to sleep in pleasant thoughts of life beyond the mines, or did he struggle with nightmares of never seeing light again? Though I don’t like to think of it, I worry that my great-grandfather was caught in the echoes.

    This place is security.

    Why do you say this is security?

    Silence. Repeat the assertion. Repeat the question.

    Charles Edwards’ youngest son was my grandfather. He died this year, the last of the ten. He will be buried in Fayetteville earth with many of his brothers and sisters, though I don’t know in this moment where his father lies. He probably lies in the ground in Fayetteville with his family. His bones are melding with the land by now, a strange and lovely constitution of former miner, father, husband and mineral. There is poetry in the idea that a miner returns to the earth, lends his elements to reconstituting the very place from which he took value.

    As I bury my own grandfather, I think of Charles Edward. I wish I could have been there, could have seen his body laid to rest, could have cried for him on the day he went into the ground for the last time. He hasn’t been much of anyone to me most of my life because he was literally cut out of the picture. He has been a ghost. It is not for me to judge why he has had no real presence with the living until now, but it is for me to call him up, now. It is for me, his great-granddaughter, to pull back the thin muslin curtains and call his name. It is for me to call out to my silent great-grandfather in my own moment of decision. I need him to talk to me.

    What do you think I should do? Your great-great-granddaughter is here now. By the way, she’s gorgeous, I wish you could see her ride Lopaz, the wooden gliding horse you used to have for your own children on the porch in Fayetteville. Remember Lopaz? I wish I could know you knew Lopaz was making this generation of children happy. Did you make this horse? Buy it with the little non-scrip you had?

    But I’m losing my place. What I want to know is what you think I should do right now. My husband has a calling to Vermont. It’s far away, but it’s mountains. Really nice mountains. And the work is all about helping people find good things to do that don’t compromise the life they want. He’ll be trying to help make fathers of ten children sleep easier at night. You’d like what we are doing. I think you would like it.

    What was that you asked? Do we win, does your great-great-granddaughter win? I know why you ask that question, and I forgive you. I forgive myself for wanting to say yes. I think at the end of the long goodbye, my answer to you and to myself is that she one day will not recognize the question. She will live in such a way and in such a world that she tilts her head at the idea of winners and losers. There is very little, Charles Edward, that I can give you. You are gone in most definitions of a life, and yet here I am writing about you and feeling motivated by your spirit. I give you all I can around shaping the future.

    This place is security.

    Why do you say this is security?

    I say it is security because it does not change. I say that which does not change should be evaluated with a keen eye and unsentimental heart.

    I say security is something to be challenged.

    And I say letting go of this place hurts the heart, but only as the sunlight hurts one’s eyes when he walks out of the mine, and into his family’s future.