Essays on Childhood: Wild Things | “The Alligator” Begins

Editor’s note: A skilled writer knows how set a scene, how to craft mood through tone and story pacing; my friend Margaret Ward McClain is such a writer. If you follow this blog, you will remember her gorgeous and heart-breaking essay The Simons House from 2011.

This week the Essays on Childhood project features her chill-bump-inducing remembrance of encounters, real and imagined, with alligators. Margaret returns to South Carolina and takes us into a place where danger is always just under the surface.

To get your mind right, read her short introductory reflection today and her full essay in installations throughout the week.

Photo credit: McClain

Copyright Tim McClain 2013

The American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis), sometimes referred to colloquially as a gator, is a reptile endemic to the Southeastern United States. It is one of the two living species of alligator, in the genus Alligator, within the family Alligatoridae.

The American alligator inhabits freshwater wetlands, such as marshes and cypress swamps, from Texas to North Carolina.

– Wikipedia

Dewees Island, South Carolina.

From my fishing spot on higher ground I snagged my line in the brush below. I made my way around a rice trunk and down a bank to free a fishing lure. It was a good one, hung up in the brush and no amount of cursing and yanking would pull it loose. Pluff mud sucked at my ankles as I tried to avoid a swim in the brackish creek. Stretching on tiptoe from the edge of the bank to the wax myrtle branch that snared the lure, I gave a few teetering yanks and pulled it free. Now, absently reeling in the line and grouching about the thick black mud on my shoes, I turn to head back up the bank. Just at the edge of vision I register twin knobs above the water and a thick, creviced plate between.

Not a stick.

In the flat brackish water at the edge of the impoundment, only the eyes are showing. Not a ripple gives him away. The surface of the water is a still mirror, reflecting marsh grass at the edge of a muddy bank and a flat grey sky. Here I stand, unmoving, instantly alert, hyper-aware. I feel the pulse in my neck as my heart beats faster. He hovers some 20 feet from the bank, about 180 feet too close for both of us. Only his eyes are visible. Safe in stealth and near-complete concealment, he has been watching me. Both now exposed and face-to-face we regard each other: he driven by primitive instinct to know if I am food; me frozen between rapt fascination and primal fear.

I was not raised to fear alligators. This is remarkable, considering the facts. Adult male alligators average about 11 feet long and can weigh 800 pounds, although some whoppers of 1,000 – 2,000 pounds have been reported. They are ingeniously designed predators. Alligators’ heavy, low bodies are armored with thick, ridged skin layered over bony scutes protruding like spikes. Venomous moccasins and rattlesnakes have trouble penetrating the hide with a bite. Swimming alligators are startlingly fast, propelled by an enormous tail that serves as defense on land. Champion sprinters, on land they can run nearly 30 miles an hour for short distances. Five claws on each front foot and four in back enable them to climb. They can scale short fences. Claws, tail, armor and speed are useful accessories for the alligator.

The bite is the apex of their predation. An alligator’s elongated snout is filled with teeth in a thick, bony skull with a hinged jaw angled so precisely that its bite exerts more force than ever measured in a land animal. Mobile garbage cans, they eat anything that registers as the right size, usually crabs, fish, birds, and smaller mammals too close to the water. Dogs and deer are fair game. Generally, they do not regard humans as prey. Generally may not apply to small children, swimmers, and anglers in the wrong place. Generally isn’t enough for me, my children, dogs, or extremities. My attitude towards alligators has changed. Respect and awe of their feral, prehistoric beauty has not diminished, but in time childhood excitement gave way to uneasiness and discomfort, grown up now into hair-standing-on-the-back-of-your-neck fear.

Small Things in My Hand (part 3) | Elizabeth Gaucher

Oscar never changed, but his prey selection did. When he went from eating animals no one liked anyway to animals we owed cosmic reparations, it was a game changer.  A nest of baby rabbits appeared in the hollowed edge of a tree about 40 feet from the patio. Somehow they managed to live long enough to open their eyes and develop fur, though how Oscar ignored them that long is a mystery. He may have had more than enough to eat closer to the patio, and was just too lazy to slither over to the tree. The mother rabbit stayed close to her babies, and we could see her come and go from her nest. Oscar could see her come and go, too, and one day when she went, he made his move.

My mother saw this and swooped into motion as she had flown to the hutch before. The plan? There was only a goal. Get Oscar away from the babies. She grabbed a rake and snared him across the tines. From the house I could see only a wild woman with a long, surprised reptile on the end of a pole. The snake thrashed like a thick black stocking in gale force winds but my mother was undeterred. She ran with him to the edge of the woods, pulled the rake back over her shoulder and pitched Oscar with all her might over the hill toward the creek.

The obvious and naïve belief was that one can just throw a snake away. We all wanted it to be true, so we believed it. Of course, there are fewer creatures more tenacious than a snake; even the mild-mannered do not leave a place where all of their needs are met and life is good. Oscar was back almost immediately, and so began a daily dance between my mother and the black snake. What awed me most was my mother’s commitment not to kill him. She valued that snake, but he had crossed a line that she would hold, no matter how many times she had to take the fight to him. Those baby rabbits would be saved, and Oscar could go easy or he could go hard. But Oscar did not give up, and my mother eventually accepted that saving the rabbits meant they had to get out of the tree.

Wearing gloves, she took the babies and put them in a box, then carried them into the house. I remember seeing their little eyes shining like ebony beads as my mother held each one in a gloved hand and fed it some kind of milk or formula from a doll’s baby bottle. Their fur was brown, with smaller flecks of black hair. Their ears were tiny, and their little claws scratched the plastic bottle every now and then, making a soft but perceptible sound as they reached for nurture in a safe place.

Memories of childhood events are slippery. A child’s mind often clings to and obsesses on images and events that imprinted an emotion more than they imprinted a detailed fact. Sometimes we delete entire events or rub to blur the details of exactly how something resolved. I do not remember if my mother eventually had Oscar killed, though I am confident if he was terminated she did not do it herself. I do not know what happened to the baby rabbits once they left our bathtub, though I seem to have a memory of their restoration to the natural world. I do not know what happened to Lee or to the hutch, but I know the reasons why I do not make any effort to discover the definite answers to these questions.

The first is that after all this time, I believe any pieces of the puzzle that anyone else has are doubtless as worn by memory loss as are my pieces. There is a degree to which I am not even sure I have these two rabbit stories in the correct order; but I want to ignore that possibility, because even if they are not in the correct order, they are in the right order. The right order is the way we tell our life stories so that they make sense. Human beings often look to life and death in the natural world to sketch out and then paint in our most complex and unresolved stories. What is right? What is wrong? Is listening to fear a healthy way to navigate life? Are there any answers that could ever cover all of our conflicts so that we might know, with certainty, how to live in peace and harmony with the lives around us?

The human narrative tells us we are one with the world but also separate. There is something about mankind that keeps us unable to function seamlessly with the rest of God’s creation. We are forever trying to get back to the garden, but when we get there we still do not seem to know how to fit in.  It’s as if we can’t stop trying to fix something all the time, but those efforts only lead to more to fix.

We can remember, though, that we tried. And we can tell our stories until our lives make sense.

baby-rabbits