Give Thanks for Good Reading!

essay writing

In the latest issue of Longridge Review (Fall 2017):

Victims or Others?
Gina Ferrara (New Orleans) remembers a colorful crew of men who play cards at her grandfather’s bar and clubhouse in the French Quarter. “Chicago Mike” always seems to have an assortment of random gifts on him. One day, Gina and her sister are the recipients of some of those gifts, and she finds herself asking herself questions about what it means to be involved in something you’re not even sure you understand.

How to Be on Time
Andy Harper (Illinois) weaves a narrative that goes to an unexpected place. When he finds his young adult self beset by unexpected anxiety, he is determined to follow the bread crumbs to its origin. The conclusion is shocking. This essay broke a couple of hearts at our editorial table, and is an excellent example of why we publish Longridge Review.

Sepia
Anne Muccino (Kansas City) reflects on the first time she repeated a term spoken inside her family and realized it wasn’t something said aloud to others, most importantly not to the people being labeled with that word. This is a poignant snapshot of a child’s dawning awareness that not everything said casually or even said warmly has a causal or warm effect on others.

Shooting Stars
Jonathan Sonnenberg (New York City) deftly tells us something about himself by writing about an influential teacher.  Mr. Bell likes to ask his students prickly questions. Have they ever been drunk? Tried pot? Cocaine? The class is pretty used to his provocations, until one afternoon a question sucks the air out of room. Mr. Bell is after more than discomfort. He has something he needs them to know.

A Bowl Full of Jelly
Victoria Waddle (Claremont) is devastated by her grandmother’s death, but learns how to conjure her presence in dreams. These visits help, some, but become increasingly dissatisfying as her grandmother never comes fully back to who she was in life. Eventually, the dream woman sends a message that makes it plain her visits are over. But will she ever truly not be there, somewhere?

Sentence Enhancers
Teige Weidner (Oregon) has a story about his childhood that will ring familiar to too many readers. He is bullied, a lot, and the abuse is taking a toll. No one seems to appreciate how bad things are for young Teige, but they are about to find out. After all, we all only have so much fuse, and his is about to burn down.

via #9, Fall 2017: 6 New Essays + Deb Farrell = Your Longridge Review

#2, Winter 2015-16: Five New Essays + Eric Drzewianowski = Your Longridge Review

This is a special re-blog for friends of Esse Diem and for lovers of the Essays on Childhood project. I hope you enjoy the latest from Longridge Review.

Issue #2 is here, and it’s special. dski design will show you the most beautiful handmade books, and a diverse group of essayists offer up their strangest, darkest, and most contemplative moments from their crossings out of childhood into adulthood. Much shadow in this issue, but also rays of light:

  • Listen

Daniel Blokh (Alabama) didn’t tell us when he submitted his work that he was only 14 years old, and his writing is so sophisticated and complex we never thought to ask. When he turned in his bio, we had a conundrum. Our mission is to work with the writings of adults only reflecting on childhood. But Daniel is that rare old soul who makes you want to break the rules for art. Using song lyrics, book quotes, and his own poetry, Daniel addresses an unidentified “Y” in a series of short letters about life, family, identity, loss, and finding your way to yourself. Take your time with this, it’s a beauty.

  •  Thanksgiving Mourning

Vincent J. Fitzgerald  (New Jersey) is willing to do that thing that is so painful, he is willing to unmask a father who seems to only know how to hurt his family. No excuses, no defense. Not for his father, nor for himself years later when he begins to live out the same pattern. This is what courage looks like, facing fear rather than denying it.

  • A Steady Application

Trista Hurley-Waxali (California) weaves a masterful, mysterious narrative about her mother. Why does her mother “wear the red lips” at night as she creeps down the hallway, leaving Trista to peer through the dark and pray for her mother’s safe return? A Steady Application chills like a thriller, but it was one woman’s childhood experience. This is why we do what we do.

  •  The Mark I Left

Kara Knickerbocker (Pennsylvania) offers something touching and unaffected in her first piece of creative nonfiction. On one level, it’s a simple story about a little girl and a new pet. But Kara offers just enough allusion to heavier truths to let the reader know nothing is simple on this day, at this house, with these people. Read her essay sitting down. It almost knocked us over more than once.

  •  The Egg

Jane Rosenberg LaForge (New York) is an accomplished writer who turns her pen to her childhood obsession with an egg sculpture in her mother’s closet. Jane follows her musings, as those threads lead her to her individual parents’ identities and insecurities, as well as her own. The conclusion is a tour-de-force surprise of personal, indefatigable power.

You can find it all and more right here: Longridge Review #2, Winter 2015-16.

p.s. Want to write for us? See submission guidelines here: Longridge Review SUBMIT

The Legend of Paint Creek: A River Town Halloween Treat

Lillian let Hayden walk ahead of her. She liked to fall back sometimes, pretending she was looking at the autumn leaves or tracking the rustling of a squirrel behind a fallen tree. In truth, she wanted to look at him, watch the way he walked in the woods. It was different from the way he moved in River Town. In town he was tall, his shoulders squared, his hands hovering at his hips with open fingers. She knew about the knife he carried. Sometimes it made her feel safer, other times less so.

But in the woods, Hayden had a different energy and gait. His shoulders loosened. His hands seemed less poised to act. His long body was more at ease than Lillian ever saw it in town. She liked to see him in this different state of mind and body. It felt like a privilege, and she wondered if anyone else ever saw him like this.

In an instant, her calm shattered. There was a scream, a sound she had never heard before, like the devil himself had opened a gate in hell. The scream made the air vibrate, and Lillian felt the inside of her ears throb with pain.

“Hayden! What is that?!” She was running to catch up to him but there was no need. He’d already spun back to her and was at her side before the echoes stilled and the woods were void of sound. It was a chilling silence. No little creatures skittering, no leaves moving, no birds speaking. The quiet was thick and unsettling.

Hayden’s hand was on her arm now. “Lill, stay at my side. It’s going to be all right, but don’t leave me.” Lillian had no intention of leaving him. The scream had almost stopped her heart. Whatever else was with them in the woods wasn’t going to get her alone, she knew that much.

“Hayden, oh . . . Hayden, what was that?” her voice was a whisper.

“I know what it should be, but . . . .”

“But WHAT?” Lillian was moving from fear to annoyance. Her sharp mind didn’t tolerate not getting information quickly. She could tell Hayden knew something about the scream. Why was he waiting so long to tell her?

“It’s a paint. But she shouldn’t be out now. It’s the middle of the day.”

Lillian furrowed her brow so hard Hayden laughed in her face. “Your face looks like a plowed field.”

“What on earth is a ‘paint’?” asked Lillian, ignoring his mockery.

“Oh, right. You’re so society. You wouldn’t know that word. Paint, you know, like a panther. A mountain lion. There are plenty in these parts. If I’d known you didn’t know that I’d never have let you walk around in the woods with me.”

“Oh, hush,” said Lillian. I know about mountain lions. My father killed one once.”

Hayden stood back and looked at Lillian with what appeared to be new respect. “Not too shabby. I didn’t think the old man had it in him. I don’t know many bankers who can kill a paint.”

The sounds of the woods had returned to normal. Whatever it was had passed.

“Should we get home?” Lillian asked nervously.

“Not a bad idea,” said Hayden. “Still, that was really strange. Paints hunt and mate at night. It’s only after lunch.” Lillian’s face went hot. She felt embarrassed by talk of wild animals screaming and mating, but Hayden didn’t seem to notice. They walked on without speaking. Finally, Hayden said, “You know Paint Creek, right? It’s not that far from River Town.”

“I’ve heard of it,” said Lillian. “I never thought of where it got its name. From lions?”

“Well, yes and no,” said Hayden. “There’s a legend about it. It’s not something you probably should hear . . .” His voice trailed off and she saw him try to hide a smirk. They both knew the best way to get to her was to suggest she wasn’t smart enough or strong enough for a story.

“I most certainly should hear it!” she insisted, taking the bait. She had to know.

Hayden stopped smiling and looked at Lillian. “All right,” he said, “I’ll tell you. But if you can’t sleep later, don’t blame me.

Paint Creek in Ash Branch Park, Kanawha County WV

They say it was a long time ago, maybe fifty years or more. There weren’t that many white people living around here. Houses were really far apart. There was a man, he was called Anselm. Lived up on Paint Creek alone. Or so most people thought.”

Hayden paused. Lillian’s eyes were fixed on him. “What do you mean, so people thought? Did he or didn’t he live alone?”

“He said he did. But the story is that he would show up in town every few weeks, trying to get things that seemed odd. Like he wanted to barter for bolts of calico cloth and lavender water. That’s not what stinky old men are known to like, you know?”

“No, that’s what a woman would want.” Lillian couldn’t take her eyes off Hayden. “What else?”

“One time he came into town near frantic, or so they say, crazy to find a doctor. Except he wasn’t hurt. He wasn’t ill. He wouldn’t say why he needed a doctor so bad. He never found the doc and went home wild eyed. Rumors started that old Anselm had a woman up there. Maybe more than one.” Hayden looked at Lillian. “Do you want to hear the rest?”

She said simply, “Yes. Yes I do.”

“Some of the women in town started bothering their husbands to go up to Anselm’s property to see what was going on. The men didn’t want to go, they figured they didn’t want anyone bothering them, why would Anselm want anybody bothering him. Live and let live. Then the screaming started.”

Lillian couldn’t breathe. She just nodded to Hayden to go on.

“In the middle of the day for three days in a row, people in town could hear paints screaming over by the creek. It was an awful sound, just like today. And no one had ever heard it before when the sun was up. The town women insisted something was not right up at Anselm’s. The men finally formed a group and went to see what was what.

When they got up to the house and banged on the door, no one answered. They decided to break down the door.”

Lillian, normally so composed, could not control herself. “What? What? What did they find?”

“They claimed to find several pieces of a woman’s clothing and a wooden cradle. But there was no one in the house. A door out the back of the house was ripped clean off, what looked like claw marks all over it. There was blood on the ground but not in the house, like something or someone had been dragged away. The men followed the trail until it disappeared into the creek.

No one ever knew what happened. Some people said the three days of screams must have been the three people in the house being attacked by paints, one after the other. Others claimed they saw human footprints near the drag marks, like it had to be a person who took the bodies. Others started a rumor that Anselm was a paint, changed at night and didn’t take too kindly to his woman locking him out, and ripped the door off with his claws.”

“That’s enough,” said Lillian, shuddering. “I don’t want to hear any more. That is horrible. The baby . . . ” She couldn’t continue  and looked away.

“It’s not good, that’s for sure,” said Hayden. “Though some tell the story that the dragged off body was Anselm’s and the woman was the paint, come to claim her baby and she finished the old man off and left his body to sink into the creek. The daytime screams are her victory cries. When you hear her during the day, she is reminding every man around who really owns these woods.”

Lillian smiled. “I like that version better. Let’s go with that.”

“I’ve always liked it best myself, too. I know better than to try to mess with a strong woman.”

The two friends walked on, their hands not touching but close together.

###

This tale is entirely fictional and inspired by the characters Lillian Conley and Hayden Lowe from the collection of short stories that make up River Town. Want to know more about Lillian, Hayden, and the many other characters who live in River Town? Cool! Check out this link as well as the links below: https://essediemblog.com/2013/08/14/river-town-buzznuggets/

You can hear some cougar screams and calls here. Many people believe that some of the more blood-curdling cries sound like a woman screaming.

Read about the real Paint Creek, West Virginia, here.

Buy and read River Town here. You can join Facebook fans of the book, too: River Town on Facebook

Happy Halloween!

The Fine Art of Catching a Firefly

I learned the Fine Art of Catching a Firefly when I was a child. I think it was the best way because I was at my most intuitive about magic. I would see their luminous nearly green yellow liquid light and shriek with delight, sometimes on the outside, but just as often on the inside. I knew it was kind of Philistine to just grab them, even though it was hard to resist. The best, most effective way, I learned over time, was an open hand and a willingness to merge.

bug,hand,light,firefly,cool-f046206fe921306a6db60e4264733497_hIt always started with a summer evening. Assessing the transitional time between afternoon and evening, as well as the time between evening and too-late night, was as much as part of it as how to hold your hand. Some people may tell you now that nets are permissible for capture, but that is not the art. You may hear that a Mason jar is allowed as well, for the midway release from first capture.

But these elements are not the art I know.

It would start with a spark in my heart. I’d feel a burst of light and heat inside. Around me I could perceive the summer air was buoyant enough to float the magic of tiny flying flames, glimmering under a dark heaven. There was a soundless hum that supported my procession toward mingling with these charming little mysteries.

I would walk among them then. Sitting still feels dishonest, and these creatures are all about having nothing to hide. On instinct you know not to try to trick them. Your walk must be slow and full of the pauses that allow the fireflies to orbit your damp skin and your natural breathing. Every now and then you reach out one arm, your palm open, fingers relaxed, falling in gentle curves. It’s the bend of your fingers that calls them to you. One will hover over that hand as if to say, “I am the one.”

Raising your hand slowly you make soft contact and the wings that have spun into blur stop and fold. Antennae you didn’t notice before now bend alternately to touch your skin and little feet, delicate and fast dance along your skin as the light quiets under two aligned and slender shields.

You learn what the mistakes are with time. Don’t hold them inside a closed hand. Don’t put them in a jar. Let them light and land and rise and fall as they choose. If you are practicing the fine art, they will choose you.

I found this out a long time ago. I would bet you did, too. But if you haven’t learned it yet, it is not too late to learn the Fine Art of Catching a Firefly. Come with me because, look! It’s that time. Leave the jar and net and bring your quiet calm and open hand. Bring yourself.

The Alligator (The Dream, The Island, & The End) | by Margaret Ward McClain

Copyright Tim McClain 2013

Copyright Tim McClain 2013

In the Dream

It’s starting to get dark, and we have to get my grandparents’ belongings from the house. They are gone. No sense of their presence remains. The house is a hollow shell for the objects left. A moving truck is parked out front right down to the brick porch. Several cars are under the spread of the live oak in the yard. My son has gone down by the lake. He’s just out of sight but I know he’s playing on the mossy bank near the spot where the wooden boat rested. I’m standing on the front porch, talking with the movers about how to get the furniture out. Inside the house is full; the front door is small beside towers of beds and tables, books, photographs, a piano. There are two men. They are looking over my shoulder at the curve of the lake beside the house, confused, but not alarmed. One man looks at me and says, “but what are we supposed to do about the alligators, ma’am?’

Turning around to the lake, I see dark forms massing. Not to the bank yet, but getting closer. How many? Close to the bank is thick with them. Eyes and scutes are visible above the water. Beyond the bank are V-shaped trails of ripples in the water where others swim, mostly submerged, and beyond the ripples are bubbles where yet more lurk below the water. Waves upon waves. The sight horrifies me to my bones but is somehow familiar, a fierce and unpredictable storm of a kind I’ve seen before. My answer is matter-of-fact. “We’ll have to hurry. We’ll have to get things out before they get to the yard.” In that moment I am conscious of my son.

Copyright Tim McClain 2013

Copyright Tim McClain 2013

I move through the house to the sliding glass door. I can see him outside playing at the bank. He is five, maybe six years old, all blonde curls and soft small hands. He is bending the cattails down, pulling open the brown velvet pods and blowing the fluff across the water. He does not see the alligators swimming across the lake, the alligators approaching the bank, the alligators heaving their bulk from the water. I see them, feel their mass. I don’t scream, don’t yell to him, don’t make a sound. If he makes a sound, they will have him. I yank the sliding door open and run, run like I ran to catch up with my grandfather, legs churning. I make it to the holly tree outside the back door, then to the towering camellias, looking for the grass to turn to moss under my feet, then I’ll be almost there when there’s the moss by the bank, and the moss crushes under my feet, and I have him. I pull him to my chest and run, pressing his face into my shoulder so he can’t see them, his damp curls on my neck, his feet dangling past my knees. My arms ache with his weight and I run. The reptiles are black and slick from the water of the lake and gathering like clouds. My path to the door narrows to infinity until suddenly my foot hits the first step and we are inside and banging the glass door closed behind us. There is no breathless relief at our escape, no emotional release after the grip of fear. We are safe; that is all. I set my son down and he looks up at me, nearly expressionless, all large eyes in a pale face. I wrap his hand up in mine. He knows that I have done what had to be done, all one can do when the alligators come, and now it’s time to go.

When we turn around the room is neatly arranged, each book and photograph where it belongs. The house is dark as we walk to the front door. I place my hand on the brass-colored knob, worn from decades of touch by many hands. It is loose in my grasp and I turn it, hear it click and pull the door open. It is night, and the thick LowCountry darkness has settled, obscuring any view beyond the threshold. Outside is a wave of sound of the frogs and cicadas, blackness and the thick humid air wrapping around my face. Staring hard into the dark I try to pick out the outline of a seething black mass, a shape darker than the darkness that will force us back into the house. Nothing reveals itself to me in the dark. We are drawn to leave the house by a force like a magnet. The car is in the yard under the live oak. If we go, we can make it. My child’s hand in mine, I push the screened door open with my palm and we step over the threshold, pushing into the night wave of heat and sound, unseeing.

Dewees Island

Shit. The hair on the back of my neck stands up and my mouth goes dry. “Breathe, breathe,” I tell myself, “back up slow, no sound.” Eyes locked on the black marbles of the alligator’s eyes visible above the water, I move one foot, then the other. The alligator moves no closer but holds his ground, floating just beneath the surface. Thick and numbed, my fingers let my fishing rod slip down and catch in the mud and I stumble. Catching my weight my foot hits the mud bank behind me with a resounding slap. Movement blurs in the water; instinctively I startle and turn towards the sound. An anhinga rises in improbable flight from under the surface of the water. Slick feathers slip free of the water, breaking the surface tension, pulling air beneath wet wings, making an ungainly flapping commotion. In seconds the bird lifts into the air, transformed from a sleek swimming machine into a sodden parody of flight. Listing on heavy wings it flies above the marsh grass and crashes to roost in a tree. For seconds my gaze has strayed from the alligator. When I look back he is gone, vanished as if he were never there.

My heart is still pounding when I hear the whir of a golf cart coming up the path above the bank and my son shouting. “Hey Mom! Mom! What are you doing down there?” My son and his best friend are tooling around the island. He stops the cart and kicks back behind the wheel. Propping one foot on the dash he looks at me from under his baseball cap with amused condescention, a look that should be patented by 16 y.o. boys. “You catching anything?” he says skeptically. I start picking my way up the bank.

“I’m catching flying fish,” I retort, using our expression for casting a line into a tree.

“Ha!” he laughs, “way to go.” Huffing up the bank I’m closer and see his eyes light up with amusement at my muddy self. He flashes his charming I-want-something smile. “Hurry up! Me and Cam want to go to the marsh dock and see the alligators. Can we? Come with.”

Grabbing my empty bucket and rod I step to the back seat of the cart. “Ok, honey, let’s go,” He steps on the pedal and the cart lurches off, “but remember, we have to stay in the cart, and be respectful of their space.” He responds with a huge eye roll. “I know, Mom, I know. They’re more scared of us than we are of them.”

Copyright Tim McClain 2013

Copyright Tim McClain 2013

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!)

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.