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.

The Simons House (part 3) by Margaret Ward McClain

This is a story about a house.

Today, my walk in meditation begins as it did then, and I am as physically present in mind now as I was then in body.  I take a deep breath, then up the concrete step to the heavy wooden front door.  The door swings open to the ground level, a cinder-block and concrete first floor that anchors the wooden structure of the main house upstairs.  The air is still, slightly musty, cooling without the chill of air conditioning.  I start down the narrow hallway, past the laundry, past the dormitory-style ladies’ and men’s shower and dressing rooms.    A green beaded curtain separates the main living space from an extra fridge, a rusty freezer and piles of fishing equipment and hardware.  I pause to run my fingers across the smooth wooden beads, smiling at the click and shimmer of the absurdly avocado green strands.  Décor is a jumble of vintage yard-sale furniture and a cheery green-and-orange color scheme, best of the 1960’s floor-to-ceiling.   I move on past the brown-and-gold plaid polyester couch to the twin-bedded downstairs rooms:  sky-blue for my parents, orange for me and whichever itinerant family member would occupy the other twin bed.  Slightly curling posters and paint-by- number portraits of horses and ships line the walls.  A box fan sits in the window, turned backwards to pull the hot air out.  I turn the knob and a cross-breeze fills the room.   I sit for a moment on the narrow bed against the wall, drinking in the scent of salt, scrub pine and bay.

I would linger here, lay my cheek on the cool cotton sheets, drift off to sleep to the hum of the box fan and the murmuring ocean, but I have another place to go.

In the middle of the downstairs space sits the staircase.  The narrow wooden stairs are almost a tunnel, rising steeply and emerging abruptly from the floor on the second story into the main house.  My feet fall into the grooves worn on the stair treads by decades of flip-flops and sand.  Upstairs is a different world, all dark wood with bright borders of porches and windows.  To my left, three small bedrooms with creamy floor-to-ceiling bead board line up like soldiers, doors opening to the shotgun passage from front porch to back.  To my right is the small kitchen with its cracked linoleum floor and rickety butcher-block prep table.  Leaving the kitchen behind I turn for the open passage leading past the bedrooms to the great room and front porch.  The first bedroom has bunk beds (bunk beds!)  for the children, first me and my sister, later my younger cousins.  The middle bedroom, a room just large enough for the double wrought-iron bed, sheltered my aunt and uncle and let them keep an ear out for the children.  The front bedroom, for my grandparents, has twin beds and a window-unit air conditioner, then the only air conditioning in the house.

On my way down the passage I am caught, as I always have been, mid-stride, captivated.  A tall oak curio cabinet stands against the wall, honey-colored wood intricately carved, glass-front doors revealing shelves piled with a wonderment of shells.  There is a collection of hundreds, some carefully labeled with a Latin name on a tiny strip of paper, others stacked to overlapping.   Conch shells, purple striped urchins, varicolored mussel shells spread like wings.  Some are familiar, like an entire shelf of pale lettered olives, the South Carolina state shell, sometimes found on the island by the sharp-eyed and lucky.  Others are messengers from exotic shores:  giant conchs with porcelain-smooth pink centers, a curving cream-and brown nautilus, and tiny wentels spiked and whorled.   My mind is pulled past my horizon to another shore, where the life of these creatures begins, the thousands of watery miles of life and death between, the wave that carries them, the hand that carries them here.

I could spend hours here, gazing, but I move on.

Beyond the curio cabinet the passageway opens onto the great room, connected to the front porch by a door and a wall of double-hung windows.   It is paneled floor-to-ceiling with dark cypress furnished with white wicker, a Morris chair, and a lobster trap with a glass top serving as a coffee table.  I move to the center of the room, letting my glance drift across the walls decorated with netting spangled with shells,  yellowing Audubon prints of brown pheasant, a rowing oar above the passage to the upstairs bath and kitchen.  I step through the small doorway and let my fingers brush the knob to the pantry door, but I do not open it. Across the narrow passage is the upstairs bath, a small space filled with a pull-chain toilet and massive claw-foot tub perched on the bead-board on elaborate feet, enameled a spectacular shade of orange.

The passageway ends in the small narrow kitchen, connecting to the back porch with a door and a double hung window behind the stove.  Passing through the kitchen I end where I began, at the staircase.   Doors and windows honeycomb the upstairs.  Solid wooden three-paneled doors with round glass knobs connect each room with at least two others, windows open to the exterior, doors and interior windows open to the porches.  With doors and windows open, the lightest breeze has run of the house, ruffling bed sheets, stirring the sea-oats plucked and propped in containers for decoration, flipping cards on the table, sending paper napkins fluttering.  Closed up the house is a hollow tree, dark wood enclosing sturdy wooden doors and shuttered windows batten down to keep out the tropical weather.  In summer we lived with doors and windows flung wide, open to the light, open to catch the cooling breeze off the ocean, open to the beautiful sight of a distant storm.

I return through the upstairs the way I came, through the great room to the front porch.  I step through the door into bright space, gray painted wood under my feet, sky-blue bead board above, ahead a lattice of white-painted wood and screen and beyond it the ocean.  The hammock hangs at the far end, a white curve of rope and wood against the gray, the rope’s open weave casting a patterned shadow on the floor.  A small green lizard napping underneath startles and skitters off to a shady corner.   Inhaling deeply, I smell salt and the ozone coming off the water, wax myrtle and bay and sand baking in the sun.  Sheltered for a moment under the crooked eave of the porch, I allow myself to think of my son.  Already half-grown, his long-limbed body would span the length of the hammock on this porch he has never seen.  He won’t know this house.  The voices that flowed through me many long evenings on this porch are as still as the summer night.

The losses began one by one, far from here, and rolled on unrelenting for year after year.

Now dates file in like headlines:   1989:  My parents’ fragile marriage finally crumbles.  1993:  my aunt dies of colon cancer at the age of 44, leaving my uncle widowed, my two cousins motherless.  1998:  my grandfather dies a painful death from bone cancer; two weeks later, my grandmother suffers a stroke that takes her movement and her voice but does not kill her until two years later, 2000.  2003:  my own marriage does not survive.  2005:  retired five years and remarried for only four, my uncle dies of pancreatic cancer at the age of 61, and my cousins are orphaned.  My mother and her sister have lost their nuclear family, alone but for my sister and me and my cousins, now two young ladies they have pledged to love.

The Clan is much diminished, and we who are left will never be the same.

Many families have the same story.  For us somehow it should have been different, because of the Simons House.  The house remains, unchanged, a physical place of us, where we were and became.   It should have done as it always did:  stopped the world beyond, shielded us, sheltered us together .  Today, when I walk through the house in meditation, I am alone.  What story will I tell my son?  That the price of love is grief and loss?  That lesson will come unbidden soon enough.  That precious memories of time spent with loved ones can fill a hole in your soul?

No, my darling, they cannot.

I breathe in deeply again, place my hand on the screen door, and push it open.  In a step I am outside on the deck above the trees, facing the ocean.  The door bangs closed behind me.  I lean against the deck railing and see the view as it was:  no new road, no row of million-dollar mansions between the old house and the ocean.  Just bare dunes crested with sea oats, blooming with mallow and lantana; a wide swath of creamy sand beach curving to the inlet; huge vertical towers of white cumulus clouds over a slate-gray ocean;  low tide, a few whitecaps barely breaking, flat and calm to the horizon.    A splinter from the wood rail bites my palm.  Through layers of past, present and future, the tactile presence of living in this place urges me on.

There isn’t time; I have another place to be.

Maybe it is another beach house, on another island.  Maybe it is a house on a lake, cool and green and blooming with flowers in the summer heat.   Maybe it is a log cabin above the river, the slow-flowing water the very color of my son’s hazel eyes.   There is a house where there is a family, where my boy is a child for a  moment.   I must be present.   I must make sure:  when he is grown and lies awake at night, when the price of love is paid in grief, there will be a door for him to step through, a place he can enter body and soul, and breathe.

(This is the conclusion of The Simons House.  Thank you for reading!  Previous posts represent parts 1 and 2. Click here to read about Margaret.)