By Wayne Willison.
Mud sucked my leather snake-boots, made a pluck sound behind each step. Most of the water had long gone. Small, scattered pools remained, the only testaments to a once thriving swamp.
I veered to avoid a gator too stubborn to leave the drought, its body buried in cracked mud, head half-covered, a painter’s bas relief plastered on grey black canvas. Can’t live too much longer like that, I thought and stepped up to higher ground where a small snake slithered into yellow green pickerel weed.
By June mosquitoes should have swarmed each cubic inch of breathable air, but as dry as it was, even they couldn’t survive. I took a long breath, unbuttoned some of my shirt, wiped sweat with my sleeve, and enjoyed nature’s warm freshness. “Smells clean.”
A bird whistled from a cypress tree. I looked up, trailed a stream of beige-white Spanish moss to a bright red cardinal. “Hey boy, hold it right there.” I lifted my camera. The auto focus grabbed him.
Gnarled cypress roots glared, angry at their nakedness I supposed. Tough on them, too. Normally they’d be covered in water with only the knees showing. Wonder what would happen if I dumped my water bottle on them? Would they want to move if I dumped it next to, but not on? I laughed. Trees don’t think.
Ahead I saw an opening in the canopy where harsh blue sky beat a path to earth, and figuring I’d arrived at the gator hole, I slowed. My friend, Don, had warned me. “Take it easy in there,” he’d said. “Don’t fall in.” I had laughed.
I needed water, gators or no gators. I shifted the gear pack on my shoulder and inched to the pond’s edge where fifteen foot grey-white walls dropped straight into the water below. Ponds weren’t supposed to be that deep. My head prickled and I looked around, noticed how heat waves danced above the porous limestone apron pockmarked from years of weather. While wondering how many years, I almost missed the young, tan colored deer that teetered on the edge across the pond.
I looked down, scanned the walls for a break, a place where if it fell in it might get out. Nothing. Just two long black snouts sticking out of the water. I reached into empty space, yelled at the yearling. “No. Get away,” I said and it dropped, legs kicking air.
A tidal wave rose to meet the bawling animal and from it two enormous alligators lunged and twisted, snapped, and crashed back into a pink pond. My heart pounded, I felt it beat against ribs as I remembered Don’s words.
I made sure when I backed away I didn’t trip.
WAYNE WILLISON is a nature photographer, who writes about things he finds in the Everglades. He has written several short stories and favors flash fiction. This piece was recently entered in a contest at a Miami-Dade, Florida public library. It won first place.