FICTION: Alligators by LA Robbins

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Cynthia swung her leg back and forth, whacking sandal strap and heel against the thick tree stump that formed the base of the bench. She sat hunched, facing the entrance to the cypress swamp. Now that Mother was gone she could breathe. Shallow breaths jittered in the dark cell of her chest cavity. Her little self crouched inside, hollow, comfortless, a convict staring between slatted bars of rib. Ugly ‘mother-knows-best’ edicts roared in her skill: ‘an advanced history student like you should be soaking this up…only a philistine could spurn…didn’t your teacher devote months to this topic?…no enthusiasm’…all because Cynthia had said ‘no’ to touring the plantation house.

‘What is it with you?’ Mother’s eyes had thinned to fierce slits. ‘We drove here especially to see the swamp garden and the house. You had a project – slaves on the plantation – just last year.’

‘They were in the fields, picking cotton.’ Cynthia, chin protruding.

Mother had prattled on, addressing Janey now.

‘There’s a portrait of the Confederate General Beauregard in the house. Slave quarters behind. They still speak Gullah, the blacks here. Planters brought them from Africa in the 18th century to work the fields. And the slaves taught their masters how to plant rice and make stews of shrimp and okra and peanuts.’ Janey was nodding, wide-eyed. Mother had put an arm around Cynthia’s younger sister and turned her. As they started marching toward the white mansion across a huge expanse of lawn Janey had looked back. She stuck out her tongue. Then her ponytail twitched from side to side as she walked in sync with Mother, iron-grey hair above her navy-and-white striped dress.

‘Who cares?’ Cynthia had shouted after them. ‘Who cares about some dumb general and lots of stupid okra?’ Mother whirled and took a few steps back.

‘I care. I arranged this entire weekend away, booked flights, the motel, hired the car. Took Friday off work. All for you girls.’

‘Maybe this isn’t what I wanted to do,’ Cynthia said. This weekend, that Mother had so thoughtfully arranged, happened to be the end-of-the-year teen ball. All her friends had bought dresses. They would go out for supper at Maxims, taking cabs to the venue. She was missing the dinner, the ball, and the sleepover at Michelle’s afterward.

‘You know this is the only time I could get away. You are so ungrateful.’ Mother’s eyes bulged and her mouth curled. Above her lip tiny beads of sweat made a bubbly moustache that Cynthia had to look away from; hysterical laughter threatened to explode.Now came the snap-your-purse-shut tone Cynthia knew too well: ‘Alright, young lady, suit yourself. Don’t tour the mansion house. Don’t come to the Charleston market tomorrow. Sit and mope. I don’t care what you do.’ Mother had turned and walked away. Janey followed.

Cynthia had begun her rhythmic kicking on the bench.She couldn’t swallow; her eyes stung. ‘Ungrateful. No respect. No appreciation’; around and around whirled Mother’s words, like a crazed hamster on a wheel. Well, Janey could be the obedient Mama’s girl, recite her insipid refrain: ‘ What can I do to help?’  if Mother so much as blinked or cleared her throat. Cynthia glowered like a torrid coal. Her heel smacked harder into the wood. A sharp pain made her reach down to check if she had broken the skin. She rubbed and then looked across to the swamp.

Their earlier walk through the jungly interior had been amusing, even though she was 14 and not that interested in being there. With Mother predictably identifying the flora from behind, she and Janey had followed the circular pathway that wound in and out of verdurous thickets of azalea, camellia, and rubbery-leafed magnolia. On both sides, the fibrous bark of the swamp cypress soared up and up to meet branches of conifer needles. The pathway linked boardwalks that carried visitors over algae-covered ponds. Signs warned not to go near the water: ‘hungry alligators’ were ‘submerged below, some 15 feet long’, ready to lunge without warning at any ripple that might be a meal.

Cynthia gazed across the viscous green swamp surface. ‘When the alligator’s head is on the surface like that,’ she pointed at a gnarly snout, motionless in the algae soup, ‘his body is almost vertical – like he’s standing up with his tail on the bottom.’ Janey snorted.

‘You made that up.’

‘Did not,’ Cynthia frowned and let Janey walk on ahead by herself.

‘Did too.’ Janey called back.

It was too hot to respond. What did Janey know, anyway? She was three years younger. Cynthia almost bumped into her sister a few minutes later; Janey had come to a halt on the planked walkway.

‘Dare you to put your toe in.’ She had leaned heavily against Cynthia so that the bigger girl had to correct her balance. Cynthia had taken a deep breath, so she wouldn’t shove Miss Goodie Two Shoes in with the alligators. It wouldn’t be far to fall; the boardwalks were only a few feet above the surface of the water. What would happen if there was too much rain? Would the water level rise until the boardwalk became a highway of crawling ‘gators and zigzagging water snakes?

From where she sat on the bench now she could see a continuous line of people funnelling between the marble pillars of the house’s deep front porch; Mother and Janey would be an eternity shuffling through the rooms in that crowd. The yellow air throbbed with locusts and cicadas, rubbing, chafing,buzzing like the drone of a generator, louder, then softer, then louder. The hidden insect choir might as well be shrieking:‘hot hot hot!’ Cynthia pushed up her chin. Anything was better than dragging along behind fat-assed tourists as they admired pompous portraits, ornate plaster mouldings and curvy old furniture in the air conditioning.

On the green lawn in front of the plantation house, three enormous Carolina live oak trees spread their limbs close to the grass.

“Some live over 500 years. Their branches can be shaped by the wind,” Mother had pointed to the heavy boughs. The trees’ highest branches aired curtains of Spanish moss. Like crochet shawls of wood nymphs, the same grey filaments draped over the swamp’s manmade blinds, where Cynthia and Janey had looked for wildlife earlier. Spanish moss took its sole nourishment from nothing more than air and dust and rain, Mother had explained. Since Dad had left them two years earlier, Mother had become the world’s best-informed parent on every subject. She chanted out dates, names and relevant ‘believe-it-or-nots’ like a vainglorious Girl Guide leader.

What was Dad eating, alone in his apartment? Did he know how to cook? When they flew to see him, Cynthia and Janey were treated to dinner at Faneuil Hall and taken to shop in Filene’s Basement. Dad drove them see to Walden Pond and the Arboretum. His sprightly manner and light-hearted joshing made the girls laugh. They were beginning to see a new side of him. He had seemed quieter, more reserved in their Virginia home. She and Janey spoke to him every Sunday. Cynthia was going to live with him in Boston,soon as she finished high school. Maybe he had had enough of Mother – and Janey, for that matter.

Heat scorched through her scalp. Sweat had collected beneath her armpits and a trickle was making its way down between her breasts. It was as well that she’d chosen a halter-top and needed no bra. A slow fire seared her bare shoulders and arms. Cynthia squinted up at the umbrella of fronds in the tall palmetto palm overhead. The disk of shade,once over her bench, had slipped sideways, making a dark circle on the pathway; not much use. Across the way, a cool, dark tunnel of cypress trees revealed the start of the swamp walk. With a sudden shrug, Cynthia stood and walked over. She would be back in plenty of time to meet Mother and Janey.

As she strode toward the first boardwalk, a wan breeze caressed the sheen of sweat covering her. To her left through the cool jungle of trees, a blue heron was levering a spindly leg at the edge of the water. He placed black, gracile toes delicately down into the green murk. A light green fur of aquatic plant scum blanketed the water’s surface. She walked on. Soon the wall of trees opened to another boardwalk over another pond. Beside the planked boards floated the log they had stopped to examine earlier, gnarled, knobbled and thick with wet algae. Here and there faint patterns swirled, like traces of old embroidery that had been unpicked.

One chain of swirls curlicued under the boardwalk. A chink between the planks next to her feet revealed another black leathery log in the shade beneath her. On the log’s surface a small beacon winked on and off, as though light was momentarily reflecting off the back of a large beetle. Cynthia peered into the shadows through the gap. It wasn’t a light, but a hole; a hole the size of a quarter, opening and shutting. Beside it, another hole, opening and shutting. She froze. The holes were nostrils, widening and narrowing, without a sound. An enormous alligator, breathing in and out, directly beneath her. Above his broad snout rose two large bumps that housed marble-yellow eyes, each with its long black slit. She swallowed the excess saliva that had collected in her mouth.

Slowly,step by tiptoed step,she crossed the planks. She and Janey and Mother had probably walked right over him earlier. In the swamp water to her left another large reptiles lid across the green surface. His armour-plated body, ten feet in length, carved a dark V that opened out behind him in the algae. He reached the opposite edge of the pond and disappeared through a curtain of willow leaves. Cynthia walked on, into a shady grove, surrounded by elongated panels of branch and leaf, like thin shards of a dancer’s skirt. Now came the brisk staccato notes that had intrigued the three of them earlier.

‘Wazzit sound like, Ma’am?’ drawled a passing guide when they had asked him. Cynthia reproduced the double-syllabled ‘mm-mm, mm-mm’ sound.

‘Yes’m,’ the guide grinned at her.‘That there’s the male ‘gator. Lookin’ fer a mate.’ Janey had giggled. The rest of their walk had been peppered with Janey’s mating calls; ‘mm-mm, mm-mm.’ Did she hope to lure a romantic alligator to the boardwalk, Mother had joked. Janey had taken her mother’s hand and told her she was going to find her a new husband. Cynthia scowled. They hadn’t even seen an alligator. Now, an hour later, Cynthia had seen two. Aside from these stealthy monsters, she seemed to be the only soul in the swamp. No, there was a bird. On a peninsula of sand and pebbles on the far side, a large black fishing bird drew its shoulder joints together, then extended silver-striped wings in the muggy heat. He’d been there before – anhinga? – was that the name Mother had mentioned?

There were abrupt footsteps on the walkway. In front of her the panels of branch and leaf parted suddenly. An angular man emerged, his T-shirt hanging limply from narrow shoulders, his jeans held up by a worn belt. His jaw jerked as he spat a long stream of tobacco and saliva, watery red eyes looking her up and down. He neared and his hand shot out, grabbing her small breast, squeezing. Rough fingers pressed and twisted nipple and flesh. She opened her mouth to scream, inhaled. Then he was passing her, gone. Eyes wild, she pressed her arms across her chest. With a hoarse, windy sob she stumbled forward,then flew over the wooden planks, tears stinging, breath jerking. She hurled into the shadowy tunnels of cypress, then out into the next open expanse, sandals thwapping on wood. Even where the sun shone brightly, her flesh was cold, pimpled with gooseflesh. Her body jittered and her heart beat a fast tattoo.

She reached the edge of the swamp walk, then stood, breathing hard, shivering, looking right, then left. Her bench was empty. Two women in enormous sun hats were walking in the direction of the plantation house and she stepped toward the bench, out of their way. She looked past them at what might be Mother and Janey, coming down the steps between the thick white columns. They were like tiny play action figures, measuring only the width of one finger. It was all she could do not to run to them. A couple brushed past her, talking softly. Now Mother and Janey were two fingers’ tall, now three. Soon bits of their conversation floated toward her. ‘British colonists…the West Indies…’ As they neared, Cynthia inhaled to speak. But Mother was glaring at her, Elvis Presley lip curled. Cynthia’s mouth closed. She followed them to the car park, her walk, wooden, arms tight over her chest, while Mother pontificated:

‘They came from Barbados and the Caribbean Islands, too. When they moved to Charleston they built long, skinny two-to-four storey houses, sideways to the street, with long verandas facing thin side gardens. That way they paid tax only on the skinny part of the house that faced front. That’s what he meant about tax on frontage. Clever, no?’ Mother bent toward Janey and smoothed back wisps of hair that had escaped her ponytail. Then she clicked the key fob and opened her car door. Janey and Cynthia opened the side doors in the back. They all stood, waiting for the oven of heat to cool before climbing in.

Next to Janey in the back Cynthia buckled her seatbelt, then wove one arm and hand inside to hold it slightly away from her chest. Her other hand crept toward her sister’s lap, then lay still on the hot upholstery between them. When the car lurched to take a turn, she slid closer and had to stop herself from nestling into Janey’s side or burying her nose in the briny smell of the younger girl’s thick, wiry hair. At the motel Mother went into the en-suite bathroom. She emerged, dabbing her neck with a wet towel, to announce that she was going to a lecture on cultivating camellias at the plantation house. The girls could come. Or would they rather stay here and order room service for dinner? Janey’s quick ‘yes’ to the latter prompted Mother’s next remark: no fizzy pop, they could drink from the tap. And split dessert. The door clicked shut behind her.

Cynthia looked at Janey who had flopped onto her bed and shut her eyes in the cool hum of the air-conditioning.

‘Member that log that we saw in the swamp? The one we watched and thought it might be an alligator?’ Cynthia was sitting straight upright on her bed, her legs pressed together, facing Janey.‘ I went back to have a look while you were in the house. That log didn’t move. But beneath the boardwalk, there was another log, with a huge head and black nostrils – right there. He was probably there when we walked over earlier.’

Janey’s eyes opened and she looked at her sister.

‘Yeah,’ Cynthia breathed. ‘His nostrils were opening and shutting. Yellow eyes with long black slits. And, and another alligator slid out into the middle of the swamp leaving a trail in the algae. And then…’ Cynthia breathed in. And out. Janey would be frightened. Or she would tell Mother. That would be the worst;Mother would scold Cynthia for going by herself into the swamp, for not coming with them to the plantation house.

‘And then what?’ Janey asked.

‘Then I came back to the bench.’ Cynthia’s voice was small. She swallowed. ‘You never know, Janey. An alligator might be there all the time. You need to be careful…’ her voice wobbled and stopped. Across from her Janey frowned and picked up the room service menu.


LA Robbins

LA Robbins’ fiction is published mainly in UK magazines. In January, 2019, Storgy Magazine published her short story, ‘Ensnarement’. Her story, ‘Being Good’, was published in Italian in the European Writing Women Association’s compilation in autumn 2017. ‘Mirror, Mirage’ garnered third prize in London’s Writer-of-the-Year Awards, 2010. A British citizen, Lisa currently works as an editor, a university lecturer, and an alternative medicine practitioner in Florence, Italy. She devotes free time to trekking the Tuscan hillsides and dancing the Argentine tango. Lisa reads science fiction for The Literary Consultancy in London and judges for the Bridport Novel and Short Story competitions.

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