It smiles up at us from the sandy bank of the blackwater creek. Ancient jaws clamped tight to matted fur and mangled limb. Statue-like. Your breaths come in heavy bursts beside me. Your hiking boots anchoring you to rickety planks of boardwalk.
What the hell is that? you ask. What the hell has it got in its mouth? You jerk back from the railing when it bucks sideways in the freshly scarred mud. It drags its scaled, knobby mass further up the shore. Glassy crocodilian eye reflecting canopy and sky. It maneuvers its mammalian prey with jaws and teeth, a slow-motion juggling act in its cypress swamp auditorium. Bald cypress trees lean in to watch, like an audience of silent spectators. Black and gray matted fur tumble like an organic Rubik’s cube within a cage of conical teeth. Colors and textures shifting in a jumbled array. I search for a face within the chaos of anonymous corpse… Nothing, until a lifeless mask of raccoon appears. And you have your answer.
That’s so sad, you say in sterile fascination. No hint of genuine empathy in your tone…
Another deerfly slices at my skin, its razor mandibles slurping at a droplet of pooled blood. I slap at it…and miss. Watching its translucent wings escape out into the forest. Your lips part as you expel CO2. Salty sweat on your skin from the humidity and heat. A bullfrog grunts from somewhere nearby. Turtles pop the surface where the creek is wider. Your eyes never leave the scene of the kill. You’ve tied your black hair back in braids.
A cloud moves across the sun, darkening the swamp around us. Twenty minutes now without any sight of another hiker.
How did it do it? you ask, as if asking yourself. Killing a raccoon in broad daylight like that?
My fingers scratch at my swollen wound.
It looks like an ambush, I say. A lot of patience. I bet it waited on the bottom there in the leaf litter. Ipoint a swollen finger at the spot where I would hide. The raccoon probably went to the edge to drink. Then wham… I smack my hands together for emphasis, and you jerk slightly. Tried not to show it.
Snout, whiskers, and ivory teeth tumble. Loosened…clamped tight. The raccoon’s empty camera eyes move out of sight. Belly up, legs splayed, tail hanging. The cypress trees creak as they rock in the summer breeze. Then the gator is lifting itself up off the earth into an upward-facing dog pose. Its powerful jaws holding its prey up to the sky like an offering. The darker mud of upturned creek now exposed beneath it. It smiles again with its toothy grin.
My heart quickens at the sight of your hair hanging over the smooth, flexible cartilage of your ear. I imagine the texture of your fleshy lobe. The forest continues bleeding downstream: tannins, sticks and leaves, dark shapes of minnows kicking tiny caudal fins. The cloud moves past, letting in more light once again. You let out a moan when the gator lifts the raccoon high above the ferns and cypress knees. Stays poised in the air, as if locked in a state of worship on its forest altar. Then slams its partner down against the earth, with an audible thump. My heart races at the purity of its justified violence, at the presence of you beside me watching. Still not another hiker in sight. This scene picked out for us alone.
Again and again, the ancient reptile lifts its mammalian partner high above the earth, freezes, and then slams its meal down in hammer-like motions. Your amber eyes never look away. Not until a single leg tears free, the rest of the body lost within the fern foliage on the shore. The leg hangs cigar-like from that smiling mouth. Comical and perverse. Your eyes meet mine, as if seeking refuge. And I know that I’ll have you in time.
We watch it toss the leg back down its throat with an expert’s ease, lacking the ability to chew its meal into bits. Its throat muscles work to push the limb down. Without a moment’s hesitation, it’s climbing the bank in search of its three-legged meal. It retrieves it from the thick cover of leather ferns, slides back down the bank, sinks below the surface of the water. A burst of air bubbles rise, popping in the atmosphere. The creek continues flowing – the gator like a misshapen log on the bottom. Camouflaged in its preferred aquatic habitat.
I smash a deer fly on my knuckles – blood. Too late. The itch begins to set in. You lean forward against the wooden railing once again. A Smilax vine beside you reaches for the sky, equipped with a hunger of its own – gripping the 4 X 4-inch wooden post in a perpetual chokehold. I put my elbows on the railing beside you. Listen to your breathing.
When the creek comes alive, we both jerk back: alligator and raccoon dancing beneath the surface. Spinning gracefully together as one. The absurd nature of the image like a sign from the universe that my thoughts are true. Hunter and hunted continue to twirl, dancing face-to-face within clouds of stirred sediment. I should divert my eyes, but I cannot. I have to know… Nor can you look away, it seems. We watch together, predator and prey spinning in a Cinderella ballroom dance. The sheer power of muscled tail and torso. Waves breaking along the shore.
Energy disperses in every direction, waves reverberating off the bank and colliding with others. Odor of methane and sulfur rises. Energy flows between us, like a mystical force. I know you feel it too. My fingers so close to yours on the railing. I imagine my hand closing over yours, and gently clamping down.
Randy Goggin lives on the gulf coast of Florida, where he works as park ranger for Pinellas County Parks and Conservation Resources. With an interest in the biological sciences and the literary arts, his writing grapples with the brokenness of the natural world and the human soul. He loves nature, cephalopods, and his daughter, Liv, and he was once assaulted by a red-winged blackbird while reading at the beach.