Two sisters sharing an adventure on a humid Florida night are among the characters featured in Karen Russell's collection of short stories.
Ava Wrestles the Alligator
My sister and I are staying in Grandpa Sawtooth's old house until our father, Chief Bigtree, gets back from the Mainland. It's our first summer alone in the swamp. "You girls will be fine," the Chief slurred. "Feed the gators, don't talk to strangers. Lock the door at night." The Chief must have forgotten that it's a screen door at Grandpa's — there is no key, no lock. The old house is a rust-checkered yellow bungalow at the edge of the wild bird estuary. It has a single, airless room; three crude, palmetto windows, with mosquito-blackened sills; a tin roof that hums with the memory of rain. I love it here. Whenever the wind gusts in off the river, the sky rains leaves and feathers. During mating season, the bedroom window rattles with the ardor of birds.
Now the thunder makes the thin window glass ripple like wax paper. Summer rain is still the most comforting sound that I know. I like to pretend that it's our dead mother's fingers, drumming on the ceiling above us. In the distance, an alligator bellows — not one of ours, I frown, a free agent. Our gators are hatched in incubators. If they make any noise at all, it's a perfunctory grunt, bored and sated. This wild gator has an inimitable cry, much louder, much closer. I smile and pull the blankets around my chin. If Osceola hears it, she's not letting on. My sister is lying on the cot opposite me. Her eyes are wide open, and she is smiling and smiling in the dark.
"Hey, Ossie? Is it just you in there?"
My older sister has entire kingdoms inside of her, and some of them are only accessible at certain seasons, in certain kinds of weather. One such melting occurs in summer rain, at midnight, during the vine-green breathing time right before sleep. You have to ask the right question, throw the right rope bridge, to get there — and then bolt across the chasm between you, before your bridge collapses.
"Ossie? Is it just us?" I peer into the grainy dark. There's the chair that looks like a horned devil's silhouette. There's the blind glint of the terrarium glass. But no Luscious. Ossie's evil boyfriend has yet to materialize.
"Yup," she whispers. "Just us." Ossie sounds wonderfully awake. She reaches over and pats my arm.
"Just us girls."
That does it. "Just us!" we scream. And I know that for once, Ossie and I are picturing the same thing. Miles and miles of swamp, and millions and millions of ghosts, and just us, girls, bungalowed in our silly pajamas.
We keep giggling, happy and nervous, tickled by an incomplete innocence. We both sense that some dark joke is being played on us, even if we can't quite grasp the punch line.
"What about Luscious?" I gasp. "You're not dating Luscious anymore?"
Uh-oh. There it is again, that private smile, the one that implies that Ossie is nostalgic for places I have never been, places I can't even begin to imagine.
Ossie shakes her head. "Something else, now."
"Somebody else? You're not still going to, um," I pause, trying to remember her word, "elope? Are you?"
Ossie doesn't answer. "Listen," she breathes, her eyes like blown embers. The thunder has gentled to a soft nicker. Outside, something is scratching at our dripping window. "He's here."
You know, Ossie's possessions are nothing like those twitch-fests you read about in the Bible, no netherworld voices or pigs on a hill. Her body doesn't smolder like a firecracker, or ululate in dead languages. Her boyfriends possess her in a different way. They steal over her, silking into her ears and mouth and lungs, stealthy and pervasive, like sickness or swallowed water. I watch her metamorphosis in guilty, greedy increments. Ossie is sweating. Ossie is heavy-breathing. She puts her fist in her mouth, her other hand disappearing beneath the covers.
Then she moans, softly.
And I get that peculiar knot of fear and wonder and anger, the husk that holds my whole childhood. Here is another phase change that I don't understand, solid to void, happening in such close proximity to me. The ghost is here. I know it, because I can see my sister disappearing, can feel the body next to me emptying of my Ossie, and leaving me alone in the room.
Luscious is her lewdest boyfriend yet. The ghost is moving through her, rolling into her hips, making Ossie do a jerky puppet dance under the blankets. This happens every night, lately, and I'm helpless to stop him. Get out of here, Luscious! I think very loudly. Get back in your grave! You leave my sister alone...
Hag-ridden, her cot is starting to swing.
I am so jealous of Ossie. Every time the lights flicker in a storm, or a dish clatters to the floor, it's a message from her stupid boyfriend. The wind in her hair, the wind in the trees, all of it a whistled valentine. And meanwhile who is busy decapitating stinking ballyhoo for the gators? Who is plunging the Bigtree latrines, and brushing the plaster teeth inside the Gator Head? Exactly. At sixteen, Ossie is four years my senior and twice my height. Yet somehow I'm the one who gets stuck doing all the work. That's the reward for competence, I guess. When the Chief left, he put me in charge of the whole park.
Our family owns Swamplandia!, the island's #1 Gator Theme Park and Swamp Cafe, although lately we've been slipping in the rankings. You may have seen our wooden sign, swinging from the giant kapok tree on Route 6: COME SEE SETH, FANGSOME SEA SERPENT AND ANCIENT LIZARD OF DEATH!!! All of our alligators, we call "Seth." Tradition is as important, the Chief says, as promotional materials are expensive. When my mother was alive, she ran the show, literally. Mom took care of all the shadowy, behind-the-scenes stuff: clubbing sick gators, fueling up the airboats, butchering chickens. I didn't even know these ugly duties existed. I'm pretty sure Ossie is still oblivious. Osceola doesn't have to do chores. "Your sister is special," the Chief has tried to explain to me, on more than one occasion. I don't cotton to this sophist logic. I'm special too. My name is a palindrome. I can climb trees with simian ease. I can gut buckets of chub fish in record time. Once Grandpa Sawtooth held a dead Seth's jaws open, and I stuck my whole head in his fetid mouth.
There are only two Swamplandia! duties that I can't handle on my own: stringing up the swamp hens on Live Chicken Thursdays, and pulling those gators out of the water. This means that I can't compete in the junior leagues, or perform solo. It doesn't bother me enough to make me braver. I still refuse to wade into the pit, and anyways, I am too weak to get my own gator ashore. Our show is simple: the headlining wrestler, usually the Chief, wades into the water, making a big show of hunting the sandy bottom for his Seth. Then he pulls a gator out by its thrashing tail. The gator immediately lurches forward, yanking the Chief back into the water. The Chief pulls him out again, and again the infuriated gator pulls my father towards the water. This tug-of-war goes on for a foamy length of time, while the crowd whoops and wahoos, cheering for our species.
Finally, the Chief masters his Seth. He manages to get him landlocked and clamber onto his back. This is the part where I come in. Aunt Hilola strikes up a manic tune on the calliope—ba-da-DOOM-bop-bop!—and then I'm cartwheeling out across the sand, careful to keep a grin on my face even as I land on the gator's armor-plated scutes. My thighs are waffled with the shadow of those scutes. Up close, the Seths are beautiful, with corrugated gray-green backs and dinosaur feet. The Chief, meanwhile, has taken advantage of my showy entrance to lasso black electrical tape around the Seth's snout. He takes my bare hands and holds them up to the crowd, splaying my little palms for their amusement.
Then he closes them around Seth's jaws. I smile and smile at the tourists. Inside my tight fist, the Seth strains and strains against the tape. The Chief keeps his meaty hands on top of my own, obscuring the fact that I am doing any work at all. The Chief likes to remind me that the tourists don’t pay to watch us struggle.
At some point, I must have dozed off, because when I wake up the screen door is banging in the wind. I glance at my watch: 12:07. When Mom was alive, Ossie had a ten o'clock curfew. I guess technically she still does, but nobody's here to enforce it. She lets Luscious possess her for hours at a time. It makes me furious to think about this, and a little jealous, Luscious taking Ossie's body on a joy ride through the swamp. I worry about her. She could be deep into the slash pines by now, or halfway to the pond. But if I leave the house, then I'll be breaking the rules, too. I pull the covers over my head and bite my lip. A surge of unused adrenaline leaves me feeling sick and quakey. The next thing I know, I'm yanking my boots on and running out the door, as if I were the one possessed.
Strange lights burn off the swamp at night. Overhead, the clouds stretch across the sky like some monstrous spider-web, dewed with stars. Tiny planes from the Mainland whir towards the yellow moon, only to become cobwebbed by cloud. Osceola is much easier than an animal to track. She's mowed a drunken path through the scrub. The reeds grow tall and thick around me, hissing in the wind like a thousand vipers. Every few steps, I glance back at the receding glow of the house.
Several paces ahead of me, I see a shape that turns into Ossie, pushing through the purple cattails. She's used hot spoons and egg dye to style her hair into a lavender vapor. It trails behind her, steaming out of her skull, as if Ossie were the victim of a botched exorcism. The trick is to catch Osceola off guard, to stalk her obliquely behind the dark screen of mangrove trees, and then ambush her with my Flying-Squirrel Super Lunge. If you try to stop her head-on, you don't stand a chance. My sister is a big girl, edging on two hundred pounds, with three extra eyeteeth and a jaguar bite. Also, she is in love. During her love spells, she rolls me off her shoulders with a mindless ox-twitch, and steps right over me.
What is she going to do with Luscious? I wonder. What does she do out there with Luscious for hours every night? I'm more fearful than curious, and now she is waist-deep in the saw grass, an opal speck shrinking into the marsh. At odd intervals, rumbling above the insect drone, I hear one of the wild gators bellow. For a monster, it's a strangely plaintive sound to make: long and throaty, full of a terrible sweetness, like the Chief's voice grown gruff with emotion. Ever since he left us, I am always listening for it. It's a funny kind of comfort in the dark.
As I watch, Ossie moves beyond the clarity of moonlight and the silver-green cattails, subsumed into the black mangroves. A new noise starts soon after.
I pace along the edge of the marsh, too afraid to follow her, not for the first time. This is it, this is the geographical limit of how far I'll go for Ossie. We are learning latitude and longitude in school, and it makes my face burn that I can graph the coordinates of my own love and courage with such damning precision. I walk along the dots of the invisible line, peering after her. There's a syrupy quality to this kind of night: it's humid and impenetrable, pouring over me. I stand there until Ossie is lost to sight.
"Ossie... ?" It's only a half-yell, the very least I can do. Then, spooked by the sound of my own voice, I turn and walk quickly back towards the bungalow. It's her body, I think, it's her business. Besides, Ossie likes being lovesick. How do you treat a patient who denies there's anything wrong?
Behind me, the bellows intensify. I walk faster.
Most people think that gators have only two registers, hunger and boredom. But these people have never heard an alligator bellow. "Languidge," Ms. Huerta, our science teacher, likes to lisp, "is what separates us from the animals." But that's just us humans being snobby. Alligators talk to one another, and to the moon, with a woman's stridency.
Excerpted from St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell Copyright © 2006 by Karen Russell. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.