Dawn in the Everglades

Short-listed Entry: Fiction Category

By: Joyce Frohn

Gar broke his trance as sunlight poured through the unscreened windows. He slapped at some of the mosquitoes that had gathered on his arm. He sighed; ten dead. He tried to concentrate on his visions of panthers and Carolina parakeets, but they faded.

Is it my white blood makes my powers weak or is it the lack of a proper clan line? He pulled on his blue jeans and tee shirt, brushed his hair and gave the mirror a quick glance. Ought to cut my hair soon, it’s almost to my shoulders, he thought.

What was it he had to do today? Town, he had to go to town, to the store. He needed, where was that list? He found it on his bundle of snakeskins. Salt, cornmeal, ammo. Why did it have to be the store? He straightened the moss-stuffed mattress, kicking out lumps, then rolled it up and leaned it against the wall.

Gar cooked the last of the cornmeal. There was hardly a handful of mush in his bowl. His father told him how he had sold cornmeal. Gar couldn’t grow enough to feed himself, let alone sell any. He looked at the rafters and sighed. Last time there was anything hanging was last summer and even that big, old wild pig didn’t fill half the hooks.

Gar washed his bowl and pan with a bar of soap and threw the water on the floor. It ran out between the floorboards. He didn’t like fried meat for breakfast but he had to have something, so he got a possum out of the smoker in the corner. He threw the possum bones out the window when he was done. He heard a splash as they hit the water. Old Horny Head was still sleeping.

Gar wished he could go to the library instead of the store. It’d cost as much but… He remembered how thrilled he’d been as a kid when he had a chance to use the computers at the library.

He’d left school when the storm hit. He remembered last year people being excited when they heard someone build a library. No one had thought that a library would charge but without a government, he supposed they had to pay their bills somehow. He wished he could see videos of what things looked like before. He thought it would be nice to know what he shot last week. “It looked like a monkey,” he told his father, “but what kind?”

“Probably something that escaped from some zoo after the last hurricane,” his father said.

“Maybe it was worth money. If I knew what it was.” He pulled on his denim jacket, then put on his sneakers and checked the tape; they’d be good for another week at least. He remembered the deerskin jacket, trimmed with coon tails, his father had been buried in and wondered how many deer it had taken to make it. “Why am I the one left?” Gar sighed and asked his father’s forgiveness, touching the pouch around his neck. It was foolish to wish he’d been born earlier when there were deer and bear to be hunted.

Unless he wanted to try to live on meat alone, he had to buy cornmeal. He had to have salt, too. He had seen three good-sized rattlers that he didn’t kill because he didn’t have enough salt to preserve their skins. On his way out the door he laid a hair over the trapdoor that hid his gun.

On his way through the saw grass, he stopped, cut open a kudzu vine and dripped in Round-Up. That was the last of it. He’d used the last of his bullets two days ago on that monkey. Cornmeal, salt, ammo and now Round-Up, everything expensive at once. It always seemed to him that the trip to the store took longer than the trip to the library, though he knew it didn’t. He had gone only half a mile and he’d already counted five stands of kudzu. He would have to get them on the way back.

He hated the trip to the store, the looks Old Mary and Johnny gave him; pity, that was the worst. That and seeing Johnny. Johnny would sell anything, including his soul. He was going to start wearing one of those dumb feather bonnets any day now.

He cursed his absent, foreign mother who had given him his hated blonde hair and blue eyes. He scratched absently at his mosquito bites and cursed. Now John and Mary would know that mosquitoes made him swell up like any common tourist. “I wish Pa had picked a better mother.”

“That was not honorable,” his father said.

Gar begged his father’s forgiveness. “How could she have left you? How could she have left the Swamp?” For once his father was silent.

Gar walked into the old general store, past Aunt Mary and her dusty souvenirs. She nodded to him and his father. He paused to finger a calico shirt. Lovely, red with green and orange ribbons, just like the one his father had sold. What was it they had needed? Doctor’s fees, no,  it was… He remembered, his sneakers. He looked at the price tag of the shirt. Fifty dollars. “You know that’s the tourist price. Half that for you.” She glanced over his shoulder. “You almost ready? We got lots of problems.” Gar shook his head and turned to the general counter. He heard Aunt Mary murmering.

“Hi, Gar. What’dye want?” Johnny Redfeather leaned against the counter. His braids trailed off the counter. Gar felt shamed to have let his hair get half that long. He was getting almost as bad as Johnny. “Let me guess, new boots?” He looked down at the Duct tape on Gar’s sneakers and the bark snake-gaiters.

“Nope, can’t afford ’em.” He flicked blond hair out of his eyes. “All I want is a five pound box of cornmeal, pound of salt, box of .30-06 ammo, quart of Round-Up, oh-I guess I can spring for a bottle of orange pop.”

Johnny already had cornmeal and salt on the counter. “What size box of ammo?”

“Small.” Johnny put a box of twelve next to the cornmeal and salt and went to get the Round-Up.

“You been buying a lot of this.”

“Yeah. There’s a lot of kudzu.”

“It’ll kill that?” Johnny’s eyebrows arched.

“Yeah.”

Johnny grinned, “Good stuff. You can pick up the pop. Twenty dollars and fifty cents. Cash or trade?”

“Trade. Got some good rattlers here; couple of nutria. Where’s the price list?” He handed over the skins and pelts.

“On the bulletin board, tourists don’t like to see it. You got ’bout ten dollars worth. Should I add the rest to your bill?”

“Yeah.” Gar ran his finger down the list of fur prices. “What’s a Dalmatian?”

“Some kinda dog. White with black spots. Good price, yeah?”

“Maybe I’ll get lucky. Rattlers are up. Possum and skunk ain’t listed.”

“Not worth postage.”

“Iguana, either.” Gar looked over the other notices. “Anyone looking for my guide services?”

“No. They all pick guides off the Internet. Besides, you look…” Johnny sighed. Gar nodded, his father had told him that tourist folk only went by looks.

“Damn buckra.” Aunt Mary shot Gar an angry, silent glare.

“What’s that mean?”

Gar bit his tongue. “Dunno. Pa said it. ‘Bout, you know, tourists and school people and all.”

“How you getting on since your Pa died? The lonlies got you?”

“No. I’m not alone.”

“You mean the spirits your Pa was always talking ’bout?”

At the tourist counter, Mary frowned at both of them.

Gar gathered his things, and dropped them in the cotton sack on his shoulder. He picked up his soda and walked down to the dock. He put the empty bottle in the recycling bin along with the empty Round-Up bottle.

He made good time on the three-mile trip to his cabin. He dipped up a bucket of river water on his way up the house ladder. As usual, he kicked the door open as loudly as possible and set the bucket down.

A quick glance around told him that no one had found the cabin while he was away. Gar laid the sack on the table and put the groceries in a tin box on the wall. He poured the water into the purifier in the corner. When he finished pumping the water into a crock, it was the color of weak tea. That was good; Pa always said that only tourists liked their water unflavored. He covered the crock with a piece of cloth. He slid his gun from its hiding place, slung it on his shoulder, picked up the bag and went out.

He poled his boat out to his trap line. The first box trap, covered in leaves, was empty. He checked the bait, recovered it and went on. The next one had a raccoon. He clubbed it through the top of the trap and gutted it with one flick of his knife.  He tossed the entrails over his shoulder and dropped the carcass in his bag. He wiped the blood off his knife with moss and rebaited the trap. As he followed the meandering waterway, he heard the roar of an airboat in the distance. He kept behind a clump of cypress trees till it passed. It might be tourists but no sense being stupid.

The rest of the trap line yielded two nutria, three muskrats and one skunk. He put his bag in the boat and went to deal with the skunk. He stood upwind from it and threw clumps of moss at it until it sprayed. He dumped it out. No use killing what he couldn’t eat and couldn’t sell. His eyes watered from the smell. He headed for home. He spotted a GPS transmitter for the latest mine. He worked his knife into the soft ground around it. It slipped into the slow current going to the ocean.

When he got home, he skinned his kills and pegged them out. He threw the nutria out the window. The click of a gator’s jaws and the splash the gator made when he hit the water was a comfort. He pitied the city folk that didn’t have a good house guardian. After he put the muskrats in the smoker, he checked the level of chips. He lit the pot-bellied stove and fried the coon. Finally, he could have cornmeal mush, he thought as dipped water from the crock.

After he ate, he tossed the bones out the window. They never hit the water. He washed the dishes with a bar of soap and tossed the water on the floor. He slid his gun back into its hiding place and tucked the shells next to it. On his way out, he picked up his snake stick. He poled back to the skunked trap and pulled it into the boat with his snake stick; poled the boat for almost three miles. He took a deep breath and dumped the moss out of the trap. He rubbed the moss over himself. His eyes and nose burned. He stepped onto the shore and began to pick his way through the underbrush.

Finally, he got to the blind he had built. He listened to his father telling about his childhood, about the dozens of small towns, black and white, that were speckled through the swamp. Gar knew they were ghost towns, underwater, or tourist colonies with the swamp cleared all around. He ignored the mosquitoes that clustered on his face.

His father told him about alligators being so common that tail steak was “poverty food”. Gar’s grandfather told him about the great flocks of egrets. Gar thought of the few rookeries that remained. His grandfather told him about the sea turtles that came by the hundreds to lay their eggs. Gar knew the nests left had to be guarded by volunteers against poachers, vandals, and ATV’s. His distant ancestors came; telling him about parakeets and panthers.

Gar wished some Carolina parakeets had survived, even in a zoo. He had seen drawings but there weren’t even any photos. He couldn’t form the proper images of their spirits without a good picture of them. Ancestors told him about hiding escaped slaves and a war they had come so close to winning. Only a few more soldiers and a little more luck and they would have won the Seminole War and then…

It was a soft coughing noise that pulled Gar back. He peered through the netting.There she was. Gar wondered if this was the last Florida panther. The grass was moving between her paws.  A face appeared, mewing softly. A kitten. He heard answering mews. A full litter. There was hope. He waited an hour after they moved on. He left the skunked moss behind, for next time.

When he got home, he stripped and jumped into the river. He laughed, remembering tourists afraid to get close to the water.

He hung his clothes on his snake stick and let them dangle in the river. He hung his shoes off the house ladder by their laces. The skunk smell was still strong, but tolerable. He put on his other jeans and tee shirt. He’d have to wash clothes before he went to see the cougar again. He couldn’t risk getting his Sunday clothes skunky.

He took one of the muskrats out of the smoker. While it was frying, he mixed a batch of cornbread and put it to bake in the potbellied stove.

He went to light the kerosene lamp. It was low. He wished he’d checked earlier, now he’d have to go to the store again; if they still have kerosene. The store bill must already be pushing the limit, he thought. “Maybe one of those Dalmatians will turn up before,” his father said.

“If I could just focus my powers a little better. Or maybe just go to bed earlier.” He turned on the radio.

“This is WSBC, The Seminole Broadcasting Station. We’ll return to the 90’s with a special program of Sonny Nevaquaya’s music after this brief news break on the state of the war.” Gar licked his dry lips, not even the beguiling flute couldn’t distract him from his worries. His lips tightened.  He turned off the radio and blew out the lamp. Settling himself on the moss-stuffed mattress, he began his meditation chants.

He was awakened by the scream of a panther and the chittering of hundreds of parakeets. He waved the cloud of mosquitoes from, his face, careful not to kill any. They were a good weapon against the white man. He washed his face in the crock of water and pulled on his calico shirt and boots. He grabbed his rifle, shot-pouch and powder horn from the wall. He grabbed the corn bread from the stove. He stuffed it in to his shirt as he hurried down the steps. His mother’s brother and the rest of his clan were calling.

“I’m coming. This time the Swamp won’t lose.” he said.

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