by Kirk Marshall
‘Gators moving upriver the day before yester. Evil-looking brutes, too, if you mark ‘em by the coil in their tail.’
These gnomic utterances whistled through Keepsake’s pink moustache as his jaws continued seething away, gums candied with nicotine.
‘Fancied fucking a mama gator one time. Not for the sport, you understand. For the science in it. We were all lizards once, that’s cold fact, I’ve read up on all the big nature journals and whatnot. Municipal library was selling the entire catalogue, what, last spring it must’ve been. All those National Geographic quarterlies. So I find myself bundling ‘em home in my wheelbarrow, but I suppose there’s no surprise I get sidetracked by another sort of biology at Tuck’s place. This one was a worm in a bottle, if you get my drift. And there’s Tuck and I set to yawping about evolution, because believe you me this country’s full of canopies teeming with candy-assed detractors, and I slap open a magazine to explicate my point, feel me, and damn if it ain’t a full-colour fold-out of the most beautiful specimen you ever hedged your husks on.’
Keepsake’s gums were marbled black with tobacco, and he cocked his head quizzically while discerning Briggs’s reaction.
‘Yessir, if she warn’t some gorgeous green serpent in the tyranny of her power. Thought right then I wouldn’t mind consummating in her particular tremble of the riverbank. It’d be like succumbing to your own jungle nature. After all, a soul’s nought but a predator kept inoculated in gentle flesh. First time I ever did fancy fucking a mama gator. Thing’d be like shedding yourself in the waters of rebirth.’
This appeared to settle things. Briggs persisted in tying an intricate knot from yellow elastic twine around a dragonfly sporting an orange head and white carapace. The disclosure seemed to elicit an untoward wind. He couldn’t leave it sitting, gnarled and bizarre though it was, unaddressed when the intimacy required to tell it had demanded its own fool bravery. Briggs shifted in his half-crouch position, and transferred his gaze to Keepsake’s benign cold face, less a man than the beatified ghost of an otter. Briggs belched with an academic surrender, smacking his lips.
‘You reckon they’re heading upstream for a reason?’
The two of them sat silent for the briefest of interstices, as frogs warbled in the sawgrass and pollen wobbled in the air. Keepsake shifted to speculate into the bristling archery of the sun, and Briggs followed the trajectory of Keepsake’s stare to a solitary kingfisher that had assumed roost on a root extruding from the mangrove halfway across the river gradient. The bird disbanded its perch while Briggs squinted against an optical frenzy of floaters and strobes of light mistranslated by the brain. In an instant, the creature was gone, some angel summoned from the forest with peyote. Concentric circles avenged themselves on the surface of the river, in a bid to erase all disturbances. Both men crouched, tongues slack.
‘They’re biding their time. Probably fixing to court.’
Keepsake’s voice seemed to traverse some unearthly terrain to bewitch Briggs’s ears. They both squatted, mud darkening their ankles. A spastic whip of activity fractured the settled blue face of the river. Now surmounted on the same bouncing mangrove root, the kingfisher yodelled on his throne. He set to work slapping the underside of a slender brown eel against the root while it thrashed for sanctuary. Soon the long antediluvian captive had been disinherited its struggle. Its cragged puckered head dandled slack from the kingfisher’s wet red bill.
The river resumed its sick dark meander.
‘You ever think the face of an eel is some masterful aberration?’ Keepsake croaked, turning suddenly to fix Briggs in his popeyed sights, as though divining a set of frightful features through the visor of an Eastern-European blackwood fog. ‘I mean, them things are hardly heaven-sent.’
‘All the time,’ Briggs grunted, returning his focus to the fly between his index finger and thumb.
‘Ghastly faces, too,’ Keepsake continued, now grinning, his teeth vivid enough that Briggs half-expected flowers to sprout from between their pink fissures. ‘Reminds me of goats,’ he ventured.
‘Or gargoyles,’ Briggs countered, affixing his fly to the line of a cane rod sitting sheathed in the dirt.
‘Nuh-uh, you’re thinking about gators,’ Keepsake said philosophically, hocking a mouthful of sebaceous swill into the tussock nearest his feet.
‘Believe me,’ Briggs Lockheed rumbled, as the kingfisher swallowed its catch with one economical pivot of its head, ‘the only one of us thinking about gators here is you, my friend. I don’t go swimming with monsters I can’t gut, bleach and stuff.’
Keepsake brought his chin to his chest. ‘Wiser feller than most,’ he replied with a mournful chuckle. ‘Sooner or later, though, all monsters abandon their source in favour of snaring their quarry. Better to fuck ’em,’ he reminded Briggs, ‘than for them to find you first, asleep in a storm of silt. Better them, you feel me, than some king of nightmares manifest to fuck you.’
Briggs had absconded to Florida because he’d convinced himself that its dripping kudzu environs would promise him the sanctuary for an anonymous hibernation, snorkelling up black austerities from his red cedar pipe, burrowing into books he’d always meant to read (like the epistolary perils of Melville’s high seas drifters), finessing watercolours of coastal birds, whipping the gradient of the becalmed waters with his tippet, angling for butterfly peacock bass and muskellunge at the headwaters of the Kissimmee, bottling caddis and damsel fly by luring the baffled gnats with a pen torch held fast betwixt the teeth.
He was readying to retire at the age of thirty-nine. Would cloak himself in quiet, resolve himself to the collapsing of his face over decades, become an old daft backwoodsman swallowed in tidepools of wizardly white hair, eat the plenty of the land with two buttery gums until his stomach shrivelled with the evils of time, grew so ancient he whistled in his sleep, died by drowning in the milky glottal clots that had softened his lungs while he traced the trembling grace of the wetland. All he could muster was the singular soulbright desire to dwindle into obsolescence, into finite memory, so that the only evidence of his American inheritance was that of a revenant adrift through the trees, some whiskery sylvan coot whose snowy folds of hair seemed to trail through the bay willows for weeks. He would greet extinction by tonguing the undersides of bromeliads, by surrendering all propriety, by swimming nude in the mud with the pythons and corn snakes, a pretty poltergeist music surfacing from his throat.
He did not interrogate his history, did not mourn the turns in the earth his flight from grace had effaced, did not dwell on the fossil record of his abandoned friends, did not suffer a spell of sentimental affection, was a defector who had elected to betray his whole life in a huff. He had pegged down a tent. Driven stakes into teeming green dirt. Idled by the subdued coal glow of a logfire. Controlled a federation of flame the width of a garden plot, scattered embers with a stoker of hickory, cooked anything he could catch, gagged down butterfly briquettes, mouthfuls of chargrilled moth. Navigated the stars from afar, leaping from Ursa Minor to Cassiopeia through a pearlstring of circumpolar constellations with his fond blue eyes. Lullabied himself to sleep with Beyoncé power ballads sung sotto voce. Fancied all the slime latitudes of Florida skanked to his growling rubato, miles of magnolia foliage whipping and scissoring as if all the single ladies would spill from their branches.
But Briggs was a resourceful man. He may have harboured poetical visions for his life on the lam, but he couldn’t keep the terminal curiosity of outliers at bay. At first there were only a few pestilent interlopers foolhardy enough to encroach on Briggs’s space, that quaggy zone upon which he had disburdened his knapsack, but the superstitious visitants who occasionally spied on him from the sawgrass flats appeared vigilant enough to persist in their business until they’d earned an invitation to breakfast. They were still deciding whether to report him, ambush him for dead or recruit his interest. He did not seek to entertain their scheme with even a fleeting semblance of intrigue, and so continued to ignore their flirtations and advances until they might acknowledge the sincerity of his hermitage and retreat again between the damp bowers of the hoptrees.
But it took only a few days of repeated surveillance to learn that these obdurate men were fishers, too: they were fixing to lure Briggs Lockheed in with their descrying eyes and spindly gait. He was being baited. It was enough to install a giddy wrath at the centre of his chest, but he retained his diffidence and went on pawing through his warped pharmacy paperback of Melville’s Typee, until one afternoon a solitary member of the wraithlike scouts trilled at him, chirruped from beneath a battered ballcap to solicit his attention, performed farty interludes with his armpit at Briggs, came loping towards camp through the choke of the long grass.
Briggs went scrabbling for his gun, a dark swarthy Walther PPK he kept secure in a bolthole of creek-laundered socks. He wasn’t about to be beset upon by redneck sadists from Allapattah, slandered by a gush of mace to the eyeball, bustled into the ooze of the bayou and pack raped into submission by hunchbacked gimps sporting gridiron helmets and tins of Vaseline.
Briggs went scuttling through the mud, his heart afire with fear, his windpipe tight with menace. His hands were shaking, his tongue slack, his composure thwarted and his staunch facility for Talmudic attention sent reeling. Still the gun was aglow in his fist, a frenzy of thermogenic elemental goop like some jungle foetus, and then it had cooled in his grip and began to solidify in his fingers, until it was no longer a mass of writhing plasma but a black iron piano that might accommodate a pocket and would tintinnabulate bullets into any spectator foolish enough to revere its refrain. He regained governance of his churning scarlet organs, quieted his desperate foiled guts. His nostrils were aflare for the good of the fight. Mud clung to his shanks as if the bog sought to reclaim him. Briggs stood waiting, his arm outstretched, the pistol aloft in his knuckles, the full thrum of his blood hunger coursing through the tines of the instrument to deter the stranger’s advance. Onward his vagrant neighbour progressed, the dry crunch of Blundstone boots detruncating the grass at its roots. Briggs exhaled and squinted down the sight of the gun. His finger tightened around the triggerhold and muscles redistributed themselves along his back.
‘No closer, thank you,’ Briggs crowed, shaking the pistol a little for clarification. ‘Whatever you’re selling I ain’t itching to entertain.’ He watched the lone figure deliquesce in the dwindling rivershine, but just as the warmth began to tremble back into his throat — a matter of ill-omened moments later — the vagrant had reappeared an alarming handspan’s distance away.
‘Back down, now! Off with you!’
The stranger possessed a hale woodsy face, a lissome swimmer’s body, and a verminous perfumed moustache that simulated the fashion of an aviator of experimental planes, of Alain Delon in Le Cercle Rouge. He wheezed in a blue wife-beater, a Miami Marlins cap assuming prime promotional real estate of the upper echelons of his forehead. The stranger’s neck tautened on some diaphragmatic diode, a wattle the likes to adorn some mossy Galapagos iguana.
‘Afternoon,’ greeted the hospitable skulk, ignoring the firearm thrust in his direction. He was gnawing the protein from his fingernails, kicking the dirt in whiskered vexation. ‘Been meaning to speak with you.’ He drew a figure-8 with his toe in the sunny soil. ‘But please, when you’re nice and ready.’
Briggs baulked, his thumb cocking the hammer back on the pistol before he thought to utter a consequent caution. He grit his teeth, and floundered for motivation. ‘I’ll shoot windows through your schlerotic haunch if you drift an inch closer. You hear? I’m trying to be self-explanatory, here. I’m gonna thump your nipples with the full fire and sting of my piece if you don’t wriggle your way back into the mangroves. I don’t mean to trade in abstractions. If you don’t saddle up your paddles and beat it, you best expect to inherit exit wounds to charm your children over for decades to come. Am I being abundantly clear?’
The man snapped his gaze from the sediment to engage Briggs with the entire pollen-harassed artillery of his pinhole pupils.
‘Welp, lemme see now. Sure we’re clear, chief. Like a stream in winter thaw,’ he grinned, a mouth of yellow husks. ‘Like a bell outside houses bulwarked to the first traces of plague. Like a cold gone body ensnared in headlights. Like mermaids plunging off rocks in the rain. Like a turd referred your way from heaven.’ The stranger’s face betrayed his prodigious amusement. ‘Like a madman scavenging with a handgun in the Florida swamp. Clear ain’t the trouble. What I’m puzzling is why you’re about to kill a potential ally when what’s clear is you’re trying to keep clean.’
The hinterland Alain Delon blew his nose into his hand, and applied it vigorously to his wheat jeans. Briggs blinked, and the man had his damp hand outstretched in a charitable overshare. ‘Keepsake,’ he pronounced, eyebrows cinched in anticipation, ushering Briggs to do the same. ‘I’m what you might regard an indigent of these parts.’
Briggs did not reciprocate, but merely lowered his gun to his hip and regarded the tiger bands of the darkening sky. ‘Pretty country you’ve got.’ He turned to Keepsake, and inclined his chin in blunt politesse. The golden hour had seized hold. They breathed whiskey pillars into the chill, sweet russet tendrils like violins being dragged from the interior of their chests. ‘Alright, Keepsake. What do you do in “these parts”?’
Keepsake mulled over how to convey the best version of himself, chewing fascistically over a hangnail. ‘I’m a brewer. We all are.’ Keepsake indicated the seething marsh behind him, surfing fingers along the underside of his jaw. ‘We’re unlicensed pirates, expert provocateurs. The cops have tried to hustle us out of the market, shut the activity down. They ain’t curried favour with anyone ’round these traps. Come to that, Florida’s Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco Division is pretty impotent when it comes to convincing people not to crave our fruit-cultured corn brew. Pigs ain’t enforcing much but smalltime wraps — parking tickets, boat registration fees, unlawful possession of suspected stolen property. Yet they sure as shit are enhancing the demand for our product. Far as our resident lawyer’s concerned, unless a verifiable witness actually catches us in the act, the bureau ain’t able to execute a state-administered warrant, and believe you me, we’re as quiet as a secret among manatees. To the extent that we ain’t been convicted over the course of six years, our moonshine’s practically an Immaculate conception. White lightning heavensent and frothing on down.’
Keepsake tweezered his moustache, and assaulted Briggs with another frivolous smirk. ‘We’ve been restoring the wild to this wetland long before you surfaced.’
Briggs had difficulty suppressing his surprise. He crossed his arms, and brought his chin to his chest.
‘How many of there are you? You run your own distillery?’ Briggs watched Keepsake shuffle in cryptic consent. ‘How much you fix to rake up per month?’
Keepsake gestured to Briggs for the gun. Briggs refrained from indicating that he even fathomed the behaviour. He hunched his shoulders, and made a pained face. After a long unflinching minute, Briggs retired the pistol into Keepsake’s open palm.
‘What’s your handle?’ Keepsake was already sighting along the gun to a bright meandering tamarind tree summoned from the water in the middle-distance. ‘Who can I say I’m confiding to?’
Briggs sighed, resolved to the gothic inevitability of being seduced back into the fold — into criminal industry. For the briefest of instances, he vacillated over using his pseudonym, but relented to the eminent trust in Keepsake’s exchange. ‘My name’s Briggs.’
‘And what do you do, Briggs?’ Keepsake had an eye closed now, and his tongue was worming between his teeth in concentration.
‘I’m retired.’ Briggs found the sentiment irremediably perverse the moment it left his throat. ‘I guess I’ve just been deciding on how best to live off the land. Enjoy nature. Catch game, cook my own food. Simplify.’
Keepsake furrowed his brow, and drew off a peal of shots directly into the bayou waters. The estuary sounded with the gunshot thunder, and birds of various plumage, including a tricoloured heron, erupted from canopies overhead. Briggs watched the lone stately bird sail into the purpling twilight. In seconds, its seraphic unearthly shape had vanished.
‘Welp, listen up now, Florida swamp. This here is my man Briggs,’ Keepsake yelled, his voice breathy with a corrosive zeal, disbanding Briggs’s pistol to the mud at his feet. ‘You’re gonna be real nice to this feller, ain’t you? All he’s after is a swell good time. If you don’t play too rough, he might just keep his clemency. Who knows? You never can tell what virtuous service spawns out of a beautiful friendship.’
And this was how Briggs had become inducted into the amnesty of the gnarled mosquitoey wilderness he would sometime later come to dread. Much later he would strive to recall this first meeting, recollect the exact augmentation of the riverbed and the violent thrum in the trees, but all he would remember was the way tens upon tens of alligators emerged from the lime and saltwort amplitude of the estuary to sun their mouths and thrash their plated tails, and he would register the steel heft of the pistol against his ankle as it winked at him while sinking into the soup of the basin. Briggs would remember this all much later when everything had gone wrong, and think as he always did since coming to Florida of the soapy decay of human bones. Even then, even at the exact moment he clasped Keepsake’s hand, his future had never looked more brittle.
Kirk Marshall (@AttackRetweet) is a Brisbane-born writer and teacher living in Melbourne, Australia. He has written for more than eighty publications, both in Australia and overseas. His second collection of fictions, “Popcorn In The Barrel: Stories”, is forthcoming from KUBOA Press. He edits “Red Leaves”, the English-language / Japanese bi-lingual literary journal. He now suffers migraines in two languages.
Image via Creative Commons.