FULL STORY APPEARS IN THE JANUARY 2009 ISSUE!
Behind the cottage is a shadowed trail through the mangrove trees. It runs parallel to the bay, and the ground to that side is littered with seaweed and dead branches. I stop to look at a trio of white birds while they stroll between exposed roots and use their curved, orange beaks to dig into the mud. It’s a peaceful, postcard scene until a salty wind ripples through their feathers and swirls in my direction. I shield my eyes. When I look again, the birds have clustered around a single tree. They shake their heads, beaks raised, and flutter their wings, flashing the black tips. The trunk has the shape of a woman’s face in the bark, and below it, the birds jump into the air, half-flying in their agitation. I can’t look away from the face. Chunks of bark drop away. The lips plump, the mouth shows its broken, grey teeth, the eyes blink, and strands of hair swirl out of the wood and twist in the breeze. In my head, I hear moaning– the same as with the turtle. The mouth widens until the edges disappear around the curve of the trunk, and I can see past the teeth, past the fleshy, agile tongue, and into an endless space. The moan becomes a howl. I put my hands to my ears which disturbs the rug of mosquitoes covering my bare arms. As if on cue, they sting one after another. The pain releases me, and I run down the trail. Slaps up and down my arms scatter the mosquitoes, but they fly close, stinging at my ears and neck as I race for the open, sunny area ahead.
Stopping only when I reach the edge of the bay, I brace both hands on my knees while I pant. When I finally lift my head, I see pelicans flying low over the water and two guys fishing off opposite ends of a boat. Farther out, red and purple kayaks skim through the waves, their paddles flashing in unison. I turn my head to look back at the trees. Maybe, I’m dehydrated. Maybe, some repressed relationship thing is manifesting. I need something to eat.
The path takes me to the marina store where I rummage through the freezer and find a restorative triple chocolate ice cream bar. At the register, I watch the cashier read my shirt and realize that she is preparing to say something about it. I brace myself for a Jesus reference.
“Oh, honey. You’re not here by yourself, are you?”
This is not what I expected. Why all the concern about my relationship status? Maybe, she isn’t straight. I give her a more appraising look. She’s big and bleached blond and has a pink, stretched-out tube top under her marina shirt. She’s sexy for sure, and she knows it. Being a trained investigator, I notice the wedding ring. It’s unlikely she’s coming on to me. Besides, her tone is more motherly than vamp.
“No, my partner and I are staying at one of the cottages.”
“A partner, that’s good. There’s no problem, then.” She hands over my change and turns to the next customer.
I take my treat and sit on a bench overlooking the water. A crocodile is sunning on the far bank. It distracts me long enough to take note of its upper and lower teeth and the interlocking pattern they form, but then I think about the cashier and the hotel clerk. Something’s not right. I try to analyze their behavior as some strange form of homophobia, but I can’t make it fit. Once the remains of the ice cream are licked off my fingers, I throw the stick and wrapper away and check the time. It’s still too soon to disturb “The Great Writer,” so I return to the store and buy breakfast and snack supplies for the cottage. As I pay and ask about a restaurant, I look for clues in the cashier’s expression, but she just smiles in a friendly way. I watch the crocodile until I decide that Jenn’s had enough alone time.
Jenn isn’t in the cottage and hasn’t left a note, but I follow the direction of her wheel tracks until I see her up on the observation platform at something called the “Eco-Pond.” I watch her talking to someone I can’t see. Her curls bounce and her hands move around in that quick, excited, come-hither manner that she has. Then they drop, and I see her lean in and listen in an overly-attentive way as she rubs her fingers slowly along her joystick.
It’s time to climb the steps, and, as I do, the person she’s talking to is revealed. A banded ranger’s hat and sunglasses are followed by the green uniform with its brass name tag – Ranger R. Rodgers. I snicker. The woman must hear a lot of “where’s Trigger?” I lean down and give Jenn a kiss.
“Hey there, babe. I missed you at the cottage.”
“Oh, I was just too antsy to write, and I decided to explore. B.J., this is Rebecca. She’s telling me all about the birds here. Look at that one, with the iridescent purple sides. It’s a, well, I’ve forgotten already.” My lover waves her hands helplessly and smiles at the ranger.
She smiles back and fills in the answer. “A purple gallinule.”
“Gallinule, gallinule. I love words that feel good in your mouth.”
It’s as if they’re getting it on, right in front of me. I’m most likely overreacting, but it’s got to stop.
“Ranger R. Rodgers?” I pause so that she can see me suppress a laugh. “I have a question for you. What’s the deal about being a single lesbian here? Everyone freaks out until I tell them I’m here with my partner.” The only other person on the platform, a guy with unusually pale skin for this part of the world, turns at the word lesbian but then raises his binoculars and looks out over the pond. I can tell that he’s listening.
“Oh that.” The ranger’s voice is dismissive. “It’s the Everglades version of an urban legend. Something about a female swamp troll of some sort that snatches away single lesbians every so often. They say it’s been going on for over twenty years. I think it started because a few women who camped here on their own, meaning, of course, that they must be lesbians, were never heard from again. Of course, something might have happened, but we are at the end of the world, and people often come here to escape from their lives back home. There’s never been any specific evidence of a crime.” The ranger tilts her hat back and looks at my chest. “I like your shirt. I had a similar one, but my ex got it in the divorce.” She grins at my girlfriend.
Jenn looks at her and then at me and then points into the distance and says, “Look at that sunset.”