Collective Fallout would like to congratulate Sandra Gail Lambert for the inclusion of her story “The Swamp Goddess” in Year’s Best Lesbian Fiction 2009. This story was originally published in the very first issue of Collective Fallout.
THE FULL STORY APPEARS IN THE JANUARY 2009 ISSUE!
“Can the devil act as an angel?”
Nick looked at me as if I’d lost my mind, which I’d wondered for the last hour, too.
“Listen, I know that drunks get philosophical,” he said, “but this is way over my head. You’ve got to keep that theological stuff for when I’m sober.”
Here I sat in Sidetrack on Halsted, my favorite bar, listening to great music and watching hordes of men saunter by, thinking about theological issues on a Friday evening. So Nick was right. So right that I giggled, finally falling into peals of laughter.
Part of me found this funny, but I also laughed to entice him toward me. His 6’3” frame hovered over as his long arms engulfed me, pulling me into a kiss. I closed my eyes and lost myself in the passion, even though I knew that he looked back at me, green eyes open, the whole time.
I still grinned like a school boy when he sat back on his bar stool.
“I thought you were a history professor, anyway. Why are you talking about the devil and angels?” he asked. “I’m just a cop. We can’t keep up with these deep things, especially after two Cosmos.”
An eight-year-veteran of the Chicago police, Nick pretended he had nothing to do with intellectualism but in reality had deep insights and incredible knowledge. He often complained about the bad habits and stupid behaviors of too many of his peers on the force.
“What do you think three Jack and cokes did to me?!”
“Made you into some sort of crazed monk.” Nick poked me in the stomach. “Dr. Sean, the crazed monk is your new name.”
“Okay, okay, but answer my question. Can the devil act as act as an angel?”
“Are you smoking something?” Nick asked, even though I had never done an illegal drug and he knew it.
“Seriously, answer me.”
“Okay. But first explain what in the hell you mean.”
“I don’t think I can.”
“Alright, the devil as angel, an exposé by Nick,” he said in a mock reporter’s voice. “Can the devil become an angel? I suppose he can. Isn’t he a fallen angel to begin with?”
“Yeah. I guess that’s not what I meant. Can something bad or evil do good?”
“Listen, you’re a little nuttier than usual tonight. It has to be a possibility, unless you believe in moral absolutes – good and bad would have to be totally separate, which is something you don’t believe. You always defend people I’ve arrested. You talk all the time about how you could never do what I do because you don’t believe in a black and white world, the world of a police officer.”
Nick had me thinking. His logical, rational approach to everything really helped tonight because I had to describe something in my mind that defied explanation. I needed to hear him affirm what I had always believed, otherwise my mind might spin out of control through no fault of the whisky.
“Now,” he continued, “tell me what in the hell this is about!”
“Promise you won’t think I’ve gone insane?”
“No more than I always wonder.”
“Alright, relax, just tell me.” He grabbed my hand under the table and squeezed tightly.
“I think I met a vampire,” I said. Nick raised an eyebrow but thankfully didn’t smile.
“Someone who drinks blood? I’ve told you about some of ‘em we’ve arrested.”
“No, I mean a real one.” The tension became too much, so I reverted to humor to relax myself. I affected my Anthony Hopkins as Professor Van Helsing voice: “Nosferatu, he lives beyond the grace of God.”
Nick laughed, then leaned over to me. “Listen, you never have trouble telling me anything, so spill it. I won’t make fun of you. Just tell me about this and we can go from there. Angels, devils, vampires, whatever, let it out.”
I took a deep breath and thought through the entire story in my mind, for probably just a minute though it felt like an eternity, making sure that I had all of the facts right. As a cop, Nick always required that I give him extremely detailed and accurate witness accounts.
THE FULL STORY APPEARS IN THE JANUARY 2009 ISSUE!
“You always drive too fast at night!”
“No, I don’t. I drive just fine. You’re the problem! You always grab the armrest like it could stop the car. And really, you don’t have to gasp every time the road curves. How am I supposed to drive with all that?”
“Well, I gasped with good cause tonight, didn’t I?”
Amber froze. “Beth, I’m sorry. That curve came around so fast and …” Her words dropped and then neither one uttered a sound. Beth looked hopelessly into Amber’s eyes, close enough that she saw her face reflected – the sharp line of her dark hair against her usually piercing gaze. Then she saw Amber, her lovely hazel eyes, always a different color depending on the light or the color of her shirt, and her strawberry-blonde hair, now with a few pieces hanging out of her braid. Amber’s lips usually seemed poised to speak; Beth only ever saw her truly relaxed in her sleep.
They both looked away, taking in the room around them. An overstuffed leather couch sat against one wall, facing a bizarre floating globe in the corner. Past the couch were two matching bookshelves, both filled to the ceiling. Light came from both an overhead lamp and a window that looked onto a rolling field of grass. Clouds blocked any view of the sky. Standing at this window, Beth tried to open it, but saw that there was no latch. In fact, there was no window seam at all. The glass seemed to be an extension of the wall itself. Fighting a rising sense of panic, Beth whispered, “Where are we? What just happened?”
Amber stood in front of the bookshelves, glancing through the titles. “The bookshelf might have some clues.” Tracing spines, she noticed, “Look, some of these are our books. They’ve even got our old college ‘Used’ stickers still on them.” Amber pulled a slender copy of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot off the bookshelf.
Beth was grateful for the distraction. “Oh, God, that book is from my tedious required English class.”
“Here are some of mine, too. Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Descartes – it’s been forever since I’ve looked at these.”
“Our strange friend in the corner might be able to tell us something,” Beth said, walking over to the globe.
“I don’t want to look at that yet. It’s creepy.”
“Not as creepy as the window – there’s no latch. And this globe is amazing. I’ve never seen anything like it. Look – it’s a perfect sphere, and the screen somehow bends each degree along the curve,” Beth walked closer and reached out to touch the warm, smooth surface. “It seems to be hanging alone in mid-air. That can’t be – there must be some wire here somewhere. I wish I’d had this technology for my installation at the Keppler Gallery. I could have –”
“Beth, look at this. You took notes in the margins of Godot – they’re striking.”
Beth walked to Amber, took the book from her outstretched hand, and read aloud: “‘Waiting for Godot = waiting for God = purgatory.’ You think we’re in purgatory?”
“I don’t know. Yes, maybe? No? I was driving that tiny car and the curve happened so fast. It came out of nowhere. I should have been going slower, I should have been more careful in the rain, I should have –”
“Amber, stop,” Beth touched her arm. “There’s nothing we can do about it now.” She reached around Amber and pulled her close. They held each other, Beth leaning her head into the perfect crook of Amber’s neck, until Amber slowly pulled away.
“Beth, we’re dead. What are we supposed to do?”
Beth looked down at the book still in her hand, “Keep waiting?”
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.”
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