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 dont 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 Im
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, its 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 Im
the one who gets stuck doing all the work. Thats the reward for competence, I
guess. When the Chief left, he put me in charge of the whole park.
Our family owns Swamplandia!, the islands #1 Gator Theme Park and Swamp Café,
although lately weve 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 didnt even know these ugly duties
existed. Im pretty sure Ossie is still oblivious. Osceola doesnt have to do
chores. Your sister is special, the Chief has tried to explain to me, on more
than one occasion. I dont cotton to this sophist logic. Im 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 Seths jaws open,
and I stuck my whole head in his fetid mouth.
There are only two Swamplandia! duties that I cant 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 cant compete in the junior leagues, or perform solo.
It doesnt 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 calliopeba-da-DOOM-bop-bop!and then Im
cartwheeling out across the sand, careful to keep a grin on my face even as I
land on the gators 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 Seths snout. He takes my
bare hands and holds them up to the crowd, splaying my little palms for their
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