Then she moans, softly.
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 amusement.
Excerpted from St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell Copyright © 2006 by Karen Russell. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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