Ava Wrestles the Alligator
My sister and I are staying in Grandpa Sawtooths old house until our father,
Chief Bigtree, gets back from the Mainland. Its our first summer alone in the
swamp. You girls will be fine, the Chief slurred. Feed the gators, dont talk
to strangers. Lock the door at night. The Chief must have forgotten that its a
screen door at Grandpasthere is no key, no lock. The old house is a
rust-checkered yellow bungalow at the edge of the wild bird estuary. It has a
single, airless room; three crude, palmetto windows, with mosquito-blackened
sills; a tin roof that hums with the memory of rain. I love it here. Whenever
the wind gusts in off the river, the sky rains leaves and feathers. During
mating season, the bedroom window rattles with the ardor of birds.
Now the thunder makes the thin window glass ripple like wax paper. Summer rain is still the most comforting sound that I know. I like to pretend that its our dead mothers fingers, drumming on the ceiling above us. In the distance, an alligator bellowsnot one of ours, I frown, a free agent. Our gators are hatched in incubators. If they make any noise at all, its a perfunctory grunt, bored and sated. This wild gator has an inimitable cry, much louder, much closer. I smile and pull the blankets around my chin. If Osceola hears it, shes not letting on. My sister is lying on the cot opposite me. Her eyes are wide open, and she is smiling and smiling in the dark.
Hey, Ossie? Is it just you in there?
My older sister has entire kingdoms inside of her, and some of them are only accessible at certain seasons, in certain kinds of weather. One such melting occurs in summer rain, at midnight, during the vine-green breathing time right before sleep. You have to ask the right question, throw the right rope bridge, to get thereand then bolt across the chasm between you, before your bridge collapses.
Ossie? Is it just us? I peer into the grainy dark. Theres the chair that looks like a horned devils silhouette. Theres the blind glint of the terrarium glass. But no Luscious. Ossies evil boyfriend has yet to materialize.
Yup, she whispers. Just us. Ossie sounds wonderfully awake. She reaches over and pats my arm.
Just us girls.
That does it. Just us! we scream. And I know that for once, Ossie and I are picturing the same thing. Miles and miles of swamp, and millions and millions of ghosts, and just us, girls, bungalowed in our silly pajamas.
We keep giggling, happy and nervous, tickled by an incomplete innocence. We both sense that some dark joke is being played on us, even if we cant quite grasp the punch line.
What about Luscious? I gasp. Youre not dating Luscious anymore?
Uh-oh. There it is again, that private smile, the one that implies that Ossie is nostalgic for places I have never been, places I cant even begin to imagine.
Ossie shakes her head. Something else, now.
Somebody else? Youre not still going to, um, I pause, trying to remember her word, elope? Are you?
Ossie doesnt answer. Listen, she breathes, her eyes like blown embers. The thunder has gentled to a soft nicker. Outside, something is scratching at our dripping window. Hes here.
You know, Ossies possessions are nothing like those twitch-fests you read about in the Bible, no netherworld voices or pigs on a hill. Her body doesnt smolder like a firecracker, or ululate in dead languages. Her boyfriends possess her in a different way. They steal over her, silking into her ears and mouth and lungs, stealthy and pervasive, like sickness or swallowed water. I watch her metamorphosis in guilty, greedy increments. Ossie is sweating. Ossie is heavy-breathing. She puts her fist in her mouth, her other hand disappearing beneath the covers.
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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From NYT bestselling author Ann Leary
The captivating story of an unconventional New England family.
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