The Right Mouth
In the year the gator came my parents were at odds, and the master bedroom was my mother’s bedroom, and the moisture-warped living room floor was my father’s. He was a large man. He was a very large man. He did not use a pillow, preferring the fat of his own arms. He always lit a little candle. He stood the candle on the floor, a hand’s length from his eyes, and watched the candle burn. While it burned he was awake, and if I tried to sneak from my bed to find bread or take water, then he would surely hear me, and he would surely knock me down. When the candle was done so was he done, and the sound of his snoring was like the sound of a reptile choking down a gizzard rock.This is how we know my father was awake when the gator came for him: his candle was still lit. My mother heard my father’s outraged scream. (I heard it too, but I was sleeping, and I was dreaming, and did not wake, but dreamed his call as if it were the product of my own mind, and in my mind the scream was a ship splitting in two.) The candle shed sufficient light to bright my father’s white eyes, my father’s ivory teeth, and my father’s alligator’s eyes and yellow teeth. My mother says she could have helped my father if she chose to. It may be she could have done. She is a large woman. She is a very large woman.
My father’s alligator could not swallow him all in one go. The blood was draining from my father’s body and onto our floor, and it pooled at the center of the bad wood’s bending, where the stain remains today, and the blood was draining down the gator’s throat, and as the blood left my father so did his strength, and as his strength left him he fell silent, and my dreams calmed, and my mother took her broom from the corner, where it was propped between the walls, and she began to beat the alligator about its snout and eyes, until it waddled backward out of the door, which she closed with the broom’s handle. She accepted my father was dead, though he would not truly be dead for some hours.
“We were going to reconcile someday soon and we were going to share a bed again,” says my mother, always, at the end of the story. “Your father’s alligator took away that chance, and so your father never apologized to me, so I never forgave him.” She says she never mourns him, and it’s possible that this is true.
Here I might say, “He was a good man,” though I was too young when he died to know him as anything but the soft mountain on the far end of the table, the snoring heap on our floor, the slowest laborer in our fields (more an overseer, more an audience). Or here I might say, “I miss him enough for us both,” if I felt my mother wanted to hear it. I tell her what she wants to hear because I am going to be a good man too.
I am going to be a good man but first I have to find my father’s alligator and it has to eat me up. I am a soft boy and a coward, raised by mother and sisters and slaves, but when I am in the alligator with my father I will learn the things that I still need to know. No one will miss me because I will quarrel bitterly with them all before I go. I will call my mother a fat cow and all my sisters cold fish who would not even kiss their brother on the day before his death. I will ruin their favorite things and I will break our plates and then they will think I am a wild man. They won’t love me anymore. Fourteen years is a man. Fourteen years is old enough to run away.
Now I am knee deep in the swamp, alone, and I carry few provisions. I have a little folding knife that I won’t open and a box of matches I won’t light. I have bread and two apples in a handkerchief I carry slung over my shoulder. The muck is warm on my calves and it laps at my knees. Flies are licking up the secret, human food that flies can find on a body, which nothing else can find. (I know what mosquitoes eat.) There are trees whose trunks assume the shapes of women—some pure and some impure. I don’t know what to say about their knolls. (Something about the way the bark peels from these tree trunks in patches, and hangs wetly, revealing the soft wood beneath.) There might be baby gators swimming here beside me and I wouldn’t see them. Tall grass and fallen branches still green with sticky sap.
My mother says my father’s alligator was a rich brick red in the candle’s flickering light but I will not see it by such light and so it might be any color. She says that if I ever see his alligator, I will know it by the angled squint of its left eye—there is a raised ridge of scar tissue, she said, on the monster’s muzzle, which makes the eye appear to wink. She said that it was broad and fat and proud and very old, with patchy scales and jaws that even as they ate my father seemed to smile. My father’s alligator will have a stomach like a big rock in a sling because it will still be weighed down with my father. A gator is slow to digest because it is so cold and nearly dead inside, and because it needs so little from the world. A gator might go years between meals.
I find a man’s straw hat floating on the water. There is no other sign of him and I think that he was eaten. I have a long-held policy regarding theft, which is I take anything that isn’t being used and nothing that is, (so long as no one is looking), so I take the hat for my own. Forget what I have told you: I am not afraid of anything. (There is a puckered tree knoll full of black beetles with skin the color and texture of charcoal.) When I think I see a fat, evil snake coiled around one of the trees, I am not afraid, and when I see that it was just a vine, I am not relieved.
A gator is the oldest thing living. A gator is a brontosaur’s brother. A gator lays eggs. A gator eats what it can find. A gator is motionless because it is patient. A gator never cares. No man has ever seen a dead gator. My mother always says that to be eaten by a gator would not be like dying because you become a small piece of an endless thing. (“Does the kindling die? Or does it live on in the fire?”) My mother always says my father’s alligator will not know me if we meet. She says it does not know it ate my father. She says that I will have to do the knowing for the both of us; I will have to do all of the hating, too. A gator waits for the moment of weakness. A gator twists its body to tear free the meat. A gator never wants.
When night falls I climb a tree and fall asleep in its branches. I eat one of my apples. I tie the handkerchief containing the bread and one remaining apple to a branch and let it hang and sway there. When I wake my handkerchief is empty. I forgot that the nature of the apple is to fall. There is no wind to make the handkerchief move, so it does not move. I leave it behind, even though I know nobody will find it. I hope the birds will use it for their nests. I’m sure the swamp is still warm but I no longer feel it.
Now here I stand at the edge of the alligator lagoon. I hope my alligator is hungry. I am hungry enough for us both. If he won’t eat me then I’ll do it myself.
There are so many alligators here. And how many fathers?
I think that he is curled up in his gator like a baby.
See them sunning on the rocks though there is so little sun here. See them drift through these occulting waters.
How their tails wave slowly back and forth beneath the water, so that its surface is a silent churn.
How they pile on each other for warmth. How little they move if they don’t need to move. How they float like dead bodies.
There now is the winking alligator. In this light his skin is a dark, rosy red, nearly black. He lays belly-up on the far bank. To reach him I will have to move with slowness and great care. I will have to go among the gators. I push the straw hat down on my head till it bends my ears. I am not afraid. My sisters would have kissed me had I asked.
Fourteen years is a man. Fourteen years is old enough to know how one wants to spend his life.
I kneel and rub my father’s alligator’s belly until it opens its mouth. I discard my knife and matches so they won’t hurt the alligator from inside. I am not half my father’s size. It will have me in one bite.
In my father’s alligator there are many rooms.
Mike Meginnis has published stories in Best American Short Stories, Hobart, The Collagist, The Lifted Brow, Booth, PANK, and many others. He serves as prose editor at Noemi Press, and co-edits Uncanny Valley with his wife, Tracy Rae Bowling.