The Edges of Things
A canoe width of water traced a tentative path into a field of water hyacinth. The sun glittered off thousands of wind-ruffled leaves and squat stalk supported clusters of tight buds. Ivy paddled the trail until it ended among a scattering of peat blows. All she remembered from a long-ago camping trip, her first here to the Okefenokee, were a few phrases: “trapped gases,” “chunks of peat shoved to the surface,” “open water one day, the beginnings of land the next.” She poked against the least vegetated patch of spongy muck, since sometimes they floated out of the way, but this one bounced in place. The others were even more firmly established as land with grasses, flowers, and even small trees growing on them.
Ivy lay her paddle down and dropped onto the cushion below her. She arranged the life jacket as back support and hung her arms over the sides of the canoe. Her weeks of travel through Florida, with its crowds of birds everywhere, could have made this Georgia swamp seem sparse, but Ivy knew better. If she kept still small beings would appear, and these days Ivy knew which places to keep still in—the edges of things were best. Ivy liked that these days when she saw pine trees in the distance she thought of eagle nests, and that she didn’t expect to see wood storks since the water was high and that made the percentage of edible critters per volume of water too low. She’d learned a lot on this trip. She rested her neck against the seat and watched the sky. She was still far enough south for the towering bright clouds that mark the entrance into subtropical lands. A few miles further north, back towards home and her work and a failed relationship, the sky had less depth and the clouds would become two-dimensional. Ivy closed her eyes.
The first bellow shook the air behind her. The next came from the side. Another and another, each echoing the one before, starting as a vibration through her bones, before she was able to hear them, and ending deep and loud. Alligators were calling. Ivy snatched her arms inside the canoe and peeked over the side. From the noise she expected a surrounding phalanx of alligators. Ivy saw none. She scanned into the water hyacinth and let her eyes go soft the way she’d learned to. But she didn’t see a single alligator. Through the clatter of her heartbeat, Ivy was unable to tell if she was disappointed or relieved, but she didn’t stop searching. It wasn’t until the bellows faded that she saw a single dark wedge of head. It dropped under the water. Ivy listened in the sustained quiet. After waiting a respectful interval, she was ready to turn the canoe back to the marina, back to her van, back to that one more day of travel before home.
Raising onto the seat, she looked behind and to the sides and judged that with careful angling between peat blows she had space to turn rather than awkwardly paddle backwards. When the canoe’s stern hit the peat, Ivy stroked forward once and ran the bow onto a patch of spiked grass. Sliding off the grass, the canoe floated only a few inches before wedging into peat again. Pushing forward again, Ivy decreased the canoe’s free space even more. One more thrust and the canoe was officially stuck.
Ivy used her paddle to poke at the mud behind her. If she could shift the mud a few inches, she’d be free. Concentrating, she twisted and rammed her paddle at the peat. The muck shook and shifted, but not enough. The smell of rotting eggs was released. On the next try, her butt left the seat and dropped down at an angle that jolted the boat to one side. Ivy threw herself low and to the middle, while her muscles vibrated with the effort to hold in place as the canoe steadied. Letting the image of being thrown in among the alligators fade, she tested each side with the paddle. The boat was still stuck. Ivy hated feeling trapped.
Anger rose through her chest and spread into the hand resting on her sternum. The heat burnt her palm. It crawled down her scalp, stinging the hairs on her neck and making a wet fire under her arms. Sweat dripped between her buttocks. She clawed off her sweatshirt and threw it over the wheelchair, grabbing for the paddle as it slipped from her lap. It clanged against the bottom of the hull. Ivy picked it up and purposely hit the canoe. It sounded again, ringing into the swamp. Alligators bellowed along with her. She raised the paddle higher and smashed it at her feet. Switching her grip, she beat the top rail repeatedly, flipping the paddle from side to side. After three final overhead blows to the center strut, she threw the paddle onto the deck and clutched the sides of the canoe. The last of the alligators grunted into the fading ring of the paddle.
When she stopped shaking Ivy let go of the edges, one finger at a time. She reached for the paddle but her body collapsed, folding to one side in a sudden fatigue. Closing her eyes, she stopped trying and let the energy fall out of her. As her breath snagged on each inhale and quivered down the exhale, she remembered reading that all around her, in past eons, there used to be ocean. She imagined herself suspended under the salt water, capturing oxygen through gills that lined the ribs under her breasts. All sounds were muted in a dim light. Ancient crabs and giant manatees swam in the warm sea.
Using the support of her paddle, Ivy raised her body until she was sitting upright. Carefully she rocked the canoe, exploring the way it slipped along the edges of the peat. Feeling an area of give behind her, she focused on a crumbling, half-submersed spot in front, and putting the paddle in the water, made one, well executed j-stroke. The canoe floated free. With an efficient, almost graceful, wide sweep, Ivy turned towards home.