Jacob was right. My arms were toned and fit and ready for this. I could see my right tricep bulging in the sun as I rowed. Growing, pulsing, moving towards something bigger with each stroke of the oar, I smiled. Smiling while tired, that is the women’s armor. We surprise you being continually broken and rowing. No, I was exhausted. Smiling through exhaustion. I had been out on the lake for hours. My arms were growing and so was my hunger, my impatience, my budding fit of panic trapped in miles of water surrounded by miles of swamp.
“I want to be prepared,” I told Jacob.
“You don’t have to go out that often. I’m telling you,” he rested his hand on my back as we walked down the boardwalk. “The trip I want to take you on is easy.”
“I’m not strong enough, Jake. I want to get stronger.”
“It’s only going to be about three hours.”
“I also heard that the alligators are moving north.”
“Stop googling, Cat.”
“Remember when we used to race?”
“Jake, don’t you fucking dare.”
But he was already running.
Today, I was strong: rested, full (I had eaten a bowl of oatmeal and two cups of blueberries in the morning and snacked on Cliff bars throughout the trip) and rowing. I was also separated from everyone else, alone on a river. Petrified would be downplaying what I was feeling, I was horrifically aware of doom every second of my life and it was peaking today. When something knocked the boat the first time, I ignored it. I brushed it off as anxiety. You make things up, Lion. Convincing myself it was a current, I paddled on. Keeping my eyes on the tops of trees for sunbathing snakes, I hadn’t looked down to see the depth of the lake or that I was in the middle of a lake or I was so far from everyone and in open water. I wanted to get away from the snakes.
“You’re obsessed with this drama of a snake falling into your kayak and murdering you.”
“Snakes don’t murder, Jake,” I interrupted again. “They just kill. Don’t be dramatic.”
“Oh, I’m being dramatic, Cat? I’m being dramatic???” he laughed and interrupted me.
We had taffy stuck to our lips and miles to go before we got back to the hotel room. We were not running any longer. I had given up quickly. Walking with miles to go, I was sunburnt then and I was sunburnt now.
“But not bitten by any snakes,” I said out loud.
I was in the middle of a lake, far from the island in the middle of the Dismal Swamp and I had just felt a bump against the bottom of my kayak. The boat rocked a little to the right but not much and Jake, was right, I am dramatic. It is probably the current. It was probably the current.
“But alligators are moving north through the intercoastal waterway.”
“Ok where did you read that?”
We were out on our first trip when he was teaching me how to row. Before we were camped on the island, I told him I needed to go out a few times to get ready.
“I googled it.”
“You purposely googled it!I told y ou not to Google anything…”
“Oh, I should just plug my ears and cover my eyes and trust you during alligator season.”
“WHAT? Alligator season? What did you Google?” “are alligators moving north on…”
“No,” I splashed him with my oar. “I did google that, yes, but I googled “are there alligators in Virginia?”
“And it said they are moving north.”
“Lion cub,” he always called me lion cub. “The only thing you have to look out for are snakes falling from the trees.”
He pointed up to show me: a little black rat snake hanging from a cypress just to the right of us. I turned to him and smiled: big with all teeth.
“Very cool,” he affirmed.
My arms are tired and I am not sure why I didn’t take his advice. He told me not to go out this many times and definitely to stick to the route with people.
“Of course, Jake!”
But his intuition was right. I daydreamed, became so obsessed with finding rat snakes or copperheads in the trees that I lost all sense of direction and landed in the middle of a giant lake that I immediately got turned around inside. I don’t even know what direction I came from. Whimsical. They call me whimsical. It’s a cute way to describe spacy women. And I was whimsically carried down stream and now had to row back to the sides of the lake with the trees while both watching out for snakes and trying to find my path which I felt was behind me, but I’d been wrong before. As I rowed to turn around, I felt my biceps tearing and my calves had already cramped long ago.
I felt a push at the bottom of my canoe like a sudden strong current. It’s just the current. Looking to the sides, I tried to calculate if (and only if) I was literally too exhausted to row, could o climb up the bank and rest keeping my canoe (borrow, lion cub, I will let you borrow the kayak some days) safely secure at the bottom? It’s hard to tell with the swamp. Well, it’s hard to trust the current also. The bank could contain solid ground or dense thick marsh. I would have to abandon my kayak anyway to climb it and there was no telling if it was solid ground or a swamp that I would fall into. I had nothing to tie it with. Truly, I had no choice but to paddle back, back to where I had seen the three couples earlier getting ready to venture out. I was concerned about my father. No, brush that from your mind.
“I will make it.”
I had eaten everything. It’s true. I have very little impulse control and when I am anxious, my stomach grips itself but when I am hungry, I am voracious and my salivation drives me. The bag next to me was empty and my canteen (I brought two) was down to a quarter of the bottle.
“It’s ok,” I let myself float.
I could not row anymore. I deserved and needed the respite. It was hard for me to relax. In a state of constant hyper vigilance, I tensed every muscle in my body and constantly.
“So everything hurts,” I told him on that first trip.
“Yeah,” he rowed ahead a bit.
“I just want to be prepared.”
“How do you feel today?”
“Oh, fine,” I cheerily responded.
It was easier with him. He had packed extra; extra things that I may not have remembered or ever even thought of at all. My arms hurt. My knees were sore. My legs were shaking, the muscles clamping and unclamping slowly but Jake and I laughed a lot. That’s what I’ll remember.
“What will you remember?”
“What the alligator from the dream means.”
“Ah, the alligator dream again. Always the alligator dream.”
He turned around and smiled at me, leading me.
“What does it all mean?”
I let my mind wander.
“You always ask me about it.”
He rowed so he could face me and float backwards while I floated forward.
“And what does it all mean?”
“Sometimes an alligator is just an alligator.”
Gazing up at the trees, I had taught myself to look for the hanging snakes in the trees.
“A lot of times, they won’t even bother you. You may not even notice them.”
“I’ll notice them.”
“Yeah, of course, Cat.”
Jake showed me four snakes that day and I showed him two.
“See? I am beating you.”
“Whatever, when I look up I see them. I don’t always look up, sometimes I look down. You can’t always look up. You have to focus”
“True but. Maybe you should look up more.
When it dropped from the branch, I reacted as I always thought I would. With swiftness, I gracefully tumbled over the side leaving my bag but taking one oar. I tumbled. Mildly disoriented, I felt young, the way I felt when I visited the beach with Leana or Alex.
I would jump the small waves in the water to crash into the big waves. I had zero fear as a child, none. In fact, I played in the surf all summer long enjoying the pull; the way a wave will pull you back like the arrow getting ready to launch. I was being plucked like the fletching. I was gliding forward like a seal. I was riding it, one long wave and then above water and then
I was suddenly in the river, wading, the water at my waist. My oar floating gently away and I peeked in the canoe to confirm it was a rat snake. My bag was next to it, placid, both my pack emptied of all food, only a quarter of a canteen of water and it was gray. It was not black like a rat snake but gray like a tree trunk lying lifeless, defenseless and not full of venom. Dead, or never alive, the branch that had scared me right out of the boat. Sometimes an alligator is just an alligator. Sometimes a branch is just a branch.
“What was the last thing you said?”
Jake coughed, “In your dream. I remember you saying sometimes you were trying to figure out if it was a crocodile or an alligator but you said something too.”
I turned slowly to see it’s mouth, it’s jaw, it’s wide open even-toothed smile. Could I have been so lucky to be honored by its greatness and getting to see it first?
“In the dream?”
Before I was pulled under.
“No, just now.”
I was being twisted and bled.
“I told you the alligators were moving North.”
“No, what was the last thing you said, Cat. Before you saw its jaws?”
I was in rough surf and my lungs were full of water and just freshly out of breath.
I said, “I said it would be either be a snake or an alligator.”
“The dream about the alligator”