The Thing About Hibernation
Ted LaPierre hadn’t planned on wearing the gun belt. It was early March and spring hadn’t yet arrived, even to the coastal marshes of southwest Louisiana. But by late morning the temperature had warmed to seventy degrees, without a cloud in the sky, and he smelled the rotting flesh-odor of the snake an instant before he saw it—fat, vulgar and coiled on a dead branch hanging out over the water, not a foot from where he was standing.
“Sonofabitch,” Ted said, springing back out of the dense brush and tripping on a large fire ant mound. Falling hard to the levee, an exhilarating wave of adrenaline rushed from his feet to his head where it joined the beer buzz already there, swirling for a moment before slowly receding.
“What happened?” Graham Beneke said, standing twenty yards down the levee where he fished the water flowing from the jar. He stopped baiting his hook and ran over awkwardly on the uneven ground with his short stumpy legs to see what had happened. A few seconds later, Carro Thibodeaux was standing there next to Graham in his large, white shrimping boots.
“Fucking water moccasin,” Ted said, his hands shaking. He took a deep breath and slowly exhaled. “I should’ve known they might be out today with all this early heat setting in.”
“Mais, you get bit, you?” Carro said, dropping to a knee and inspecting Ted’s legs with his big mechanic’s-hands, as if he could see Ted’s shins through the heavy material of his insulated coveralls. He’d removed the five-inch buck knife from the leather case on his belt, flipped it open, and was ready to rip away the fabric, ready to plunge the blade into Ted’s leg.
“No, it didn’t bite me,” Ted said. “So put that thing away, you big coonass.”
“Mais, you sure,” Carro said, still poised with the blade.
“Yeah, I’m sure,” Ted said. “I’m just lucky it didn’t strike.”
“I wanna see him, where is he?” Graham said, moving toward the bank with his rod and reel. He stopped short of entering the thick twist of brush and craned his neck to see what he could see.
“It’s on that branch coming off the bank,” Ted said. “But keep your distance. That’s all we need is for you to go and get snake bit.”
“There he is,” Graham said, and he pushed his short, fat body, penetrating the chest-high brush as far as he could.
“I said stay out of the bushes, Graham,” Ted said. “Goddamn, you’re hardheaded.”
Ted had been telling Graham all morning to stay out of the brush, telling him to fish the jar where the brackish water flowed from the marsh through the open floodgate. The ground above the jar was clear of high growth. There was no chance of getting his line snagged in the branches the way he kept doing earlier that morning.
“I won’t go far,” Graham said. Careful not to lose his balance, he leaned in and pointed the tip of his rod at the snake. As the eyelet brushed against the snake’s sunbaked backside, it didn’t move. “Hell, he’s dead,” Graham laughed. “You got all worked up over nothing.”
“No, he’s alive, alright,” Ted said.
“You sure,” Graham said. “He’s not budging.”
“That’s because it’s coming out of hibernation,” Ted said.
Had it been summer, there’s no doubt in Ted’s mind the snake would have struck him before he ever saw it. As nasty-tempered as they are reckless, cottonmouths won’t retreat when threatened, as if relishing any opportunity to strike, no matter what they’re up against, no matter how poor their odds. Ted knew this. Cottonmouths were a part of growing up on the bayou. That’s why he would have normally first beat the bushes with a stick before entering them. It’s why the revolver would have been holstered around his waist and not still stowed beneath the seat of his pickup.
“So if I pick him up he won’t bite me?” Graham said.
“Hell, yeah, it’ll bite you,” Ted said. “Don’t be an idiot. Now get the hell out of there. I don’t know how many times I gotta tell you.”
“Mais, why you gotta be so hardheaded, uh?” Carro said to Graham. Then to Ted, “I keep tellin’ ya, podnah. He’s gonna get himself hurt. Maybe you should make him go sit in the truck. He can drink beer and not get into any more trouble.”
“He’s okay,” Ted said. “I’ve got everything under control.”
“You do, uh?” Carro chuckled.
“We’ve just gotta keep an eye on him, that’s all,” Ted said.
“Goddamn, you clumsy, yeah,” Carro said, watching Graham struggle to extract himself from the prickly brush. Graham had dropped his rod and was now frantically swatting away at a swarm of deer flies that had sprung from the bushes and now had designs on the exposed flesh of his face and neck. “Mais, look at him, Ted,” Carro added. “What were you thinkin’ bringin’ him out here, uh? You shoulda taken him crabbin’ on the weir.”
“That’s enough, Carro. He’s doing okay,” Ted said, beginning to wonder if it were true.
Graham had come out of the brush. Slapping at his neck and face, his palms came away bloody. “Never seen anything like it,” he said. “Damn thing was frozen solid.”
“Like I said, it’s been hibernating,” Ted said. “It’s still thawing out.”
“Mais, it’s just like that blue crab that’s on ice,” Carro said.
Graham looked at Carro and made a funny face. “What the hell are you talking about?” he said.
“You know how when you put a crab on ice?” Carro explained. “How all its joints get froze up and it can’t move after while? If you didn’t know better, you’d think it was dead. But take it off that ice and look out, podnah, it’s gonna pinch you ass but good. You know what I mean, huh, Ted?”
The three men had driven out to the farm earlier that morning. Arriving just after sunup, the chill hadn’t yet relinquished its grip on the marsh, and the fish were active the way they typically are in colder water. By noon, the 40-quart ice chest that had been filled with ice and beer was instead nearly full of sac au lait, goggle-eye, blue gill and bass. The remaining beer sat in the bed of the truck warming in the sun.
“You guys about ready to head home?” Ted said. He stood with his back to Graham and Carro, urinating in the marsh that fronted the opposite side of the levee on which they fished. He watched mesmerized as a flock of pelicans spiraled skyward on a thermal, wings outstretched and soaring higher, growing smaller all the time. “We’ve already got plenty enough for a fish fry.”
“Might as well,” Graham said. “The beer isn’t cold any more, thanks to Carro.”
“Mais, got-damn, uh,” Carro said. “There he goes again.”
“I mean what the hell,” Graham continued. “For the life of me, I can’t figure out what was going through that Cajun brain of yours when you saw it proper to bring only the one ice chest.”
“Mais, look, you asshole,” Carro said. “Ted told me to put some beer on ice and that’s what I done.”
It was just like Graham, Ted thought. Once he got under your skin there was no getting him out. It’s probably what made him a good lawyer. He’d been riding Carro about one thing or another all morning. Carro had the hulking physique of a roustabout, and while his broad shoulders and thick chest might have made you think twice about tangling with him, he was good-natured. It took a lot to rile him.
“No one said nuttin’ about me bringin’ two ice chests,” Carro said. “I mean how was I spose to know, uh?”
“Would you two cut it out,” Ted said. “It’s my fault, not Carro’s, so get off his back about it, Graham.”
Ted stopped watching the pelicans. He turned around to see Graham sitting on a large, grass-covered fire ant mound. Graham had one of his boots off and was pulling up his sock.
“Jesus, Graham,” Ted said. “That’s a fire ant mound!”
Carro fished in the brush, about ten yards down the levee. When he turned and saw what Ted was talking about, he dropped his rod and sprinted toward Graham, shoving him harder than was necessary. Graham fell to the ground in a heap.
“What the fuck you do that for?” Graham said.
Carro quickly moved toward Graham and, while standing over him, brushed the ants from the backside of Graham’s coveralls. Then he stood up, out of breath from the effort. He glared at Ted long and hard, his face flushed.
“I’m gonna say it one more time,” Carro said. “He doesn’t belong out here.”
Carro and Ted had grown up together in Abbeville. They were in the same class from 1st grade through high school. They parted ways only when Ted went to LSU and then moved away, first to Houston, then Atlanta, and ultimately Dallas. That whole time, Carro had remained in Abbeville, working the oil field in one capacity or another. Ted had given Carro permission to hunt and fish at the farm anytime he wanted. In return, Carro kept Ted’s old Chevy pickup in running condition. He maintained the marsh and the canals. When Ted came home during duck hunting season, he could expect to find a blind set up in the marsh, situated on one of the many ponds, several dozen decoys in place and ready to hunt. Just as he could expect the floodgates to be opened and closed on a regular basis, keeping the canals replenished and alive with fish. When Ted did come home, Carro was the first one he called. Carro knew Ted better than anyone, he was Ted’s podnah. Ted never fished or hunted without him.
Carro was just as out of his element in a big city as Graham was in a marsh. Some years back when Carro visited Ted in Dallas, in town on a trade convention, it was his first time in a city larger than Lafayette. Driving him from the airport, Ted took Carro through downtown. His eyes widened at the sight of the skyscrapers and remained wide open for the rest of his trip, as if waking up one morning in another time, in another place, as if on another planet altogether. Ted treated him to an expensive steak dinner, even took him to a strip club, and while Carro appeared to have a good time, it was clear he couldn’t wait to get the hell back home and away from all the noise.
Heading back to the front of the property, Ted drove at a crawl on the narrow levee, falling into deep tractor ruts when not climbing over fire ant mounds the size of hay bales. The three men sat astride the bench seat of Ted’s pickup, their shoulders pressed tightly together and swaying in unison with the movement of the creaking and groaning truck, a sensation not unlike trolling in the Gulf, slowly motoring over wide rolling swell.
“Seriously, Ted, don’t you think it’s time for a new truck?” Graham said, squeezed between Ted and Carro, so finding it difficult to sip his warm beer.
“Tell ya what,” Ted said. “Next time we’ll come in your Beemer, how ‘bout that?”
The pickup dropped into a dip in the levee as Graham sipped from his can. Beer and foam ran down his chin and onto his shirt.
“What’s my car have to do with anything?” Graham said, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “It doesn’t change the fact that your truck’s a piece of shit.”
“Mais,” Carro said, “this piece a shit’s the reason you caught you all them sac au lait today.”
“Yeah, but I would’ve caught some bass like you guys if Ted had let me fish in the bushes,” Graham said. “First he promised to take me hunting, but then takes me fishing instead. Now he won’t even let me fish for bass. I mean, come on.”
“I didn’t take you hunting because there aren’t any ducks in this marsh anymore,” Ted lied. He hoped Carro wouldn’t call him on it.
Graham had been pestering Ted to take him duck hunting ever since he’d discovered Ted’s family owned land outside of Delcambre, one of the many regions of the globe their company explored for oil and natural gas. Ted decided to take Graham fishing rather than hunting. One step in a soft-bottomed marsh and Graham’s portly body would sink up to its waist.
Back when Ted was in high school, he worked part-time as a duck-hunting guide. He’d guided a lot of men like Graham who had never seen a marsh, let alone been in one. They appeared absurdly out of place, like an anomaly. As transfixed by the beauty, as they were oblivious to the many dangers, their innocence was always a liability. While plucking and cleaning the day’s kill, Ted and the other guides used to laugh as they swapped stories about their outings and the men in their care. It was common for the guides to make the claim that they had yet to lose a hunter. It was the running joke.
By taking Graham fishing, they could at least keep to the levee, where the footing was solid and Ted wouldn’t have as much to worry about in the way of trouble. That had been his plan, anyway. After his run-in with the cottonmouth, Ted wasn’t so sure anymore. He was beginning to think Carro was right.
“Mais, Graham, we tried lettin’ you fish in the bushes,” Carro said. “Then you went and got you line all fouled up every time you cast. Hell, you lucky you didn’t get you eye poked out.”
“It’s just a scratch,” Graham said, tracing his finger along the shallow cut that ran from his forehead to his chin, the blood dry now and crusty.
“He’s got a point, Graham,” Ted said. “You never—”
“Holy mother,” Graham interrupted, “look at the size of that thing.”
Up ahead on the levee, a large alligator lay basking in a clearing on the bank of the canal.
“Stop the truck,” Carro said. “Let Graham see what a bull gator looks like up close.”
As they pulled along side the alligator, Ted was certain it would dash into the canal the way they always did, spooked by pickups and people.
“Mais, got-damn,” Carro said. “It’s gotta be a twelve footer, uh?”
“At least,” Ted said.
“Why’s he just sitting there like that?” Graham said.
“This is probably the first time it’s come out of its den since last fall,” Ted said.
“It’s like that snake, then,” Graham said, leaning with the full weight of his belly onto Ted’s lap, trying to get a better look at the gator outside and below the window. “So it’s frozen and can’t move?”
“No, it can move,” Ted said, shoving Graham off him with an elbow. “Just not very quickly.”
“In this heat,” Carro said, “you can bet it won’t be long before it’s all thawed out.”
The three men sat in the truck, quietly considering the alligator.
“Really is something, isn’t it?” Ted said. He’d always had a fascination with alligators, he had always found them beautiful. “Why don’t we get down so Graham can get a closer look?”
“Really? He won’t try and eat us?” Graham said.
“Alligators don’t eat people,” Ted said. “You’re thinking of crocodiles.”
“I don’t know about that,” Carro said.
“Then let’s get out,” Graham said. “Come on.”
Ted backed up the truck to give them more room to observe the alligator. Now outside the pickup, the three men stood at a distance from the large, sprawled-out animal.
“Good God,” Graham said.
“I think he’s impressed, Carro,” Ted said.
“Talk about,” Carro said, looking at Graham. “Mais, his eyes look like they gonna pop out his head.”
“I’ve never seen an alligator this big before,” Graham said, not sounding anything like himself, sounding humble; reminding Ted that behind Graham’s sometimes abrasive lawyer’s façade was the softhearted sentimentalist that had eventually won Ted over.
“Not many people have seen them this big. At least not in the wild,” Ted said, and it was true. The larger the alligator, the more prized its hide. That it had outwitted the hunter’s hook for so many years was remarkable.
Graham lobbed his half-empty beer at the gator. The can hit the backside of the broad leathery tail, exploding in a spray of foam. The gator didn’t move.
“Fucking couyon!” Carro said. “What the hell you went and did that for, uh?”
“Why not?” Graham said.
“I know you ain’t from here,” Carro said, “but we don’t go throwin’ shit at alligators, that’s why not.”
“I want to see him launch into the water,” Graham said. “Like in those Tarzan movies.”
“You’re thinking of crocodiles again,” Ted said. “Like I said, it’s still coming out of hibernation.”
Graham rushed back to the pickup and returned with an unopened can of beer. He moved along side the gator, moving a few steps closer.
“Seriously, Graham, what the hell’re you doing?” Ted said. “I mean it, leave it alone."
“I want to see him dive into the water,” Graham said.
This time making a show of winding up like a pitcher, Graham threw the beer overhand and the can made a rock-on-hide thunk as it pelted the gator on its large head. Again, the gator didn’t move.
“Damn, he really is frozen,” Graham said, and he began searching the ground for something.
“Goddammit, Graham, that’s enough,” Ted said. “We’ve gotta get going anyway.”
Graham bent down in the tall grass and came up with the remains of a tree branch, about four feet long, gnarled and without bark.
“Don’t even think about it,” Ted said.
“Mais, Graham, now you just bein’ crazy, podnah,” Carro said.
“I’ll just give him a little poke,” Graham said.
“All day Ted’s been tellin’ you to not do this or to not do that,” Carro added. “Why you gotta be so canaille, uh?”
“Don’t worry, I’m not planning on going anywhere near its mouth,” Graham said, and this time he approached the gator from behind.
Carro chuckled to himself. “It ain’t always the end with the mouth you gotta worry youself about.”
Not two yards from the gator, Graham reached out unsteadily with the branch and gave the back leg a light tap. This time there was a slight, almost imperceptible twitch in the tip of the gator’s tail.
“Aha,” Graham said. “Now we’re getting somewhere.”
“You gonna do somethin’ or what?” Carro said to Ted.
It felt to Ted like he was watching a movie that he had no control over. A dizzying wave rushed through him and he had a bad feeling. “Goddammit, Graham,” he said. “I mean it, get the fuck away, now.”
“Mais, Graham. I’d listen to what he’s sayin’, yeah,” Carro said.
“Carro, would you go drag that fool back to the truck before he goes and gets himself hurt,” Ted said.
“He’s your friend, podnah,” Carro said. “You go get him.”
“That’s it, we’re leaving,” Ted said. He didn’t know what else to do and he turned and moved toward the truck. “With or without you, Graham, I mean it. Come on, Carro.”
Taking a step closer, Graham lowered the branch and jabbed the gator midway up its tail. Again, the gator didn’t do anything. Graham turned toward the truck, appearing ready to give up. That’s when the gator swung its broad muscular tail in a snapping motion, undercutting Graham at the ankles and knocking him down. Before Graham could get up, the alligator had ahold of his leg, just below the knee. Without releasing Graham’s leg, the gator remained motionless, exerting little pressure on the leg, the way a female gator might gingerly clutch its offspring between its teeth.
“Oh, fuck,” Graham said. “What the hell’s he doing?”
Ted had never seen anything like it and, not wanting to spook the gator, he froze along side Carro.
“Hello?” Graham said. “You guys just gonna stand there?”
Graham didn’t sound like he was in any pain. He didn’t sound like he understood the seriousness of the situation.
But then Ted couldn’t fully comprehend what was happening either. He might have thought it comical seeing Graham, of all people, his squat, roly-poly body pinned down by a big sleepy alligator, had he not understood what an alligator that size could do to a man.
“Just hold on a second,” Carro said. “Stay still and maybe it’ll let you go.”
“The fuck you mean, stay still?” Graham said, lying on his back in the grass and facing the alligator, so unable to see Ted and Carro standing behind him.
“No, wait, Graham,” Ted said. “Carro’s right. I don’t think it’s interested in you.
“You’d know it if it were,” Carro said.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Graham said.
“You lucky, that’s what that means,” Carro said. “At least so far you lucky.”
“What the hell’s he talking about, Ted?” Graham said. “What’d he mean by that?”
Ted didn’t say anything. He anxiously searched his mind and his years of experience in the marsh. Every scenario that played itself out had a bleak and terrifying outcome. He turned and hurried back to the truck. When he returned he had the revolver. He looked at Carro. “Think it’ll let him go if I fired some shots in the air?”
“It might,” Carro said, shrugging. Then in a voice only Ted could hear, “But it might not. I gotta tell ya, podnah, I ain’t never seen nuttin’ like this. If we do nuttin’ it could go bad, but same goes if we do somethin’ and it’s the wrong thing.”
“Shit,” Ted said, matching Carro’s hushed tone. “There’s gotta be something we can do.”
Carro thought for a moment, the whole time slowly shaking his head. Ted expected Carro to give him shit for bringing Graham out to the marsh, the way he’d been doing all day. He wouldn’t shut up about it. Instead, he said, “Me, I still think we should just sit tight and see what it wants to do. Maybe after while it’ll get tired of us standin’ here and leave.”
Ted didn’t know. He thought about the cottonmouth from earlier that morning. How it should have struck him, how it would have under normal circumstances. That was the thing about hibernation. All the rules were temporarily thrown out the window and Ted hoped to God that that would be the case with this alligator. Some time went by and nothing changed. Now it was hot and not just warm and the alligator continued holding Graham’s leg between its teeth, not exerting pressure, but not letting go either.
“Maybe I can pull my leg out if I do it really fast,” Graham said.
Ted didn’t say anything. He didn’t know if it would work or not.
Graham sat up on his elbows. “One quick motion,” he said, talking out loud to himself. “Okay, here goes.”
“Better haul you ass when it lets go,” Carro said. “They can move a lot faster than you think.”
Graham began to count. On three, he gave his leg a quick tug, but the gator clamped down before the leg was free and Ted heard the sound of Graham’s tibia and fibula shattering, like roseau cane snapping between two powerful hands. That’s when Graham began screaming. The gator still didn’t move.
“Shit!” Ted said and he and Carro rushed toward Graham and the alligator. Carro picked up the branch, but didn’t do anything with it, like he wasn’t sure what to do.
“What the hell’s the matter with you two,” Graham screamed. There were tears in his eyes. “Don’t just stand there, do something. Shoot it.”
“Mais, you better calm youself down, podnah,” Carro said, still holding the branch. Ted could see his hand shaking.
“Calm down? He just broke my fucking leg, you idiot.”
“Graham, listen to me,” Ted said, trying to think. “The last thing we wanna do is spook it. Not while it still has your leg. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“So you’re just going to let him swallow me whole?”
“That ain’t how it works,” Carro said.
The gator clamped down again and Graham let out another high-pitched scream. He pounded the ground with his hand. Now he was crying. “Please, goddammit, do something.”
Ted glanced at Graham’s leg and could see that his shin and foot were no longer aligned with his thigh, looking like someone else’s lower leg altogether. The coveralls on either side of the gator’s bite were dark and soggy. Something roiled hot in Ted’s stomach and he nearly retched. He raised and leveled the revolver at the gator’s broad head. Trying to keep his trembling hand steady, he fired all six shots. But, as he’d suspected, the small .22 caliber bullets didn’t appear to do the animal any harm, and the big gator began slowly backsliding into the water with Graham’s leg still in its mouth.
“Oh my God, where’s he going?” Graham said, and he clawed at the parched earth, grabbing at the clumps of whip grass to keep from being pulled off the levee.
Ted dropped the pistol and took hold of Graham’s arm, now in a tug-o-war with the alligator. Graham continued screaming as he was slowly dragged toward the water.
“Oh, God,” Graham cried. “Don’t let go, Ted. Please, don’t let go.”
Carro had the blade of his buck knife open and he lunged at the gator, sinking the blade into the leathery plate above its eyes. He lost his grip on the knife as the gator continued backing into the water, the handle still jutting from its forehead.
Now fully submerged, the gator did what Ted hoped it wouldn’t, and as it went into a death spiral, Graham’s scream reached a pitch higher than Ted would have ever thought possible coming from a human. Carro grabbed at Graham’s shirt, trying to get ahold of him.
“Do something, Carro,” Graham pleaded. “Please don’t let me go.”
With Graham’s arm spinning wildly with the rest of his body, Ted was no longer able to hold on and Graham was dragged beneath the surface, still spinning, still thrashing as the gator moved toward the middle of the canal and deeper water.
The commotion in the water attracted the attention of other alligators. Ted saw two cruising toward them and he knew better than to jump into the water. He thought about going in anyway, chancing it, but a part of him knew there was nothing he could do now. Carro didn’t see the other gators and Ted grabbed his arm to keep him from jumping in.
“We can’t,” Ted said, gesturing toward the other gators.
“Mais, we gotta do somethin’,” Carro said.
Ted and Carro stood on the bank watching the water smooth over. They waited for Graham to resurface, but he never did.
Carro turned and looked at Ted, glaring at him a long time. Ted continued watching the water, not daring to look away.