The Souls of Alligators
Robert Kloss


You met your brother on the cobbled road before your father’s apartment building. Your brother wearing now a sporadic and misshapen beard and his tattered jacket, grayed with dust and dirt, while you in your brown silk dress, your gloves, your parasol. His eyes shifted from side to side when he saw you. You did not embrace. “Don’t say that man’s name before our father,” your brother said. “He thinks you’ve joined a convent.” The building discolored by the smoke of burning buildings and carriages, by rubbish fires and bonfires set in the street, until the bricks seemed to drip with tar, the windows yellowed when they had not been shattered and boarded over when they had. Within the building, darkness and mold and the stink of rotten wallpaper, and upward into the darkness you went, your brother who knew the way, who warned of a faulty step before you found it, who seemed immune to the air, humid and putrid, while you sweated and gasped and pried off your gloves, clawed absently at your throat. Shafts of light only when men stood shirtless in open doorways, smoking, laughing, peeling fruit with tiny dull blades, conversing in languages you had never before known. You could not see their eyes but you knew they watched, knew the increase of their pulse, knew their breathing accelerated and erratic. And one cried out, “Missus! Hello, Missus!” and another laughed and another from the furthest apartment cried out, “Spare a nickel, Missus!” And your brother said nothing and your brother continued on and you knew him to be smiling in the dark.

And then you were before your father in his bed, the door closed behind you. He wore no shirt, your father, emaciated and pale, the pathetic curve of his ribs, the tufts of white hair, the throbbing of what must have been his heart, that faint pulse beneath the almost translucent flesh, the beads of sweat. You opened your mouth and perhaps no sound emerged. You did you not hug him nor did you smile upon him. His face as if collapsed, half his mouth slumped, the other half spitting and struggling to work. Finally he said what you believed was your name, overwhelmed by the noises outside, the cries of carrion birds, the workers on their skiffs, grunting, calling out, as they hefted the dead weight of alligators onto docks, into the backs of wagons.

Your brother dabbed your father’s mouth while he again attempted speak. Your brother’s whispers, the soothing noises, the shushing sounds. And against the wall opposite your father’s stale and fetid figure was the worn cot and the tangled blanket your brother used and the photograph there on the desk of you and your brother and the woman your mother had been and the man your father once was. And otherwise the clutter of mason jars, dusty and stacked in pyramids, on the desk, on shelves, on the windowsills, on the floors, under the cot, under the bed, against the wall. Mason jars filled with yellow fluid and the bobbing corpses of infant alligators, the fixed gaze of their cloudy eyes, their miniscule teeth, yellow alligators and white alligators and black-stripped alligators and green alligators. Perhaps your father had once said, “They live within their mother’s mouth for much of their early lives, for they are defenseless and easily murdered in their youths.” And perhaps he had not.

From the bed now a strangled moan and then another, your father’s gnarled claw, bone and blue vein and the purple and yellow bruised skin, raised and pointing. Outside the birds continued their screams, the light of the room flickering as they swooped and blotted the sun. Your father’s voice, inarticulate and spitting, until your brother rested his hand upon the man’s withered shoulder. “Vodka,” he said. “You drank it all,” your brother responded. “Don’t you remember?” The old man gnashed and moaned until you left.

*

The man who would be your husband seated before you at one of his restaurants, the bob of his throat as he drank his glass of brandy, the spurt of blood as he sawed into his alligator steak. “I’m told,” he now said, “you saw your father today.” He rested the bloody knife on his plate. “Did you not think I would like to know?” he said. “Did you not think to consult me?”

*

Such were the early days of your mother’s second marriage: The silence of the house if not for the act of their lovemaking, the maid who watched while you listened, trembling, to the bedsprings above your head. The sounds of her moans, their kissing, when you listened from the hallway. Now when the maid finally said your name, her voice caught and you smiled. Their figures in the sunlight, in the tangle of the sheets, the writhing of their limbs, the white flesh glistening and contrasting with the tufts of black hair, when you watched through the keyhole.

When your mother looked upon you through the gaze of her new marriage she did so as an aristocrat observes a servant. And once your brother fled to your father’s apartment did she not often say, “Perhaps you miss Thomas? Perhaps you would care to join him?” And when you reached for a sweet did she not slap your hand, calling you a “miserable little girl,” telling you that you would never find love that way? And did she not sometimes now go about as a whore does, with her face painted blue and red and smeared a powdery white? And did she not smell as a whore smells, the fog of her perfume pervasive? And did you not cease to exist when he returned home stinking of the peat and alligator he told you were his “terrible fate”? When she led him up the stairs and performed unspeakable acts upon him, upon the bed or on the floor or in the bathtub? And did you not tell your brother, when you two met in some far off field or in the kitchen when she was out, “You should see her now, mooning about. She’s become insipid.”

*

Your evening strolls on his arm, in the shadow of your parasol. Those who did not call out his name in obeisance instead tipped a hat or cast some mere furtive glance and to you they called out “Ma’am” or “Miss” or they dared say nothing at all. In those days it was a town of swamp and peat. A city bordered by cattails and muck and the ancient drift of leather and teeth. It was a town raised from the primordial and made great by the will of one man and stolen by another. Here the boots of all men covered in mud and algae, while the ladies walked only those routes cobbled and hosed down by urchin lads for nickels, fistfuls of penny candy, cigarettes. It was a town alive with the writhing of things, with the screams of carrion birds, the circling shadows, the red and watching eyes. It was a town of rifle blasts and alligator bodies loaded onto skiffs, into the backs of wagons, tied with fraying ropes. The blood muddy faces otherwise as if asleep or in wait. How many young men lost a hand or an arm in your fiancé’s employ? How many young wives doomed to the widow’s attire by the merciless jaws of some alligator? Yes, it was a town of alligator steaks and alligator boots, of restaurants and factories ever hunting and shooting and gutting and chopping, ever coughing out peaty-black smoke, ever loaded in the back with the multitudinous stacks of dead alligators. And your fiancé owned it all.

He owned the skiffs and he owned their silent drift through the black water rivers and while some questioned this assertion he owned the rivers and all within them too (or he hunted all within and murdered them until he did own them). And he owned what he made of them: the steaks, the chops, the loins, the pickled organs, the skull bone ashtrays and jawbone paper weights, the boots and shoes, the handbags, the jackets, the wallets, the wristwatch bands, the medicine they ground the bones into, the necklaces they made of the teeth. And he owned the wagons heaped with alligator corpses. And he owned the factories, the blood of men and alligators and the steel blades and the oil lamps and the coal furnaces and the fire within the factories. He owned the meat and the sinew. He owned the men who labored and when he wished he walked along the outer edges of the work floor dictating the pace of their labor, as they hacked heads from bodies and slit open bellies and pried skin from meat, as they washed the skins in a chemical brine, as they dried the skins on wire lines, as they butchered the meat into chops, into steaks, into loins, as they pickled the excess of his murders, the organs, the eyes, the tongues. And he owned the iron stink of organ and blood, the blue buzz of flies, the waft of chemical fume, the heat and peat stink of the swamps. Yes, he owned all this. And he owned the streets and all the shops and restaurants on the streets, for he dictated what they sold and for what price they sold. And he owned all the men on the streets and he owned their women, too, for a woman is nothing more than an extension to the man she belongs to. And he owned most the houses and apartments his workers and their families lived within. And that which he did not own he dreamed about and lamented and fixated upon and planned the conquest of. And he owned the soul of your father for that man had birthed this town and your fiancé had torn it from him. And he owned the bones of your mother for she had left your father for this man and she had died in his arms, or died moments before he gathered her into his arms, and perhaps he had actually wept upon her as she cooled and perhaps this was merely a story he told you to make you love him. And you knew he owned all of this for very often, as you two walked arm-in-arm about the town, he gathered you into the heat of his embrace and whispered into your ear, “I own all of this.”

*

meet me where she died the note read.

*

Your fiancé owned, too, the house of your birth, of your rearing, the house you and your brother now stood before. Here the scorched open roof, the blazed away walls, the charred remains of floors, the blackened wallpapers and carpets, the smoke-spoiled remains of chairs and sofas and beds. Here the ravaged home to foxes and wild dogs and mice and birds. The lawn scattered with scorched beams and trunks, pried open and rifled through, with obliterated dolls and eviscerated stuffed bears, with rusted picture frames and shattered glass and scorched and water-wasted photographs, with clothing scattered and rain logged and long ago rotten to nothingness or picked apart and made into nests. This your brother surveyed in his stagger, his haze. How you said nothing of his red eyes, the way he slurred. “I don’t know what I’ll do without him,” he said. “Probably… I don’t know.” He toddled like an infant to the charred skeleton of the house. “You don’t care if he dies,” he said. The side of his face, smeared with black. “That’s not true.” He staggered to you, smelling of fumes, of the swamp, and he reached out with blackened hands. “Please,” he said. “I need your help.” You sighed. “You know I can’t do that, Tommy. You know he wouldn’t allow it.”

You said nothing when he finally left. Now the way the mist and the dust seemed to consume him as he disappeared into the vastness of that ether.

*

He became your fiancé at the one restaurant he did not own. The glass yellowed with the soft falling sun, the children in and out the doors with sodas, penny candies. The cream and red colored tables and the red leather chairs you sat upon. Vanilla ice cream melting in a bowl before you, the whipped cream and the cherry, and how slowly you supped while he watched, while he smiled. “I remember the first time I saw you,” he said. “You wore a blue ribbon in your hair. You were freckled in those days. You were at dinner with your mother and father. Do you recall?” You nodded, your lips smudged with whipped cream. “I remember you as a young man. His assistant.” You did not tell him you had dreamed of him, wrote letters to him within the diary you kept and then burned, that such was your passion that you fell to fever and chills in those hours of fixation, your mother dabbing your brow as you shivered. He continued: “You threw a—I’ll call it what it was—a tantrum, for you refused to eat. You had dreamed about the alligators and now you would not even eat your potatoes if they had touched the blood.” He watched you and the spoon, slid into your mouth, cleansed, returned to the bowl. “I found you a strange little girl,” he said. How pained the expression flashed there. “Perhaps our course was set even then.” And now from his jacket he removed the ring, how it flashed and sparkled. “I have dreamed this moment a great many years,” he said. You waited for him to go on and now he did: “You will never want,” he said. “I will see you raised up before all others.”

*

Your father died in the early afternoon. They found him gray skin and bones, wide haunted eyes, clotted with white. They found him in his filth. They found him covered in flies. They found him sprawled on the floor, a broken thing, the bruised flesh, the tangled sheets. And they knew he must have called for help. He must have struggled from the bed. He must have known the end as it tore at his chest. As it grinned from the shadows. He must have known the light dimming. He must have known the sounds of carrion birds thrashing and screaming and clattering. He must have called out in his wretched way, bellowed with his half-mouth, thrashed with what arms and legs he retained, until the final moment, when the jaws descended and all ceased to move.

*

Your new husband paid for and attended your father’s funeral. There he spoke on the greatness of your father’s vision, his uniqueness in perceiving the curative and nutritional attributes of the alligator. “No man knew better the souls of alligators,” he said. And when you refused to attend he told all you were “quite” ill, and to a select few he intimated you were “catatonic with grief.” You heard from your husband how your brother arrived at the funeral unshaven and wearing soiled clothes, how he looked around, slurring “Where is everybody?” How the uncle your brother had written telegrammed back He lived a hard life and nothing more. You heard meanwhile how your brother slipped and toppled backward into the hole. How he bled onto the casket, onto the dirt. How he beat at the hands reaching for him. You heard of the drinks your husband bought and shared with all in the hours afterward. You heard how he hired a polka band and all danced and clapped until they were impossibly red faced and wheezing. You heard how your brother sat in the drunk tank, the soil in his hair, smearing his jacket, his face. How he played cards with the other drunks until they fought, until they blackened your brother’s eye and mashed up his lips. How he slouched against the walls and said nothing when they called for him to leave.

*

And when your husband returned stinking of brandy and sweat and triumph he laughed and boasted and attempted make love and when this failed he laid with you in the moonlight, breathing heavily, sighing. Now he told the story of the night your mother died. The fumes of the smoke flashing red with flame, how the house seemed to roar from within, how she called for him, coughing and lost, and he pulled her along, even as she fell, even as she pressed herself to a wall, weeping. The handkerchief he pressed to his own lips and not to hers. When she could not go on how he carried her. And on the dewy lawn he collapsed while she fell motionless to his side. Blackened and scorched the both of them, their hair made to ash, their clothing tattered. And when he spoke to her she did not answer and when he touched her wrist she did not move.

He told you how the firemen found you walking the road in your nightclothes in a state of what they called ‘shock.’ “You did not speak,” he said. “You were unburned, untarnished. Do you remember?” When you did not answer he said, “I have oftentimes wondered how you came to be there” and he said, “but I never want to know for certain.”

*

That night you dreamed the alligators come from the swamps. How they moved across the land, gnashing and destroying. How none who dined in restaurants or labored in factories were spared. How the very streets seemed seas of leather. How the carrion birds circled above the hissing and gnashing, picking at what rotten flesh remained. How the furious whip of their tails splintered open doors. How they dragged down and devoured the mothers and the fathers and the poodles and the children dreaming in their beds. How the walls dripped with the blood and the meat. How they infiltrated the home you shared with your husband, consuming the maid and thrashing the cook. Here they swirled and hissed at the bottom of the stairs. Here they spoke sounds far older than words like “murder” and “love.” Here your husband in his pajamas went to shoot them. Here the echo of his screams, the splatter of his blood. Here their eyes, still and golden, in the moment they came for you.



Robert Kloss is the author of The Alligators of Abraham (Mud Luscious Press).