A sparkling-new SUV drives up the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge access road as the sky begins to lighten towards dawn. A middle-aged man in a soft fisherman's cap and a blue windbreaker has the wheel, and in the passenger seat rides a middle-aged woman in high-waisted jeans and an oak-leaf-patterned sweatshirt. Pine savannah stretches around them flat and sparse, with a three-foot-high understory of palmetto; then they enter a burn area and ride through pine woods just as open and quiet but without the palmetto, only scorched earth among the trunks.
Shy of the visitor center they turn onto a side road, follow it half a mile to a parking lot. The sky is dully blue when the man cuts the engine. He takes a knapsack from the back seat and he and the woman walk onto a boardwalk trail. Within fifty yards the landscape changes, pine replaced by cypress. It isn't yet light enough to see through the brush and ferns growing on tussocks around the cypress roots, but the smell of water tells that they are in the great swamp. The woman slaps the back of one hand with the palm of the other and they pause to spray each other with bug repellant.
A catbird's trill breaks the quiet. The boardwalk winds left and right, finding its way through the cypress columns. They round one of these turns and face a surprised raccoon, frozen, one paw suspended over the plastic-wood surface. It lowers its paw gently and slides off the path into the undergrowth.
At its end the boardwalk widens tenfold, making room for a thirty-foot observation tower. The man leads the way up the stairs. Around them the marsh is waking, birdsongs in clear air. A crane calls, a rattling, musical sound like a stick dragged along a wooden fence. Another joins it, then two more, then a chorus of dozens. They stand up from the reeds where they've spent the night and gather in the pools below the tower, tall gray birds with red heads borrowed from their dinosaur ancestors. Soon there are around fifty, some walking about, others standing in place and staring fixedly.
The man sets down his pack and takes from it a plastic mixing bowl and a full Ziploc bag. He pours the contents of the bag—seed corn mixed with mealworms—into the bowl, and he and the woman move away from it as far as the deck allows.
"Do we say anything?" the man whispers. "An incantation or something?"
"How should I know?" the woman says. "I read the same website as you."
The man removes his cap with his free hand, revealing a bald head. "I'm going to say something." He yanks the hat back into place by its brim. "O Great Crane," he intones. "We—uh . . . We beseech . . . we ask for your humble—I mean, we humbly ask . . . for your—"
A crane swoops up, fanning its great wings forward to lift its legs over the deck rail. It sets its feet on the deck, tucks its wings away, and adjusts its shoulders to make them lie right. It is a giant, as heavy as a swan and with a neck almost half as long, balanced on long, sturdy legs. In the morning light its gray body and red forehead seem to glow.
It lowers its bill to the food and pecks it a few times, then stops and looks at the couple with the eerie nervousness of a wild bird.
"What can I do for you folks?" it asks in a high, gravelly voice.
The man and woman glance at each other. The man makes a gesture that she should be the one to speak.
"We're having an affair," she says, with a hint of pride. "We want to know, if I leave my husband and Nate leaves his wife, will we stay together? We don't want to put the kids through the divorce if it's no good."
The crane stands silent. It is impossible to tell what or even whether it is thinking, as it has no expressive features a human might interpret. "What are your full names?" it says at last.
"Dinah Garnowitz," says the woman.
"Nathan Myers," says the man.
"Where are you from? What do you do?"
"Raleigh," Nathan says. "I teach high school. She's a real estate agent."
The crane turns away, opens its wings, and takes three running steps to launch itself, barely clearing the rail with its wingtips. It sinks out of sight and reappears ten yards away, flapping steadily, its body oscillating around the steady level of its head and feet. It remains a few stories above the ground, just over the tops of the trees, and stays visible a long time before it is lost in the endless vista of pools and wet prairies.
Dinah sits on one of the two benches provided. Nathan sits beside her. She draws a cell phone from her pocket and looks at the face.
"You can't think he's called," Nathan says.
"I was only checking the time."
He puffs out a snort of disbelief.
"You think I'm lying?" she says. "I don't even have reception here."
A crane flies by and they lift their chins and look closely. A few more cross from right to left in front of them and they turn their heads to watch. But they're all merely the birds they saw waking up, traveling from their beds to their daytime feeding grounds.
The sun climbs definitively above the horizon. The air warms and the cicadas begin to buzz, drowning out most of the birds.
At last the crane returns, again dropping over the rail with only inches to spare.
"As far as I can see, you've got nothing to worry about," it rattles. "Six months from now you're both very happy."
"Six months!" Nathan shoots to his feet and the crane dances into the air, coming to perch on the guardrail.
"That's what I do," the crane said. "Most people want stock tips or lottery numbers. If you need more you have to go to the vulture, he flies higher than me and sees much farther."
Nathan shakes his head. "So where's the vulture?"
Two hours later the couple pushes off a dock near the refuge's main office. Nathan sits at the back of the canoe, Dinah in front. His backpack is stowed inside the canoe shell, behind his seat, and in the hold between them lies a package wrapped once in butcher paper and a second time in clear plastic.
They paddle up a wide, quiet access canal. Brush grows thick on both sides, stilling the air in the midday heat. Before they've gone half a mile Dinah is blinking hard. She lays down her paddle, dips her hand into water the color of strong tea, and lifts a cupped palmful to her face.
"I'm sweating the stupid bug spray into my eyes," she complains, and dips her hand for more.
"Careful," Nathan says. "I don't want you losing a hand. Try explaining that when you get home." With the sun high, alligators have emerged to bask on every log and bare patch of ground along the canal.
They skip the first two canoe trailheads they see, and have been on the water three quarters of an hour when they take the third, a portal through the trees into a boggy meadow. They float along an open space in a plain of lilies and waterlogged grasses, a path twice as wide as the boat itself. Brush and trees gather on hummocks, forming islands each no bigger than a house. The shallows close to these feed hundreds of wading birds: great blue herons, little blue herons, and great egrets stalk fish deliberately and then shoot their heavy beaks into the water like spears; white and glossy ibises probe their long curved bills into the mud; and cattle egrets make short flights, splash down to stir up the muck, and then pick at what comes to the surface. One pair of cranes strides among the other birds at a stately pace.
The canoe glides around a few bends in the trail, skirting these islands. An obviously manmade structure appears far ahead, though all that can be seen at first is a gray plastic roof with heavy black birds sitting on it. As they draw closer it becomes clear that these are black vultures and even bigger turkey vultures. The structure, a plastic-wood raft with a roof on stilts shading half of its area, represents the biggest, solidest perch in acres of swamp, and every vulture that can fit has crowded onto it. They sit shoulder to shoulder along the roof's peak and staggered a foot or two apart on its slopes. The unluckiest make do with the deck itself. Those with room hold their wings outspread, sunning themselves. The black vultures are ugly enough, with their featherless black iguana heads, but the turkey vultures are worse, almost psoriatic. They make no calls, but the clicking of talons on plastic is audible within twenty yards, and even closer the rustling of wing feathers. They have a sharp smell, like stale beer, grapefruit peels, and roach poison.
When the canoe finally gets too close for their comfort the vultures begin to flee, hoisting themselves aloft on broad, jagged wings. A few of the birds soar away once they've climbed high enough, but most gather in the branches of nearby tree islands, watching.
The couple pulls into dock; the canoe hull rumbles as they scrape home. It is hot and the smell has not dispersed with the birds. Vulture scat encrusts the deck. Nathan climbs up to the landing and holds the boat steady as Dinah does the same. They both squat, reach down and take hold of the thwarts, and lift the canoe clear of the water. Dinah fetches the double-wrapped package, carries it to one end of the dock, tears open the plastic and butcher paper with her fingernails—revealing a meatloaf's worth of ground beef—and spreads the wrapping flat around it. She and Nathan retreat under the roof.
"O Great Vulture," Nathan says, "the crane sent us because only you . . . because you can see farther than he can. Please . . ." He pauses. "Fuck it," he mutters eventually. "I don't know."
The fattest and ugliest of the turkey vultures in the nearest tree steps off its branch and floats down to the deck. It tents its wings over the meat and digs in its beak.
Dinah speaks: "We're having an affair—"
"Shut up," says the vulture in a whisper borrowed from Brando's Colonel Kurtz. "I'm eating."
It feeds in aggressive, precise bites, spilling very little. Between beakfuls it raises its head to swallow and each bolus of meat stands out inside its scaly neck. When all the meat is gone it raises its wings as if to fly, then drops them again.
"All right," it rasps. "Tell me."
"We want to know if it will work out between us," Nathan said, "and if we'll be faithful."
"How far ahead can you look?" Dinah asks.
"Two, maybe three years," the vulture wheezes. "It depends. I have to take a nap first. That was a lot of fresh meat for a dirty old scavenger like me."
It lifts its wings again and this time does take off, a bit heavily, as if the half-pound of chuck it's just eaten really is holding it down. Its crop is swollen and it wobbles trying to catch a breeze. It only just makes it to the tree with all the others, claims one of the lowest places, shouldering aside a couple of smaller birds, and then settles as motionless as a gargoyle.
Nathan and Dinah watch for a few minutes. Nothing happens. Nathan wraps an arm around Dinah's waist and kisses her neck.
"We could have our own lunch," Dinah says.
The canoe offers the only seats on the deck. In fact, it is the only surface of any kind not speckled with vulture droppings. Dinah sits in back this time, Nathan in front facing the rear, and the two of them share peanut-butter sandwiches from the backpack. Dinah finishes first, balls the sandwich's saran wrap and tucks the ball into the pack, and leans back, elbows propped on the edges of the hull. Her eyelids droop and her body hangs from the tent poles of her upper arms.
"Why'd you throw that in about being faithful?" she asks, too casually.
Nathan chews peanut butter and doesn't answer.
"Let me ask this, then." Dinah sits up. "Is three years enough of an answer for you? Because it is for me."
Nathan takes a drink of water from a plastic bottle. "What if it was forever?" he asks when his mouth is clear. "What if we'd never be with anyone else again? Never mind—" She was about to answer but his raised hand stops her. "—You flinched. That says it."
Dinah leans back again and keeps going this time until her back rests on the aft deck plate. "I love you," she grumbles from that position. "I just never thought about not falling in love again for the rest of my life."
She closes her eyes, and whether or not she is actually able to sleep in that awkward position, Nathan seems willing to let her pretend. He takes a mystery novel from the backpack and opens it. The sun is directly overhead, the part of the day when time does not pass. The vultures in the nearby tree seem to accept that their favorite hangout is lost for the time being, and one by one they fly away, wings fixed dihedrally, looking for thermals. The boat dries thoroughly, inside and out, and eventually Dinah is able to lie in the bottom of the hold, where she falls unmistakably asleep. One hand rests on Nathan's ankle.
Eventually Nathan closes his novel and taps that hand with the other foot's toe. She opens her eyes, rolls on her back and looks up at him from between his knees. He touches her face.
"I love you too," he says. "Why would you want to fall in love again?"
"I don't," she says. "It's just exciting to think about. It makes you feel better than anything else, you know?" She runs her hands up his calves outside the pant legs.
"It didn't make you happy to fall in love with me?"
"You want the truth?" Nathan raises his eyes from her to the landscape and keeps them there. "It felt really bad. I didn't want to fall in love with someone new, Di, it fucked up a pretty satisfying life." He glances at her, worried, and covers one of her hands with his. To reach he has to lean forward, and his shadow envelops her from the shoulders up. "Only I couldn't help it."
She smiles forgivingly and his brow relaxes. "What about your other loves, then?"
"Enh. The only other time was Laurie, and that—" he makes a short, dismissive backhand wave "—was more like a relief. I was old, already twenty-four, and I was thinking I would never find someone to fall in love with and I'd end up dying alone or something, and then along comes this woman and it happens, so of course I married her. And now . . ." He curls the fingers of her left hand into his right palm. "I want to get old and die with you instead."
"Me too, baby, but I also felt like that with Jonathan."
She says it lightly. Nathan becomes very still. He stops stroking the outside of her fist and the hand that had been holding hers opens, spilling her free. His jaw sets and his eyes focus on one white vulture dropping among thousands.
"I'm sorry," she says, "I didn't mean it like that."
"It's okay," he murmurs.
A long, unspeaking time later the vulture returns, coasting to the deck and landing with a couple of parachutist hops. Dinah clambers up to her seat and Nathan turns in his to face the bird.
"It's a clear day," the vulture whispers. "I saw far off. In three years you are still together and nobody's cheated."
"Are we still happy?" Nathan asks.
"How the hell should I know?" the bird says, and flies away.
They sit there awhile, watching it go. Then Nathan puts his book away and stands. He crosses to the spread butcher paper and folds it in half, quarters, eighths, and pulls the plastic wrap snug around it. Dinah shakes herself a little and stands too. She gathers empty sandwich baggies and plastic water bottles from the bottom of the boat, stuffs them in the backpack, and then holds it open to receive the butcher-paper wad from Nathan.
The bag is stored inside the hull. The two of them take the thwarts again and put the canoe in the water. Nathan sits on the edge of the deck and carefully lowers himself to the rear seat, and then holds a pylon to steady the boat while Dinah does the same in front. They paddle away from the shelter, and as they do their silence takes on a different character, losing its intimacy, overwhelmed by the swamp's general midday hush. The plish of their oars is as loud as the breeze.
A few minutes on, Dinah pulls her oar from the water and rests it across the gunwales. She turns her head ninety degrees to the left and speaks over her shoulder. "We decided that's enough, right, three years?" she says. "When we get home we tell them?"
"It's enough," Nathan echoes, somewhat glumly.
She counters with gaiety. "Then we should get one of those disposable cameras at the gift shop," she chirps. "We're in a romantic spot and we don't have to hide anymore. They'll be our first vacation photos."
Nathan does not answer.
"And by the time we get there you're gonna stop moping and be happy along with me," she says, "and then we'll go get high at the motel and have crazy sex. Okay?"
Nathan gives a little, involuntary grin. "Okay."
Around a turn the trail straightens for a few hundred yards. Not far ahead an alligator basks on a barely firm hummock directly beside their path. It must weigh as much as a pony, and from nose to tail stretch twenty feet. It faces them, jaws slightly apart, exposing teeth too big to be real.
Dinah sees it first and plows her paddle into the water to stop them; Nathan follows her lead. They are thirty feet away, close enough to see the beast's yellow eyes are open. To continue home they will have to pass within arm's length of it.
"What do we do?" Dinah breathes.
"I guess we have to go past. We can't scare it off."
Neither of them stirs.
"It's not likely to attack us or anything," Nathan whispers.
Still neither of them takes a stroke. The alligator looks like it could sit in place forever. The water is calm and currentless: the canoe could float in place forever too. In the main access canal motorboats passed from time to time, but in the hours since they branched onto this canoe-only trail, Dinah and Nathan haven't seen anyone else.
At last Nathan does pick up his oar and propels them forward. They slip within twenty feet, ten. They are about to draw abreast of it, and it is clear that if it chooses to the animal could lunge, capsize the canoe, and have them both.
A deep loud groan begins to reverberate from it, the bottom note on a full-sized pipe organ. Dinah, closer to it, shrieks in fear.
"I . . . can tell you . . . more," it says.
Nathan backpaddles hard and once she recovers Dinah does too. They scoot in reverse. A few seconds later they're back outside thirty feet and Dinah's shirt is blotched with the water Nathan's panicked strokes have flung on her.
Dinah finds her voice first. "Now what?" she hisses, only loud enough for Nathan to hear. "More than what?"
"Don't . . . be . . . obtuse," the alligator growls.
"We didn't bring anything for you," Nathan calls. "The vulture ate all our meat."
"In the long run . . . it's always bad news." Its voice is the creak of a wooden cabin on a cold night. "And your misery . . . is its own reward."
"Hell no!" Dinah exclaims, but a split-second later than Nathan's "All right, then." The gator hauls its body forward until its chin touches the water, and then in a single long movement pours through the surface and vanishes. Dinah spins in her seat, making the canoe rock. "What the fuck?"
"Got rid of him, didn't it?" Nathan says.
She considers and then nods. But before they can even start the gator returns, flopping out of the swamp onto its belly. Again it leads with its chin, dragging itself with its awkward, powerful arms. It stops with only its front half on the hummock, hind legs and tail dangling in the water, invisible.
"You have six good years," it says.
"What does that mean?" Nathan asks. "How many bad years?"
"You're happy for six years, then you have a heart attack and die."
For at least a minute neither Dinah nor Nathan speaks. Dinah breaks first. "If we don't get out of here right now," she says in an undertone, "I'm going to lose it and flip the boat or something."
She picks up her paddle and digs at the water, trying to steer from the front and point them toward home.
"What if we run over its tail?" Nathan says.
Dinah does not listen. She straightens the canoe in the channel and gets them underway. Nathan joins her, perhaps reasoning that if they're going to risk it, they should get it done with as quickly as possible. They do not hit the alligator's tail. It doesn't shift an inch, gives no evidence it's aware of them as they pass.
Hours later Nathan sits at the edge of a motel bed, crumbling a bud of pot onto a sheet of hotel stationery, adding it to tobacco from a third of a Marlboro. One by one his fingers isolate seeds and he drops them in the wastebasket. He wears a thin, cheap towel about his waist and nothing else. The coverlet has been stripped from the bed and thrown in a corner, and Dinah lies supine, naked on another towel atop a polyester blanket, a third towel wrapped around her hair. She holds her arms close to her sides, supporting her breasts. Fine wrinkles gather at her nipples as they try to sink into the surrounding flesh.
Nathan brushes his tobacco and shredded pot into the seam of a cigarette paper, rolls it to a joint between his fingers, licks the flap, and seals it. He tears a strip from a matchbook cover, winds it into a stubby cylinder, and fits that inside the paper at one end of the joint to serve as a mouthpiece, then holds it between his lips and lights the other end with a Bic lighter. He sucks in smoke and retains it a moment, passes the joint to Dinah, then blows it out in a long, even stream. She wriggles up the bed until her shoulders rest on the headboard, her back bent in the middle, and inhales too.
"I guess I could go back to smoking for real," he says.
"Come on," Dinah says. "You believe everything you hear from talking alligators?"
He nods bleakly.
Dinah passes the joint. He swings his legs up to the bed and leans against the headboard a foot higher than her. The tuck holding his towel is pulled apart.
"Yeah, me too," Dinah says.
He takes two deep drags in a row and passes, then tries desultorily to cover his penis with a corner of towel. The smell of pot smoke begins to overwhelm the room's underlying odor of mildewed carpet.
"You should be happy, right?" he sneers. "You'll get to love new loves, or whatever that shit was."
Holding the joint outstretched she pedals her feet on the slick blanket, pushes herself up the headboard to his level, and tugs in the far end of the sheet to cover her body, hugging it around herself protectively and drawing her shoulder away from his. Her voice, when she speaks, comes out hard. "You want the rough truth?" she says. "Maybe it is easier to know that someday there'll be someone new. But that doesn't mean it's not fucking awful."
"I'm sorry," he says, with sincerity this time, and rests his nearer hand on top of her head. The other reaches for the joint. It's more than half gone already.
"Look," she says, "we could go in for tests and try to fix what's wrong with you. We can change what he said. We could break up now and never be together again."
He stubs out the joint and leans into her, resting the side of his face almost directly between her breasts. "No, can't go back to Laurie," he mumbles into her skin. "Don't want to die with someone I don't love. No time to find someone else. Stick with you."
She starts to laugh, the convulsive, uncontrollable titter of pot. "How sweet," she gasps. He raises his head and kisses her, keeps kissing her open mouth even though she keeps giggling. He pushes her sideways until she's stretched on her back, and moves his hands over her body. Her laughs begin to calm and dissipate like the end of a rainstorm.
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