Plenteous Temptation at the Far Reaches of Bald Cypress Swamp

Look. In years, how long have we been here? A shadow in water is more or less equal to another shadow in water. Your scales are burnished. And you say I never notice these changes.

You’re pointing at a shadow with your arms folded. That shadow is the water. I’m hungry and reluctant to offend you, but I can’t pull my hair back, but if I could, I would find my hands, if in fact I still do have hands, and sweep them through the shadow oh-so-slowly. The idea would get through to you, or not, that the water is the shadow, or the shadow is the water, whichever.

You’re pointing at the water with your arms folded. I’m in the third row with a good view of you grimacing, if in fact that’s you, you failing to realize once again that you’ve misunderstood the basic principles of grimacing.

I don’t have scales. Sometimes it feels like I’m wearing scales. You’re the one who always claims I still have scales.

How do you explain our sheen, our flippers, our spines? Oh, forget it; all I hear from you is hunger.

If I stuffed a ball of wool inside your maw, would that help?

I would like, just once, to have the sense that a bell is ringing.

I don’t have hunger, I have a specific appetite, an appetite that I worked up after pondering a specific, what’s the word, hunger, what’s the word. I have that narrowing of focus that, as you know, often afflicts my appetite. Or perhaps you don’t know . . . I never can be sure what you know. Ungulate. I know the word.

Wait, go back—there’s more than one wool repeated. I thought we agreed. Honestly, I mistrust your appetite—it speaks. Did you hear her? Does water sluice through me some days?

Whole sweaters sluice through you some days. It would be interesting to go digging in that tangle of sweaters, that swamp of sweaters. Have you actually forgotten how you brought me news of the young widow dangled as temptation, the thirteen gentleman farmers dangled as temptation, the stout-hearted woman stricken with influenza as temptation, and finally the ewe? The thirty-year-old daughter strapped into a child safety seat dangled as temptation, the middle-aged disciple on the undercard dangled as temptation, the Goth trombonist dangled as temptation, and finally the ewe?

Can you actually not remember?

Hands or no hands, you and your gestures. Some days when you’re stuffing temptation down your gullet, it’s like you’re eating to forget.

Forget, yes. Look, cut me some slack. What about the bare hook?

You’re evidently on a full-tilt losing streak of not remembering, but wait . . . out of nowhere you’ve plunked down the hook. There goes your momentum. Something enormous has returned. You’ve retrieved the bare hook. Now think back hard. You comprehend hooks well enough to know that hooks don’t undress themselves.

I remember better or worse when I think about it in the water. Not like you’re an expert. I have no conclusions.

You’re full of surprises today. I have the sour taste in my mouth that invariably precedes one of your awesome revelations. It’s annoying how that happens, when I’m all revved up to eat, then afflicted by the sour taste.

That’s guilt; that’s gluttony. What specimens are we to justify these volunteers? How many baits have they given us? Like the arm last week—it was a means to an end. I felt no affection for it. I squelched my hunger.

I felt affection for that arm. I felt affection for the yoga class dangled as temptation. I felt affection for the night auditor dangled as temptation. The thirty-year-old lazy daughter who believed she was going to candy heaven when she was strapped into the child seat, dangled as temptation. The divorce counselor in overalls dangled as temptation. The escaped prisoner disguised in a beige sweater dangled as temptation.

I always feel affection. I feel affection for affection. Affection is a vital part of my appetite. I have a huge appetite, consequently lots and lots of warm, dreamy affection. It’s always seemed to me basically a . . . miscarriage of justice . . . that you never feel affection.

That’s a lie; you know it’s not like that. You confuse affection with hunger. Affection, in a solid sense, is one part of me that hasn’t floated off. Does the past mean anything to you at all?

That’s the trouble with you: you hold onto your affection. You don’t allow it to float off, but it doesn’t work unless it floats off. You cling to your affection. I feel affection for affection but the difference is, I part with my affection. It drifts away, into the water, or the shadow, it envelops the whatever, the filthy wool, the volunteer, or whatever, the martial arts instructor who could never master cleanliness, or whatever. It envelops and imparts its essence to the bloodhound that was caught fleeing from the rabbit, or whatever, the pig farmer who crossed a bear with a boar, the handyman who otherwise would have tasted like iodine and phosphorus and sawdust, or whatever. You’ll never understand what I mean when I say that affection is essential to my appetite.

Hang on. I know you. You only fidget when you’re hiding something.

Hiding? You ate; you should be able to speak. Your density isn’t my fault. Drowned mites among clogs of algae. Hooves in the dirt, right rear leg dragging behind, nearly off, bleating, the summer hanging on into fall and distressing, bleating its way into the nature preserve; they found me, found her, stranded on a tuft of solid ground among the swamps, along our home, her home; listen, they stole her.

Hooves in the dirt? Nature preserve? Now you’ve lost me. You’re always losing me.

My appetite is always present for the volunteer, the hunched-over volunteer, the volunteer who fell, or fell in, survived and was permanently hunched over, folded at the middle, never did come around, went on the hook all hunched over.

You have been hiding something. Just the idea that you’re capable of hiding something makes the sour taste a whole lot worse, it curdles the sour taste, if that’s even possible. The sour taste has turned at the idea that you’re hiding something. It’s not the same old sour taste. I search inside my mouth and I can’t find the old familiar sour taste that presages one of your fearsome awesome confessions.

I’m not hiding; I’m not holding. This was different. Not like the jockey, the minister, the choir. Look. There’s a difference between a mouth that speaks and a mouth that speaks to you.

Huh? What? Is this your daily one minute of being reduced to mouthing off?

I swear, I thought I knew you like I know my souvenir turtle.

Every day with you has been like a shock that faded long ago.

There are women, and there’s hot water. Women are bathing in hot water and it has nothing to do with us. I’ve explained this to you. The hot water drains into a watershed that shimmers with the fumes of women bathing. If not for the sour taste I would have an appetite for fumes. I could find enthusiasm, even now, even for a tree root, an ordinary tree root, dangled as temptation. A tree root infused in drained hot water, an ordinary bitter tree root, dressed ornately in ordinary steamy water.

No, you could eat, as you put it, “whatever.” Hot water or no, liquid or no, watershed or not. I shouldn’t put up with this. I should find a glassier pond. I blame myself for that; that’s my lapse.

I’m crushed. You’ve always made me feel so . . . hungry. My palate couldn’t possibly survive without your, I want to say happy little digests. Is your strong heart at long last pivoting away?

I’ve always been so supportive of your innocence and eagerness, but my teeth are aching . . . if those are my teeth . . . at the way your whole demeanor happens to be . . . squaring up . . . as if you have good news and more good news. I intuit some defiant confession on the horizon and at the same time I know you well enough to know you could swim forever and never reach that particular horizon.

To swim forever is a kind enough assumption. An ocean is purely a concept—limited vs. limitless. Has nothing ever spoken to you? Why couldn’t you hear her voice? Not a story but a voice. If you just would listen. A voice—sometimes it has another one inside it.

Oh, I understand now: we’ve reached your daily one minute of enlightening me. All the past daily minutes were just apprenticeship. You were apprenticing and now you’re showing off a new skill. Inside your enlightenment is more enlightenment. You’ve graduated to enlightenment inside enlightenment.

Is there a confession in there somewhere? Out there somewhere? I’m no voyeur, but I’m beginning to have the sense of watching myself not making progress in eliciting a confession.

I’m not trying to enlighten you; I might as well drown myself. When the ewe spoke, I heard it, and her words rippled water. When I replied, when I asked for more of its story, thick water rippled back. In all our time together, you—

“Words rippled water”? The ewe’s words? Have you been drinking tap water? You’re practically bulging with the dreamy look you get when you go on and on about railways or mulberries.

You’re acting like you obtained a permit to . . . wait, you’re surrounding me with annoying suspicions. Did you have breakfast with the ewe? Was it a sympathy breakfast that became lost in sorting out misunderstandings? The ewe broached a painful history and you responded with a consciousness of your history of sloppiness? You feigned indifference until the ewe’s reflection in the chafing dish reminded you of your cherished fisherman’s sweater?

When you lower your head like that, if that’s your head, I begin to actually consider that it might be fun to live alone. Where the water never ripples back and, and you know how I feel about this, never is opaque.

I have nothing to apologize for. Water always ripples back. Listen to me or don’t. There’s always upstream.

Upstream? In all the time I’ve known you, there has never been a naturally occurring upstream.

I’m not sure that you would recognize an upstream if it troubled over you.

Let me guess . . . you circled the hook, you coaxed the ewe. You indulged a deep secret aspiration to luxuriate in coaxing. You kept looking back over your shoulder. The ewe asked you why. You entertained the ewe by indulging a deep secret aspiration to talk behind my back.

You removed the ungulate, you led the ungulate away. You bonded with the ungulate. Fireworks went off when you discovered that you and the ungulate shared a passion for tinkering with discarded oil gauges. You and the ungulate spun out a fantasy of tender care, compassionate care, accurate care for discarded oil gauges, curing them in sunlight.

Dandelions grew up among the curing gauges. I know the way you think. There was a campsite and a little zoo, a zoo of rehabilitated oil gauges, healthy oil gauges basking in the sunlight and the fireworks. A campsite and a big tent where you hawked picnic baskets and mosquito repellent. The entrance to the big tent with a little stand outside with maps and warnings about not volunteering and you and the ungulate cohabited inside a silver trailer with a sunlit chin-up bar outside and one afternoon I paddled to a hook and—

Look, when you speak, you kill it. I’ve no choice but to tell.

The ewe on the hook—she spoke to me. She lived among others of her kind. Bright wool, dark hooves, open sky. Her herd bared hillsides. They ate hillsides down to the quick. They travelled, sought green over hill and dale. Through valleys, past high cones of shale. Not mountains, but the problem might lie in the term “mountain” and not our ability to see them. My ability. Then the ewe, my ewe, our ewe—look, we slipped on fine gravel, tumbled down. We stood but her leg twisted, limping. Our pack ignored our bay. Simple circumstance. They left, and we watched them pass into low clouds, gray on gray.

We stumbled for days. Heavy, cold rain. Equipped for this at least. We wandered a town at night, wandered a Wal-Mart at night, wandered a lumber yard at night. Neither welcomed nor put down. Escorted out: “I’m going to have to ask you to leave.” Leg dragging behind, persistent bleating. Past highway, past cul-de-sac, past factories and warehouses.

Then to the preserve. Acres and acres of wilderness, highly regulated, rolling hills, sunlight, the smell of swamp gas wafting up from further down, of leaves compressed and mixing with water and death, and it is strange to smell home through some other being. We felt our pain lessen not because our leg was healing, but because we were closing the gap.

The men who found us wore copper glasses and followed us while clutching charts. They marked us as “Rogue Sheep” in their notes. We passed from plains to swamp, a slick gradient, the ground giving way to muck, tense ridges of land interrupting slurried water, the home, a home, our home, a potential in the thick water. The leg had nearly broken off, skin black and peeling as if burned. Then capture, a snare. A metal pipe one of them had. Either for this purpose or not.

Then a thick, barbed hook. They threw us in. A reunion. When I found her, she’d been in for some time. Teeth thick, gums peeling back. We were both residents, both runners, both wormed right through. And when she spoke, I listened.

I showed her to you and you ate without regard.

And now, silent, you turn your back on me, on the swamp. Is it disgust or guilt that motivates you upstream? I wish freshwater for you; I wish for new bait, new volunteers; I wish an absence of telling. What you want is an animal life, a negation. I will stay here and waste and listen.

I hope a bone of the ewe is lodged in your gut.

I hope someday, when you’re finally captured, when they lay you open on a steel table, when they puncture your gut and spill it—I hope they find a trace.  

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