Alligator Tears

by

N. J. Kailhofer




The slit opened, revealing a bright, alert eye.

The eye belonged to Gator, Lord of the Swamp.

Gator ruled the Swamp from the summit of Mt. Mud, the only dry land to extend a few feet above the murky surface of the bountiful swamp water except for a few mossy rocks and the gnarled roots of the cypress trees.

Gatorís royal realm stretched as far as he could see. Every creature of the Swamp, from the insects that clung to the long vines that hung from the moss-covered cypress trees, to the frogs that perched upon the lily pads in the stagnant pools, croaking away the hours in froggish discussion of the weather, to the tiny fish that darted beneath the surface, searching for meals -- all yielded the way to Gator, their King.

He opened his eyes because the sun had just risen. Gator loved the sun, and loved to bask in its warmth. He loved the feel of the warm mud beneath his claws as he lay curled on his mountain.

He was glad because soon his favorite subject would awaken to face the sun. His favorite was a beautiful flower, and she grew at the top of Mt. Mud. She was Daffodil, and she was the only thing in the Swamp that he was ever kind to.

Gator never let any other thing grow on his mountain, and would even bring up a mouthful of nutritious muck to spread around her roots every day. He protected her during the day by curled his scaly body around her. By night he prowled the waters in invisible silence, and none dared try to climb his mountain.

The sky was clear, so Gator decided he would let the swamp have a peaceful day. He was always sleepy on sunny days, but on cloudy or rainy days, he was grumpy and prowled the Swamp, stirring for a fight.

"Gator," she asked, spreading her petals to the light above, "are you there?"

"Yes, my Daffodil."

"What does it look like today?" Daffodil had no eyes, and was blind to all the sights of the Swamp.

Gator gazed lazily around the Swamp. "Across the pool a dragonfly lies sunning himself on a blade of tall marsh grass. His wings shimmer like silver and his tail curves upward, catching the faint breeze."

"Oh, Gator, what else do you see?"

"Under the big cypress tree lies a large stone half covered in green moss. The moss is thick and hangs down to the waterís edge, where a snail slowly climbs. The drops of dew on his spiral shell glisten in the morning light like tiny diamonds. He began climbing before the dawn, but has still not reached half-way up the stone."

"Tell me more. Please, Gator."

Gator smiled sleepily at his flower. "In the water below there swims a school of minnows. The tiny fins at their sides flutter in the slow current, and their mouths open and close in silent amazement at the airy, liquid world around them. They face in one direction and when one begins to turn, the others follow. They have left the shallows to hide from the birds that are now beginning to move from tree to tree. The school is dark and barely visible against the muddy bottom."

"Why do they call them a school?"

Gator did not know the answer to this. He began to think about it, but thinking too much made him sleepy. Because he was already sleepy, he quickly fell to dozing a contented sleep on his warm mountain of mud.

####

Sunset hid the warming rays, and Gator silently slipped beneath the murky water, making no noise to startle his sleeping flower. Once there, he swallowed the first fish who failed to pay him homage.

"Out of my way, Frog!" he bellowed, and the frog leapt off of the lily pad into the murky, stagnant water.

Gator prowled the bottom, chasing the schools of fish. He separated one slower fish and trapped it in the shallows.

"Answer me!" he demanded. "Why do you travel in schools?"

"B-because," the fish floundered, "we always do it that way."

"No!" Gator snapped. "Why do you call them schools?"

Gator wanted to know the answer so he would be prepared the next time Daffodil asked. She always asked what he didnít know the answer to.

The fish gaped at Gator in amazement. "I donít know. Iíve never thought about it before."

Gator was about to swallow the fish when a voice cut in.

"I know why," it said.

Gator turned and saw a turtle. It wasnít like most of the snapping turtles that lived around the edge of the swamp. Its armored shell was much larger, and lacked the signs of wear that the otherís shells had.

"Who are you?" Gator demanded to know.

"Iím Tom Turtle," Tom replied. "I used to live in a pet store with the Humans until the flood came. When the water rose high enough, I swam out of my cage. Iíve traveled so far, you wouldnít even believe me if I told you how far it was! Where am I now?"

Gator looked at this big-city visitor with happy thoughts. He figured that if Tom knew why they were called schools then he would know many such things that Daffodil wanted to know. He wouldnít have to get so sleepy as he tried to think about things she asked him -- he could just ask Tom.

"This is the Swamp," Gator explained. "I am Gator, King of all things in the water or on the land from one end of the Swamp to the other."

"Hello, Cousin Gator!" Tom said.

"Cousin?"

Tom smiled a sly smile. "We reptiles are cousins. That makes me a Prince here."

Gator did not know what to think about this. He didnít know he had any cousins, especially ones who were Princes. He thought about it until he began to get sleepy.

"Very well!" he decided. "You may stay in the Swamp. You may eat anything in it but the daffodil that grows on the mountain of mud. That flower is mine!"

Gator prowled away, forgetting all about the questions that he was going to ask.

Tom dove in the water, searching for Mt. Mud. He had never seen an alligator that liked flowers, and he wanted to know what sort of flower could do it.

He found the mountain and slowly climbed the muddy slopes. He stopped and looked at the flower in the pre-dawn light. It was a very pretty daffodil, he thought, but not so special that an alligator should protect it. He figured that the flower must have some magic spell on Gator.

####

The next morning was also sunny, so Gator and Tom basked on Mt. Mud together, waiting for Daffodil to awaken.

She spread her petals to the warming light. "Gator, are you there?"

"Yes, my Daffodil. I have a surprise for you."

"Oh, what is it, Gator?"

"Iím it," Tom announced. "Iím Tom Turtle, Gatorís cousin."

"This Turtle," Gator explained, "used to live with the Humans in the city. He can answer your questions that I cannot."

"Hello, Tom," she said. "Iím pleased to meet you."

"Hello," Tom replied.

"Gator," she asked, "what does Tom look like?"

Gator watched Tom for a minute. "He is green like the moss that hangs from the trees. He lives in an armored shell that even I could not easily crush. From his suit of shell extend four legs, his short tail behind, and his head at the front. His manner is slow, but his face eager. When he is frightened he hides inside his shell, and when he is not he watches the world with quiet eyes."

"Tom," she implored, "Gator always describes things for me. Please, look across the Swamp and tell me what you see."

Tom looked. "Itís a swamp. The water is covered with scum and smells bad. The sky is filled with stinging insects and the water hangs in the air so heavily I can hardly breathe. Everything is ugly. Yuck!"

Daffodil almost wilted at this description. Even Gator was disappointed by it, and slid into the water to go and recheck for himself if it was really true.

"But," she protested to Tom, "Gator always sees such pretty things in the Swamp. How could it be so empty?"

Tom smiled. "It is empty because I have seen the world beyond here. I have seen the colors of the city and of the riverbanks. I have seen the Humans watering fields filled with the richest browns, deepest greens, and fullest blushing violets. Everything here is one color."

Daffodil folded her petals in. "I never dreamed that I lived in such an ugly place. Tell me of the city, please. I want to know about the world away from here."

Tom told her of his clean cage in Mr. Bellamyís corner Pet Store and of the human girl, Meg, who took care of him every day. He told her of the brilliantly-colored parrots whom he talked to during the dark nights and of the traveled exotic tropical fish that had been born in the mighty waters of the Amazon. He told her of the beautiful red roses that grew in the window box at the Pet Store and how they always dreamed of romance.

Gator surfaced near the mountain and listened to Tomís tale. He had never heard of the things Tom told, and knew that the Swamp that he had been so proud of would never seem the same to Daffodil. He sunk to the bottom and stayed there until he saw a water moccasin he could chase, venting his anger at his serpentine relative.

Tom continued to tell her of the world around the swamp until he could think of nothing else to tell, real or made-up.

"Daffodil," Tom asked, "why does Gator take care of you the way he does?"

Tomís eyes gleamed with sly interest as he waited to hear the secret of her magic.

"Because long ago I learned his name. I am the only one he has ever told."

Tom looked unhappy. "But his name is Gator."

Daffodil frowned her leaves. "No. Gator is his kind, not his name."

Tom moved closer to her. "What is his name?"

"I could never tell you. He would be so very angry."

"Him? He made you believe you lived in beauty instead of ugliness. He wouldnít tell you of the world beyond the Swamp. He wonít let others visit you. He ruins you!"

"Youíre right," she decided, and she told him the name.

Tom thought, "Now I am protected. Gator cannot harm me. I will be the King of the Swamp. Finally, I can eat the only thing in this Swamp that looks good to eat."

With that, Tom Turtle swallowed Daffodil in one bite.

####

Gator returned and saw his Daffodil gone. "Turtle! What has happened to my Daffodil?!"

Tom stuck his head out of his shell defiantly. "I have eaten her."

Gator gaped at him. "Cousin Turtle, how could you have done this when you know that I must now eat you? I have given you free reign over the whole of the Swamp except that which you have destroyed. How could you have done this?"

"I have made her tell me your name, and now the magic that protected her protects me. I will be King of the Swamp and you will do as I command, Gator."

Gator hissed his most enraged roar. "You are wrong, Turtle. The only magic in my name was that I loved her enough to tell her what it was. First, you ruined her innocence, and then you ate her, ruining our happiness. You could not be satisfied with what you had until you had stolen my Daffodil from me. You could not see the beauty of this place, so you worked to steal my Swamp from me. Now, I will steal your life from you!"

"Cousin, no!" Tom squealed, trying to flee.

Gator crushed Tom Turtleís shell and swallowed him whole. Gator then curled himself under the sun on his mountain of mud.

All the creatures of the Swamp lay shocked at the royal drama they had seen laid out before them, and no noise at all could be heard from one end of the Swamp to the other, save for the lonely, mournful sound of alligator tears.

THE END



© 2005 by N. J. Kailhofer

Nate the K. says, "I've been published at Planet Magazine, Alien Skin, and a handful of times here at Aphelion (most recently the much-commented-upon Another Sarah, June, 2005), and was a semi-finalist in a recent round of the 'L. Ron Hubbard's Writers of the Future Contest'. By day, I slave at a small printing company. By night, I'm free to become something more. What, I'm not sure yet, but it usually involves lurking around the Lettercol..."(where he behaves something like a 'gator himself (Ye Editor))

E-mail: The Kailhofers

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