George T. Philibin
Tudlow, the biggest, oldest and toughest alligator in the Everglades, sat sunning himself on the bank, enjoying the sweet smell of stagnant water and rotting marsh grass.
As King of the Everglades, Tudlow treated most other alligators with contempt. If he felt that another 'gator had insulted him, he'd have that one for breakfast. If there was a 'gator he didn't like, he might have him for lunch. When he really hated one, he always had him for supper. However, if he liked one -- which was very unusual -- that alligator could do no wrong, and Tudlow reserved a spot for him beside Tudlow's own favorite basking place. Today, three other alligators rested near Tudlow, but Raptor, an albino alligator, had the place of honor on Tudlow's left.
Old Tudlow watched other alligators swim past, up or down the marshy river that ran through the Everglades for miles. The alligators raised their heads in submission and slowed down in respect for old Tudlow, and Tudlow knew each alligator well, its scent, the swishing of its tail, the way it moved in a fight, and its hiss and bellow.
A trio of young mature alligators caught Tudlow's eye as they passed. Two had their heads raised high enough to show respect, but one head started getting lower and lower each time that alligator passed, and Tudlow took notice.
Tudlow eyed the lead alligator closely. And his eyes narrowed as his head followed the trio and his tail started swishing back and forth until it accidentally smacked Martin, another alligator resting there on the bank. Martin just moved away, silently.
Odman, the leader of the trio, finally said after a safe distance, "What the hell did Tudlow see in that white freak?"
Toadfrog, another alligator in the trio who got his name because he looked like a tadpole when born, said, "Nobody knows. But everybody wonders. Tudlow likes nobody except that freak and those two kiss-asses. Nope, nobody knows. And don't ask too many questions this close to Tudlow or he might hear you, and you'll wind up in his stomach like old Ugg did. Old Ugg just looked at Tudlow wrong, and Tudlow sprang from that bank, ripped old Ugg in half and fed him to that freak and those two kiss-asses.
A brief interlude between the alligators broke when Odman said with confidence, "Ugg wasn't a fighter, you know that. But it doesn't matter because after today Tudlow is finished."
"Don't tangle with Tudlow! You. Will. Lose!" Toadfrog screamed.
"Just remember what I said," Odman answered.
The trio disappeared around a bend in the swampy river as mist lifted itself off the marshlands and a slight breeze sent the trio's scent back up to Tudlow. But Tudlow didn't want to move. The birds chirping -- music to Tudlow's ears -- and the sun baking his back felt so good, and the aroma of some lilies mixed with decaying flesh and bugs that orbited his head buzzing -- what more could old Tudlow want than to enjoy his day this way? But there was trouble, and old Tudlow knew how to handle trouble.
Tudlow cocked his head sideways, looked at Chopper who already had met Tudlow's eyes, leaned closer and said softly, "Go see what the hell they're up to."
Silently, Chopper slipped into the water as insects flew off his back, and he headed down river. Raptor watched, and Tudlow placed his head over Raptor as he had done when Raptor was younger to show all the everglades that if you mess with Raptor, you mess with Tudlow.
Raptor -- full grown now, almost as big and strong as Tudlow ---didn't need protection anymore, but he let Tudlow show his dominance because without Tudlow, Raptor knew that his life would have ended within the first few minutes after hatching.
When alligators hatch, weak ones "erk" for help from mother alligator if they can't break out of their shells. Mother alligator will break the shell for them, but Raptor needed no help; he blew apart his shell and began examining the world as his brothers and sisters scampered to the water for safety. Raptor stood his ground. But as he looked, one of the other alligators in the water screamed, "Look -- a freak! Somebody better kill it!"
Another alligator up in his years added, "He'll bring bad luck to all of us!"
As mother alligator looked to see what all the fuss was about, her eyes found young white Raptor holding his head high and surveying the surroundings. Her look became a laser-targeting stare as she cautiously moved towards Raptor, and her hiss didn't sound motherly.
Inch by inch she got closer until one small lunge would find Raptor in her jaws. As she prepared her attack, Tudlow shot across from the bank, scooped up Raptor, and held his head high for all to see.
"He's going to kill the freak himself!" the old alligator known as Smiley said. "Yes sir, Tudlow knows when something ain't right!"
The spectacle drew many sighs of relieve, for bad luck is never wanted especially in the everglades. As the throng of alligators anticipated the soft crunch that would surely come from Tundlow's jaws, their heads rose in disbelief as Tudlow's jaws turned into angelic hands that cradled Raptor ever so gently as Tudlow majestically trekked back to his territorial spot on the bank. Raptor looked out between Tudlow's teeth and wondered at his new world.
The moist afternoon's heat danced with a slight breeze as Raptor and Tudlow watched Chopper stalk Odman and his pals. Silently, with only his eyes above the surface like twin periscopes, leaving no wake, Chopped became like water -- invisible to the surroundings and silent to all ears. The commander of an attack submarine could have learned a few tricks from Chopper.
"What do you think they're up to?" Raptor asked.
"They're up to something, Kid, and that's fer sure," Tudlow rumbled. He fell silent for a moment, as if digesting a particularly tough bit of carrion -- or an equally tough problem. Then he said, "Kid, I taught you everything I know. I reckon it's time to see how well ya learned.
"What's been different about Odman, lately?"
Without thinking it over, Raptor answered, "Each time Odman passes, his head gets a little lower."
"Ya learned good, Kid. Ya really learned good," Tudlow answered with pride. "Always watchin'. That's how ya stay on top."
"What's your plan?" Raptor asked.
"We'll see when Chopper gets back. I might be wrong, but I figure Odman thinks he can take me, and if I know him right, he will not be alone when he tries."
"What?" Raptor bellowed, cocking his head upward to look Tudlow in the eye.
"That's right, Kid. Odman's fool enough to risk goin' like Ugg went," Tudlow said.
"Let me at him! Just let me at him, Tud! Anybody messes with you, they mess with me!" Raptor screamed. Some of the other alligators in the river looked over.
"Keep it down," Tudlow said under his breath.
"Sorry, Tud," Raptor said. "But nobody, and I mean nobody is going to mess with you."
"Kid, you've come a long way," Tudlow said. "I taught ya how to fight and win, and how to survive. Now I think it's showtime for ya."
Raptor cocked his head in puzzlement. "Showtime? What do you mean by –"
"Over there! That damned thing is here again!" Martin screamed.
An enormous snake – a boa constrictor -- slid through the grass and raised its massive head to stare directly at Martin, who backed away cautiously.
Raptor recognized the serpent; years ago Tudlow and this "foreigner" had fought a ferocious battle that lasted for twenty hours. During that battle, while the still-tiny Raptor could only watch from his hiding place among the reeds, a raccoon had spotted the albino. The swamp provided camouflage for creatures of normal coloration, but a white 'gator stood out.
The raccoon grabbed Raptor thinking that this young white freak would be an easy meal. But the same will that had driven Raptor to explode from his shell now became the will to survive, and Raptor clamped onto the raccoon's ear, drawing a furious chittering snarl from the furry predator.
But the raccoon was too big. With its clever paws, it broke Raptor's grip, and although Raptor fought with all his might, the raccoon started dragging him away. Another 'gator, four years old at that time, sprang from nowhere and bit the raccoon nearly in half. Raptor continued to fight with what was left of the raccoon until the other gator's hiss penetrated his instinctive fury.
The battle between Tudlow and the snake ended with no winner. As each reptile backed away from the other they both shared the same thought: I will never, never screw with that thing again!
Tudlow gave Raptor's rescuer the name Chopper ("'cause you chopped that raccoon in two with one bite!"), and invited him to stay on the bank.
The strange odor that Raptor smelled all morning had to be the snake, and Tudlow must have known it too.
Tudlow did. And as the boa constrictor met Tudlow's eyes, Tudlow asked, "Why the hell you been hanging around all this time? Ya don't want a rematch, do ya?"
"No, Senor, I don't want a fight. When we fought, this was a very strange place to me and I was so scared, you know, scared to death of you and your kind. Strange animals. Strange birds. Strange sounds. I wanted to go home, but now I know that I will never see my forest again.
"I was dropped off here after I got too big for the house; the people just let me go here, in this swamp. I was scared, you know. I don't know anybody in this strange land, for I haven't seen my kind around," the boa constrictor said.
"Well, what the hell you want me to do? Buy ya a plane ticket home?" Tudlow bellowed.
"No, Senor. I just want to live in peace. Get along with everybody. That's all. No fighting with anybody. No, I just want to live in peace with all these strangers."
Tudlow grunted in surprise. He hadn't expected the snake that had fought him to a draw to be so -- polite. Or so sad.
"Look, pal. If you don't disrespect me, I won't disrespect you. Truce?" Tudlow offered.
"That's all I want, Senor. To live in peace with everybody," the boa constrictor replied. His long, thickly-muscled body uncoiled, revealing itself to be more than twice as long as even Tudlow himself.
As the boa constrictor slithered away, Raptor shot a question at Tudlow: "What do you think he really wanted?"
"Don't know, kid. Don't know nothing about them except he sure as hell can fight. I hope no more of his kind are around. I've seen him many times after we fought, but can't figure out why he has hung around. I don't think too many know he's here -- he seems to stay to himself and hides most of the time.
"Keep an eye on him. Hear me?" Tudlow said.
As Tudlow and Raptor talked, Chopper appeared next to them, and grunted softly to get Tudlow's attention.
Tudlow listened as Chopper whispered in his ear, and Raptor heard Tudlow ask, "That punk really said that? And those other two are with
him, huh? Well, well we'll see about that. Good job."
After Tudlow thought for a second, he bellowed forth so loud that Martin cringed in fear. "Foreigner! El Snake-O! Come on back. Ya can hang on the bank with us! Come on back, buddy!"
Raptor and Martin froze in astonishment. Chopped had slipped away on another mission.
"Kid, when you fight, what's the one thing you do when locked together?" Tudlow asked, ignoring the puzzled looks directed at him by his companions.
Raptor answered as if he had a textbook open. "Spin left three times, then spin right on the fourth move unless..."
The odor of the boa constrictor got stronger until that large head raised itself up over the bank.
Tudlow trudged slowly over to the boa constrictor, then spoke softly, but Raptor heard a few of Tudlow's remarks.
"... I know how it is ... you help me ... that's all I want ... on the bank from now on ...Yes, I understand ... completely ... That's okay with me ..."
Raptor's and Martin's heads rose after a tear formed in the boa constrictor's eye. The snake spoke in tones even more subdued than Tudlow's, but Raptor made out enough to guess at the rest.
"For you ... my new friend ... always ... friend ... my pleasure ... anything."
The boa constrictor arched his head closer to Tudlow as Tudlow discussed something with him, but Raptor couldn't hear it. During the conversation, Tudlow pointed up with his snout as he talked, and the boa constrictor followed with eyes that sparkled more with each word that came from Tudlow.
After Tudlow had finished speaking, the boa constrictor slithered away, and Tudlow's eyes also sparked, with joy.
Tudlow returned to his spot between Martin and Raptor and said, "Odman and that bunch should be coming up soon." Tudlow was correct for within a moment or two Odman and a flotilla of five other alligators appeared after the bend with Odman in the lead.
As they approached, none raised their heads!
Tudlow called Martin over and told him something which didn't agree with Martin, apparently. Tudlow finally blasted out "Just do it!"
Martin slipped into the water and hid near the bank.
"Okay, Kid. Do you know what showtime is?" Tudlow asked.
Raptor shook his head no.
"It means it's time to show me what ya learned. You can have Odman -- it's your show, Kid, go get 'em!" Tudlow answered.
Raptor swelled up, vigorously. His head raised as he looked at Odman who spearheaded the flotilla.
As Raptor slipped into the water, Tudlow added, "Kid, remember: spin left three times, then spin right. Don't worry about the others -- I'll handle them, just get Odman. But hold off for a minute or two if you can."
The warm moist air carried silence as Raptor's and Odman's eyes locked themselves together on a collision course. Other alligators grouped on the opposite bank to watch, and even birds, frogs and insects found a good spot. A turtle with its head extended far out didn't seem concerned about an alligator inches away that had climbed partly over another 'gator to make sure he didn't miss one snap or slap of a tail. Young alligators swarmed to the far bank and slipped under the larger alligators to get a good view, while infant alligators jumped up onto
the heads of mature alligators who didn't seem to mind the annoyance.
The water in the river became still, as water in a tea-kettle does before it boils, but then it started swirling in anticipation as Raptor and Odman met.
"Outa my way, Freak!"Odman bellowed.
Raptor stared and said nothing. The silence between the two screamed as each alligator felt and smelled hot, moist, rotten breath saturated with decaying fish from the other.
"Are you stupid, Freak? Are you? What the hell is wrong with your brain?" Odman bellowed.
Calmly, Raptor said, "I'm just looking at what meat I want from you. Your tail will probably taste so good. Maybe your legs -- I don't know. What part of you do you think will taste the best?"
"What! Why you white freak --" Odman started to say when Toadfrog screamed out, "What the hell is that thing?"
All eyes looked up at the boa constrictor that had lowered its massive head to about five feet above the flotilla of alligators. Its body had coiled itself around a branch that hung over the river.
Tudlow bellowed out "Now!" and as the flotilla spun in confusion, Chopper shot out and tore at the belly of Fat, Odman's best friend. Martin latched onto another alligator, and the boa constrictor dropped from the branch and wrapped himself around a third alligator as Tudlow belly-flopped into the river and headed for the fourth. Tudlow never caught the fourth alligator because that one took off like a jet-ski as he headed down river never to be seen again. But the fifth alligator, Toadfrog, looked more like a hydroplane as he doubled the distance between Tudlow and himself every second. Tudlow ended the chase.
Raptor, never taking his eyes off Odman, screamed, "Now we're even, ass-hole!"then torpedoed himself into Odman's side.
With the boa constrictor putting the squeeze on one alligator in the river, and Chopper and Martin ripping into two others, the river started to boil as Raptor locked onto Obman's side and spun around and around until a large chunk of flesh tore off. But Odman wasn't finished yet.
Odman flipped and grabbed Raptor's tail and spun. Blood from Odman's wound pumped into the river and merged with blood that poured from a large tear in Raptor's tail.
Tudlow had crawled back onto the bank and watched, confidently.
Raptor lunged and grabbed Odman's hind leg, but Odman, anticipating Raptor's next move, surged forward to rip into Raptor's belly. However, Odman's jaws didn't find Raptor's belly as they should have. Raptor had spun right. Now Raptor's jaw had Odman's belly and one quick spin tore at Odman's insides and left some sinking in the murky, turbulent water that now boiled with blood.
Odman struck at Raptor again and again, but he grew weaker and weaker. Finally, Raptor's vise-like jaws found Odman's belly again, and Raptor's jaws didn't unlock as he spun and spun, around and around, until Odman became dead weight, with lifeless jaws that would never snap shut again.
The sounds of battle -- tails slapping the water, bellows, the swish of water, the thud of bodies ramming into each other -- faded as Odman floated down-river, lifeless and only moving with the current.
The boa constrictor had no mercy on his victim, either, breaking the back of his armored opponent and pinning him underwater until he drowned. And another dead alligator followed Odman down-river.
However, Chopper's and Martin's opponents fled down-river at the first chance. Blood trailed them and Chopper pursued until Tudlow bellowed, "Let them go." Chopper ended his pursuit and returned to the bank. Martin had already headed for the bank after his opponent had fled.
Raptor, bleeding from many wounds, none too serious, sprang up onto the bank next to Tudlow, who said, "Kid, you just beat a heavy-weight. Ya beat him because ya listened to everything I taught ya!"
The murmurs of "Raptor killed Odman" echoed through-out the everglades as the throng of alligators dispersed like a crowd after a first rate movie: some down-river, some up-river and some to the far bank to sun themselves as they talked about the battle, and the giant snake that helped Tudlow.
Raptor, once known as Tudlow's freak, now became known as Thunder-White, and the moniker "freak" died with Odman and floated away never to be heard again.
In the following weeks, every alligator that passed Tudlow and Raptor raised its head so high that it appeared vertical. Even frogs and birds showed respect and turtles when near stuck their heads out high. Young alligators risked the wrath of Tudlow and Raptor just to get a good peek at them. However, Martin usually hissed at them and they would scatter wildly.
Tudlow mellowed after the battle, for if a young alligator passed by without raising his head, Tudlow just bellowed and said, "Youth is foolish. They'll learn soon enough. Look at him swim. He's going nowhere fast!"
Nevertheless, Raptor watched and remembered their sounds and bellows, and the swishing of their tails, their scents, and their movements in the water and how long it took one to get to his destination. Everything about the other alligators in the swamps, Raptor remembered. And Tudlow would often say, "You're really learning good, Kid."
The sight at Tudlow's bank drew many to take a peek: four alligators, one white, sunning themselves with a boa constrictor coiled next to them. "It ain't natural!" some would say when they were at a safe distance and very far out of hearing range.
Tudlow gave the boa constrictor the name 'Springs', and Springs seemed to enjoy his new name. Springs enjoyed the bank. Springs enjoyed the river, and Springs enjoyed Martin. But Springs especially enjoyed teasing Martin and he never missed an opportunity.
One day as the gang was spending a lazy afternoon enjoying the sun, Springs raised his massive head up and stared at sleepy eyed Martin. As Martin's eyes focused, Springs shot forward hissing, and Martin, after his senses registered quick movement coming towards him, ran backwards so fast that his tail got caught under him, and he tripped over backwards and landed belly-up.
After Martin flipped onto his feet near the river, he screamed, "What is it with that thing? Every day! Day in and day out! What the hell is it with him? Why does he do those things?"
"Ha, ha, ha, ha, haaaaaa..." Tudlow laughed so hard that he rolled onto his back, his feet looked like bird-claws, and his tail flopped up and down in sync with his laughter.
Raptor managed to remain on his feet as he laughed, but Chopper had to get in on the act.
As Martin berated Springs, Chopper slipped into the river, got behind Martin, then grabbed Martin's tail.
Martin flipped around like a Studio Wrestler, and Chopper let go of Martin's tail, but stayed in the river drawing Martin's attention.
"You idiot! You almost scared the shit outa me! What the hell is this? Screw with Martin day?"
As Martin screamed at Chopper, Springs slithered over, got near Martin's head, and hissed so loud that it sounded like a whistle at an old steel-mill signaling the end of a shift.
Martin again flipped, but lost his balance and flopped into the river next to Chopper who said, "Don't ever go into the big city. You'll wind up on somebody's feet!"
Martin crawled out, stormed to the far side of the bank next to the tree-line and silently rested, but his eyes were open wide and locked onto Springs and Chopper.
Tudlow, still on his back said, "This is paradise -- just paradise – Oh, man, I mean paradise!" Groaning as he tried to catch his breath, he looked at Raptor. "Kid, do you know what I saw in Martin? Why I had him join our little club?"
Raptor answered, "Some things you can't put into words."
Tudlow let out another bellow of laughter then said, "Kid, you really learned good!"
Martin finally said, "Ha, ha, ha. Real funny, isn't it?" as Springs and Chopper had their heads together giggling.
And the bank remained paradise for years and years. Other alligators often left a kill on the bank as a gift or maybe a penance to Tudlow and Raptor, and they also guarded the bank. If a strange alligator from around the bend came, one of the alligators on the far bank would bellow their arrival.
Chopper patrolled daily, informing Tudow of what he had seen or heard, and Tudlow would bellow a grunt when satisfied. But after the battle with Odman, the river remained calm.
Martin never ventured out unless Tudlow got sick of looking at him, then he made him go with Chopper. However, Chopper usually lost him within a few minutes, and Martin would wander around the river looking for Chopper. Martin never wandered long, because something would always scare him, and he would jet back to the bank with Tudlow, who just shook his head.
As the years added up, Tudlow became very old and stayed near the bank. The river currents were too strong for him now, and he never entered more than a few feet in from the bank. Just enough to cool himself off.
His movements slow, his bellow frail, his bite weak, and his enemies patient for a chance at him. But no chance ever came.
Raptor now had his head over Tudlow to show all the everglades that if they messed with Tudlow, they messed with Raptor.
"Kid, remember everything I taught, ya. Everything. Even small stuff that didn't seem important at the time. Ya learned real good, Kid. Ya really learned good," Tudlow said often.
"Springs, ya will always have friends here. Ya can count on Chopper, Raptor and Martin. Even if it's between you and another alligator. They'll stick with you," Tudlow lectured.
And it was true: Martin and Springs rested next to each other for comfort as they watched old Tudlow's health fail.
Tudlow moved less each day, and Raptor guarded him every second. Every day's passing became more unkind to Tudlow until at last they all knew that the old King's life was coming to an end.
Before Tudlow's last breath, Springs said, "You have been so kind to me, Senor. So kind. For without you I don't think that I could have lasted in this strange place."
Raptor, with tears in his eyes, said, "It's not fair!" He turned away, unable to bear the sight of his mentor and friend growing so silent and still.
Chopper and Martin had their heads down, sobbing, not able to utter a meaningful word, but Tudlow understood.
The sounds of birds, dragonflies and other insects buzzing, and Martin's crying and Springs's sobbing and Raptor's crying and Chopper's sobbing reverberated in harmony and followed the sunlight onto Tudlow's skin where it came to rest as Tudlow's body went limp, and his head found the soft mud on the bank for the last time.
Raptor buried Tudlow under his favorite spot on the bank, and Martin and Chopper pushed a large rock over Tudlow's grave. Springs wrapped himself around that rock and cried for days with Chopper, Raptor and Martin next to him.
Nobody spoke for two days, and some other alligators started getting close to the bank, too close, Raptor thought, and without warning, Raptor shot into the river and tore one alligator almost in half. As the mortally wounded alligator started drifting down-river, Raptor bellowed forth a strong, loud cry as he splashed up and down in the river, sometimes landing on his sides, and other times his back. When he had finished, he climbed up onto the bank and said over and over again, "It's not fair."
A few days later, Martin got the nerve to ask Raptor a question, "W-What are we going to do?"
Raptor, now bigger than ever, looked at Martin, Chopper and Springs and said, with a voice strong and confident: "Survive!"
Chopper and Martin shot a quick glance at each other and cocked their heads. But Springs smiled and raised his head up so that they turned to look at him.
"Senors, that's all that matters now," the big snake said. "We live. We take care of each other."
Raptor now looked at other alligators swimming by as his old mentor had done for so many years. If he felt that another 'gator had insulted him, he'd have that one for breakfast. If there was a 'gator he didn't like, he might have him for lunch. When he really hated one, he always had him for supper. However, if he liked one -- which was very unusual -- that alligator could do no wrong, and Raptor reserved a spot for him beside Raptor's own favorite basking place. Today, Chopper, Martin and Springs rested next to Raptor, but a new infant alligator -- just hatched last week -- had the place of honor on Raptor's head.
When this infant alligator exploded from his shell, he looked around his new world as his brothers and sisters scampered to the water for safety. This infant stood his ground. And as this infant alligator looked around, Raptor watched and raised up his head and cocked it from side to side as his eyes widened and his breath slowed and his front legs extended themselves giving Raptor a better look.
Thoughts of Tudlow danced in Raptor's mind, and the sound of his bellow or hiss at another alligator became real once again, and Raptor heard Tudlow talk and lecture to him and tell him things that he would need to know. "Ya learned real good Kid" echoed and echoed over in Raptor's mind until he realized what Tudlow was really teaching him.
Raptor plunged into the river, crossed, and grabbed this infant alligator from under mother alligator's watchful stare.
As he headed back across, other alligators waited for a soft crunch, but none came. Raptor's jaws turned into angelic hands as he carried this young alligator to the bank. And between Raptor's teeth, the young alligator looked out at his new world and wondered.
© 2006 by George T. Philibin
Bio: George T. Philibin says "I’ve been writing for two years, and enjoy every strike on my keyboard. I’m not sure why I write -- it's fun, I‘m sure about that -- and I intend to continue and learn. I work at a generating station in Western Pennsylvania, and served in Viet-Nam, attended the University of Pittsubrugh for Mechanical Engineering, worked in a coal mine, steel mill, and a dairy once.
My favorite authors are Charles Dickens, Theodore Dreiser, and Kurt Vonnegut." This is George's 3rd appearance in Aphelion; his most recent appearance was One Night at Eddie's (September 2005).
E-mail: George T. Philibin
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