They all want to see the gators tucked back in the brackish waters she navigates in the tour kayak through the glades. Take me to them they say but then they hunker down when eyes, snout, jaws, emerge from the murky water where armor like bodies search for sustenance, prey. Or they are a bit more relaxed when the gators, spotted up on the shore, bask in the sun, seemingly content for the day, or afternoon. They take pictures of their massive bodies, along with creatures hovering above them in trees – owls, a nest of baby birds. Sometimes if they are quiet and still, which she encourages on her tour, for the best chances to see wildlife, they may spot a bobcat, or even sometimes a panther, through the dense mangroves.
There are all assortment of creatures she points out to them – possums, pelicans, egrets, cormorants, raccoons, heron, sea turtles, snakes, osprey. She tells them of the fishing tour they can take for snook, snapper, red drum, sheepshead, and more, tours which can include the cleaning of the fish and a meal with either cooking provided or cooking instruction. She doesn’t tell them she could also provide them with instruction on catching and cleaning possum, for example, and a lesson on her granny’s recipe handed down since early settlers, possum n’ taters. It was safer to stick with a conversation about cooking fish. Though to loosen the mood when they saw a gator, she joked that she had the recipe for fried gator tale bites with mango chutney. She could get a little chatty sometimes, but mostly when she was trying to make her passenger comfortable.
She doesn’t talk about the time she lost her balance when she was alone in the kayak and a gator clamped down on her arm with its massive jaws. The beast rolled her and the salt water invaded her nose and mouth and her screams mixed with his deep and primitive grunting. In her anger and panic she thought of the dens of rotting meat gators keep just below the outcroppings of shore. She managed to stab it in the eye with the hand not under control of its grip and extract herself from the bloody water. She nearly lost her arm and required three surgeries, but it was repaired, not without nerve damage and scarring. But she didn’t talk about it, unless compelled to by a curious tourist, though sometimes she lied. The truth was bad for business though she always coached her clients on how to behave in this wilderness.
She covered half her body with a tattoo, a gator stretched out, his tail along her back, his body over her shoulder and his head on the arm that had been crushed. She had him decorated with flowers and butterflies. She didn’t allow herself much time to worry or think, just went back to work as soon as she could. She was learning what it was like to support herself without a husband, not in the way she had been raised, but in the way she was learning to survive.