by Karim Ragab
Alex discovered the alligator one day while he was looking for a spot to fish. He wore high rubber boots and waded through the flooded Florida trail, to the mangroves. Everything was swampy and green, from the clinging plants to the algae pools that sunk on either side of the trail. Alex’s senses were sharp. He felt fully aware as he sauntered through the wilderness. A spoonbill spread its wings and squawked, and fluttered to another tree. Alex noticed it, and watched. Forming his hand into a gun, he traced the spoonbill’s flight through the trees. “Bang,” he said as the spoonbill landed, and he pulled the trigger. Nothing happened.
Despite everything, Alex probably wouldn’t have noticed the alligator if the bugs hadn’t bothered him that day. Little buzzing flies and mosquitoes kept going into his ears and eyes. He was slapping a fly on his side when he saw two marbles in the green. Something was off, and Alex looked closer, then took a step back. It was an alligator, a huge reptile half-sunk in the marsh. Alex was startled by its size. The alligator must have been twenty, maybe thirty feet long. As long as a school bus, easy. Alex looked, and marveled. “Well I’ll be,” he said under his breath as he took another step back. “God.”
The reptile didn’t move, and Alex felt such a thrill; look, he thought to himself, would you just look at that: what a marvel nature can be. Then Alex, looking closer, noticed that the thing was broken. It was missing two of its legs. “Oh, poor thing,” Alex said. The alligator was motionless. “Oh,” said Alex, taking a step closer and getting a full look at the animal’s condition, “poor thing, you’re going to die.”
Alex caught a few fish on his outing that day. It was a good one. He got four trout. Big ones. Alex whistled as he carried the cooler full of fish into his cabin. Alex lived alone in a small cabin in South Florida. He never married, and sometimes regretted his solitude. Yet he had long grown to accept it, more or less. Alex found his solace in nature, in the small piece of wilderness that bordered his land. Alex felt alive in nature; it filled his senses, and there he felt himself to be at peace. He’d see a dragonfly open and close its wings on a cattail, and he’s think, wow, would you just look at that. In his free time Alex volunteered for environmental campaigns in his state. He felt deeply in his heart that nature was sacred, and that people should do better by the other life that inhabited this earth.
Alex ran his filet knife through a trout’s flesh. He took the white meat of the fish and dipped it in flour, then buttermilk, then spiced breadcrumbs. Then he placed the filet into an oil bath, where the other filets were already cooking. Alex was a good cook. When he was younger he made his way working in kitchens in the big cities—Miami, Tampa, Gainesville. The years of stress in the kitchen took their toll on Alex. He’d fallen into a cocaine habit to get through long shifts on the line. It took Alex years to get himself right. Eventually he sold everything, bought his small cabin on the edge of the wilderness, and in the quiet away from the city he sought his peace.
While Alex was cooking the trout he thought about the maimed alligator he’d seen that day. The great old beast must’ve survived for a long time to get so big. Alex wondered what had hurt the alligator. What animal could be so large as to rip off two thick and clawed legs? Then again, thought Alex, perhaps the old alligator had got caught in a trap. Or maybe it was just disease that had rotted its limbs. Either way, Alex thought it a shame that such a grand old creature could die like that. Pretty soon, he thought, that old thing will be food for the buzzards. And then, as Alex was laying his fried trout on a rack to drip off the oil, he got an idea.
The idea, to be fair, was a silly one. Sometimes Alex got silly ideas in his head, things like a desire to learn the fiddle, or going a few days without food just to see what would happen. He called these absurd little thoughts his “human thoughts,” because they were what he thought made him human. This time, Alex thought that he should carry a plate of fried trout and potatoes to the grand old alligator he’d seen earlier that day. He could feed the alligator the trout, served on fine china, with a drink of whiskey to wash down the meal. Alex could share a final meal with the old beast that had weathered so many years in the harsh Florida swamp. The thought of it made Alex chuckle. It was a silly idea, but it was also a pretty idea. So Alex, feeling restless anyway, put on his rubber boots and strapped a headlamp to his head. He set off into the warm Florida night carrying a plate of the finest fried trout and potatoes anywhere. He walked through the night alone, the light of his headlamp a quivering blade cutting through the immense dark around him—but he knew the way. Alex had walked this trail hundreds of times. It was routine to him, as familiar as the feel of his chef’s knife in his hand. He knew where the alligator was, not one mile up the trail. And so he walked without hurry. His senses were alight. He felt the motion of the black lagoons on either side of the trail; he heard the chorus of insect voices and the cawing of unseen birds. Everything was alive around him, alive and singing. Alex felt in his heart the thrill of being alive; a drop of epinephrine touched his brain; he tasted fully the humid air of the marshlands. This is why I do it, he thought: I do it for the thrill. And he felt like whistling. So he whistled.
Coming to an oddly shaped tree, Alex stopped and turned to his right. He flashed his headlamp, and caught the flash of a glare: two black marbles, two alligator eyes. “Hey old guy,” he said, and he crouched down, and lay the plate of fish on the dirt before him. “I brought you something. A little treat.” Alex took one of the filets, and held it out. “You smell that, big fella?” he said, inching forward. “Smells good, don’t it? Smells like the best damn meal you’ve ever had in your life. Here you go.” And Alex tossed the filet to the alligator.
The reptile didn’t move. “You don’t want none?” Alex said. “Well, that’s alright. That’s alright. More for me.” He took another strip, and tore off a chunk with his teeth. As he chewed, he said, “Do you know you’re going to die, old fella? Too tired to move? I was hoping to do something nice for you, you know.” Alex took another bite of trout. He looked up at the sky, where through the mangroves several stars shone in a moonless night. “Yeah,” said Alex, chewing. “Yeah, I was trying to do something good.”
The alligator moved like a bolt of lightning. Alex’s leg was in the reptile’s jaws before he knew what was happening, and before he knew what was happening he was being dragged into the black lagoon. He struggled at first, but as water filled his lungs and blood left his body he had a moment when everything changed. He accepted everything. He almost smiled. The old alligator would have his last, best meal, after all.