Two weeks ago Joe left for Atlanta, and the world promptly fell apart. Lincoln got sick, and Eliot got sick, and then Eliot got bit by an ant, which is ok, it happens here a lot, except it hadn’t happened to him yet, and the next day it was still red, and the next day after that it was even redder, and the next day after that it was even redder and swollen, so I took him to the doctor’s office where I waited in the waiting room for 40 minutes with a 2 year old who wouldn’t walk and a 4 year old with a fever.
It was not the highlight of my life.
And then it turned out that Eliot is allergic to fire ants, which is not excellent news, because we have two acres in rural Florida, and those two acres consist primarily of fire ant mounds, and it is a fight to get him to wear shoes outside because he lived in Hawaii where nothing will kill you except maybe a lone centipede. (And besides, we only ever saw one of those in our yard. True story.)
A few days before this debacle we had watched the boys run excitedly through the Florida swamp, which lasted for about 25 minutes, until the boardwalk was a little too long, and they realized there was only one seat in the stroller and until they remembered that they woke up twice the night before (ok, it’s only me that ever remembers that) and until the alligators weren’t quite as forthcoming as we all hoped they would be.
But we ran around, we tried and kept our eyes open, running back and forth, occasionally rocking on our heels when things got a little much, and the thing we looked for so desperately was the most dangerous thing in the swamp.
But Lincoln kept reminding us, “We’re up on the boardwalk and we’re safe, Mom.” (He always makes us read all the alligator warning signs so that we are prepared.)
We saw everything else before the alligator, an armadillo scuffling through the leaves, several squirrels leaping from tree to railing and back again, and all the birds, soaring in the sky and reflected in the water, hiding in the mangrove trees.
And then finally, at the end, when everyone had fallen apart and we had called it quits and given up and turned around, we saw a crowd gathered, pushing from behind the railings, holding out their phones in precarious positions over the green swamp waters, and we ran up to see what people saw; a knobby, crusty alligator, darker green then the leaves around her, one fierce eye showing.
“Mom, I’ll stay here all the time”, announced Lincoln, sticking his head through the boards, his hand holding tightly and his eyes as wide open as the alligator’s. Because once you find the most dangerous animal, the one all the signs are about, it’s best to linger and observe for just a second so you can know exactly what you’re dealing with.
When we finally backed away to find the next thing, the next thing was a great blue heron, not 40 feet from where the alligator silently lay, gracefully sweeping its bill back and forth through the duckweed. That graceful moment, on the way back and almost at the end, when everyone was done, and the beauty surprised us a little bit, the great, grey bird against the green smudges of the swamp.
And that next Wednesday afternoon, when I started feeling a bit sick and Eliot’s foot was still swollen, when the house was a disaster but when they started giggling in a sunlit living room about the dust particles glittering in the air, I remembered that elegant, fluid bird.
“Well, I ain’t seen nothing like that in Ohio!” the long haired country boy had announced to the world while watching that heron swallow a catfish, and I thought the same while I sat in that joyful, dirty living room, after a long three days of exhaustion and sickness and after facing down one or two of our own man-eating situations, (and let’s face it, with one or two more to go.)
There’s always a point when the swamp surprises.