Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Black Alligator of British Columbia

This story continues The Bone Series, which started here and was last seen here.

The interpreter was leaning over the side of the canoe with his scuba mask in the water. Stacey was crouching in the bottom of the boat with her arms out to the gunwales to keep them somewhat stable. He popped up and pulled off the mask. “It’s gone. Whatever it was, it was fast. My guess is river otter. Amphibians are sluggish, slow-mo, unless they’re biting something.”

This was likely the last attempt of the season to find the legendary Black Alligator of British Columbia. Soon the heavy autumn rains would arrive to raise and darken the waters, and this would coincide with the onset of a schedule of school programs that would sap the energy of anyone involved. It was, in fact, raining already, in a tentative on and off way characteristic of early fall.

They had not been out searching for more than a month. The last trip had been tarnished by bruised feelings and an incontinent bear. Afterward, they made amends. He gamely tried to plow through the wizard books--after pointing out that they kept getting longer, which seemed unfair. She watched him read, and knew from his eyes, how they went still and unfocussed after only a few minutes, that this was no fun at all for him. He didn’t care, no, couldn’t care, about wizards. “Okay, forget it,” she said. She saw the weight of the world lift from him.

The canoe used previously, known unaffectionately as the Banana Slug, had been hosed down, patched up, and returned to Stacey’s cousin. It had been replaced by one of the Parks Department’s aluminum canoes, which the interpreter fastened to the roof of a neglected Subaru Outback he had purchased third-hand. Stacey hadn’t asked how he obtained permission to use the boat.

She said to him, “You‘re quite the science-boy today.”

“I’m always a science-boy.”

“No. Sometimes you’re just a normal person goofing around in the woods. Today you’re intense, on a mission. You really believe.”
They were in a shallow freshwater channel inland from the west bank of the Pitt River, north of a marshy area known as Widgeon Slough. The interpreter had divined by criteria not easily described, but logically following from a lifetime of looking in dark, dank places for cool things, that this would be the most likely place in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia to find one.

“We must believe,” he said. “To find them, you have to think like them. To think like them, you have to believe in them. There’s one over there.” He pointed to a bend up ahead, where the creek was cutting into the muddy bank, creating an overhang with an arm’s width of darkness above the water. The rain had returned. "Camera," he said.

Stacey zipped the camera into the side pocket of her jacket.

He angled the canoe to the opposite bank, slightly downstream of the bend, into the exposed roots of a fallen fir. He wedged the canoe here and carefully stepped out into the water. It was thigh-deep on his rubber waders. The interpreter stepped slowly, testing his footing on the mucky bottom. A plume of murk billowed behind.

Stacey watched as he approached the spot. She saw him place his right hand on the overhang, bend over and reach blindly beneath with his left. She rarely could guess what he was going to do next. He never explained, only did. Usually nothing of note happened.

The interpreter was grabbed by something, jerked down almost beneath the overhang, but he pushed back frantically on the bank above, freeing himself, but off balance. He was back-peddling, trying to regain footing as his hip-waders flooded, wrestling with a dog, no an otter, no, too big for an otter. He had it pulled up against his chest where it was thrashing side to side like a giant fish, groping at his jacket with rubbery limbs. The interpreter’s hands were clamped onto its trunk, one now sliding up for the massive, blunt-ended head. Holy shit he found it!

“Holy shit! Hold it! Hold it!” Stacey was pulling at the zipper, digging for the camera. It was snagged.

The salamander twisted hard and smacked its heavy snout on the interpreter’s chin. He lost his grip and the creature slid off him just as she took the picture. It disappeared in a black flash of tail. Despite the waders he almost lunged after it, but the water was uniformly opaque brown except for the spot directly beneath his hand, which was growing red.

“Whoa!” he yelled. He was shaking. Then he laughed. “Can you believe that? We found it!”

She was flushed. “It was really it? It was, right? Oh wow, you’re bleeding. A lot.”

“The trick to finding a monster is to give it a chance to bite you!” He pinned the bleeding hand beneath the opposite armpit. “Were you able to get a decent shot?” He was staggering back to the canoe.
They looked at the image on the screen. The size and colour of the creature were clear, but its form was blurred. It could have been a twisted raincoat falling off a hanger.

“Maybe it’ll be clearer on a monitor?”

“Inconclusive at best. Take some pictures of my hand.” He lay it on the gunwale. Bloody nail-holes arced from the base of his thumb across the back and front of his hand into space and then back again onto the middle top and bottom of his wrist. “And of this stuff.” There were strings of grey slime between his spread fingers. Let’s put some in a Ziploc. Get your weight low, I have to get back in.”

As they paddled to the landing the rain ratcheted up. His hand was bleeding freely, as if the slime contained anticoagulant properties. In the Subaru there was a first aid kit next to the wheel well. They poured bottled water on the wounds and wrapped his hand in gauze, then worked quickly to bungee the canoe to the roof of the car. He touched her shoulder. “Here’s something a bit odd. There’s a creeping numbness in my arm. My hand is pins and needles. You better drive.”

“Do you think it was venomous?”

“No, some slime got into the cuts. My guess is there’s a degree of toxicity. I better record everything as we go along, describe my symptoms, like Karl P. Schmidt.” They climbed into the car.

“Who?” She put the car in gear.

“Curator in the Field Museum in Chicago. Died in 1957 after being bitten by a boomslang, an unexpectedly deadly rear-fanged African snake.”

“How bad are you, seriously?” She sped up on the washboardy road. Puddles stretched from side to side. They were twelve miles from blacktop.

“Slow down,” he said. “I’d rather succumb to salamander slime than have both of us die in a rollover. That would kind of negate our fabulous discovery. Slow down.”

She slowed a bit.

“But potentially I am in serious trouble. Slow down more.”

She glanced at him, worried.

“But not from this.” He waved his bandaged hand dismissively. “I took the canoe without permission. I’ll catch hell for it if anyone notices. Please slow down.”

She slowed down. “We got you re-hired, and now you’re trying to get fired,” she said.

“I’m not,” he said, “but it might not be the worst thing to happen. I’m sick of explaining spittle bugs to children. I want to get back to this kind of crazy stuff, being out here, the mud, the rain, the slime, searching, the questions, the elusive answers, getting bitten by things.”

“Being gored by cows? Having a bear use your canoe as an outhouse?”

“Please pull over. I need air. I feel like throwing up.”

“Is it the venom? I mean the toxin?”

‘No, it’s the steamy windows. Steamy windows in moving vehicles have always made me want to barf.”

They stopped on the gravel at the road’s edge, in a red-earth cut carved out of a steep slope deep in the rainforest. He walked in slow circles in front of the car, then stood still with his hands on his knees, breathing deeply. The rain was soft and cool on the back of his neck and seemed to damp out the nausea. He straightened up and smiled at her through the windscreen, waved, then scrambled up the side of the cut to a mossy log among the trees.

“Now what?” she asked. She left the car, picked her way up by pulling on exposed roots, and sat beside him.

He put his arm around her. “We did it,” he said. “We found one. We are amazing. We’ll be famous.”

“That’s just kind of sinking in for me too, but who’s going to believe us if we don’t go back and get a clearer picture?”

He shook his head. “We have more than enough to pique their interest. We have a bad but plausible image, sexy bite-marks, and slime. These things together amount to something. We can inform the popular zoology blogs, the academic crossovers. It will be huge news. It will be like the Loch Ness Monster, but with much stronger evidence. It’s this century’s Mountain Gorilla, and we have his address.”

“We could even start our own blog when we get back. That would time-stamp it.”

“Yes,” he said, and he squeezed her. The rain fell harder. Instinctively they leaned into each other.

“How’s your arm?”  

He raised and lowered it. “Seems more or less okay. My hand is throbbing.”

“Don’t you want to get going?”

“In a minute or two. I want to sit here with you. I want to keep this alive for a little bit more.”

“What?” she asked.

“What we have. Until we tell the world, or any single person, we are the only people who know what we know, who saw what we saw.”
But then almost immediately the interpreter sighed and dropped his head. “Oh, hell,” he said.

“What’s wrong?”

“We can’t tell anyone. If we do, every freaky herptile-nut and sasquatcher in the hemisphere will be out here ripping the place apart.”

“Maybe not. It would be almost instantly protected.”

“It takes time for that, and protection is only paper. There’s almost no enforcement.” He shook his head. “That creature is probably a hundred years old. No one should know where it lives.” He waved his bandaged hand. The gauze was unravelling. “I had not thought through this aspect of things, of all that might happen next.” A branch high above bucked from the weight of rain, dropping a sheet of water. It was too cold, too wet. He stood and took her hand to pull her back to the car.

But she pulled back, forcing his legs against the log. “Hey, wait.”

He said, “Say what?” and plopped back down.

“There’s obviously more than one of them. You found one. If you could do that, someone else will eventually find one too. Or a complete dead one will wash up somewhere, not just a bone. It’s not magic, you’re not a wizard.”

“Oh, not wizards,” he said.

“It’s like you hit a homer. You can’t stand there doing nothing. You have to run the bases or it doesn’t count.”

 He had never before sat on a log in a rainforest next to a sparkly woman who used baseball analogies. Baseball was the only sport he enjoyed watching. He said, “Hmm.”

“You can’t just let it go. It could be your stepping stone to something better, the way you were thinking before. We have to come back again, catch it, take good pictures of it, and then we'll publish a description of it. We can be deliberately vague about the locality until protection is guaranteed.”

He said, “Let’s sit on this log until another load of water falls on us.”

Almost immediately that happened. Holding hands, they skidded down the rough face of the cut to the road and the Outback. Pebbles rode into their shoes. The interpreter looked at the reflection in the passenger window. The black forest towered around and above him, everything broken and distorted by rivulets on glass. He said to her, over the roof, “Okay, We’ll run the bases.”

She said, “First return the canoe.”


Aunt Debbi/kurts mom said...

Love the interpreter stories. I've got the other library ladies reading them. Thanks.

Hugh said...

Thank you, Aunt Deb. And thanks to the other library ladies too! Library ladies are wonderful.

Garden Lily said...

Crikey! Reminds me of Steve Irwin. (Although I sure hope "the Interpreter" won't meet such a fateful end!)