Sunday, June 22, 2014

Consumed

Across the yellow-orange display within my head, rhythmic, shadowy shapes drifting across my inner panorama belonged to Evan. He was doing his morning yoga. Judging by the intensity of the sun blazing across the living room and onto my face, it was later in the morning than we had hoped to get started. But I sensed this only through closed eyelids. My throbbing headache was somewhat diminished since the night before, and Aunt Ellie’s couch and blankets enveloped me like a womb. Her condo’s air conditioning simulated the chill of a winter cabin, in contrast to the warmth of my body in its comforting nest. It had been a late night at Tradewinds. It seemed like days ago.
“I don’t get why you do that to yourself dude,” said Evan, turning at the sound of my groaning.
I didn’t have a good answer. Evan didn’t drink. He claimed to be high on life and said it dulled his senses. I admired him for that.

“Have more fun when I’m buzzed,” I said, squinting briefly before covering my face with a pillow.
“You puked all night. Is that fun?” he prodded.
“Noooo,” I said, swinging my legs onto the floor, folding myself forward onto the pillow like a kid crying on a grade school desk. At least the room had stopped spinning.
“…need food,” I said, standing and staggering slightly on my way to the refrigerator.
“We’ll eat on the way,” said Evan, giving me that look that said, “Don’t screw up my day, man.”

It had been like this since high school. Evan, the energetic free spirit. The Zen master. Always on the go, driven, looking for adventure and testing his limits. He was athletic beyond anyone else at Murdock High, consistently disappointing coaches in their attempts to recruit him for team sports. I drew my strength from him, and I usually grounded him when he needed it most. We were stronger together in school and inseparable ever since.
*****
We hit the river much later in the day than Evan had hoped. Already in the water and sitting upright, straddling his paddleboard on the slightly brackish water, Evan repeatedly dunked his hands into the river, combing and drenching his long blonde hair with dripping fingers. The water offered refreshing relief from the searing Florida sun as he rinsed the sweat from his face with a final handful. I stood at the boat launch, nervously finishing a bagel and scanning the shore. Dense foliage surrounded us, cascading in a hundred shades of green across the river’s banks and onto the water, threatening to consume it. The Peace River has a reputation as a kayaker’s haven. Clear, calm and deep, it flows for miles from its fresh water inland source to the salty Gulf of Mexico. A dark and green wildlife sanctuary, the river meanders like a living thing, silently, relentlessly through the surrounding junglescape, mingling fresh and salt waters before spilling its secrets into Alligator Bay. Entering the river on boards had been Evan’s idea, something he wanted to try. I reluctantly agreed, but would have preferred to take the boats as usual.

As if in affirmation of my thoughts, a small blue kayak passed nearby, followed by two others, rounding a bend in the river where I stood at the launch. Nodding heads and brief waves were silent greetings between fellow adventurers. The novice boatmen in the group struggled mightily in the slow but powerful current to keep up with their guide and stay on course. I saw them glance at Evan’s dangling, unprotected limbs, but they couldn’t look away from the prow of their boats long for fear of coming clear around. Two yellow boats brought up the rear, the women in their party. Like their male companions, they wore bulky safety vests and shared faith that a quarter inch thick fiberglass hull offered protection against whatever might lurk unseen in the water below.

“Let’s go,” said Evan, balancing momentarily on his extended arms, pivoting his torso into a squat, legs bent as they came out of the water and onto the long board beneath him. It was like big-board surfing without the stabilizing forward momentum of a breaking wave.
“Don’t you think?…” I said, anxious about our first attempt at SUP, stand-up-paddle, downriver without a kayak.
“We’re fine. It’s not the Amazon,” laughed Evan.

My board was less flamboyant than Evan’s, shades of brown and beige and about a foot longer. A fitting metaphor for our respective sizes and personalities. The ride was smooth and tranquil, befitting of the river’s name. Aside from the party of kayakers we were alone on the river, quietly paddling and taking in the scenery. About forty-five minutes into the ride a blue heron took flight, startling me to attention. Evan paddled in the direction of a small branch of the river, away from the more quickly flowing water.

“Relax Jake. We’re at the top of the food chain. Watch this,” he continued, paddling faster with his full youthful strength and surfer’s endurance. He had the shoulders of a gymnast, rippling like the river under the alternating strain of the paddle’s blade against the water, first on his left side and then on his right. He propelled the board through the river like a champion crew of one. The yellow starburst pattern on his board contrasted with the river beneath it like the sun setting beneath the horizon in a green flash. He pulled rapidly ahead of me as I struggled to keep up. I shook my aching head in frustration at my weakened condition. We frequently surfed the Atlantic coast, but the Gulf side was new to both of us.

“I saw a snake in the water Ev,” I shouted, feeling somewhat ashamed at the admission, but remembering Indiana Jones voicing the same concern, “Why did it have to be snakes?”
By the time Evan grew tired and needed to rest, a glance back over his shoulder revealed how far his sprint had taken him. He looked small, standing on his board a hundred yards in front of me. He coasted now without propulsion or a meaningful current and looked ahead as his blade barely broke the water’s surface, acting more like a rudder than a propeller. I did my best to catch up.

I imagine at first that Evan failed to notice the subtle change in the river’s surface. I saw it from a different angle. The sun had fallen behind the western tree line, darkening the water with lengthening shadows, an impenetrable green the color of a military tank. The river consumed diminishing light that earlier would have been reflected. Evan manipulated the blade to halt his forward motion. He no doubt calculated the distance between him and what he saw ahead, the way he’d innately learned to gauge and time the waves he favored on the Atlantic coast. He might have hoped it was a manatee, but he knew better. The glassy surface of the water bent unnaturally like an old green 7-Up bottle. There was something floating just under the surface, observing.

The distance between an alligator’s eyes and the end of its snout in inches is equal to the creature’s length in feet, I remembered from a high school biology class. Evan stood motionless, staring into the eyes of a monster that could balance two large shoes end to end atop its slightly submerged head. The gator’s unblinking eyes gave it a wide field of vision and a superb view of Evan, just twelve feet away.

Evan instinctively began sculling, trying to move the paddleboard backward without disturbing the surface of the water. The blade was like a propeller, fighting the design of the board’s triple rudder to steer in a forward direction. As smoothly as Evan attempted to paddle, an inevitable ripple or two escaped. They slowly rolled toward the gator in a widening arch, bringing Evan’s attention to another protrusion in the river, and then another. Three evolutionary survivors of Earth’s last mass extinction floated patiently in wait for their favored feeding time.

Backing down a river on a board designed to move forward through water like a rocket through air, would tire Evan quickly. Turning the board and paddling away was equivalent to turning one’s back on the ocean. Only in this case, the ocean waves had brains and tearing teeth. To Evan’s right and left was shoreline, densely foliated mostly with mangroves and an occasional glimpse of open shore. Evan looked slowly to the right at such an opening, and then to the left. Both open areas were occupied by lounging alligators, more menacingly visible than the water dwellers. He had to turn the board.

Evan was in fact not in a branch of the river at all, but a watery offshoot that served effectively as a nesting ground for breeding females, guarding their eggs. He stood on a nine-foot plank like meat on a carving board.  Any attempt to dive away from the board and swim to safety might trigger a feeding frenzy. He continued sculling and began to pray as he slowly turned the paddleboard, pivoting on the starburst.

It was growing darker by the minute and the river assumed a more sinister attitude as shadows lengthened and nocturnal wildlife began to emerge.
“Jake, get help!” he shouted.
The sound of his voice echoed along the surface of the river. Several water birds startled and took flight. The gators took notice. The three now behind Evan began to move slowly toward him, pushing the water like a tidal surge. The largest of the three submerged.

Down river, the kayakers and their guide returned from the lower Peace, heading back to their outfitter near Tradewinds Bar and Grill. I frantically signaled them just as Evan panicked.
“GATORS,” screamed Evan, and he threw both of his shoulders and arms into a desperate attempt to paddle the board back into the river. The noise and commotion set off a frenzy of activity in the water and on both shores. Splashing came from every direction as the alligators entered the water, either to hide or to attack. Evan tossed his paddle and threw himself onto the board on his stomach in an upper body butterfly stroke, leveraging his strength and the use of both hands as paddles. The kayaking party’s guide broke formation and quickly pulled alongside me, matching my movement toward Evan’s position.
“I have this,” he said, motioning toward a pistol partially concealed under his life vest. “I’m just not sure what good it’ll do.” The guide knew the river and its hazards. Evan’s dream of paddling the Peace had become a nightmare. The guide pulled ahead of me, then stopped paddling and drew his gun.

For a few moments I hoped that Evan’s strength as a swimmer and his adrenaline-fueled burst of motion toward open water would enable his escape. But just as it appeared that he might succeed, his body violently flew up and off the paddleboard and into the water. The board itself tumbled in the air like a toy, the wet starburst glinting in the sun like a comet, smacking the surface of the river after being batted into the air with a single powerful thrust from below. Evan regained his orientation and swam hard toward me. I had closed the distance between us but dared only go so far. Entering the small offshoot of the river where Evan struggled would be suicidal. I felt helpless and ashamed, but I could not bring myself to lie on that grenade.

Strokes and kicks by a human swimmer generate a water turmoil signature like that of a much smaller animal. With every thrust of an arm or leg, Evan broadcast an enticing message to the submerged and agitated beasts. Notoriously bad chewers, alligators use their power to drown, shred and swallow small prey in large, slowly digestible gulps.

A flash of light produced by an explosion of nerves firing in Evan’s brain blinded him temporarily. A strike on his left leg had sent electrical signals racing to his head faster than pain could be perceived. He was startled before he knew why. Feelings of terror ran a close second. He rapidly processed wordless thoughts of his own death, of being eaten alive, and the realization that his recklessness had irreversibly turned on him. In several frantic surges above the water, gulping and gasping for air, he saw me and the group of kayakers shouting and paddling toward him in the narrow channel. And then he was pulled under.

 The gator began to roll Evan under water, dizzying and confusing him as the light and dark of sky and river bottom rotated and alternated. Pressure in his ears accompanied a descent into the deeper river as air streamed from his lungs despite his desperate attempt to hold his breath. The pain in his crushed leg became secondary to his attempt to survive the turmoil of the alligator’s efforts to drown him. Unmercifully, he remained conscious as the choking, gagging reflex to breathe gave way to a spasmodic, torturous filling of his lungs with water from the Peace River.

As the alligator surfaced and dragged him toward the shore, the last sound Evan heard before he lost consciousness was the loud slapping of paddles on the river’s surface. A single gunshot, and then two more in quick succession accompanied his descent into utter darkness amidst a quick series of sad and final thoughts. Acceptance of his fate, his insignificance, his role as prey and the final separation of his mind and body mingled with memories of family, childhood and tales of adventures as a young man and the final knowledge that this was not a story he would tell.
* * * * *
Early the next morning rescue divers pulled Evan from between two submerged logs at the river’s edge. He was badly mauled but otherwise intact, stored as a future meal for the monster that lodged him there. Ellie told me I could stay in her condo as long as I needed. The funeral was typical of the surreal gatherings that result when a young person dies. Crying girls, their boyfriends, Evan’s friends, and even adversaries, all facing their mortality and humbled by the tragic early loss of their legendary friend.

As for me, I felt like half my former self. Perhaps less. And in a tribute to Evan, weeks later I took his recovered starburst paddleboard for a final ride in the Peace River. I headed out of the launch at Tradewinds, downriver past the scene of the attack, pausing to survey the area briefly, then continued on to the river’s end to complete our intended journey. I crossed Alligator Bay and on into Charlotte Harbor, hugging the shore to avoid boat traffic and waves, and then onward to the Gulf of Mexico. I sat down on the board and floated a while, considering the primordial nature of the water that supported me, source of life and specter of death.

Near a small stretch of beach and shallow surf I walked Evan’s board into the waves until the water reached my neck. Maneuvering to the edge of the estuary where the Gulf drinks in water from the Peace, I shoved Evan’s board into the resulting gentle rip current. I swam to shore, sat on the beach while the sun went down and watched the empty board rise and fall over small waves, retreating slowly into the distance as if it was being ridden, fading from view as darkness fell.












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