Gumby in the Glades
(from Florida Palms, a novel in progress)
Gumby’s canoe divided the green and golden blades under a heaven split at the hem, one side bruised a deep, unrepentant purple, where a large amorphous cloud fell off a cliff of its own creation and swept the eastern sky with rain; to his left, the glades swayed eerily beneath a flawless blue. Reaching dry land among the hammocks, he docked and heaved a backpack to his shoulder, trudging awkwardly through the opaque waters and small islands alone and into the wildness.
For two days he trudged the unforgiving mush and gelatinous banks of the lower basin. By the third he reached an uninterrupted slab of solid earth and by the fourth picked up the trail of a male—a dark scrape mound consisting of soiled pine needles and black dirt covering a heap of scat, smooth and free of hair or bone, indicating a recent snack on rabbit or raccoon entrails. When the animal fed weekly on the larger white-tailed deer or feral spanish boar the shit came long and thick. Gumby prodded the heap with a knife, crouching close as he chewed hard bits of jerked alligator tail. He sniffed the soil, sinking his hands into the mud beside the wide-lobed tracks, undulating his back to emulate the stealth of a creature perusing the land as a king among the commons. It was the panther’s presence of mind he wished to inhabit, the feline regard and disquieting patience that gave it superiority over its prey. Gumby toddled this way on all fours for a quarter mile before he lost the tracks to water and found them again heading northwest a mile down an opposing bank, where he set up night’s camp.
Without a dog he hunted one of the last hundred of its species, to strip from the panther its golden pelt for a black market value that remained undocumented but which insinuated heavy bids. He had ventured into the Everglades for other animals before but had yet to claim a panther, as had anyone, reportedly, since endangerment regulations began protecting the animal under law. Befitting a personal belief that hunter and prey must stand on equal terms, Gumby brought only his knives and a blowgun for its magnificent claws and fangs and little food so that they hunted conjointly. Keeping without a fire he opened his sole can of tuna and spread crackers on his bag as the night came alive around him. In sleep he dreamt of nothing. In consciousness he stripped the land to an empty plane barren of all but two creatures under a godless heaven.
Dusk the fifth day brought the cat’s first tortured scream tearing through the humid dusk and Gumby woke the following morning to tracks circling the camp and claw-grooves scratched into the phalangeal trunk of a cyprus. There were even signs of the panther lying down.
Gumby bowed against the base of the tree and wept into his shirt. It was clear the animal was just curious. By noon he had thrown all but one of his precious knives into the marshes and began to starve himself. For Gumby was beyond all other aspects of his nature a true lover of animals, and in the past had even threatened children who took to menacing creatures at the local zoo. Perhaps the most telling example came when another biker, a Hun from Connecticut, brought a living possum into a bar in Del Rio, Texas. He hung the creature by its tail from a wire of Christmas lights behind the counter while his friends hurled nuts and pizza crust at the possum until they grew bored and started throwing darts. Entering upon the scene Gumby immediately grabbed a towel and covered the beast, which was scared and hissing furiously, and shuttled it out the exit. A week later they found the Hun hanging from an overpass, both of his kneecaps gouged out by a claw hammer and one eye sliced through. But still alive.
Come morning of the sixth day, Gumby stripped the bedraggled shirt from his back now empurpled with insect welts and padded himself in claymud to both protect himself from the hoarding mosquitoes and to mask his flourishing scent. By the seventh day, furious for being unable to undo one life wherein this span a god had created all, he stripped bare to his sex, crazy with pain. He rubbed thoroughwort and fleabane over his infected legs, unsure if they held any medicinal properties but hoping for the best.
Failure drove him to the relentless pursuit of boar tracks, which would have had to serve as the cat’s replacement—exactly how his previous hunt had ended. Yet Gumby soon discovered with the boar’s gruesome disembowelment in a pine thatch that he’d unwittingly stumbled upon the panther’s trail again. The kill was but a day old and there were more tracks and more shit. He was relieved to be free of having to confront a boar, as they were ferocious creatures, equipped with sharp, chipped tusks. Once on a hunting trip he was forced to attend as a child he’d witness such a beast use its snoutgear to crucify a dog to a tree.
Hacking away the boar’s ribs, he built a small fire in the earth and smoked the meat. Aware the smell might attract his prey, and that the animals often return to large kills, he used a lowslung twist of branches nearby as his sleeping post. He’d just finished scraping the meat onto a platter of leaves by the fire when the second scream echoed through the bluing woods like the spirit warning of a damned child. Gumby quickly grabbed his backpack and scurried up to his perch, clenching the scalding meat in his jaws, knowing the animal would only scale a tree if cornered. He carefully loaded the blowgun and pulled out his hunting knife, tossing the backpack toward the fire pit. He ate slowly, tenderizing the ribs with saliva, his mind a cradle of nerves. As he finished each rib he chucked the bone over to the pack.
The time was near approaching. The sky grew overcast. It was cool and the damp wind littered salt on his tongue. Closing his eyes gave Gumby all the landscape he needed—the slight wind a kind of sonar, wrapping itself around fronds and roots, riding fast in the low places, funneling out pathways he couldn’t have seen. Here he employed the talent his grandmother used, a veterinarian blind from rubella, when wishing to view her rock garden whenever it rained, describing space as sound scraped from shapes. Gumby let the frustration and anger of her death at the hands of a burglar surface in him and immediately suppressed it, so that a coolness invaded every aspect of his logic. The wind swept under his genitals as he shriveled slothlike into a hug, gripping the bark. The camp smelled of smoke and he visualized the cooking pit, a hole brimming with ash and fire.
A hole is the name given for the lack of something. It is not a thing but an absence. Gumby had to find the holes within himself. This is why he came—to will the empty parts of himself into existence. Though he honored the land’s fauna with his sympathies and respect, he lived in a human world and believed its reign in the hierarchy supreme. To kill a man he would need to sacrifice what he loved beyond all else, which would in turn deliver upon him the blind ambition necessary for the action.
The first drops of estuarial rain fell sharply on his naked back, and he clenched his muscles to avoid reacting.
A hole is no thing, he thought, beginning the ritual with a mantra of bastardized scripture he’d memorized and repeated many times before. It is not a loss, but an opening to what already is. It is the dead music of inner emptiness. An image of the pit jumped before his mind’s eye, and he continued. It feeds on whatever you clear for it. It loves not. It wants not. It is the necessary and hollow heart of God.
Gumby remained locked in his position of meditation until the smell of woodsmoke brought him back. He did not open his eyes as he listened to the rain drumming the fronds, battering the earth with spoon-shaped impressions. He let it all pulse through him, winnowing out the hollows. He heard something, the prolonged giving way of a palm frond before rustling back in place.
He drew the blowgun pipe under his chin and held the large blade flush against his thigh, balancing his ass on the limb. When he opened his eyes the panther was there and larger than he’d imagined. Slunk down with its tail raised and bent slightly, its beatific golden face broad and darkly embroidered, ears perked. Gumby knew that one shot was all he’d earned in this life. The rain fell harder and suddenly the panther began trotting towards him, taking refuge under the shadowy dominion of the very tree he crouched in. Taught muscles roped under its skin as if on pulleys; the claws would gut him as the teeth caught his throat, prying out his esophagus, emptying the aorta. Its gaze settled on a patch of sawcabbage and he understood it would head there next. He raised the pipe, took the breath into his rattling lungs, and set his tongue. Imagined himself as always spitting a watermelon seed through a straw.
The dart sent a twitch like electricity through the lion. Hopping sideways on stiff legs, its fright gave way to a roar. After circling a little it began purring. Gumby hadn’t expected that, the purring, and the crushing shame of hearing it emptied his heart. When the panther stepped toward the brush its back legs suddenly wobbled and collapsed. Gumby could have let it die without the sight of him, but all things he felt deserved a face to their demise—the image of an armed man or the oncoming truck or an enlarged picture of rapidly dividing cells. He surged with the emptiness within himself and leapt naked and howling from the tree.
After washing his red and puffy face he lay in bed, wearing only the extra jeans he kept stored in his motorcycle’s saddlebags. Glass shards of a destroyed motel mirror lay about him. The long cuts on both arms were still bleeding, acts of self-mutilation, a kind of vengeance he imagined pacified the spirit of the sacrifice. The emptiness Gumby felt flowered and wilted in turn. He struggled with reclaiming it but it was a harsh guilt and he cherished its departures. He knew it would come again when needed.
Headlights flashed in the curtains, and he waited for a knock at the door, the cold bite of handcuffs. This was a game played. Though he knew they never caught you until you no longer wanted to be caught.
He woke to the phone ringing, unaware that he’d been dozing. His eyes lit upon the panther’s pelt spread out over wax paper on the adjacent bed, drying. It smelled horrible, coupled with the burning incense. He pushed up and went over to the bathroom and made sure the ventilator was on. Then he returned and sat on the bed, taking the phone from its cradle.
It was Bird. “Did you get what you were after?”
“Good. Any luck with the cat?”
“Ho my god, you serious?” asked Bird. “You’re the best there is, brother. Jesus. The big catch. Must be some kind of big price out there to be paid for it, no doubt.”
His venomous self-hatred threatened to overtake him but Gumby mashed it down violently. “Guess so.”
“I’ll miss having you around, brother. There’s no price on good security, that’s for sure. How you feel?”
“Eh? Don’t what?”
Gumby stayed silent.
“Well then. He’s still out there and nobody’s heard anything. So I’ll just ask you…can you get it done?”
“I can find him whenever.”
“Alright, but I’m asking if you can do it. All of it.”
Gumby picked a shard of glass from his navel and pushed it under a fingernail. In his mind he saw the pit smoking, the animal blinking in the rain.
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