Taylor Brown is a native of the Georgia coast. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in a wide range of publications, including The Baltimore Review, Chautauqua, The New Guard, CutBank, storySouth, and many others. He is the recipient of a Montana Prize in Fiction, and he’s been a finalist for the Press 53 Open Awards, Machigonne Fiction Contest, Doris Betts Fiction Prize, and Wabash Prize in Fiction. His debut short story collection, In the Season of Blood and Gold was published by Press 53 in May. He lives in Wilmington, NC, and you can get in touch with him on Twitter or through his website.
Excerpt from In the Season of Blood and Gold
© Taylor Brown 2014
From “Bone Valley”
Hart stood on the wooden platform, alone, the blackwater churning beneath him. The gator pit. His lasso circled above him, flecks of moisture haloing the rope in orbital rings, the stage lights angled just-so for the effect. He watched a good-looking reptile come beating its way through its peers. No scars on him, no mutilations. You needed a handsome gator for a show. The young and mean were best. The ones with something to prove.
Hart dropped the lariat from showboating altitude. The gator’s jaws yawned wide at him. A pink mouth, eighty-odd teeth snaggled and underbit. Smiling or killing, all the same. Hart roped him, noosed the neck. The reptile hissed and rolled, its pale belly surfacing once, twice. Hart dragged him onto the platform. He straddled the ridged back, kneeling, the cold blood soft between his thighs. He vised the jaws shut with big-knuckled hands, meaty palms. Another handler stepped in to bind the mouth. They carried the animal out of the enclosure, walking him amid the pens of nonworking gators. People could watch the wrangling out here, in the corrals, but no one did, not for years. The only show was in the sand pit, what show there was.
In the pit: he ground his boots in the sand, readying himself. They cut the gator loose. It came at him, fat belly slithering through the trapdoor. Hart got round the side of him, quickly, and dropped to his knees. He pried open the jaws and stuck his head inside the open mouth. His first stunt. The stench was foul, old. He turned to look at the grandstands from inside those yellow-jagged teeth, smiling his own yellow smile, his silver cap on one tooth glinting in the stage light.
The stands were nearly empty. There was a little girl with a pink plume of cotton candy in one hand, the wrist of a grandmother who was looking skyward, lost, in the other. This moment lingered an instant. Too long. The alligator bit down. Hart yanked his head away, out, a crooked tooth catching the bare pate of his scalp. He got his hands away from the teeth before the jaws snapped shut, a thin seam of blood already tickling the side of his skull. He locked the mouth shut and tilted his head to keep the blood out of his eye.
His backup, a boy of twenty-five with diluted Seminole blood, leaned forward and hula-ed a roll of duct tape on the end of his finger. He had his sleeves rolled high to show off his beach muscles, but his grip was weak. Hart thought it would cost him a hand, had said as much to the pit manager. Everyone just shrugged.
“You ought to tape him,” said the boy. “Save him for a bigger show.”
Hart shook his head. You were supposed to run your scheduled shows whether there were spectators or not. He slipped back to straddling the gator’s back and continued his repertoire of tricks. The Florida Smile, the Bulldog, the Face-Off. His chin resting lightly on the gator’s snout, his arms thrown outward and winglike, the reptile’s jaws gaped pinkly and hot underneath his face.
The little girl threw her hands over her mouth, in awe.
. . .
They said there were gator parks popping up across the West, in Colorado especially. Ones that paid good, that didn’t treat you like another piece of meat. That didn’t hope you’d screw up and make news losing a hand or worse, boosting ticket sales.
This is what he thought about as he walked out to his truck in the employee lot. He did not walk so much as waddle, his knees crackling, his knuckles aching, his forearms engorged from the day’s labor. His tattoos warped and muddled by too much blood and sun. He was fifty-eight years old.
On the drive home he envisioned great mountains rising above the beachfront condos and gated townhomes, the department stores and box restaurants, the check-cashing places and pawn shops. He envisioned them rising jagged against the sky, like teeth, their summits snow-swept and treeless, the snow bright and cold in the sun.
He blinked and the vision was gone. The sky was an ocean, violet, empty but for the tiny jeweled lights of airliners winking in the dusk.
He stopped at a 7/11 and bought a six-pack of Coors. He sat in his big green corduroy recliner and let them run cold down his throat, his eyes squinted unseeing at the snowy screen beneath the bunny-ears of his TV antenna. When he was finished, before bed, he snipped the six holes of the plastic soda binder with a pair of scissors he kept in a drawer by his chair. The sea turtles, they could be strangled in the hoops.
. . .
Sundays he drove inland to the phosphate mines. He hunted the spoil piles of washed overburden. He hunted the slurry pits. The crews were gone. The quarries were like enormous craters on the moon, white-blasted and barren. The mining equipment strange and silent as the abandonments of spacemen.
This was the seafloor of prehistory. Sea-monsters swam through what was now the sky. This land was a land of bones. The fossil bed lay twenty to forty feet under an unknowing populace. Shells and skeletons of fallen sealife had accrued for eons, for time so long that even man, with his highly-developed brain, his short-lived ego, could not comprehend. Only exploit. Twenty-five percent of the world’s supply came from this phosphate. Bone Valley, it was called.
Hart would come home with giant shark’s teeth, some the size of a dinner plate. They were black. He would come home with three-toed horse teeth, shell fragments of giant tortoises, a few arrowheads. He would never come home empty-handed.
These treasures from the phosphate mines, he sent them to Colorado, to the last known address he had for his son. Six years old, his son had wanted to be an archaeologist, to unearth creatures heretofore unknown.
Hart wrapped the teeth and bones in bubble wrap, he packed them in manila envelopes. These calcium remains of periods past, species gone. He sent them first-class. He had to remember to write the address on the envelope before he packed it. Otherwise, his writing would be jagged and uneven.
His son would be twenty-eight years old this October.
. . .
His phone rang just after midnight. He rolled over in bed and found the receiver.
“Hart? It’s Bo Sherman with the FWC.”
“I know,” said Bo. “You got something to write on?”
Hart fetched his reading glasses out of the side-table drawer along with a pen. No paper. He held the ballpoint to his open palm.
“Lemme have it,” he said.
“Two-oh-one Landon Drive,” said Bo.
“Uh-huh. Got it.”
“And Hart, I need you to make trails on this one. It’s got somebody’s arm.” The Fish & Wildlife officer paused a moment. “A kid’s,” he said.
“Don’t dare let them sharpshooters at it.”
“I’m trying,” said Bo. “Just get your ass over here.”
. . .
His truck was packed with everything he needed for wrangling, his moonlight job. The Fish & Wildlife boys called him when an alligator turned up where it shouldn’t, in a country club pond or somebody’s backyard. When they needed it brought in, and quick.
He steered with his knees as he buttoned his shirt. At 201 Landon Drive he jabbed the brakes. The drive had taken twelve minutes. On the way he’d watched a medivac helicopter blink across the sky. Headed toward Tampa General, most likely.
He threw the truck into park amid the police cruisers and FWC pickups. They were all empty, their light-bars whirling silently under the oaks. The house was an aged neo-classic behemoth with unruly vines spiraling its columns, kudzu rampant on the lot. He fetched his go-bag from the truckbed and hurried around the house and through the foot-high backyard and down the embankment to where a half circle of men in uniform had congregated at pond’s edge. FWC officers in khaki, sheriffs in green, city cops in navy.
In their middle was an officer in black garb with a scoped bolt-action rifle steadied on the back of an ATV. It had the heavy sniper’s barrel, and he was aiming it toward the middle of the pond. He was wearing a ballcap backwards that read: SWAT. The moon was up, nearly full, but visibility across the water was low, ripples silvering across the black surface of the pond.
He ran faster, straight toward the marksman.
“No,” he said. “Don’t shoot!”
He stumbled on a root and crashed to the ground amid the wildlife officers and sheriffs at water’s edge. When he got up he was covered in blood. The victim’s. He was shaking his head.
“Don’t,” he said.
The officers stood back. The SWAT man turned his head slowly toward him. He had a square jaw and golden skin. “You want to shut up?” he asked. “I got a shot to make.”
Hart started toward the man. Bo Sherman tried to stop him. He pushed past.
“Oh no you don’t,” Hart said. “You don’t have the visibility, the angle either. You miss by a quarter inch and that gator’ll be under for forty-five, fifty minutes.”
“Then I won’t miss.”
Hart looked to his side. Two paramedics were standing by with a biovac cooler filled with ice. It was starting to melt. He turned back to the SWAT officer.
“You can’t do this,” he said.
Bo Sherman came up and touched his arm.
“It’s not your call, Hart. I’m afraid the decision’s been made.”
Hart didn’t move.
The SWAT officer jutted his chin toward him. “Can somebody get this civ outta here, please? Jesus.” He shook his head and went back to his scope, his left eye mashed up to aim.
Bo tightened his grip on Hart’s arm.
“Let’s go,” he whispered. Hart conceded. Bo guided him a few feet back from the scene, coaxing him gently like you would some large and obstinate animal.
The SWAT sniper let off his shot. They watched a silver geyser erupt on the pond’s surface. A miss. The black head of the gator slipped underneath the surface.
Hart unzipped his go-bag and got out his throw-lines, the ones with the custom-brazed treble hooks.
“Let’s get me in that Zodiac,” he said, nodding to the inflatable boat sitting by pond’s edge on a set of rollers. “We’ll wait for him to come back up.”
Bo Sherman nodded.
The SWAT officer was breaking down his weapon as they readied the boat. The big muscles of his arms rippled and contracted visibly as he detached the bipod, capped the scope, latched the case. Finally he came over.
“Might of made that shot you hadn’t got in my head.”
“Get your finger out of my face,” said Hart.
“You old son of a-”
Hart caught him under the chin with an open palm and put him down across the back of the ATV. He clamped down on the man’s throat. It was soft and compliant in his hand, weak. There were yells that hardly reached him, coming as if from a long way off. Then blows across his back, his arms. A white tongue of power ripped through his body. He blinked and found himself on the ground, dazed, the blood at water’s edge creeping coolly through the seat of his shorts. He saw the blue jag of electricity coming again for him. A taser. A cop’s.
Bo Sherman knocked it away.
Hart struggled to his feet. The city cops were rabid now. They wanted him arrested. They had their stunguns and batons out.
“Not if you want that little girl’s arm back you don’t,” said Bo Sherman. The other Fish & Wildlife officers stood behind him, arms crossed.
. . .
They chugged out to the middle of the pond. Hart stood in the front of the boat.
“How’d it happen?” he asked.
Bo Sherman leaned forward from the throttle. “Son of a bitch couldn’t keep his mouth shut, I reckon-”
“I mean the attack.”
“Oh,” said Bo. “Little girl’s dog went missing earlier this evening. You can imagine who done it. She was down in the shallows, looking for him in the reeds. Grandma called. Said it’d got her arm. Told the dispatcher it was something prehistoric, apparently. Sarc, Sarco-something.”
“Sarcosuchus,” said Hart. He had a treble-hooked line hanging low over the water in one hand. “SuperCroc. Probably saw it on 60 Minutes. Big as a city bus.”
“Let’s hope not.”
“Yeah,” said Hart. “Let’s.”
. . .
The gator resurfaced sixty-five minutes later. Hart had never seen one stay under so long. These were air-breathers, after all, and must hold their breath.
The head was massive, like a giant floating log. He hooked the pale belly with an underhanded throw. This was how the Cajuns did it, when they did it in open water. Bo Sherman made the shot. The bullet severed the brainstem at the base of the skull. Bo did not use his service pistol. He used a short-barreled .22 rifle that Hart kept in his go-bag. Less paperwork, he said. The gator was twelve feet, easy.
They beached the Zodiac and rolled the reptile over the side. Hart kneeled and gutted the belly with a hooked knife. The paramedics gave him plastic gloves before he reached into the stomach. He dug into the great lizard’s innards. He found the dog first, a chihuahua it looked like. He kept digging. Through fur, slime, undigested teeth and bone.
Up came the arm. It was ghostly pale, lifeless, like the special-effects prop from a slasher film. Strange, inhuman. The bloody stump held a white stab of bone. He held it by the forearm, so tiny. His pressure on the tendons made the fingers move. On one of the fingers was a plastic gumball machine ring in the shape of a butterfly. It looked like a moth now, no longer bright.
He knew that ring.