Pretty sure I have published all of these somewhere or another, but I cant find them.
Leslie, Salt Springs and the Gibbon Rose:
I do not go to the office of the cottage. I do not call anyone. I am not sure why I didn’t call the police, but I know Ms. Brown is dead. I know Leslie killed her. I don’t know who Leslie is. I don’t know why he killed her.
I go to the tripod easel I have built in the corner of the garden. It is made of four pieces of two by four lumber. Three legs, making a teepee, are driven into the ground and nailed together at the top, one board is tacked on the side, making a ledge. I have painted it green to blend in. it is the only thing I ever painted green. I paint in black and white. Those are the colors I understand.
I paint the trees, the cottage, the fountain. I have painted this a thousand times. I do not have thousands or even hundreds of boards painted with this scene. Only a few, three hang in the cottage, one in the church and Ms. Brown has some in her gallery and one she says she took home, though I have never been to her house. I do not know where she lives. I have a couple on the shed, drying, and this one I am painting. I paint over the board with a fresh coat of white paint and then paint it again.
Suddenly, Ms. Brown is standing next to me.
“I thought…” I start.
“No, I am here. That looks very nice.” She says. She is kind. She encourages me.
“But Leslie…” I start again.
“Let’s not worry about Leslie,” she says. Then she is gone. It is getting dark. I put the board away and lock the gate.
I am standing in the gate. I just unlocked it and have my bar and my hammer. A young man approaches me. He has curly blonde hair. He asks for Bella. He is wearing a deep red jacket a red with hints of black in it, more criMs.on. It is zipped up, his hands are in his pockets. I tell him Ms. Brown is still on the main land. He wants to know if she is coming today. I tell him she will be here later.
He makes to go through the gate. I step aside. As he passes, I get an uneasy feeling.
“What is your name?” I call after him.
He turns and fixes me with his dead looking gray blue eyes and says, “Leslie.”
I think this means something. There is something about this man. I should warn Ms. Brown next time I see her. I see her, she is in her office in the cottage. I almost wave. Then I think, I hope Leslie doesn’t see her. Where is Leslie? How did Ms. Brown get to her office without me noticing her come in from the ferry? I see the door open behind Ms. Brown. It is Leslie. There is a soft patter on her window. Gray and pink. Soft. I hear the softness. Ms. Brown is there, but I know she is dead. I should go see about her. I should call someone. She is dead. I sleep.
I am painting in the garden, from memory, this time, I add the church, where it used to stand. I never paint the chain link fence. I don’t paint it today.
Ms. Brown says, “I sold one of your paintings today.”
“Here?” I ask.
“No, at the gallery, to a man I know. He’s an artist, too. His name is Leslie. You should meet him someday,” she says.
“Oh,” I say, “that’s nice.”
“Yes, it is,” she says.
Ms. Brown is gone. I should work on the gate, but I put the painting in the shed and put the iron bar in the corner of the shed and the hammer on its hook on the wall. I latch the wooden door and go out into the garden. This is my garden. I lock the gate and know tomorrow I will be here again.
Ms. Brown is patient and encouraging, not just to me, but to all of us. She can paint like anything, but she doesn’t. She teaches. She doesn’t teach us like my college art teacher taught me or like the guys on TV teach. She doesn’t teach us to paint like her, because she doesn’t paint. She teaches us to paint like ourselves.
“A poet has a voice, but a painter has a vision,” she says.
“What is my vision?” the girl next to me asks. It sounds stupid. I am so glad I didn’t ask it. I almost did, because I was wondering the same thing. How do I know what my vision is? How do I paint my vision?
One day I was standing near the gate, painting the cottage and the colonnade again and a man I didn’t recognize walked up into the garden from the street. He was obviously a gardener. He said the office had sent him. I told him I didn’t really need any help. I told him I had been the gardener for years, and that I had enough spare time to tend to the garden and still paint my little paintings. I asked him if he wanted to look at my paintings. He started backing out of the garden, keeping his eye on me. I told him, if he really wanted, he could help me drive a seat in the gravel for the gate. I told him I had been trying to get to that for a long time now. He turned very pale and ran.
That reminded me, so I put down my brush and went to the shed and got my iron bar and my hammer. When I came back, another man was standing there, which is odd, we don’t get many visitors. This man was maybe thirty, maybe younger, dirty curly blonde hair, red jacket with his hands jammed down in his pockets.
Something made me nervous. I felt like this man might mean harm to something or someone I cared about, but you can’t attack someone with a hammer because they have cold steel blue gray eyes. He asked for Bella. I wondered at that. I had known a long time and she was still Ms. Brown to me. I wondered what this white man, a young man, at that, at least a decade younger than Ms. Brown was doing calling her Bella. I told him she wasn’t here. She was on the main land. He wanted to know if she was coming today. I told him I expected her later. He started through the gate, and I let him by. As he passed me, I didn’t like the bulkiness of his jacket.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Leslie,” he replied.
I should hit him in the head with the iron bar. I know I should, but I can’t hit a man when I don’t know why. I could kill him if I hit him just right. I don’t want to kill nobody. But I know in my heart I should.
Ms. Brown is standing next to me in the garden. I am painting.
“You have found your vision,” she says, “that is beautiful!”
“You mean the garden, or my painting?” I ask.
“Both are, but I meant the painting,” she said.
“Its only a series of lines,” I say.
“All painting is only a series of lines,” she says.
“Yes. But my lines are all black and the background is only white,” I explain.
“Of course, that is your vision, you see it in black and white,” she said.
She is gone. I stand in an empty garden. The tools and the paintings are all put away. It is late. I am about to leave and a young couple come to the gate. They peer in. I call out that the garden is open and for them to come on in. They are obviously tentative, but they come in. They are lovers. They hold each other close. I can see the excitement in their eyes, but it is not only love. There is a bit of the goodfunfear one has going on a roller coaster or into a haunted house.
“We heard this place was haunted,” the girl said.
“Haunted? What a strange thing to say!” I replied.
“Yeah, some people say a man and a women died here, and they still haunt the place,” the boy said.
“I have been here a long time. Never no man died here, A woman was shot once, but that was just Ms. Brown. And she’s fine. She was here a little earlier. You just missed her,” I said.
“Bella Brown?” the girl asked.
“Sure, why?” I replied.
The boy and the girl looked at each other.
“You must be the gardener!” they blurted out, together.
“Sure am,” I said.
“Now this is a pretty garden. It isn’t very big, but it is lovely. If you want to walk around in it a bit, you better get to it. Its almost time for me to lock the gate and go,” I continued.
“No, no, we better be going…” they said.
After they left I locked up.
I drove the iron bar deep into the gravel, one clanging hammer blow at a time, down into the sand and shell rock crust a few inches down. I must have been sunk in about two feet. I pulled it out and was about to go to the shed when a man asked me if Bella was here. I looked at him closely. I didn’t know anybody who called Ms. Brown by her given name. I knew it was her name, because I had seen it on forms, she may have even introduced herself as Bella Brown the first time we met. I don’t remember. It was a along time ago and I didn’t know her then. I was looking for some help with my painting.
I studied his face. Not young, a little sun weathered, but this is Florida. Though he didn’t look like a beach kid. His burgundy wind breaker looked expensive, but old, like it was either his father’s, or he had gotten it at the thrift shop on Sunset, where Palm Beachers tended to dump their old but still nice stuff. I tried to shop there once or twice, but I am not that interested in clothes and they wanted better money than most thrifts, so I stayed out of there. And they seemed to not particularly want a gardener grubbing through their stuff.
“She’s not here,” I said.
“Is she coming today?” the man asked.
“I expect she will,” I replied.
He came on through the gate. I remembered him.
“You are Leslie, aren’t you?” I asked.
He turned to look at me. I had to stop him. He would shoot Ms. Brown! I raised my iron bar, but before I could hit him, he stepped aside and pulled his black pistol. He fired. I felt like he had hit me with the iron bar. My head hurt.
“At least you shot me instead of Bella,” I said.
“Oh, no, I will shoot you both. I always do,” he said.
He smiled and walked towards the cottage. I tried to cry out but I made no sound. I sat down, holding onto the bar.
I was painting, this time the cottage with only a broken segment of the colonnade, no church, not even all of the stones that were really still there. Ms. Brown touched my arm.
I turned to look at her.
“I thought you were dead,” I said.
“It’s okay,” she said.
“I think that is your best painting, yet,” she added.
Highway Three-sixteen dead ends at Salt Springs, about two miles west of the end of the road is 238th Ave. As “big city” as that sounds, it is a dirt road. Starting at some point, probably the western edge of Marion County, Florida, the little sandy roads running off of the hard roads are numbered in increasing order. Some go in a block or two and stop.
238th wanders south for exactly two miles. It crosses sand scrub. It crosses salt marshes. It even twists and turns through an almost perfect tree tunnel for over a mile, then it makes a bee line south, alongside a row of power poles and dead ends into a dusty horseshoe. There are forty-three homes here. Nice suburban ranch-styles, coastal platform cottages, rusting single-wides and several well scrubbed double-wides. Most have boat docks. All have screen-in porches.
My parents moved south a few years ago and bought a nice double-wide here. My father, ever handy, built a long screened-in porch and a boat dock on the boat channel that came right up into the backyard. My mother filled every niche on the porch with plaster birds and somewhere she found a black iron rooster wind vane. My father dutifully built a roof over the dock and attached it there. All these years later, with little twists of Spanish moss and air orchids hanging from the “s” of the directional bar below, the rooster shifts slightly in the breeze as the wind changes from south to southeast.
The rooster has faded to a ghastly beige white, though the rest remains faithfully black. My parents are gone. I inherited their “cabin.” My law degree from the University of Alabama proved to be worthless for my intended purpose. I expected to be the next great southern lawyer. An orator supreme. It seems that most law degrees now are in the service of big corporate law firms. These firms specialize in shuffling paper for billable hours. The Atticus Finch’s of the world have been relegated to movies and classic novels.
After a decade of waiting for my filings and shufflings to lead to the real thing, I packed it all in, including the Mercedes and the ex-wife. Actually, the car and the wife left together as did the pricey place in the hills on the south side of Birmingham. At least half of the suburban dream home left as equity to her and the other half to assorted creditors and a fellow lawyer who handled my divorce.
I got on as a professor at the University of Florida. It wasn’t much. An adjunct, paid by the course, but with my folks place free and clear and a ten year-old Ford pickup, I did okay. I still do. Another decade has passed. I don’t expect tenure, but I should keep busy with three or four classes teaching business law, showbiz law and whatever other non-lawyer law classes the good folks at curriculum come up with.
As for hobbies, I have a few. I feed the fish every morning and afternoon from the boat dock. About once each week, they feed me. I throw a hook in instead of food and catch a mess in about twenty minutes. My cousin claims this isn’t as much fishing as it is eating your pet fish. I wouldn’t argue the point, but the fish are free to leave and it is an arrangement I find rewarding.
Then there is the upkeep on an aging double-wide: replacing a bulb here or a sprinkler head there. Feeding squirrels, which I don’t shoot, wandering the aisles of the hardware store and warming the fifth pew from the back on Sunday morning at the Community Christian church all take time, too. I hadn’t gone to church since I was a kid, and still don’t find the sermons to be much deeper than a bumper sticker, but if you are going to live in a small town, unless you want to be a hermit, you go to church. I go to church socials, especially church suppers. I get to eat good macaroni and fried cream corn made by talented old ladies. I occasionally get a jar of honey, or figs or plum jelly.
I pay for this, of course. I have to listen to not only the sermons but to the small talk of people who are careful to not think new thoughts or ask deep questions. I also dispense simple legal advice and spend most of my time quietly on my father’s screened-in porch. In defense of the “simple country folk,” the crowd in my posh Birmingham days and the college crowd in Gainesville mostly think only the trendiest new thoughts and only ask the socially accepted deep questions.
At least my neighbors not only know how to fix a pump or reinforce a seawall, they will come over on a Thursday evening and help me fix mine, even if it takes several hours. Even if I don’t have the right tools (they will bring what we need). And they would be as offended if I offered to pay them as they would be if I billed them for a legal question asked on the church steps. Don’t get me wrong, they would pay the bill. They would just be too busy the next time I couldn’t get the whatimajigga to fire off. And they certainly would not ask me another legal question, ever.
My only other hobby is a low-key, low-profile justice program. You might have heard of the one national program where a bunch of college kids work to save folks wrongfully sentenced to death row. They have been so successful that the former governor of Illinois stopped the execution of all state prisoners and commuted their sentences. Good for them.
My program is not near as grand. I give extra credit to my non law-major students to help me seek justice on a smaller scale. We offer help, as we can, to poor people who have been wronged by the system. Usually someone who was cheated by corporate lawyers in debt collection or mortgage or personal property issues. Pretty boring stuff, I’m sure, but helpful to those we serve. On my days off, I sit on my porch with my laptop while the chill spring wind ruffles notes and loose sheets from yellow legal pads. While the wild dogwoods break their leafless winter with delicate white blossoms and the maples arch new red leaves over my seawall, I try to throw David’s small smooth stone and slay a giant. My student volunteers are often as able or more so, and help via email from their dorm rooms.
Occasionally, I get a call or bump into someone at the campus cafeteria or the hardware store that has suffered a criminal injury and yet found all avenues of redress closed. If the situation is too sensitive, or the odds too great, I handle the case alone.
Last month, a farmer who lives about halfway to the “Big Tall Bridge” put his hand on my shoulder as we left the Community Church. The “Big Tall Bridge” crosses the Ocaklawaha River and is a landmark because it is what it is called. Spanning a two mile wide swamp and decent little river, it rises to around one hundred feet into the air and then plunges back to dry land again. Between the bridge and Salt Springs there is little else to describe.
This farmer said his sister had a situation he wondered if I could help with. Expecting a credit card company charging usury rates, I said, “Sure, I’ll do what I can.”
He gave me her number. I called and explained who I was and why I was calling. She turned out to be Lavernia Taylor, a sixty-something widow. She lived in Eureka. a town just west of the Bridge , famous mostly for a swayback, long closed barbershop. The barbershop made the cover of some national magazine a few years ago. Seems a Florida photography student captured the image while at Gainesville. He later got a job with the AP and used it to illustrate some point about vanishing communities in rural America.
Mrs. Taylor did not own the barbershop; she lived a couple streets over from it, back off to the north in a Jim Walter home she and her late husband had built on a sandy lot. Mr. Taylor had been a maintenance worker for the school board in Cincinnati, Ohio. They weren’t wealthy, but they got by and loved each other and their quiet life. Or they had, until Mr. Taylor’s unfortunate accident.
Robert “Bobtail” Taylor had driven up to the country grocery store in Fort McCoy.
Fort McCoy is a crossroads town. It consists of two streets north and south and one east and west and has a convenience store, and grocery store, a beauty shop, a law office, a bank, a pharmacy and a cemetery behind the Presbyterian Church.
Bobtail had always driven a short-wheel-base F-150 pickup, but when they retired and moved south, he bought a tiny old Toyota sedan. He was a very sensible man. A small car was all they needed and it was cheap to drive and cheap to keep in running condition.
Salt Springs is dry, that is to say, there isn’t a liquor store east of the Big Tall Bridge. One Haywood Smithson had retired from New York almost the same week the Taylors had left Ohio. He bought a very nice place in the Salt Springs Valley. He also bought a new Lincoln Continental.
On the Saturday evening Bobtail went to Fort McCoy to get some spaghetti sauce and Tylenol, Mr. Smithson realized he was out of bourbon. The convenience store in Fort McCoy has a liquor license. Usually Haywood bought his liquor by the case from a store Ocala, but he wasn’t up for the extra trip on a Saturday night, so he stopped in Fort McCoy.
Haywood bought a bottle of the best stuff they had. He told the clerk the price was too high and the quality was barely drinkable. Then he paid for his booze and left. He did not leave the parking lot right away. He poured a shot into a plastic tumbler that was sitting in his drink holder and answered his ringing cell phone. It was his New York business partner. Haywood had been an insurance agent, before retiring. He did not sell his agency outright. He took in a younger partner and still participated in the profits.
His partner had a few ideas. While the radio frequency kept the two New Yorkers in touch, both sipped bourbon together, though they were a thousand miles apart. Finally, Haywood rung off. He hadn’t liked most of what he had heard. It seemed as if his partner was trying to slip the noose of Haywood’s dead weight partnership. Haywood was all too familiar with the ideas proposed. He had used a very similar technique to dislodge his mentor forty years earlier.
Not only was his bottle half empty, he was sure he was going to need a few more drinks while he sorted out the mess. He returned to the clerk, made the same complaints, only a little louder this time. He returned to the Lincoln, topped off his cup and started back home to Salt Springs.
Haywood was angry, but even through the anger; he knew he had been drinking too much. He dreaded the Big Tall Bridge when he was sober. In part, he hated the simple stupid name the simple stupid people around gave it. In New York, it would not have even been a particularly tall or big. They have real bridges in the city, and lots of them. And it would not have a ridiculous two-lane road crossing it. Here he was, half way from nowhere, crossing a ditch of a river at night on a two lane bridge that shot way up into the sky.
As Haywood saw the lights of the gas station in Eureka, he began to tense up and start looking for the bridge. He did not see the tiny old Toyota sedan stopped to turn north. Bobtail was waiting on a logging truck to pass so he could safely cross the west bound lane and go home so his lovely Lavernia could make him supper. He saw the big Lincoln bearing down on him, but he didn’t move to the shoulder, because he was sure the guy planned to go around him on the shoulder, he couldn’t go left because thirty tons of logs and steel were coming at sixty miles-per-hour.
Haywood, did see the little car at the last moment, and as Bobtail had thought, cut right towards the shoulder. Haywood, drunk and nervous, misjudged and clipped the corner of the Toyota as he sped past. Bobtail was punted out into the path of the logging truck. The Toyota resembled a beer can that a redneck had stomped into the sidewalk. The logging truck slowed and stopped. The driver was shaken. One light was broken and part of the big steel bumper had snapped clean off. The truck was drivable. The Lincoln disappeared over the top over the Big Tall Bridge.
No one got the plates, nor did anyone get a good look at the car or the driver. Haywood wasn’t even sure he had actually hit anything. By the time Haywood got home, he had drunk a bit more bourbon. To steady his nerves after crossing the damn stupid bridge. Bobtail was dead. The trucker was explaining to the Sheriff’s Deputy what had happened.
The next morning, Haywood Smithson called the Salt Springs Police Department to report vandalism to his Lincoln. By Sunday afternoon, Haywood was arrested and charged with vehicular manslaughter. There was no way to know if Haywood was drunk at the time of impact. There was no way, as Mr. Smithson’s New York defense attorney pointed out, if Mr. Smithson was even in his car at the time, or if the accident that left black Lincoln paint on the rear corner of the little brown Toyota had occurred in the parking lot at Fort McCoy or anywhere else. No one, not even the truck driver, could say for sure that he saw the Lincoln hit the Toyota.
All anyone could say was that at some time in recent history, a Lincoln with the same color black paint as Mr. Smithson’s had hit Mr. Taylor’s brown Toyota and the a car painted with old Toyota brown paint had done damage to Mr. Smithson’s Lincoln. Mr. Smithson’s insurance company, Smithson and Silosky had paid for the damage to be repaired on the Lincoln, and if the court would be good enough to release the car (Mr. Smithson had been released on his own recognince within hours of his arrest), Mr. Smithson would have the car repaired. They sure were all sorry about Mr. Taylor, but it certainly could not be proved that Mr. Smithson had been anywhere near the scene of the tragic accident.
Of course, Mrs. Lavernia watched the whole thing and was amazed as the big city attorney talked her husband’s killer right out of the courtroom. At first I suggested a civil suit to at least try to make Smithson pay for the pain a suffering and loss of companionship that Mrs. Taylor had suffered. Funny thing about New York lawyers and New York insurance agents, they sure knew how to set up trusts so that it turned out that all Mr. Smithson actually owned was the cash he received from social security, and even that was not attachable.
I called Mr. Haywood Smithson a few days after I realized that we could not do anything to make Mrs. Lavernia Taylor whole through civil action. He explained that I wasting his time and mine and that if I bothered him again, he would look into having me disbarred for harassment. I explained that I did not actually practice law and that I doubted he could deliver on his promise. He slammed the phone down in a very powerful manly sort of way. I softly closed my flip phone and thought about justice.
The next afternoon, I called him again and explained that the liquor store had a camera in the parking lot and we had the time of his departure and that it seemed he left, headed east at 7:14 pm and Mr. Taylor’s most unfortunate accident had occurred twelve miles east on highway three-sixteen at 7:28 pm. Also the security camera at his gated community, ten miles further east, recorded the front of his Lincoln, with body damage at 7:39 pm. The liquor store camera clearly showed no damage to the front of his car at 7:14 pm. I suggested he come over to my place at about 8:00 pm that evening to review the film and I would have a settlement offer for him to review.
He took down the directions and swore at me and let me know he would not sign anything without having his lawyer review all the evidence. I agreed that he was being very prudent and suggested that he might want to take the offer, as well as a DVD of the various film footage to show his attorney.
I told him how to get to 238th Ave, that he should come all the way south to the end. I said I would meet him at the dead-end and direct to my place. I suggested he call me on his cell phone when he turned onto 238th Ave so I would know when to come out for him. He agreed.
I don’t drink very often. I find it slows my thinking and my reaction time. I also find even a couple of drinks makes me feel like an old man the next morning. I do keep a bottle of bourbon and a bottle of rum, more for guests than anything else.
At about 7:50 pm, I took a tumbler and both bottles out to the boat dock. In a few minutes, my cell phone rang. I opened it to hear a gruff, slightly intoxicated Haywood cuss and ask me if I lived at the end of this godforsaken swamp. I explained that it was actually a marsh area leading out to the middle of Lake Kerr, but yes I did live at the end of it and I would be waiting in the road for him before he got there. I closed the phone and walked along side the boat channel to the dead end of 238th Ave.
In a moment, a big Lincoln, lights on high beam appeared on the road. I waved my arms as I stood in the middle of the intersection of the horse and 238th. I heard the motor rev up and saw the Lincoln jump towards me. I stepped aside and let the big car plunge into the ten foot deep channel.
Dark was coming on, but the pole light showed clearly on a desperate drunk reaching under his seat to find the window breaker. I guess power windows don’t work very well under water. He managed to break the glass out. As the water rushed in, he settled back into his plush leather seat. He looked confused. I offered him a drink. He didn’t respond, so I opened the bourbon and tossed him the bottle. I opened the rum and poured a little over my iced Diet Coke. I opened the phone and dialed 911.
“I’d like to report an accident,” I said. I took a sip and gave them directions. I took another sip and suggested to the man in the car that we drink to the memory of poor Mr. Taylor. He didn’t respond. I don’t think he cared much for the memory of Mrs. Lavernia’s poor dead husband.
In a few minutes, the brave crew from the Slat Springs Fire department and a very concerned looking Deputy arrived followed shortly by a tow truck. Amid the flashing lights, I told them of my appointment with Mr. Smithson. I did not mention the non-existent DVD. I explained I was having a drink on my boat dock and did not think it very prudent to jump in the water in my state. They found the bourbon. He had been drinking.
Too bad about poor Mr. Smithson. Maybe I should drink to his memory.
The Gibbon Rose
Please forgive me if I have already posted this story. It is an old story and I thought I had posted it, but I cannot find it, so here it is again, or for the first time.
A chapter for a forthcoming novelogue,
Argon, or a walking tour of the Ironlands
Gibbon Island, a Land of Spiders: A People and Their Intergalactic Spider
By Anthony Watkins
As the Argon flows south, it broadens into a relatively shallow delta. Here the dredgers fight a constant battle with heavy, ore laden waters. Here, too, is the strange and beautiful island of Gibbon. Gibbon is inhabited by the Gibbon Rose, the Gibbon Spider and the Manalak.
In the small village on the riverbank, across from the island of Gibbon, I met an old gentleman, named Papitukan. Papitukan runs a small shop that is a cross between a 7-11 and a general store. He also has a tiny storage room with an old Swiss Army cot. He agreed to rent me the room and the cot, but he refused to take me over to Gibbon. He did, however, tell me everything he knew about the island.
Some of what I learned, I was able to verify with my own eyes. He did lend me a row boat which allowed me to drift out to within a few hundred yards of the island. I was forced to turn and row for the mainland as fast as I could when a band of the natives greeted my approach with a rain of what I was to learn were surely poison arrows. The Manalak are short in stature, averaging a little over four feet in height, they are pale skinned with blue or green eyes and red or blonde hair. They tend towards plump, in a cute sort of way, but not to the typical American obesity. They never cut their hair and they do not wear clothing of any kind, making them look like troll figurines who have come to life. But whatever their appearance, they are not cute and cuddly little people.
Almost everything known about Manalaks has been observed from a distance. They fiercely defend their island from intruders with poison arrows and blow darts. The current Argon government, like its predecessors, does not keep a census of the Manalaks, does not offer any government services or try to enforce any law on the island.
Custom has been for as long as anyone can remember, to leave them alone. There was one somewhat successful expedition by a team of British explorers in the mid 1850s. In fact, nearly all the first hand information that we know came from the effort. Its leader, an Oxford anthropologist, Gerald Worthington, had the good fortune to be a very short man with wild red hair and green eyes. The Manalaks gave him the benefit of the doubt when his party braved the river and beached their dugout on the island’s north side.
I found a volume of his notes at the Montgomery Public Library in Alabama. It was titled simply, A Trip to Gibbon, or My Time Among the Manalaks. The copy that I found was printed in 1866 by a London publisher. How or why it ended up in the basement of the reference department of a county library system in Alabama, I’ll never know.
I will say this for the public library in my childhood home of Montgomery, it stands well against most others I have visited. I have been in a little less than a hundred library branches in my lifetime, from New Orleans to Cincinnati, from West Palm Beach and Fort Pierce, Florida to Brewton, Alabama to McRae, Georgia, from Earle, Arkansas to Barboursville, West Virginia, and most failed to live up to my early experiences in that funny modern 1960s brick and glass repository of all things interesting.
There were four main rooms, a lobby with a winding staircase to the Museum of Fine Arts that was located above the world of books. The stair case was made of slabs suspended from the ceiling by iron rods. When I heard the story of Martin Luther climbing on his knees and kissing each step, this is the staircase I imagined him receiving his enlightenment which led the Reformation. This is the staircase where my brother and I would sneak up and wait on our parents when we went to the library in the evening. The museum closed at five pm. When it was closed, the curator would draw a folding iron gate, like one might see in an old manned elevator.
The gate was at the top, so we could play on the spiral as long as we were quiet and generally stealthy. Below, the library had one room each for children, fiction, non-fiction and periodicals. The reference desk was in the non-fiction room. As a child, I knew this to be the “serious” room.
I loved to wander into the periodicals room and watch the old men reading out of town papers which were mounted on split rods and racked on a large wooden stand. But my favorite place was the archives. It was located between the Childrens and Non-Fiction Rooms and was three stories high. It had very low ceilings as it had to fit in the same space as the tall single story of the main library. Actually the top two floors were in the library space. The third level was a low, dimly lit basement.
This third level was filled with old and odd bits and pieces. The daily papers of Montgomery were stored there, going back to before the US Civil War, also known as the War of Northern Aggression. It was here, in this dark, musty magical place I found and read A Trip to Gibbon.
Sadly, the good people of Montgomery decided to relocate the library to a new facility in the 1990s, the museum expanded to cover both floors of the old library, the dark basement is gone. I am sure most of the stuff there is either on film or destroyed after the circulation manager determined if any of it had enough worth to justify moving it. Worthington’s book was the spark that sent me on the trip to Argon, so you can imagine my disappointment to find that one hundred and fifty years later, I still could not wander the island of Gibbon, or even set foot on it.
Among other tidbits, the Oxford anthropologist, believed he uncovered origin of the Manalak’s distrust of outsiders. According to island legend, soldiers of Philip II, the last Hapsburg king of Germany’s Holy Roman Empire, landed on the northern shore of Gibbon around 1600. The Manalaks were gracious enough until the Germans decided to see if the islanders would taste as good as the plump little sausages they seemed to resemble in the soldiers’ minds. After seeing more than a few of their brethren roasted over a fire, the Manalaks called on their sacred spiders.
The Gibbon spider is a large hairy spider. Its body color is bright red, while the hairs are glossy black. It measures over a foot across, from toe tip to toe tip when mature. Its bite is full of neurotoxin. Death is swift and certain. The spider is not easily provoked and the Manalaks allow them to thrive all over the island. The relationship between the pygmies and the arachnid appears to be symbiotic.
Of course, the possibility exists that the Germans made the mistake of killing one or more spiders, as well as the plump little humans. In any case, the spiders attacked the Germans and killed several. The remaining soldiers retreated and never returned, but the Manalaks still mistrust tall white people.
The other truly remarkable discoveries that Worthington reported, according to my host, involved the rose, poison arrows, the spider and the religious beliefs of the Manalaks. Apparently the Gibbon spider has no natural toxin, but the Gibbon rose is so poisonous that to touch it or to sniff its beautiful bloom can give its admirer a paralyzing or fatal dose of chemical very similar to the toxin found in coral reefs that gives the puffer fish its deadly defense. The spiders eat the petals of the rose and in the process pollinate the plants.
This is a good thing, because the local bees of Argon cannot tolerate the toxic flower. The toxin does not harm the spider, but the spider incorporates it into its saliva, giving its bite a powerful punch. The rose petals also give the spider its color. When the Gibbon spider leaves the egg case, it is about the size of a pin head and translucent. If it survives the attacks of its elders and from dozens of other creatures that prey on immature spiders, it will ingest the rose petals and become too poisonous to be eaten. As the spider reddens and grows, it adds a host of insects to its diet.
Nature has timed the hatching of the spiders with the maturing of the rose blooms. The spiders do not eat the blooms until they are beginning to drop their petals.
Papitukan says that the local mainlanders used to believe the Manalaks used spider toxin to dip their poison arrows, but now it is understood that the arrows are rubbed across the blooms of the Gibbon rose. The pollen is sticky and attaches firmly to the tips.
Manalaks are not immune to the poison of the spider, but they have learned to eat the stem of the rose. The woody parts of the plant seems to have an agent that neutralizes the rose toxin. By eating the stems, they can handle the flowers without ill effect, and can withstand an occasional bite of the spider. Of course, the Gibbon spider is known for its swarming attack when threatened. No amount of neutralizing agent has been found to prevent death when one is bitten several hundred times.
Papitukan claims to have watched an errant fisherman fall victim to just such an attack. He shivers even today twenty years later in the retelling of giant shiny red spiders swarming over the body, face and hands of the screaming fisherman. Only the quickness with which death came to the fisherman spared Papitukan from going out of his mind.
He was in another fishing boat when a friend drifted too close to the island and when an overhanging limb from a great Gibbon rose bush brushed his hat, he knocked a spider into the boat. In fright, he used his oar to bash the hairy monster. Within seconds, the spiders that were feeding all over the bush, landed in his boat and attacked him. Papitukan was only a few yards away, but could do nothing but watch.
The Manalaks avoid killing the spider at all cost. According to old Papitukan, they believe in something I can only call the Inter-Galactic Spider. They think this spider, a creature so big that it walks from one planet to another, from one star to another in just one step, lives to avenge the unnatural death of any spider.
Of course, the Manalaks only know of one kind of spider, the Gibbon. Papitukan says they believe if one harms a spider, the Slakanath, or great spider will send its foot crashing down on the killer in a blow so swift that no one can see it coming. The only proof is the killer is dead. In fact, one who is found dead of unknown causes on the island is assumed to have been a spider killer. Their death is sufficient proof. Their bodies are dumped in the Argon River.
When I protested that this was the silliest basis for a religion I had ever heard, my host challenged me. “Are you Christian?” I answered that by tradition and birth I was indeed Christian, though I practiced no religion in any organized fashion.
“You mean you think Slakanath, the great spider is unbelievable, but you follow a religion centered on a homeless brown man who was born to an unwed mother and spent most of his adult life wondering with a dozen other men, in the company of only one woman, and she was a prostitute?”
I said I thought that was a crude way to describe the life of Jesus. He replied, “But that is not the unbelievable part!”
When I asked him his point, he explained. “The followers of this homeless brown bastard who hung out with a dozen men and one prostitute, hate few things more than unwed mothers, homeless people, prostitutes, people of color, and homosexuals.”
As I have stated, I am what might call a nominal Christian, one who is classified as such by birth and culture, but I do carry a Rosary in my left pants pocket. Instinctively, I reached into my pocket and rubbed the comforting beads. The old man noticed the motion in my pocket and gave me a funny look. I sheepishly pulled out the Crucifix and string of beads.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Just hoping to improve my odds of not getting struck by lightning from standing so close to you while you say such outrageous things,” I replied.
“And how is your God’s bolt of lightning different from their great spider’s avenging foot fall?” Papitukan queried.
I thought for a moment. “Well, everyone has seen lightning, no one has ever seen the foot of an inter-galactic spider,” I replied, pretty pleased with my unassailable logic.
“How do you know lightning is not the flash and thunder of the great spider?” he answered. I walked off perplexed. I thought my reasoning was correct. Some people refuse to see logic, even when it is clearly presented to them. But who was refusing to see the truth, me or Papitukan?