Her husband was dressed in mostly khaki, the sweat-wicking kind invented for hot days like this. As if they were somewhere else, in some other vehicle that wasn’t a 2019 Cadillac rental sedan with a stop-start motor. As if they were on safari in one of those places you need a whole set of vaccines in order to visit, where the bugs are big and people like them aren’t really supposed to go. She had a friend from high school who went to Africa to help the children, but all she really did there was take pictures.

Tara herself was dressed like a normal person on a normal vacation. Denim shorts and a pink t-shirt, a baseball cap for the sun, her ponytail pulled through the back like how it was when she was a little girl. She looked past Roger, through his driver’s side window, out at the wetlands. The trail went in a big dusty loop around the refuge’s freshwater swamp. Tara wondered how long it would take to drive the full loop, especially if, like Roger, one liked to go slow and point at everything.

“Check that out.” Roger pointed, finger pressed against the window. Then he turned off the AC and rolled the window down. 

Tara leaned over the center console, squinting. 

“That’s a gator,” Roger said.

In the shallow water, something dark and thick bobbed just above the surface.

“Roger, that’s a log.”

“You’re a gator expert now?”

“No. And stop calling them that, like you’re from here. They’re alligators.”

Alligators,” he repeated. “Didn’t mean any disrespect.”

The Cadillac rolled along, the dust and gravel crunching beneath its wheels. Tara opened the guide pamphlet, which was mostly pictures of local birds. 

“Lady at the welcome center said they saw a manatee here,” Roger said. “A fuckin’ manatee. In the Georgia freshwater. Swam in from the ocean and everything. Poor bastard.”

“Climate change,” Tara said absently. 


She imagined it. Being a manatee, the sort of animal that looked like a sofa from certain angles. Finding the sea all of a sudden unfamiliar, feeling like the salt was wrong and the temperature was too high or too low, and think: I need to go from here.

Tara sat up straighter, trying to see more of the topography of the swamp. To see how easily a manatee might get lost. She wanted to ask Roger if he thought that an alligator would eat a manatee if given the chance, but she didn’t want him to be right about something, so she didn’t say anything. 

“Let’s pull over,” she said. There was a patch of dust that extended from off of the trail itself, and it was clear that tires had tread on it recently. She figured this was a good place to see things, even if the things she would see were just some of the more boring-looking birds in the pamphlet. She wanted to see something new. Something big, that wasn’t a bird, because all birds were pretty much the same. But a bullfrog, fat and slimy, would count as more of an experience.

That was why they were here. To experience things, together. Their other married friends had spoken of vacation as some sort of bonding ritual, some kind of spiritual journey of rekindling. 

“We don’t need to ‘get the spark back,’” Tara had said to their friend George. He and his partner had just returned from Italy. “It’s not like that or anything. It’s just different than it was between us, and it’s not bad, but it’s not good either.”

So she and Roger left New York for one week in May, to go to Savannah, where there was to be no shortage of experiences, even if it wasn’t Europe.

Tara just wanted her bullfrog. Or if it had to be a bird, then one of the big ones with the long legs and the sharp beaks and eyes that look as though they know things people don’t know.

“Wait,” Tara said as Roger opened the driver’s side door. She held her arm to her nose and sniffed. “My bug spray wore off.”

“It’s fine out here,” Roger said. He opened his arms wide to indicate the bright open area, far from the trees. “You won’t need it. It’s all the way in the trunk.”

She looked at her pale arms. She would need sunblock too, but that was also packed deep in their bag in the trunk. She imagined her skin covered with little red bites, itching as a testament to why she should never listen to Roger. But she looked around the dusty path and the gently swaying cattails and saw nothing small and hovering, and heard none of the ominous buzzing she’d heard earlier. 

Outside of the car, she could feel the real Georgia air. It was a wet heat, but not the New York kind where the wetness felt like it was coming from underneath her skin. The wet Georgia heat was miasmic, and it smelled sweeter. The air and the sights and sounds of the nature preserve seemed to exist as one solitary thing. As if this air only belonged here, and these sounds would never be heard outside of this place. 

Her neck creaked as she looked around at the drooping plant life of the swamp. Patches of wet grass that seemed to have been born dead, and thick, gray trees that curved back down toward the water like they were taking a drink. 

“There’s a path here, babe,” Roger said. He was standing at the edge of the cleared patch of dust, right where a thick expanse of yellow grass began. Tara approached and saw that a narrow alleyway had been tamped down through the brush. It looked well-trod enough to trust, as though it was carved out with intention and not the result of some missing person wandering out into the wilderness. She nodded, and Roger started walking down the path, lifting his feet high as if there were so many obstacles to trip over. Tara rolled her eyes, but found herself doing the same thing, once she felt how uneven and moist the ground was beneath her. 

“Jesus, Tara,” Roger said, stopping, tilting his head up toward the sky and placing his fists on his hips. “Here we are in this incredible place, and you’re looking at your fucking feet.”

“I don’t want to trip.”

“You’re not going to trip.” He turned to her in full and lifted his hands. She flinched as he set his palms on her cheeks. 

He used to do that. That, but it was a different thing, because the act of it was always paired with sweetness. When she would worry about something she ought not to worry about, when she would scold herself for having eaten too much of something that tasted good, he would hold her face in his hands and tell her that everything was okay. She never really believed him, but it was nice to hear. 

But now, he was holding her head in order to lift her chin, and turn her face toward the great reach of the swamp. Still holding onto her head, he said:

“Everything is alive out there in a different way and half of this shit we’ve never even seen before outside of a textbook or a movie. Don’t you want to live it?”

“I’m living it,” Tara said, her voice made childish by the squishing of her cheeks. She shook her head and Roger let go. “I just didn’t want to get hurt.”

“Then stop walking for a bit,” he said. “If you’re not moving, you can’t trip. Just stand here with me and look at stuff.”

She forced herself to marvel at the blue, damp skyline and how it simmered from the heat of the sun overhead. How everything sounded like snakes hissing. She would never be in this place again. This place would never exist to her again, and Roger was right, and she hated that, but she hated herself more for having wasted so much time not looking at shit. 

A long, lean bird took off from within the cattails. It flapped its wings, beating them against the thick air with the effort of someone trying not to drown, and then it was in the sky, just a black shape in the light. She heard its caw as it soared over the swamp. Tara wondered what it was saying, and wished there was some language she could speak, some sound she could make, that Roger or any other person couldn’t understand. Maybe that would finally feel like she was saying something that felt real. To shriek into nature in a way ingrained by years of evolution. The only true thing. 

Roger took her hand and they continued down the path. She did not let go of him, nor did she twist her arm to free herself. She kept hoping that, at each touch, she would discover that they had simply been doing it wrong for a while, and that was why things felt so bad between them. But this hand-holding was like all the other hand-holdings in months past, in that it made her wrist tense and her palm turn concave, as if it was trying to get away.

They walked all the way to the tree line, and Roger kept turning his head to look back at the car, to make sure it was still there even though he still had the keys in his pocket and there didn’t seem to be anyone else visiting the nature preserve. Maybe, Tara thought, the people that lived there didn’t think it was a very special place, because they could go there any time they wanted. Those people who would come to the state of New York and feel bad for not taking enough time to stare in awe at the deep green of the mountains or the skyline in the city, jagged like a bar graph. No newly discovered place in the world that could escape the curse of not being appreciated, she decided. 

She took a moment at the edge of the wooded area to admire the contrast. How the shade was so dark even though the sun was so bright. How the grass beneath the trees was green instead of yellow, but just as wet. She looked at the wide, old trees. How their bark was scaly like all of the hidden alligators she’d yet to see. The Spanish moss hung like beards. Everything buzzed. She stepped into the shade and the bugs came back, like she knew they would. She began swatting and swiping, an involuntary reaction to suddenly having dozens of tiny little things flying into and around her head.

“I told you,” she said to Roger. He was squinting,  as if trying to see something far away. Tara scoffed. “This doesn’t bother you?” she asked. She hit the back of her hand on something large, and she shuddered. 

“It’s just nature, babe. We’re on their property.”

“They’re on my skin.”

The face was the worst part, and she guessed that was why Roger was squinting. When they hit you in the face it felt so sharp and so wet, and it was hard to talk because one of them might get in your mouth. And sometimes they got in your eyes, and if they were very small they might burrow into your tear ducts. Tara closed her eyes and made a shield in front of her face with her hands. 

Underneath the buzzing, she heard a sound that reminded her of a sink drain when the last bit of water passes through. That throaty, breathing sound like someone with bad pneumonia. She dropped her hands, opened her eyes, and turned toward the sound, groping blindly for Roger to look with her. Through a break in the trees, out in the water that sparkled in the sun, she saw it. The bugs didn’t really matter anymore.

It was bobbing nearly straight up and down in the water. If it hadn’t been growling, she might have mistaken it for a log. Its long snout was facing up, wide nostrils widening and collapsing in time with the low roar. It would inhale, fill up its bulbous throat with air, and rise out of the water. Then it would let out its growl, and sink back down.

It was facing away from them, at an angle. Tara felt a sudden shame, as if she was walking in on someone during a private moment. She’d never been an environmentalist, but. liked going to the zoo. But here, there were no glass panes between the natural world and her body. No cages or displays. Nothing to indicate: you have permission to look at this. Despite her instinct to cover her eyes again, she kept them open and walked forward, toward the little clearing that led to the water.

“Tara what the fuck are you doing?” Roger reached for her arm. His fingers grazed her elbow and then fell back to his side. 

She wondered if he was just keeping up appearances so that later he could say: I tried to stop her, before she got eaten by an alligator. He would say gator to the police because he would be free to do so.

But she didn’t get close enough to be eaten, and she wasn’t even sure the thing knew she was watching. How could it, with little holes for ears and its eyes on top of its head like that? And why bother with her and Roger, when there was a whole swamp full of living, breathing things that filled the thick, wet air with sound and smell? She felt unspecial in a nice way, like how it must feel to be a swampy nature preserve in the South or a green mountain in the North. That’s what she was to Roger. Something he had lived near for a very long time, and had thus begun to find uninteresting. 

She was closer to the edge of the water, now. Roger stood behind her with his arms folded.

“Look at that,” he said, drawing the words out long and slow. “Majestic.” 

The rough, wet skin sparkled in the sunshine.

Tara wondered about the behavior. The slow rising and falling of the alligator, snout to the sky, making a noise that almost made it sound annoyed. Beleaguered by this swamp and this sun and this day. Wanting to go home, even though home was here. Maybe he had met the manatee and the manatee was an inconsiderate guest who knew nothing of the culture and customs of the swamp, because he’d been raised in someplace with much more salt. 

The alligator toward her and Roger and then lowered its long, horrible head, flattening itself into the opaque water until just its eyes and nostrils were visible. She could see its narrow, vertical pupils pointed at her. Not at Roger, she was certain. This thing could not be looking at Roger, because that would make Roger the interesting, appetizing one. That would make Roger the intruder. She wanted Roger to be like an insect, buzzing around the alligator. Annoying, but not worth any more trouble than a quick swat with the back of your hand. 

“Oh, wow,” Roger said, touching his fingers to his lips. “What a treat.” He dipped his hand into the pocket of his shorts to try and get his phone, to capture this rare and serene moment that was all hers. She stuck out her arm behind her, her palm out towards him, vaguely, trying to get him to put down his phone and just let her have this. Her alligator, her swamp, her moment. He could have the bullfrog she’d thought of earlier. That was more him

The bugs pounded against her back, savoring the last few inches of the shade from the trees and the hanging moss. Some of them nipped and stung. Some of them warned her to return to the shade, farther onto the shore, away from the alligator. Some of them were pushing her forwards, urging her closer to the water. The cabal of bugs, unable to reach a consensus about her fate, grew quiet as Roger backed up, deeper into the shade. They followed him and left her alone.

“Hey buddy,” she said softly, like the alligator was a stray cat, mangy and nervous but hungry enough to consider coming close. She held out a hand and rubbed her fingers together like crickets’ legs. “It’s okay.”

The thing blinked, slow and wet, as if acknowledging her. If it hadn’t been looking at her before, focusing on her before, it was now. It pushed forward, parting the still water of the swamp. It moved almost silently, and Tara was sure that if her eyes were closed, she would have no idea that something with so many teeth, such heavy bones, such rough skin, was closing in on her. This, she realized, was how things met their end in this swamp. Quietly. They were already in the mouth by the time they realized they were in danger. And by then, in the sharp, growling dark, it was already too late.

Maybe it would be fine to die. It would save her a lot of trouble. She couldn’t fix her marriage if she was dead. Or maybe she only had to lose an arm, or a leg, and the resulting sympathy would carry her for a while until things got so bad between them it had to be Roger who asked for a divorce. She could abandon all responsibility. This benevolent alligator. It must have felt wet and hot all the time, stuck here in the Georgia air, and now to top it all off there were seawater creatures invading its home. Manatees and strange fish with new scales in new colors. And her. Both of them not belonging, reaching out to one another over the dark water. Her pain to his pain. It was a boy alligator, she decided. Its growl was too mean to be a woman. And yet, like men on two feet, she wanted so badly to be loved by it. 

Roger placed a hand on her shoulder. 

“Baby, it’s time to go.” 

The alligator grunted disagreeably. They weren’t finished.

“Listen to you,” Tara said. “Just minutes ago you were telling me to pay attention to shit. Well, here I am. I’m looking. I’ll never see this again.

“I’ll take a picture,” Roger suggested.

“Not like this. I’m squatting and my ass looks fat.”

“Oh stop it.”

“I mean it, don’t take it.”

She heard him sigh. She looked beyond the alligator, out across the vista of the swamp. They were on the opposite side of where they’d parked, and she could see the mirage-like blur of the Cadillac. She thought about the air conditioning and the built-in GPS navigation. How they would follow it back to their hotel, making no effort to memorize the turns and the street names, as they knew they would never have to make the drive again. That sort of thing was not built in like it was for alligators and manatees and birds and even bugs. They always knew where to go because they weren’t bound by letters. There were no street signs in the swamp. There was only knowing and feeling. 

This alligator was lost. Or, he thought he was lost. He’d come across a manatee and found its spud-like shape unfamiliar and thought: this isn’t the right place. So it had turned around, and then around again, not trusting the water it had known for years because there was a new thing there. But then the alligator thought: maybe this is my home and this large, soft gray thing with its fat drooping snout has moved in and I’ve been inhospitable. I don’t like it but it’s here and it’s not really hurting anyone so what I’ll do is idle here, lost, bobbing up and down and growling. Until I get tired or the sun goes down or the thing moves out and I no longer have to deal with it.

She felt she understood, and she nodded. Maybe to alligators this subtle, innocuous motion of the head was a sign of aggression, because as soon as she did it he opened his long mouth a few inches, showing his wet, jagged gums and thick, dirty teeth.

“Jesus, Tara. We should go,” Roger said. This time, even if only to really protect himself, he gripped her arm and pulled on it, trying to urge her away from the edge of the water. “I think you pissed it off.”

“I didn’t do shit,” she said, but she gave in to Roger’s strength and stood up, staggering backwards, not breaking eye contact with the alligator as it continued to spread its jaw. It emitted a throaty hiss that sounded like a tour bus shifting gears, and then it growled again. 

They held tightly to one another. It occurred to her often that men, historically, are not very kind. Here, in this remote area where no one knew them, it would be effortless for Roger to grip harder onto her forearms and toss her towards the alligator. She thought of this too, whenever they argued. Waiting for it to escalate. Waiting for him to get too frustrated with her and how difficult she was, and for his anger to lead to its inevitable conclusion, even though he’d never been violent towards her throughout their entire relationship. 

He  led her away from the shore, back into the shade of the trees and moss and circling bugs. The alligator lifted one of its front legs, plump and bent so squarely it looked almost made of rubber, and began to climb onto the sand. 

“Okay, nope,” Roger said. The alligator lifted its other front leg and he swung an arm around Tara’s back and pushed her in the opposite direction.. They stumbled blindly through the curtain of moss, this barrier that seemed ever-growing, drooping further into their path with every second and every step of their pursuer. Roger pushed the moss and the branches aside, and they held hands, and they ran back out into the sunshine.

They stomped mud onto the dry grass as they ran, looking back now and then. She had seen videos of alligators. How freakishly fast they seem to move.. But its craggy legs were short and it enjoyed the wet, cool shade, and could not be bothered to enter the hot daylight. Still, she swore she saw its yellow eyes in the dark, watching and deciding, mercifully, to spare her. She mouthed a thank-you as she panted, running clumsily over the uneven ground, no longer looking out for things to trip over.

When they got to the car they whipped open the doors and slammed them shut as if they were still being followed. Sitting down in the passenger’s seat, she felt her sweating thighs fuse with the leather, and she reached across the center console to press the automatic start button as Roger fumbled with his seatbelt. 

The GPS calculated a route to the safe, cool interior of their hotel. Tara laid her sweaty, trembling hand on top of Roger’s, like she used to, back when he too was a new experience that thrilled her. 


  • Aaron J. Muller is a Pushcart prize-nominated author from the Hudson Valley, NY, where he lives with his husband and their two cats. He holds a BA in English from SUNY New Paltz, where he was awarded the 2019 Tomaselli Award for Creative Nonfiction. He has an MFA in Fiction from Bennington College. Muller’s work has appeared in print and online journals such as Inverted Syntax, Taco Bell Quarterly, and Cold Signal.

  • Photos of the water and sunset in Buzzards Bay, a bay in Massachusetts that contains osprey but no buzzards. Photos from WM Robinson.