Incorribible, Tranquillité, Doused
Arlie found the girl drifting deep in the Everglades. Shoulder-length dark hair stuck to her face, he figured her to be around 15 or 16. The girl wore a flowered blouse with tan shorts and white sneakers. She was lying all a-kilter in an old boat, with one arm slung over the side and one leg curled beneath her. Her fingers just grazed the water, leaving ripples that quickly disappeared. Nothing disturbs the black water of the bayou for long, nothing that wants to live.
“Vous, là bas!” Arlie tapped the boat with his paddle as he pulled up, startling a nearby egret into flight. He checked the girl’s wrist for a pulse and put her arm back in the boat. She was alive. “Réveillez vous!” There was no response. “Wake up!”
The weathered wooden vessel had become entangled in vegetation on the edge of a peat deposit. Arlie set about grumbling when he couldn’t get it free. Off came the boots and socks so that he could walk on the peat without getting soaked. He rolled up his pants legs and took a look around. Several alligators watched with interest, always ready to take advantage of food that presented itself. They were small, none larger than five feet, to look at. Not happy to chance it around any big ones, Arlie took his knife and climbed out. In a few moments he had cut it free. He tied the boat to his and tried once more to wake its inhabitant.
“Vous, là bas…eh, you there!” He doused her face with water from his canteen. Finally she groaned and moved. “Ah bien bien.”
When she turned her head Arlie could see dried blood, a lot of it. She had a nasty cut on her forehead. How surprising that there weren’t more alligators around. They could smell blood for a long ways. A big one surfaced nearby. That explained why there weren’t more alligators, the big ones always scared the little ones away. The girl moaned and tried to move away, rocking the boat. “No no, doucement.” She looked at him, uncomprehending. “Take it easy now,” he said gently. “Easy. Yes?” The girl looked dubiously from him to the gator and back then shrank back even further.
Her movement threatened to spill her over the side. Arlie grabbed the side of the boat to steady it and she scrambled away from him. Eyes red and swollen from crying she trembled and hugged herself. Arlie looked down at his clothes. She is lost, alone and probably hungry and thirsty. Wakes up to see me of all things, and alligators. No wonder she’s scared! Arlie had a shock of grey hair that hadn’t seen a brush in some time. He managed to keep his beard trimmed; it tended to get caught in his traps and such. It probably had fish in it and maybe cornbread too, he thought regretfully as he tried to pat it down. His old fishing hat has stains and several holes; his overalls had more patches than denim. He must look a sight. He caught her eying his canteen. He set it down and backed away and she snatched it up. He pointed to his tummy, then to her and himself. “Mangeons. Let’s eat.”
She looked on eagerly as he divided his bread and cheese, and then wolfed hers down. He wanted to finish checking his traps but would have to tend to this first. They needed to get to a ranger station. Arlie shook his head; the nearest one was an hour away. Arlie cleared his throat.
“Toi et moi, nous irons. You and I will go.” She shook her head made fluttering motions with her hands. What? She pointed at her mouth and shook her head. Finally Arlie understood. “You are dumb, yes?” Arlie raised his voice. The girl frowned but nodded, putting a hand to her ear as though listening. “Aaah, I see. You are not deaf, only cannot speak. Is no problem. We should go to the ranger station, eh? Ranger station?”
The girl nodded eagerly. “Come,” he said, “I will tow your boat, yes?” He held out his hand. An alligator surfaced across the channel and it was enough to make up her mind. She took his hand and let him help her into his boat.
Arlie turned them around and began paddling. He kept up a running dialogue for much of the way. “I am Arlie Ratté. What is your name?”
For a moment the girl did not respond. Then, grinning, she wet her finger and “wrote” on the leg of her long shorts. The wet fabric clearly showed him the letters – A N N A.
“Very clever.” He smiled. “It is nice to meet you Anna. I am sorry for your troubles. Your head, it is hurt, no?”
Anna nodded and winced as she touched it. She wiped some of the blood away and went to swish her hands in the water but Arlie’s warning stopped her. “No no, alligators. They will smell the blood, child.”
Mortified, she quickly drew her hand back, wiping it instead on her shorts. As if on cue they passed several more of the primeval creatures. She pointed to them and counted on her fingers. 1…2…345.
“So many of them. Yes. We are deep in the swamp. How long have you been lost? A day?” Anna shook her head and held up two fingers. “Two days? You spent the night in this boat, yes? Mon dieu!”
Anna was on vacation with her family. She and her brother were playing and decided to take a boat out. She untied it and sat down in it while he ran inside to get drinks and snacks and had gotten sidetracked by a huge spider outside the door. By the time he got back to the docks Anna’s boat had drifted away and she was nowhere to be seen. He was angry that she had left without him until the grownups got involved and they realized that the paddles for the boats were up at the house under the porch. She had not taken the boat out herself. They searched and called but unable to respond, Anna just drifted farther and farther away.
Arlie now gave her his canteen and tore a strip from his shirt to use as a washcloth. He mimed pouring the canteen and wiping his face. Anna cleaned her forehead and thank heavens; it was not as bad as it looked. They startled an alligator up on the bank and it slid down into the water with a splash. Anna gripped the sides of the boat her eyes got very big.
“Tu es en sécurité ici. Ils ne peuvent pas te trouver.” Anna shook her head at him. “You are safe here. They can’t get you now. You see?” Arlie tried to calm the scared girl. He kept paddling and talking. Eventually she stopped trembling. He told her about his pet raccoon, the incorrigible Charlie Chaps.
“He waits for me to sleep then he raids my cabinets!” He said, laughing. Anna grinned to hear of Charlie’s antics. Arlie worked the paddles smoothly as he told her the story. “He tips over the can and all of my beans scatter on the floor!” Arlie exclaimed later as he finished. Anna giggled, it was a sweet sound. “This is not funny!” Arlie said, but could not hold a straight face. They both laughed.
A moment later the ranger station came into view. Arlie could see people standing around the large porch. As they drew closer he told Anna to “Turn around, but do not stand up or you will tip the boat.” Her eyes grew wide as she saw the old wooden building and she clapped her hands with excitement.
Suddenly there came a loud wail. A woman flew across the yard and down to the dock. “Anna! Oh Annaaah!“ She cried and wrung her hands and laughed all at the same time. As Anna got out her mother grabbed her and held on tight. Both of them were crying now.
Arlie untied the boats and secured them to the dock. He explained to all and sundry where and how he found the girl, and shook hands with her father. The mother, still crying, shook his hand and hugged him too. The sheriff and his deputies soon departed. There was much food inside and Arlie was asked to stay and eat. The family could not bear to see him go just yet.
Some time later when the evening sun began dripping gold down the mossy cedar trees Arlie sat on the edge of the dock. Anna and her brother crossed the yard and sat beside him. Anna tapped him on the shoulder and fluttered her hands at him again. Arlie just watched; it was kind of beautiful to see. It was graceful and delicate when she did it .
“She wants to know why you live here.” Danny said. Arlie had regaled them at supper with tales of his cabin in the woods. No running water or electricity and such. Just books and birds and raccoons. The kids had been wide-eyed and amazed at how he lived without a television or phone. He looked at the sun as it sank below the swamp for a moment. He pointed to it and then tapped his heart with his fingertips.
“Tranquillité.” He replied simply.