My Uncle Burl lived in a 19th Century farmhouse beside a beautiful old-time garden, one of those drafty old places where air-conditioning was opening all the very tall windows wide and lots of shade from the walnut trees outside. My uncle’s trademark was a beautiful handle-bar moustache as white as his pure white hair except for the faint fringe of Red Man tobacco juice that strayed onto it when he spat. Aunt Florence frowned at this habit but tolerated it as long as he was careful to hit the parlor spittoon, and he was an excellent shot except when he got excited from telling one of his stories. They were good stories, though, and everyone enjoyed them, because he made the simplest things sound grand and he spoke from the heart with real emotion, beginning every other sentence with his favorite phrase, “And by the way!”
This story isn’t one of his, but I think he would have liked it and would have enjoyed telling it, especially on nights when we were all down at the river roasting “jacket potatoes” in the coals of a campfire with the darkness pressing in all around and spooky sounds coming in from all sides.
Why Gator Sleeps with his Mouth Open
Old Gator has seen a lot of things, because he’s the oldest thing in the swamp and so far as anyone can tell he has always been the oldest thing in the swamp. Gator don’t worry about much, he’s seen a lot of things come and go there, and there’s always unlucky things disappearing and newcomers showing up, which is fine with Gator because he’ll eat most anything. Nearly everybody fits in just fine because there’s room in the swamp for lots of things, even Walking Catfish and Snakehead, and there’s always room in Gator’s stomach, too. But the big news lately is a newcomer who’s making a lot of trouble for everybody, and that would be Python. Python is the first challenge Gator has had in a long time.
Python might not have been such trouble if Squirrel hadn’t got involved, because in the beginning Python was fitting in just fine, eating all the little things the other snakes eat and there’s plenty of crayfish and bird eggs for everyone. But the other snakes stop growing after a few years and just get fat and lazy, and Python just gets bigger and bigger and bigger. One day Python was sitting in a big oak just enjoying the breeze, a little sunshine on parts of him to keep him warm and a little shade on the other parts to keep him cool, and he was thinking what a fine country he had found and almost fell asleep when Squirrel noticed him.
Nobody in the swamp likes Squirrel because he’s always making a fuss and always has something to say, whether he knows what it means or not. The other day he was over at the school listening to the children talking, because it’s a good place to get new words, and he heard some of them yelling at some others, “Oh-cee-deee! Oh-cee-deee! You got oh-oh-oh-cee-deeee!” Squirrel liked the sound of that and it’s easy for him to say, so he picked that word out and took it with him, went leaping off through the treetops looking for a place to use it and spied Raccoon down at the water’s edge washing his hands. Squirrel started laughing at him, staring down from the treetop where it was safe and yelling, “Oh-cee-deee! Oh-cee-deee! You got oh-oh-oh-cee-deeee!” and Raccoon stopped washing his hands for a minute and looked up, startled, because people are always saying he took something he shouldn’t have and he didn’t know anything about it, this particular time. Raccoon yelled back, “I don’t know anything about that Oh-cee-dee! All I’m doing is washing my hands!” and then he went right back to washing his hands again, because that’s what raccoons do.
Squirrel is like that, always pestering things, and when he saw Python in the oak tree that day he went right to it, pestering and pestering. First he climbed up way high and looked down at him and barked and barked. Then he ran way around him in a circle so wide it was pretty safe to say anything you want, and he was chattering and chortling all the time. Then he parked himself underneath and studied Python for awhile, barking and barking, and then he moved to a branch just out of reach and really started talking, saying serious stuff.
“Hey! Python!” Squirrel yelled. “Hey! I’m talking to you! You ain’t from around here! Why are you here in my swamp?!” and Python just looked a little more in his direction because he was just almost asleep already. Could have stopped there but Squirrel wouldn’t let it go, said, “We don’t need your kind around here! You’re big and fat and stupid! You’re the wrong color and your eyes are funny! You go home! Go home! Go home!” Squirrel is like that, thinks he runs the swamp and can tell everyone what to do.
Python was ignoring most of this until the remarks about his skin color and his eyes, but that really bothered him because he admires his reflection in the swamp water every time the light is right for that and he thinks he looks just fine. Squirrel made him really mad so he reached out real fast and ate him in one big bite, and he’s been doing that with everybody in the swamp ever since then. If nobody is going to get along with him, he ain’t getting along with nobody. That’s the way it’s been ever since, and now even Gator has to watch out, and that’s something Gator hasn’t had to do for millions and millions of years, so he’s not used to working that hard and it ruins his sleep.
Just lately, Gator was lying on the bank in the cool mud and thinking about all this, how things used to be sooooo good and now it’s different. Used to be he could float in the swamp with just his nose and his eyes breaking water and sleep and sleep and now he can’t do that because Python might be down there in the mud, looking up, ready to eat Gator. Used to be he could lay on the bank in the shady spots and sleep and sleep and now he can’t do that because Python might up there in the trees, or behind him in the bushes. Python is just making too much trouble, but Gator mostly cares because he likes to sleep a lot more than work and he’s losing some of his weight paying attention to all this, it’s a huge bother and totally unnecessary.
So first, Gator tried sleeping in the mud with both eyes open, but flies kept walking on them and tickling them and when they got dry he’d have to blink and that would wake him up again, so that didn’t work. Then he tried keeping one eye closed and the other eye open, but he can’t hardly see except to one side that way, so he’d shift from one eye to the other and every time he did that he’d wake up again. He was losing a fair amount of sleep that way.
Raccoon wandered past down to the water to wash his hands that day and at first Raccoon didn’t even see Gator, because Gator looks just like a log when he holds still. Gator thought about eating Raccoon right then, but then he had an idea. Instead of eating him, he said, “Hello! Raccoon!” and Raccoon jumped about six feet in the air and backwards, cussing all the time like Raccoons do, and from a safe distance said, “Holy crap! Why do you do that? Don’t I have enough to worry about? I’m on my way to East Swamp and it’s going to take me all day!”
Which was what Gator was thinking, because he knew Raccoon’s ways, he knows how everything in the swamp works, and he knew Raccoon was going to East Swamp for crayfish tonight, Raccoon always did this on Thursdays.
Gator said, “I was thinking maybe we could help each other out. You know how much trouble Python is making?”
Raccoon got so nervous thinking about Python that he started washing his hands again even though he didn’t have any water handy, and he was looking all around, up and down and left and right and turning round and round at the same time. Raccoon said, “Yes, I know that, Python is everywhere now, can’t hardly wash your hands any more.”
Gator said, “East Swamp is an easy swim from here, would take a half hour maybe, if you ride on my back. You keep lookout and I’ll swim, if you see Python just yell and I’ll take care of that.”
Raccoon thought about this and washed his hands a little more. “But that sounds kind of dangerous, you eat people like me all the time.”
Gator said, “Times are changing, we can make a deal but you’ll have to trust me to tell you the truth, cross my heart and hope to die if I don’t.”
Raccoon said, “What’s this going to cost?” because Raccoons know about those things, they always ask how much something is worth before they steal it.
Gator said, in his deep booming voice, “Ferry to East Swamp is a lookout job and one fresh raccoon!” and let everybody in the swamp for miles hear what he said, but because his voice is soooo deep that it makes the water dance around him, Raccoon couldn’t hear the last part because it was sooo deep and soooo loud his raccoon ears couldn’t hear it. Only the other gators could hear that and they all laughed and roared, it was such a funny thing.
Raccoon had a lot of worries about all this but it was getting late already and he had to get to East Swamp because he had kin there and they were all going crayfishing together because it was Thursday. So he said OK then! and got on Gator’s back and stood up really tall on his back feet so he could look all around and up and down and behind and still keep washing his hands, because raccoons do that. Gator swam and swam and remembered not to go down deep because Raccoon was riding on his back, but when he got close to the opposite bank, Gator stopped and said, “Now, about that payment . . . .”
Raccoon said, “What payment?” and looked even more nervous.
Gator said, “Maybe you weren’t paying attention. This ride will cost you one raccoon.”
Raccoon thought about arguing because he didn’t remember hearing that, but looked all around up and down again and realized he wasn’t in a particularly good situation for arguing. But raccoons are pretty good at making deals, and they aren’t opposed to lying now and then if they can get free stuff.
Raccoon said, “Let’s pause just a moment and think about this, I think I can make you a better deal.”
Raccoon explained what he had in mind and Gator took them both to the shore of the East Swamp.
Now, Raccoon had a lot of family in the East Swamp, and Gator knew this was true, so Raccoon started out with that, except he told Gator that all the raccoons in East Swamp were terrible terrible people, they threw poo at the other raccoons and peed in the water all the time. None of the raccoons in West Swamp, where he was from, cared at all about the raccoons in East Swamp, because they were so inconsiderate and dirty, it just makes you want to wash your hands all the time. So if Gator could just hold off on the eating part, Raccoon would sit at the edge of the water and wait for his cousins and catch crayfish. Gator would have to lay there with his mouth wide open and pretend he was sleeping, because Raccoon would tell his terrible cousins he was picking the crayfish out of Gator’s mouth. Then when they came in to look for crayfish, he could chomp down and catch not just one, but two, three, maybe more raccoons! This made perfect sense to Gator, because he knew he always had lots of things stuck in his teeth and probably some of them were crayfish. So Gator said, “OK, we’ll try this then, but don’t you try to run off!”
And Raccoon promised he wouldn’t, because raccoons can’t outrun gators. But raccoons lie about things all the time, and Raccoon had a plan.
Gator laid there on the bank with his mouth wide open and one eye on Raccoon all the time. Raccoon was down at the water’s edge, catching things and washing them and putting them back, looking all around all the time, and waiting. Because it was a very nice afternoon, the sun was so warm and the breeze was just right, and under Gator’s belly the mud was so soft and so cool, and he was so so sleepy that after awhile he just completely fell asleep, he was so tired and everything there was so nice.
Raccoon saw his eyes close and backed carefully away and then ran like hell. Raccoons are like that, first you wash your hands, then you run like hell, and then you wash your hands again. Never mind honor. If your hands are clean, you’re good.
Python had been sleeping in the tree above them all this time, and when Raccoon ran away he heard the noise and woke up with a jolt the way Pythons always do when they are surprised. He saw Gator on the bank under his sleeping branch, and he was getting ready to eat him, when he noticed that Gator’s mouth was wide open. Python thought, uhoh. Maybe Gator’s not really asleep. Maybe Gator’s waiting to eat me! So he watched and watched for a long time but Gator never closed his mouth, and finally Python decided to go somewhere else and look for something to eat that didn’t have so many big teeth.
Probably Gator would never have known all this, if it hadn’t been for Squirrel, who had been watching from a very safe distance and told him all about it later, because Squirrel can’t keep a secret for crap, but Gator never forgot it and that’s why to this day, he always sleeps with his mouth open wide.