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Malcolm Goes Missing

by Ron Van Sweringen

“Malcolm is missing, maybe even dead,” Bertha said to herself, standing on the back porch between the sagging clothes lines. With each item she pinned up, her eyes traveled across the palm-fringed back yard, hoping for a glimpse of the orange cat.

It was perplexing. Malcolm never stayed away overnight, giving up his comfortable place at the foot of Bertha’s bed. His breakfast bowl was untouched on the kitchen floor, even though the window was left up for him all night. Bertha decided not to do that again. A coon, or possum, or most anything might climb through in the dark. The thought gave her a shiver.

Maybe even a snake, like the big ones coming out of the “Glades.” Walker Jones had seen one over eight feet long in his yard. Even though he swore to it, folks still raised their eyebrows, Walker was known to see strange things after finishing off a pint of homemade Florida lightning.

Bertha wiped the perspiration from her forehead and pushed her damp handkerchief into her apron pocket. She was a tall spinster lady, standing ramrod straight. It was August and horsefly-dropping hot. The corns on her feet told her a storm would be coming before nightfall.

The last of the wash was on the line and two baskets of fresh laundry waited to be ironed before delivery the next day. Bertha Miller was known in Palm Town for her excellent ironing. Not a sheet, tablecloth, or dress shirt left her ironing board bearing a wrinkle. It was hard work in the summer heat.

Bertha moved her ironing board onto the back porch, to catch any stray breeze. The cabin was shaded by several large palms, and pink oleanders lined the banks of a nearby canal. There was good fishing in the dark green water, as long as you kept an eye out for large gators.

A chilling thought ran through Bertha’s mind: “Oh Lawd, what if a gator got Malcolm.”

“Not likely,” she said to herself. “He is smarter than that.” Still, she couldn’t resist the urge to take a short walk along the canal looking for any signs of the cat. It was late afternoon, the air damp and heavy. Purplish clouds promised a thunderstorm soon.

Bertha walked almost a mile before reaching the large retention pond near the highway. Having seen no trace of Malcolm, she heaved a sigh of disappointment. A large Spanish oak tree offered her a place to rest under its huge branches forming a canopy over the canal. Palm trees fringed the darkening sky, rustling on the breeze.

Bertha imagined she heard the mournful cry of an animal in distress. At first she dismissed it as the breeze, until it came again, louder.This time something inside of her tingled with fear: it was Malcolm’s cry.

* * *

Mosey Jones had fished the canal all afternoon and several catfish filled his stringer. A smile crossed his face at the thought of frying them up. “Nothin’ better than fried catfish and grits,” he said to himself, poling his skiff through the green water.

Mosey worked part-time at Jenkins Hardware, setting fence posts for customers. The rest of his time was spent fishing, trapping and doing handyman jobs. He was middle-aged, and a thick mass of hair framed his sweating forehead. Although short in stature, he was heavily muscled and accustomed to hard work. On occasion, he’d even wrestled a gator or two out of the canal. Fried gator tail was even better than catfish.

A low-hanging branch thick with Spanish moss obstructed Mosey’s view up the canal. Passing under it, his jaw dropped in shock. An orange cat clung precariously to the end of a large tree limb ahead of him. What he saw next was even more astounding. A huge snake had wrapped itself around the tree limb in an effort to reach the cat, and a woman was hanging from the snake’s tail. The woman let out a shriek upon seeing Mosey’s skiff.

“Hallelujah,” Bertha shouted, “the Lord done sent us a savior.” Mosey had never seen a snake of that size. It was easily 12 feet long and as big around as both of his arms put together.

Malcolm took his chance, springing off of the tree branch and onto Mosey’s skiff.

“Oh Lawd,” Mosey groaned, steadying the boat with his push pole and watching Bertha cling to the snake’s tail. Out of the corner of his eye, Mosey noticed a slight movement in the water. He knew exactly what it was: a mighty big gator.

“Ma’am,” Mosey shouted, “There’s a big gator headin’ your way. Pull yourself up till I get there.” Bertha’s feet were dangling just above the water and when she saw the alligator her eyes popped.

“Pull ’em up Ma’am,” Mosey shouted in desperation, poling the skiff as hard as he could. The alligator’s huge jaws began opening. All Bertha could think of was the lady she saw once hanging from a rope in the circus. She threw one leg up over her head, wrapping it around the snake. The other leg followed just in the nick of time, as the alligator’s jaws snapped shut on the end of the snake’s wiggling tail.

Mosey was struck dumb as the alligator pulled the snake taunt, unraveling it like a giant corkscrew from the tree branch, sending Bertha, in the pinkest underdrawers he had ever seen, sailing toward him through the air. Together they watched as the alligator swam away, pulling the snake behind him.

Mosey smiled at Bertha, in his lap where she landed. “Don’t suppose ma’am, you’d be up to cooking a mess of catfish and grits for me and the cat, now would you?”

Copyright © 2012 by Ron Van Sweringen

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