Saturday, June 13, 2009

Grunt

The old man pounded a two-foot stob of wood into the earth using a flat piece of iron in the palm of his hand, leaving a few inches exposed. He paused to catch his breath and looked at the trees all around. Here, in the deep woods, there was little light this early in the morning, and no sounds but breezes rustling through leaves, bird calls, and the chorus of frogs and crickets. He had come early to try and beat other grunters to the spoils, but he didn't mind the hour. He liked this time of morning. Besides, you know what they say about early birds and worms.

From somewhere far off, in a bog or marshy pond, came the grunting of a male alligator looking for a mate. He smiled when he thought of that lonely gator, as he was about to make some grunting sounds himself. He wished the gator luck, hoping the luck would reflect back on him. Only fair, he figured.

The old man took a swig of water from his old Thermos, put it back in his shoulder pouch, and set the pouch near his feet beside a five-gallon plastic bucket he had brought along. He kneeled by the stob, and began rubbing the iron against the wood in a rhythm his daddy had taught him when he was just an ankle-biter.

The birds went quiet. The crickets and frogs paused. The earth and the things that crawled inside it listened. Not even the alligator answered.

Grunt-grunt, grunt-grunt, grunt-grunt-grunt.

A minute went by as he rubbed iron against wood, and that odd creaking, croaking noise vibrated through the air and the earth. Three minutes, and his old muscles were burning in his back and arms. Five, and he was already about to give up when the ground for yards around him began moving, writhing, wriggling. The earth gave up her burrowers, the nightcrawlers and red-rings and thick gray wrigglers, fairly spitting them into the air. They thrashed up out of the ground in a panic, dozens of them, all around him, and the man grabbed the bucket and moved among them, scooping them up and dropping them in, and turning to spot the next one.

He had to move fast, as the worms would seek shelter again almost immediately, crawling under leaves and back into the soft earth. Birds swooped and grabbed them up. Lizards darted from tree stumps and snapped them. Everything was in motion and the trees spun around him.

He missed a step. A limb under a blanket of leaves shifted under his foot. His leg shot out too far, and fell sideways. The bucket flew from his hands, and he didn't protect his head before he hit the ground and something harder than the ground. He was dazed, barely aware for some time, and his leg hurt something terrible. He lay on the earth, watching the shafts of sunlight through the trees shifting direction as the sun rose higher.

It was the noise that brought him around.

Grunt-grunt, grunt-grunt, grunt-grunt-grunt.

He rolled slowly to look in the direction of the sound, and he didn't see the cause at first. He saw his plastic bucket lying on its side, empty. And right up close were the flat iron and the stob, and he realized that he had hit his head on the iron piece when he fell. He saw his pouch nearby, and wished for a drink from that Thermos. Then the noise came again, and he saw the gator sitting very still in the upturned leaves only a few feet away.

They looked at each other.

The old man trembled. That thing was huge. He could imagine it swallowing him whole, but he was pretty sure it would chew first. He had never been so scared in all his years. All at once, his body broke out in cold sweat, and he stifled a scream as the gator eased back a step. He doubted that it was frightened of him, but it must have been confused. It kept one eye on him and settled against the earth.

The old man's brain spun like the trees had, desperate to find a way to escape. He wondered if he could roll away and shimmy up a tree fast enough, or even just put a tree between himself and the beast. He wondered if he could reach that piece of iron and use it as a weapon. Could he poke out the monster's eye before it bit him in half? He'd heard stories of hunters and bird dogs caught by these beasts at the water's edge.

It occurred to him that the gator had been as lucky as him, after all. He'd lost his prey, and the gator had failed to find a mate. They were both frustrated. But then it occurred to him that you don't want to be in the path of a frustrated gator.

Grunt-grunt, grunt-grunt, grunt-grunt-grunt.

The sound vibrated through the earth and carried over the breeze. It was not the gator this time. It was not a female answering the gator. The old man recognized the sound. Somewhere not too far away, some other worm grunter was at work this morning. He lay there, one ear to the ground, and one ear turned to the air, and he listened. The noise repeated without pause as the stranger rubbed a stob with a flat piece of iron, waiting for the earth to erupt.

He couldn't tell which direction the noise was coming from, and he feared the gator would come past him to find the new noise maker. That is, it would kill him on the way. What better way to impress a female than to bring her a fresh kill?

GRUNT-GRUNT, GRUNT-GRUNT-GRUNT!

The man felt his heart skip as the gator blasted out its call, but the monster turned to head back down the slope and into the treeline. In the middle distance, the worm grunter continued his work. The old man brought his sore leg underhim and scrambled to his feet. He grabbed up his empty bucket, dropped his pouch and iron piece inside, and decided to leave the stob.

He paused and looked in the direction the gator had gone, and he shouted.

"Hey! Hey you! There's a gator headed your way! I say you better stop that and move along!"

He listened, but the grunting continued. He shouted again.

"Hey! I know you hear me! I'm telling you there's a gator coming your way!"

The noise continued for a few seconds. Then a moment of silence, in which the old man waited to hear a shouted question like, "What'd you say?" or "Who is that over yonder?" But he heard screams instead, and in the echoes, he could hear muffled crashing noises that might have the sound of man running through the underbrush on the other side of the hill, or might have been a gator thrashing its head as it yanked prey to the ground.

He thought about running toward the noise, but considered the probability of stumbling headlong into that gator again. He took a swig from his Thermos and listened to the quiet. Just breezes and birdsong and insects buzzing. No more screams or sounds of underbrush crashing. He didn't know if that was a good thing or not. He decided to go to his truck and find a place he could call the boys from Fish and Game. They could check it out.

Then he heard it: Grunt-grunt, grunt-grunt, grunt-grunt-grunt.

That gator was still lonely.
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(c) 2009 by Tony Simmons
T-minus-42 in the 366 Days recovery program
(Story inspired by reading about worm grunters in today's paper and a story a few days ago about a male gator caught on a local highway when it was out cruising for love.)
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