*GATOR SPRINGS GAZETTE
a literary journal of the fictional persuasion

ALLIGATOR CHORUS

LOVE CHANGES EVERYTHING
Ann Walters

Gilda pulled the blanket tighter around her hunched shoulders and stared at the flames moving over the logs, watching them consume wood and excrete ash with quick flicks of yellow-tongued orange that crackled and sparked. A steady blue buzz marked pockets of pitch in the fire’s embrace. The heat was inviting. She squirmed on the pine bench, trying to get more warmth without getting closer. Gilda found fire fascinating. What an unnatural way to keep out the chill.

The lodge was quiet today. Footsteps echoed in the empty spaces between boulder and beam. Manny had been right, the crowds had dissipated along with summer’s heat. The heavy snow of winter would bring some of them back, but for now there was only the bustle of park personnel sweeping away the debris of high season.

Gilda glanced out the window, trying to see beyond the black asphalt parking lot. If she squinted, she could just make out the light green needles of lodgepole pine hovering above brown fescue and dark yellow goldenrod. The deep blue-green of Douglas fir lay far north of her vision, but she took comfort in knowing the forest was out there, beyond the geysers.

When Manny slipped onto the bench beside Gilda and wrapped his arms around her, she was surprised. She hadn’t heard his approach. Her senses were growing dull here, perception blunted by excess stimulation of sight and sound. She wriggled closer to him, shutting her eyes and letting her nose take over. There – the waxy scent of soap, a sharp hint of minty toothpaste, the florid fragrance of laundry detergent. And beneath them all, that particular combination of sweet and sour mustiness that was Manny’s aromatic aura. Gilda snuffed along his arm, up to his shoulder, burying her nose in Manny’s neck and letting the smell carry her back to the day they met.

She’d been in the blackberry thicket that day, plucking the plump balls and storing them in her stomach. It was hard work, despite the immediate payoff, so when she encountered an open area of sunlit grass, she decided to take a break. Nothing beat an afternoon nap and a belly full of berries. Gilda didn’t know who was more startled when Manny stumbled out of the brambles, but in that moment of uncertain introduction, as she licked a lingering drop of juice from her lips and he backpedaled straight into thorns, she fell in love.

“I’ve been looking for you,” Manny had said, fumbling with his clipboard. Gilda’s stomach made a loud rumble, and he fell to his knees in surprise. Pushing his glasses back onto the bridge of his nose, he peered through them, studying her. The glint of sun off the lenses seemed familiar to Gilda. Her nose itched and twitched as a prickly sensation raised the hair on the back of her neck.

“It’s all right,” Manny repeated, “I’ve been looking for you a long time. I’ve been watching, and waiting, and now you’re here.” He spoke in a soothing singsong that quieted the alarm in Gilda’s heart. “Look at you, you’re so beautiful.”

He sat back and pulled the stickers from his skin one by one with slow, deliberate motions, never taking his eyes off her. She noticed that his pale, thin hands were nothing like her own, and was amazed to find herself more curious than afraid. When he was done, Manny leaned forward and stroked Gilda’s golden hair. His touch was slow, soft, sensual. It changed the shape of Gilda’s life.

After they kissed for the first time, Gilda licked Manny’s earlobes and nuzzled his neck, drawing him into her heart with each breath. She would follow this man anywhere.

That was months ago, and now, sitting in a drafty lodge before a fire that provided only superficial warmth, Gilda’s stomach growled with a hunger for home. This place was too cold and too empty, filled with dead timbers and silent stone. She devoured Manny’s scent as she pressed close against him, trying to recapture the warmth of summer.

They’d come so far together; over mountain, across river, wherever Manny’s job took them. Gilda never did figure out what he looked at through those binoculars for hours on end. Sometimes he just sat, staring at her with such intensity it almost hurt, then broke off to make sudden scribbles in his notebook. She didn’t know what it meant, but it was no matter – she loved Manny, she didn’t need to understand him.

Gilda shivered. Catching a whiff of sweet bark and tangy nut through an open door, she felt the pull again, strong as instinct. Autumn called to her with crisp air and the slowing of the world. She wasn’t sure how much longer she could resist. Manny touched the goose bumps on her arm, held his hand toward the fire a moment as if saying farewell, and stood. “Come on, it’s time to go back,” he said. “I can see it in your eyes. I won’t keep you here.”

As they traveled north, the land sloped upward and grassland gave way to forest. The familiar sight of spruce quickened Gilda’s pulse and her pace. Climbing into the mountains, she kept stumbling, falling to her knees and crawling a few steps until Manny helped her to her feet again. By the time they reached Mt. Washburn, he didn’t bother anymore. Gilda moved faster and more gracefully on all fours than she ever had on two legs. She finally felt warm again, back in her own thick hide and heavy fur.

At the foot of a whitebark pine, ready to dig sharp claws into soft ground, Gilda stopped and asked the only question she’d ever posed to Manny. She’d gone all the way into his world, transformed by a love deep enough to alter existence. How far would he go into hers?

~

In the spring, the park’s new wildlife biologist scanned the slopes of Mt. Washburn with her binoculars. Her predecessor had come here often, and she half hoped to find some sign of the missing man, though he’d long since been given up as lost. She found no evidence of Manny, but she did catch the surprising sight of two grizzlies emerging together from a single winter den. And if that weren’t unusual enough, the larger one had circles of black hair around the eyes, like a pair of glasses. Two small cubs tumbled after them into a large blackberry thicket.

© Ann Walters

Living in the Pacific Northwest, Ann Walters (AnnWaltersWriter@aol.com) combats rainy days with large quantities of chocolate. She is aided and abetted by her husband who provides unstinting support (and chocolate) and two young daughters, who provide inspiration, frustration, and joy, often all at once.

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