Captain Bob sang night-boatin’ and whistled as he unroped us from the dock a little after ten. Mom had made plans with him to take his boat out for this, one of those airboats with the giant fans. We weren’t going to observe the wildlife like when he gives tours during the day, but the captain used his guide-voice to explain to me how we’d see a bunch of long-legged birds, maybe an alligator, and probably tree snakes. Watch out for the tree snakes, he said as we began drifting away from the dock. Sometimes they fall out and land in the boat. Meaning it happened once, the captain corrected himself, when he saw my mom make a face. He turned the motor on and the boat glided forward. We used to live somewhere where we found snakes in the walls and I’ve had black racers slither between my feet a bunch of times, so snakes don’t bother me much. He was only talking to me because he wanted to show my mom he was good with kids. But the truth is I am thirteen and that wasn’t why we were here and I couldn’t care less about anything he was saying. For instance, looking at birds.
Ever since my mom and I moved to Homestead, we had been hearing about the plane crash in the Everglades that happened forty years ago. The pilot effed up so most of the people died for no reason at all. A local named Bud—like the frog in the old commercials!—was out on his airboat and saw the whole thing go down. And that’s fascinating and all, but what was so great about it is that he was out frog gigging! What the hell is frog gigging? I asked my mom.
The captain had given us these creepy metal things—the gigs—that looked like something an alien would stick up your butt and it kind of weirded me out that he even had them. I don’t know how to describe them. Kind of like a stick with sharp metal rake-things coming out of the end. This thing will mess you up. I could tell my mom was weirded out, too. She gave the captain a look which made me think she wasn’t so sure she was feeling him anymore then set the gig down and said, I’ll be the official photographer.
We got out through the dark trees without catching a falling snake and into open swamp. The captain turned the fan off and we sort of bobbed up and down with the water blubbing against the boat while my mom tried to fix her hair. Captain Bob told us to get our flashlights and he turned off the boat lights. He said to shine them slowly and look for eyes. The eyes will shine back at you. The light will freeze them like a deer. Then if you see some eyes within reach, you jab right at them. Don’t be afraid. Don’t hesitate. Just—jab! Then put it in the bucket.
As we were shining our lights around, running them over the grasses, he tried to talk up my mom. He asked what we should do with the frogs—eat their legs for dinner tomorrow, perhaps. Uhh, no, I said. Then what’s the point, he asked. I told him I just wanted to frog gig—like the guy who saw the plane crash. I just wanted to know what it was. And of course he knew all about the plane crash and even about old Bud, and had a bunch of news clippings at home. And had we heard about the hauntings? he asked, shining a flashlight up his face. Then he thought it was a good idea in the middle of nowhere late at night to freak me out with ghost stories.
He said they reused some of the parts of the crashed plane in other planes. Then there were all these reports of seeing the dead crew or passengers haunting these planes. People would see a stewardess try to open a bathroom door, or a ghost kid waiting outside it, or someone would walk into the bathroom all dark and see some lady already in there. A lot of his examples involved the bathroom, which makes me wonder what the captain’s fixation is and also what life is like when you’re dead, and more importantly what really matters to people—the miracle of flight and going on vacation with your family and all the big stuff or just finally getting to take a pee after waiting a half hour through turbulence. The captain kept saying lavatory because I guess he’s flown so freaking much he knows the lingo. He also seemed offended when I told him shhhh when I saw my first eyeflash look back at me.
I leaned at the edge of the boat as my mom held her flashlight on it and I watched it blink for a good minute and then I torpedoed the thing. I’m pretty sure I got it, except I completely forgot I wasn’t supposed to let go of the gig. The captain was mad because they cost forty bucks and you can’t just reach in and get it back, you can’t just shine your flashlight down and see it, you can never retrieve anything from the bottom of the swamp, it’s like it disappears forever. But even so we shined our flashlights into the black water looking for it with Captain Bob huffing behind us, the whole time I was pretty sure we’d see a human head or something. My mom finally said she’d buy him a new one and handed me her gig. She wasn’t using it anyway.
So frog gigging is not easy. You wait a long time, then you see some eyes shining at you, then you jab at them but they always plunk under the water right before you get them. The captain was trying to give me advice about being quick and direct, as if I was trying to give emergency instructions or tell a story instead of impale a frog. It also didn’t help that I was all nervous staring into the night with all those splishy animal noises and plane crash ghosts, seeing nothing but a bunch of shadowy sawgrass. Once, my light caught a heron take off, but what I saw was this gray blob rise straight up before floating off into the dark. I almost crapped myself. This went on for hours.
Just jab, he said for the millionth time. He took the gig from me and stabbed the air with it. Just jab. Like this. Like you’re poking at a fire. Like you’re fencing. I’ve never fenced, I said, as if that wasn’t obvious. There! he said. He pointed the prongs at the grass. Bob, let her try, my mom told him. I took back the gig. Right there!
I look for a while before I see the eyes glittering not five feet away. Now! he said. I leaned over the edge. I could see the eyeslits I was so close—it was right on the other side of a clump of grass. I leaned farther, til I felt like I’d fall over. I could feel the warmth rise off the water against my face. I held the pole steady like a harpoon. I timed the rise and fall of the boat. Then I did it. I jabbed. I just jabbed.
The thing was writhing in the metal prongs and splashing and making it really hard to control the gig so that I almost fell over and all the noise made another bird fly off. I swung the gig around while the captain is yelling no no no no no and my mom is trying to turn the camera on and nobody is shining a flashlight so I can see what I’m doing, but then I got it over the edge of the boat anyway and it falls off the gig and the captain said stand back and holy crap I totally gigged a snake.
I knew it was going to happen, I knew we would get a snake in the boat, my mom said, as if she’s spent her whole life tormented by snakes and can never get away, and maybe she has. The snake was flopping everywhere and it was bloody, too. The captain picked up my gig and pushed it into a corner, then up over the edge like you’d use a spoon to fish out the black floaty thing in your drink. He sighed and said something about how he should have killed it, he should have put it in the bucket, how he shouldn’t just release a python back into the wild. I thought my mom might tell him about how we found them in my sister’s bedroom, too, or how we had left my dad the next day because he didn’t think it was problematic to live in a house full of snakes. But she wouldn’t. That was enough for one night. Instead she just petted my head. Then after a few minutes, the captain turned the giant fan motor on and she sat next to me this time as we sped off, the wind soft and cool and our hair in our faces, zooming through the jungly parts back to the dock without picking up any more snakes on the way.
Sonja Crafts’s work has recently appeared in the anthology Best New Writing 2014, on the Ploughshares blog, and in the Encyclopedia Destructica compendium Strange Attractors. While receiving her M.F.A. at Temple University, she was awarded the Francis Israel Prize for best manuscript and served as editor for TINGE Magazine. She teaches writing at Temple University and is working on a collection of linked short stories.