Animals on this Island
THE ANIMAL TRACKS run parallel to the shore, up about a hundred feet, in between the dune-grasses of soft Carolina sand. I glance back. My own footprints leave vague blobs in the hot powder. No one would be able to distinguish my footprints as human, size 8 ½, female. These animal tracks, too, are indistinguishable. The animal (like me) must have zig-zagged aimlessly. I keep following his tracks. They wander down from the dune, closer to the water – away from the fine powder and toward the wetter, coarser grains. Here, there are clearer marks.
A firm, webby foot, with four or five toes (I can’t tell) clawed its way through the sand. The back legs, though clearly clumsier and bigger, attempted to fit into the imprints of the front. This animal trudged, and between his steps, he dragged his toes along the sand.
Most striking, between the back two feet, a thick wavy line dug an indent in the sand. I bend closer. At first glance, I think a snake must have slithered perfectly in the wake of this clawed beast. But no, that would be silly. The animal must have had a tail – a scaly tail that lagged heavily through the sand as he meandered towards the salty water.
Somewhere past the line of driftwood and sea debris, the tracks disappear. Waves break and withdraw, but the ocean does not reveal her secrets. As the water laps farther and farther up the shore, it erases the tracks, as though the animal had never been there.
NEXT TO THE POND – at the road by the golf course – a sign warns “CAUTION.” Beneath the word, a black silhouette of an alligator stretches his threatening jaws. The sign continues, “Alligators are common in this area. They can be dangerous and should not be approached, frightened, or fed. Please give them the respect they deserve.”
My family had not seen an alligator in years, though.
We visit the island for one week every summer, a quiet nook of the world off the coast of North Carolina, right in the mouth of the Cape Fear River. The island does not allow cars, so visitors park on the mainland and take a ferry over. Then we use golf carts, or bikes, or good old feet to get around.
Past the beaches, a swampy maritime forest dominates most of the island. The paved roads cut niche paths, and the forest accommodates them. Its mossy branches entangle overhead to form a tunnel so that – when the sun hits just right – the road glows green and gold, and from the shadowy safety of the underbrush, cicadas screech incessantly. The occasional hum from a golf cart fits right in. When I bike with my family, I lose myself in the buzzing.
I remember the first time we saw an alligator, we were biking out of the cicada tunnel. We rode toward the shore, past some smaller beach shrubs, and there!
Up close, the alligator made the silhouette on the sign look silly. Tough scales, lean muscles, and slit eyes—he ignored the crowd around him as they drawled with Carolina accents:
“Where’s he at?”
“Oh, I see the alligator!”
He was easy to miss. His green scales matched the pond algae seamlessly while he steered through the water—a beast of emotionless lethargy. A moment after he sunk under, it was as though he had never been there.
HUMAN VISITORS walk around the island wearing pastel-colored t-shirts that say in big letters, “I’m on turtle time!” Time runs differently here, much more slowly, and much less concerned about specifics. My family can never remember what year something specific happened, like the year we saw our first alligator.
The years blur together. It’s the pace of life with no cars, the buzz of cicadas always in the background, the lazy white Carolina clouds. It’s the curious pursuit of tracks in the sand. Each of us wants to say, “Oh, I see the alligator!” before we leave the island.
We look for alligators every year, but usually with no luck. We see a lot of turtles. Mama sea turtles come to the haven shores and lay their eggs every May. By the time August rolls around, patches of the sand start to boil under the full moon. Baby sea turtles erupt clumsily and flop toward the ocean.
The moon pushes and pulls the ocean in quiet cycles of time. During the summer, two groups of visitors – humans and sea turtles – ebb into the island. As summer ends, the water gets slightly colder, and these two animals flow back to their separate lives. The turtles return to the ocean, while the humans retreat farther up the coast. When my family leaves the island, it’s as though we had never been there.
NIGHT FALLS. The alligator climbs out of the ocean and treks across the beach. He walks on infinite sands under infinite stars. He trudges through the dune-grasses, past the invisible cicadas screeching in the forest, and toward the algae-covered pond. He surveys the island. He will always be here.