The lizardman, king of his domain, rode on air into the
swamp and gnashed his teeth against the night.
He had a feeling in his bones. A mighty feeling. He was old and
wise enough to know the power of such feelings. Tonight—yes,
tonight—he would find the beast he sought. Out there amid the
cypresses and on the mud flats, somewhere betwixt moonrise and
dawn, the Old Pope waited for him, in robes of gnarled green.
Tonight he would pay his respects to the Old Pope, that chawer of
bones and spitter of flesh, and then he would sail his lasso
around the Old Pope's throat and drive his gaffhook into the
white bellyflesh to pierce a heart as tough as a cannonball.
The Lizardman chewed on his unlit cigar, the wind streaming his
long white hair back from his leather-brown face, and powered the
airboat over a sea of weeds. The light of a single battery lamp,
mounted on the frame behind his seat, speared a direction for
him, but he could have found his way in the dark. He knew the
sounds of the swamp—the chirrs, croaks, and whispers—and he
knew the smells of the swamp, the stale wet odors of earth caught
between dry land and sea. The lizardman had navigated this place
in drought and monsoon; he knew it as a man knows the feel of a
well-worn shirt, but in all these many years the Old Pope had
found a secret pocket and would not come out to play.
"You'll come out," the lizardman growled. The wind ate
his words. "You'll come out tonight, won't you? Yessir.
you'll come out tonight and we'll dance us a little dance."
He had said those same words every night he'd left the shore and
ventured into the swamp. Saying those words was a habit now, a
ritual, but tonight . . . tonight he could feel the true power in
them. Tonight he felt them prick the hide of the Old Pope, like
darts thunking into treebark, and the Old Pope stirring in his
underwater cavern, opening one red eye and exhaling a single
bubble from the great, gruesome snout.
The lizardman changed his direction, a wrinkled hand nudging the
tiller. South by southwest, into the sweet and rancid heart of
the swamp, where honeysuckle covered the hulks of decaying boats
and toads as big as dinner platters sang like Johnny Cash. Some
of those boats had belonged to the lizardman's friends: other
lizardmen, who had sailed the sargasso seas of the swamp in
search of Old Pope, and found their eternity here. Their corpses
had not been recovered. The lizardman knew where they were. Their
guts and gristle had nourished Old Pope, had rushed through the
reptilian bulk in bloody tides to be expelled into the dark mud
thirty feet down. Their bones had moldered on the bottom, like
gray castles, and slowly moss had streamed from their ramparts
and consumed them in velvet slime. The lizardman knew. His
friends, the old braggers and bastards and butchers, had made
their living from the swamp, and the swamp now laid new
foundations on their frames.
"Gonna dance a little dance," the lizardman said.
Another correction of the tiller, the fan rotor roaring at his
back. "Gonna prance a little prance."
He had seen sixty-three summers; this sweltering August was his
sixty-fourth. He was a Southern man, burned dark by the Florida
sun, his skin freckled and blotched, his eyes dark brown, almost
black, revealing nothing. He lived alone, drank rotgut whiskey
straight from the moonshiner's still, played a wicked game of
five-card stud, had two ex-wives who couldn't stand the sight or
smell of him, and he made his money off gator skins. He'd done
his share of poaching, sure, but the gators were growing wild in
Florida now and it was open season. He'd read in the paper last
week that a gator had chomped three fingers off a golfer's hand
when he'd reached into the bushes for his ball on a Sarasota
course. That didn't surprise the lizardman. If it moved or used
to move, a gator would go after it. Mean sonsofbitches, they
were. Almost as mean as he was. Well, the lizardman figured, it
took mean and ugly to kill mean and ugly.
A slight nudge of the tiller sent the airboat heading straighter
south. He could smell honeysuckle and Indian weed, the sweet tang
of wild persimmons and the musky fragrance of cypress. And the
odor of death in the night air, too: rot and fungus, putrifying
gas from the muddy bottom, something long dead caught in a
quicksand pool. The wind took those aromas, and he arrowed on,
following the beam of light. Wasn't too far now; maybe a mile or
so, as the buzzard flew.
The lizardman did not fear the swamp. That didn't mean, of
course, that he came in asking to be gator bait. Far from it: in
his airboat he carried two gaffhooks, a billyclub with nails
driven into it and sticking out like porcupine quills, a
double-barreled shotgun, a bangstick, and his rope. Plus extra
food, water, and gasoline. The swamp was a tricky beast; it
lulled you, turned you into false channels and threw a mudbar up
under your keel when you thought you were in six feet of water.
Here, panic was death. The lizardman made a little extra money in
tourist season, guiding the greenhorns through. It always amazed
him how soft the tourists were, how white and overfed. He could
almost hear the swamp drool when he brought the tourists in, and
he made sure he stayed in the wide, safe channels, showed the
greenhorns a few snakes and deer and such, and then got them out
quick. They thought they'd seen a swamp; the lizardman just
smiled and took their money.
The Seminoles, now, they were the tall-talers. You get a Seminole
to visit the little hamlet where the lizardman lived, and his
stories would make curly hair go straight. Like how Old Pope was
a ghost gator, couldn't be killed by mortal man but only by God
himself. Like how Old Pope had ridden on a bolt of lightning into
the heart of the swamp, and any man who went looking for him was
going to end up as nuggets of gator dung.
The lizardman believe that one, almost. Too many of his friends
had come in here and not come out again. Oh yeah, the swamp had
teeth. Eat you up, bury you under. That was how it was.
He cut his speed. The light showed a green morass ahead:
huge lilypads, and emerald slime that sparkled with iridescence,
The air was heavy, humid, pungent with life. A mist hung over the
water, and in that mist glowed red rubies; the eyes of gators,
watching him approach. As his airboat neared, their heads
submerged with thick shuccccking sounds, then
came back up in the foamy wake. The lizardman went on
another hundred yards or so, then he cut off the rotor and the
airboat drifted, silent through the mist.
He lit his cigar, puffed smoke, reached for his rope, and began
to slip-knot a noose in it. The airboat was drifting over the
lilypads, making toads croak and leap for safety. Just beyond the
area of lilypads was a deeper channel that ran between glades of
rushes, and it was at the edge of this channel that the lizardman
threw his anchor over the side, a rubber boot full of concrete.
The airboat stopped drifting, in the midst of the rushes on the
rim of the deep channel.
The lizardman finished knotting the rope, tested it a few times
and found it secure. Then he went about the business of opening a
metal can, scooping out bloody chunks of horseflesh, and hooking
them onto a fist-sized prong on the end of a chain. The chain, in
turn, was fixed to the metal framework of the airboat's rotor and
had a little bell on it. He tossed the bait chain out, into the
rushes, then he sat on his perch with a gaffhook and the lasso
near at hand, switched off the light, and smoked his White Owl.
He gazed up at the stars. The moon was rising, a white crescent.
Off in the distance, toward Miami, heat lightning flared across
the sky. The lizardman could feel electricity in the night. It
made his scalp tingle and the hairs stand up on the backs of his
sinewy, tattooed arms. He weighed about a hundred and sixty
pounds, stood only five feet seven, but he was as strong as a
Dolphins linebacker, his shoulders hard with muscle. The
lizardman was nobody's kindly old grandpap. His gaze tracked a
shooting star, a red streak spitting sparks. The night throbbed.
He could feel it, like a pulse. To his right somewhere a
nightbird screeched nervously, and a gator made a noise like a
bass fiddle. Tonight the swamp seethed. Clouds of mosquitoes
swirled around the lizardman's face, but the grease and ashes
he'd rubbed onto his flesh kept them from biting. He felt the
same powerful sensation he'd experienced when he was getting
ready to cast off from shore: something was going to happen
tonight, something different. The swamp knew it, and so did the
lizardman. Maybe the Old Pope was on the prowl, mean and hungry.
Maybe. Laney Allen had seen Old Pope here, in this channel a year
ago. The big gators cruised it like submarines, placid in the
depths, angry on the surface. Laney Allen—God rest his
soul—said the biggest gator paled beside the Old Pope. Said the
Old Pope had eyes that shone like Cadillac headlamps in the dark,
and his ebony-green hide was so thick cypress roots grew out of
it. The Old Pope's wake could drown an airboat, Laney had said,
and from grinning snout to wedge-shaped tail the Old Pope looked
like an island moving through the channel.
Laney and T-Bird Stokes had come out here, in late April, armed
with shotguns, rifles, and a few sticks of dynamite, to root Old
Pope out of his secret pocket. In May, a Seminole had found what
was left of their airboat: the rotor and part of the splintered
The bell dinged. The lizardman felt the boat shudder as a gator
took the bait.
Teeth clenched around the cigar's butt, he picked up a
high-intensity flashlight from its holder beside his seat and
flicked it on. The gator was thrashing water now, turning itself
over and over on the end of the chain. The lizardman's light
found it, there in the rushes. It was a young gator, maybe four
feet long, not very heavy but it was madder than hell-cast
Lucifer and ready to fight. The lizardman got down off his perch,
put on a pair of cowhide gloves, and watched the gator battle
against the prongs jabbed in its jaws. Foamy water and dark mud
splattered him, as the beast's tail smacked back and forth. The
lizardman couldn't help it; though he and the gators were always
on opposite ends of the chain, he found a savage beauty in the
saw-toothed grin, the red-filmed eyes, the heaving, slime-draped
body. But money was more beautiful, and the hides kept him alive.
So be it. The lizardman waited until the gator lifted its head to
try to shake the prongs loose, then he let fly with the lasso.
His aim, born of much practice, was perfect. He snared the
gator's throat, drew the beast in closer, the muscles standing
out in his arms and the boat rocking underneath him. Then he
picked up the gaffhook and speared the white belly as the gator
began to turn over and over again in the frothy gray water. Blood
bloomed like a red flower, the heart pierced. But the gator still
fought with stubborn determination until the lizardman conked it
a few times on the skull with the nail-studded billyclub. The
gator, its brain impaled, expired with a last thrash that popped
water ten feet into the air, then its eyes rolled back into the
prehistoric head and the lizardman hauled the carcass over the
side. He gave the skull another hard knock with the billyclub,
knowing that gators sometimes played possum until they could get
hold of an arm or leg. This one, however, had given up the ghost.
The lizardman slipped the chain out of the prongs. which were
deeply imbedded and would have to be pulled out with pliers at a
later date. He had a cardboard box full of prongs, so he attached
another one to the chain, baited it with horseflesh, and threw it
over the side.
He freed his lasso from around the bleeding, swamp-smelling
carcass, turned off his flashlight, and climbed again onto his
This was what his life was all about.
An hour passed before the bait was taken again. This gator was
larger than the first, heavy but sluggish. It had one claw
missing, evidence of a fight. The lizardman hauled it in some,
rested, hauled it in the last distance with the lasso and the
gaffhook. Finally, the gator lay in the bottom of the airboat
with the first, its lungs making a noise like a steam engine
slowly losing power.
The lizardman, slime on his arms and his face glistening with
It was amazing to him that these creatures had never changed. The
world had turned around the sun a million times, a hundred times
a million, and the gators stayed the same. Down in the mud they
dwelled, in their secret swamp caverns, their bodies hard and
perfect for their purpose. They slept and fed, fed and bred,
slept and fed, and that was the circle of their existence. It was
weird, the lizardman thought, that jet airplanes flew over the
swamp and fast cars sped on the interstate only a few miles from
here while down in the mud dinosaurs stirred and crept. That's
what they were, for sure. Dinosaurs, the last of their breed.
The lizardman watched shooting stars, the dead cigar clamped in
his teeth. The hair prickled on his arms. There was a power in
the night. What was it? Something about to happen, something
different from all the other nights. The swamp knew it too, and
wondered in its language of birdcalls, gator grunts, frog croaks,
and whistles. What was it?
The Old Pope, the lizardman thought. The Old Pope, on the move.
The moon tracked across the sky. The lizardman brought in his
bait—found a water moccasin clinging to it—then he pulled up
anchor and guided the boat through the weeds with a gaffhook. The
water was about five feet deep, but nearer the channel the bottom
sloped to twelve or more. He found what he thought might be a
good place next to a clump of cypress, a fallen tree angled down
into the depths and speckled with yellow crabs. He let the anchor
down again, threw out the bait chain, got up on his perch, and
sat there, thinking and listening.
The swamp was speaking to him. What was it trying to say?
Ten minutes or so later, the bell dinged.
Water foamed and boiled. A big one! the lizardman thought.
"Dance a little dance!" he said, and turned on the
It was a big gator, true, but it wasn't Old Pope. This beast was
seven feet long, weighed maybe four hundred pounds. It was going
to be a ballbreaker to get in the boat. Its eyes flared like
comets in the light, its jaws snapping as it tried to spit out
the prongs. The lizardman waited for the right moment, then flung
his rope. It noosed the gator's muzzle, sealing the jaws shut.
The lizardman pulled, but the gator was a powerful bastard and
didn't want to come. Careful, careful, he thought. If he lost his
footing and went overboard. God help him. He got the gaffhook
ready, the muscles straining in his shoulders and back, though he
already knew he'd have to use the shotgun on this one.
He started to pick up the shotgun when he felt the airboat rise
on a pressure wave.
He lost his balance, came perilously close to slipping over, but
the rubber grips of his boots gripped to the wet deck. He was
surprised more than anything else, at the suddenness of it. And
then he saw the gator on the end of the chain thrash up and
almost leap out of the foaming water. If a gator's eyes could
register terror, then that was what the lizardman saw.
The gator shivered. There was a ripping noise, like an axed tree
falling. Bloody water splashed up around the reptile's body. Not
only bloody water, the lizardman saw in another second, but also
ropy coils of dark green intestines, billowing out of the gator's
belly. The beast was jerked downward with a force that made the
rope and the chain crack taut, the bell dinging madly. The
lizardman had dropped his light. He fumbled for it, amid the
gator carcasses, the rope scorching his cowhide glove. The
airboat lifted up again, crashed down with a mighty splash, and
the lizardman went to his knees. He heard terrible, crunching
noises: the sounds of bones being broken.
And just that fast, it was all over.
He stood up, shaking. The airboat rocked, rocked, rocked, a
cradle on the deep. He found the light and turned it on the beast
at the chain's end.
The lizardman gave a soft gasp, his mouth dry as Sahara dust.
The gator had been diminished. More than half of it had been torn
away, guts and gore floating in the water around the ragged
Bitten in two, the lizardman thought. A surge of pure horror
coursed through him. Bitten by something from underneath . . .
"Good God A'mighty," he whispered, and he let go of the
The severed gator floated on the end of the chain, its insides
still streaming out in sluggish tides. On the fallen tree trunk,
the crabs were scrambling over each other, smelling a feast.
The lizardman realized that he was a long way from home.
Something was coming. He heard it pushing the reeds aside on the
edge of the deep channel. Heard the swirl of water around its
body, and the suction of mud on its claws. Old Pope. Old Pope,
risen from the heart of the swamp. Old Pope, mean and hungry.
Coming back for the rest of the gator, caught on the chain's end.
The lizardman had often heard of people bleating with fear. He'd
never known what that would've sounded like, until that moment.
It was, indeed, a bleat, like a stunned sheep about to get its
head smashed with a mallet.
He turned toward the airboat's engine, hit the starter switch,
and reached for the throttle beside his seat. As soon as he gave
the engine some gas, the rotor crashed against the frame, bent by
the force of Old Pope on the chain, and it threw a pinwheel of
sparks and crumpled like wet cardboard. The airboat spun around
in a tight circle before the engine blew, the flashlight flying
out of the lizardman's grip as he fell onto the rough hides of
the dead gators. He looked up, slime dripping from his chin, as
something large and dark rose up against the night.
Swamp water streamed from Old Pope's armored sides. The lizardman
could see that Laney had been right: roots, rushes, and weeds
grew from the ebony-green plates, and not only that but snakes
slithered through the cracks and crabs scuttled over the leathery
edges. The lizardman recoiled, but he could only go to the boat's
other side and that wasn't nearly far enough. He was on his
knees, like a penitent praying for mercy at Old Pope's altar. He
saw something—a scaled claw, a tendril, something—slither
down and grasp the snared gator's head. Old Pope began to pull
the mangled carcass up out of the water, and as the
chain snapped tight again the entire airboat started to overturn.
In another few seconds the lizardman would be up to his neck in
deep shit. He knew that, and knew he was a dead man one way or
the other. He reached out, found the shotgun, and gave Old Pope
the blast of a barrel.
In the flare of orange light he saw gleaming teeth, yellow eyes
set under a massive brow where a hundred crabs clung like
barnacles to an ancient wharf. Old Pope gave a deep grunt like
the lowest note of a church organ, and that was when the lizardman
Old Pope was not an alligator.
The severed gator slid into Old Pope's maw, and the teeth
crunched down. The airboat overturned as the lizardman fired his
second barrel, then he was in the churning water with the monster
less than fifteen feet away.
His boots sank into mud. The flashlight, waterproof, bobbed in
the turbulence. Snakes writhed around Old Pope's jaws as the
beast ate, and the lizardman floundered for the submerged
Something oozing and rubbery wound around his chest. He screamed,
being lifted out of the water. An object was beside him; he
grabbed it, held tight, and knew Old Pope had decided on a second
meal. He smelled the thing's breath—blood and swamp—as he was
being carried toward the gaping mouth, and he heard the hissing
of snakes that clung to the thing's gnarled maw. The lizardman
saw the shine of an eye, catching the crescent moon. He jabbed at
it with the object in his grip, and the bangstick exploded.
The eye burst into gelatinous muck, its inside showering the
lizardman. At the same time, Old Pope roared with a noise like
the clap of doom, and whatever held the lizardman went slack. He
fell, head over heels, into the water. Came up again, choking and
spitting, and half-ran, half-swam for his life through the
Old Pope was coming after him. He didn't need an eye in the back
of his head to tell him that. Whatever the thing was, it wanted
his meat and bones. He heard the sound of it coming, the awful
suction of water and mud as it advanced. The lizardman felt panic
and insanity, two Siamese twins, whirl through his mind. Dance a
little dance! Prance a little prance! He stepped in a hole, went
in over his head, fought to the surface again and threw himself
forward. Old Pope—swamp-god, king of the gators—was almost
upon him, like a moving cliff, and snakes and crabs rained down
around the lizardman.
He scrambled up, out of the reeds onto a mudflat. Hot breath
washed over him, and then that rubbery thing whipped around his
waist like a frog's tongue. It squeezed the breath out of him,
lifted him off his feet, and began to reel him toward the
glistening, saw-edged jaws.
The lizardman had not gotten to be sixty-four years old by
playing dead. He fought against the oozing, sticky thing that had
him. He beat at it with his fists, kicked and hollered and
thrashed. He raged against it, and Old Pope held him tight and
watched him with its single eye like a man might watch an insect
struggling on flypaper.
It had him. It knew it had him. The lizardman wasn't far gone
enough in the head not to know that. But still he beat at the
beast, still he hollered and raged, and still Old Pope inspected
him, its massive gnarly head tilted slightly to one side and
water running through the cracks on the skull-deep ugly of its
Lightning flashed. There was no thunder. The lizardman heard a
high whine. His skin prickled and writhed with electricity, and
his wet hair danced.
Old Pope grunted again. Another surge of lightning, closer this
The abomination dropped him, and the lizardman plopped down onto
the mudflat like an unwanted scrap.
Old Pope lifted its head, contemplating the stars.
The crescent moon was falling to earth, in a slow spiral. The
lizardman watched it, his heart pounding and his arms and legs
encased in mire. The crescent moon shot streaks of blue
lightning, like fingers probing the swamp's folds. Slowly,
slowly, it neared Old Pope, and the monster lifted claw-fingered
arms and called in a voice that wailed over the wilderness like a
It was the voice, the lizardman thought, of something lost and
far from home.
The crescent moon—no, not a moon, but a huge shape that
sparkled metallic—was now almost overhead. It hovered, with a
high whine, above the creature that had been known as Old Pope,
and the lizardman watched lightning dance around the beast like
Dance a little dance, he thought. Prance a little prance.
Old Pope rumbled. The craggy body shivered, like a child about to
go to a birthday party. And then Old Pope's head turned, and the
single eye fixed on the lizardman.
Electricity flowed through the lizardman's hair, through his
bones and sinews. He was plugged into a socket of unknown design,
his fillings sparking pain in his mouth. He took a breath as the
Old Pope stepped toward him, one grotesque, ancient leg sinking
into the earth.
Something—a tendril, a third arm, whatever—came out of Old
Pope's chest. It scooped up mud and painted the lizardman's face
with it, like a tribal marking. The touch was sticky and rough,
and it left the smell of the swamp and reptilian things in the
Then Old Pope lifted its face toward the metallic crescent, and
raised its arms. Lightning flared and crackled across the
mudflats. Birds screeched in their trees, and the voices of
The lizardman blinked, his eyes narrowed against the glare.
And when the glare had faded, two seconds later, the lightning
had taken Old Pope with it.
The machine began to rise, slowly, slowly. Then it ascended in a
blur of speed and was gone as well, leaving only one crescent
moon over the cacophonous swamp.
The Seminoles had been right, the lizardman thought. Right as
rain. Old Pope had come to the swamp on a bolt of lightning, and
was riding one home again too.
Whatever that might be.
He rested awhile, there in the mud of his domain.
Sometime before dawn he roused himself, and he found a piece of
his airboat floating off the mudflat. He found one of his
gaffhooks too, and he lay on the splintered remnant of his boat
and began pushing himself through the downtrodden rushes toward
the far shore. The swamp sang around him, as the lizardman
crawled home on his belly.