Traces of mist lingered over the smooth, glassine surface of the Kississimee river as seventy-nine year old Edna Buchanan prodded her four-pronged aluminum walker over the Ferndale Retirement Home’s manicured lawn. Glacially, she inched forward, shuffling through the dew-laden grass, her wizened head bent in determination, her spine aching with each agonizing step. And twenty minutes later, she reached her goal: the short wooden pier jutting into the water. She hobbled onto it, gazing into the tranquil, black-green depths.
Would she see them today, her flippered, two-ton friends?
Each day, Edna’s morning ritual was the same. She rose at seven A.M., slid her dentures in and plodded into the communal kitchen for a breakfast of oatmeal, whole wheat toast and Metamucil-laden orange juice. Then, after an obligatory trip to the bathroom, she’d pluck a head of lettuce from the refrigerator and make the fifty yard journey to the river, where her arthritic fingers would shred the roughage and sprinkle it atop the surface, in hopes of attracting one of the kindly, herbivorous manatees that frequented its warm waters.
Like most Floridians, Edna adored the shy, reclusive sea-cows. There was something magical, something breathtaking about these massive, endangered creatures who blundered among the lily pads and lolled beneath the piers; at the very sight of them her spirit soared. Longingly, she would gaze into their sad, pleading eyes, and somehow, through an almost mystical connection, she communed with them. In many ways the manatees were her surrogate family–her real family, unable to cope with her advanced case of osteoporosis, had marooned her at Ferndale several years ago–and to the emotionally-deprived septuagenarian, no day was brighter or more enjoyable than one which began with a manatee sighting at her little pier in the woods.
But today, a far more disturbing scenario would unfold. Because on this very morning, under the glaring Florida sun, Edna Buchanan would suffer one of the most viscous marine mammal attacks ever recorded. Yes, she would see her beloved manatees; she would see several of them, but they’d be nothing like the benevolent creatures she adored. These manatees would be different. Very different.
Perhaps some feral evolutionary instinct made them abandon their happy-go-lucky personas in a last-ditch effort to retaliate against the homo sapiens destroying their habitat. Or perhaps they were simply bored, fed up with eating water hyacinth and searching for kicks. Whatever the case, the three bull manatees speeding down-river to the pier where Edna tottered were cruel, insensate brutes, hostile ambassadors from a new breed of predatory West Indian sea cow bent on one thing: exacting vigilante-like justice on every human being they encountered.
Edna had no way of knowing this. She remained on the pier, hunched at its very end now, training her bifocals on a dragonfly buzzing the lily pads. She watched the insect dart from flower to flower, her shaky, liver-spotted hands peeling the lettuce head and flipping its curled leaves, one by one, into the water.
Each piece that landed sent ripples across the surface, ripples that grew in ever-widening circles and sounded the feeding call to every creature in the river, including the three manatees, who were cruising fifty yards off-shore, thrashing their flukes in spasmodic rhythm, powering through clouds of drifting green algae. In a cruel twist of Fate, they would have sped right past her, perhaps for a grisly rendezvous with some other, more deserving victim–a beer-swilling speedboat nut, for instance–but on this day, due to her munificent efforts to feed them, they’d find her.
The lead manatee, sensing a disturbance, whipped around to investigate. His two cohorts followed, and the three of them, in a perfect trident-formation, glided eerily shoreward, as silent as phantoms. Stealthily they crept, walking on their front flippers, lurking on the mucky bottom, biding their time, waiting for the perfect moment to ascend and case out the shoreline.
Edna tossed in the last bits of lettuce. For a long moment she stared, following the leafy little boats as they sailed over the surface, driven by the wind. She wondered if they would lure a manatee to her, and the longer she stood waiting, with the wind fluffing her white, dead-dandelion hair, the more apprehensive she became. Had they moved on, to more hospitable waters?
It had been over a week now, eleven tortuous days to be exact, since she’d seen one, and a tear came to her eye as she scanned the river’s indifferent surface. She hoped, she prayed, trying to will a manatee out of the gloomy, weed-choked depths–but there was nothing. Only the buzz of the dragonflies, and overhead, the plaintive cry of an inland gull.
And then–right when she was about to give up and head back to the home, something caught her eye: a flash of whitish gray, a long otherworldly massiveness hovering before her. Her pulse quickened, her ancient eyes came alive. They were here! Finally!
“There you are,” she whispered, as not one but three cigar-shaped behemoths drifted up to the pier. “Oh, and there are three of you! My goodness!”
She stood in awe, marveling at them. They were huge, ungainly, impossible. Three torpedo-like slabs of thick, barnacle-mottled flesh, tons of it, each with that chubby, adorable face and wonderfully hairy mouth that resembled a vacuum cleaner attachment. She was mesmerized.
“Go ahead,” she crowed, lifting the walker, pointing at the lettuce, “eat your breakfast, now.”
The three manatees made no move. Oddly, they floated, a foot beneath the surface.
“What’s the matter?” she said, as six beady, black eyes narrowed to a fixed stare. “Not hungry?”
Maybe they were tired, she thought. Or injured. They did seem a bit dazed, like they were sick or something. She inspected the long fuselages of their bodies, squinting, bending closer for a good long look, before gasping in unrepentant horror at what she found–each of their three backs was crisscrossed by a network of ugly, gouged-out scars, grotesque carvings where their flesh had been slashed and shredded apart.
She trembled, recoiled in shock–the poor, innocent creatures were hurt, their hides heartlessly disfigured by the churning propellers of passing motorboats. And here they were, too weak and stupefied to feed. It was tragic.
“Oh my. . . g-God,” she cried, her eyes welling with tears, her frail body shivering with emotion.
The three manatees ignored her sniffles. They remained in place, glaring at her through the prism of water, their rage intensifying with each passing second. Usually, confronting one of these large, land-dwelling bipeds had little or no effect; they’d simply stare, dumbfounded, but at the sight of this one they felt a curious awakening, a cognizance firing in the waterlogged synapses of their brains. And slowly, the myriad atrocities visited upon them by Edna Buchanan’s fellow humans flashed through their collective consciousness: the cigarette butts and plastic six-pack rings and raw, untreated sewage, the insane propellers, the annoying stuffed animal replicas they sold to tourists while the manatee population dwindled even further. . . they sensed everything, until every last cell seethed with hatred.
Abruptly, the three broke from their positions, gliding into open water twenty yards from the pier where they raised their gaping nostrils, sucked in a last sputtery breath and slid under the surface. And then, with a wriggling, joyful thrash, they tore off, rocketing through the water amid a chaos of bubbles and froth, heading directly for the pier.
All Edna could do was stand, gripping her walker with a bony, knotted fist, as the three manatees torpedoed towards her. At first she thought it was some kind of game they were playing, and a thin smile crept into her face at the thought of them frolicking. But when the two manatees flanking the leader broke formation, glancing into their own attack trajectories, she sensed that something had gone terribly, terribly wrong. They were swimming fast, she thought. Too fast.
A little voice told her to flee, and as quick as she could manage she spun around, stutter-stepping over the wooden planks, aiming her walker at the green lawn at the end of the pier. She wheezed and coughed, her shrunken, calcified spine crackling with each shuffling, excruciating step, her brittle old joints and bunioned feet straining faster and faster. . . I’m almost there, whirled the thought, I can make it. . .
But it was no use. Because right when Edna Buchanan reached the mid-point of the pier, there was a crash, a sickening caterwauling thud, and the entire left side of it caved in, buckling under the cataclysmic force of the three rampaging manatees as they head-butted its pilings. Wood smashed apart, timbers snapped, and with a terrible groaning creak the entire structure slewed sideways, slanting down, pitching Edna and her four-pronged aluminum walker–complete with rubber hand grips–head over heels, into the water.
It was over in seconds. Edna barely had time to scream before the manatees converged, each one seizing one of her toothpick limbs and hauling it into an insatiable maw of whiskers and tongue. Gumming her withered flesh, and swimming as brazenly as a gang of chum-crazed sharks, they dragged her floundering, ninety-one pound form to the slimy bottom, where they battered her senseless with their sizable flippers. Bubbles trailed away as the old gal clawed for the surface, but the three beasts sealed her off, their massive girths looming over her in a wall of immovable blubber. Edna struggled, she kicked and flailed, but the assault kept on, and after one last fusillade of pulverizing flipper-hits, she moved no more.
The three manatees floated to the surface, where they swam lazily around, surveying the scene. Bits of wood and splinters bobbed on the waves and the lily pads, broken apart by the chaos, drifted aimlessly back and forth. A chirping squeak sounded as the lead manatee called out to his peers, and after one last circuit of the ruined pier, they sped downriver, their scarred bodies brimming with a newfound confidence.
Finally, they’d fought back. After centuries of slaughter, they’d learned how to survive, how to compete in the hostile world of man.
But as each of them knew, the mauling of seventy-three year old Edna Buchanan–however wrong or unprovoked it may have been–was only the beginning, the first in what would be a long, arduous reign of terror.
Yes, there would be more victims, hundreds, thousands, and to the media or whoever was interested in such a thing, each gummed-up body bobbing to the surface would bear the same telling marks–the bruises and lip-prints and whiskery trails that meant one thing: another hapless human had experienced the revenge of the manatees.
-from Empty Pinata & Other Tales of Woe