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    Queenie's Rulz

    Queenie’s Rulz


     © W.W. Staebler 2010

    Three months ago, after considerable vacillation, I made what was, for me, a difficult decision: to move from Charleston (civilization as I know it) to a remote cottage on a barrier island lagoon (that's Carolina speak for bayou.) 

    In a world off the beaten path, my new neighbors quickly introduced themselves. At sunrise: early morning walkabouts by indigenous small deer, mainly shy does and fawns. Throughout the day: the take-offs, landings and preenings of beautiful wading birds -- Ibis, Snowy Whites, White Morphs, Wood Storks, Great Blues and Coromant. In the indolent heat of the afternoon: yes, a few large, if harmless snakes have dropped by (literally) -- disconcerting, really, only when they show off, flirtatiously, by dangling from trees. All this activity underscored by the palpable vibrations of dragonflies and hummingbirds; the chirping, hopping and dust bathing of wrens, finches and titmice; the constant scurry of industrious creatures of enchantment – squirrels, tree frogs and geckos -- everywhere. None of the above representing any threat to pets or vice versa ….Well, ok, not quite true; there is the threat the cats represent to said small birds, tree frogs and geckos. But …. it’s a food chain, isn’t it?

    But it is that -- the implacable food chain -- wherein lies the rub.

    It's all good during the day. But there is the more worrisome matter of predatory wildlife at night -- at twilight, the cats simply must come inside. Thereby avoiding any possibility of lethal assault by a great horned owl or the occasional though increasingly rare bobcat. Not to mention avoiding the tangles that might ensue from taking part in the late night carousing of foxes and raccoons – creatures I truly love, having lived in harmony with families of them (and of weasels) in the past, but creatures, vis a vis the pets, whose idea of play -- given sharp teeth, serious claws and lack of vet clearances -- might, then, be problematic.

    And so, in fact, the only truly worrisome encounters for the cats in this natural paradise are with …. alligators. Which, depending on age, gender and season, do represent what might be called, as an understatement, a serious health hazard. For it is impossible to forget that day -- in another small cottage beside another lagoon -- when my son came home from his summer job on a grounds maintenance crew, looking a bit wild-eyed. Explaining that early that morning, he had seen an alligator take down …. an adult deer. “It was awesome,” he said, obviously torn between revulsion and atavistic fascination. I must have looked stricken. Because he quickly added:  “Of course I don’t mean awesome in a good way, Ma.”

    So here I was, years later, lured by the combination of a lower cost of living and the bonus of back-to-nature joy …. thereby putting the burden of risk on Tess, Hermione and Harry. Cats who had not lived by that long ago lagoon; who, rather, had spent their entire lives in more sedate environs, free to be indoors or out, as they preferred, wherever. Cats who were definitely not well pleased, after the move, by a stay-in-while-I-look-see period of confinement. Particularly when, through the windows and doors, they could see, by day, the aforementioned huge birds and endless geckos and squirrels obviously demanding their attention. As they could feel, at night, the love/hate allure of the fox who wandered into view in the company of a raccoon, as if they were friends, with whom the cats might be friends or friendly foes. And the bobcat, who seemed to them to be amiable enough as, through the glass door, they had established eye contact and the bobcat, after offering a half-hearted growl -- as if for the sake of species one-upsmanship -- had ambled away. 

    The cats, then, had assessed their own risk and found it negligible. And so they were incensed; were they not mature, seasoned, multi-national cats who had lived in the city, in the suburbs, in the country and at the beach? Who, then, was I to challenge their judgment? I was just a humanoid who was -- dare they say it – a scaredty cat. And so they prowled the cottage, scratched at doors, batted my face as I attempted to sleep and otherwise made it known that the current terms of confinement WERE NOT ACCEPTABLE.

    Who was in charge here? Of course you know the answer: like Prince Charles, my motto is “Ich Dein”  except that, in my case, I mean it.  Thus, because I had seen neither scaly hide nor twitching tail, nor yellow eyes protruding from the water in over a week’s time, I decided that alligators might abound in the area, but apparently not round my place.

    So I let the cats out. Who were overjoyed. Climbing trees, hunting geckos to their hearts’ content, stalking the Ibis and Great Blues who looked at them with complete disdain, flapping away only if the cats got too close. Finally encountering a very small, in training alligator who was confused, not only by the number of them but also by their surprising response; instantly they aligned, in central and flanking positions, intent on tag teaming their prey.

    Because it was a young alligator? Who was also distracted by a squirrel? No harm, no foul. But my weather eye was now open, an ear cocked, because so far this had been too good to be true and I knew it.

    And so it was that one night -- at 4am -- I woke to ….what? Something that sounded remarkably like a lion’s roar. Or maybe more than one lion’s roar?  …. Never mind. All three cats were inside. Tess, as Alpha Cat, as usual, at the foot of the bed; Harry, as usual -- for inexplicable reasons of his own – stretched out on his back, legs akimbo, in the bathtub; but Hermione, not on her favorite wicker chair but, in this instance, prowling, door to door, agitated.

    Had I imagined those roars? I listened intently. At 4am it’s impossible to hear such gutteral sounds and imagine that they are the thrummings of, say, logging equipment -- chainsaws for example. No. These sounds were definitely animal, not vegetable or mineral. And they were not echoing from afar; they were right outside, on or near the lagoon or maybe coming from the adjacent bamboo thicket.

    Without turning on any lights, I peered outside. Between me and the lagoon were two alligators, one of which was approximately seven feet long, and the other at least nine.  Their serious size indicating that they were mature males. But were they roaring at each other? Or roaring together at something else? I was not about to go outside to find out; this was a problem I was not equipped to handle. I went back to bed, not to sleep but to read until dawn.

    In the early morning they were still at it. So -- at 8am I called the wildlife line at the county office and firmly requested a visit from “alligator patrol.”

    That afternoon – long after the two bickering alligators had splashed back into the lagoon and disappeared -- a two-man team of humans showed up. And they were in fine spirits – no bickering there -- both laughing.This response, I felt, was rather untoward, under the circumstances. Not only to my own pride, but also to the pride of my cats, or my pride of cats, imprisoned inside. These men obviously knew something I didn’t, so it was time for them to let me in on the joke which was not immediately apparent to me. For starters, did I look, to them, like the sort of woman who would have in my possession and on my person a dart gun, a rifle, a cosh and a lariat, as each of them so obviously did?

    One of the officers stopped chuckling long enough to extend his hand to shake mine; the other tipped his hat. The one who shook my hand introduced himself as “Officer Todd “ while, at his nod, his partner, “Officer Tim,” moseyed off into the bamboo thicket and back again.

    Officer Todd looked at Officer Tim enquiringly. Officer Tim nodded, and then they both laughed again. The more relaxed they seemed, the more indignant I became. Finally the first officer spoke:

    “So sorry, Ma’am; it’s just that as soon as we got the call to this address we knew what the problem would be…”

    “The problem,” I said (I hoped with some dignity) “is that suddenly there are at least two big alligators coming round, and this is alarming. At least to me. ”

    Both officers nodded, not laughing now, but still indicating by various facial twitches that there was a degree of underlying hilarity in the circumstance, which eluded me. At last Officer Todd leaned toward me, elbows out, thumbs hooked in his belt, and said: “Here’s the thing, Ma’am, and there’s no getting around it -- this lagoon belongs to a thirty year old female alligator named ‘Queenie.’ And Queenie has rules.” He turned to his partner. “Doesn’t she, Tim?”

    Tim nodded his agreement and then held up his right hand for me to see … on which one of his five fingers was missing at the knuckle.

    Jovial Officer Todd then explained: “See" ..... he allowed himself another chuckle ....." every time somebody new moves into your cottage, sooner or later we get the call to come “do something.” When Queenie was younger and smaller, we’d grab her and move her to another lagoon, not so close to where people live. But Queenie likes THIS lagoon. And so, sooner or later, she’d find her way back.

    “Then, a few years ago, Queenie made what you might  call a mistake; she took down someone’s Lab, from that cottage just over there.” He pointed and then said: “Thing is, that dog was not just someone’s pet, he was a field trial champion. And his owner was beside himself, bawling like a baby but mad as hell. He wanted us to find Queenie and shoot her; and, when we informed him we were not permitted to do that unless a human being was in immediate danger, he said he was going to shoot her himself. Which we were afraid he might actually do when, a few days later, he called to say he could see what looked to him like it might be – and, of course, it was …. the bloated body of his dog, across the lagoon, wedged into the root system underneath the bamboo thicket. Yep, that thicket right there at the edge of your clearing .…

    Officer Tim interjected, helpfully: “You see, Ma’am, as you may or may not know, alligators drown their prey, and then they age them, for a few days, because they like their meat sun–ripened, sort of rotten by our standards, but warm.”

    “Really?” I answered, feeling decidedly green.

    Officer Todd took over the narrative again: "Tim and I talked about it, and we knew that a man like your neighbor wasn't going to be able to handle watching Queenie ripen and then eat his dog, so --  to avoid a shooting, and then a required arrest, which was sure to escalate the problem -- we decided to try to move her one more time.

    "But Queenie wasn't having it. Even after we darted her, got her looped and were just starting to drag her to the truck, she started thrashing and snapping again, which took us by surprise and Tim didn't move quite fast enough, and lost his finger...."

    Officer Tim stepped forward, eager to tell his part of the story: "Now, at that point, I was within my rights to shoot her. Or to ask Todd to shoot her, 'cause I was bleeding like a stuck pig, if you'll pardon the expression. But, to be honest, I was more interested in seeing if I could get my finger sewn back on, 'cause it was just lying there on the ground and if I could get to the hospital with it, there was a chance they could save it. But Queenie was roaring over it , protecting it .... So Todd darted her again, which gave her a double dose and she was out for the count. I grabbed my finger, Todd tied me a tourniquet and we just left her there, and hightailed it to the hospital. Unfortunately, there was too much damage to the finger, and it wouldn't take ....." 

    "I'm so sorry," I murmurred. "I'm surprised you still do this work..."

    "Aw, heck, I love my job, Ma'am. And I sure can't blame Queenie. From her point of view, she was just doing what comes natural, and we were attacking her."

    Officer Todd looked at his watch and decided it was time to wind up the conversation by offering me what he referred to as the "Newcomer's Need to Know" list; he said: 

     "OK. Now, sorry, Ma’am, but here's the deal:

     1) We're not going to try to move Queenie, ever again.

     2) You need to give that thicket a wide berth because that's Queenie’s nest, right there, between you and the cottage next door. Makes sense, that nest does –  your cottage has been empty for long stretches of time and your next door neighbors are only here for a few weeks during the winter, and that's when Queenie’s hibernating, so from her point of view, this is an A-one nesting site -- it’s real quiet; she picked her a good spot, I’ll give her that.”

     “She's a smart one,” Officer Tim agreed, adding: 

     3) "You should also know that one of Queenie’s rules is that, when she takes down something big – a deer, or a bobcat, or even a big heron – she won't share. Which drives the other alligators crazy – especially the males; it wounds their pride that she is sometimes a better hunter than they are.  So they complain; usually in a group but at least in a pair --- that’s definitely what happened here last night as, uhmm, there's a new carcass in the root web …. I wouldn't advise you to look at it, Ma'am, as it's not too appetizing. Anyway, the males complain while Queenie tells ‘em in no uncertain terms to get their own goddamn dinner -- and then they have to bray for the sake of it before they slink off….."

     “So" Officer Todd concluded:  "Do you understand the big picture, Ma’am? Queenie's definitely in charge. Which means that everything’s in balance, from her point of view, and out of balance, from the point of view of you and your few neighbors, sort of simultaneously. But what is, is, if you know what I mean?”

     I thought about it. Digested it, so to speak.

    And then I said: “Yes, I get it. You’re not going to move her again. It’s her turf and she’s earned it, over time. She’s here for the long haul, and we –  the  people who come and go, and our pets,  and the less industrious alligators –  need to see that what is, is …..”

    Officer Todd beamed his approval, feeling that he’d done a good day’s work in education. Officer Tim smiled, waving his missing digit hand as some sort of blessing or benediction. 

    Perhaps hearing familiar voices, Queenie rose from the lagoon until her eyes, like the sights of a periscope on a submarine, focused on us, intently, for a moment. And then she submerged, and her powerful wake ripples fanned out across the lagoon until they gradually stilled. Soon the turtles and the Mullet created new ripples. The dragonflies buzzed.

    And the cats howled, behind locked doors.



    Yikes... Queenie owns the place, great story!!!!


    This is great. hhahahaha

    You know we have bears up here but they are deep in the woods and I have never seen one.

    I have coyotes and wolves from afar.

    Deer are all over the place. Their carcusses are dragged in during hunting season like it is no big deal and of course our cars run into them all the time.

    But I swear, if I thought gators were hiding in our ponds, it would be a mighty fearful thing.

    I mean I would be howling behind thick walls with the cats. hahahaah

    Now in my part of the country,  you can wake up to one setting up housekeeping in your swimming pool.    


    Off-topic: this past week going through family things, long packed in tissue paper, I found two 19th century quilt starts that require only stuffing and hand tacking. They are really beautiful, the squares rendered in silks and velvets. If I were to send them to you, or to Flower, would you or your quilting friends finish them, document them for genre, and send them off to the appropriate sewn goods museum or collection? I would pay you for their completion and assignment/shipping. What do you think?

    A delicate project such as that is now beyond my abilities, with the bad eyesight and all, not to mention I wouldn't have the the foggiest idea where or who might take them into their collection. 

    Momoe is the quilt historian.  She most likely has better insights than I, Wendy ....not to mention is in an active quilting group.  My stitch n bitch group disbanded a few years ago and for all I know, those women are hanging out at the karaoke bar now, singing for shots. Innocent

    Glad you enjoyed the story, MaC, Mr. Smith and DD. I'm a neophyte at fact-based fiction, however, so any critique in terms of what might drag on, or what might ring false would be greatly appreciated. 

    Alligators.  Yikes.

    This is why I live up here in the frozen North:  For four months in Winter, all the dangerous critters fall asleep, freeze solid, or migrate to warm weather areas so one can wander around aimlessly on their frozen lagoon without fear of having a finger bitten off at the knuckle....except by frost.



    Digits apparently in danger everywhere, Flower. What is, is eh?

    Great story.  You have to give it to that Queenie.  Certain persons in the WH could learn from her unwavering determination.  Hell, I could learn from it!  The rotting meat--not so appetizing, but protecting her territory, coming back again and again. . .I'm all for that.

    Reading about your move to the cottage, I'm reminded of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings "Cross Creek".  But I thought, too, about Pat conroy's "The Water is Wide", which took place nearer to you on Daufuskie Island, when a very young and inexperienced "Conrack" taught poor isolated black kids for a year and learned all he needed to know about painting the world with small, tough, sweet pen strokes.


    Ramona: Both the books you mention are old friends  -- I just wish there were, now, as little development and attempt to "tame" the environment on all the barrier islands in SC, GA and FL as pertained when Rawlings wrote Cross Creek.

    Although Queenie and her kin are a worry, the wildlife policy is right. It is the critters who represent the environment as it was in its original form, not we interlopers. So in principle, I think the rules of hands-off non-engagement are the right ones. 

    Perhaps the SC wildlife guys should be writing non-intervention policy for the DoD?  


    I think you're on to something!  I'm all for it.

    Excellent writing, by the way.  I was totally immersed.

    Yes, the writing was wonderful...writing readible conversations is a real talent, Wendy.

    I used to love going to Brazos Bend State Park, which is just a bit south of Houston.  It was made up of disconnected doglegs of the Brazos River and it was full of wildlife - great blue herons, ibises, and other exotic fowl.  I'm not much of a birder so I can't say what else was there, but that part of Texas is on the migration routes of many birds.  There were deer, and gators. There was a path around one of the ponds and the gators would crawl up on the banks near the pathway, which was always a thrill.  I guess they had plenty to eat because they never bothered the humans, while I was there at any rate. 

    No Queenies in the bunch apparently although signs warned us to beware of gator nests and snakes.  That part of Texas is also home to every poisonous snake that is found in the U.S. Of course you will probably have pythons in your bayou before too long, Wendy.  I wonder how Queenie would deal with a python. Brazos Bend lakes have water lily pads 4 or 5 feet and more across where the gators can lurk.  Every once in a while you could hear what sounded like a lawnmower coming from somewhere out in the water.  The first time I heard it was the time I learned that gators make noises.  As much as I enjoyed visiting Brazos Bend, I wouldn't want to live near it, though.


    A gator sounding like a lawnmower --- yes, that's right, much more accurate as a comparison than a chainsaw. I'm sorry to say there are no water lilies here, which I love; instead, we must settle for Dollarweed, which I also love because it is not only unsung but reviled, despite its natural beauty.

    Pythons? Ewwh --thank god not yet. Just big ole water snakes of one sort or another. Gorged on food chain offerings in the lagoon, so no current danger to man and man's beast. 

    Wish you were here for your company as well as your insights, if not for direct contact with all creatures great and small.

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