Michael Keller is the author of a graphic novel adaptation of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. He is working on a historical novel, The Hatmakers and the Heron Master, about hat-makers, wading birds and Florida’s early settlement. Below is an excerpt from his latest book:
Schulze’s home rested on a spit of land between marsh and the coastline, upon an ancient ridge of limestone deposited there by once-thriving coral communities when the area was below the sea. The pines that shared the ridge had over time whittled holes in the crumbly, soft, white stone that was the carbonate skeletons of long-dead colonies of marine animals. Rainwater running over the pine needles picked up acids in the leaves and dissolved the ground to create depressed watercourses below raised tree stands, slight rises and dips throughout an otherwise flat landscape.
He talked to himself often, not as a demented person would to the demons surrounding him or sharing space in his mind, but as one who had long walled himself off from the daily interactions that even the most dispersed farming community would afford. He never yelled, only muttered to himself when trying to figure out some problem. “Need a handle,” he’d say aloud after coming upon some nice piece of flotsam that could be fashioned into an axe, then continue the monologue as he found and shaped a green bough and the material into a tool. “Nein, nein. That ain’t right …”
His voice became clear, though, when he was in commune with the tall wading birds that were his only other companions. Those creatures were joined seasonally by the migrations of great flocks of others from the north, some continuing south after a brief visit and others staying the length of the cooler months. He loved to watch them, to be among them, when he wasn’t busy tracking his food, repairing his shelter or one of the hundred other things he needed to do daily to stay alive in his hard world. The birds wanted nothing, not even to be provided for, only to fall under his occasional protection, he thought. That was the extent of their need, and for it, they calmly spread their wings wide to dry in the sun and let him glimpse them. He padded below their rookery trees and they did not take to the air in fright; they knew he was there with them, not for them. And sometimes one would call out and he would answer. He would usually not try to mimic their sounds, just speak up sweetly in his broken English that was inflected heavily with a German accent. “Hallo, my friends,” he would say. “Is a good day for to fly. A storm comes from the sea.” He always spoke in English to the wading birds and the migrants, as he viewed them as belonging to the continent. On his nightly walk down onto the beach sand, though, when he was escaping the swarming clouds of mosquitoes, he would come across the pelicans bobbing in the ocean and the gulls perching among the wracks of seaweed. These he would speak to in German and felt more among them the conviviality of a workmen’s guild. The gulls would grumble at him and he at them, the pelicans would toss their fishing net throats in his direction; he would wade into the ocean nearby to nod at them. “How is fishing for you,” he said on one such meeting while bobbing in the water and coarsely scrubbing his beard and knotted head hair with calloused and brown sausage fingers. “Me, I catch nothing for days. Coconuts for me!” The gulls cackled. He cackled, too, then let himself sink below the water’s surface and felt the cool undulating rush and ebb of the current.
He had walked for weeks after abandoning his service in the army; the blood he had shed turned out to be an insufficient salve for the pain he harbored. He drifted east, then south, turning away from others who came upon his path as he saw them only as blurry apparitions in a world that he worked to push just beyond his senses.
The wind grew wetter and hotter on his long march south and it cut through the weeping cypress tree limbs only occasionally as he moved closer and closer to the angry sun. It choked him. The canopy birds laughed at him mockingly and his shoulders drooped down against the weight of stinging insects and razor-sharp sawgrass that cut through cloth and flesh like a knife through meatloaf; mosquitoes, horse flies, spiders and snakes drew blood and injected poison; the water turned rancid and undrinkable; the disease was available. He pounded through the margins of marsh, careful to avoid the bigger animals but remaining prone to all the small ones that smelled him coming before he could possibly know. A billion eyes were on him in the twilight, and as he slept and when he woke.
He was jolted awake by what he thought were fangs in his buttocks one night as he sweated atop a bed of sedge. When next he rose from sleep he was soiling himself. He struggled to his feet and then felt the stabbing pains of gas expanding in his intestines that curled him back over and forced the vomit to also begin. He remained there for two days, drowsy and incoherent from fever, sweating, unable to realize that his desperate lapping of brackish water from the puddle nearby was worsening his dehydration, his vomiting and defecating, his guts on fire and tearing apart, flatulence causing a moment of relief followed by more angry roiling of his inflamed innards. He thought the light around him dimmed and intensified in bursts; he thought someone was throwing stones past his head; his hallucinations came and went without warning. In the middle of the fourth day the pain subsided and he stammered back to clean water. The fever broke that night and he slept heavily, not waking up until the flies became bold enough to walk into his nostrils. He clubbed a snake and ate it, his first solid food in several days, then continued on his march.
He had come upon this place that was now his home soon after. It had been daytime and quiet. He built a bivouac and a lean-to from oak branches and cabbage palm fronds. As the sun set, he went to the marsh side and cast around for fish. In what seemed like an instant, the skies filled with great blue herons, frigatebirds, wood storks, ospreys and cormorants, which all took their places along the freshwater marsh and hardwood hammocks. On the ocean side, ibises dropped down into the foaming shore break, while sandpipers, plovers and those raucous gulls all ran towards and away from the sea depending on whether it was ebbing or flowing. It turned into a noisy and beautiful chaos, in which Schulze stood in the middle. Vultures circled high overhead, and others passed closer to the ground. He sat by the water’s edge the rest of the day, watching the great diversity of their behaviors and movements until the sun disappeared, and listened until they all settled into silence for the night.
His house had evolved over the years on his little piece of land. He slowly built an enclosure from wood he felled and dried himself. He cut out two windows facing the ocean and two more in the other direction facing the marsh. He fashioned a pirogue and fished and hunted in the marsh, bringing in alligators, snakes and whatever else he came across that could be used for food, clothing, bedding or construction.
He particularly liked the taste of gator meat and there were plenty to harvest, though catching them proved to be a problem in his early days in the wild. It took him some time to understand that gators were best caught with lassos or by hand when they are small enough, and Schulze’s trepidation concerning the animals outweighed his ability to bag them.