Port Saint Clare, Florida
Two days after graduation, I saw the panther.
Drifting down a shallow creek, I’d cut the motor on
my boat and trailed my hand in the water, worrying about my
lack of a plan for the rest of my life. Being a girl, local custom
didn’t demand too much of me, but Mother had her own ideas
about what I should strive for. And those ideas, adhered to with
the same fervor as Brother Franklin’s sermons, meant going
away to college and leaving this backwater town for a vague,
but much-touted, “something better.” It was my life, though,
and I’d refused to leave, choosing instead to spend the summer
wandering the seemingly endless saltwater marshes and tidal
creeks that spread away from our house like a gift unfurling in
the hot sunlight.
I spotted the panther crouched on a rock, facing away from
me and stalking something in the grass. Growing up on the
Apalachee Bay, I’d seen a lot of wildlife. More than once, I’d
watched a black bear walk down the wooded coastline. But
panthers were secretive and scarce, and I’d never seen one.
The cat was smaller than I expected, and the slight
quivering of its hindquarter reminded me of Oliver, my gray
tabby, when he stalked butterflies in the garden. I must have
made some small sound because it turned to look at me and
all resemblance to Oliver vanished. As I stared into its wild,
unblinking eyes for a few seconds before the panther leapt
away, something broke and swirled inside of me, like when
Lulu cracked a fresh egg into a bowl of water and read the
white patterns she saw there.
If I’d seen my future in that brief encounter with the panther,
I don’t know if I would’ve had the courage to live it. Port
Saint Clare was my home, but the summer I turned eighteen I
realized that what I knew of it was deceptive as gentle waves
rippling the surface of the bay, hiding the dangerous undertow
that moves below.
Violence and hatred existed in my world. That summer, I
ran headlong into them.
A little after noon a few days later, I slammed the screen
door and yelled back through it at Mother. “I swear I hate
you!” I stomped off the porch, wiping a tear that hung like an
accusation on my chin. How could she fail to see that I was
just as upset as she was about the unplanned turn of events?
As if constantly reminding me that I had no place to go come
August would get me any closer to college.
I shoved aside tendrils of wisteria as I walked through
the arbor that covered the path to the dock behind my house.
Breathing in the sweet scent of its summer blooms, I closed
my eyes to the hot sun on my upturned face. I wished its heat
could burn away the ugly words I already regretted.
I carried a large Mason jar filled with rose petals and
lavender blossoms I’d picked from the garden that morning.
Sitting carefully on the hot planks of the dock, I pulled my
canoe toward me with my legs and then set the jar in a holder
I’d made from an old tackle box. My backpack held the
essentials—water, bug repellent, and my pistol. I tossed the
bag in the canoe and climbed in after it, lugging with me the
doubt I’d carried around like a suitcase ever since I’d received
the rejection letter from Mother’s alma mater.
The paddle made soft splashing sounds as I moved it from
one side of the boat to the other, and the water dripping off it
cooled my bare legs. The weather had stayed nice long enough
for our outdoor graduation ceremony and then turned hot
and muggy right afterward. Now the heat clung like a sweatdrenched
shirt and wouldn’t let up until October, about the
time the monarch butterflies stopped over in the marshes on
their way to Mexico.
I used my trolling motor to maneuver the canoe down the
clear, fresh water of Sugar Creek toward the Saint Clare River
a short distance away. About a mile downstream, the river
spread out into saltmarsh before it reached the shallow water
of the Apalachee Bay.
A lighthouse stood in the estuary, and I used the whitewashed
brick tower to navigate a labyrinth of narrow creeks, each of
which looked pretty much like the next. I can’t really say how
many times I’ve gotten lost in the marshes. Physically lost,
that is. I don’t think I’ve ever felt really lost there. The marshes
are in my blood like the grandmothers I never knew—they
rock me, ground me, and teach me that many things existed
before I was born.
The sun was high, and in the distance, south toward Dog
Island, I saw oyster boats—white flags pinned to the gray
water. I hugged the marshy shoreline and then turned down a
series of side creeks. As the water grew shallow, I killed the
motor and paddled. Around a bend, a big bull alligator sunned
on a partially submerged tree, his knobbed back the color of
the rotting tree bark and his nose hidden in cattails. He was
there more often than not, and neither of us was alarmed. He
didn’t move as I paddled within a few feet of him.
Right after I passed the gator, I glanced down a side creek
and saw a black man fishing from a skiff. It was rare to see
anyone out fishing on a weekday, and I looked to see if it was
someone I knew. He saw me and raised his hand in greeting.
He was a good distance away, but close enough that I knew he
was a guy I’d seen in town a few times. I wondered why he
was fishing on a Thursday afternoon when most people were
working. I waved back, but seeing him there made me uneasy.
In Emmettsville, about fifty miles away, a black man had
recently attacked and killed a white girl who was out hiking, a
terrible crime that Mother was fond of calling to my attention
whenever I left in my canoe. That she’d forgotten today was
a sign of how angry she was. The incident had sparked riots
in Emmettsville and a flurry of heated op eds in the Port Saint
Clare newspaper. Race, it seemed, was still a hot button issue.
I always preferred to be alone on my “expeditions,” as
Daddy called them. I never even took my best friend Karen
with me, though she and I had done pretty much everything
together since third grade.
“Tess, I swear you’re the reincarnation of Sacagawea,”
Daddy liked to say.
I always rolled my eyes, but secretly I liked the image. Me,
wild and savage in my canoe, leading Lewis and Clark through
the wilderness I knew like the lines in the palm of my hand.
I was twelve when I started roaming the woods, most of
which belonged to the wildlife refuge. At first, Daddy forbade
me to go. But no punishment he and Mother thought up could
keep me from the bay.
On my fourteenth birthday, just after we’d finished my
cake, Daddy handed me a package wrapped in brown kraft
paper with no ribbon. When I pulled back the paper to reveal a
gun, Mother gasped so hard I thought she’d swallowed a gnat.
Her face was as red as I’d ever seen it. I knew Daddy would
catch heck later.
“It’s a Smith & Wesson .38 Special. It’s got a four-inch
barrel, so you can actually hit something with it.” Daddy
smiled at me.
“Damn!” Karen said without thinking. I kicked her under
I smelled a hint of oil as I lifted the pistol out of the box,
admiring its knurled wood grip.
“Walnut,” Daddy explained before I could ask.
I hugged Daddy then. I knew he was turning me loose. He
knew it too, and looked like he might cry, which scared me a
Daddy spent hours teaching me to shoot the pistol. I was
a good shot, which surprised me, and I almost always hit the
cardboard torso he nailed to a tree out in the woods. That
seemed to satisfy him. But in the four years I’d owned the
gun, I’d never used it for anything other than target practice. I
supposed that was a good thing, though it also pointed to the
fact that my life had been pretty uneventful.
After seeing the man fishing, I set the paddle aside and
reached into my backpack, checking to make sure the gun was
loaded. It never occurred to me to question why I was doing it.
I just figured—better safe than sorry.
I paddled alongside a large rock that jutted out into the
creek at a shallow spot and secured the canoe with a rope that
I long ago had tied to a nearby tree. Then, I climbed the bank
and carried the jar of petals a short distance down a dirt path.
The undergrowth beside the trail was thick with palmettos,
pine trees, and oaks veiled with Spanish moss. Wild lantana
ran rampant, its yellow blooms attracting scores of bees.
The path ended at a clear pond that reflected the sunlight
in brilliant turquoise. A freshwater spring bubbled up through
vents in the sandy bottom. The grassy shoreline held few
trees, though some cypresses grew along one side, their wide,
wet knees sending root tentacles into the clear water. As I
approached, a pair of wild ducks half ran, half flew, to the
far side, their wings flapping like someone shaking out wet
I filled the jar of petals with water from the spring, screwed
on the lid, and set it on a partly submerged rock. I would leave
it there overnight to steep in the light of the full moon. Lulu
taught me that. “The full moon gives them power,” she said.
I removed my shoes and sat in my favorite spot, my back
against a large rock. My feet touched the edge of the pond,
cooling my whole body. After emptying my canvas backpack
on the ground beside me, I crushed it into a pillow and put it
behind my head. The heat rising from the rock lulled me to
Some time later, I jerked as if something urgent had
wakened me. At a movement to my right, I turned to see a
water moccasin coiled inches from my leg. Its thick, black
body, easily as big around as my arm, glistened in the sunlight.
The snake lay close enough that I could make out individual
scales, little tiles of shiny, violet-black granite.
Instantly, I froze. Moving only my eyes, I glanced at the
pistol, which lay a short distance away. I weighed my options.
I was afraid to make a grab for the gun. If I didn’t move, the
snake might just go away.
For what must have been several minutes, I sat so still I felt
my heart pulsing in the pads of my fingers where they rested
on the hot rock beside me. Water lapped at the edges of the
pond, its gentle sloshing sounds a sharp contrast to the terror
that gripped me. But still I waited, as sweat trickled down my
forehead and stung my eyes.
Then, suddenly, a bird or a squirrel rummaged through
the underbrush. Sensing the movement, the snake tensed and
opened its jaws wide. I saw its fangs and the cotton-white
lining of its mouth and lunged sideways for the gun. At the
same time, I rolled my lower body to the left and drew my legs
up under me, away from the snake.
But I wasn’t quick enough. Just as I grabbed the gun, the
snake hit my leg hard. The needle-like fangs pierced my skin
like bee stings, only much worse. I gasped in pain but rolled
quickly back to the right so I could aim the pistol straight on. It
would be just like target practice, I thought. I pointed the gun
and fired as the snake raised its head to strike again.
But my first and second shots missed. Fear and nerves
affected my aim. I screamed out of sheer frustration, the sound
seeming to come from someone else. The snake stretched out
almost the length of its body and struck a second time, biting
my shin just below the knee. Again the sharp pain tore through
my leg. I got a third shot off and finally hit the snake, throwing
I stood as quickly as I could, wobbling as I tried to put
weight on the bitten leg, and fired two more shots into the
snake just to make sure it was dead. I felt a little woozy as I
watched its body twitch and jump with each shot. I didn’t like
the idea of killing something—not even a venomous snake
that had just bitten me. Twice.
I sat on the rock and examined the two puncture wounds
that oozed blood. Already they were beginning to swell. Pain
seared through my leg when I tried to stand, and a wave of
nausea hit me, forcing me to sit down quickly. I decided to
wait a bit for the pain to let up.
But while I drank from the thermos of water I’d brought,
the seriousness of the situation dawned on me. The pain wasn’t
going to get any better. A snake bite typically wasn’t as big a
deal as people made of it. But I’d been bitten twice, and the tenminute
paddle out to the deeper water of the bay was the worst
thing I could do. The exertion would set my heart pumping
and spread the venom more quickly through my body.
As my leg stung out away from the impact points, up along
the veins, I mentally prepared myself to get moving toward
home before the pain got any worse. I sat up and splashed
some cold water from the spring on my face.
As I struggled to stand, I heard a boat approaching.
Remembering the guy I’d seen fishing, I began to shake,
though whether in fear or because of the bites, I wasn’t sure.
The sound of the outboard motor came closer then stopped.
He’d seen my canoe. Nausea caused me to clasp my hand to
my mouth and double over.
“Hello?” he called out as he ran down the path toward me.
By the time he reached the clearing, I was on my feet with
the gun pointed right at him. I had only one shot left, which
he probably knew as well as I did. My aim had to be good this
time. But the nausea and the pain in my leg made it difficult to
hold the gun steady.
“Stop right there!” I meant to sound authoritative. Instead,
my voice wavered, and I knew I sounded pathetic.
“Whoa!” He stopped with his palms facing me as if he
could hold off a bullet with them. “Hey, I’m just trying to help
here. You can put that thing down.”
He has big hands. The thought flashed through my mind
and left me wondering about my mental condition.
“Not until you leave.” I swayed a little with the effort it
took to remain standing. I needed help, I knew. But Mother’s
warnings sounded in my head. I didn’t intend to be the next
victim found in the woods.
His gaze moved from the dead snake to my injured leg.
“You’ve been bitten. Cottonmouth, huh?” He could have been
commenting on the weather.
I nodded and chewed my bottom lip to curb the nausea. His
voice was warm like the rock I’d been sitting on. And he was
younger than I’d realized, probably just a few years older than
I was. Flushed and dizzy, I let the gun droop until it pointed
more toward his legs than his chest. He noticed, but he didn’t
step forward to take it from me.
“It’s okay.” He sounded exasperated. “Put that thing away.
You screamed, and I heard gunshots. I came to help.” He
watched me closely. I didn’t put the gun down, though by now
it was pointed at his feet.
“I’m Jacob Hampton.” He walked deliberately toward me.
At the time, that struck me as incredibly brave, but thinking
back on it I doubt I was much of a threat. He seemed blurry
around the edges, like waves of heat were rising off his brown
skin. He stopped right in front of me and, before I could react,
offered me his hand. It was clean with trimmed nails—not
bitten, like mine.
“Tess Seibert …” my voice trailed off to a whisper. I
dropped the gun and fainted in a decidedly un-Sacagawean