Worm fiddling isn’t just a pastime. It’s an art. My uncle Josiah has been practicing at it for over thirty years. An outsider might wonder just why it’s such a big deal around here. But that’s what makes them outsiders. If you grew up in Break-A-Leg, you would know that not only is it the quickest route to local celebrity, it also keeps your family fed and fat as hogs.
I have twin uncles named Josiah and Obediah. They live on opposite sides of an invisible boundary in the swamps. Josiah wakes up before the sun, wearing stained overalls and galoshes, bucket handles splayed in his fingertips. He cuts a proud silhouette against the dawn. Obediah sleeps until noon sometimes. When he wakes up he wanders around Castle Chinkapin in a velveteen cape that he found at a thrift store. A part of someone’s old Halloween costume. He likes to lounge out beside the alligator moat in a lawn chair built from a car seat, and leaf through books on architecture and design while he smokes a pipe.
“None of this Uncle stuff,” he says. “Call me Two Feathers. And if you’re going to stand there, go find me some coffee.” Depending on the day, Uncle Obie can be a king, a captain, an Indian chieftain, or a decorated general from any particular war.
My uncles have raised me ever since my widowed mother ran away from Break-A-Leg and left me behind. Josiah is all business and worms. Obediah is unpredictable and moody. It’s hard to tell whether he’ll yank me off my feet and waltz me across the boggy ground, or whether he’ll have one of his tantrums about waste and warmongering. He’s got a glass eye that he likes to pop in and out when he’s thinking hard about something.
The coffee maker is in the Boat in the Moat café. The boat is an old shrimping trawler that was stripped of her seaworthiness. Despite the attempts to turn the inside into a dining area, it still smells slightly fishy and there are airplants growing out of the ceiling beams. Uncle Obie loves to take trash and make it into something useful. Castle Chinkapin is made of garbage. The base structure of it comes from the discarded tin plates of a printing press. This gives the castle a scaly, metallic look despite the turrets and towers.
Uncle Obie built the castle from the ground up, starting even before I was born. In its infancy it was a tin casing. Empty on the inside and reflecting back the hot summer sun so fiercely that low flying planes would often point it out as they passed. Now it is decorated with ribbons and banners, stained glass mirrors, hot air balloon mobiles, statues made from bicycle wheels and beer cans, roses growing out of old boots and rubber tires, a clothes hanger animal menagerie, and outdoor art installations such as the broken mirror maze and the glow in the dark, painted garden.
Uncle Josiah considers Castle Chinkapin an eyesore and an embarrassment. He believes that Obediah has brought down our family’s good name. We are a worm grunting family. Uncle Josiah has held the championship title for the past ten years. Before that, his daddy was the official worm grunting king.
“It runs in our blood,” he likes to say. “To be a Pierce is to be a born and bred worm charmer.”
Josiah has never forgiven Uncle Obie for abandoning the family tradition to build his trash palace. Sometimes I feel torn between the two of them. I like Uncle Obediah’s sense of disheveled artistic whimsy. And I’m impressed by Uncle Josiah’s dedication to craft and skill. They are both known throughout the surrounding towns and counties. Here in Break-A-Leg they are local celebrities. This puts a lot of pressure on me to choose a legacy and carry it on.
My best friend is an alligator wrestler named Sweets. That’s his nickname, of course. His real name is Stanley Sweets. He spends a lot of time with my uncles. His mother also left Break-A-Leg when he was just a boy and his father disappeared into the swamps one day and was never found. That happens from time to time. Especially in the alligator wrestling business. He lives with his gran a few trailers down from Josiah. He loves listening to the uncles bicker and brag. He goes to every worm charming competition that Uncle Josiah competes in and he’s helped Uncle Obie with a lot of the handiwork around Castle Chinkapin. He was the one who found the old shrimping trawler way out where the swamps meet the sea. He helped Obediah convert it into a snack café for tourists.
“Lemon!” Uncle Obie calls. “Where’s my coffee?”
I pour two cups and hurry back out to where he’s reclining regally in the scorching morning sun. Break-a-Leg is like a steaming pot of black waters, bullfrogs, mosquitoes, Spanish moss, and wet earth. And worms. Obediah is stretched out on his recliner like swamp royalty. Under his cape he has on swimming trunks that are too big for him. The alligators in the moat watch us with dull eyes as we sip our coffee.
“I’ve been thinking,” Obie says. “It’s about time you went to work. What would you say to a full time job in the Boat in the Moat Café?”
Sometimes Uncle Obie lives so much in his fantasy world that he forgets about reality.
“I have school,” I say.
“We’re talking careers here, kid. I’m offering you the chance to be a princess.”
I tread carefully. “I don’t think I’m ready for the responsibility,” I tell him, scratching at a bug bite on my knee. “That’s serious business.”
Uncle Obie nods. He seems to accept that. “Maybe in another year or so then. If someone else doesn’t snap up your position.”
“Maybe,” I say, noncommittally. I’m sweating already. I peer across the moat looking for Sweets’s old pickup truck. We’re going to be late again.
“Don’t tell me you’re getting involved in all that worm nonsense,” he says, popping out his glass eye and rolling it around in his palm.
“There’s a Break-A-Leg pig roast on Sunday,” I tell him. “The high school is raising money for the library.”
“Books are important,” says Uncle Obie. “I’ll donate a pig. Or an art piece.” He likes to make grand gestures.
I feel a great sense of relief to see the sun gleaming off of Sweets’s truck as it rounds the corner.
“Sorry, Lemon!” he says, pulling up beside us. “Hi, Obediah. Nice day out.”
Obediah holds up his coffee cup in a cheers. “Feels like a Devil’s fart,” he says.
I wave goodbye and climb into the truck beside Sweets. We tear off through the pumpkin colored dust.
“We’re going to be late,” I say.
Sweets nods and grins apologetically. I can never get mad at him. His dark hair curls damply over his forehead. One of his arms is freshly bandaged.
“The Swamp Ghost?” I ask, lifting an eyebrow.
“She’s getting big,” Sweets says. “And strong.”
A few summers ago, Uncle Josiah found a white alligator hatchling and gave it to Sweets. White alligators are so rare that this was the first one to be found around these parts in my lifetime. It’s the ticket to Sweets making it big in alligator wrestling. He spends all of his time with her, neglecting the other gators that he’s trained over the years. She’s not an albino. She’s a real leucistic white gator. A genetic anomaly, stronger and swifter than her weakling pink-eyed doppelgangers, or plain, but formidable enough, brown cousins. A true Swamp Ghost.
Unfortunately, she’s also a blue-eyed, creamy skinned she-devil. She’s got some kind of spell over Sweets, not to mention every male gator in a thirty mile radius. He doesn’t notice her terrible temperament or evil disposition.
“It’s just a nick,” he says, seeing my look. “She barely grazed me.”
I have a completely rational fear that Sweets is going to end up in a gator hole of his own making. If the Swamp Ghost doesn’t get him, it’s only a matter of time before one of the hundreds of bellowing male gators trying to court her does. You can hear the racket all the way from my uncle Josiah’s trailer. It sounds like the pits of hell have opened up from dusk to dawn. I’ve seen their dark forms gnashing against the barrier that Sweets constructed to make sure the Swamp Ghost can’t slither away. Entire congregations of them, hulking and sinewy, pining with frustration for her precious moon-white, bone-plated osteoderms.
Surprisingly, we don’t get in trouble for being late to school. Sweets is good at dazzling the teachers. He’s handsome, with the tanned skin and strong features of the Seminole Indians on his gran’s side. His eyes are the color of muddy water in the sunlight. I resigned myself to being in love with him a long time ago. Break-A-Leg doesn’t turn forth a lot of good-looking, charismatic alligator wrestlers who like my uncles. Luckily, Sweets is uninterested in female attention of any kind other than his alligator. At least I don’t have to worry about real girls trying to get their claws into him.
We usually stick close to each other in school. Most of our classes are together. We’re partners in biology. We eat lunch at the same table. Sweets hates schoolwork, but I spend my evenings studying. School is my way out of here. I want options that don’t include trash castles or charming worms.
“Back to Josiah’s today?” Sweets asks, as he drives me home. I nod quietly. There was a customary love letter stuck under the ratty old windshield wipers of his pickup. I tried to tear it out of his hands to see who it was from but he stuffed it down the side of his seat before I could read it. Girls love him. More so because he doesn’t seem to notice or care. I’m still feeling prickly. Even though it’s just me and him in his truck, I can feel that letter in between us.
“Come on, Lemon,” Sweets says in a moment of rare seriousness. “I don’t ask you about the boys mooning around your locker or trying to walk you to class. What are you so worried about? Nothing is ever going to change us.”
This is part of what I’m worried about. As he pulls up to Josiah’s trailer I can hear the bellowing of enraged male gators. They’re becoming diurnal. Instead of coming inside to work on our science project I can see that he’s eager to get back to the Swamp Ghost.
“Come have dinner at Gran’s tonight,” he says. “She’d love to see you. Bring Josiah.”
The outside of my uncle’s trailer is filled with tubs of worms. Huge tubs that shimmer and stink in the sun. He’s already returned for the day with his catch. The worms boil around in quivering masses of tangled annuli. Thousands of them burrowing in and out of each other helplessly.
He nods at Sweets. “That gator of yours sure came into heat quick,” he says good-naturedly. “Her suitors are overtaking the neighborhood.”
To me he says, “You’re just in time to help me sort. I caught some big ones today. Have to be close to a foot. Something in the soil these days.”
“That’s just the Pierce worm charming technique,” Sweets says, and I could swear Uncle Josiah blushes under his sunburn.
Sweets leaves and Josiah and I set to sorting. I’ve been helping him for so long that I know exactly how much a handful of worms weighs. Sometimes I check myself with the scale for the satisfaction of it, but I never need it. This makes Josiah proud. He says it’s proof I’ve got worm fiddling blood.
“How’s that crazy brother of mine?” Josiah asks.
“He had his glass eye out when I left,” I say. “But he’s offered to donate a pig to the school barbeque.”
I know Josiah is thinking he’ll donate two pigs.
“He been getting visitors out there?”
I nod. No one was more surprised than me when tourists actually began coming to visit Castle Chinkapin. Uncle Obie charges a lofty ten dollars for admission. It makes no sense to Uncle Josiah. Ten dollars equals about twenty packaged containers of worms. He only thinks in terms of practicality. Things like catching fish and producing food. The appeal of a coat hanger menagerie is completely lost on him.
I try to distract him. “Do you know Aristotle called earthworms the intestines of the earth?”
Josiah grins at me. His gappy smile is gentle and proud. His face is creased and oiled. His arms are muscled and tan from decades of fiddling worms. My own shrimpy arms swell out like rocks when I flex them into charming position. My hamstrings are strong as iron springs.
“Smart man,” he says. “And you’re a smart girl, Lemon. You shouldn’t spend so much time over at Obediah’s. How about you come worming with me tomorrow morning? The contest is coming up soon. You need your practice if you’re going to take the title this time.”
I nod. We finish the worm sorting and Josiah heads off to make his deliveries while I start my homework. My mind wanders off as I try to study. The bellows of the alligators and trickles of sweat on my body are distracting me. I turn the little rotating fan on high but it only seems to circulate the heat.
I begin to prowl the length of the trailer, my skin goose-fleshing at the deep bass rumbles coming from the Sweets property. I drink a can of Coke out of the fridge and feel a little better. I go outside where the sun is finally relenting a bit. I see a few straggler worms wriggling about the dusty driveway. Few things kill earthworms aside from drying out. I pick them up carefully and walk down to the edge of the swamps where the earth is moist to set them down.
“You’re the lucky ones,” I tell them as they burrow sightlessly down into the warm belly of the earth.
With the sun filtering down through the swoops of Spanish moss that drape the graceful cypress trees, and the dark mysterious shine of the water, the swamps look suddenly beautiful and golden. The water lilies are turned towards the last rays of the sun. The smaller, spindly never-wets are beginning to bloom in yellow clusters above the opaque surface of the water. Everywhere I see things living and breathing. Moving. In the soil, on the trees, under the water. I feel dizzy from it.
* * *
That night, over the roaring of the alligators, Uncle Josiah and Gran Sweets discuss the size of this spring’s worms. She’s made fry bread and a cabbage salad from her own garden.
“Even the cabbages are large,” she says, as if to prove a point.
Sweets and I look at each other and roll our eyes. I wonder if we’ll have conversations like this one day. That sets me to wondering if Uncle Josiah has a crush on Gran Sweets as I suspect. I try to listen to their mind numbing talk. Cabbages and worms. If there are any hidden meanings they are well encrypted.
“When are you going to make it official and enter your Swamp Ghost in a real wrestling contest?” Josiah asks, as the conversation finally turns our way.
Sweets’s eyes light up and I suffer a jealous pang. “Soon, I hope,” he says. “She’s already past the weight qualifications. Even though she can’t be over five years old. She’s bigger and stronger than any other alligator her age.”
“For Christ’s sake,” I say. “That’s because they mature more quickly in captivity.”
We all know this already. The Sweets family has been raising alligators for generations. I’m just trying to make everyone see that the Swamp Ghost is not so special. Neither are the worms this year. Or the cabbages. Break-A-Leg is the same predictable place it’s always been.
“Lemon,” Josiah scolds. Sweets looks genuinely hurt and Gran Sweets is looking at me with a disapproving expression.
“A real Swamp Ghost only comes along once in a few generations,” Gran says softly. “My people revere them. They have magical qualities. To stare one in the eye is good luck. To wrestle one is to become a man above all men.”
The room feels unbearably hot. I use the only defense that I have against Seminole folklore. “It’s like any other leucistic animal,” I say. “It has reduced pigmentation from a recessive gene. Other than that it’s just a bad-tempered adolescent female gator.” I’ve done plenty of research on the topic.
Gran Sweets gives me a look that lets me know the Swamp Ghost isn’t the only bad-tempered adolescent female around.
“Come on,” Sweets says, clearing the empty plates away and starting the coffee maker. “I’ll take you out to see her. She’s magical in the moonlight.”
Outside the sky is clear and star-filled, but the air is hot and heavy. I imagine our bodies leaving imprints on the night. The guttural croaking and bellowing of male alligators is deafening. They are surrounding the reinforced pen and gnashing at each other. Climbing on top of one another to press their snouts up against the layers of heavy wire. Sweets has built a little platform outside the back of the trailer that is high enough for us to stand on to keep clear of snapping jaws and thrashing tails.
“What’s gotten into you?” he asks. “You’re pissing off Gran. You know she hates it when you talk like a scientist.”
I see the gleaming ridges of the Swamp Ghost’s broad back. She is basking in the moonlight. Wallowing in the chorus of grunts and roars. She’s much bigger than the last time I saw her. Her tail is fat and glorious and gleaming beneath the stars. A tail made to initiate death rolls and propel her impressive mass fearlessly through dark waters.
“If you love her so much, why do you keep her cooped up?” I ask.
Sweets stares at me as if I have lost half of my brain. “Because I need her. I can make my name wrestling a Swamp Ghost. It will make Gran proud.”
The white alligator is watching us. From this distance I can’t see her eyes but I know they are icy blue. I still remember from when Josiah brought her home. A perfect snow-colored hatchling that looked made of marble. Her irises were the color of climbing clematis.
I look at Sweets. I try to think of a reason to touch his face. He’s staring off towards his alligator with a dreamy expression. I smack a mosquito on his cheek.
The bugs are swarming us and the croaks and snarls of the alligators surrounding the pen are too much for me.
“I have to go,” I say.
I leave without Uncle Josiah. Sweets stands on the porch and watches me disappear into the darkness. I don’t stumble on the way home. I know every cypress knee, muddy bog, and twisted tree root of this swamp. When I get back to Josiah’s trailer I find a note from Obediah on the door.
I need Lemon this weekend. I’m working on a top secret project. It will be the most magnificent art installation that Break-A-Leg has ever seen.
* * *
In the morning we set out with our buckets. Me and Josiah. We wake before dawn and, wearing overalls and galoshes, trudge deep into the thickest part of the swamps where the ground is rubbery and thick with moss. I have my own set of fiddling sticks. They aren’t quite as large and unwieldy as Josiah’s, but they do the trick. I chose the branches, shaved the bark, and carved the notches in them myself. Every Pierce, with the exception of Obediah, has his own worm charming technique and equipment.
We set to work in large patches far enough away from each other to maximize our efforts. By the time I have the first stake pounded into the ground my ponytail is sticking to the back of my neck and my shirt is soaked through. I begin the slow steady sawing motions, rubbing the notched stick against the staked one, creating a tempo that sets the swamps shaking at a humming pitch. Uncle Josiah is doing the same. He’s more of a grunter. He uses a metal plane for the bottom piece and releases short staccato vibrations into the earth. We complement each other. He’s the bass to my soprano. The bayou is alive with shivering, pitched vibrations and earthen melodies.
The ground around us erupts with worms. Glistening, roiling masses of worms. The earth is spewing up its intestines. They wriggle up towards the surface, turning up mud and soil in their desperation. The worms believe they’re escaping a symphony of predators. A trained fiddler can imitate the underground vibrations of voles, moles, and even digging armadillos. The worms flee the safety of the earth as fast as they can until they are exposed and squiggling in the sunlight. It’s a beautiful trick. It’s an art. Every fisherman within fifty miles relies on me and Uncle Josiah for a steady supply of healthy worms for fishing.
We work in a practiced rhythm. Once there is a thick layer of earthworms covering the quivering ground we pause to scoop them up and throw them in the buckets and then continue with our fiddling. Every so often Uncle Josiah looks over at me proudly.
I fill my buckets quickly. I even beat Josiah.
“You’ll take the title this year, Lemon,” he says. He’s as sweaty and covered in dirt and slime as I am, but he looks happy. “You’re going to be Queen of the Worm Grunting Festival.”
“I need to get home and shower before school,” I say.
I don’t want to be the Worm Grunting Queen. It surprises me to realize this. The sun is up and tendrils of mist are steaming up from the ground.
“I’m not worried at all,” he says as if I haven’t spoken. “You’re a Pierce. Worm charming is in your blood.”
* * *
Sweets is quiet on the way to school. He has a new bandage. A big one on his shoulder. It’s so fresh that a crimson bloom has stained his shirt. The sight of it makes me feel sick, so I stare out the window blankly. I skip lunch to read in the library. The biggest species of worm is found in Australia. The Giant Gippsland Earthworm can grow up to seven feet long. Its eggs are cork-sized and the worms are purple and blue. Aside from that they’re just like our worms. Sightless. Thoughtless. Compelled by nature to spend their lives recycling earth. The book doesn’t say whether you can charm a Giant Gippsland.
The only unusual part of the day comes when Uncle Obediah arrives at school dressed in military finery and delivers a slaughtered pig for the weekend barbeque. He uses a wheelbarrow to transport the pig directly into the office. A slippery trail of blood decorates the linoleum floor behind him.
“Lemon,” he says, catching sight of me in the hallway. Students and teachers are staring after him. “Did your uncle get my message? I need you to come to the castle after school today. I’ve got something big planned. Inspiration has struck!”
This causes as much buzz as the pig carcass. Everyone wants to know what Uncle Obediah has planned. I have no inkling myself.
“What do you think it is?” Sweets asks on the ride home. There was another letter on his windshield, but I didn’t grab at it today.
I shrug my shoulders. “Who knows?”
We reach Castle Chinkapin and he pulls the truck up short and turns towards me. “I’m wrestling the Swamp Ghost at the Worm Grunting Festival next week. Your uncle and my gran decided on it last night. It’s about the only time Break-A-Leg gets any real publicity. And… she’s ready.”
I stare at him. My shock is dulled by the heat. “That is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard, Sweets. You shouldn’t even be play tussling with her right now. She wants to mate. Wait until the summer at least.”
Sweets looks uncomfortable. He fiddles with his dressing. “Are you worried that I’ll take the attention away from you winning the competition?”
My mouth hangs open for a moment and then snaps shut. I can’t think how to react. I’ve never been angry like this before. Sweets and I have been best friends since we were infants. I’ve loved him for nearly as long. A thousand times more than worms, or alligators, or Castle Chinkapin.
“Stanley Sweets.” I draw the words out. “Why would I care about sharing my worm fiddling fame when I am already the princess of all this?” I gesture out to the beribboned mess of garbage around us. The trash castle in all of its aluminum turreted glory. The glow in the dark painted garden, the alligator filled moat, and the coat hanger menagerie.
Uncle Obediah is passed out in a tin bathtub drunk as a lord, sunburned and snoring loudly. His cape is pillowed beneath his head. A few scattered strangers are perusing the grounds in bemused wonderment and taking pictures. A peacock struts past the truck and fans its tail at us.
Sweets is red-faced. He is just as unfamiliar with arguing as I am, but it seems like he needs to get something out. “You act like you’re too good for this place lately. I would love to have two uncles who wanted me. Especially characters like Josiah and Obediah. Besides, Lemon, you’re the one who’s jealous of an alligator. You’re not without some crazy yourself.”
I get out of the truck stiffly. I walk over to my uncle and shake him awake in the tin bathtub. He’s furious to find that intruders have infiltrated the castle without paying any admission. I don’t turn around to see Sweets leave.
It takes a while to restore order at Castle Chinkapin. Once Obediah has collected his dues and settled down he unveils his plans to me. We are going to make an enormous paper mache rendering of the Swamp Ghost. Huge. Larger than life. Big enough to take up an entire room in the castle. Uncle Obie has begun designing a series of casts and molds as well as an assortment of different sized balloons to use for the project.
“They call me the Rembrandt of Refuse,” I hear him telling a picture snapping tourist. “The DaVinci of Debris. The Wizard of Odds and Ends!”
I don’t cry much. I grew up with worms, and alligators, and men. Instead, I pick up rocks and hurl them at the tin plate walls of Castle Chinkapin. With each dent my sadness hardens. Uncle Obie watches me from the sidelines for a bit before joining in. He finds some rusted shovels for us to really dent up the wall with.
“Performance art,” he says to the bewildered tourists, but they beeline back to their cars.
“Nice,” Uncle Obie says, once we have exhausted ourselves. He gets his pipe and examines our handiwork. “Now it has texture. I believe I’ll spackle some gems into these rivets.”
* * *
We never finish the paper mache project. Sweets stops picking me up for school and I have to borrow Uncle Obie’s corn-fueled motorcycle. I skip the barbeque, which is ruined thanks to food poisoning from my uncle’s pig. I hear rumors that Sweets may be taking a girl from school to the Worm Grunting Ball. But far more important than giant earthworms, or oversized cabbages, school barbeques or unfinished projects, is that the Swamp Ghost escapes one heavy, moon-filled night. Uncle Josiah says he knew the moment the swamp went silent and the gators stopped bellowing for her release.
I also know immediately. The crickets and armadillos are humming funeral dirges. On the other side of the swamp, across the invisible boundary between my two uncles, I wake up in my princess quarters in Castle Chinkapin with a Giant Gippsland-sized hole in my heart where Stanley Sweets had been.