Sea birds are aloft again, a tattered few. The bone white terns look dirtied in the somber light and they fly stiffly, feeling out an element they no longer trust. Unable to locate the storm lost minnows, they wander the thick waters with sad muted cries, hunting signs and sea marks that might return them to the order of the world.
In the hurricane’s wake, the labyrinthine coast where the Everglades’ deltas meet the Gulf of Mexico lay broken, stunned, flattened to mud by the wild tread of God, and afterward, that battered coast lay sprawled in awful fever under a leaden sky, how its scattered creatures had peered fearfully about in a terrible stillness as if God had died.
Day after day, a gray and brooding wind nags at the mangroves, hurrying the unruly tides that hunt through the broken islands and twist far back into the creeks, leaving behind brown spume and matted salt grass, choked fish, driftwood. On the bay shores and down the coastal rivers, a far gray sun picks up bead glints from windrows of rotted mullet, heaped a foot high.
From the island settlement on the old Indian mound called Chokoloskee, a baleful and uneasy sky out toward the Gulf looks ragged as a ghost, unsettled, wandering. The sky is low, withholding rain, and vultures on black-fingered wings tilt back and forth over the broken trees. At the channel edge, where docks and pilings, stove-in boats, uprooted shacks litter the shore, odd pieces torn away from their old places have been strained from the flood by the limbs over the water. A clothesline flutters in the trees; thatched roofs are spun onto their poles like old straw brooms; frame buildings sag. In the dank air a sharp fish stink is infused with corruption of dead animals and blackened vegetables, of excrement in overflowing pits from which shack privies have been washed away. Pots, kettles, crockery, a butter churn, tin tubs, buckets, salt-slimed boots, soaked horsehair mattresses, and ravished dolls are strewn across the pale killed ground.
A lone gull picks disconsolate at the softening mullet along shore, a dog barks without heart at so much silence. A figure in mud-fringed calico, calling a child, stoops to retrieve a Bible, then wipes wet grime from the Good Book with pale dulled fingers. She straightens, turning slowly, staring toward the south. From the wall of mangroves far off down the bay, the drum of the boat engine comes and goes, then comes again, a little louder.
“Oh, Lord,” she whispers, half-aloud. “Oh no, please no, sweet Jesus.”
Along toward low gray-yellow twilight. Postmaster Smallwood, on his knees beneath his store, is raking out the last of his drowned chickens. What the hurricane has left of Smallwood’s dock —a few poor pilings —sticks out at angles off the end of the spoil bank where he’d dug his canal for Indian canoes. From there the pewter water spreads away to the black walls of mangrove on all sides.