The following is from Joy Williams’s new and collected stories, The Visiting Privilege. Her first collection in a decade, Williams is also the author of four novels—the most recent, The Quick and the Dead, was a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize in 2001—and three other collections of stories. Among her many honors are the Rea Award for the Short Story and the Strauss Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Ranger Preyman slipped the photograph into the display case. Then he sat down under the ramada and waited for someone to approach it. He was supposed to lead the tour at eleven but he knew from experience that he would not accumulate a group. Gaunt and sweating in his uniform, he looked on the verge of flying apart, and tourists instinctively avoided him. At times he actually sweated blood. Blood vessels close to the surface of his skin ruptured into the exocrine glands. The condition had a name. He was grateful it didn’t often happen. It was the beginning of the rainy season although there had been no rain yet. The crowds of the winter had diminished. A woman on the bench behind him was complaining to her companion about a dog she’d picked up at the pound. He was a beautiful dog, smart and obedient, but he was always looking for someone. He would go up to cars and peer inside. When she took him for a walk, he was always looking, looking. It was getting her down. He didn’t appreciate his new situation, the fact that he had been saved; she was seriously considering taking him back to the pound. Preyman had noticed that people seldom spoke about what they were experiencing at the time. They saved it for later. He’d overheard a man on the boardwalk saying, “They’ve built a hotel on the Mount of Olives. I just couldn’t get over that.” Here it was Florida, the Everglades, in the park.
The photograph was of an alligator with a great white heron folded in its mouth. The bright colored feet, the long bill, everything was there, an entire large bird. Alligators shared their water hole homes with all manner of creatures, until they didn’t. One didn’t register the bird at first, it was just another picture of an alligator with open jaws. Then came the awareness of the delicate collapsed presence within.
But people had become wary of looking into the display case, Preyman had found. There were too often pictures of plowed fields pressing at the gateway to the park, of animals caught dead on the center line, of cities and trash, of the outside crawling closer. It wasn’t Nature, it all lacked subtlety, possibility. None of it was equivocal enough. People preferred the equivocal, he found, they found comfort in it. They were heartened by the news that more panthers were killed by one another than by mercury or cars. Preyman was doing them a favor with this picture. Even so, no one gave it a glance.
Eleven o’clock came and went. No one seemed desirous of Preyman’s expertise, his dismal numbering of extirpated plants and declining species, his depressing accounts of water, water witheld, water diverted, water dirtied and wasted. They had already taken him off the list of rangers who led the children on informative hikes. He was incapable of telling groups of fourth graders how they could save the park. They couldn’t save the park! He took off his hat and ran his shaking fingers through his soaked hair. A group of foreign tourists walked by, talking quietly. They approached the place as though it were an aspect of work, something to check off their life list—another biosphere preserve. Preyman stared past them at the photograph. In the next moment, the moment after this one, it had been something quite different—the bird was turned to blood and the giant lizard vanished. He did not take pictures himself. When his mother died, there had been film in her camera and he had brought it to be developed. None of them had come out. It was the fault of someone new in the darkroom. They had apologized and offered to give him free film. It was part of the new responsibility, to admit to mistakes that had been made, to irredeemable errors. His mother had been out of her mind when she died. Out of her mind.
He unlocked the display case and removed the photograph, then, trembling, walked through the parking lot to his Jeep for a cigarette. He passed the life-sized bronze statue of a panther. Two children sat on it, drinking from boxes of juice. The Jeep was parked several hundred yards away, near one of the park’s canoe trails. Preyman smoked several cigarettes and field-stripped them. His hair tingled.
One of the girls who worked in the concession pulled up in her little car. They wore plastic nametags with their home states below their first names. This was Cynthia Massachusetts.
“It’s a small world, . . . we’re all in this together, . . . only the species man can correct what the species man has wrought . . . I am part of the web of life, . . . I gave blood to an Everglades mosquito, . . . wave a pint jar through the air, you’ll come up with a quart of mosquitoes . . . reduce, recycle, . . . this is a park in peril, . . . it’s worth preserving, don’t you think . . .” She grinned at him and put on a pair of green sunglasses. His dissheveled shape was twice reflected. “It’s a full moon tonight,” she said, “make your request early to be chained to the gates. Lock your car, secure your valuables and have a good one. Pete,” she said, “cheer up.”
Cynthia Mass got out of the car and jogged off. She was all right. So was Madeline New York and Jim Arkansas. Bruce Oregon was a pain in the butt. They were all much younger than him.
It was quiet except for the ticking of the girl’s car beside him. Farther down the row, a raven was investigating the interior of an open convertible. It picked up a pen, then dropped it. Over the parking lot was the sky that belonged only to Florida. Immense ragged clouds moved freely past. The raven selected an empty beer huggy and flew off with it. From a break in the buttonwood trees a young couple appeared, portaging a canoe. They stopped when they saw him and put the canoe down. Preyman felt they were looking at him anxiosly. His mind had been utterly blank for a few moments. He rubbed his jaw and put his hat back on. “How you doing?” he said.
“I think there’s something you should see,” the boy said.
“And maybe get,” the girl said.
“We didn’t want to get it down, we thought we should report it so you could make the right kind of notes about it. It’s a wood stork, a mile, maybe a mile and a half past Bear Lake, not on the water but deeper into the strand. It’s hanging in a tree, tangled in a fishing line. It hasn’t been dead too long.”
“It’s like something out of the Tarot,” the girl said. She had made up her mind. This is the way she would remember this.
Preyman looked at them. He was behind his sunglasses too. They were all behind their sunglasses. Someone died here last night and in great pain too, his father used to say when Preyman visited him. But it couldn’t always have been true, not the night before each time he came to call, not every time, it wasn’t likely. People hung on in nursing homes, it’s what they did there. If you could get me a warm Coca-Cola, his father would say, it would give me great pleasure, I promise. He had been a minister and Preyman had been in awe of him and liked to listen to him. But then it had come down to just the someone dying business and the warm Coke business.
“I’ll take care of it,” Preyman said. What could he mean by that? The words had no possible meaning.
The boy nodded. “I could give you better directions.” He began describing the place they’d beached the canoe, the trail, the distance traveled beyond the mahogany grove. Preyman shut his eyes behind his glasses.
When the boy finished, Preyman said, “Thank you very much.” He opened his eyes.
“Wood storks used to nest in the park but don’t anymore, is that right?” the girl said. “They’re pretty rare? I read that.”
“Wood storks are an indicator species,” Preyman said. “They sort of function as a pressure gauge. That’s actually what we use them for now, almost exclusively, a pressure gauge.”
They watched him uncomfortably. Throughout all this, they had been some distance from Preyman and his Jeep. The girl rolled her shoulders. She was dressed in brown. Her bare lean legs and arms were brown from the sun and she wore a handkerchief around her neck. She bent down and picked up her end of the canoe.
Preyman smiled at them. He could still perform this vital variation on his face, he was sure of it. He stood in place a moment longer and had another cigarette. Then he climbed into the Jeep and drove away as they were tying the canoe down on the roof of an old station wagon. He drove onto the main road, then turned down an official-use road, swinging the gate shut behind him. It was wide, of crushed stone, and led to several trailers and some cannibalized swamp buggies and air boats. He stopped at the end and took out his pack, water, knife and netting. There was no trail from here to the place the boy had mentioned, but he knew how to reach it. It wasn’t far. Nothing was very far. He had probably covered pretty much every foot of the park and he’d worked here only a few years. Hurricanes would sometimes make a place inaccessible but it didn’t stay like that for long. It had all been touched by someone and not touched lightly. It had been piteously easy to find the rookeries. They set fire to the hammocks after they’d collected a few tree snails or orchids, to make them rarer. They set fire to the hammocks to drive out the game. They set fires to kill the deer who hosted the ticks they thought were killing the cattle they wanted to raise. Everywhere there were borrow pits and the remains of old attempts to drain. It was warm and still and quiet. After an hour of hiking, his head felt hot and his eyes burned with sweat. He would cut the creature down, bring it in, someone would take pictures and these would become part of an educational exhibit . . .
In bright illusion on the ground before him was a plastic guide to the birds, slipped from someone’s pack or pocket. It was the size of a letter, the birds crowded on both sides for easy identification. He looked at it warily and did not touch it, knowing that what he was seeing had finally become only a symbol of what was now invisible. Too, he knew it wasn’t actually there. His foot passed over it and it vanished.
There was a lovely poem about a kestrel by an Englishman, a lovely, lovely poem. Florida had a kestrel and it was called a Killy Hawk, a Killy Hawk.
He was deep in the hammock now and it was still quiet, darkly green with broken light. When he saw the man in the clearing he sat down with a sigh. The man was digging a fern from the deep grooved bark of an oak. He had some sort of tool, a useful little tool to do this with. It was his father quite clearly and the fern was a hand fern, it really looked like a hand with spread fingers. Preyman’s father had preached for thirty years and never given the same sermon twice, though he frequently discoursed on the line And it was night from the Fourth Gospel. He loved the line, the immaterial night, glorious, full of promise. His father’s interests were not of this world. The Greek was en de nux. Preyman had learned some things . . . When his father retired he had lived in a condominium building in Miami called Ambience—they’d had a laugh or two about that—and then he’d had a stroke and died in a nursing home, an innocent, which did not keep him from dying in terrible fear. His father’s long hands cupped the fern now, the roots falling through his white fingers and dangling in the air. His father was dead, the fern was extinct, the last taken years before from the Everglades. Preyman felt the reassuring logic of this but then it passed over him, no more than a gust of rancid air.
I must arrest him, Preyman thought, I must arrest what this is, and he opened his mouth with a cry to do so.
“In the Park” which appears in the collection THE VISITING PRIVILEGE, to be published by Alfred A. Knopf in September 2015. Copyright © 2015 by Joy Williams.