My dinner burned that evening as I sat with my legs dangling over the threshold of the hut staring at the fire. I must have had many thoughts going through my head as I sat there but I cannot remember even one. I did notice Cronk ease through the water on the other side of the lagoon, his tail making a slow, lazy, ‘S’ in the water as he went. He settled into a spot facing east and soon only his closed eyes and snout were visible above the water, but I didn’t really think about him, I just know I observed him. When the wood was down to embers, I pulled my legs inside, latched the door and lay in the looming darkness listening to the incessant trilling of the insects around me. The noise seemed to drill into my skull but instead of being an annoyance, it somehow kept other thoughts at bay and I drifted off to sleep right away.
Maybe it was Cal’s words, ‘ you have not the fortitude…’ but after a few days of alternating stupor, crying, and shivering fear - anger took over and one morning I awakened full of resolve: I would somehow sustain myself until I could get off the island, return to Philadelphia and make sure that Cal would pay for what he’d done. I never burned my food again; I began planning an escape.
Every morning, first thing, I strapped Cal’s belt around my waist with the machete and sheath attached. I was as careful as possible in all actions I took – a broken bone or snakebite could end everything. Looking back on my attempts at escape, I know how foolhardy that was.
It was nearly a month later that I was ready to attempt my escape. I thought I’d planned everything as well as I could. First, I climbed as far up as I dared on the tallest tree on the island; no Ernesto down below to catch me. I surveyed all that I could see in every direction around the island, and all of it was sawgrass. Here and there, fairly close by, I’d catch a glittering glance at what I assumed was tiny openings of exposed water. Far, far on the northern horizon I detected a darker gray or green that may have been another tree island, but I couldn’t be sure; I blinked against the brilliant sunlight. It had to be many miles away.
I knew how remote my chances were; I’d noticed enough of the swamplands from the plane. Though some hammocks were more clustered together, near Hidden Key Cal had pointed out the vast distance between tree islands and the miles of saw grasses in between. I’d heard the stories of people lost in the swamp and how even the more experienced travelers became lost and returned cut, sliced, sore and infected from slashes inflicted by the saw blade edges of the grasses that flourished in the Everglades. I knew it would be the most difficult experience I’d ever have to face, but I had to try; to not at least try to escape seemed to go against all that I was inside – and I wanted Cal to pay for what he’d done to me. I would make a raft.
I tried to anticipate all the things that could go wrong. Cronk was my primary concern. Before I struck out, I again used the tree to determine if the gator was home. At land level, I couldn’t always detect his presence. Sometimes he’d lie a few feet below the surface and he became invisible to me. From one tree, I could gaze down upon, and deeper into the lagoon. I didn’t know how deep the water would be and how far a tiny raft would take me. Though one part of me completely understood how foolhardy this attempt was, another part compelled me to try. How could I let Cal determine my destiny? So there I was taking nothing but a pole I’d fashioned after one I’d seen J.C. and the Seminoles use, my machete, dried fish, and a small water container. I thought there was a risk in drinking the water once I left the island, but found I could only manage a small container. I would hope for rain and use the piece of canvas I had tucked into my belt to collect it and refill the water container. I planned to head due south, and with luck I would end up in Florida Bay. I had no conception of how far that might be, but I knew that at least fishermen and sportsmen passed through there with some regularity. Florida Bay – open waters; I couldn’t chance going on to the west coast near Cal’s family home. I felt it was really far away, and what if they were in on this? I knew they lived somewhere relatively west of my location.
While making my plans, I fully realized how calculating Cal had been during our flight. He’d changed directions so many times that I’d gotten dizzy. I remembered an overwhelming landscape of saw grass and water, small islands, dotted here and there far from where we landed, and no coastline at all. He flew in low to make it nearly impossible for me to know where I was. All that extra flying around was so that I’d see how remotely I was stranded.
It’s laughable now; the futility of my plan to escape the island. At the time though, it really seemed plausible or at least, my only possibility. The boards I had were just too narrow – maybe eight inches wide, perhaps five or six feet long. They were the same boards Cal had used to make a walkway from the plane to the shore, and they were the only large pieces of wood on the island except for the hut. During childhood trips to Key Largo with stops sometimes in Miami, I’d seen Seminole Indians in the canals with canoes not much wider than my two boards… so my thinking was… why couldn’t it be done? The vines I used to secure them were just not sturdy enough for the job. I had no rope and not enough clothing to chance destroying the cloth.
Later, after the two failed attempts to escape the island, it at least seemed worthy to have tried. To any onlooker, it would have no doubt been rather comical to see; Chaplinesque, perhaps. I put on a pair of heavy, much too large, boots that Cal had left by accident or design. I knew I’d need them if I had to pull my raft through shallow water as I’d seen J.C. do on occasion. I slit my long skirt and used vines wound around each leg to secure the fabric as makeshift trousers. I attached machete and canteen to my belt. I planned to set off from the north side of the lagoon, head slightly west and then cut south. I could see more water that way from my tree perch. Directly south was muck and saw grass.
On the first attempt, with Cronk gone, I knelt on the boards using the pole to steady me and propel my ‘raft’. I promptly lost balance and fell into the water, but close to the shore. The raft held together and I’d held onto my pole. I pulled the raft ashore and checked once more for Cronk in case the commotion attracted his attention and brought him back. On the second attempt, the boards split apart. I’d gotten a little farther out; nearly to the other side of the lagoon where the sawgrass began. Because the boards were long and narrow, I knelt near the center point and was using my stick to move me forward. I was gaining confidence when, for only a second, I lost my balance and the boards twisted out from under me. Suddenly, one board shot forward while the other broke upward in the water on my left and struck me in the forehead. My pole hit the edge of a board when I was going down and though it happened quickly, I think it catapulted further into the sawgrass. It was completely out of reach because I was already frantically swimming back toward the island hampered tremendously by the oversized boots that were dragging me down. I could only think of Cronk.