Ashley Kemker: Essay: Sept. 2021

Southern Legitimacy Statement: I was born in the North, to two Southern parents, finally returning to the South, to the peninsula inhabited for several centuries by my mother’s people in my tenth year. My hands have quick caught green anoles; felt the mix of sandy black soil under my running feet. This body has the blood of Crackers, of alligator hunters, famous bank robbers, generals and sharpshooters, of limbs pulverized by grist mills, cut by oyster beds, penetrated by bullets. In short–I am the body and blood of Florida.

Underdarkneath

The bedrock of the Floridian peninsula is karst-pocked limestone, and within that are the caves—

       Water has sluiced through them for millennia on its way into the deep aquifer, and things have leapt into the watery openings and swam down to live; escaping Miccosukee spears, or the small bullets of the Spanish. Dove right into the gin-clear springs past the bladderwort and tape grass

         Many little living things have gone through the cave openings and greenish tunnels silent with the weight of water into the springshed. Cracker horses shook themselves off when they clopped up onto the cold rock miles underneath the sandy soil. Red wolves with warm pink tongues are there too, and water birds, closing the holes in their beaks, zipped through those tunnels and shot out of the water eagerly, their wet feet slapping on the solid ground. In the dips and pocks, soil has gathered, seeds brought from the waste of the more herbivorous take hold there and after a fashion, there are trees and short shrubs for the living things to eat. 

         Many are there. Turtles going through the dark, bobcats padding softly though, spreading out in the murk, roving out into the underdarkneath, father away from each other—and there’s older secret things too, that talk to themselves in that tenebrific silence. 

        Ever more often, fits of boredom take the black bears. They snort and rub their skin on the dolomite. The manatees, swimming in circles, hit their noses against the jagged shore, until little swirls of red languish in the water. The fish swim deeper into the earth. They are afraid to splash or make too much noise, losing their greens and yellows for pale.

         All begin to adapt fearfully to the low light and stifling air. The under-palms become milk-white and spidery. Spoonbill’s beaks widen, their teeth grow. Worse yet, the little horse’s eyes move from side to front, their necks elongate and curve like snakes, their heads close to the ground, seeking insipid lichens, their hooves soften and fall with a quiet dampness. The spotted skunks become all black and cringe away from light; there are long teeth and lowered joints, receding fur, darkened water, pale bodies with purplish veins spread sick through translucent skin. 

      They think: perhaps it’s time for us to swim back up. And what will happen then, finally, when they tire of those deep places and want to emerge? What will they find on the burning up surface with stars falling down it’s humid face?