“Ava Wrestles The Alligator” is the first story in Karen Russell’s short story collection “St. Lucy’s Home For Girls Raised By Wolves.”
It is a story dense with the sweat-soaked, fear-laden, wonder-struck emotions of late childhood, told with language that flared like lightning across my imagination.
The world Ava lives in is limned by lightning flashes from realities different to her own: changes in her sister’s interior landscape that manifest as possession by a series of non-corporeal boyfriends, the sought-but-not-found spirit of her recently-dead mother, the appetites of a gypsy Birdman and the cries of the wild alligators, so different from the almost mute tameness of the hand-reared Swamplandia! alligators.
“Ava Wrestles The Alligator” is a story about experience and agency and how, sometimes, to keep the ones you love from leaving you, you have to wrestle them to the ground.
The power of the story comes from its language, which flickers with meaning that faded as I looked away from the words themselves but which left an emotional afterimage on my imagination.
Ava’s sister is the source of the transformational wildness that powers the story. Ava introduces her relationship to her sister by saying:
“My older sister has entire kingdoms inside of her, and some of them are only accessible at certain seasons, in certain kinds of weather. One such melting occurs in summer rain, at midnight, during the vine-green breathing time right before sleep. You have to ask the right question, throw the right rope-bridge. to get there — and then bolt across the chasm between you before your bridge collapses.”
Shortly afterwards, Ava describes Osceola’s possession by her one of her boyfriends:
“You know, Ossie’s possessions are nothing like those twitch-fests you read about in the Bible, no netherworld voices or pigs on a hill. Her body doesn’t smoulder like a fire-cracker, or ululate in dead languages. Her boyfriends possess her in a different way. they steal over her, silking into her ears and mouth and lungs, stealthy and pervasive, like sickness or swallowed water,”
I love how that last sentence turns sibilance into an image of slick corruption.
Ava watches her sister’s metamorphosis:
“…in guilty, greedy increments. Ossie is sweating. Ossie is heavy-breathing. She puts her fist in her mouth, her other hand disappearing beneath the covers.
Then she moans, softly.”
Ava’s reaction seems to me to be what the whole story pivots on. Ava says:
“And I get that peculiar knot of fear and wonder and anger, the husk that holds my whole childhood.”
Let that description sink in. Eighteen words that open up a soul and that transported me back to a time before my adult mind edited my experiences in real-time.
Ava sees her sister’s possession as:
“…another phase change that I don’t understand. Solid to void, happening in such close proximity to me.”
I think this captures the challenge of a certain kind of childhood; to move from seeing such phase changes to reaching out and affecting them.
In many ways, the alligator that Eva wrestles is the wild spirit that will shift her world out of phase unless she grabs it and imposes her will.