by Cislyn Smith

The wild girls don’t wear shoes. They slip through the palmetto scrub and walk through the twigs and acorns under twisted oaks on the balls of their feet, callouses tougher than the cracked soles of my flipflops. When I was little, and we lived way out in the sticks on the Manatee River, I wanted to be one of them. I told my Grandma that and she said we can’t all live in swamps and eat algae for a living, but I didn’t see why not. She said the wild girls were ‘unnatural’, which didn’t even make any damn sense. Naiads are the most natural things around. But she was old and remembered from before, when people didn’t see naiads swimming and walking around, so Mom and Dad said we all had to be patient with her.

I didn’t want to be patient. I wanted to be a wild girl.

I started kicking off my shoes when I was eight, whenever I was by myself. It went ok for a while, though my toes weren’t webbed and I wasn’t allowed to swim in the water for fear of gators and snakes. There were two naiads in the slough adjacent to our property and I watched them to learn how to be graceful sloshing through the mud and over fallen cypress logs. That is, until I stepped on a piece of broken glass down near the bank. I hopped all the way back to the house, and then it was off to the E.R. with my foot propped up on the dash, wrapped in a bloody dishtowel. Four stitches and some magically adhered blood moss later and then I was stuck in sneakers for ages. After that I was too much of a tenderfoot to try go barefoot outside. 

The wild girls don’t brush their wild green and brown tangles, either. I never bothered trying that one out. I knew better. Even wild girls have to pick and choose their battles.

I chose my battles when they put the sanctuaries up, too. When the government rounded up the wild girls and put them in the protected zones, everyone I knew expected me to be out there, shouting and carrying on with signs and slogans with other kids from my high school. It’s true that I was mad about it – those were my friends, after all. And I didn’t like all the talk about it being ‘for their own good,’ either. But I took my cue from the naiads. I watched. I listened. There was some splashing and sabotage of the air boats that came to collect them at first, but mostly they went with their heads up, smiling with closed lips over sharp teeth, like they had a secret to savor. If the wild girls were satisfied with two or three central locations on each river and access to the estuaries, well, so was I. It didn’t seem right to act like I knew better than them. 

Now I’ve got a summer job, taking tourists out to those protected zones in flat-bottomed airboats. They cram in there with selfie sticks and gnomish made fanny packs, smelling of sunscreen and chewing gum. I tell them at the start that they can’t take pictures of the naiads, but they always think I mean they shouldn’t. They nod along and smirk and plan for when to sneak a picture behind my back and I let them. They’ll get shots of the mangroves or a log they think is a gator or just themselves in front of nothing much at all. Naiads don’t photograph. I had one guy ask me if that meant they were vampires. I wish they were, in truth. Vampires stalking the brackish waters and byways might keep the developers out for good. Fewer golf courses. Fewer strip malls. And they could snack on snowbirds and tourists, maybe.

I wonder sometimes if the wild girls get tired of the tourists, the way that I do. They seem to have infinite patience for the boats and the routine and the speeches I run through. Everyone who comes wants to hear about the Important Ecological work the naiads do, so they can walk away reassured about the way things work. I have to bite my tongue when they go looking for ways to make it all a simple math problem – impurities go in and then the naiads take it back out, so there’s no need to worry, right? No need to fret. Everyone is doing their part, and they can feel righteous about putting things in the recycle bin at the hotel before they fly back home. Anything venturing out of those shallow waters isn’t what people come here for, so I smile with lips closed over my teeth and don’t say much that isn’t on the script.

Instead, I dutifully point to the piles of trash near the tree line and instruct every tourist to take one thing away with them, after we watch the wild girls wiggle their hands down into the mud, scooping out beer cans and plastic grocery bags and fishing line and heap them up on the bank. Everyone is dutiful and does as I say, though there are wrinkled noses and disdainful sniffs at the mucky trash. It’s one of the prices of entry into any sanctuary, and they pay it. The other price is a flat fee that the administrators use to pay guides like me, so I do try to be grateful for the crowds. It’s easier some days than others.

On a lucky day we’ll see the naiads laying hands on the deep wounds slashed into a manatee’s back, soothing away the damage done by some motorboat going too fast in shallow water. The tourists will gasp and ooh and ahh. Someone will ask if they ever use that magic on humans. (No, no they do not.) Someone else will want to take a cup of sanctuary water home in a plastic sippy cup or whatever else they have on hand. Only authorized cups purchased from the gift shop are allowed, but I pretend not to notice when a lady pours out the remains of her coke on one side of the boat and then scoops up some water in the can. She’ll give me a good tip, and a very little sugary soda doesn’t hurt the river. Better she dump the soda than the can, and with any luck the sanctuary water will help her houseplants have a little more life in them. Or her kids. Whatever. It’s good for lots of things.

When the tourists have gone and my shift is over, I putter back over to the sanctuary in my own little boat. Being an employee has its perks, and getting in after hours is one of them. The wild girls strip out of the Spanish moss tops and short skirts they wear when there are outsiders around. So-called decency is for other people, part of the show. After hours, we’re not the show. We sit together in silence for a while, me on the bank and them mostly in the water, as twilight gathers and mosquitos swarm me and leave them alone – the river water and sap in their veins isn’t nearly so tasty as the blood in mine. 

Then I’ll get out the latest zoning reports, the latest real estate sales. I read them aloud by the light of my phone, to no one in particular. Just because. The wild girls are so still in the humid darkness near me that you’d think they were sleeping. I know better. 

In a day, or a week, or a month, there’ll be another notice in the paper. Another failed development, another scrapped project. Bad foundation. Black mold. Sinkholes. Termites. An endangered species found on site – bobcat or sandhill crane, maybe, or an orchid nobody’s seen in decades. There are so many things to go wrong in a place like this. So many ways for the march of progress to trip on a submerged tree root and fall on its face in the mud.

I’m not eating algae for a living, but I think I’ve finally made it as a wild girl all the same. And we wild girls get things done.

© Copyright Cislyn Smith

Cislyn Smith (she/her) likes playing pretend, playing games, and playing with words. She calls Madison, Wisconsin her home. She has been known to crochet tentacles, write stories at odd hours, and study stone dead languages. She is occasionally dismayed by the lack of secret passages in her house. Her poems and stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Diabolical Plots, and Daily Science Fiction, among other places. She is a first reader for Uncanny Magazine and Giganotosaurus, a graduate of the Viable Paradise Workshop, and one of the founding members of the Dream Foundry. Twitter: @Cislyn

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