“When Smilla Called the Alligator”
By the time the second miracle happened, people were already remembering what an odd girl Smilla Boudreaux had always been. Odd girls were common as Mary grottos in spongy river parish towns, but folks said that Smilla was odder than the rest, a St. Brigette pool among the virginal Marys in their roses. Likes of her just weren’t found very often, and when they were, they stuck in your head for days on end.
Course, folks also said that it wasn’t surprising Smilla was such a pepper, being that her grandmère was the same some fifty years back. Oddness seeps into the bone and sits there to stay awhile. Smilla, the youngest of an even baker’s dozen of kids was a trial for her poor momma after all, but wasn’t it her fault since she just plain pooped out when she got to unlucky thirteen? The triplets ran her into the ground, what with their thieving and city ways, and then there was that mess with Mr. Boudreaux back in the seventies. But he was acquitted of all charges. Don’t let anyone tell you different.
But yes, little Smilla, with those boiled shrimp lips and Easter egg eyes, was so cute you just wanted to eat her up. That is, until you remembered those tales about Grandmère Thibodeaux, especially that one that said she was a healer in the Cajun sense. Folks didn’t like to buy that healer nonsense, not in public anyhow, but the trade to and from her house was brisk, with furtive feminine shadows creeping along lanes clutching money, or goods, or ribbons for payment. Grandmère Thibodeaux only took on the desperate ones because, as she said, you’re allowed to make one mistake. That was Grandmère Thibodeaux’s job: fixing mistakes made by young girls with hot boys, fueled by boredom, cheap liquor, and long, hot Louisiana nights. Townfolk knew well and good what she was doing, but since their girls finished high school without any unlucky interruptions, they kept their mouths shut.
Momma Boudreaux, though, never took herself to her own momma’s house, not for business anyhow. She ended up pregnant at fifteen, and again at sixteen, and then the triplets at eighteen. By the time she had Smilla, she just washed her hands of the whole sorry mess, laid down in her bed to sleep, and never again got up. There she lies to this day, in a small bright room under a white eyelet cover, making her kids run back and forth on invalid errands. Except Smilla.
First sign of Smilla’s oddness came when she was four years old. She was sitting in church wearing a pink dress and shiny black shoes that swung back and forth to the rhythm of Father’s homily. Her hands, busy opening the doors to see all the people, steepled over and under and over again, little twig fingers wiggling with delight. Nobody noticed the change in her, not at first, but then Smilla always had her daddy’s sense of showmanship. Father was working himself up into a fevered pitch, what with the sinning and the brimstone and hellfire nonsense that everyone knew was nonsense, Catholic or not. Most said Father was a little too Protestant anyways, and weren’t they Catholic in the Cajun sense?
Just as Father was working his way from the altar to the front of church, the Widow Richoux, who took over Mrs. Boudreaux’s job in more ways than one, was scanning the Boudreaux children, looking for something, anything, to keep her mind away from that fire-breathing of Father’s. She noticed little Smilla’s lips moving, and smiled to herself. Little Smilla was always singing, and she was cute as a button, after all. Poor thing was probably bored to tears with the homily blazing its way to final glory.
But then Mrs. Richoux looked closer, and saw that Smilla wasn’t singing at all. Her little fingers were still wiggling with all those people, but she wasn’t looking at them anymore. No, she was staring right at Father O’Brien, just mumbling away under her breath. Well Mrs. Richoux remembered those stories about Grandmère Thibodeaux, had pondered over them before she decided to take the job as the Boudreaux children’s caretaker, but hadn’t ever believed them. Not really. Not like faith. But watching little Smilla’s shrimp lips move like that, her egg-blue eyes kind of glaze over, she felt something funny. Something like premonition.
“And that’s why we must release the demons,” Father said, his hands lifted in supplication to the heavens. “Open our hearts and…”
And then Father O’Brien’s eyes rolled back in his head and he collapsed to the ground.
At first, people said that they weren’t surprised, since Father often reeked of good single malt more often than not. But the Widow Richoux couldn’t keep her mouth shut about Smilla’s whisperings, not with such oddness just boiling under her skin, ready to burst out. She told Laurie Wilson, who told Jenna Knightley, who told Sara Broussard who told T’Ann Richard and on and on until by the next morning, the whole town knew about Smilla’s mumblings, her glazed eyes directed at Father, and the fact that the Boudreauxs weren’t really churchgoers, were they?
After that, the Widow Richoux ended her companionship with the Boudreaux family, and Mr. Boudreaux was left to raise those thirteen children by himself.
But some weeks later, when Father entered himself into one of those rehab programs, folks tended to let a four-year-old girl’s oddness slide right on by. No one believed in witches anymore, or voodoo or gris-gris or anything they subscribed to in that Den of Iniquity, New Orleans. Marie Laveau was just a boogeyman in the river parishes, something to threaten little kids with when they were too sassy for their own good. Grandmère Thibodeaux, though odd, had been just an old woman with some herbal knowledge. Soon the Boudreaux triplets did something else nasty and rotten, right around Halloween, and everyone forgot about little Smilla’s verbal strangeness.
There were other moments, here and there, scattered like broken beads the day after Mardi Gras, but nothing connected. Nothing solid. Nothing until Valentine’s Day, some seven years after Father’s fall, when Smilla got fewer valentines than the other kids. Not because she wasn’t pretty, but because she was. Too pretty. Unnaturally so. Over at St. Mary Magdalene’s the girls were in awe of their stunning classmate while the boys were confused over feelings they just didn’t understand. So while the class average was fifteen valentines apiece, Smilla got only six. Then the alligator came, and all hell broke loose.
As I sat in the row next to Smilla’s, one seat back from the girl herself, I got to see it all happen. Bird’s eye view, my daddy would say, but then, that may not work, since I wasn’t up top of anything. Next door view, maybe, or just neighborly nosiness. Whatever it was, it was up close and personal.
I counted my valentines—eleven, a respectable number for a skinny kid with scraped knees and hair that hung in his eyes—and as I was a kid, and kids will be kids, I glanced around the room to see what everyone else got. Rosalie Knightley got twenty-one, two more than there were students for, but assuming Clark Richard gave her a few would be a safe bet. Clark Richard got himself eighteen, while Seth Gibbons, poor fool, only got himself nine. My eyes, being so close to her and all, roamed over to Smilla’s desk. There the faded pink and watered red construction paper hearts were lined up in a neat row on her desk. Six. Only six, and I knew for a fact one was from Miss Hepburn, and one was from me. That left only four people in the class nice enough to give a funny girl a funny valentine.
Of the four, I could name at least two. Sandra Wilson, a slow girl with a heart bigger than the world, would’ve given one to Smilla Boudreaux. She was just like that, always bringing home broken birds or dead mice, to see if she could save “just one.” Another must be from Paris Marsh who was, already at the tender age of eleven, inclined to wear a lot of dark colors once the school bell rang and the uniform gave way to street clothes. Smilla moved her arm and a scrap of black lace edging a red paper heart came into view. Definitely Paris Marsh’s, a present, from one odd girl to another. The other two were complete mysteries.
Smilla took herself a furtive glance around the room, and as she did, I had a strange flash, a memory, maybe, of something my momma used to read to me as a kid. Momma was always reading, herself having been another odd girl back in the day, and she loved poetry. Loved it so much, people thought she was stranger than most. Wasn’t ever a girl in our town liked poetry that much, they said when she went off to college and got herself an English degree. It’s bona fide, too. Hangs on our wall at home, right over the television and to the right of the Angel picture, the one that leads the babies out of the dark forest.
But that glance Smilla took reminded me of this poem, something about a woman in a tower, with nothing to do but sew and look in a mirror all day. She was cursed, or trapped, or something. I think she had real long hair she had to hang out a window, but she wasn’t ever supposed to look at that window. Course, she did, because then, who wouldn’t? Everyone knows that the hardest thing in the world to do is something you’re told you’re not supposed to do. When the woman looks out the window, the mirror crack’d, from side to side. That’s the way momma said it, even spelled it out to me so I could hear that dropped “e.” And when Smilla looked to the left, and then the right of her desk, counting up how many valentines everyone else got, I remembered that dropped “e,” the sound of “crack’d” echoing in my head.
“Okay, y’all,” Miss Hepburn said. “Put your valentines away. It’s time for recess.”
This, of course, was the bloody meat signal at Audubon Zoo’s tiger cage. Papers flew about, chairs screeched against the floor, and seventeen kids near flew to form the line at the front of the room. I say seventeen, because I was watching Smilla, and Smilla wasn’t going anywhere.
She had stopped cracking from side to side and instead sat still as death, a pale little shadow in a battered wooden desk. Her hands gripped the edges of her desk until they dimpled with the effort. And her shrimpy lips started moving, just slightly, just enough for me to see that something was brewing under that surface.
“Y’all gonna come to recess?” Miss Hepburn asked. “Or are y’all gonna sit in here all day?”
The rest of the class tittered. Wasn’t any kid who would choose to stay in the cramped little sixth-grade classroom at St. Mary Magdalene. We weren’t even in the building proper anymore, but in a trailer some ways from the main school, right up close to the swamp. So close, the smell of that fetid water swept into the trailer on hot days, when the window unit sucked in the air from outside and forced it down our throats. It was a hot day today, as February would be in Louisiana, and while outside was probably hotter than the trailer, at least it was more open.
“Come on, Smilla,” I said. “Or are you gonna be a fool?”
She turned to me, then, Easter eyes darkening to something like midnight on the water. Impenetrable, except for one tiny focus of light, just off to the left. Then she blinked, nodded, and stood up.
As soon as they saw that movement, our classmates went scurrying out of the door, laughter and teasing trailing in their wakes. Miss Hepburn gave me a smile one could only call gentle, or maybe it was sympathetic. She knew Smilla was an odd girl. Maybe she herself had been one, back in the day. But she appreciated my effort, all the same.
I tramped outside and sat under a tree, pulled out a book and began to read. Wasn’t much else to do at recess, not with my condition. Momma wouldn’t let me play with the other boys on account of that thing that happened that one time. To be fair, none of the other boys wanted to play with me, not after seeing me get hauled away in that ambulance. They were nice enough, sure, but while it was hard being an odd girl in our town, it was even harder being a weak boy.
So imagine my surprise when not three pages into my book—something about some boys’ school and a chocolate bar fundraiser—Rosalie Knightley let out a scream so loud I screamed myself, just in response. Then, everyone started screaming, loud wails that echoed in my ears like the sirens that ushered in a parade. The smell of that swampy water was stronger, stung my eyes with its potency. Around me there was hysteria and mass confusion. I turned behind me, and saw an alligator.
Some folks say that when it’s your time, your life flashes before your eyes. Boy, are they ever wrong. There wasn’t nothing flashing before my eyes but an eight-foot-long alligator, so close to me we could have snuggled up to read. One thing was for sure. I couldn’t move. Not a single solitary muscle.
Not so my classmates. The playground was a vacant space of former activity. A dodgeball even bounced by me, so close it startled the alligator. His mouth opened and he began to scoot closer.
Then I heard something like singing, like angels all around. Except the song didn’t seem like anything angels would ever sing, not unless they got access to some of the hipper stations down in Baton Rouge. Angels should be singing Ave Marias or Hark the Heralds. Instead, the angels were singing something old by that man who liked glitter, and somebody named “Ziggy Stardust.”
“‘I never done good things. I never done bad things. I never did anything out of the blue.’”
“Woh-o-oh,” I added, just in case the angels were testing me.
“Alcee Robért, you the fool, not me.”
For a moment, I thought it was the alligator taunting me, and to be fair, he had every right. What kid is fool enough to sit there waiting for an alligator to gobble him up? I wasn’t some city kid. I grew up in the bayou, and if there’s one thing every bayou kid knows, it’s don’t let the alligators get you. But try as I might, I couldn’t get any of my limbs to work. Not my arms or my legs. And my neck? That wouldn’t twist, no matter how hard I wrenched it.
And then, if it was the alligator teasing me, he was certainly a she, and a young one at that. I didn’t take my eyes off the alligator, but I was able to see Smilla out the corner of them, all the same. “Smilla?” My voice sounded so small, so high, a reminder of just how far away puberty really was.
“Yeah, Alcee. It’s me.” She walked over to my side as calm as you please, and squatted down next to me. “He’s a big one, him.”
No, no, I think I should’ve argued that she was the fool right then. Didn’t she smell him? Didn’t she see the rusty hunks of gore trapped in his teeth? He was so close now that I could feel him breathing on my leg. “He’s gonna eat me,” I said, in that high-pitched, forlorn voice.
“No he ain’t, you silly bebe. He don’t want to eat little boys. Little boys get caught in his throat, don’t they, sugar?” The last was said in a croon to the gator. “That’s right, you nasty ole gator. You don’t wanna eat this boy, no. He’s too skinny, and he’s sickly, too. Nothing but skin and bones, stringy, tough little meat. That ain’t good enough for some grand man like yourself, no.”
I watched, in horror, as Smilla crab-walked a foot, then two, towards the alligator. Her arm was extended away from her body, moving closer and closer to his nose. The light caught the hairs on her arms and I could count them all if I wanted, they were that distinct. And then the sun danced along the sweat droplets dancing along her arm. One dribbled down and splashed on the alligator’s nose. “Now, don’t that smell good, Mister Sir? Sugar and spice, everything nice. That’s what little Smillas are made of. Go on, Père Gator. You go ahead and take yourself a lick.”
The alligator’s jaw snapped shut and his unblinking eyes stared hard at Smilla’s face.
“What, you think I’m joking with you?” Her arm moved two, three inches, ever closer to that alligator’s face. “Go on, then. Try to take a bite outta me.”
Something warm and wet pooled in my lap and the acrid scent of ammonia stung the air. The alligator’s head started to swing towards me, but Smilla led him back with the sight of her arm.
“Are you a damn fool, Alcee?” she asked out of the side of her mouth. “Run, goddamn you, boy. Run!”
I was a sickly boy with a heart condition and asthma and no real strength whatsoever, but I would be damned to hell before I left a girl alone with an alligator, even a girl as strange as Smilla. “No,” was all I said.
She blinked. I saw her blink, but her gaze never wavered from the alligator. “Maybe you ain’t such a fool after all, no,” she said in that soft, jingle-bell voice of hers. “Go on, then, Mister Sir. There’s nothing for you here. See?” She started sliding her arm back to her chest. “See, no more tasty morsels for you to chomp.”
Those cold dead eyes of his seemed to flash for a moment, like maybe they had life in them after all. Real life. Working brain life, not the dead blank reptile expression. And then Mister Alligator started backing away.
Smilla turned towards me, her smile sunny and wolfish. “We showed him, huh, Alcee?”
Then there was a crack, and a whine, and the alligator’s head shifted away, towards the sound.
“You kids get over here now!” a deep voice yelled behind us. Another crack, and then another, and I grabbed Smilla’s hand ran as fast as I could. I would’ve said we were running from the alligator, but I was pulling Smilla, and she wasn’t helping at all. But like that bad wreck on the side of the road, both of us stopped, somewhere near that Nathalie girl who was always too nosey for her own good. We turned to see Mister Alligator, his bloody back, his sightless eyes.
“My brothers never would’ve missed,” Nathalie told us. She popped her gum and shook her head. “Would’ve got it on the first shot, them.”
Smilla was quiet for three seconds before she screamed, high and loud, and in its wordless moan, it sounded something like “no.”
At least, that’s what everyone said, afterwards. After we were cleaned up and checked over and again at Our Mother of the Rosary hospital for alligator bites or alligator bruises. After the five o’clock news, and the six o’clock news, and the ten o’clock news. After dozens of interviews with Miss Hepburn, and Sheriff Tanner, and all the kids who had stood behind the swing set, watching Smilla talk to the alligator. They all said the same thing: Smilla Boudreaux worked her grandmère’s voodoo magic to bring the alligator upon us for not giving her a proper Valentine due, and when it was killed, a bit of her was killed, too.
Even when I told them that wasn’t the way it happened, that Smilla had distracted Mister Alligator to keep me safe, they didn’t believe me. They patted my head or called me a pants-wetter or a sissy baby, but they didn’t believe me. I don’t think they wanted to.
They took Smilla away late that night. Said it was for her own good, that she was traumatized after her experience with the alligator, but I knew the real reason. A girl like Smilla is dangerous in a place like this. They wanted to shrink her head, get in her thoughts, see what would make a girl like that talk to an alligator.
She came back, years later, just in time to start high school, but she wasn’t the same. They had her on some kind of medicine soup, and it was hard enough to get a clear look from her, much less a coherent sentence. She got pregnant at fifteen, too, just like her momma.
But no boy would take claim for that baby. Not a one. Not even me. And when they asked Smilla who the daddy was, she just gave them that blank smile and said four simple words:
“Ain’t got no daddy.”
When that baby was born, healthy and perfect and whole, the town started whispering. They’d cross themselves when she walked down the street, pushing that stroller just as happy as could be, because wasn’t it Smilla who called that alligator, way back? Wasn’t she the one who tried to have her entire class gobbled up by a monster from the deep swamp?
But some others, they whispered different things, and sometimes, they whispered them to me. Lots of words were used, but some stood out from the rest. Words like “virgin” and “birth” and “salvation.” Yes, those others whispered to each other late into the night that maybe they were sinners, all, and when Smilla called the alligator, she was just trying to cleanse our sleepy little town.