When I was little, it wasnt the bayou what sung me to sleep, it was my mama. She sat on the edge of my bed, and she was beautiful. She was made out of moonlight. Her skin shone silver, and blue traced the long, black flow of her hair. With a graceful hand, she reached up and flicked the universe into motion. 

My universe; the mobile I made in first grade. Tin foil around the moon, clumps of bubbly glitter on the stars, planets painted with tempera, dry and crackly. I told Mama I wanted to go to all those places, the planets in order. To the moon! To the stars! 

Serious, she nodded and said, Yes, girl, and one day, you will. 

That mobile was my wishes and dreams made real. And after a while, the yarn frayed and the glitter molted, all over my bed. But Mama loved it so much, she wouldnt let me take it down. Secretly, I loved it too, even if it meant I paraded around school with sparkles on my cheeks instead of freckles, from time to time. 

Pressing her head against mine, Mama droned songs in my ear— just cause she sung me to sleep dont mean she was any good at it. Still, I loved it, because I loved her, and the soft, powdery scent of her skin, and the buzzing melody that vibrated off her lips and right into my brain. 

Alligator girls, wont you come out tonight? Come out tonight? Come out tonight? And dance by the light of the moon?

Eventually, I found out that wasnt her song at all. It was an old tune, and all she done was change the words a little. It was the smallest betrayal, no bigger than a fleck of glitter. But it lodged in my heart, and made me wonder what else she lied about. She had plenty of opportunity, after all. She didnt just bring lullabies to my bed. She told stories.

Once upon a time, not a one of them began. Mama didnt believe in fairy tales. She believed in myths and fables, and to her, there was a big difference. She said every language in the world got a word for love and for vampire—that meant thered always been both, since the beginning of time. She was like that, my mama, forever believing in monsters. 

But I believed her when she told me about alligator girls. 

Mama said the alligator girls, they stepped into the bayou water and melted away: their pretty skin getting ragged. Their pretty teeth glinting sharp. Beneath it all, their bones turned to daggers, and they walked around on stiletto feet, ready to draw blood. 

Most girls, Mama said, they just grew up to be women. They worked at the tire factory down the road for a while if they felt froggy, or waited tables for Uncle Laurent at the diner. With their own money, spent Friday nights at drive-in movies, and got permanent waves at Tenny-Belle Bedelias salon. 

Their faces, with too much sun on them (no hats, so they got freckles) and their hair, swirled like soft ice cream, attracted some attention, and girls’ night turned to date night. Bout every one of them, they ended up marrying boys they met in high school. Soon as that ring was on, the job was off and they started having babies. No more double features or double burgers on their break. It was diaper duty and dinner on the table after that. 

So they were written, so they became, she said.

There was always one or two, one or two, that climbed over what our town wanted to give them. Some of them—the smart ones, Mama said—dragged themselves off to community college. Or even regular college—Lord, some of them even got all the way to Tulane in New Orleans! 

They sharpened themselves up in pencil skirts and broad-cut jackets; they had tiny clutch purses full of menthol cigarettes and brains all stuffed with books and history and conversational French. Once they got out from under their mamas, these girls cut their hair short and dyed it red; they painted their faces pink and stained their lips coral.

Into college theyd go, and out theyd come, walking into clean jobs. Sensible ones. The kind with air conditioning and pensions and some kind of future. With their pretty diplomas, they alld be secretaries and assistants, sometimes bookkeepers and paralegals. They got lives, far, far away from Ascension Parish and never once looked back. As they weren’t shooting for the moon, they landed right where they meant to. 

And that was the just so story, round about here. Girls to women. Women to school or to childbirth. Women to jobs or families. Oncet you picked your lane, by God, you stayed in it—til death did you part—the man or the mortal coil.

But, but! Sometimes, on a blue moon, Mama said, there come a girl who realized too late where she went wrong. 

Maybe she worked the tire factory; maybe she didnt care if her grades would get her into Tulane. Maybe getting married early was a dream that turned a nightmare, or a nightmare patched together with an eight-month baby, a hope and an I Do. All them decisions what come before, they were the wrong ones. And these particular girls did the most scandalous thing of all: they admitted it.

After that? Well, a girl like that woke up … and walked into the water.

It was not, absolutely was not, a suicide. That girl knew too much to drown, she was too full of black magic and dark thoughts to die. 

It was a baptism. 

Down shed go, a wretch what chose wrong before. Up shed come, transformed. Sharp teeth, sharp eyes, always moving—Mama acted it out for me, curls falling from the pins in her hair. She sparkled; she sparked. Every single word, she rolled on her tongue and bit off like she would the edge of a praline. The way Mama described the alligator girls, I never could tell if I was supposed to pity them or envy them. 

It seemed like Mama expected me to know, but I just didnt. 

Sometimes, Mama felt full next to me. Not the good kind, the satisfied kind. No, the full that stretched my skin, tighter and tighter, til I was fixing to split like a sausage. Mamas hungry looks scoured me like a rag full of cleanser. She studied and stared, full of waiting and desperation.

Sometimes, she’d come up behind me when I was looking in the mirror, while I was trying to decide if I wanted to brush my hair a hundred strokes like Lana Turner did, or if I wanted to read another book. Sometimes I thought I looked like her, a little bit. I never said that to nobody though; I didn’t want them disagreeing. 

The fact was, with Mama’s face reflected beside mine, it was real clear I was coming in more and more like her. We had the same dimple, the same crooked lip. Even our eyes got steely and hard the same way. Standing there in silence, Mama dug into me, and I felt it, so deep, but I couldn't answer it.

Eventual like, I figured it out. I think. 

See, Mama took the marrying lane. She met Daddy working the soda counter at the Red Stripe market. They knew each other a little bit from high school, but got to know each other a lot better in the back of a Packard. Every time Mama said that out loud, Daddy would cuss and walk away. 

They didnt tell me about sex, but I knew. Oh yes, I knew, cause it was in the air and the water. It was in the way women looked at my Mama and clutched their husbands hands. When Daddys voice rose up from their bedroom, after dark, wanting to know why she couldn't just bake something for the church instead of bringing store-bought cakes, until the fighting turned into murmuring and then nothing at all. Things that werent sex were still about sex. 

When I was twelve, I grew out of my mobile and into my Mamas clothes. Her closet was a wonder and a scandal. While the ladies down at the PTA went in for full skirts and kitten heels, Mama wore pants! Pants! Wide linen legs that whispered when she walked; narrow ballet pants with a slit at the ankle! 

Sweater sets without the cardigan—and sometimes, tunics and silk blouses that some distant aunt sent her from New York City. Mama went without heels—it was loafers for her on occasions, and she regularly took herself into the Piggly Wiggly in tennis shoes. When she put a scarf around her head and wore her sunglasses, she looked a little bit like Audrey Hepburn.

I stuck out too, for a slightly bigger reason. I developed early, my breasts springing out like long-kept secrets. Popping the straps on my brassiere became every damn body’s favorite pastime, which I didn’t care for one bit. On the other hand, older boys started smiling my way, and coming to talk to me over my fence. And that? I cared for quite a bit. 

I wasnt the ugliest girl in school, nor was I the prettiest. We didnt have the least amount of money in town, but we didnt have the most, either. Those boys brought compliments and RC Colas, right to my door. Instead of leaving me dead average, that sun-warm attention made me beautiful and rich, over and over.

Now, Henry Landrieu, he was special. Every single thing about him dotted my eyes. His thick black hair swept back in a perfect wave; when he got his regular cut, the nape of his neck was so pale, it was almost blue. With his Acadien looks and sharp, Hollywood style, Henry wasn’t just a catch—he was a prize.

His daddy owned a Ford dealership up in Donaldsonville, so Henry always turned up in something brand new, black and slick. My favorite was the brand new Fairlane. Its fins cut through the air without a whistle. It glided down our street just after sunset, the rummy hum of the engine saying hello, darlin’.

The Fairlane was a convertible. Henry didnt even have to get out to holler at me. Daddy thought that was funny; it set Mamas teeth on edge. 

Early on, she made offhand comments to Daddy as she washed the dishes. Things like, “You remember when that Landry boy got his head stuck in the pews at church?” or “Isn’t Beaumont True the one who wet his pants til third grade?” But as soon as Henry became a regular, Mama sewed her lips shut. She was fit to be tied when Henry rolled in with his big, rich car. But she didn't say anything. Not one word. 

I kept waiting for her to pipe up again. She always pulled me back before, reminded me there was things I wanted that didn’t walk on two legs and wear suspenders. That there was things in the beyond that held my wonder better than any moving picture show. 

But not this time, not when Henry kept coming and the rest of the boys fell away. I had my first car date, and all of a sudden, Mama announced I was too big for bedtime stories. She stopped singing to me, too. To test her, I took the mobile down—she didn't fish it out of the trash. 

No more stories. No more songs. And then, one day, no more MamaShe went out to buy a pack of Salems, and just never came home. That was one week after I got my monthlies, almost to the day. I was full of thirteen, almost fourteen, and my Mama was gone. 

Daddy was upset, but he wasnt worried. He told me not to think about it, in the same voice he told me I wasnt gonna be wearing lipstick until I was sixteen at least. It was like hed always expected Mama to up and run off eventually. He didnt feel the need to call the police, and he said I didn’t need to waste any tears about it. 

“It is what it is,” Daddy said, turning fried potatoes in the cast-iron skillet. “Reckon you can get over it, or die of it.”

My mama had gifted me with just enough cussedness that I chose neither. Instead, I locked up all my feelings about her. My love and my hate and my comfort and my fear. She left me so mad. I bit my own knees at night, after I pulled them up to my chest. Sometimes, I drew blood, and licked it away like a savage cat.

That’s when I started appreciating steadiness and regularity. All them expectations that Mama threw out our windows, Daddy brought back in and glued them together. Daddy didn’t have mystery songs, or secrets I was just meant to know. No, my daddy was as easy to read as his name stitched on his work coveralls. 

Far as he was concerned, a house needed to be orderly, children needed to be mannerly, and meatloaf had to be served Wednesday-ly. 

The only ever thing that hadn’t been regular about Daddy was the fact that he’d loved my Mama. He told it all in the way he cussed the Packard story. Once upon a time, she got him to do exhilarating things, but was too grown anymore to be exhilarated.  

His patterns fell around my shoulders, and I clutched them tight. Orderly hadnt up and abandoned me and left me to figure out all the woman things on my own. Steady never did anything but get me from one day to the next, without drawing too much unwanted attention. Yes, indeed. I clung to hometraining and propriety with all my might. 

The woundedness that cut through me because of Mama and her absence and her songs and her stories, I locked them up tight. They went into a little box in my heart. Them dreams I had when I was little, bigger than me, bigger than this world, too close to the stars, I threw them in, too. I had no more time for impossible things. 

Fact is, it was a waste of breath and energy. Cant nobody walk on the moon. Cant nobody circle the stars. 

With my insides tidied up, all I had left to worry about was my outsides. It didn’t matter so much when I was fourteen, cause I was new. But fifteen meant I needed to work to keep Henry’s attention. That year’s lessons was blinking back tears, and plucking a perfect brow line. Relatedly, it would not do to bleed when I shaved, and even if I did cut myself, I learned not to complain, even if it hurt.

That was my training, and by God, it worked. Henry rolled up regular in his Fairlane, and he blotted out my mother gone missing. Plastered that right over with long drives and long looks. I tuned Henry like a radio: this blouse, it made his gaze linger; that skirt distracted him at stoplights. 

I learnt myself, to make him whistle low, woooweee! when I walked out the house to meet him. If I did it right, hed eat me all up with his eyes, taking the Lord's name in vain under his breath. 

And when we got to the movies or the drive-in or just sitting in the parking lot at the Piggly Wiggly with the rest of his football team, hed wrap his arm around my shoulder tight. Tighter still, if some other boy got it in his fool head to talk to me. 

One night, when Charlie Finch stole a jujube from my box, Henry shoved him good. Chested right up to him when he caught his balance, violence buzzing in the air. Everybody from Baton Rouge to New Orleans knew Henry would whip the tar off Charlie, so Charlie slunk away. 

That night tasted like fruit candy and fear and relief.

After those nights when we went driving, I lay in bed, a buzz low in my belly from talking to him. My legs swum in the sheets. I was wild with my shy hands dripping down to places unspoken. Henry left me wanting something I wasnt supposed to want, but a warning bell always went off in my head if I lingered too much. 

But to hell with that bell. It sounded like my mothers scratchy voice, crackling about alligator girls, alligator girls, won't you come out tonight? I ignored it; I locked it up. I put all my feelings into savoring that slick, lowdown sweetness that got into me whenever Henry came calling. 

I liked the way he dared a little taste when he kissed my lips. It was all kinds of good and wrong when he'd pull my hand to lay on his thigh when we went riding. A little bit dark, heading into dangerous territory. Edging right against the line between good girl and easy, leaving me to pull back before it was too late.

For my sixteenth birthday, Daddy bought me one tube of shell-pink lipstick and said Henry could come to dinner if I wanted him to. That was more than an invitation to try out my Cornflake pork chops. It was Daddy opening the gate. I was finally the age I needed to be: to wear lipstick—to accept a proposal and a ring and a future. 

After all, Henry had been working at his daddys dealership since he graduated. And every day, I wore his class ring and his letter jacket. Things were going places with me and Henry. All my friends were jealous. I got a good one, they said. I got a good one early. And I sure did. 

Henry did what I told him to, and brought me pralines on the regular. He talked about building us a house up by Eisenhowers new highway; he talked about taking over the dealership. Wed have one dog, a good hunting hound, and probably three kids. More, if it took that, to get a boy. 

For our wedding, his mama would help pick the flowers and cook the luncheon, since mine wasnt around to do it. Shed show me how to dress to go to their church, and how to organize my house and be a good wife. He said it like she could be a replacement, and I allowed the possibility. 

Why shouldnt she be a substitute mama? A better one? Mrs. Landrieu was the secretary of the PTA, and the treasurer of the Friends of the Library, and a card-carrying member of the Ascension Parish Hunting Club Auxiliary (Mr. Landrieu did the hunting; she did the cleaning and the cooking). Henrys mama did everything right. 

She was everything I wasn’t; everything my mama never taught me to be. I felt down, in my sharpened bones, that Mrs. Landrieu never wanted to do anything except exactly what she was meant to.

And that told me I shouldn’t have a single doubt about the world, not one. No, I did not, not at all. Things fell right in place, pop, pop, pop. Like pegs into holes; like the tick of a clock. Henry wrote our future out with his wishes and dreams, and I signed it like a contract. My road was smooth and clear, and I could see for miles. 

But when I opened up that lipstick—it was so waxy, so pretty, I wanted to take a bite of it with the sharp teeth I hid!—I couldnt help but notice it smelled just like my mama. It was her brand and I didn't know if Daddy picked it that way on purpose or not. 

That unexpected sweetness wrapped around me. All my forbidden memories sprung out. Mamas warmth, her laugh. Her secret stash of gingersnaps. The oil she put in her baths because it made her feel like Cleopatra. The menthol sting on her breath after she snuck on the roof for some “quiet time.” Her stories; her songs. 

Her voice—her scratchy, Siamese cat voice.

“Alligator girls,” I murmured, staring into my mirror, staring into eyes that everybody said were hers. I never did believe it before then, but in that moment, Jesus Christ, I saw her. I saw her rise up from the bayou, slick and sharp, tooth and claw, pale like night. 

She looked at me, just for a second. No, not at. In. She looked into me, digging deep in my brain, cutting away all the extra bits that didn't matter. My throat went dry and I held so still. Inside me, there was too much to see. Outside me was only a glass full of my mother, long gone, gone away, scolding me for thoughts I put away.

Her voice crackled like a raven’s: 

Chère, don’t you remember how much you loved the stars? Baby girl, how you loved the stars, you ever think about that? Bet you miss that mobile you made with your own hands. This town is so small, petite. Barely nothing in it but a gas station and a tire factory. Don’t you know how big the world is out there? 

I had no voice to answer; my throat filled up with rage and lava. All that went away when she up and ran off on me. All those pieces she broke me into, I had to put back together my own way. I didn’t even know if they were in the right place.

What if she already knew that there was razors in my teeth and daggers in my bones? 

If I said yes to an engagement ring at church Homecoming instead of yes to the rings of Saturn, would they start cutting through my white, jiggly flesh to let an alligator out of me? Slapping my granny’s silver-handled brush down on the vanity, I leaned closer to the mirror. 

“At least tell me if I’m picking right,” I said, sharpish. “Mama, say something.” 

But as soon as she rose up, she sank. She left me alone again, left me staring into the mirror, at nobody but myself. On my own to account for myself. Again. 

Well, to hell with her.

With numb hands and jittering fingers, I painted my mouth so careful. I stayed right in the lines and never strayed out of them, not once. And I pushed down all my thoughts, and my feelings, and all the things girls weren't supposed to think about. The lock wouldn't go back on the box, but I had to make it. I had to try.

Because I had a beau! And a life! And a future—a good one—and all the things I needed and most of the things I wanted. All but one thing, actually, because right then, balanced on the edge of sixteen and forever, I wanted to forget that my mama didnt just sing me a song. 

She asked me a question—wont I come out tonight? Wont I dance by the light of the moon?

Pulling on Henrys jacket, I pushed his class ring down on my finger hard, then threw my nightgown over the mirror. Good girls didnt say “Shut up,” but I told that covered mirror to shut right up! Dont look at me and dont talk to me, and dont dare ask me that question, no! 

There weren’t no place for me in the stars; I wasn’t gonna fly nor touch the moon or Mars beyond. Them rockets the Russians fired into the sky, it wasn’t like they had people inside! They had dogs and monkeys and they all died. 

This here was the fact of the matter: girls down in the bayou got two choices, thats it, and I decided. I picked Henry. Steady like my daddy, Henry. Orderly like my daddy, Henry. I knew exactly where I’d go from there, every step I’d take til I died. 

I even knew where my body was gonna lay, after I got called home by the Lord. My ordinary, every-day, developed-too-early, too-tempting body, full of sugar and spice and everything nice, and not one visible thing sharpish or wicked. And what, exactly, was wrong with that? 

It was good enough for Mrs. Landrieu, and I had plans to be the next good enough Mrs. Landrieu, thank you very much! All the things hidden under my skin, all the sharpness that grew day by day in my teeth, those were my secrets to keep.

Mama’s song swirled around in my head, scratchy like a bad record, and it went on and on like one, too. Putting on earrings and another coat of lipstick, I heard it in one ear. Then, the other, when I smoothed my blouse til nothing showed of my brassiere. 

It was time to meet Henry. Time to kiss him across the bench seat. Time to laugh at his flat jokes, and admire his full hair. 

No, looking at him didn’t feel like looking at the stars, but why should it? He’s all too physical, pressed to my side. And the stars? They’re hanging up there, jewels well out of my reach. The moon, too. That haint of my mother, that alligator girl in the mirror, had to stop asking if I wanted to dance in the light of the moon. She had to. I needed her to.

Because I was not, not no way, not no how, afraid that I’d say yes.




The list of things we’re expected to do gets longer, but time doesn’t expand for anyone. We have to decide, decide, decide, as fast as we can. AP classes or no? Extracurriculars, plural, must. Pick a career before puberty; invent a new test that diagnoses cancer cells for pennies a day between play rehearsal and volunteering at the animal shelter. Straight As are the new C; get into college, get that internship, go go go!

I wrote ALLIGATOR as a reminder to myself that I can always change my mind. Very rarely is it fatal to stop, to say, “This is not where I meant to end up.” It’s never too late to be true to the alligator in your soul. You’re allowed to feed it, love it, help it flourish. You’re allowed to be who you want—and you’re allowed to realize that what you want changes. (You’re also allowed to realize exactly what you want, as early as you want, and defy anyone else to change your course!) 

So alligator girls, alligator boys, alligator people, won’t you come out? Won’t you dance by the light of the moon? It may seem like it, but you won’t be alone out here. Promise.

{ Edited by Denise Conejo. }