by Anna Dempsey
‘I’ll never name an alligator again,’ she said, standing at the edge of the airboat. ‘I knew hunting season was coming and I just shoulda known better.’ She adjusted her khaki baseball cap and looked across the Everglades. It was the hottest part of the day, and the cicadas could be heard softly buzzing in the tall grass.
The tourists ignored her and continued to silently watch the water. Their noses were covered in white cream to scare away the Florida sun. Their hands were tightly grasping shiny phones, ready to record anything that may surface.
My Dad and I kept our eyes on Captain Deborah. Both of us knew gators didn’t just jump into the air, but we weren’t going to tell them that. This was their vacation, not ours. Besides, I was raised by the water. I knew what hid beneath it.
An egret swooped down several yards from the boat and re-emerged from the water with a fish its mouth.
‘See that right there! Now that’s what happens out here. It’s like the wild, wild west.’
She said it in a way that made me think she was convincing herself of certain things. I wanted to tell her it was okay to be sad, even if it was just a wild creature. Even if the death couldn’t be stopped.
If I had to bet, none of those people watch the videos they took that day. The tourists that were on the airboat with my family are likely back to their busy schedules with kids’ birthday parties, weekly trips to the grocery store, and life as usual. They probably don’t remember what they said on the boat or how they felt when the wind finally stopped whipping around us, allowing the water to lay still. I’m not like them.
I had been back in London for only a week when my Mom called my phone seven times in a row. I usually sleep with my phone outside in the hallway, but that night I couldn’t fall asleep. My suitcase was still in the corner of my small room yet to be unpacked. I don’t remember what she said, but I understood. He wasn’t in the ambulance, he wasn’t in a hospital bed; he was just gone.
The first person I saw after my Dad died was an Uber driver named Mulugheta. I was howling in his back seat or maybe crying loudly. I don’t even remember if I was wearing shoes. I do remember him saying that this was the ‘cycle of life’ and if my Dad hadn’t died today then it would’ve come eventually. He meant it to be calming, but it wasn’t. I lay down across the cloth seat and waited until the car came to a full stop before opening my eyes.
“I wish I could snap my jaws around their words, around their pity, and drown the hurtful phrases the way an alligator does with its prey.”
‘What name did you give her?’ I blurted out to Captain Deborah.
Behind the sunglasses I imagined her eyes watering, but nothing more. She didn’t seem like the kind of person to let things sink into her bronzed, weathered skin.
‘Named her girl. Used to take my paddle board out here on Saturday evenings and I swear she knew my voice. I wouldn’t bend down or anything.’ She turned sharply around and looked at the tourists at the front of the boat, ‘I don’t put my hands or a limb in the water, these are wild creatures, not puppies, you hear me?’ She turned back to me, a bit softened. ‘I’d talk to her, and I think she listened.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I whispered, unsure if she could hear me over the engine that she’d just cranked up behind us. My dad patted my leg twice. He knew I felt things more than other people.
‘Ya’ll know something, I’ve always wanted to be reincarnated as an alligator,’ she hollered over the noise. ‘I’d have my choice of turtle for dinner. The water’s warm, the sunsets are always magnificent, painting the skies with orange one night, purple the next. Sure, I’d be feared, but I’d also be beloved, maybe even revered. I guess I might also get eaten. I’d take the chance.’
My dad poked my shoulder then pointed out past the boat. A ten-foot gator had just surfaced and was slithering in the water towards our boat. He reached over me with his hairy tanned arms and took a video. I watch it sometimes and listen for his voice, or for a shot of his sneakers, or something to show me that he was alive, that he was sitting right there next to me.
Since he’s died almost everyone has said to me that they ‘can’t imagine’ what I’m going through. I wish I could snap my jaws around their words, around their pity, and drown the hurtful phrases the way an alligator does with its prey. Instead I smile and I nod gently, wishing I wasn’t one of the people that can imagine how much sadness can live inside one body.
It’s strange that one of the last things I did with my dad was take an airboat ride in the Everglades. It also makes a lot of sense. All four of us were born in Florida, my mom, dad and sister. We’re part of the tropical weather, the hurricanes, and the floods. I was always part of nature. There is so much life in Florida, from the always blossoming flowers to the grass that stays green year-round. I’ve swum in waters infested with alligators and sharks. Wild things didn’t scare me. Maybe something in my body knew that life held far more terrifying things.
I always loved hearing the cicadas chirping and rattling their wings in the evening, right as the sun started to disappear. Captain Deborah was right, Florida’s sunsets never disappoint. Every evening feels like vacation, the sky showing off for everyone. But I don’t hear cicadas in London, and the sky is always grey. Part of me thinks healing can’t happen here. I need grass as tall as my knees, water flowing around me. Sometimes I put the sound of cicadas on my phone. I lay it on my pillow, and I listen. I listen to remember where I come from, and who I come from.
Anna Dempsey | @HeyItsAnnaDemps
Anna Dempsey is an American-born writer and teacher based in London. She moved to London after several years of teaching in Brooklyn and has just won the 2019 Costa Short Story Award.