You can’t make anything in Bruly, and not especially in Back Bruly. Not money, nothing that lasts, nothing of yourself. That sounds like a pity party of shit, sure, but it’s true, and besides, it’s how all this come about. None of us are bad folks, not Trudy and not Eli and not me, but this place’ll put you in spots you never thought you’d get to.
It started with Snow White. That was her real name, on all the ads in the pamphlets and on the sign at the bend in the highway, but we always called her Blue. Eli nicknamed her, when he was a boy. He had a way of doing that, seeing things different than other people, taking what he saw and making it real somehow. He’d look at whatever piece of shit was front of him–a broken boat, or the rusted sign out front Swanson’s Market, or a stretch of swamp in winter–and instead of what it was really, he’d talk about a whole world opening up, how we could take the boat and paint it up pretty, or how Swanson’s had been going in Bruly for almost a hundred years, and wasn’t that something? Or how that winter swamp was really two swamps, if you looked at the cypress right, at where the dark started on each one, a waterline, and the first swamp was what we could see, and the second swamp was underneath, a whole other plane for the things that lived below. And he’d tell it like that, just telling, like what he saw was obvious, like all of us could see. It made him a little crazy, but it was also good, like it scratched an itch, when he was humming like that. Like it got at something we all needed getting at.
So he called her that one day–Blue–and that was it. The name came from her eyes, pale blue and poking out of her head. Now I know albinos usually have red eyes. I don’t know what that means about Blue.
Since I was a boy she was our sight, our draw, our little bit of something special that brought people down the side highway that looped past Back Bruly. Every summer the freshman would re-paint the billboard, fix up the letters. That sign was the best kept thing in town for a while. “Snow White, The Eighth Wonder of Louisiana!” it said, and then there was a picture of her. I never did find out what the first seven wonders were. When they repainted, she always changed a little, teeth getting longer or the spikes on her tail getting taller, and once every few years or so Eli’s dad would have to tell that year’s freshman to reign her in, that she had to stay believable, so folks could tell she was a gator, and not something make-believe, otherwise they might not stop. Eli would wave every time he went by that sign, a flat hand out the window of his truck, like he was saluting her, all twelve feet a clean, pure white from snout to tail.
The real Snow White was also twelve feet long and had been Eli and Trudy’s daddy’s before he left her to Eli and Trudy. Blue’s pen was a walled off bit of bayou the man had made, dug out from swampland, the back doors of the shop on one side, the boat put-in on the other. At first the man had kept her in a net, but once she’d grown awhile, that started looking a little thin, so he and Eli had squared out some swamp next to the bank, marked it off with string, and poured a floor and four walls. They put holes along the bottom of the far wall, so that when they cleared away the last spit of dirt, the bayou poured right in. They even set a window, “so our gal has something to see,” Eli’s daddy used to say. Seems to me what Blue could see through that window was the same as what she had on her side, all lichen spread and dirty swamp. But then, I wasn’t the one in the pen.
Nothing changed much after the old man passed, except for that they brought me in from time to time, to cover for when Eli went out fishing, which sometimes he did for weeks, depending on how good the water was giving. Trudy worked the money counter, and either Eli or me took the groups through, and eventually we all three just sort of hung around all the time, and that was that.
We’d start the groups in the parking lot, telling facts, and then we’d lead them down a boardwalk, around the side of the shop. The palms grew high as your head and glowed thick green, a color I’ve seen exactly one place, which is in summer, right there, through the high, hot leaves. After a dozen yards or so the palms would clear, and it was a good reveal, plenty dramatic, and folks would gasp and shriek and sometimes the little kids would cry, because there she was, pure white in all that green. We’d assure them, nice and easy, lining them up along the boardwalk at the back edge of the pen, that Blue was perfectly safe. We’d tell them they could look as long as they liked. No one ever stayed more than ten minutes.
After they wandered in through the back doors of the shop, most of the kiddies who’d been wailing would tug at their folks to buy them a gator stuffie, or a keychain on the spinning rack by Trudy’s counter. It was five dollars a head to see Blue, and on a good day, usually around Mardi Gras time, we could make six hundred bucks. We’d catch all those people headed down to New Orleans, or out to the beach, or wherever else it was they were going that wasn’t Bruly. We were never anybody’s last stop, but it didn’t matter, as long as the came through on the way.
Blue didn’t take much to keep. Eli brought home what fish he got a lot of, or whatever was fetching lowest. He’d dock up on the sloped mud of the put-in, and unload into the big chest freezer he had set back in the reeds, and throw Blue the last few fish.
“She needs something warm sometimes,” he’d say, and even though the fish weren’t really warm, we knew what he meant. He’d squat on the deck of his boat, and when she heard that freezer door she’d troll over real slow, just the nose and the eyes over the top of the water, the bright rest of her dim under the murk. He’d watch her eat, great snout clapping open and shut, splashing water and fish guts. I think if he could have reached out and petted her nose, he would have.
Other than eating she mostly just floated, or pulled herself up on the little ledge at the side of the far wall, where the sun fell in the mornings. She’d go in circles sometimes, but never fast, tail behind her sliding back and forth, cutting a triangle in the flat water, eyes pale above the surface. I always thought they looked like a person’s, something about the color, electric but at the same time flat and calm, like they should have had long lashes, like they could have winked above a pretty red mouth, and then whoever was behind them would take my hand, and pull me to the fais do-do, and wrap me up in a slow dance.
The fact that she was a gator was the only reason why we pulled off what we did. If she’d been a goat, or a pig, no one would have believed it. I doubt we’d have tried it in the first place.
Eli found her. We still don’t know what happened. Me and Trudy were closing up, and Eli was getting Blue her night fish. She was half-propped on the far ledge, mouth closed, eyes closed. He walked out over the boardwalk and set the bucket down, and she stayed right where she was. He whistled then, the way he did sometimes, like she was a dog.
He whistled a few more times, but she just stayed at her ledge. We called Trudy out, and we all stood on the boardwalk, looking. Eli tossed in a fish, plopped it into the water.
Trudy tipped her head to the side and put her hands on her hips, elbows cocked out square.
“They only supposed to live forty years or something,” she said.
“Nah,” Eli said.
“Ya sha they is,” Trudy said.
She was right, and Eli knew it. We all knew. We said it on the tours every day, between how many come in a litter of baby gators (about forty) and how long gators have lived in Louisiana (forever). He just didn’t want her to be right, I think.
Eli got a bottle of Rich & Rare from his truck and we sat down on the boardwalk and he poured us each a shot, which was what we did the world got big. Like the first time Eli got a girl pregnant, and we drove him around till dawn, and parked at the edge of town to sit on the tailgate, and watched Back Bruly wake up. Or when Trudy caught Benny LeBert cheating on her, so we lit a mortar in his mailbox, and ran across the street to Trudy’s, turned her couch to face the windows, and waited for the blast. Or the day of the old man’s funeral, when Eli and me found Trudy already in the shop, making calls, booking tours, which spun Eli up crazy. They went to yelling with each other for a while, how Eli was a stuck mud bastard, how Trudy was a cold bitch. I’d stayed, listening, letting them finish, thinking they were both right, that losing family meant taking time, but also, that something had to keep dinner on the plate. When they were done, we sat on the boardwalk, just like the day Blue went. So long as we could face out, whatever was happening never seemed to matter as much, like we could make a kind of wall with ourselves, like for a little while, we believed it would save us.
The first problem with Blue was that she was heavy, and not one of us had an idea of how to get her out. The second problem, maybe the bigger problem, was all that money, which sure as we sat there getting slopped I swear I could see flying out the shop windows. Even in the slow season, Blue had been enough to keep all three of us afloat. Trudy had finished high school, I think, and Eli had his boat, but still those weren’t much compared to the operation with Blue.
And I didn’t have anything else at all.
I kept turning it over in my head what we could do. I don’t know what Eli was thinking.
Whenever I looked at him, he was just sitting there, clutching the bottle against his chest and looking at dead Blue, floating.
We’d finished most of the whiskey when Trudy said it. She slammed down her glass and clapped her hands together and then grabbed one of each of our knees.
“We keep her,” Trudy said.
Eli looked at his sister real slow. “How you mean keep her?” he said.
“I mean keep her,” Trudy said.
She went into the shop and came back with a souvenir keychain, a ball, hollow and full of clear liquid, and in the liquid was a gator claw, a little one, like from a baby. Trudy had ordered them from China, but you could tell they were real because sometimes they had bits floating in them, and because it’s easy to tell, if you really look, if something has ever been alive.
“What’s in it?” I asked. Or maybe I didn’t ask. I might just remember it like that because it seems like we figured it out all together, all at once, sitting there. Blue floated on the ledge, and we stared at her, half-tipped and leaning in a row, same way we’d figured out everything all our lives.
Trudy smiled at me, and I think maybe I remember it because of that too, that it was the first time I saw her smile for what it was, a soft, wide thing that pushed at something in my belly, made me pay attention.
“That, beauty boy,” she said, “is formaldehyde.”
* * *
A lot of it was luck. Trudy’s sister worked at the hospital in Baton Rogue, and Eli knew someone at the coroner. It happened fast. We had a big stack of cash from the week, and we slipped a little of it into every hand. If folks had all been from Back Bruly, we wouldn’t have had to, but once you go outside, nobody knows how to keep shut up. Blue croaked on a Monday. On Tuesday, Eli and I puttied the holes in her wall with Mr. Sticky’s Underwater Glue, and on Wednesday, a pool guy from Bruly proper came by with his big drainage pump. By Thursday we had a dry pen, and an assistant from the coroner came Thursday night in a long-bed pickup, maybe a dozen barrels stacked behind the stake sides. He was the only one who almost held us up. I think if he could do it again now, he might have.
Eli and I wrangled the barrels off the truck together. We had three on the boardwalk, spouts hanging out over the lip of the pen, when the coroner’s assistant started talking.
“It’s a known carcinogen,” he said.
“Carcinogen?” Eli said. He pulled a fourth barrel onto the dolly.
The coroner looked down at the pen, where we’d thrown a tarp over Blue, so that at least everyone could pretend we weren’t doing what we were doing. She sat there in the corner, a long grey lump.
“Cancer sha,” Trudy said. “Gives you cancer.”
Eli let the barrel down, and took a drag on his Winston, and blew a thick cloud at the assistant’s face.
“Better be careful,” Eli said.
The assistant went inside then, stood in the corner of the shop, arms crossed over his sweater, while we got the last of the barrels. He watched like he was trying to decide if what he’d just done was something he could live with, but then we paid him, and he took the money and left, so I guess the answer was yes.
And then it was just us three. Four, if you count Blue. Eli crawled down to get the tarp and stood there holding it, crumpled, staring at her long white body. He’d been drinking some already. I remember I thought he looked like a little boy, and that this–Eli, getting the tarp–was as close as any of us had ever gotten to Blue.
One by one we opened the taps on the barrels. We knew it wouldn’t be enough to fill the whole pen, but Trudy’s cousin said we could mix it with water, as long as the water was clean. The cousin said they did that sometimes even in the lab, depending on what it was they were trying to keep. They had bits of dead stuff at the hospital that had been perfect for decades.
What no one had counted on was the smell. We lasted maybe a minute before we had to run in.
“This ain’t gonna work,” Eli said, pacing across the shop, sipping a half-warm beer.
“Sure it is,” Trudy said.
“Nah nah, not like that,” Eli said, and pointed out the window. “Nobody can see her like that.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant exactly, but he started to get real upset then, and his hands started shaking, and he was pointing, and opening his mouth like he wanted to say something, but nothing came out. He dropped the beer, and what was left splattered across the shop floor, and I never thought I’d see it but then I did, what it looked like when Eli cried.
I didn’t know what to do. Trudy did though. She stood up. She went to him and put her arms around him and patted him once, and then slapped one cheek and kissed the other at the same time. She pulled ten dollars from her pocket and told Eli to go get us something from the gas station. She told him she wanted a double stacked hostess, and when he opened his mouth to talk back at her, she pushed the ten-dollar bill into his hand and shoved him out the door.
She sat down at the little computer behind the desk. Eli hadn’t been gone five minutes and she had twenty-five gas masks on their way, the real thing, with fancy filters and tinted panes to see through. When Eli did get back Trudy already had the camping chair open in the corner of the shop, and a cold beer in the armrest, and when he fell asleep there, she pulled a blanket from under the counter, to cover him with.
* * *
We made it a part of the schtick. Snow White was sensitive to human smells, we told the tours, and also the solution required to keep her comfortable could be irritating to the lungs. We explained it with her color. That she needed special treatment for how sensitive her skin was, that the formulation was what made it smell like it did, because even with the masks, they could still smell it. That the sunlight made her lethargic, and that was why she never moved, although we barely needed to give a reason for that part, because most gators never moved much anyway.
On the chance that somebody took a tour more than once, we moved her twice a day. It was Trudy’s idea, but Eli did the moving. Sometimes he’d put her floating on the ledge, sometimes over in a corner, sometimes he’d rig a fishing weight under her tail, so she’d dip down in the back, so just her nose and her eyes sat above the waterline, same as when she’d been alive. Eli wore one of the masks whenever he moved her, and also waders and long rubber gloves. He was always slow about it, careful, like it was still important to be gentle. I think that’s why she lasted as long as she did.
They ate it up, they really did. As it turns out, Blue was more popular dead than alive.
Also as it turns out, Trudy’s cousin was wrong.
Maybe in a little jar, in a lab, a piece of dead thing can last a decade, but out in the open it isn’t so. It probably didn’t help that Blue died in May, and so come July, the world was cooking. By the September we’d all be used to it, but in the beginning it was a hot slap. I’ve been told it’s different other places, that summer is everyone’s favorite, that the heat is breezy, that children play outside all day. Not so in Bruly. In Bruly the heat comes early, and sticks, and stays.
She lost the front leg on a Friday. Eli had come in special to move her, because he’d been out that day, getting ready for a fishing trip. Trudy and I sat on the dock, watched him wade down into the brine. I’ll admit, I was staring at Trudy some. I’d been letting myself do it, only when I thought she wasn’t looking. I remember thinking her back had a nice slouch to it, arms out behind her and feet dangling, belly scooped in above her shorts and thighs puddled flat on the dock, like pancakes, pale and firm and wide. Made me want to run a hand on them, the way they spread.
And so I was thinking about other things when Eli hollered. We looked down, and he looked up, and he held out Blue’s leg, broken with rot at the shoulder, the end ragged, dangling with bits of flapping skin. Underneath the skin her meat was pink. That’s what was odd to me then, in the moment. I’d always assumed she was white all the way through.
I stood up and so did Trudy. Eli pulled off his mask, which really he shouldn’t have. No one in Bruly lives too long, but that was a stupid thing to do, standing so close to the surface.
“Fuck,” he said, soft, which was scarier than if he’d yelled it. He looked at the leg, and threw it down, and pulled himself out, and pushed past us and through the shop and out to his truck before Trudy and I could do a thing.
We just stood and looked at the pen, three-legged Blue floating, the loose leg bumping up against her little window, world on the other side a dirty swamp green.
* * *
We tried calling Eli the next day, to see what he wanted to do, but there was no answer, and not the day after, and not the day after that. We put up a closed sign on the gate, and we called all the groups we had numbers for to tell them Snow White was sick, that we were sorry, but we couldn’t have any visitors. Trudy insisted we not do a thing until Eli could have a say, and so we left her floating there. Finally, on the fourth day, we went by his place, Trudy and I together, walked all around the outside of his trailer. I even ran a stick over the rusted-out ridges in the vinyl, the way I’d done when we were kids, and I was trying to get him out to make trouble. But his boat was gone, so it wasn’t really any use. When we asked at the bait shop, they said he’d come in two days ago for a liter of baby blackfins.
We didn’t have anything to do, so we sat around, and drank what was left in the closet, and played cards, and talked. I never knew Trudy was such a good talker. I think with Eli around, I’d never noticed; she’d just sort of always been what reigned us in, or what kept us from doing something too stupid. Now, it was like she’d grown up, or there was room for the real Trudy, and she had all these smart, funny things to say, and when I wanted to say something, it seemed like there was always a perfect place, and like I could say it, no matter what it was, with her. I been out with pretty much everybody in Back Bruly, and a bunch of girls in Bruly proper too, and I remember wondering, the night Eli came back, how it was I could have missed her all those years, right under my nose.
We were pretty drunk, not paying much attention to anything. We heard the motor is why we saw it happen at all. Eli usually killed it around the last bend, so he wouldn’t scare Blue, but of course he didn’t have to anymore, so he came in buzzing, the loud swamp fan big behind him.
I sat up straight. I remember even though we were sloshy that I could tell it was gonna be bad. He was yelling something, leaning on the pilot house. You can’t hear anything over a swamp boat, but we could see the yell, his mouth big and his face red. He made the turn toward the put-in too fast, and then he let go the wheel to pump his arms in the air, and instead of settling into the slip the boat bounced off the dirt, out over the water. Eli caught himself on the tiller, and which sent him spinning toward the cypress grove, which he had to cut hard to miss, which sent him straight back toward the wall. He hit with that swamp fan still blowing full speed.
I’d seen him dock that boat a thousand times, drunk, sober, mad, happy, with a good heavy catch and with no catch at all.
The hit threw Eli across the front of the bow but not quite off, and the boat wedged itself between against the side of the shop and the far wall of the pen. Eli laid there a few seconds, knocked out I think, but then he lifted his head, and when he did, there came a great creaking, like a giant door opening on old hinges, and the wall started to split, pieces breaking, crumbling like a dried mud cake. The brine drifted out, and the swamp drifted in, and the concrete chunks sunk down away into the bayou. It should have happened fast, a big important thing like that, but whether it was the liquor or whether it was real, I remember the whole thing at a slow creep.
Blue floated toward the line where the wall had been. Eli reached, but it was too far, and so he had to just lie there, and watch her go.
No one believes him when he tells the next part. They haven’t ever. He tells it the same every time. Blue slipped on by, her first time out in the bayou since she was a baby, and her belly opened up, thin white skin tearing easy, split from the crash, or the chemical, or the time she’d spent going bad in it. She was so delicate by then, Eli always says, that just the wave would have been plenty of force to do it. Out from that belly, in twos and threes, a line of smooth, white eggs bobbed over the bayou. They twitched on the green, floating, and as they were slipping around the bend Eli saw a baby, just one, push its beak out through the shell. Like any young, they followed their mama, floating away, what rot was left of her spread on the surface of that slow water, impossible babies trolling behind.
* * *
Nobody believed us. Not about any of it, really, but especially about the babies. Not the cops, not the hospital in Baton Rogue, not even our own lawyers. What they ended up making stick was environmental damage and reckless boating. I took most of the heat, because I didn’t have any priors, and if we’d told how it actually went, Eli would have gone away a real long time. As it stood, I made it like I’d been the one to decide everything, which is why I’m still in. I got twenty months total. Twelve down, eight to go.
Really anybody in Back Bruly could have told what really happened. The bait shop, or Trudy’s sister, or even the damn kids who painted the sign that year, which, by the way, I’m told they keep doing, even though Blue’s long gone. Thing about Back Bruly is, everybody knows everything, but the other thing about Back Bruly is, nobody says nothing to the outside unless they see a damn good reason. Guess with this, they thought best to keep it to themselves.
Trudy comes to see me twice a week. I ask her every time if she’ll marry me. She says she’ll think about it real hard, once I’m out. “We see sha, we see,” she says.
I asked her to look up some things, and so I know more now, and I’ve had a lot of time to think about what happened. According to Trudy, gators are just like people. It takes a boy gator and a girl gator to make eggs that turn to baby gators, and not just eggs with pudding inside. And I don’t think, not even if she’d lived a thousand years, that Blue could have gotten out of that pen. Trudy said, maybe a boy gator got in. And I guess maybe, but then he would have had to have gotten out again too. According to Trudy, there’s no way a live thing could have stayed so long in formaldehyde. I asked if that maybe Blue’s belly could have protected them, if maybe they didn’t really touch the stuff except for when they broke out, and even then, the swamp was already mixing in. Trudy says she doesn’t know. Trudy says maybe, maybe, but that it doesn’t matter. That there’s no way there could have been babies in those eggs in the first place.
Eli says different. He comes to see me too. Not as much as Trudy, but he comes. He’s fishing still, sells his catch upriver, is making it, barely, on that and some extra shifts at the bait shop. He fishes a lot, even takes the boat out at night, he tells me. It’s easier to find them at night.
According to Eli, there are at least a dozen. In the lowest backwaters, down past the second bend where the cypress get real thick, he tells me he’s seen them. I ask him if he’s sure, if it couldn’t be a trick of his floodlight, or if maybe because it’s real summer again now, this heavy August, the thick heat is making him crazy. It would be okay, I tell him, and he wouldn’t be first to end up done in by a Back Bruly summer. But he says no, every time. He tells me, secret-like through the plastic telephones we use to talk, that he can tell where they’re nesting. That he’s waiting for them to fatten up, for the swamp to raise them a little, before he picks one for his own. That they’re hers, that he’s sure they’re hers because he’s seen them, every one as white as snow.
Kailyn writes fiction and nonfiction in Oakland, her hometown by way of Oregon, Alaska, and New Orleans. Her work has appeared in Ploughshares, Brevity, The Believer, and The Rumpus, and is forthcoming in The Cincinnati Review. She holds a BA from Reed College, which was rainy, and an MFA from the University of New Orleans, which was hot. She is proud of them both. Kailyn has received support from the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, the Ucross Foundation, Montana’s Open AIR program, and the Mendocino Coast Writer’s Conference. She is currently at work on new fiction about the metaphysics of disaster. When not writing, Kailyn likes a good, dirty camping trip.