When she was twenty-five, Catherine Sturdivant lost her three-year-old daughter to a hungry alligator. They’d been blowing bubbles in the backyard when the alligator came from nowhere and dragged the little girl into the water.
Technically, it didn’t eat her. The body was found intact later that day, and the Sherriff said it appeared the alligator drowned her, then left the body. Gators don’t like human meat. As the bite in her midriff showed, the first taste was probably disappointing. “It didn’t like the flavor of her sunscreen,” someone said on the news. The story was picked up by the local channels.
Of course, Catherine wanted to blow its brains out and bloody the Everglades, but that didn’t happen. She didn’t know the first thing about alligator hunting.
Instead, she went numb for awhile.
A year passed.
Everyday at dawn and dusk, she’d go to the cemetery. She liked the crack of shells beneath her feet as she walked between the marble headstones and palm trees. Everything was white. The casket was tiny, and so was the tombstone, which people seemed to like. Not that they thought it was cute, so much as sad. It was true to her height, 36 inches, and on the footstone was a marble lamb. Pity had produced an enormous pile of dolls, stuffed animals, letters, rosaries, and other nick-knacks that now covered her name: Imogen May Sturdivant.
She was the cemetery celebrity.
In early June, on what would’ve been Imogen’s fourth birthday, the father showed up at the grave. Catherine hadn’t seen him for a few weeks. She was there every day, twice a day. Jack would visit if he needed to think. When he had no place to go.
They both had graveside routines: she’d bring a book to read, he’d bring his headphones. When they sat on a blanket facing her grave, it was always him on the left side and her on the right. Sometimes they’d study other mourners moving through Sanibel Memorial. They knew the regulars. By that time, they could guess with shocking accuracy how long strangers’ loved ones had been underground based on the position of their bodies at the graves, the volume of their cries.
“Your hair’s long,” he said. She was sitting cross-legged and scooping up seashells. “You’re wearing all black.”
“‘Astute observations’,” he said, and laughed with his nose. “I love the way you
They were both quiet for a while. He watched some planes fly by; she counted the things on her daughter’s grave. Eighty-nine. Today, ninety-five, if you included the balloons swaying beneath the palm tree.
The mother and father were often mistaken for siblings, as both had dark hair and skin good for tanning. But their daughter’s hair had been red, and skin, quick to burn. People liked that about her. Catherine liked it too and claimed it ‘expressed her Irish roots,’ which wasn’t exactly a lie.
They sat on a marble bench. “You smell like pancakes,” she said, “And coffee.”
“Good snout, kid,” he said. He called her kid though they were the same age and despite knowing it annoyed her. She punched his upper arm.
“She’s popular,” the father said, studying her grave. “The people love her.”
“But I don’t love the people.” The mother said, swatting mosquitos. “Or the attention.”
And why do they come here anyway? she thought. Can’t they leave their shit someplace else?
“But you’ve got to admit, she does make a good first impression,” he said, both of them noticing his use of present tense.
“She did,” she corrected him. “Unlike someone I know…”
They were both remembering the same scene at FSU senior year. He’d made a bad first impression when he opened his laptop on the first day of class, and porn was playing loud. He muted it quickly, but she was sitting beside him.
“‘Confessions of a candy-stripper,” she’d said. “Nice pun. Almost impressive in porn.”
“Uh-huh.” He’d gone red. “Don’t look at me like that.”
Two weeks later, by pure coincidence, they ran into each other at a concert. “OMG — porn guy!” she’d yelled. They’d danced. They’d slept together. Only twice, but that’s enough for accidental pregnancy. Her water broke at graduation.
She knew playing house together wouldn’t work. They didn’t know each other. Not
really. They co-parented like champs, but they certainly weren’t in love. After Imogen’s death, she often wondered why that was. Why did it happen like that?
Tropical storm season slowed foot traffic. In August, Hurricane Ophelia threw hot water and wind around, making a real mess of the graves, but Catherine still came to the cemetery, out of habit, like clockwork. He started visiting more, too.
She studied his umbrella with envy that night. Hers had flown away earlier. Neither said hello when she snuck up beneath the umbrella to get dry. His khakis were soaked to the knee; he must’ve been standing there for a while. It was the closest they’d been in a long time. She could actually smell him (not the usual cologne or pancakes that the rain washed away), and right then, she smelled her daughter. It smelled good. It felt great. It was the weirdest thing.
“You smell like her,” she said. “It’s amazing.”
He nearly flinched. “No I don’t.”
“I promise you do.” The rain fell faster.
“You smell like her, too,” he said, sniffing her hair, her neck, her jacket. She didn’t think that was true. Neither did he, but it was the right thing to say. “Do you like that sound? That ticking, when the water hits the shells? Sounds like pennies. Or rice.” She nodded. “Her fan mail’s soaked.” She nodded again. She’d stand there nodding forever, letting him talk about fan mail and autographs and how alligator deaths make you famous, if only she could keep smelling him, smelling her.
But of course, he walked away.
He faced the grave. He picked up a stuffed elephant and a white gorilla, both bloated with rainwater, and said, “These look so fucking weird.” He squeezed them and dirty water dripped onto his white sneakers. He put them back. He did this again and again. She watched them expand; she watched them shrink. She studied him picking things up and putting them down, as if unable to make sense of it all. And for a moment she could see the whole complicated thing — the pregnancy, her birth, co-parenting, her death. What a view, she thought.
In the fall, she developed the habit of eavesdropping on people at the cemetery.
People liked to gather around Imogen’s grave. But eavesdropping was a bad habit because everyone either got the facts all wrong or right, and either way they hurt to hear. Regardless, she couldn’t stop listening.
It tore limbs, they’d say, ate her face. Closed casket. Two thousand at the funeral. Her father wasn’t there; her mother watched it happen. Then there were typical responses that somehow hurt the most to hear: what a painful way to go; what a scary way to go; I need to hug my kids hard tonight.
One day Catherine was eavesdropping when she spotted a cemetery regular graveside. She wished Jack was there; they both hated this one. Kneeling at Imogen’s grave was a young nun who the parents believed liked their daughter a little too much, and they would’ve said so if it weren’t for her age and her profession. She visited every day. She’d leave prayer cards, daffodils, and sometimes sketches of sea oats. She’d write notes to Imogen, calling her by name. The girl looked far too young to be a nun, but she wore Mother Teresa’s habit, white with blue stripes. She must’ve been fourteen or fifteen.
Catherine walked over. She didn’t know why, but it felt like something inside her had been sleeping and was beginning to awake, priming to attack.
“You,” Catherine said.
“Oh,” said the nun. Up close, she looked less like a nun and more like a child.
“Am I in your way?”
“Needa get through?”
“‘Get through’? Where?” said Catherine.
“To the grave. So you can take or leave something. Write a note. Pray.”
“Oh, no.” Catherine blushed. “I’m here to talk to you.”
The girl cocked her head. “Uh-huh?”
“Yeah. About why you come here.”
“I dunno.” The girl shrugged and paused to think about that for a moment. Her habit flapped in the wind.
Catherine said, “Why are you here? I mean, did you know Imogen?”
“Used to babysit Imogen,” said the postulate, pronouncing it Ih-m-oh-GEEN, which was wrong. Catherine hated that. She liked it the British way, Ih-m-oh-JEHN. The girl was lying and it made the mother nauseous.
“Oh,” Catherine said. “What was she like?”
“Outgoing. Feisty. Hard to manage, sometimes. Loved sneaking off.”
Catherine’s nails dug into her palm as she wondered what the nun was after. It was wrong; Imogen was shy, sensitive in a way that made her wary, but kind. Preferred her mother’s hip to her own two feet.
Catherine could feel her underarms sweat. She felt defiled. Pissed upon.
“Did you?” the nun said, “know her, I mean?”
“How did you know ImoGEEN?”
Catherine couldn’t respond. She could hardly stand up right because of the nausea.
Everything seemed cheap, even the shells and the sand. Her stomach liquefied and she started to gag.
“I’m her mother,” said Catherine. And she couldn’t stop herself from vomiting all over her daughter’s grave.
At midnight Catherine came back with garbage bags and cleaning supplies. She felt humiliated. More than anything, she wanted people to leave her daughter alone.
In handfuls, she trashed the dirty shells. But once she started throwing things out, she couldn’t stop. Before long, everything was gone, until only the little lamb poked through, smooth, white, and cold. Even it reeked of bleach. Bare, the 36 inches looked smaller than before. But at least she could see her daughter’s name.
Much better, she said to Imogen in the dark. It’s alright. Shh, shh… Goodnight.
But people kept coming. Actually, there began a period of increased activity.
Everyone was confused. They started bringing more stuff, as if to make up for things lost. Each morning and night, Catherine would clean the grave. And hour by hour, the pile grew. Catherine wondered what people believed: did they think the wind swept everything away? That the lamb ate it up? My god, she thought, take a hint, Jesus Christ.
That morning she woke up angry. She couldn’t explain how, but on her walk over she knew the grave would be cluttered. And it was. Jack was there smoking.
“Hey kid,” he said. “Hey kid, you alright?” She didn’t look at him. She started throwing things into a trash bag. “So, do you have plans to become our daughter’s live-in maid, or…what’s the deal, kit-kat?”
“Deal is my daughter’s dead.”
“Fancy that,” he said. “Mine’s dead too. Let’s have a fucking pity-party.” She was silent.
“Will you do me a favor?”
“What’s that?” she asked.
“Next time you’re about to go on a cleaning spree, give me a heads up. A lot of those notes I wrote, you know.”
She could see Jack digging through the trash. He pulled out a pacifier and a lily and put both back beside the lamb. She picked them up just as quickly. Then, with one stroke, she threw both items into the marsh.
He looked at the water, then at her, then back at the water where the pacifier was floating. “Will you give it a rest? Jesus.”
“I paid for the headstone,” she said. “And I want it clean.”
He started to smile, but quickly stopped. She wouldn’t like that. Not today. That’s when he saw that she’d been crying. He knew it wasn’t from sadness, but something closer to frustration. A cry that came from powerlessness. That broke him.
“Hey,” he said. “You okay? Toughen up, aw, kid—”
“Go,” she said.
“Go away,” Catherine said, shielding her face from the sun. “Not in the mood.”
Jack itched his scalp. “What’s up with you? It’s my daughter’s grave, too. Don’t be a bitch.”
“Leave me alone.” She wanted to shove his lit cigarette up one of his nostrils.
“’Kay,” he said. “But I’m worried about you. Sometimes I think you’re wasting your life here. Imogen’s gone, Cat.”
“As if I didn’t know. Why would you even say that?”
“Someone’s got to.”
“I mean, look at you.”
She slapped him hard across the face. It stung her hand.
He smiled. “That the best you got?”
“I don’t know. You don’t look hurt enough.” She blew her bangs from her face. “I want blood coming out your nose.”
She almost laughed.
There was an increase in visitors on Halloween weekend. The worst times were the
holidays. They brought delivery spikes, and it got so bad that year in 2007 that she considered taping a big note to the headstone that said “Leave my daughter alone” or “keep charity away.” Though in the end she couldn’t go through with that. No one likes a helicopter parent.
There was a note taped to the lamb’s face that morning and lilies and dum-dums at its hooves. She picked up the letter, considering throwing it in the marsh.
At first, she was confused because it was blank except for a blue teddy bear. But on the other side were thin frantic letters, all leaning to the right. She recognized them as Jack’s.
Stupid bear ruined the other side, so I have to keep it short today. Sorry love.
Happy Halloween, daughter of mine! I’m gazing at the sunrise and the beautiful sea and thinking of you. By now, you’d be old enough to really enjoy trick-or-treating. I wonder what you would’ve wanted to dress up as. Honestly, I have no idea. You liked dogs a whole lot. But I bet
your mom would’ve forced you to be a pumpkin or a duck. Something stupid like that.
I still remember your tricks. My favorite was when you learned how to rock the crib. You’d bang it against the wall and wake me up late at night. I’d open your door. When you heard me coming, the banging would always stop. Every time, there you’d be: standing at the ledge, still and silent, looking for my face…Then would come hysterical laughter.
You were a funny one, Immy May. I miss my girl and the games she’d play.
Catherine couldn’t throw out the letter. It stayed on the grave for three weeks till a storm came through. Catherine thought about what kind of precedent that would set. The note belonged there, she thought.
She decided not to worry about the stuff anymore. People would keep visiting, probably, and she’d keep throwing things out. Jack’s stuff she’d let stay. Maybe one day she’d add her own.
When she got to the cemetery that night, on Halloween, it was cold and windy. Little ghosts and Cinderellas were running amid the shells and headstones, flinging candy, or playing Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board. Meanwhile groups on ghost tours awed at her daughter’s grave.
It was something she’d seen before, last year, and something she’d see again. She thought about that: the hundreds of hours she would spend at this cemetery, and, being alive, all of the other places where she could spend her time instead. But this was where she wanted to be. Everywhere it was hard to breathe, but here, the air seemed fuller, somehow.
It began to occur to Catherine that when people said time would help heal, they were lying. Time could alter perspective, perhaps. But things would be this way for good. Motherhood would hurt. She knew it when her daughter screamed that day; probably, she knew it before holding her for the first time. She must’ve realized that long ago— as a kid herself, wreaking havoc on her own mother. Maybe she always knew. And now, she really understood.
That night he was out there smoking and chewing on a tootsie roll leftover from
“You need to shave,” she said. “And your zipper’s undone.”
“Astute observations…as you would say.” He zipped up his pants, then studied her. “Cute lipstick. You gotta date?”
She nodded, unwrapping a blow pop. “We like to meet here.”
“No kidding? A first date?”
“If you want to call it that.” She sucked for a minute, then bit down to the gum. “I’m sorry I slapped you the other day. I feel bad now.”
He shrugged. “I deserved it. I’m sorry for being an ass. But a first date? In a cemetery?” he said. “That’s pathetic, kid. And morbid, even for you.”
“Know what’s pathetic?” she started laughing. “This one time Immy covered the dog head to toe in Vic’s vapor rub.”
“No shit?” he said.
“I wasn’t bothered.”
“I’m proud of her, almost.” He lit another cigarette. “I’m proud of you, too. That’s a big pile of stuff forming.” They both looked at her grave. “Your hygienic predilections must be going wild.”
“Shut up,” Catherine said. “And give me one of those before I kill you.”
It was their first time smoking together, and they finished the whole pack, both enjoying themselves too much to stop. Then he kissed her for the first time since their daughter died.
“Well,” he said later on, when the cemetery clock struck midnight. “Will there be a second date?”
“I dunno,” she said. “Dude makes an awful first impression. I mean, YIKES.”
They laughed and laughed. He looked at her, smiling in a new, goofy sort of way. She reached for his hand.
Then, like always, there was discussion of her. They could go on forever about that ragged blanket, her favorite toy ‘mister baby tuhtle,’ or those wispy pig tails spinning fast on the swing. She loved going high and fast. She’d laugh and laugh. “Mommy, be caaayful. Don’t bweak me, okay? I yuh daughtuh.”
“Okay, baby,” her mother would say, wanting to laugh a little. Wanting to cry a little. “I’ll try not to break you. I will be careful.”
Then everything went quiet.
They sat with their daughter in the dark, breathing, and held hands like children for a while, both of them waiting for the right time to leave.
About the Author
Madison Welborne is a Charlotte native. She is a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, studying English, Creative Writing, and Speech Pathology. She is excited to pursue her Master’s degree in Speech Language Pathology this fall so that she can help stroke survivors learn to communicate effectively again. She has taken Advanced and Honors level fiction classes at UNC, and she is currently working on her first memoir. When she’s not writing or studying, Madison loves reading, taking her cat Harriet for walks, exploring nature, tutoring, and volunteering.