She planned her litter by tending to her nest. Like other alligators, she created divots filled with warm, rotting leaves and sawgrass on one side. She let that arc of her den heat up in the sun. For the other half, she created shade with fresh bladderwort and lily fronds. Those eggs would remain cool and would become her girls.
She tended to her nest for more than two months before the eggs hatched. In that time, she lost a few of the to-be girls to a raccoon. She lost at least three possible boys to a male alligator. The intruder didn't escape a beating - she found him and bit him hard on his snout - but the damage was done.
In the end, she got two male hatchlings and three females from the nest. When they were ready, she opened her mouth and let them climb in. Only the smallest male had any trouble and even he clambered aboard and clung to a tooth. Then with her mighty jaws that had once cracked the skull of a horse, she lifted up her children and walked them toward the water. They leaned out, eyes popped wide, gawking at the wide world they'd never seen.
One of her grown daughters met her near the edge.
"Something's wrong," he daughter said. "Can't you smell it?"
She paused. Her nostrils took in the strange scent from the sea.
Years ago, she had come to this tidal marsh when it was deserted. There were no other alligators, not even a mate. She had dug her home into a riverbank, waited, and hoped. In time, a young male came from upstream, then another.
She had populated the marsh. It had taken many years of work but the area had grown wide and lush under her control, regrown from the eggs of her body, her children's generation, and lately, a generation of grandchildren.
The air smelled foul today. He eldest daughter was right. It stunk of death. She lay her open jaw down where she was and let her children crawl out.
They didn't want to come. Their instincts told them to expect water. This area held only scrub, pebbles, and grass. But when she opened and lowered the roof of her mouth a few times, they got the hint. The little male left right away. One of her daughters, the biggest and most assertive, waited resentfully until her mother's jaw tipped and she rolled out. She popped her head up and gazed back at her mother as if to ask what was wrong.
"The smell of dead water gets stronger with every breeze," she hissed. There was no denying it.
"What can we do?"
"Everyone needs to set aside food," she said. Her sense of dread grew. "A red tide is coming."
She had caught scent of a similar tidal incident long ago. She had seen it wipe out all of the life in the mouth of a river. But she had only borne witness to it from a distance. She had never lived through it.
She and her eldest daughter scrambled to send word. To her shock, some of her grown children were already sick. Maybe this red tide was different than the previous one. Alligators were getting a white crust on their noses. Whether they'd eaten fish dying in the red algae bloom or not, whether they lived by the coast or not, they were getting sick. Every time she swam back to her hatchlings, she tried to keep them from going into the water. But there was no help for it. That's where they belonged. They swam in the decay, amidst the bloated bodies of dead trout and dead catfish.
One by one, her youngest children caught the sickness. Their skins crusted, hard and pale. They grew feverish. They could find no clean water to drink. They had no strength to go search for better water. And they died.
She swam to other nests to help her daughters. But their children, too, were passing away. Half-grown alligators flopped up on sandbars and panted, too sick to move. Full grown males and females fled if they were able.
She watched a male attempt to eat a dead bullfrog but give up. The frogs had been among the first to go. Its body was spoiled beyond what even an adult could stand.
For days, she swam through the red tide. She forgot to warm herself in the morning. She forgot to cool herself in the middle of the day. She gave herself a fever. All she could think to do was to help her grown children battle the tide of death.
When she saw a half-grown alligator lying comatose on the bank of the marsh, she swam over to it and tried to rouse it. But she got no response. It's skin, like those of her children, had gone pale. She nudged it a few times. Then she collapsed.
When she awoke, it was morning. The light had changed. The breeze smelled clear. She felt the presence of a large alligator near her. She turned her head, which was hard, and saw an old, bull male. She knew him from long ago, another early settler of the marsh. Beyond him was another, smaller male, one of her sons. Now that she thought about it, he was also the bull's son.
"I figured you would make it," said the old bull.
"Momma," said her son. "I thought you were dead. You kept helping and helping everybody. You swam everywhere for days. And then you disappeared. And I found you. I thought you were dead."
"Your son is a lot like you," murmured the bull.
"I see." She tried to imagine what it had been like to find her body. It wasn't hard. She'd found many young ones dead and many older ones sick.
"I did the best I could, momma," said her son.
"All your children did," said the bull. "In all the adults of your line, only you fell ill. And when you did, all of our youth perished. It was you who had been holding them together, saving the half-grown."
"You failed only from self-neglect. If you had only taken a moment to care for yourself, only eaten a bit of the fresh food you had scavenged for others, only gone for fresh water once, only rested as you allowed others to rest, many young children would still be here."
"I was afraid to fail them."
"You didn't have to be afraid." The bull sighed. On his other flank, so did her son. "Because you did fail them. And they love you anyway."