Published in the Dillydoun Review
Mother was hunting.
The blade of her paddle made no sound as it sliced into the green-black skin of the river. Around her, jungle rose sharply from the banks, creating a narrow tunnel that she slipped through, silent as an arrow.
A light rain was falling. Its clouds had shrouded the moon and the air was thick with darkness. Mother was glad of the rain: she needed to be invisible. Its drops gave her dripping paddle a percussive camouflage, allowing her to pull with deeper strokes, move more quickly. And she had to move quickly. She only had a few days left to find him.
She picked up her light and shone it around her, looking for the tell-tale glitter just above the surface of the water. She hungered for that glitter like a prospector craved the flecks of gold in his sieve. But right now there was nothing, just the tiny twinkle of a spider weaving its web low along the bank. She set the light down.
Slowly, she picked up her paddle and dragged it through the water again, strong and silent. No matter how hard she tried she couldn’t help imagining that he was here with her. Sometimes she swore she heard the dip of his paddle in the back of the canoe, felt the gentle rocking of the boat as he shifted his weight. She steered carefully past a branch that jutted up from the murky depths. Its fading outline suggested things unseen that hovered in the blackness, just below the surface.
A ripple behind her whirled her around, her spear already in hand. Jaw clenched, arms tight. Sweat rolling down her face with the rain drops. Frozen, waiting.
After a few breathless moments she relaxed, set her spear down and picked up her paddle again. It was a fish, likely, or a cayman. If it were a crocodile she wouldn’t have heard it. Not unless it wanted her to. Not unless it was too late.
It was too late when her boy had seen the crocodile. At least she assumed so. No one had even heard him scream.
The other villagers had come out with her at first. For a few nights, right after it happened, the river maze was thick with silent gliding canoes, flashing lights in the gloom, knuckles straining with the tight grips they had on their clubs, their spears, their paddles. The narrow corridors had echoed with the thrashing struggles of their prey, the breathless stillness after the fight. And the water was choked with floating bodies, crocodiles floating on their backs, their stomachs slit and hanging, bobbing lazily in the water like ill-fitting clothes. Some nights they’d killed as many as ten in a single hunt. But the bellies all turned up empty, or with the bones of some hapless tapir or armadillo sitting half-digested in the womblike ooze.
But now Mother hunted alone. The other villagers had tired of the killing after a few days. They’d gone back to spending their evenings in their warm thatched homes, eating supper on their narrow porches and trying not to look at Mother as she strode past, blazing with fierce grief, every single night.
It wasn’t that they didn’t care about the boy. The village had raised the child almost as much as his own Mother had, although to be fair it was probably Nature itself that filled the bulk of the boy’s maternal needs. The villagers used to call him Noah: how else could you explain the way animals flocked to him, followed him around with their sharp eyes suddenly pooling and docile? He’d walked about calmly with giant wobbly iguanas perched across his shoulders, gently wound snakes around his arms like bracelets, cupped butterflies in his palms to let them rest from their tremulous flights. Once, the villagers remembered, the boy found a nest of ducklings, just hatched and abandoned by their parents, and they followed him about absurdly for weeks, tripping over their clumsy feet and staggering to keep up as he went about his chores. When at last they had shed their baby down and it was time for them to swim out into the rivers on their own, the boy had taught them himself, slowly lowering himself into the water and swimming further away until the ducklings, quacking with distress, had been forced to follow.
So perhaps it hadn’t exactly been surprising when the boy left the village one day and returned at dusk carrying two baby crocodiles, barely the length of his forearms, their fierce little teeth bared. Even in miniature they were killing machines, their flat golden eyes betraying no thought of movement until in a startling flash they had snapped up a hapless gecko wandering by too close. The villagers could not help feeling afraid, even though the creatures were small — for now. After all, this village had lost countless dogs, cows, and even, legend had it, ancestors to the unrelenting jaws of these river monsters. But what could they do? The boy cared for them so tenderly, ignoring their warnings, built them a little pool in the red dirt behind their house, under the shade of a sprawling bush.
After a few weeks of this, the villagers had to accept that the baby crocodiles were part of their community. They were charmed, they had to admit, by the low muttering and clicks the baby crocodiles had made as he held them, charmed even more so by the money that the tourists who trickled into their little town would pay in exchange for a photo, a touch.
But Mother never trusted them. She watched them warily as they grew larger, thicker, stronger. In her heart she knew that her boy was bringing these creatures too close, that he had forgotten what it meant to live by the terms of this fragile deal he struck with nature. Her heart grew tight with love and fear as she watched her boy caring for the little creatures, squeezing water over their backs to wash away the heat.
There was so much more she could have done. She’d warned him, of course, had forbidden him to ever go back to the nest where he’d found them, but he was a young boy and ultimatums only gave him more fire to act. She could have killed those miniature monsters immediately, two blows with a machete where their armor was weak, right at the backs of their necks. Or when one of the little creatures had grown listless and ill, she could have run off with it to the river, wrapped its body in a sack filled with stones. She could have played innocent, told her boy that it must have wandered away to die on its own, as animals do.
But she’d done none of those things. Instead, she’d gone to work in the sugar fields early that morning. Her boy had even more time to pick up the ailing baby crocodiles, now almost too big to carry, one tucked under each arm, their bodies sprawled across his forearms, stubby legs dangling. He’d had all day to make his way through the village, across the beach, and around the point of the river where the nest was hidden. He’d waded deep in the water, water up to his waist where the currents stirred and rolled the mud, and he could see nothing, not even his own legs — bare and vulnerable— disappearing into the gloom.
Mother’s eyes flashed as if caught in her own light. She could not let herself think these things anymore. Her purpose was here, now. She had to bring her boy home, had to bury his sweet bones before his spirit was lost forever.
The rain had stopped and a thin moon sliced through the clouds like a scythe. Its glow caught and glittered on the ripples at the edges of the canoe, fractured and fragile. The night was growing old, the chirping of the frogs growing more hesitant as the thought of dawn’s arrival dimmed their hopes, the silences growing longer between their songs.
The paddle dipped into the water, a slow long stroke, turning the canoe back toward the village from where it had set out. The water was cool against her long body here, storms had dredged the banks of this canal deeper.
Another long stroke, a ripple in the water, nearly invisible. Her golden eyes stayed calm but her body coiled up within, her power growing centered and solid. One more stroke and she’d be within striking distance. The shimmering water hid the sparkle of moonlight in her eyes.
Mother was hunting.