This is my touchy-feely feel-good Christmas story written specially for my good friend in Riverside who loves such sweet sentimental stories. I hope he enjoys it and I hope the rest of you do too. Let me know what you all think. I have time now to write some stories since they cancelled the rest of my classes for the rest of the semester (typical). I’ll try my best to give all of you something to read over the holidays that will warm the cockles of your hearts. So without further ado….
River Crossing, or How NOT to Cross a River Full of Crocodiles
They were lost. That much was certain. The two men had debouched from the thick yellow jungle onto a wide shallow riverbed where much of the water had dried up.
“I don’t remember the river cutting across here,” said the older, taller man. He rested on one knee and wiped his brow and the back of his pale neck with a red-white bandana. His blond hair shot through with silver had turned dark with sweat.
“You’ve lived here almost nine years…didn’t you ever look at a map?” said the shorter younger darker man.
“Do we really have time for your lectures, now?” His accent marked him as a Canadian.
“No. Time is one thing we do not have.” The American scanned the jungle behind them, specifically the tops of the trees. Tendrils of thick oily smoke billowed into the white sky like charred fingers breaking free from the crust of the earth. The smoke was not far enough away.
The older man stood, “Damn this white sky! If only we could see the sun we’d know which direction….” But they could not. The sky was a white-gray glaze dome. Somewhere high above at the top of the dome the sun boiled white and diffuse and relentless.
“We can’t, so don’t piss about it.”
A muffled explosion resounded through the trees and both men thought they heard a high-pitched shriek trailing the sound. The ground shook slightly. The buzz of the insects had stopped and they could clearly hear the report of gunfire. The two men looked at each other.
The short American said, “We have to cross this river.”
“Let’s do it.”
They marched steadily over the stones and around the boulders. The water looked transparent, flecked with green and brown and flashes of crystal.
“The water looks shallow enough,” said the older man as they approached.
“It is, but there’s….”
And then they could see it. It was shallow, not even a meter deep. But the riverbed undulated with crocodiles. Dozens, perhaps hundreds.
“What the fff….”
“Oh my God…that’s not natural. Crocodiles don’t do that, do they? Is it the water shortage?”
“I…don’t…know.” The shots seemed nearer and this time the scream was distinct. A woman for sure. “It doesn’t matter. We have to get across.”
“Are you insane? Cross that? How?” The Canadian’s voice rose in pitch.
“We don’t have time! And we don’t have a choice. Hear that?”
“So, my choice is ‘ay’: get shot in the head or ‘bee’: get eaten alive?”
“It could be worse. It will be worse. You saw what the townspeople did to Kurt.”
The taller man winced.
Kurt should never have been in a place like the Center. He is…he was a soft gentle goodhearted young man. He was a local, but he could speak both languages well enough, so the Center put him on the payroll. He was the company gopher. They paid him peanuts and abused him roundly.
His life as a petty office clerk afforded him a lower-than-living-wage salary filled with teeth-gnashing stress. The delicate youth was bombarded daily with vitriolic reprimands and impossible requests. The three of them—the two middle-aged foreigners and the local man—would have lunch together from time to time. The two older men enjoyed the youth’s company and commiserated with his plight. There wasn’t anything they could do, although the American had discreetly tried to intervene on his behalf. The Director would have none of it. It only heightened the thick tension between the feckless middle management, the foreign technical staff, and the underpaid locals. Kurt knew the two men had their proverbial hands tied. It gave him much comfort that they listened to his “heart matters” and that they “understood” him. Or so Kurt asseverated to them. Neither of the middle-aged foreign men thought that was enough, not in their hearts. They convinced him to be stoic and just “grin and bear it.” Kurt did not quit the Center.
And then things got worse and worse. He was killed. Murdered in cold blood. The mob staked him out on a baking hot parking lot and literally chopped into pieces—not rabidly in a mad bloodlust, not quickly, no, no—he was cut up methodically. All four limbs stretched out and devoured by the hungry machetes in careful measured blows. A look of terror and unimaginable pain mangling his sweet handsome features. His eyeglasses, cracked and askew on his nose, remained in place during the entire ordeal. The two foreign men watched in horror from one of the Center windows, the office girls crying, screaming, and running here and there in panic, although there was no where to run to. The young pretty women knew what was in store for them. There was no escape.
“Look, you go that way—fast man fast—and see if it thins out. I’ll go this way.”
They bolted in separate directions. The shorter man ran with strong strides; his eyes scanned along the riverside and probed the depths to see if the incredible gathering of reptiles thinned out anywhere. His older companion hailed him. He was too loud and the American eyed the jungle. They regrouped.
“No way in hell,” said the taller, paunchier man. “It’s damned wall-to-wall lizards.”
“Then it’s this way.”
“Are there less of them?” A desperate optimism chimed in the Canadian’s voice.
“No, there aren’t, but the river narrows this way and there are several downed tree trunks that almost form a natural bridge across. Also, did you notice the size of them?”
“No…. What do you mean?”
“There small. I didn’t see any large ones.”
“Just ‘cause you didn’t see any, doesn’t mean there not there.”
“There tiny. Like baby crocodiles. We can do this. We can make it. Get a long tree branch and use it for support and protection.”
“No way. I say we just keep running along the river.”
“The river circles the Center. We’ll just get caught.”
More gunfire. Closer.
“We can do this. But we have to go now.”
“Then, go! Lead on MacDuff!”
They chose two straight braches whose fiber was stiff, less spongy, but both men were loath to touch the strange mutated jungle wood. It was yellow and felt slimy and greasy to the touch, not like wood at all. The river, however, was as the younger man had said. Several decayed jungle trees had fallen upstream and slowly rolled their way here where the river narrowed after angling right. The older man looked to his younger companion to take the lead. He stepped on the first log.
The crocodiles were motionless, but weren’t crocodiles always motionless? Until they struck? Wasn’t that their pattern? The American tried to recall what he had learned from the locals. He had learned the language. Very well in fact. He had learned where to eat where the food was less contaminated. He had learned where to shop where the storeowners were less likely to overcharge foreigners. He had learned which bars had young girls who didn’t mind older foreigners and local patrons who looked the other way. A sordid place for a sordid man. Why had he come here? Why why why? Why: because the damned economy exploded. Yet again.
He had tried to rebuild once more, but his life was severely circumscribed by his meager circumstances, and he had kept to the city. He seldom ventured out onto the blighted plains and never ever into the decaying jungle. There was no need and he couldn’t afford the necessary gear to keep him free from contamination. Too much risk even if it was an awful temptation to see the last vestiges of the once-great triple canopy forest. Much of the wildlife was extinct in any event according to the news reports. He almost made it to the end of the first log before he slipped off.
The older man behind him cried out and almost followed the younger man into the pale water. The American had fallen and plunged face first into the river on top of several reptiles. He scrambled and clambered back onto the log. He sputtered and spat out the river water.
“Damn! Damn me to hell!”
“Are you all right?”
“Yeah. Yeah. I’m fine. They didn’t react. I mean, barely. And the one I fell on top of…it didn’t feel right.”
“What do you mean?”
“It felt…soft. Not hard like I would expect. I felt its mouth. It was like, I don’t know, like clay or jelly. Something’s not right. Wait a minute….”
“What the hell do you think you’re doing! Don’t!”
But it was too late. The younger man lay down flat on the trunk and reached into the river. He pulled out one of the reptiles by its neck. It seemed smaller out of the water. “Look at it. It’s sick, almost dead. And look at its jaw. It’s loose or soft. The way it hangs. Look at it, its eyes. Something’s definitely wrong with it.” The man slid the creature back into the clear water and wiped his hands. “Give me your bandana. Come on. Just give it to me.”
The darker man began to hurriedly wipe away the water. He sniffed the air and shook his head. Both men looked up and down the river. It rolled like a long slick white snake rotted with brown-green maggots. Toothy maggots. If the river was a snake there was no point in fearing the maggots in the snake. Both men looked into the river, trying to penetrate not its depths, but its essence.
“It’s the water,” said the Canadian, “It’s poison. They’ve poisoned the waters.”
The two men looked at each other. They didn’t have to say anything. The crocodiles were dying. The water was dying. The land was dying. The air was dying. Everything was dying. They were dying.
“God damn them! God damn those mothers! God damn me for coming to this place!” The American scrubbed his skin. He spat over and over. He hacked up a huge gob of spit. “Get my…get my stick. Use your stick, man, and flick it up. I don’t want to fall in again.”
The gunfire was closer.
“We have to go, God damn it. We have to cross this river.” The American sounded less sure of himself, his confidence shaken. “Just…just follow me.”
“Hey, I’m not the one who fell in.”
“Shut the hell up. You can lead if you want.” But the American did not hesitate or give way. He plunged forward and used his stick as a brace, trying not to disturb the moribund crocodiles. He could not stop spitting. He shuffled his feet over the slick yellow tree trunk more carefully now wary of the river itself. They crossed another tree trunk. Not all of the reptiles were as lethargic. Some still had life in them and raised their long snouts out of the water and hissed in welcome. The river was slowly coming alive under their feet.
In the middle of the river, they had to jump onto a trio of small boulders. But the next log was a good distance away and the water deepened. The bottom was murky.
“We’re going to have to swim to the next log.”
“I don’t want to get into that water.”
“I don’t either. I’ve already been in once and God knows what that will do to me. Even if we could jump this distance…look.” He stretched out and poked the log. “It’s loose. I guarantee that if we jump on it, it’ll come loose and not only will we fall into the poison stew, but the log may just move downstream. No, we slip into the river and climb up quickly onto the log.”
“I don’t know….”
Another shriek from the jungle. Each man in his mind pictured the private hell that their sweet smiling office girls were now living.
“You don’t need to know. Just follow me.” The American, slightly awkward, slipped in and paddled to the nearby trunk. It took him two tries, but he was able to clamber on top of the slick log.
“See? Piece of cake. Now come on man.”
“I don’t know. I’m not as spry as you.”
“Hurry. I’ll pull you up.”
The Canadian took deep breaths, gathering his courage.
The Canadian went in. He tried to keep his eyes shut to the water. He latched onto the log. The American began to pull him up. The taller man had one leg dangling in the water. He was almost on the log before a black and white mottled crocodile snapped its jaws shut on his calf.
The man cried out in pain and alarm. The reptile was not large, but it pulled with unbelievable strength for such a small creature. The Canadian clung to the log, struggling to pull himself up. The American released his hold on the Canadian’s arm and battered at the head of the beast with all his might. Then, he jabbed at the thing’s eyes. This worked and the crocodile released its hold. The Canadian almost slipped over the other side of the tree trunk.
The younger man hauled him to his feet. Blood was flowing freely from his calf and into the water, turning it pink, then red. The heavier man was in a panic, clawing his way forward, but the pain slowed him down.
“Lean on me damn it! Lean on me!”
The Canadian could barely speak. He repeated the same phrase over and over, “My leg, my leg.”
“Just keep going.”
But the river seemed to come alive then, boiling and bubbling with the pebbled skin of the contaminated creatures, and the men had run out of logs.
“We have to swim the rest of the way.”
“Swim? I can’t…I can’t even walk!”
“You can do it.”
“Haven’t you noticed? I’m bleeding like a stuck pig! I just rang the dinner bell for these river crocs!”
“Calm down. It’s not that deep from here to the shore….”
“You calm down! I just got my leg chewed off!”
“Get a grip. Listen to me: any second now they’re going to come bursting out of the jungle and shoot us…after torturing us. We. Can’t. Stay. Here. Take a breath. We only have to wade from here to the shore. Less than ten meters.” The American quickly bound his calf with the bandana, but it was too small to staunch the flow. “Now, come on.”
“Ten meters of hell. This is madness. Madness. A nightmare.” The Canadian made a strange pathetic sound in his throat.
“I’ll keep them off you. You just get your ass from here to there. Ready? Together.”
They jumped in.
For a moment it seemed that it would work, but the blood in the water invigorated the crocodiles, though they were sick and dying. The American tried to keep them away from his companion. He stomped and smashed with his thin stick. The Canadian stumbled. Three small ones latched onto him. The younger man pulled with all his might. His head was dizzy from the effort, but he got the Canadian back on his feet. While the American was pulling off a small crocodile, a larger one snapped at his back and tore out a chunk of flesh from his torso. Blood stained the water and the river turned red.
Five meters. They lurched through the waters turned scarlet with their own blood. Three meters. The flesh on their legs hung in tatters, like strips of pink and purple cloth. If they shook free from one reptile, two more latched on. The Canadian stumbled a second time. The American didn’t stop to pull off the crocodiles. He just pulled with all his might. Pulled and pulled. The American’s strength ebbed. He was dragging his friend, dragging him against the weight of numerous small hungry mouths.
“Don’t leave me,” said the Canadian, but the American had already lost his grip on his friend’s arm. A crocodile latched onto his inner thigh and the American fell away from his companion. The Canadian made a herculean effort and raised himself from the bloody waters. Crocodiles hung from him like grotesque Christmas ornaments.
Suddenly gunfire erupted from the edge of the tree line. The Canadian’s head exploded in a cloud of blood bone and brains. His body sank into the roiling river water, devoured the red waters.
The other man turned and fled into the dying jungle, bullets slicing the air around him. He was some distance into the shadowy forest before he realized he was still carrying the carcass of a small dead crocodile.
MAN! I really had fun writing this! Okay so postscript. The Canadian is very very loosely based on a colleague of mine whom I also consider a dear and cherished friend. Working with friends is a mixed bag of nuts. We all have our foibles. He annoyed me yesterday when I gave him some bad news, and after I got off the phone I literally thought to myself: Man, I’m glad I killed him in my story. So, there you have it. The cathartic power of fiction in action.
A Christmas No-Prize (if you don’t know what a No-Prize is, I will not tell you…it’s a comic book thing) to the first person who correctly guesses what this little fable is really all about. Cheers!