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A Hot Summer of Crocodiles

Mary Francis

When my father died he became a crocodile.

He was a snapping man, the kind who could turn a moment of stillness into one of teeth and tears. Cold-blooded, he lay in the sun for hours, his face turned to the sky, disregarding the hat and parasol my mother laid out for him beside the lounger in the garden. He basked, his energy building as his thick skin turned darker and glistened with fine droplets of sweat.

I had read in my encyclopedia about crocodile tears, but I never saw him shed tears of any kind. He was impervious to any emotion but anger. All other feelings were a menu for him, an array of morsels he might choose to sample. Even his smiles were slow and calculated.

In the evenings he would sit at his old oak fold-out desk, tearing people limb from limb with his clattering typewriter. “Don’t disturb your father, Sambulo,” my mother would say, guiding me back into the kitchen or bedroom or garden, where it was safe for me to play. When I was older, I knew to keep away from the still waters and long grass.

He died on the sun lounger, after dark. He had finished a piece for The Times Literary Supplement; it was folded in an envelope, addressed and stamped, propped against his typewriter to post in the morning. He went outside for a cigarette under the stars and his heart, which had chosen when to race and when to beat a slow and bloody drumbeat, decided to stop entirely. I saw the envelope when the doctor had gone and we were waiting for the funeral directors to come and take him away. I put it in my pocket.

We buried my father the next day. It was high summer and no time to wait. On the walk from the churchyard to our house I posted his article.

My mother and sisters cooked the kind of feast he loved, populated by the friends, family and colleagues he detested. “Vultures,” said his voice in my ear as I watched kind people offering words of comfort to my mother. Their condolences were served up with the slaai and grilled corn. She cried, of course. We all did. Real tears, because he was her husband and our father.

After the funeral our house was hushed. Bruised, almost. Like the land after a ferocious storm. Small animals raising their heads cautiously, to check if the danger was truly gone. Then, a few days later, I caught a crocodile.

Langa was the boss of the crocodile team, and he called me to come and fill in for Abdallah, who was sick. “Take your mind off things,” he said on the phone. “We need two to hold it down while I tie the jaws.”

We used nets to snare and wrap it, and long poles to press it to the ground while Langa flicked the noose over its snout. He had done this many times. “Watch out,” he said, “watch out,” over and over, leading our clumsy dance around the thrashing creature. TJ said nothing, gripping his own pole, sweating, the muscles standing out along his arms and neck. I looked at the crocodile; met his eye.

“Papa’s a crocodile,” I told my sisters that night. “It might have been him I caught today. I’m not sure, but it looked like him.” I finished my beer and went to bed. In the morning it was clear my sisters had told our mother the news. She served my breakfast with a shaking hand.

“Be careful, Sambulo,” she said, straightening my shirt collar before I left. “If they have you working on the crocodiles now, be careful.” When I was a boy going to school she did the same - smoothed down my clothes and told me to be careful. I was bigger than the other children. When I broke my collarbone playing rugby it was my fault for falling so hard.

I had been working at the conservation park for about a year, in the elephant team, trying to protect crops from herds, and herds from farmers. I planted chillis along farm boundaries and gave out tape recordings of killer bees to farmers who took the cassettes with one hand, holding their shotguns in the other. “No promises,” my boss would say as we drove away. “But you never know. If just one of them tries it and it works, they’ll all follow.” I was happy in the elephant team. Abdallah said I suited it, being like an elephant myself: big and quiet and loves his mama. But that summer it was crocodiles for me.

We caught dozens. The rain and heat had them on the move - basking, hunting, mating. Getting trapped in canals or fishing nets, or hit by cars. Langa tried to lecture people to stay away from the water, but still they roused old dinosaurs by splashing in the shallows. “They’re doing what they’ve always done,” Langa said. We would arrive with our flatbed truck, our ropes and poles to snare them. Any one of them could have been my father, but even up close I could never be sure.

One evening after work I stood by the letterbox at our front gate as the dust of Langa’s truck settled around me. There was a letter there addressed to my father. The stamp was English and the postmark several weeks old, well before my mother had telegrammed his contacts to advise them of his death. How peculiar to hold in my hands the expectation of another person that my father was alive.

It was because of this that instead of opening the front door I walked around the side of the house, drawn automatically to the French doors of my father’s study to deliver his post.

My mother was standing in the garden. In the still heat she looked like a statue planted on the grass, a watering can hanging from one hand. Her back was to me and her attention was on the bull crocodile that lay beside the sun lounger.

The birds struck up their music for dusk. I could smell dust, damp earth and the night-flowering gardenia. I could see the yellow eye of the crocodile and my mother’s shoulders rising and falling minutely as she breathed.

I reached her side in silence. “It’s true,” she whispered. “It’s your Papa.”

“Go inside, Mama.”

He watched us. I stepped just a little closer, in front of my mother, to shield her from that commanding stare. I could feel her presence disappearing behind me and heard the faint click of the French door opening and closing. And all the while I held his eye and he did not move.

“Papa,” I said. Under his armour, his muscles twitched. “This came for you.” I held out the letter in both hands, like the offering at church. I crouched so he could reach it.

He moved in less than the blink of an eye. I snatched my hands back, the way I had the time he caught me eating biscuits in the pantry. It had been midnight. I was 10. He had loomed over me, a giant in the dark, the smell of whisky rolling off him. He dismissed my presence as he would a gecko on the kitchen wall, reaching past me and my crumbs and half-full mouth to lift down another bottle, then went shambling back to his study.

The crocodile ran to the bottom of the garden and disappeared, my father’s envelope in its mouth. I sat on the grass and stared at where my father had been.

“I called the park,” said my mother, coming to my side. “Your friends will be here soon.” She laid a trembling hand on my shoulder. “There must be a gap in the fence. You can fix it tomorrow.”

Langa and Abdallah arrived with ropes and poles and netting in hand, deflating with relief when they saw the croc had gone. Langa directed his torch beam into the bushes and agreed that the fence should be mended first thing and that he would help.

My mother brought out bottles of beer and my sisters brought out umncweba, and we sat in the garden drinking, chewing meat and talking about crocodiles.

Mary lives and works in Wellington. She writes flash fiction and short stories. In 2020 she won second place in Grindstone’s flash fiction competition, and second place in the New Zealand National Flash Fiction Day competition along with the Regional Award (Wellington) and a Highly Commended place.

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