Jasmine Cruz

We Who Befriended Twin Crocodiles

 

I am saying this to you because one day you will grow old and frightened. It was a lesson that I could have learned but never did. It all began on the day my older sister Alana and I rescued the twin crocodiles.

She was 8, and I was 6, and it was the first time that we had ever seen crocodiles. We didn’t even know what the crocodiles were called. We actually thought that each crocodile was made of floating pebbles that were stuck together. Alana and I loved playing skipping stones at the old river, and so we thought, could it be that we created them? We threw so many pebbles that the river decided to give us a gift, two pebble-skinned creatures that floated on water. We need not play skipping-stones anymore; the river made us win.

The old river was more than our home, it was our bloodline. Yes, I’m talking about that old river in the hills, the one in the pictures that I show you. Yes, I go back there whenever my visits here are over—that one is my home.

Alana was like the old river, pacific in many respects, but when she moved, all her muscles undulated in unison like the rocking of the waves. Her black hair also channeled water. I also have long wavy hair like my sister, but I have none of her grace. Look at my dark brown eyes, she had them too, but hers felt like the moon loved to be reflected on them, haunting and endless, while mine just froze at the first contact of light. She knew everything while I could only understand what was in front of me.

The crocodiles were like mirror images of each other, but we eventually discovered how to tell them apart. It was all in their right front legs. One crocodile only had three toes on that leg while the other crocodile had a full set. We called the first Kitty and the other Lady. We didn’t really know if they were girls, but we gave them girl names because we were girls and we wanted them to be girls. We never figured out why Kitty only had three toes, but she always proved to be the feistier one.

All else, they looked like twins, and when we first saw them, they were but babies who were caught amongst the roots of the mangroves. Naïve as we were, we each took one crocodile and lifted them from their entanglement. With their scaly bellies in our hands, we waded into the deeper part of the water and released them. When they first felt their freedom, they seemed confused, splashing about, looking at each other, and turning to us with eyes that seemed to say, is it ok for us to go now? We smiled at them. They understood and swam away.

We rushed back into our village of nipa huts and cement houses, determined to gush about the creatures that we had just met. Back then, our village was a sleepy town where people walked around in their dusters or shorts and sandos as if the entire village was their sala. But that lethargy was being shaken up. A few concrete houses were being made here and there, and the teenagers were starting to wear jeans and t-shirts.

When we told grandma about the creatures made of floating pebbles, she said she never saw such animals. We were amazed because grandma was the oldest person in our village, but as we described the creatures, she stared at us, confused.

Grandma was the one who raised us ever since we were kids because a ship took our parents away. When they decided to sail to Manila to look for jobs, they left us with grandma, promising that once their life was stable in the city, they’d return for us and take us with them. They never did because their ship brought them to the bottom of the sea.

Though grandma cared for us, she was the complete opposite of a parent. She never gave us advice, even when we pleaded for it. When we were young, we remember asking grandma to help us pick what dresses we should wear. She refused and said that we should be the one to choose. We cried because she was making our lives harder. We did not want to choose, but despite our pleas, she simply ignored us and walked out of our bedroom and started cooking palitaw. We had no choice. Alana picked a sea blue flowy dress, and I settled on a white dress with a straight cut.

When we got out of our nipa hut, we saw Gella the sumbungera and her mother. Part of the elite Lorenzo clan, Gella had wide eyes, thick eyebrows, and a big mouth. Her mouth probably got that way because of her sumbungera ways or her penchant for wailing, which she was doing right then and there. She was as if engaged in a tug of war with her mother, but instead of a rope, they were pushing and pulling on Gella’s excessively-ruffled sleeve. “I hate this dress!” said Gella. “It’s itchy! It’s itchy!” “Don’t take off your dress, Gella!” said her mother. “You’re embarrassing me!”

Grandma looked at us without saying a word, but we knew what was on her mind, and we looked away in mixed shame and gratefulness.

The next morning after we told grandma about the floating pebbles, Alana and I went to the river to play skipping stones. Grandma was somewhere farther back, talking to some of our neighbors. People were milling about, busy with their daily tasks, when we saw the crocodiles swimming to shore.

We quickly ran to them as they reached the land. As we animatedly talked to them, we did not know that one by one the people around us were gasping, mouths open, finger pointing in horror. We were crouched down beside them, and we proceeded to lower our hands in order to pet them.

Before our hands lay on those scaly skins, I heard grandma shout Alana! Kira! I looked up and saw her running toward us, but that didn’t stop me from continuing to lower my hand, and after a few seconds my hand was there on top of the crocodile’s head. So was Alana’s.

We looked down and saw the crocodiles with their eyes closed, enjoying the way we stroked them. Alana picked up Lady and grandma screamed. Both of us didn’t understand why. I took Kitty, raised her up, and said, “Look, grandma! Look! The floating pebbles!”

We were all gathered inside a hut, and even the baranggay captain was there. Gatherings with him these days were usually held in the newly-built covered basketball court, but today things were different. Something was meant to be a hush. He began with a grave face as he told the story of one of his ancestor who was a great great great great uncle of his. He said that this story was passed down from generations to generations in his family. A foolish man, his ancestor boldly ventured into the forbidden parts of old river and toward the marshes downhill. Crocodiles who lived there never bothered the village, and the village never bothered them, but everyone knew that they were dangerous.

His ancestor wanted to kill a crocodile, skin it, and use it to prove that he was a courageous man. He didn’t like that people insulted him because he was good at cooking and he enjoyed washing clothes with the women at the river. After venturing into the forbidden waters, he disappeared. Weeks later, his severed hand washed up on shore. Everyone knew it was his because the hand had a tattoo of a queen’s crown, and only he had a tattoo like that.

When the baranggay captain finished this story, he told us not to touch the crocodiles again, but we defiantly said no, and all of the adults gave a collective susmaryosep. He talked to us in his “nice” voice, saccharine enough to dupe the uninitiated. We looked at him unconvinced. Red pinpricks started appearing on his neck until the color began to spread all over his face. “You will never touch those crocodiles again!” he said.

We weren’t planning to heed his advice, and he knew it. So he became more active at greeting us whenever we were by the riverside. He breathed a sigh of relief when days and months passed and the crocodiles did not return. We were saddened.

One day our neighbor Gella was at the shore picking up shells, while Alana and I were further back playing in the sand. We decided to build a castle, and we were leaving the shore to look for some sticks. Before we got too far, we heard Gella say, “What are those?” When we turned around we saw creatures swimming toward us. They were each the size of half our arms and yet, even at a distance, we instinctively knew that they were Lady and Kitty.

The villagers who were standing even further back started to see them too. “Crocodiles!” one shouted.

We knew that, like us before, Gella didn’t know what crocodiles were, but since she always needed to suck up to adults, she screamed, “Cocody!” and pretend cried as she ran, looking for an adult she was planning to sumbung us to.

When Gella passed us, the haze of shock suddenly broke, and we realized we had to run. Our legs moved, but it was as though the air became liquid. The adults eventually swarmed together to chase us, and they also looked like they were running against water as well. None of their legs or either ours felt like they could ever be quick enough to get to our goal—we: to get to the crocodiles; them: to stop us. In our gut we knew we had to make it to Lady and Kitty before the adults did, but from there, we didn’t know what we’d achieve. The adults were catching up and Gella’s mother almost snatched Alana by her long hair but missed. Then, the worst thing happened, Alana tripped. I tried to hoist her up, as I was looking at the crowd of adults closing in. “Alana, get up! Get up!” The adults were inches away, they were so close, and then, they stopped. They were like maniacs on attack mode but as if cordoned off by some invisible line. Time came back, and right beside me, I saw Lady and Kitty. Then I understood. The adults weren’t going to come nearer. Their fear of the crocodiles stopped them from stopping us. Within this perimeter, we were safe.

A wicked smile spread on Alana’s face, and she rose up like a goddess. She took two steps toward Lady and then slowly crouched down to touch the crocodile. The howls from the adults got louder as her hand went nearer and nearer Lady. When she finally touched Lady, everyone went silent. Nothing bad happened to Alana as she pet the crocodile. I followed suit by petting Kitty. Then our baranggay captain broke the silence, “Someday, the crocodiles won’t be babies anymore. They’ll become wild and snap off your hand.” We hugged the crocodiles and looked at him. “Susmaryosep!”

Alana asked grandma if she was mad, but she just kept on slicing the onions.

Wag kayo manggulo sa kusina!” she said, shooing us away.

We left the kitchen and sat at the dining table. Alana looked at me.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “Grandma will come around.”

From then on, the crocodiles kept returning every first day of summer. When we met the crocodiles the next year, Alana brought her old bulky camera and every year, she’d take her camera and we’d take turns in snapping pictures of us patting the crocodiles. Right after hearing the second click of the camera, the crocodiles instinctively knew that it was time to go, and they turned back to sea. We looked at them and waved until we saw them vanish from the horizon. At first grandma was very against what we were doing, but soon, she just calmly watched us as we stroked the crocodiles.  The other adults would still be there, crowding around us in seething silence.

The crocodiles were getting bigger and so were we. We were in our early teens and they were already as long as half my leg. One day, they felt restless. Alana threw stones into the river, and she expertly made them skip again. When the crocodiles saw the stones, they dove into the river, swam a bit, faced us, and opened their mouths. Gella cried in horror, “They’re going to eat us!” and she threw a stone at Kitty. “Nooo!” we screamed but were too late to stop her. Instead of being angered, Kitty ate the stone, and opened her mouth again. Alana and I looked at each other. We thought that this proved that they really were made of stones, and that we were their creators. We did not know that swallowing stones simply helped in their digestion.

A few days after that day, we were summoned into the baranggay captain’s hut. By this time, he was weak and wrinkly. He told us that Gella was missing, and all they found was her bag that washed up on shore. Gella’s mother was there at the hut, crying. “Mga walang hiyang bata kayo! Dinala ninyo yan sa atin! Magbabayad kayo!

We were shocked. What was she saying? Did the crocodiles take Gella? What was their proof? Kitty and Lady would never hurt anybody! We’ve had them for years! After we pet them, they’d just leave and go back to the river. They never roam around the village. How would they have the opportunity to take Gella?

She said that Gella had an argument with her mother. As to what that argument was, her mother refused to tell us. Gella went into her room and slammed the door. When her mother knocked the next morning, Gella didn’t answer. Her mother went to the kitchen and started making breakfast. Gella’s favorite was flying saucers, so ensaymadas were soon being flattened on a frying pan. In another pot, balls of Batangas chocolate were disintegrating into boiling water, the spreading color infected the tasteless water with the sweetness of chocolate. Her mother thought that these smells would entice Gella to leave her self-imposed imprisonment, as she often did after their fights. Gella was never good at resisting her stomach, a voracious power despite the fact that she was often skinny. Fed up with waiting, her mother went back to Gella’s room and opened the door. No Gella on the bed. Opened closets. A few shelves that were once teeming with clothes were now empty. But the peculiar thing was on the floor. There was water, a slimy kind. Beside it, a reptilian scale and a spot of blood.

A few days after came the first day of summer and the crocodiles returned. When we were patting them, the crowd was again swarmed around us but at a distance. Gella’s mother fought her way to the front of the crowd, looked intently at the crocodiles and gasped as she pointed an accusing finger at Kitty.

“That one! Near the right ear!” Gella’s mother said. “That one is missing a scale!”

She was hysterical, but when we looked at Kitty, it was unmistakable. On her head, near her right ear, was an exposed reddened flesh.

Gella is sailing away with Efren. Her mother won’t be able to stop them anymore. They were long gone, in the middle of the sea. They were sailing far away.

“Good thing that crocodile came,” said Efren.

“Yeah, I thought it was going to hurt us,” said Gella.

“It didn’t.”

“It freed us.”

And the clouds parted to welcome them eternally.

I woke up with a scream. Alana rushed to my bedside.

“She killed Gella,” I said. “Kitty killed Gella.”

Alana hugged me and we both knew that we could never truly know that Kitty killed Gella. A bad dream can’t prove anything, but our ability to trust the crocodiles began to erode. We still patted them, determined to defy the adults, determined to show that we will never bow to them, but our hands began shaking.

When we turned 24 years old, grandma died. We had a fantasy that when she’d die, she’ll say some last words that were smart memorable, then we’ll tell each other that we loved each other. She was sick for a long time, and there came a point when we knew she was about to die but we were hoping for that she’d still live for a year. Then, she’ll say her last words. Maybe she’d start with, I love you, and suddenly all the things that we never said will be said, but no, there were no last words, she died while I was sleeping beside her. I didn’t even see her take her last breath.

We hit our 30s, and I guess we couldn’t help it, but we became wise. We stopped patting the crocodiles, but they still came to shore year after year on the first day of summer. From taking a picture of us petting them, we began taking a picture of us standing beside them. We could see some disappointment in their eyes, some confusion, and a sad longing. We wish we could explain it to them why we stopped petting them, but we couldn’t truly explain it to ourselves. It was like a friendship turned cold with no reason why. Yet they kept visiting us year after year.

When Alana turned 70, the crocodiles had a harder time walking to shore. They aged as well, and yet they forced their creaky bones to visit us as though adamant to keep a promise we never agreed upon. We’d still be there, greeting them, but we never touched them again.

When Alana turned 75, she sensed that there was something different. The first crocodile looked as though there was a weariness hovering over her. Right after we took the photo with them, the crocodiles began to turn back, but the first crocodile suddenly stopped. Its companion looked back. Then, Alana did something that shocked us all. She threw herself down to the first crocodile and hugged it. The crocodile looked like she was smiling the most content smile that she ever smiled in her life. She closed her eyes and died.

The second crocodile seemed to have understood what had happened, so when we finally watched her swim away, we thought we’d never see her again.

The next year, the crocodile came back, and the next year, and the next. We returned to taking a photo with the crocodile, but we didn’t pat her.

When Alana was 86, her creaky bones made it difficult for her to walk to shore, but she still insisted to be there to meet the crocodile. The crocodile arrived, walking as wobbly as Alana was. Click, the photograph was taken, and it was time to go.

The second crocodile suddenly stopped, and we saw Alana gently crouching down towards the crocodile and welcoming it into her arms. The crocodile closed its eyes and so did Alana. They both died smiling.

 

Jasmine Cruz is a writer from the Philippines. She studied creative writing in Ateneo de Manila. She graduated Cum Laude and received the Creative Writing Program Award. Her poem has been published by the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ 39th Ani Journal. She has also written numerous articles about the visual arts, lifestyle, and other topics for Manila Bulletin, Philippine Star, Philippine Daily Inquirer, BusinessWorld, Rogue Magazine, Art Plus Magazine, Cosmopolitan Magazine, Spot.ph, Coconuts Manila, etc.