Many many years ago, in a little town not too far from here, it was known that a crocodile lived in the sky. He was feared among the people because he relished the taste of children who misbehaved. He came without warning, descending only when he was hungry. On each return, he acutely picked off the children whose discipline faltered during his absence. And after this, he would slowly weave back to the darkest recesses of the sky and stay hidden behind clouds for an indefinite period of time.
The crocodile ate children who did not do their homework and children who were too lazy to make their beds. He ate children who enjoyed playing tricks on their elders and fibbed to get out of trouble. This crocodile was so particular with his food that he could tell the difference between a naughty child and his good-natured twin.
He refused to eat cats as was suggested by some of the townsfolk, although they argued that a cat could be just as naughty as any child. The crocodile declared that cats were much too small to satisfy his hunger and were, besides, not worth the trouble of being scratched in the eye. And crocodiles, as we all well know, are incapable of crying but are sufficiently replete with sensations of pain and such emotions as grief.
One day, however, all the children were indoors. It had been raining all week and the rapidly rising river caused concern among townspeople. Livestock was taken to higher ground and harvest was picked earlier than usual. Each and every home was quiet save for the busy sounds in the kitchen, where mothers could be found boiling jams and jellies, pickling, and curing meats.
None of the children were sent to school; and the teachers, who had now been given a rest from their troublesome pupils, spent their days in animated gossip and speculation of the coming flood. Nobody gave a thought to the crocodile that lived in the sky. Even the old people, who normally recalled to the children stories about their childhood friends who had been eaten by the crocodile in the past, were preoccupied with the pounding rain. They fretted over their illnesses and worried that their families would forget about them in the haste of moving to elevated areas.
Some of the children stayed in bed with the flu. Others played board games or painted, quietly sipping cups of hot chocolate. Others, still, were kept busy helping with one task or another. The crocodile roamed and hovered around the town eagerly waiting for misconduct. He went upstream, and then down. He went to the school hoping to chance on mischief but found it empty.
For days, this went on. As the river rose, the hungrier the crocodile grew. So hungry was he that he started to eat cattle, and boars, and dogs. And the people who owned them, still fearing the water, simple assumed that they had wandered off to the river and drowned. The crocodile also began eating fish and turtles—and when he had finished them all, he ate the plants that grew on the river bank. He ate chickens and geese, choking on the feathers and lamenting his fate.
Every day, the desperately hungry crocodile wove his way around the town looking for suitable prey. The children, most of who were confined to their homes, had but little opportunity to create any trouble. In fact, many of them had become fearful of the anticipated flood as well. Almost everyone slept lightly, the children half asleep and half listening to their parents’ hushed night time anxieties.
Some of the older boys ventured to the river with their fathers. They collected stones in sacks for building a barricade to keep the impending water surge from washing their houses away. And even the most cunning of pranksters were occupied in the kitchen peeling boiled potatoes or shelling peanuts.
A few more nights passed, the town now living with dull terror over the unfulfilled flood. And the children, who heretofore were unaccustomed to close adult supervision, learned to find their own little harmless amusements. So it was thus that the poor crocodile was forgotten.
The rains subsided as did the threat of flood, and things slowly returned to normal. The animals were taken back to their respective yards and neighbors started trading the remaining food they had preserved. Young girls in braids romped their way to their sick friends, bringing homework to be picked up the next morning.
And although the foreseen tragedy did not materialize, the harmony brought on the town, particularly on the children, remained. It is quite unlikely that the crocodile had eaten up all the pranksters on his last visit, but it would seem that somehow, the children had learned to appreciate proper behavior. The school no longer saw fistfights after classes and the boys obligingly went straight home after doing their errands. Schoolwork was finished before dark and dinner plates were emptied without a fuss.
By this time, the crocodile was weakened and frustrated by hunger. He became desperate for a taste of young mischief, and began to feel as though the town had conspired against him. He had traversed the forest on the bank opposite the town, bitterly preying on wild game, cruelly imprecise in crushing the animals’ bones before making the kill. Little brown sparrows that proliferated in the area migrated to distant lands, warning other animals on their way. The forest became very quiet and very still that had anyone given it the time, he would have noticed the crocodile’s angry shadow lurking across the river and eyeing the town intently as it wended its way through the trees.
A month passed, and then a year. The old crocodile still had not gone back to the sky. He was now made more savage by impatience. He anxiously awaited the summer days, when idle boys bathed in the river on afternoons and exposed themselves to little girls picnicking on the bank. He would eat them all—first the boys, and quickly, because they will be very agile. And then the girls too, because they are really there to watch the boys. They will be frozen by fear and not even think to move until I am very very close, he thought. And the crocodile began to feel a little bit better.
But just then, the crocodile had a very novel idea. He thought, why not now? The adults may have been good children but frequently misbehaved when they grew older. Why do they have to be naughty, anyway? The crocodile thought about all of the animals, the plants and the fruits that he ate and started feeling like a fool. He lamented the indignity of his dilemma and lightly wondered why he had never considered the meatier, better seasoned adults before. An old man should certainly taste better than a bush, the crocodile decided. And with this, he slept well albeit famished, flies buzzing all around him.
The moon was full that evening and the crocodile casually made for the town. He slithered quietly across the river, his ridged back glistening against the water. On the shore, a merry thumping was felt on his belly. From where he was, one could hear faintly the sounds of festivities. And the crocodile felt much welcomed.
In town, the people gathered drinking fermented liquids and eating grilled pork. Roasting on the spit was a goat, its innards already boiling in a large pot next to it. Farmers’ guitars gleamed, mimicking the pale orange of the piles of squash that were heaped in mounds on front yards. And over to the left was the town hall with a sign that said MOON HARVEST. Little children wandered about in groups of four or five, hiding behind trees and piles of vegetables. A few of them passed the crocodile but neither party noticed the other.
The crocodile was determined to reach the gathering. He passed a lone cow tethered to a tree and ignored it. He saw a gang of thieves, too, inspecting their booty, but the crocodile merely went on his way. The town seniors, mostly on front porches smoking their tobacco rolls at this time, retreated to their beds to rest. But the oldest and wisest remained awake, troubled by a vague foreboding in their aching joints.
All of a sudden, screams and shots radiated from the center of town. The crocodile had lunged at Elena, a terrifically beautiful lady in her thirties. This woman, had neither child nor spouse—and although nobody took it seriously, rumor had it that she had initiated a young lad into manhood. The sage crocodile, who knew this to be true, and was aware of Elena’s nightly exploits around town, could not restrain himself at the sight of the woman.
Indeed, it was terribly satisfying for the crocodile to bring down his powerful jaws on her plump and youthful boy. The woman smelled like cacao, her skin rich and dark as the secrets of the moon. In these few moments, the crocodile tasted each and every one of her passions, which lingered quietly, although persistently. He tasted emptiness and fruitless longing, and exhaustion. He tasted bitter love in the river, and an urgent desire to drown in it.
Meanwhile, the people had recovered from the shock. Men and women, armed with machetes and kitchen knives, frying pans and wood axes, collectively decided that they would chase the beast away. Elena was, to many a wife, a dear ally. To them, she was heroine to their most romantic daydreams, chastely defying all constraints of domestic attachment. And to the men, well, she was Elena. The fish that got away.
Little boys, too, wanted in on the action. They threw stones at the crocodile and broke branches off shrubbery and trees and tailed their indignant parents. The two men who minded the pot of soup shouted a warning for the angry crowd to stand back, then tipped the boiling cauldron towards the lofty creature. The crocodile, who fully savored his meal, was up until now oblivious to the crowd that was presently upon him. The mighty animal thrashed and snapped blindly, his resolve to fight considerably weakened by Elena’s weariness with life.
He clumsily made his way out of the settlement, the crowd close behind him. By the river, a pair of quarrelling lovers was interrupted by the arrival of an outraged mob. The crocodile, whose side was scalded, found little reason to confront his pursuers. He could barely hide in the shadows, as the night was completely illuminated. The feared beast, once smiting man with terror, had become a common bandit. He slipped into the water, all at once afraid and yet comforted by the lulling quiet that cradled him. The crocodile swam on upstream, against the muddy course of the river, westward to where the bright young moon was setting.
From then onwards, the threat of the powerful crocodile disappeared from the lives of man. But they would remember that for many nights after, a part of the moon diminished into the sky until the town was mantled by darkness. Among those who beckoned to it every night, the moon would never be the same. And it became known that when a patch of sky seemed shrouded by darkness, a grand creature had wandered that way.
FRIEDA TALA was raised in Davao City, and is now currently based in Germany. Her works have been published in Davao Harvest 2, and The Best of Dagmay 2. The New Moon first appeared in the Road Map Series’ Preludes and Presences, Freeda’s collection of stories and poems.