The Maiden and the Crocodile
by Dean Francis Alfar
She kissed him one last time, failing to notice how the roughness of his skin slowly began to turn to the soft lost flesh of his youth, and he realized that it was all he could do not to cry.
And she stood up without a word, with neither gasp nor sigh, and picked her way through the deepening shadows, his heart in her hand, leaving him to die alone. He thought, perhaps too kindly, that it was her way of leaving him a degree of dignity, a painful measure of kindness that nonetheless cut deep into the place where his heart once dwelt.
And finally, when he felt the last of his strength give way, when there was not a scale or snout or tooth or claw left of him, but only a man’s dying body, he sighed.
His dismal human eyes wept no crocodile tears but tears as dry as rivers and as dim as stars.
“Forgive me,” she whispered, as she took the spear and stabbed his chest. It was as if the first strike hurled his senses away from his body. He felt no pain at her savagery, only the unmistakable discomfort of mistaken nostalgia.
A thousand false days whirled before him — of how, together, they swam in the rivers and chased the water birds; how she rode on his back as they hunted the torpid fishes; how she told him that she loved him no matter what he looked like, no matter what he was, that she would pretend to be a diuata enchanted beyond hope by his charming voice. But none of that happened of course.
She tore out his heart, dulled and almost silent, and held it to her ear. She did not seem to mind that she was covered in his blood, and had added more to her cheeks as she listened. Satisfied, she looked at him looking up at her, helplessly dying and helplessly in love.
“I have to go.”
He had suspected of course that something like this would happen. Many had tried over the years to win his heart. But he had always stood victorious at the end of every challenge, denying all that tried the intimacies and mysteries of his affection. I have grown careless, he told himself. I have fallen in love, he told himself. I am going to die, he told himself.
He could not move, of course. Such was the power of the net fixed by devotion. He had allowed himself to believe her and his belief empowered the net and the net held him so tightly, so securely that he could not even speak.
“I need your heart,” the maiden told him.
He could only watch as she picked up one of the spears that decorated his home, the very spear that a hunter named Lan’sanud had wounded him with. It had taken him years to recover.
He dreamed a reptile’s dream — basking in the sun with his beloved, soaking up the heat of daylight, and swimming away forever beyond the boundaries of the river and into the endless ocean.
He dreamed a man’s dream — denying the gods of the river their rightful due, staring in horror as his hands turned to claws, and being unable to shed any tears that were true.
When he awoke, he was entangled in a net that smelled of coconut oil, crushed ginger and a woman’s sourness.
“Where is your heart?” she asked him, as she stroked the hard edges of his reptilian snout and looked innocently into his eyes. “I know you do not keep it in a tree like Unggoy or in a shell like Pagong,” she whispered into his small ears. “Where is it?”
And with the maiden’s relentless cooing, asking and stroking added to the regular eddies of the river, he felt his resolve weaken and he told her where it was.
“In your chest? Like everyone else?” she marveled. “I never would have guessed.”
He nuzzled against her softness, and, finding solace in the warmth of her caresses and comfort in trust he had just bestowed, fell asleep in her embrace.
One day, she showed him a net that she brought with her.
“It’s to help you catch things with,” she told him. “I feel guilty that you provide all the food when I am with you. I’m going to try to catch some fish.”
He was reluctant, feeling that as a gentleman and the master of his domain he was perfectly capable of providing for them both. But she was adamant.
“At least let me try,” she told him, and he agreed.
But when the afternoon had passed and the net remained empty despite her best efforts, she tossed it onto the rocks nearby, and gladly accepted some fruit he brought to her after striking a tree with his tail.
“Are you lonely?” she asked him once.
He told her that yes, sometimes he was.
“Why?” she asked him, as tears formed in her eyes.
Because everyone is frightened of me, he told her.
“They try to kill you,” she continued for him. “With spears.”
Yes, he agreed, dismayed at her tears. And he showed her his collection of spears that various people had tried to kill him with.
She laughed and laughed, which made him feel better inside.
When they began to speak, it was of inconsequential things. The climate, the temperature of the river, the number of pebbles in his domain. He found her articulate and witty, laughing at his attempts at clever conversation and never ever bored.
She told him he was charming, and gently teased him about his retiring nature.
“You are beautiful,” she told him, when she finally touched his skin, running her fingers across his raspy texture.
His heart echoed the sentiment and he told her exactly that.
They grew comfortable, like an old couple, sometimes not needing the security of words to prove that they were indeed sharing time and space in a place where silence embraced them.
It was a long courtship. For despite what everyone said or thought, he was terribly shy and was never one to rush things, at least not anymore.
She played the demure young maiden, acting surprised at his presence but not at his appearance, and coy in her manners.
He gradually grew to expect her company with every passing day, days they spent in silence, gazing at each other — he, in the river; she, on the riverbank.
He was used to his solitude, and only went out to either answer a challenge or feed on the ailing or hopeless animals that came to his waters to die.
He would spend his days counting the same pebbles around his domain, and the nights listening to the stillness of the forest that echoed the movement of the currents and the secret sound of his despair.
He had begun to think that perhaps he had grown too old to hope for better things, that he would forever be what he was, how he was, until the stars fell from the sky.
She was born without a heart, and she had always felt different. Where others could freely fall in love or cry at loss or smile at sunsets, she was simply hollow. She had learned how to pretend to be one of them, smiling at the right times, swooning over handsome boys, wailing at village funerals. But inside she knew only emptiness.
She sought out a bruja in the mires where no one dared to go, fearless in her heartlessness, and there she learned of a heart she could own, a net she could make, and a spear that she must find.
When she stood unmoving in the bruja’s hut with a peculiar feeling in her stomach, the wisewoman told her that it was only hope and that it would go away in time.
She sought him out. The great bu’aia.
They first met through glances. His, unblinking and half-submerged in the river; hers, guileless and drowning in the color of mud.
He was surprised to see a young woman so near his home. Only the hopeless or the foolish or the brave ever came to him, and most of the time it was to win his heart which they believed could work miracles.
She, of course, had come to do exactly that, for the emptiness in her bosom was as dry as rivers and as dim as stars.
Copyright © 2008 by Dean Francis Alfar