Tuesday, June 22, 2010


I had to take a detour yesterday around a branch of the river. There was no bridge over it. There had been one once, judging by the broken pilings on either side, but it looked like the last flood had decided to keep it. The current was a bit faster than I was comfortable with, or I would have crossed on my suitcase.

The path was shady, overhung with trees and marsh creepers; I didn't mind leaving the hot, dusty road for a while. Frogs jumped off the bank as I passed. Kingfishers and spotted snatchers yelled at each other in the trees. The river branch was quiet, as flat and shallow as the main trunk, but the forest around it more than made up for that.

There were far fewer houses on the branch. I walked until almost sunset, when the light slanted sideways through the trees and lined them with gold, and saw not a single sign of anyone living nearby. I was starting to resign myself to sleeping in a tree when I came across the house. It was old, a low, lopsided building that looked like it was about to slide into the river. The porch sagged so much that one side was submerged. The water around it was full of weeds and floating logs; it looked as if the house had begun to dissolve already. Sedges and cattails covered the banks and leaned up against the crooked boards, except for a muddy, trampled-looking area by the water. There was a cow grazing in the back. It was green.

As I walked up to the door, several of the logs lifted their heads from the water and looked at me.

I covered the last few steps to the door somewhat faster, then wondered after I knocked if perhaps I shouldn't have. The face that answered the door was startingly similar to the ones that I could hear crawling out of the water behind me. They were completely unhurried. Crocodiles are always unhurried right up until that last moment when they lunge. The one at the door, taller on two legs than I was, grinned the grin that only crocodiles and snapjaw sharks can achieve. I was certain that I was about to become dinner.

Then the crocodile burst out laughing at the expression on my face, and I noticed - looking away from those teeth for the first time - that she was wearing an apron and a pair of oven mitts embroidered to look like sheep faces. The crocodiles behind me started laughing too. It was an odd, creaking sound unlike anything I'd heard before; it took me a moment to realize that it was laughter. After a few seconds, I started laughing too, if somewhat nervously. The two-legged crocodile beckoned me inside with one oven mitt.

"Khom in, khom in!" she said. "We won't eatchoo, we promish."

They were not exactly crocodiles, as it turned out, but a closely related species called gregarials. Crocodiles tend to be solitary creatures; gregarials are not. They're pack animals, and far more intelligent than the average crocodile. This was one of several packs living on the River Truckle.

Like most people, they varied quite a bit in shape. Most of them were built more or less like ordinary crocodiles. Several were part amphibian, their back legs missing, their heads adorned with leathery manes of gills. One was an albino; another was striped, like a tiger in green instead of orange, and had six legs. One looked almost human, except for the scales that covered his skin. His wife (the one with the oven mitts) was the other humanoid of the pack. She looked more crocodilian, but was by far the more talkative of the two. Her name was Cheleezixmargra; his was Shekelnark. I was introduced to the others, but their names are far beyond the capabilities of any alphabet I know.

I was never quite able to count how many of them there were.

None of them wore anything besides cooking aprons, which they took off once the food was served. Reptiles rarely feel the need to cover themselves up the way mammals do. There were a few dresses hung on one wall, next to a spectacular striped suit; I assumed that they were for special occasions. The dresses were a variation on the tube gowns popular among reptiles and weasels. Styles are different for people whose mouths are longer than their arms. The gregarial's voices varied as well. A few could have passed for humans with a surplus of teeth, at least in the dark; others had deep, creaking voices, and several spoke only a chewing sort of language that I didn't recognize. They seemed to understand each other well enough.

They invited me in for dinner, with repeated reassurances that I was not to be the main course. That was a stew featuring freshwater eel and a deer that one of them had caught crossing the river. (The roof was largely held up with antlers.) I added a piece of my shell cake and a marginally more recognizable crustacean thing from Woodpot. The gregarials pronounced them crunchy, but edible. I was asked to tell them about my travels - they've rarely been farther downstream than Truckle Stop - but the conversation during dinner was mainly about the day's work. They fish for a living, apparently, and sell things they find at the bottom of the river. The floods leave the things they don't like down there, and even in the dry seasons, people are always dropping jewelry and spectacles and so on out of boats. There's also a lost city somewhere beneath Sedge. None of the gregarials have ever found it - and not for lack of looking - but they keep finding statues and pots and ancient oil lamps half-buried in the mud. There's an archaeologist who, not being aquatic himself, comes up the river every now and then to see what they've found. According to him, it's all from something called the Alpaca Empire, which no one but archaeologists has ever heard of. They say he exclaims over each shard and fragment like a little boy on his birthday. They're quite fond of him.

After dinner, all the gregarials gathered around the fire and listened to Cheleezixmargra read a chapter of Year of the Manatee, Lena Tithe's epic seafaring novel. They were completely absorbed in the story, staring raptly at the reader, though I got the impression that they were most interested in the parts with the sharks. Several of them dropped off to sleep before the end of the chapter.

They invited me to stay the night, and I saw no reason not to accept. I spent the night at the edge of a heap of huge, hoarsely snuffling crocodiles, trying to keep from leaning on claws or the more serrated backs, with fish-scented fangs snoring gently in my ear. A cacophony of frogs shouted from the darkness.

Surprisingly, I actually slept. Once you've reassured yourself that they're not going to eat you, there are few places safer than a heap of crocodiles.

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