Once, there was a little girl. She lived with her mother in a small little hut in the middle of a village, and the village was in the middle of a grassy plain, and the grassy plain was in the middle of the land. There was one broad, slow-moving river, where tiny fish swim in quick, silver darts near the bank and larger fish stay out in the deep, where it was hard for the fishing men to catch them.
The little girl sometimes went to the river to watch the villagers fish while her mother gathered reeds for drying and weaving. The fishing men had wide, flat-bottomed boats from which they threw nets; they sometimes had spears in their hands as they waited.
“They have spears to kill the Big Crocodile, who is King of the River,” the little girl’s mother said. “Only the bravest and strongest of men will be able to fight the Big Crocodile, and they will win, and then they will become King of the River.”
Now, in this part of the river, there were no crocodiles. However, there had once been an attack by a crocodile three villages downriver, and then the stories had floated upriver. And stories, like crocodiles, grow quite large all by themselves.
So the little girl learned that:
the Big Crocodile was as long as three of the wide-bottomed boats
the Big Crocodile was stronger than all the men together
the Big Crocodile had scaly skin tougher than the smooth river stones
the Big Crocodile was sneaky and cunning, and would pull naughty children into the water if they didn’t eat their vegetables or help with the weaving
She also decided that she would fight the Big Crocodile herself when she grew up, and become King of the River.
Then one day, a group of people came into the village. They were strange, funny people, who said that stars were balls of fire in the sky (when everyone knew they were spirits of the honourable dead) and that tiny little creatures made people sick (when everyone knew it was because the spirits wanted to punish someone for being bad).
The little girl liked listening to them, regardless. That was a word they used. Regardless. They also used a great many words, such as ‘microscope’ and ‘viruses’ and ‘biology’. They talked about their gods a lot, saying that their god, Science, had shown them why apples (whatever they were) fell from trees, and the rules that their other god, Mathematics, had set when sorting out numbers.
They called themselves ‘teachers’, and they built themselves a big hall where they all lived, and there were rooms inside where they gathered all the children to teach them about their gods. The little girl thought she would not have to go sit in a small, stuffy room, but her mother thought otherwise; so the little girl went, because she didn’t want the Big Crocodile to pull her into the water.
School was fun. There was the learning of the rules of the gods Science and Mathematics, but they were easy because they didn’t need offerings, just memory and practice. The little girl still helped her mother with the reeds, even as she was learning to read and write. She spelled things out, like she was doing magic, and her mother had to tell her to stop spelling at home or to at least keep it to after dinner.
V-E-G-E-T-A-B-L-E-S. This was a long word she learned to spell, and she was proud of spelling it, even if she still did not like eating vegetables at all.
S-C-H-O-O-L. School was more fun than she thought it would be. The little girl liked school. She hoped she would learn more words to spell, and then she could spell the whole world.
The little girl’s teacher did not always keep them in class. Instead, he sometimes led them outside to walk around the village, where the children then taught him about the ways of the villagers, or they would walk on a path along a slope next to the river to learn the names of the fish the fishing-men caught.
One day, as the little girl trailed behind her class of fifteen, she saw a mound of earth and dried reeds and weeds among all the reeds on the bank. Curious – as all little children are – she lingered to stare at it.
It was a good-sized mound. Carefully, she slithered down the slope, making very little noise. She was good at being quiet. When she approached it, she heard a rustling in the reeds, and then she saw a large, triangular head with yellow eyes, their pupils like slits of darkness, turn around to look at her. Its long mouth gaped open a little, looking for all the world like it was grinning, revealing sharp, pointed teeth.
It was the biggest animal she had ever seen that wasn’t a cow.
The little girl grinned back. It was polite to smile when someone smiled at you. Even if you were suddenly very scared.
It was very hot, and her class was walking further. The little girl bowed, the way she had been taught to bow to the elders, and ran back up the slope and back to her class, where her teacher was now talking about the shape of clouds and using funny words like ‘cirrus’ and ‘cumulonimbus’. Maybe her teacher was casting spells.
The little girl told no one of what she had seen and done. That huge creature on the river bank, with its wide, fierce smile, haunted her imagination.
One afternoon, when the children were let out of school, she ran to the riverbank again. The mound that had caught her attention was still there, but she did not go near it. She stayed on the path, so far away that the mound was only the size of her thumb.
The massive grinning animal was by the river, sunning itself, partly hidden by the browning reeds. The little girl saw it only because she looked. It had a long body, covered with dull, dark grey-brown scales, and there were triangular spikes running down the sides of its tail. It was grinning again, open-mouthed, with small red-headed birds exploring the inside.
She worried that the birds would be eaten, but the birds were not worried at all.
this animal has sharp teeth
this animal is scaly
this animal is big, even if it isn’t as big as Mama says
this animal is a crocodile
this animal is a crocodile
Then the reeds rustled and waved as the crocodile went to the mound. It was no longer grinning. It was fast, even though its legs seemed short in comparison to its body, and then it lay beside the mound like it was waiting for something.
The little girl wondered if she should wait too. Her mother would be waiting at home for her.
She decided that she had better go home. She didn’t want her mother to go to the school to look for her and discover she had come to the river by herself.
The crocodile lifted its head and gaped. More birds hopped inside its wide, sharp-toothed grin.
The next day, the little girl did not have to attend school. She walked to the river, bouncing a small lump of rubber in her palms, spelling out words as she went of the things she knew.
Then the lump bounced out of her hand and down the slope into the reeds. She followed it, not thinking about anything other than how to spell a word, thinking if it was T-E-E-C-H-E-R or T-E-A-C-H-E-R, and then she spied the little lump of rubber next to a slender little lizard-like animal with large, curious eyes set in a wedge-shaped head.
The little lizard-like animal stared at her and made a funny squeaky MMM-MMM sound in its throat. It sounded the way the little girl did whenever she forgot the answer to 9 times 8.
The little girl smiled at it.
The little lizard-like animal smiled back.
Then the little girl realized that this was a baby crocodile, and it was calling for its mother. Quickly scrambling away from the reeds and the river bank, she stood on the path, staring down the slope with wide eyes.
And then, the mother came. It – She, the girl decided – She opened her mouth in that gaping smile, and inside were dozens of little crocodiles. The one that the little girl had seen climbed into its mother’s mouth, as if it were a flat-bottomed boat.
Then the crocodile swam away, carrying all her precious cargo in her smiling mouth full of teeth.
“Teacher, how do I spell crocodile?”
“C-R-O-C-O-D-I-L-E.” The teacher smiled at the little girl. He had very dark skin and very white teeth, but his teeth were not sharp and his smile not as wide as the crocodile’s. “Why do you want to know?”
The little girl said, “Are crocodiles good mothers?”
“Yes, remarkably so. She will guard her clutch of eggs and nurture them until they are better able to fend for themselves.” The teacher spelled the words that were new to the class.
“I saw a crocodile at the river!”
It was one of the boys. The little girl paid little attention to the boys, for they did not play with the girls and stuck around their fathers to learn how to mend boats and perhaps, one day, throw spears.
But the boy had seen the crocodile.
He was puffed with pride. “I saw the crocodile yesterday and I told my father and they are going to kill it today when they hunt it down.”
The teacher was startled when the little girl yelled. She was usually very quiet, but now her face was red and her eyes were wide and glimmering with tears.
“No!” she shouted again, stamping her foot rudely. “No! It is a mother! It has little babies! Little babies that stare at you with big eyes and smile at you with their funny mouths and make squeaky MM-MM noises in their throats the same way I do and I won’t let anyone kill them! No no no!”
Before the teacher could stop her, she ran out of the class and pelted straight towards the river. She ran as fast as she could and her feet hurt. Her face was wet and her ribs felt like it was being squeezed by a giant’s fist and her heart hurt worse than her feet.
Her teacher was chasing her, but he was a teacher and not fast like she was.
When she got to the river, already she saw that the crocodile had been caught up in nets and her babies were in a pail. The crocodile struggled and fought against the ropes, but could not break free. The men were jabbing with their spears but she avoided them, for her scales were hard and powerful. The babies were making the funny noises again, and she cried, because she knew they wanted their mother, the way she wanted her mother to make everything right, but her mother would not do so, because these men would kill the crocodile for being a crocodile.
Her teacher caught up with her and took her hand. She pulled away from him and half-ran, half-tumbled down the slope to where the men were, with their sharp spears and knives.
“Leave them alone!” she screamed at the men. “Leave them alone! They don’t bother you!”
“It’s a crocodile,” said one of the men. “It will eat us.”
“No it won’t!” She glared at all of them. She stamped her foot again, twice as hard and twice as rudely. “She has been here ages and she has eaten no one. She is a mother and those are her babies and you should all be ashamed of yourselves!”
Her teacher had come down to grab her again. “Come, little one, this is men’s business, not a child’s.”
The little girl stomped on her teacher’s foot. “Set it free. Set it free right now! If it doesn’t eat me, then you know it is safe to let her go.”
“That will be too dangerous, little one.” One of the men in the back moved forward, his hands held up. He was not from the village. He wore a light brown shirt and jeans with muddy boots, and on the shirt there were some words the girl had never seen before. “We are not going to kill her. We are moving her and her babies away from here.”
The little girl paused. “Really?”
“Really.” The man was smiling now. His teeth were crooked. He pointed to a picture on his shirt with trees and an elephant in it. “See this logo? It’s a wildlife sanctuary. I’m a ranger. We put animals in there so they are safe from people and people are safe from them.”
The little girl was unconvinced, until the teacher said he and she would go with the ranger to the place where they put animals and she could check for herself.
They set the crocodile and her babies free at a large pond, at least twice as large as the village. Her teacher said it was called a lake.
L-A-K-E. Lake. It meant a pond so big it could fit two villages.
W-I-L-D-L-I-F-E. That meant animals that did not live in homes with people.
S-A-N-C-T-U-A-R-Y. Sanctuary. It meant safety. It meant not being killed by spears. She liked the word a lot.
R-A-N-G-E-R. A ranger was a man who saved crocodiles.
S-A-F-E. S-A-F-E. She spelled the word again and again and again and again, once for each baby crocodile the ranger set on the edge of the water, and once for the mother who lay asleep in the grass from something the ranger put in her.
F-R-E-E-D-O-M. She spelled that on the way home. Someday she would grow up and learn everything about crocodiles, and whether they could spell the way she did.