A Faraway Fable of Death — and Life
Picture, if you will, a tropical island where time has no meaning or measure. It stands alone in an ocean of blue-green water far removed from civilized advance. As it does every day, the same sun arcs across the sky, blazing relentlessly from horizon to horizon.
Once removed from the tides of the ocean, a beach of dazzling white sand gives way to strange plants, vines and mangrove trees that hold the sun’s heat and refuse to let it go. Further inland, the jungle comes alive with shrieks and chirps of birds and creatures heard but not seen; a place that has never known engines, radios, or any other tools of man.
Drifting through the middle of that jungle is a narrow but deep river. Its brown, silty water moves slowly, but at least it moves. The fetid air around it does not. At a bend in the river is a sandy bank, and it is there every day that a crocodile lays motionless in the heat, as big and round as a fallen log. It shows its considerable age, with weathered skin and crooked white spikes jutting out of its mouth. Robbed by the years of his speed and quickness, he is content now to live out his time in peace, knowing full well that on this island he has no challenge, no equal.
One day everything changes when a young sailor is washed ashore, the sole survivor of a shipwreck on a nearby reef. Tumbling in on wave after wave, he collapses on the soft warm sand, gasping and grateful to heaven that his life has been spared. God has ordained it. He rests his head on the sand and with parched lips whispers, “I’m alive,” before closing his eyes and drifting off to sleep.
In the days that follow he struggles but learns how to survive by catching fish and gathering fruit, harnessing fire, building a shelter. In time, he starts to regain his strength. It becomes clear that he is the only human soul on this island. Armed with that thought, he grows bolder. Fear and sadness slowly give way to the notion that, for the first time in his life, he is king of all that he sees.
Exploring the island further, he comes upon a startling sight: a human skull and some old bones bleached and half-buried in the sand at the edge of the jungle. Mystified but not overly unconcerned, he walks past them and enters the jungle. It’s like entering a new world. Then he sees the old croc for the first time, lying there motionless on the river bank.
But what was fear soon becomes something else.
It starts out as a game — throwing a clump of mud at the beast and quickly ducking behind a tree, all the time staying on this side of the river. Then he throws a stick. Then another. Soon he’s stepping out into the open, standing at the water’s edge and throwing stones at the croc’s head.
Every day he comes to the river and plays his game: taunting, jeering, then turning his back and walking away. Every day the beast sits and glares, slowly opening his jaws but otherwise not moving.
Then one day the young man comes down to the river, only to find the sandy bank empty. He looks up and down the murky stretch of water. Nothing.
“Where are you?” he says softly. His heart pounds and sweat streaks down his face as he scans the endless tangle of plants and trees.
Then louder. “Where are you, you old bastard?”
The jungle falls silent.
The man smiles before quickly retreating.
He comes back the next day. And the day after that. The crocodile is gone. Triumph ring in the young man’s head. There is only one master on this island now. Still, he knows only a fool would test the dark, murky waters of the river. Better to proclaim victory and walk away.
And walk away he does, tossing out of his mind the brief notion that somehow the jungle is watching him, waiting.
On the beach on the other side of the island a warm, soft breeze is blowing. He decides to cool off and walks over to a lagoon just off the ocean. The heat of the day washes off him as he floats on his back in the clear water and stares up at the limitless sky. Time passes and he can’t stop smiling. King of all that he sees.
It starts just as a long rippling sound in the water. By the time he hears the larger rush of water and looks over it’s too late. The force smashes into him and takes him under as he tries to scream. The last two things he sees are white teeth and clouds of red blood. The last thought he had is one of profound regret.
When it’s all over, the crocodile swims toward the beach. Beneath the sound of the breaking surf, it makes its way to a spot of shade and rests once again.
Long live the King.