But the man was stronger and more dangerous than he first thought. And he was weak. Although he had never tried it before, the Saltie decided on a new tactic. Turning his head he slowly raised his body sideways so that his legs and feet faced the sky, like fins. Then he crashed down onto his back, revealing his tender white underside. Frank was pulled under and rotated in the same way, shaken like a scrawny nothing. He spluttered into the earth-brown waters. The crocodile repeated the action. And again, and again, building in speed until the natural momentum took over from effort and he was revolving like a clockwork device. Frank was flipped helplessly in the same way. There was nothing he could do but submit. It seemed helpless. There was nothing he could think or imagine he could do.
But still hope persisted in him, small and bright. With each twist, pain jolted through him. He was being stretched, turned against himself. It felt like he was being torn in two. And with every spin he was swallowing or inhaling water. He couldn’t bear it any longer. He wanted it to end. He wanted to die.
But it did end. Suddenly. There was a popping sound. He was jerked back, then spun in the wash. He floated to the surface on his back. His eyes were closed. The water heaved. Gradually it subsided. The thing was gone – he was sure of it.
Slowly he opened his eyes. The haze cleared to reveal the light blue sky of high noon. Above him a single wispy cloud floated. He turned his head and was shocked at the devastation. A large area of reeds had been completely flattened. At the edges shattered reed shafts emerged at crazy angles. He turned back to the sky. It was nice to be lying there. He knew he probably should be doing something but felt so lazy and light headed. If he closed his eyes and concentrated could he not will himself back to the beach?
Distantly, the thought that the crocodile might return hovered indistinctly. But it wasn’t that that got him moving. It was the faces of his family that appeared and danced through his mind. He had a sudden and overwhelming desire to see them, talk with them, laugh with them – uncle, aunt, cousins, mother, father.
He rolled onto his front. Although the opposite shore was just a stone’s throw away now, Frank decided he would swim back to the beach. Crocodile or no crocodile, he would finish his swim.
The thought was easy; the reality was hard. His limbs felt leaden. They barely followed the commands from his brain. But once he got them going he found he was able to create a sluggish pace. It was all about momentum and tricking the body into believing it was being carried along. However slowly he went, he had to keep going. If he stopped he knew he would be in trouble. Swim. Swim forever.
He crawled through the reeds and out into the lake. His style was lurching. He felt strangely off-balance. But then he was feeling strange anyway. No wonder. He was exhausted, in shock probably, dehydrated. As he went he became acutely conscious of his body, the environment and his place in it, and the relationship between the two. Never before had water felt so soft and caressing. Never had the sun shone with such invigorating brilliance.
At each stroke the tiny particles in the water scattered, swirled and reformed. At each stroke the water lapped a musical refrain, building and dipping like the subtlest of symphonies. Even the crocodile, wherever it was, was part of this. They were connected by it, however bizarre this seemed. He smiled, and was happy. He felt a lightness, just as when the animal released its jaws the first time and he began floating away. This time it felt true and permanent, not temporarily borrowed. For the first time since he was twelve, he felt free of his fears. They were banished. He really was free.
The swim had become a dream. He had no idea how long it lasted – a few minutes or a few hours. The first he knew that he was approaching journey’s end was when he heard the trembling of an oboe. He opened his eyes and saw a bright shifting light. Washes of brown swirled in. He was looking at the sandy bottom of the beach foreshore. A violin came in, discordant, screeching. He thought lazily that he didn’t really get this modern classical stuff. Why couldn’t they keep playing what they had been playing? It was so soothing. Why change?
With difficulty he raised his head. It was then that the screaming and yelling burst upon him like a shell. He could see contorted, horrified faces running towards him, running away from him, running sideways. He grimaced in bemusement. There was so much noise and mad activity. He looked for a face he knew, found his uncle’s. It was coming towards him, white and drawn, but controlled. There were tears in his eyes.
“It’s okay uncle,” he said in his head. “I’m back. I made it. Dad would be proud, wouldn’t he?”
He tried to get up but couldn’t. He pitched forward into the sand. It was then that he noticed that the water really was the colour of blood. So like. It clung to his hands, scarlet flashing in the sun. He rested his cheek against the crimsoning grains of sand, and closed his eyes. The whole of his right leg was gone.
Frank went before the ambulance arrived, surrounded by family. Out on the lake the crocodile returned to the trough with its prize. It had a powerful compulsion to go and it received enough nourishment to crawl back over the hill that night and find its way to the sea.
Although the lake was closed to the public and thoroughly searched by men with guns, no one ever did discover what killed the boy who swam in Brown Lake.
Written and illustrated by Harry Chapman.