She heard the drums from the moment she woke up. She thought she knew what they meant. This was good news. If Matthew and his crew had managed to kill The Croc, then the village of Kam would have reason to celebrate.
Tossing off the sheet that passed for bedcovers in dry-season Gambella, Hannah padded on her bare feet, like a lioness, to squint out the screen. Lioness, ha! her eyes were clear blue, hardly the honey-brown I’ll-kill-you-so-softly of a lion. They could see nothing of moment now, though she lived on the skirts of the town’s highest hill–a pimple, really, but the only one around. Nothing but lazy columns of smoke rising here and there in the soft morning light.
Hannah took a deep breath, soaking it all in, morning, light, smoke, space. How she loved this place. It was in her bones, her blood. Her feet stamped a dance step as she moved off to start her day.
“Only ten more cows and he may buy a new wife,” said Nyawich, the wife of Matthew Lual, whose crocodile-hunting co-op would earn a whole cow for their several days of work tracking and killing the too-well-known crocodile, called The Croc, that had been beleaguering the village of Kam for too many months from its lairs on riverbank and sandbar. She was trying to joke, but Hannah could tell she was worried. About this and other things.
“Do not worry, Nyawich,” Hannah reassured her friend, taking her hand as they approached the dust cloud rising from the tree-shaded dancing space around the village. “He will show up at the feast.” He in this case was Nyawich’s son Daniel whom they had waited for and looked for at Nyawich’s compound for some time, without success, before setting out for Kam.
“Where I will recognize him,” Nyawich contineed bravely to joke, trying self-consciously to cover her protruding front teeth with her lips, “because of the new anklet I just made for him.” As if a mother, in this new town life, would need an anklet to recognize her son.
The drums had changed tempo. The two women’s heads turned, with others, towards a space between the encircling mango trees giving onto the broad brown river. Nyawich’s hand tightened on Hannah’s. Together they watched the double row of tall, slim-muscled men enter the gathering space, a much larger body slung heavily between two poles digging deep into their shoulders. They sang as they advanced, stamping their feet, of hunting, of victory. Victory over the sharp-toothed nyang that would no longer attack and eat the goats of Kam, the calves, the children, even the adults, while they were fishing, or getting water.
The leader to the triumphal parade was Nyawich’s husband Matthew. Hannah delighted to see her young friend’s head lift ever higher, her eye flash ever brighter, as the hunters made one full circuit of the open space displaying the carcass they had conquered. They were just coming to rest under the spreading branches of the largest tree, the one opposite the river, when there was a stir on the side of the walled village itself.
Through an opening in its tight reed wall emerged one of Hannah’s oldest friends, looking very upright today, very dignified in his one-shouldered ceremonial robe. Omot, the village headman. He was followed by others from the village, notables and office holders, plus the traditional luak, including one newcomer, a noticeably large and strongly built young man who stayed, close and watchful, by his side. Surely, Hannah thought, turning a jerking giggle into a snort, Omot wasn’t afraid of revenge from the relatives of the Croc? She studied his face as closely as she could across the twenty or more feet separating them, noting as she had many times over the past year the lines that had only carved deeper since he had lost his only son to the same crocodile whose killing they were here to celebrate today.
Omot and his retinue took their places on the raised earthen platform opposite the opening in the village wall and turned their attention to the crocodile hunters, who had stretched the beast belly up on the ground and stood over it, some pressing a foot or hand on a limb, head, or tail to hold it steady. The drums mounted. Matthew bent to the corpse, raising his knife to make the first skilled incision.
A murmur of satisfaction rose from the gathered people, some scattered cries of triumph. Most of the villagers here had to bathe in the river, or fetch water, many at the change of light, when the crocodiles like to feed. Few were untouched by the pain caused by their ripping jaws.
First, the hide was removed and swiftly and skillfully bundled by the men of the co-op to be sold to an approved dealer in animal artifacts.
Next, the gutting. For this, there was less finesse. It was done to make it easier to cut the meat into cooking portions for whoever would eat it. Hannah knew that the Anuak of the village mostly wouldn’t because they found the meat distasteful. Some of the Nuer, including the crocodile co-op’s kin, wouldn’t for the same reason, and some because they respected crocodiles in hopes the crocodiles would return the favor when they had to cross a river. The rest of the people present would be happy to add it to their cooking pot.
She also knew that edible portions of the croc’s latest kills could be salvaged from the stomach. Crocs did not chew, then snapped, dragged their victim under water, snapped some more, and gulped, and whole carcass parts could be found in their stomachs after a kill, a nice large fish swallowed by accident, or a haunch of antelope, if the croc had not secreted all the sections in hidey holes along the riverbank to age like limburger cheese.
This beast’s belly was rounded, displaying promising lumps and bumps. It had eaten recently. Hannah hoped it would not be someone’s pet goat or calf, or even a Nuer male’s beloved namesake ox, recognized by the decorative tassel hanging from his ear. She shook her head to clear that fantasy from her mind; she was sure she hadn’t heard of any missing lately.
Nyawich pulled her closer while Matthew drove his blade straight into the solar plexis and pulled forcefully down, opening the abdomen from ribs to hips.
Hannah kept watching the teeth, irrationally uneasy that the fearsome head would still somehow swing down and take a chunk out of Matthew.
Matthew sliced what to be stomach lining. The slick viscera around the cut rippled. Hannah braced herself for the sight of a small hoof or the waxy white lip of a calf.
What emerged was a toe, a set of toes, dark human toes, attached to a dark human leg, too small to be adult.
All motion stopped. In Hannah, around Hannah. She reached for Nyawich’s hand. Nyawich’s fingers were digging, hard, now, and cold, into her arm. Then they ripped away.
Nyawich fell to her knees and keened her son’s name.