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Come Back, Crocodile Bird

By M.S. Dean | | M.S. Dean
Edited by Zhui Ning Chang || Narrated by Moneesha "Misha" Bakshi || Produced by Lian Xia Rose
Smoking, drug addiction, suicide
4050 words

When Jiran came by on his boat, Arnaz went to get Grandmother but she was deep in the fog of a rose tar dream, eyes glazed and unseeing. Arnaz went to speak to Jiran alone. 

The crocodiles had all slipped back into the Rose Mire. They did not like strangers, even if Jiran had been bringing his boat to the temple for almost ten years now.

It used to be that they could tie boats to a pole at the foot of the stairs, but, since the waters had risen to the eighth step, they could tie boats to the frontmost pillar by the temple’s entrance. In yesterday’s radio broadcast, the governor said that the waters would continue to rise and that this season’s rain would be especially treacherous.

Jiran gave Arnaz a fair price on rice and lentils, though she suspected that he cheated her on the jaggery and bitter melon. After she unloaded the food and piled it into the pantry, Jiran offered her a cigarette and asked her, in his gentle way, how Grandmother was doing.

“Not well,” said Arnaz. “She’s deep in her visions. She asked me this morning what day it was. It’s the first time she spoke to me in a week.”

Jiran clicked his tongue. “It’s the way it is. She still remembers the Mire before the floods. Can’t blame her for wanting to disappear into the past.”

As dusk settled in, the Rose Mire went quiet except for the crickets. Arnaz sat next to Jiran on the temple steps, enjoying the cigarette and the lush calm.

“When your grandmother does wake up,” Jiran said, flicking cigarette ash into his little tin mug, “I suppose you should tell her that her sister is dying.”

Arnaz turned to look at him, but Jiran wore the same mild expression he always did. Mehren was Grandmother’s only remaining sister, the fourth born of eight. She had been sick ever since Arnaz was young. Her passing would be a mercy.

“I’ll tell her,” Arnaz promised.

Then, it was time for the governor’s broadcast. Jiran produced a radio and turned it to the official news station.

“Find higher ground, my people,” the governor said, his voice crackling over the little radio’s speakers. “The floods are coming. Many of you are still rebuilding from last year’s rains. Here on the northern border, my family’s house has already begun to flood. There are eels nesting on my doorstep, and this morning I found minnows in my shoes. Luckily, our wonderful nation is blessed by Qudzarka Mountain which will provide shelter during the coming days. I’m going there now and I hope to see you. Until tomorrow, farewell.”

Jiran turned the radio off, his normally peaceable face blotchy with anger. “Coward,” he said, stabbing his cigarette out in his mug. “Only the rich can afford Qudzarka.”

“We’ll be fine,” Arnaz said, with more confidence than she felt. “We always are.”

A shadow slipped out of the water and Jiran froze. A crocodile laid her long head in Arnaz’s lap. Her hide was bleached a pale brown, webbed with scars from plastic fishing nets. A jagged groove ran along her right side where a poacher’s bullet had once grazed her.

“It’s all right,” Arnaz told Jiran, whose eyes had gone wide beneath the brim of his hat. “Maybe she heard us talking about her sister.”

“Which sister is she?” asked Jiran, his voice lowered to a respectful hush.

“Chandra,” said Arnaz. “The second sister.” Chandra blinked slowly, looking for all the world like she was settling in for a nap. She didn’t seem to mind Jiran’s presence, but Arnaz could sense Jiran’s fear. He looked like he would like to light another cigarette, but didn’t want to do so in the crocodile’s presence.

“I should go,” said Jiran. “I know better than to get in the way of your temple duties.”

Jiran got back into his boat, started up his sputtering motor, and vanished into the mist of the Mire. Arnaz barely noticed him go. Once they were alone, the crocodile opened her jaws for her, and, dutifully, Arnaz began to pluck plastic out from between her teeth.

• • •

When Arnaz went to check on Grandmother, there was fresh tar smeared on her lips— she’d come awake long enough to put herself back under. Arnaz left a bowl of food out, lit all the lamps in the temple so that she’d be able to find her way back in the dark, and set off to the village in their little boat.

Back when roses still bloomed in the Rose Mire, the village used to sprawl all the way to the foot of the temple. But the floods had come and killed the roses, so Arnaz had to take her boat through the drowned ruins to reach the hills where the village now lay.

Mehren was taking her last breaths when Arnaz arrived. She was drawn tight and small, her body slowly poisoned by the plastic waste that plagued the people in the Mire. Arnaz knelt by Mehren’s bed and kissed her forehead. 

Mehren’s eyes opened. She blinked, once, then closed them again. Her eyes did not open again that night. 

When Mehren had been well enough to live in the temple with her sisters, she’d taught Arnaz many things. How to gut an eel with one long swipe of a machete. How to braid jewelry into hair. How to bless the living. How to bless the dead.

Mehren stopped breathing sometime after midnight, and Arnaz did as she was taught. She lit incense; she led the room in prayer. Though she’d performed these rites before, she usually had Grandmother to guide her. To her shame, Arnaz found herself stumbling over the beginning verse, grief threatening to break her voice. She paused, took a steadying breath, and then went on. She had to get this right. Without the final blessings, Mehren’s spirit might never find her second life. 

All of Grandmother’s sisters had long ago agreed that they would come back as crocodiles. They’d fill their bellies with plastic and petroleum to clean the Mire so perhaps one day the roses would return. 

Dawn was just beginning to crest when Arnaz returned to the temple, its lit lamps guiding her through the mist. When she reached the steps, there stood Grandmother, silhouetted against the warm glow spilling from the open doors. 

A crocodile lay at her feet.

In her first life, Mehren had been a small hunched figure who had none of her sisters’ vigor. She’d faded away between one year and the next. 

In her second life, Mehren was bigger than any of her sisters. She sprawled over the steps of the temple, new skin an almost jeweled green. Her tail trailed in the water, stirring up small currents.

“Good,” Grandmother said to Arnaz as her boat approached the steps. “You’re back. It took you long enough.”

Mehren snapped her jaws reproachfully, her teeth closing inches away from Grandmother’s ankles, then she whipped around and slid into the water. Five other shapes joined her. Grandmother watched them go, her mouth set in a grim line. Seven sisters in total.

There was once an eighth, but she died before Arnaz was born, when the first floods drowned the Mire. She had never found her second life.

“So you’re awake,” said Arnaz. “Shame. I was finally getting used to all the peace and quiet.”

Grandmother wiped rose tar from her lips and grinned, her teeth stained red. “Sorry to disappoint you, girl.” She helped Arnaz tie her boat to the pillar and then sat next to her on the steps. 

“Did you find Lila?” asked Arnaz.

Grandmother shook her head. “I dreamed the day of her death. I caught the edge of her sleeve as she left to tend her roses. The dream wouldn’t let me follow her any further.”

“I’m sorry,” Arnaz said. 

“I don’t need your pity,” Grandmother said, but there was hardly any bite to it. She seemed to shrink in on herself, rubbing her wrists.

“I was the firstborn of my sisters and now I am the last of them,” said Grandmother wearily. “I’ll join them in the Mire one day, but not without Lila. Her remains are there somewhere in the ruins. I know it. Oh, my sisters.”

Grandmother made a sound halfway to a sob, stood up immediately, and vanished inside.

Grief and exhaustion were catching up to Arnaz; the edges of her vision began to swim. She curled up on the steps. In the dawn dim, she could make out six pairs of eyes gleaming from the water. 

They watched over her as she fell asleep.

• • •

The rains came, just as the governor said they would. They lashed their little temple with a violence, and the winds flattened the reeds with their force. The water rose to the seventh step, then the sixth. 

The storm woke Arnaz up. She fled inside, soaked to the skin, and Grandmother laughed at her.

“I was waiting all morning for that to happen,” Grandmother said.

“You could have woken me up sooner,” Arnaz said with a scowl, wringing her hair out. She was leaving a puddle at her feet, but couldn’t bring herself to care about it. Outside, the storm grew in its fury.

“If you’re done sulking,” said Grandmother, “come help me with this. My wrists feel like they have glass in them today.”

Arnaz squatted by her, taking the mortar and pestle out of her hands. The mortar was full of dried rose petals, herbs, and Mire mud.

“You’re making more tar?” Arnaz said incredulously. “You dreamed all last week.”

“Spare me,” said Grandmother. “Don’t tell me you missed my sunny disposition.”

Rose tar took its toll. That was how Umaiza, the fifth sister, had died. She’d looked for Lila for a year and a half in the tar dreams, and, by the end of it, she was so weak that her heart gave out.

Had Grandmother always been so small?

Arnaz knew that if she expressed any sort of concern, it would only make Grandmother more stubborn. So she helped pound the rose petals into a fine paste, adding more Mire mud when necessary. Grandmother watched by her side and nodded with approval when Arnaz was finished.

“You’re getting better at this,” Grandmother said. Rare praise from her. She pinched tar between fingertips permanently stained red. “Would you like to try some?”

Arnaz was taken aback. Grandmother never offered her tar, and Arnaz never asked for it. They both knew that the past was seductive. Privately, Arnaz thought it was a good thing that the Mire grew no more roses, for it meant that rose tar would run out one day and no one else would lose themselves in tar dreams. 

“No, thank you, Grandmother,” Arnaz said.

Instead of letting Arnaz go, Grandmother grabbed her arm. Her long and ragged nails dug into Arnaz’s skin. Arnaz let out an involuntary gasp.

“Are you sure?” said Grandmother. Her breath smelled like roses, but there was a sourness to it. “Don’t you want to see what the Mire used to be like? Don’t you want to see your mother? See Lila?”

Arnaz tore away from Grandmother and rocked to her feet. Her throat had closed up; for a moment she could not speak.

“I said no,” she finally managed.

“Selfish girl,” Grandmother snarled, baring red-stained teeth. “Don’t you dare forget who raised you.”

“Lila never raised me,” Arnaz replied. “Why should I waste my life looking for her death like you and your sisters did?” 

She knew it was cruel as soon as she said it. Arnaz almost apologized at once, and then just as quickly decided not to. She could still feel her arm stinging where Grandmother’s nails had drawn blood. She could still smell the stink of rose tar. 

“When I die,” said Arnaz, “I won’t waste my second life being poisoned by this place. I’ll never turn into a crocodile. I’ll become a bird, like my mother, and fly away.”

“Do you think so, little lapwing?” Grandmother said, mocking. “Don’t you know that birds like you feed themselves from crocodile jaws?”

Arnaz ground her teeth together and said nothing. 

Grandmother waved her hand, dismissing her. “Get out of my sight.”

“Gladly,” said Arnaz.

As Arnaz left, Grandmother smeared tar across her teeth. She stumbled to her bed and lay down on it.

“Lila,” Grandmother called, her voice small and sad. “Where did you go?”

• • •

Before the Rose Mire flooded, eight sisters lived in the temple.

They tended the roses, safeguarded the past in tar dreams, helped the dead find their second lives, and blessed congregants who found their way to the temple.

Arnaz’s mother, Grandmother said, had been one such congregant. Arnaz only thought of her mother when migrating flocks passed overhead, and wondered whether she was one of those birds that would never again nest in the Mire. For Grandmother to mention Arnaz’s mother just to tempt her to rose tar felt like a betrayal. 

Hurt and angry, Arnaz hid in one of the temple’s disused rooms where the dried rose petals were now kept. Rain pounded on the roof. In his broadcast, the governor told them of a child who had drowned that morning.

“My heart is breaking,” the governor said. “The boy’s parents have told me that he found his second life as a dragonfly.” It was difficult to tell whether it was emotion or poor signal that made the governor’s voice waver. 

“Our nation’s strength lies in its children,” he said. “What will our children’s fate be in this uncertain future? From Qudzarka Mountain, the country looks like an ocean where no ocean should be. What devastation! But my Department of Science has promised me that the waters will recede one day. We will rebuild. We will return.”

There was a long pause. Static.

“Are you listening, my people?”

Arnaz turned off the radio and sat in the dark, her face tucked into her knees. The smell of roses was overpowering, cloying. This room hadn’t always contained roses. When Arnaz was young, the twins Kausalya and Ruayda had slept here. On a rainy day much like this, they had held Arnaz down and pierced both her ears, one twin on each side. 

Grandmother had been furious. She had restricted the twins’ doses of rose tar for two months. By the end of the first month, they had begged their sister to forgive them. To let them dream the past again. To let them see Lila. Arnaz still remembered how desperate they had sounded, how broken. The roses had stolen their first lives; they would steal Grandmother’s too.

So Arnaz struck a match and threw it into the dried roses.

They caught on fire immediately. Crimson smoke began to billow out into the room. Arnaz took a step back, but it was too late—she breathed in the smoke. 

She knew right away that something was wrong. Arnaz couldn’t make herself move. The smoke smelled like rose tar, but far more potent—acrid and lovely at the same time. It drew her away and she fell into the past.

In the vision, Arnaz saw eight sisters sitting on the steps. The Mire bloomed red with roses. The village wasn’t drowned and it was possible to walk on foot all the way to the eastern hills and beyond. 

The Rose Mire was unrecognizable to Arnaz like this. She could see trees she’d never seen before, hear birds she’d never heard before. It was gorgeous. She could understand why Grandmother and her sisters had spent the rest of their lives dreaming of this.

The sisters had red on their fingertips, red on their teeth. All except for the youngest one. Her name was—

The vision changed. It was all coming too fast. Usually the tar slowed the visions enough to control them, but Arnaz’s lungs were full of smoke and she was at the whim of the roses. 

She was aware, distantly, that she had fallen to her knees.

Time fell forward and the Mire filled with water. With it came the miasma of rot and pollution that Arnaz had lived under all her life. 

A woman approached the temple in a boat, her face shrouded from view. She took a baby out of the folds of her shawl and laid it on the steps of the temple before turning the boat around and retreating back into the Mire.

Arnaz watched with horror as the baby cried, abandoned by its own mother. A crocodile stepped out of the Mire and curled around the baby, keeping it from rolling back into the water. The two stayed there until Grandmother ran down the steps. She picked the baby up and cradled it in her arms, soothing it. 

Soothing her. That baby was Arnaz. That woman had been Arnaz’s mother.

No, that couldn’t be right. Her mother had never abandoned her. That wasn’t how it had gone at all. Her mother, Grandmother said, had died from drinking polluted water when Arnaz was young and had asked Grandmother to raise her. Had that all been a lie?

Arnaz willed the vision to show her mother again, but it slipped away. Outside the vision, she was choking on smoke, her eyes streaming tears. If she stayed like this any longer, she would die.

Time turned back and the waters receded once more. The sky grew ominously dark—with Lila and Arnaz as sole witnesses. Lila’s sisters sat slumped with tar dripping from their lips, blind to the approaching storm.

Lila knelt by Grandmother and shook her awake. After what seemed like an eternity, Grandmother roused, blinking slowly. 

“Lila?” said Grandmother. Her eyes sharpened and she grew angry. “Why did you wake me?”

“Something’s wrong, sister,” Lila said. “They’re saying this storm will destroy the Mire. We have to save the roses. Come with me.”

Lila tried to pull Grandmother to her feet, but Grandmother didn’t go. She reached for the bowl of rose tar and pinched some between her fingertips.

“The roses will be fine, little lapwing,” Grandmother said. “Sit down. Dream with me.”

Grandmother put the rose tar to Lila’s lips, but Lila turned her head away. Grandmother shrugged and put the rose tar to her own lips. She slipped back into her dreams.

Lila left her older sisters dozing in the temple and walked down the steps. Arnaz tried tugging at her sleeve, but there was no way to stop her. Arnaz knew, outside of the vision, that she would suffocate soon. So this was it. She had found Lila on the day of her death, on her own death’s doorstep. 

Arnaz followed Lila down the steps and into the Mire. As they walked, one after the other, it began to rain.

• • •

It took Arnaz a moment to realize that the rain on her face was real and not just part of the dream. 

“Foolish girl,” Grandmother shouted in her face. “Wake up, damn you, or I’ll curse you to find your second life as a flea.”

“A flea wouldn’t be so bad,” Arnaz said hoarsely. Her chest convulsed and she immediately regretted speaking. She turned and coughed in long, uncontrollable heaves then spat something out onto the steps. She couldn’t tell if it was red because of roses or blood.

“You dragged me out?” Arnaz asked Grandmother, wiping her mouth.

“I did,” said Grandmother. “It would be a cruel joke if you died before I did. My sense of humor fell out of me a long time ago along with most of my back molars.”

The storm roared around them. The water had risen to the third step and was lapping at the second. A familiar sound cut through the wind and rain. The sputtering motor of Jiran’s boat.

As soon as he was in shouting distance, Jiran waved urgently at them. “You have to leave the temple,” he called. “The rains have only just begun. The waters will rise much more than this. Get in and I’ll take you to the hills.”

“We can’t leave yet,” Arnaz said. She turned to Grandmother. “I know where Lila went. I know where her remains are. She walked to a bridge that went over a river just before the river branched into two. The waters came too fast and broke the bridge. Lila fell there.”

Grandmother had a strange look on her face. It took a while for Arnaz to recognize the wonder in it.

“I know the place you speak of,” said Grandmother. She studied Arnaz awhile. “Did you see your mother in the dreams, too?”

“Yes,” said Arnaz.  “Tell me, is she still alive?” 

“I don’t know,” Grandmother answered. “I’m sorry, girl. I tried to do my best by you. I hope you’ll forgive me.” She smoothed Arnaz’s hair back behind her ear—a rare show of tenderness. 

“You remind me of her. Of Lila. Both of you sitting in the jaws of crocodiles. That same fearless, foolish love.” Grandmother’s eyes grew wet. “That day, she asked me to come with her, but I didn’t. Perhaps that’s why the dreams never let me follow her. Some mistakes we can’t take back.”

If Arnaz truly were like Lila, then perhaps she would have found the words to say now, to forgive Grandmother and make everything right. Instead, Arnaz pressed her face into Grandmother’s hand, tears prickling in her eyes.

“But we can move on from them,” said Arnaz. Grandmother’s eyes widened.

Jiran finally managed to maneuver his boat to the steps, fighting against the waves and the wind. He gestured for them to get in.

“Go with Jiran to the hills,” Grandmother told Arnaz. “I’ll find Lila.” Grandmother stood and walked to the edge of the water.

“You’re going in yourself?” Arnaz said with alarm. “You can’t do that. You’ll drown!”

“Yes, I expect so,” said Grandmother. She began to descend the steps, the water pooling up around her knees, billowing the cotton of her clothes.

Arnaz tried to stand up and follow Grandmother, but her legs gave out, pain shooting through her chest. She still couldn’t draw a full breath without feeling like she was choking.

“Grandmother,” Arnaz cried out. “Don’t go. Please. Who will say your final rites?”

Grandmother smiled and it was full of an uncomplicated joy that Arnaz had never seen her show. 

“It’s all right, Arnaz,” said Grandmother. “My sisters are here with me now. They’ll take me.” 

And, with a start, Arnaz saw that six crocodiles now circled them in the water, watching. Jiran swore loudly from his boat. Grandmother walked forward and they curled around her in the water, supporting her.

Then they were gone.

• • •

Arnaz fell in and out of consciousness as Jiran took them to the hills. It was slow going—waves and rainfall kept filling the boat with water, and Arnaz was in no condition to help. The Mire truly was an ocean now.

After what seemed like ages, they could finally see the lights of the village dotting the hills. They were almost to safety.

“Do you think the temple will be destroyed?” asked Arnaz.

“It won’t be in good shape, that’s for certain,” Jiran said. “But you can rebuild it, if you want.”

Perhaps one day, Arnaz thought. But the people of the Rose Mire had spent long enough looking into the past. It was the future they had to be concerned about now.

She’d make the temple a sanctuary, thought Arnaz. Not just for the past, like it had been, but for everything that was to come. It would be a shelter in the Mire for anyone or anything who might need a roof against the rain. She didn’t have to wait until her second life to help heal the Mire.

“Look there,” Jiran said suddenly. He pointed behind them. “Is that your grandmother?”

Arnaz looked where he pointed. Seven crocodiles swam behind them, as if guarding their passage. At first Arnaz’s heart sank—no eighth crocodile meant that Lila hadn’t found her second life after all. Then her eyes caught a smaller shape perched on the snout of one of the crocodiles. 

It was a lapwing.

• • •

M.S. Dean is a graduate student studying genetics in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her work has been published and is forthcoming in Anathema, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Fusion Fragment. She can be found on Twitter @MyrceneDean.
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