By Ann Murphy
One day a young Egyptian boy named Tepi was sitting beside the Nile, eating his falafel and salad sandwiches. His father had bought them for him to take to school, but instead of going to school, Tepi decided to go and eat his lunch on the riverbank, for breakfast.
He loved to watch the feluccas with their large triangular sails, winding their way up and down the river, and the black and white Kingfishers swooping into the water, over and over again; tiny silver fishes held tightly between their beaks.
A small white egret kept him company and occasionally Tepi threw some tomato to him from his sandwich, which the Egret pecked at greedily. Watching the bird eat the tomato Tepi decided to himself that he liked birds. Birds were uncomplicated; they just did what they did and bothered nobody. He would have liked to have been a bird, if he hadn’t been born a boy.
As he sat there in the sun, watching the boats and enjoying the mid-winter sunshine, a very fat crocodile suddenly smooshed up the bank with an enormous splash, landing his huge body in the mud and reeds right in front of him. The egret flew away in fright, leaving the remainder of his tomato on the ground. The crocodile eyed Tepi greedily, opening his cavernous mouth and showing the boy his long white rows of sharp and dangerous teeth. Tepi glanced at him, unafraid, but said nothing and continued to eat his food, as though he hadn’t even noticed it.
The crocodile stared at him in surprise but the more he stared the more he began to feel irritated. The boy hadn’t moved, but had continued to eat his sandwich, slowly and carefully, enjoying every mouthful.
Eventually, unable to keep his mouth shut the crocodile growled, deep in his long, deep, pink throat “Why aren’t you scared of me?” he asked, his eyes narrowing as he peered at Tepi with suspicion.
Tepi took another bite of his sandwich and looked the crocodile in the eye. “Who say’s I’m not afraid?” he asked.
The crocodile snapped his mouth shut in surprise. He was a very ferocious creature and no-one had ever spoken to him like this before, as if he were nothing but…a fish. To be honest they had never really gotten the chance! He had never given them one!
He began to sputter. “But you’re still sitting there…eating your sandwich. People are always afraid of me when I come near them.”
“Because they know you are going to eat them?” volunteered Tepi, staring the crocodile in the eye.
“Well, yes, of course,” answered the crocodile, becoming more and more confused by the minute. “And you’re afraid of me, but you haven’t run away.”
“No,” Tepi answered thoughtfully, “I haven’t.”
“But, why not?” asked the crocodile confused. Feeling confused is not a normal feeling for a Crocodile. They are usually very sure of themselves.
“I don’t really know.” Tepi answered calmly. “I know I’m afraid of you, but I know you will not eat me.”
The crocodile narrowed his eyes, “How do you know?” he asked menacingly, swishing his huge, heavy tail in the water behind him.
“I just know,” Tepi replied, staring into the distance, “I just know.”
The crocodile stopped swishing and everything went silent. He was stunned. It did not make any sense. Everyone knows that crocodiles eat people; in fact, they know that crocodiles will eat anything that moves!
Tepi sat calmly on the bank of the river, taking another falafel sandwich out of the greasy paper bag. Suddenly a thought occurred to him; perhaps, as the crocodile was hungry, he would like a sandwich? He held his hand out, with the sandwich held in it to the crocodile, who was looking a little perplexed.
“If you are hungry, Mr. Crocodile, maybe you would like one of my sandwiches?”
“What?” said the crocodile, staring blankly at the boy. “What did you say?”
He began to look around now, watching to see if any of the other crocodiles were watching him! That would not be good. Seeing no-one he turned back to the boy, who was still holding out his sandwich.
Tepi continued “Well, I figured that if you were hungry you might like to eat one of my sandwiches. They are very good you know.”
“Yes…yes…that’s what I thought you said.” Then he stopped and stared at Tepi intensely, a sudden thought running through his head. “Are you like..crazy…or something?”
Now it was Tepi’s turn to be confused, “What?” he said, staring at the crocodile. “What do you mean?”
“Look,” said the crocodile in irritation, “I am a crocodile. I eat people…and other things. Do I look like the kind of crocodile who is likely to eat a SANDWICH? Well, do I?” He was shouting now, but realising that he was drawing attention to himself he hissed under his breath. “I am not..a…sandwich…eater. OK? I am a crocodile.”
Tepi hurridly withdrew his hand with the sandwich clutched tightly in it. “OK..OK..no problem..I was only asking.” He put the sandwich back in the bag. He wasn’t quite sure what to do now. He had never been in this situation before.
The crocodile, on the other hand, did know what to do. He began to slowly sink backwards down into the brown, muddy water. He wanted to get out of there…fast, but didn’t want to look like an idiot. After all, what would the other crocodiles think, a big powerful, dangerous crocodile that swims in the Nile and eats people, bamboozled by a little boy? No, it didn’t bear thinking about. He shook his big head. He would have to come up with a story. Yes…that was it…a story.
He looked around him, his yellow eyes watching the waters carefully. He had to make sure that none of the other crocodiles had noticed.
“I’ll just slink away and pretend that I was out swimming, enjoying the sun, watching the fishes,” he muttered to himself, “…and no-one will ever be the wiser,” and with that he slowly and quietly sank beneath the brown water of the river until all that could be seen of him were the tops of his eyes and nostrils. He swam as quickly and quietly away as he could until he was in the middle of the river and he could relax.
“Phew,” he thought, “What a close escape. My reputation could have been ruined.” He breathed a sigh of relief and began to swim lazily down the river. Everything was back to normal. The sun was shining on the water, the rushes were rustling in the gentle breeze and birds were swooping down into the river, catching the tiny fish that lived at the water’s edge.
The crocodile was beginning to think of dinner again when a movement behind him on the riverbank suddenly caught his eye. Glancing over, he saw Tepi standing up. He appeared to be brushing down his long, brown galabeya, shaking the remains of his lunch onto the grass. But as he did so he looked out across the water and spotted the crocodile.
“Hallo, Mr. Crocodile, found anything to eat yet?” he called cheerfully.
‘Oh no,’ the crocodile groaned, ‘he’s seen me’. He looked frantically around to make sure none of the other crocodiles could see what was happening. He began to swim faster but Tepi was easily able to keep up with him. The faster the crocodile swam the faster Tepi walked.
“I have some lunch left if you’re hungry?” Tepi yelled out, and the crocodile cringed, which is not easy for a crocodile, as they are covered in thick scales, and do not lend themselves easily to cringing.
‘What am I going to do now?’ he thought frantically. ‘I know…I’ll dive, ooh I’m never going to get rid of this crazy child. I’m going to be ruined…ruined.’
So he dived, deep down into the muddy water. He swam for a little way then surfaced to get some fresh air, hoping to disguise himself by hiding behind a clump of floating water lilies. He thought that now he should be safe enough. But no, there was Tepi, still running down along the riverbank.
‘What’s it going to take?’ he asked himself, beginning to feel thoroughly fed up with the situation. ‘Nothing I do is working. Everywhere I go, there he is. I dive as deep as I can, and there he is when I come up. I swim as fast as I can, but he still follows. I may as well just give up. He’s going to beat me anyway so what’s the point of fighting? And so what if the other crocodiles see me?’ he suddenly thought. ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’
It was a light-bulb moment. The more he thought about it the more he realised how foolish he was being. He decided to face up to the boy, whether he was mad or not…because he couldn’t escape him.
He began to swim over to the bank where Tepi stood watching him. All the fish saw him coming and swam in all directions trying to avoid him. The crocodile smiled to himself. ‘So, I haven’t completely lost it,’ he thought, ‘At least they’re still afraid.’ He began to feel better. He slowly glided to the water’s edge where Tepi was waiting and, walking heavily on his short stubby legs up onto the muddy bank, he looked up at Tepi who hadn’t moved an inch.
“Look,” said the crocodile in resignation, avoiding looking directly into the boy’s eyes. “What is it exactly that you want?
Tepi looked down into the huge mouth of the crocodile. He knew that the animal could eat him in one bite, but could not quite understand why he hadn’t.
“I just want to know…,” he started.
“Yes, yes, hurry it up. I haven’t got all day,” snapped the Crocodile impatiently.
“I just wanted to know,” Tepi continued, “Why you didn’t eat me when you had the chance? I mean, I was just sitting there. You could have had me easily.”
The crocodile looked up at Tepi in complete disbelief. Was he going deaf? He shook his great head to clear it. “You want to know why I didn’t eat you, when I had the chance?” he sputtered, little bits of green river weeds hanging from his teeth.
“Well, yes,” answered Tepi, his eyes wide. “I do.”
The Crocodile was lost for words. He just did not know what to say. I mean how do you tell a child that you, a dark and dangerous creature was afraid of a little boy?
He had to think quickly, but could think of nothing. He racked his brains for an answer but there was no reason…really. It had all been in his mind.
Finally, he stated nonchalantly, sniffing. “I just wasn’t very hungry,” he lied, quickly looking about him to make sure he had not been overheard.
“Oh,” said Tepi with relief, “Lucky for me then. I thought that maybe you just didn’t find me appetising enough…or something,” he added shyly. “I thought that maybe I was too thin, or too small or…. People say I talk too much, is that it. Did I talk too much?” He looked down at his food spattered galabeya. “Was it because of what I was wearing? I know it needs a wash. I’m sure it doesn’t look very appetising. If I were a crocodile I don’t think I would like to eat me…really.” He tried to wipe away the grease stains from the cloth. He was beginning to feel worse and worse about himself. He raised his head up and looked sadly at the crocodile who was staring at him, completely speechless. “I’m just not good enough…am I?” he asked, a tear running down his dusty face.
The crocodile spoke, slowly and quietly. “You want to know why I didn’t eat you?”
“Yes, yes I do,” answered Tepi. “I really do,” he stared at the crocodile, hoping to find the truth, but the crocodile could not answer him immediately. A few moments later he answered, gulping. “I didn’t eat you because you were not afraid of me,” he admitted. “To you I was nothing but a sandwich eater. All of my life I have lived in the knowledge that I was feared; feared by all who walk and swim and fly, and then you come along and tell me that you are not afraid. Do you have any idea what that is like? Do you? One minute I am a ferocious, man-eating crocodile and the next minute I am nothing; a sandwich eater…nothing but a common sandwich eater.”
The crocodile paused and took a very deep breath. Then he continued “Do you know what that does to a crocodile? To find out that you are not who you thought you were? Do you have any idea?” He stopped and suddenly saw the light in Tepi’s eyes, and he understood perfectly. Tepi knew exactly what that felt like for he was feeling it too. He should have been crocodile food…but found that he was not. The crocodile had not wanted to eat him…or so he had thought.
Tepi smiled suddenly and the crocodile felt something he had never felt before. He felt connected. He knew, without a doubt, that he and Tepi were the same; each had his own fears, his own thoughts, and his own identity. It was the most wonderful feeling he had ever had.
Tepi walked down to the water and sat in the mud beside the crocodile. He put his thin arm around the crocodile’s scaly back and then rested his head on the crocodile’s head. The crocodile gulped back tears of joy and was no longer afraid of what the other crocodiles would think of him. In fact, he was going to teach them; he was going to teach them how not to eat people. People were their brothers. Oh, they might not have scaly skin, or live in the water, but they felt the same things, the same pain, the same joy and the same fear, and that was what really mattered. He never wanted to be feared again, because this love felt so much better…and he never wanted to feel separate again.
And he never did!