They weren’t new. Perhaps they’d been a deep leathery brown, even shiny, in their prime but now it seemed they’d seen too much harsh northern sun. Scuffed but neat, care had once been taken to keep them clean, even out here. It was obvious they weren’t locals and had travelled a fair way, and were even expensive in their time. They were likely favourites and valued for their urban practicality. You could see it in how they were positioned, just so, the way a meticulous host places the good cutlery for a dinner party. Arranged with the same exactitude on the white sand of the riverbank they were thus foreigners in a land absent of straight lines. They sat square, surveying the inky reptilian water, stoically waiting, as the sun arched across the sky and dappled shadows danced in the breeze. Red bull ants trailed across them, foraging, while frogs called each to each over the rank tributary. They remained still. They stayed that way, bleaching paler over changing seasons, until a ranger came carefully across them. She knew at once what had happened and stopped, a cold sweat beading her brow. She went no closer but retreated and made a subdued two-way radio conversation. Close to the tree line and a tangled, deliberate distance from the estuarine river, she waited to wave a police officer in the right direction. Watchfully, the sergeant examined them a moment, made a note, photographed them in situ, bagged them up using gloves and retreated the way he’d come. Almost casually, he slung the bag in the back of his four-wheel drive for the long journey back to town and the coroner’s office.
After twelve months or so, the case was closed, a further report was filed and their use as evidence was complete. Peeling notices tacked to cork boards were taken down and in doing so they were remembered, removed from a stale cupboard, dusted off, packaged up once more, relabelled and returned overseas to the next of kin. But they weren’t the same. They were never used again.
Amid the terror, in the sudden blood and adrenaline of a sultry day so long ago, their owner saw them starkly against the hot sand of the river bank as the saltwater crocodile lunged up and out of the dark water.
In one rolling, hideous moment the tourist was dragged under. As he thrashed in choking agony, watching his blood spreading through the water, it was clear he was dying. His last thought: there’ll be nothing left, except my shoes.
This story was first published in 2012 in Extract(s) and has been used in high school English literature classes. I originally had titled the story Markers, but the editors liked the last sentence so much they wanted it up front. I was hesitant, but this decision was correct. A story with sufficient things going on will make a reader forget the title and then go back to it.
What I’ve learned since then.
The thing is, I’ve recently realised the story isn’t about death, or shoes or the dangers of swimming in crocodile habitats. Before I posted this I did some reading on senescence and learned crocodiles don’t age. They aren’t immortal as they die from disease and infection through injury, as well as starvation, and predation by humans and each other, but as they get older, these reptiles don’t lose functions or abilities. There is no outward sign that a 50 year croc is less able than a 12 year old one. They just grow. And so, seven years after my story was published I learn what this little narrative was about. My story detailed the toll time takes on us, as well as the things we frail humans leave behind, while un-ageing reptilian archosaurs lurk in the murky waters of our imaginations, like our nightmares, always in their prime.