“Would you come back?”
Yakov looked up from his book. A sea breeze ruffled his wife’s hair. Beyond her, in the sandy cove stretching from the old pier to the sailing shack, a white pelican rose, folded its wings and dove into the clear blue waters. The hawkers’ T-shirts had it right: it was another beautiful day in paradise. He removed his reading glasses and wiped them with his shirttail. He would think it over.
Yakov and his wife were enjoying the respite they awarded themselves every January, except the year his mother died. Seven days of warmth and summer books under palm trees. Seven tropical nights crowded with food, music, exotic drinks and fresh faces. New friends from faraway places whose friendship seldom outlasted the vacation. One whole week to recharge, away from the everyday, from everything and everybody, even now that their kids were grown, gone and with kids of their own.
They had befriended a couple from San Diego. A tall, dusky Egyptian with exuberant gray hair and his American wife, tall, blonde and bronzed. Both avid toy train collectors, which Yakov — who collected nothing — found fascinating. Through them they met a young couple about the same age as Yakov’s children. An enthusiastic, wide eyed Californian and her husband, whom she introduced as the Mozart of code writing. She and Mozart had met at this very resort a few years back.
Each year Yakov tried a new sport. In the city he had his regular tennis foursome; at the all inclusive resort he’d taken up water skiing and quickly come to love rushing past the tall green grasses, the wind on his face, bumping up and down the ripply blue lagoon, the struggle for control. Even the pratfalls — after the sudden shock of the spill had waned — had a pleasant aftermath, floating indolently in the warm waters while the boat lazed through a wide arc and returned to offer absolutions and further instruction.
Waiting his turn on the floating dock, skis on, legs dangling in the water, a just-arrived but already sun-burned broker teased him about his form. Yakov in turn teased the skittish young man about the rumor that crocs lived in the lagoon, richly embellishing the lore about a crocodile that ventured to the shallow end, near the resort’s boutique, and lurked in the water under the sign asking not to feed the crocs.
The waits between runs grew too long and Yakov’s interests shifted to windsurfing, which was taught on a beach close to his wife’s favorite reading spot, a secluded, tree-shaded, grassy oasis overlooking an old pier colonized by a gaggle of pelicans.
He remained skeptical, though the persisting stories about crocs in the lagoon intrigued him. Late one morning, while his wife enjoyed a massage, Yakov grabbed his camera, just in case, and wandered over to a building supposedly frequented by a crocodile named Lulu.
He only had to go as far as the adjacent building. It didn’t seem plausible, but across the narrow canal, a full grown crocodile lay sunning itself atop the bottom stairs landing. A real crocodile, ten, twelve foot long, maybe more, the size and heft Tarzan wrestled in the matinees of Yakov’s childhood.
Yakov was a prudent person, a man who avoided unnecessary risks, such as waterskiing in a crocodile habitat. He could just imagine his physician treating him for a missing chunk of flesh: “When did you realize this wasn’t a good idea? Before or after the croc bit you on the ass?”
The access stairs were roped-off and guarded by armed men in brown uniforms sprawled on folding chairs a few steps above the concrete pad where Lulu the crocodile lay stretched the length of the landing, the tip of her tail barely out of the water.
If there was one crocodile in the lagoon, there had to be more. But even one … Crocs are prehistoric leftovers, fiercer, more aggressive than alligators, and a clear danger, but obviously the resort management were aware. They had taken steps.
Maybe that’s why Yakov wasn’t perturbed. In part his rational mind told him resort management wouldn’t endanger the guests. But in part it was Lulu herself, her languorous indolence, her presence, her allure, for Lulu was indeed seductive, the way beasts often are.
A bikini-clad young woman, blond hair woven into braids and beads, arrived bouncing down the hallway. She asked him how he liked her croc.
“Most impressive,” Yakov agreed.
“I’m getting her some chocolate bread,” the young woman said.
Yakov hesitated, feeling the weight of his years.
“Not a good idea,” he shook his head. “It will train her to come back for an easy meal.”
“It’s just chocolate bread,” she rolled her eyes. “The guards say she loves it.”
Yakov wanted to ask her what would happen the day Lulu found no chocolate bread.
“Sometimes I hate sounding so . . . ” Yakov mumbled, “sensible?”
“Don’t worry about it.” She laughed, waving her hand as if to forgive him. “It’s just a little chocolate bread,” her braids clinked as she walked away.
Yakov took many photos of the crocodile. Wide angles to show her size, zoomed-in close-ups to highlight her teeth, and for a last shot framing Lulu with foreground vegetation, he bent over the narrow bank, pushed the reeds to a side and clicked away, savoring the opportunity while Lulu remained the perfect model. Reluctantly, he left her to join his wife and their friends for lunch. He had a story to tell.
A fourth couple had joined them. “A sweet old couple,” was how Mozart’s wife described them. A short, plump French Canadian woman with red cheeks and white hair cut short, like a boy’s. Helmut, her husband — Yakov realized as soon as he heard him speak — was a German of a certain age. Yakov immediately recognized the sensation in his belly.
Fifty-five years had passed since the end of the war. Yakov had met many Germans, mostly his age, who’d been victims themselves, war-time children who grew up hiding from bombs or cowering at the sound of Soviet boots.
But this German, standing an arm’s length away, was in his eighties. He would have been of fighting age. Yakov tried to peek at the man’s forearm but it was covered by a towel.
Mozart’s wife related the man’s story. Yakov and the Egyptian had remained behind to hold the table; the others had left for the buffet stations. “The poor old man,” she said, “the Soviets took him prisoner and enslaved him in labor camps for years after the war.”
She shook her head. Her eyes glistened. She’d been born long after the war. “Imagine. Everyone thought he was dead.”
Yakov’s jaw clenched tight. A distant dread filled his earliest memories. He’d been born in safety, to parents who’d barely escaped Europe and obsessed about the family and friends they’d left behind. Until, in the merciless silence that followed the end of the war, they learned of their fate. One at the time. Yakov distinctly remembered being four when he learned of his father’s father’s death. Then, at irregular intervals, all the others, uncles, cousins, neighbors. No survivors. Not one.