Michael Dans

Crocodile tears.

My mother likes to tell me about how when Bullitt, my first dog, died, I cried my eyes out. It was the same when Joe Dassin died, and it was my sister who bluntly delivered the news. This no doubt achieved the desired effect, as once again I was wracked with despair. The night that Bullitt died of peritonitis, I prayed nonstop to God, the Blessed Virgin, Jesus, the God of dogs and to all the Saints but to no avail. I had my doubts about their existence and that’s when it hit me that life is short.

My maternal grandfather was next. I don’t remember much but I remember that it was my mother who told me the news. She is always the one to tell me if someone has died. “I have some bad news.”

At the funeral for my other grandfather, it was autumn and we walked through a carpet of yellow chestnut leaves. My father gripped my hand very tightly, I was surprised to see him shedding tears, his face hidden behind his Ray-Bans. I hardly remember anything about when my primary school friend Michel died. But his brother explained that it had been his own choice and we had to respect that, and that’s one thing I’ve never forgotten.

I never knew how Axel died, or whether in fact he actually is dead. We shared a taste for karate films and Michael Jackson albums. He knew all the songs on Bad. I was already hanging out with Christophe, my best friend at the time. He won the world championship cycling trials. The day of his triumph, we got to drink a lot of Champagne. He was so strong, with his pale blue eyes flashing behind a shock of dark hair. A great lover of nature and animals, he was killed in a preserve, shot dead by a hunter who mistook him for a fox.

My friend André was helping me move. In his fifties and a proud man, he tried to lift too heavy a piece of furniture and his heart gave out. The sky was falling all over again. I didn’t want to go visit him in the hospital, thinking that I’d wait until he got home. He never came home.

Benoit and I used to go have a drink almost every afternoon. One day, before facing the decision of whether to make it a beer or a mint tea this time, he ducked into a night shop to buy something to eat. The Pakistani cashier was behind the counter on which stood a small mountain of samosas, silent witnesses to the sundry transactions involving stamps, rolls of film, money changing hands.

Benoit chose the samosa perched at the pinnacle. Knowing neither its contents nor its origins, he ate it. Benoit survived.

The Super Eight carnival ride at the Liege fair nearly killed my father. I kept insisting that he go on it with me, sit next to me. I was scared. He came, we made a loop forwards and a loop backwards. I couldn’t see him but I could feel him near. When we got off the ride, his face was white from his chin to his eyeline, and deep purple from there on up. He had had his first aneurysm. Eight aneurysms later, and a few hundred kilometers clocked on the gurney in the backs of ambulances, my father, affable as ever, but paralyzed on his right side, was confined to a wheelchair. Every night, I would help him to put on his pyjamas, comb his hair, and lead him to bed.

I had a job, at a greengrocer’s. It was a student contract. At the time I had not yet enrolled in art school, I was still thinking of going into journalism or social work. Every day I would collect pieces of fruit from the warehouse that I selected for their size. One evening, I presented him with an enormous and exceptionally sweet, juicy peach. It made him ill. At daybreak, he got out of bed too quickly, unable to digest it. The minutes ticked away, my mother woke me, “If you still want to see your father alive, get up.” He was sitting in the living room, drained, speaking little. We held him, taking advantage of every second before this death foretold. He must have been very scared. As for me, I’m scared of getting poisoned.

My grandmother died of grief, it was difficult to bear her son’s death. Her second husband soon followed suit.

The moon, my maternal grandmother supported us with all her strength and gentleness.

A magnificent grandmother with snow-white hair, she believed in angels and in things that “bring bad luck”.

She too had to bury a son and she too was unable to survive it. Sometimes when I’m in the study, I catch myself expecting to find her in the living room. Her presence is still so strong. She was an incredibly indulgent and sensitive woman. Yvonne was always terribly hip. Replay jacket, Harley boots and Murattis at one time, a Gucci jacket and Prada boots later on. Highly sensitive but extremely reserved, her aggressive side revealed her great fragility, even though she was heavily into Einstürzende Neubauten. Like Michel, Yvonne made a choice and again, it was my mother who told me – I have some bad news.

In Africa, the men of the Biga tribe collect crocodile tears. Unlike the traffickers in ivory and tiger skins, who kill their prey, the Bigas have every reason to want to keep the animals alive. The dead rarely shed tears.

A powerful natural antidepressant, these tears are worth their weight in gold. The Chinese, with their penchant for natural remedies, are willing to pay a fortune for a dose. I was very impressed by the technique these men use for gathering the tears. There are two major schools. Those that I knew would approach the crocodile very slowly, keeping a low profile, no bright colors. About four or five meters from the creature, they would freeze. You have to realize that crocodiles have extremely sensitive hearing. You just have to start reading them sad stories and they completely lose it. The crocodiles cry like fountains. Thus blinded, they don’t notice the men sneaking up and filling their bottles with the precious fluid. The other technique seems more dangerous to me, and much more offensive. After blocking their nostrils with beeswax, the men smear themselves with a nauseating substance, being careful not to get it in their hair to avoid discoloration. Then, they just walk right up to their prey for whom the odor is intolerable. Taken by surprise by a choking stench, the crocodiles, dizzy and eyes stinging, dissolve into tears. Aside from that, the two techniques are the same.

It is known that when they float in the water like logs, or when they bask motionless on the sand, jaws agape, the crocodiles are reliving the good times of the past, and their tears have a calming effect.