Storytime: The Lizard.

November 10th, 2010

The moment when your head first breaks water after a long dive is a strange one.  All the sounds you’ve grown accustomed to grown dim and strange, and your head is filled with new shapes, odd noises.  And the first one is always the most important thing you’ll hear on that surfacing.  It may not seem that way at first, but in hindsight?  Always. 
“You forgot the juice.”
I felt my heart hesitate in its rapid return to full beat and weight, unclenching itself from its slumber at the bottom of my pond.  Humans.  Joyful. 
“I forgot the juice?  You said you were going to pack the food.”
A mated pair of humans.  Amazing; an entire twenty-four hours of day had grown tiresome within the span of five seconds.   I stifled the urge to show myself fully just to scare them off and merely floated, idle in the water with tail still, limbs spread, breathing quietly through my snout that resembled nothing so much as a piece of old wood.  Not that my stealth was needed.  I probably would’ve had to gallop out of the water and dance to get their attention. 
“Juice isn’t food, it’s a drink.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You don’t eat it, you drink it.  Completely different thing.”
“Don’t be deliberately dense.  I said I’d load up the car, you said you’d pack the lunch.”
“I said I’d pack the food.  Don’t change my words on me.”
“Stop nit-picking!”
“Then don’t generalize me.”
I cast about for something, anything to distract me from their muffled gabblings, and found less than I would have liked.  The day was calm, with a flat blue sky, smooth, windless air, and a temperature so moderate that no living thing could find it anything other than mildly unbearable.  Somewhere in the distance, a bird muttered a sullen attempt at territorial song, then gave up halfway through in disgust.  A splash so slight that it could’ve been my imagination (staid though it is) rippled from meters to my left, prompting a shift in the direction of my drift.  A muskrat would not go unappreciated as a noon snack. 
The humans were still talking, still prattling.  Their argument had died, but its tension lingered on, remaining stored, ready to spring out and seize ahold of their strained, hobbled conversation at any moment’s excuse.  What sentences emerged were short, stunted things following hard on one another’s heels like a marching column of ants. 
Enough of them.  I had a muskrat to catch – he’d just shifted into the corner of my eyes, perched amidst some reeds on the edge of a rotting log, a relic from the winter’s storms.  My drifting became quicker, just at the edge of detectable if he raised his head to look my way, but he did not, deeply absorbed in his nibbling at the plants. 
My head was close, yet turned away.  I began the slow swing to bring him into line with my muzzle, where a short, sharp charge would bring him into my fold.  All sounds had faded, all sight was tunneled, there were three things in all the world for my mind: my teeth, the muskrat, and the distance between them. 
That distance abruptly quadrupled as a sharp, snapped sound from ashore burst through my bubble of concentration; the muskrat spasming in fright and plunging away into safety through the reeds, into the brush, out of reach. 
“You broke it!”
“You made me do it!”
“Made you… that glass belonged to my mother!”
“Then you shouldn’t have made me break it.”
“You did that on purpose.”
“If you hadn’t grabbed my arm just then –”
“You’re doing the driving and you were about to pour yourself a glass-and-a-half of red wine, of course I grabbed your arm!”
“Me?  I drove us here in the first place!”
I counted, calmly and carefully.  Unfortunately, I had no abstract concept of numbers, and therefore was unable to control my temper.  Underwater, my jaws clenched and unclenched unpleasantly.  It was all right, I lied to myself (poorly).  I didn’t really want that muskrat.  A meal as small as that wouldn’t last me longer than a few days anyways.  It was probably skinny.  And all the fur is unpleasant to swallow and spit up again later. 
Damnit I wanted to eat that.
The humans kept talking, and I decided I’d had enough of them.  There was an easy way to block out their scurrilous quarreling. 
Perhaps fish would suit my gullet today. 
I flushed my excess air from my lungs, closed my nostrils, and dropped under the water with barely a ripple, sinking like an armour-plated brick.  The blessed absence of their whining, empty nasality filled my skull with absolute bliss from snout to occipital bones.  It felt good to be without those noises. 
That brought to mind other sounds.  Old ones.  The good, big, ultra-bass roars I’d let out in spring.  When was the last time I’d done that and expected an answer?  And how much earlier were the memories of doing that and getting an answer? 
Those were the good days.  The bellowing for females, both out loud and in that deep, deep voice that was a little hard to hear even for our kind, the sound that ate all noise.  The brawling with other males, hissing, rumbling, and coughing – and maybe a charge or even a real fight if too evenly matched for an easy backdown.  I half-suspected I’d put an end to my only surviving sibling during one of those tussles, giving his tail a tearing, crippling wound that it would never recover from  – accidentally of course. 
It had been good.  And then it was gone.  Oh, striking out north had seemed a good idea at the time.  More space.  More room for me, more food for me, and not so far north as to grow ice on my water in the cold months.  But as I went north everyone else went south, hunted and harried, shoved, sworn at, and shot. 
I wasn’t worried about them.  They were my kind, and they were tougher than any leather but their own.  But they’d left me all alone, when they all went south.  Left me alone for forty full cycles of the seasons, as the sun heaved its way about the sky, the leaves bloomed and shrank, the rains came and went. 
Forty years is a long time.  Even for me.  And it felt longer every day. 
A fish swam in front of my nose and was gone again before I could so much as blink.  Why had I come down here again?  I was standing on the pond bottom, frozen in mid-stride like a fool.  Had I even finished that first step before memories caught me by the tail and dragged me under? 
Oh.  Fish.  Right. 
I cast about me with my senses, touch and hearing, smell and dimmed, bastardized sight, nigh-useless in the comfortable embrace of the pond scum and particles.  It was gone, and well gone. 
Damnit twice. 
Well, fish was boring anyways.  I’d eaten it, and eaten it, and eaten it yet more over the years, from birth to exile, though more so since I’d occupied my little pond.  Other prey was often rarer now in comparison to the good old days.  Especially turtles.  How I missed turtles, more than I’d ever thought I could miss slow, nigh-inedible, ornery mobile rocks-come-prey.  They were easy enough to get ahold of, but a bastard and a half to get open.  But it had all been worth it, always, just for that delicious feeling when the shell gave under your jaws and it opened up to such sweetness. 
I’d eaten a turtle after my first courtship with my mate.  It had never tasted the same since. 
Something splashed into the water, heavy and solid.  My mouth closed on it before my brain could think, always the swifter and surer part of my body, if not always the most intelligent.  This was one of those times: my mind pined for turtle, my jaws sought it, and my mouth informed me politely that what had just entered it was some sort of flat, ceramic object the humans had been using above the water.  It cracked apart with little effort under my surprised teeth, brittle and cold fragments dusting my tongue.  Remnants of human food made a mockery of a meal to my tastebuds, a jumble of harsh sensations that made me spread my jaws wide and shake my head. 
Some hunt this was.  I sought turtle inside my head, and a hurled platter replaces it.  Memories of sweetened meats and long, languorous courtship displays blundering into a reality of hasty, quarrelsome apes.  The firm slap of a head against water – the call to a love so near – replaced with an angry, careless toss of an abandoned piece of dishware. 
I watched the bubbles bob to the surface, just like they had as we bumped snouts together and wove little nets of captured air out of our lungs.  I wondered if she was somewhere south, or dead.  I had been so sure she would follow me the next spring. 
I rose to the surface without knowing why.  And it was in this most confused, romantic, desperately lonely, and memory-lost mood that I saw the humans had finally had a true falling-out.  One of them had grasped some sort of sharp thing in its hand and was standing over the other.  There was a small smell of warmed blood. 
“Don’t do it.”
“Why not?  Why not?  We’re nowhere near home, the pond’s deep, and winter’s coming.  That’s plenty of time.  All the time in the world to go, to have some peace and quiet.”
“I’ll do what you want, we ca –”
“WHAT YOU CAN DO IS SHUT UP!  Peace and quiet, that’s all I want!  PEACE AND QUIET!”

Now, I had several reasons for what I did next, but I remain unsure of which was prime, the root cause that tickled my brain and set me in motion. 
First, the human had its back to the water, I was hungry, and I’d been robbed of two meals in a row and offered the illusion of a third thanks to their efforts. 
Second, my mind was full of memories of better times, of having others near to squabble, to love.  Seeing another attempt to deliberately rob themselves of this and consider themselves the richer for the bargain seemed something of an outrage. 
Third, I greatly agreed with the sentiment the human was expressing at the top of its lungs.  Perhaps quite a bit more so than it did, though we shared similar methods of securing our goals. 

So I moved. 
I moved very quickly. 
And that is by my standards.  My prey’s eyes always seem quite surprised when I lunge, no matter how off my speed that particular day.
The human didn’t even have time for that.  No time for shock, no time for sounds of alarm to rise as anything more than the hint of an instinct grubbing in the back of the brain, no time at all – not even a hope of a hint – for action.  Just the involuntary spasming of the body as I took it in my jaws, enshrouding its torso in my teeth and tugging it to my home.  The water roiled in slight surprise, matching the tempo of a twitching leg as I moved underwater to wait for its lungs to stop fluttering. 
The human on the ground was staring a little, I saw with my glimpse of the above-water, noisier world.  But it seemed quieter, and when I surfaced to eat some five minutes later, there was no trace of it. 
Alone again.  But perhaps with company like that, I was better off. 
And after the winter would come spring. 
Who knows?  Maybe it wouldn’t be that far after all, to walk south. 


“The Lizard” copyright 2010, Jamie Proctor

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