“My Life as a Lizard” by David Stevens
My neighbours are at a wake. The sound of car doors slamming, the occasional laugh carries in the quiet afternoon from several streets away where they are all gathering. I don’t feel up to funerals. I’ve got to be out, doing something. That was the advice my friend gave me. He’s the one who died, so he should know.
There is an end to this suburb. The houses peter out. A final bush block sprouts a perennial “For Sale” sign (only the name of the realtor changes), and then it is all over, not just melding into another bunch of houses stretching on forever. Beyond the bitumen, an overgrown pathway stretches on, until it falls away to a rocky gully.
Here I stand in tan chinos and grey polo shirt, straight up like I’m some dead old trunk hasn’t been worn away yet. Beneath me is a sacred rock. There are no Aborigines left round here to retrace the fading ochre markings. It will be preserved. The developers have promised. It will be a garden feature in someone’s yard. Kids will play under the shelf of it to get out of the summer heat. Sticking their hand in the leaf litter, one of them will be bitten by a funnel web spider. When I was little the summer spider death toll would make front page news in the major papers, but the kid will survive. The rock will be fenced off. Lantana will colonise it. 10 or 30 years from now, a bulldozer will go through, dig it all out. Someone might notice, an amateur historian with nothing better to worry about. A fuss will be made, compensation paid.
I check it out. There are still broken patches through the overgrowth where the late afternoon sun lights up the quartz in the sandstone that all of this is built upon. My eyes follow the sparkles, trying to find some pattern in them. I stretch my neck to catch the warmth of the sun.
Something bad had happened. I had remembered what it was.
A house waits down there, and an answer. An old house, forgotten in the scrub. I have given up on analysis. I let my brain do its work without my mind getting in the way. I react, I respond. I begin to reach out with my strong hind legs (the only ones I have these days), pushing my way through the grass, descending into the gully. I’m humming a tune. I think it’s the theme from The Six Million Dollar Man. After half a minute, I realise it’s the tune from Wonder Woman. Embarrassed, I shut up. No sound track required.
We’ll come back to this bit later on.
My life as a lizard seems like a dream.
Sometimes my wife and I see the therapist together. He says that it is really important not to forget. The easiest thing, he warns, would be to slip into a state where I imagined some sort of vast conspiracy against me; that vague recollections of animal-human experimentation would lead me to believe that there was a cover up to hide the truth. He urges that it is important to remember that there was no cover up. He says that I have to hold on to my memories, to keep firmly in my mind that, for a time, I had inhabited the body of a large monitor lizard.
At that bit, my wife often used to reach out and rub my arm. She doesn’t do that now. I don’t blame her. We become inured, don’t we?
The therapist (and why does he have to wear that Air Force uniform? It makes me think of Dr Bellows in I Dream of Jeannie) asks, you know how concussion is a bruising of the brain? I nod yes. (If you ever say no, there is a lecture, and you only get 50 minutes a session, and it always takes ages to book it in. It’s supposed to be emergency counselling, but three weeks later when you get in, the emergency has passed. Still there’s usually a new emergency, so it isn’t wasted.) He says, this is like bruising of the consciousness. He tells me that mind and brain are different. “Putting it crudely,” he says, but it isn’t a dirty joke that follows, “the mind sits in the brain – mostly. Sort of. Your mind has been bent and folded to fit into a different shaped container. It is now unfolding itself to fit into its original vessel. You can expect it to take a little while, and for it to be a bit tender around the edges.”
A dart of his eyes to the clock behind me, and he begins to round it all up. He encourages me to tell my story to others.
“Surely it’s classified? I can’t just tell people about it.”
My concerns are waved away. “Since the internet, no one believes anything anymore. It’s therapeutic to talk about things.”
“Can’t I just take a pill?”
He looks at me like I’m the one being unrealistic.
I ate a decaying cow. It had fallen down a hill, and was stuck between rocks, its head twisted round. It had been there some time. I tore at its distended belly, made an exit for the gases. I stuck my whole head in, felt it deflate until its innards pressed against me and I wore them like a mask.
A noise from behind. I withdrew, turned, raised on hind legs. It was a reptile swaggering along, great tail swishing the undergrowth. A perentie goanna, to be more exact, Varanus giganteus, though I wasn’t thinking in Latin tags at the time. Or in words at all. It was just like me. I hissed, before I realised this was no competitor. It wasn’t exactly like me.
It won’t leave me. Niggling, niggling. There are worse things than eating a cow. I can almost remember what those things are.
Sweating, unable to breathe, I reach out, but my wife is not there. For a moment I don’t even know who I am reaching for. I don’t remember that I have a wife. It would hurtful to say that out loud later, but just now, I don’t even know who I am.
By the time my feet hit the lino floor I recall that I am sleeping in the back of the house. Charlotte is having a hard time getting any rest with me calling out in my sleep. Remembering isn’t helping, not a bit.
Shaking, I hit my brother’s number on the speed dial. He works out who it is pretty quick.
A small bird that circles the sun once every million years and brushes the earth with the tip of a wing each time has managed to carve out a hole to the iron core of the planet by the time he arrives. I imagine my mouth full of feathers, cruel teeth crushing down, feeling the beating of that bird’s heart against my tongue as I begin to chew.
“What took you?” My voice quivers, but he just looks annoyed.
“I was only twenty minutes. Geez, I was asleep.”
I slide down the wall, arse on the floor, knees up under my chin, my whole body vibrating. Terror refuses to dissipate.
“Something terrible happened.”
“What? Tell me.”
“This! Isn’t this terrible?” But there is something more, something above the normal background radiation fucked up-ness of the situation.
“Yes. This is terrible.”
“What’s with the tone?” The tone in question is mono. He did that when we were teenagers, leaching profundity from statements by repeating them without emotion.
“What? It’s,” and he looks at his watch to be precise, presses a button to light it up, “3.27. I’m too tired to have a tone.”
“How about some sympathy?”
“I warned you. I told you. I begged you. You volunteered.”
“I don’t remember.”
So he tells me, but the words flow round me like water, none of them catching. The part of my mind that would understand why a person did what I did hasn’t unpacked yet, hasn’t taken up residence properly in the architecture of my brain. Whatever it was, it wasn’t something a lizard would have done.
“See, you’re not even listening.” He’s right in my face. “Did you hear a single word? This really pisses me off.”
I lash out then, rake my claws down his face so as to tear out an eye, leave my tracks so he’ll always remember the boundary he crossed, whose territory he entered. But I keep my nails short these days, and it’s not much more than a tickle. When you’re a goanna, you don’t need much force to do damage with those claws, just a flick. With my human wrist, he barely feels it. Still, he knows what I meant.
“Hey,” he shouts.
“Sorry,” I mumble.
I am a man. The reptile levels are only a part of my brain, like everyone else’s. I love my children. I do not abandon them after I fertilise their mother. They are not prey. I drop them at school, kiss them goodbye, and already have in mind the snacks I will prepare for them this afternoon.
After leaving the school, I sneak a peek to make sure there is no one I know in the traffic around me. I take the turn on to the motorway and leave my suburb behind. Factories give way to construction sites. Farmland is being devoured and converted into housing. A mournful feeling arises as I contemplate the loss of habitat. Farms first, then houses, then big tenement blocks, the world covered with them. The only wildlife left a few bugs and tiny skinks climbing the walls. Skinks! Bah! I dismiss them with an angry tap on the steering wheel. How much of me would fit into a skink? A dot?
There was a spider I stomped on when I was a little kid. When I lifted my foot, it had turned into a dozen or more miniatures, all scurrying off randomly. Babies no doubt, but that did not occur to me at the time. The number of spiders I stomped on after that, hoping in vain for a repeat of that sight, to see a big body shake itself into its constituent parts. Skinks! I see myself spread out, a great net of me, my first kiss here, the death of my father there, a youthful habit of mumbling on the phone , each segment stored in a tiny lizard, all of my traits and tics and recollections spread across a concrete landscape, multiplying, hybridising, an unconscious, nonsensical mongrel immortality.
I pull into an emergency bay, try to hold myself together. I feel more tornado than human, a zillion disparate remnants held together by a trick of air pressure, ready to be flung apart. I want to run off across the motorway, a darting animal versus hundreds of tonnes of thrashing steel, but it is warmer in the car, the sun hidden behind low moaning clouds. I dig my fingers into the armrests and stay there, steadying my breathing. Ten minutes pass before I can drive on.
The motel is not the Hilton but neither is it some budget dive stacked with coffin sized rooms. The drive has calmed me. I am OK as I step out into the autumn air. Inside, it is summer. She has prepared. The heating is turned way up. Steam billows from the bathroom. Fragrance of mown grass, then under it, the compost of the egg mound, its constant temperature controlled by decomposing vegetation. Clean dug earth. Secretions of reptile fertility. Pheromones filling the air. Surprise, a hint of carrion cow, our own special scent. How does she manage it all?
My wife does not understand me. Trust me.
This one though, she is ready for me. We go at it like turtles. It takes a very long time.
Goannas have two penises. I do not. Still, I lie with the memories.
“I miss your claws,” she says. My fingers splay and have to stretch to match the indented scars carried over to the mammalian flesh of her arms, and beneath her rib cage. Another thing we were told could not happen.
“Do you feel dirty?” she asks. I rise, my tongue vibrating, tasting the air. Of course I do. It’s wonderful. I can breathe.
The reptile feels no guilt.
That evening, I think to test my lizardness, after seeing her scars. I take a sharp chisel, clean the edge with alcohol, and find a hammer. I take off my shoes and socks, though strictly speaking I only have to remove one of each. I intend to cut off my little toe and see what happens. Surely the worst would be a little pain?
It shocks me that the toe is already missing. When did that happen? I call out to Charlotte, but luckily she does not hear me. It would not be an easy thing to explain why I am standing in my workshop like this, shoeless and chisel bearing. Later though I mention it, just casually.
“You’re making it up,” she answered.
“I’m not.” I rolled the sock off. “Look.” We both stare at a foot with five toes. I quickly check the other foot in case I have confused them, but both are complete.
Next day, in the shower, I see that it is missing again.
“How many toes do I have?” I asked the therapist. (We were alone. My wife did not feel like coming.)
His mask slipped, briefly revealing a weary face. He did not need to answer with words.
“Bullshit,” I said.
He shrugged, not even trying to hide it. “Why, were you going to cut one off and see what happened?”
I kept my mouth shut, but could not hide the burn on my cheeks. I had said too much.
“Goanna’s tails don’t grow back, you know.”
I don’t want to talk any more, but I don’t want to just storm out either. After a moment he leans forward to whisper. Now I worry. Why does he have to do that? Who would be listening in, that he has to hide what he is saying? “There are things that are worse,” he mutters. Really? I ask, using only my eyebrows. He leans back, nods and mouths a word: Crocodilia.
It takes a moment to work it out. It would have been easier to understand if he had just mouthed ‘crocodile’.
In the middle of another night (so many nights, stretching on), I pace and pace, waiting for the sun that will make everything all right.
Why did I volunteer for this? I cannot fathom a response, cannot find within me the matrix of facts and feelings and inducements that could only be resolved with this outcome, that I would let them do this to me.
There is a subsidiary question: why did they do it?
As I pace I hunch, making myself small, a proton in the midst of a massive anxiety cloud. It gets me by, most times. I ask the question over and over. It is a mantra, no answer expected, just a hook to hold onto so I don’t fall into the acid depths of the cloud.
Charlotte is there. She has been standing silent in the doorway watching me wear a trail in the floor. For how long? Her appearance interrupts my rhythm, threatens my place in the cloud. “Come to bed.” Meaning well but really, it’s so she can sleep easy, knowing her husband isn’t out there somewhere being mental. Lying there wouldn’t help me, or I’d be doing it. I’m muttering like a nutter (what a coincidence) and she grabs me, when did she get this close to me, when did that happen? I’m thrown off, the question pops out, the other one. “Why did they do this to me?”
I can hear her, her answer makes sense, because it isn’t one, it’s more questions back at me. “Why wouldn’t they? When haven’t they? Tell me one time when they found they could do something, and they didn’t?”
She’s gone, she’s off. I’d call out, I’d chase her, but I’m holding this ball in my gut, the juggling is pretty delicate, if I don’t watch out it’ll go critical, it’ll all pour out.
I’m going to spew. My guts are going to cover the wall.
The bad thing. I don’t call my brother, not this time. I have a laminated card with a ‘1-800’ number on it. This seems like the right situation to use it. I tell them where to meet me.
“Did I know you’re a journalist?”
My niece rolls her eyes. “You say this every time.” Still, the boy is patient, balancing his plate of barbecued sausages and overdressed salad. Bit of dried potato there too, from the grill. He has to be polite, not being family. Not yet.
“Why don’t you write my story? Tell the world what they did to me.”
He looks about, furtive, checking no one is watching, and I think he’s going to offer me weed. I’m about to brace indignant when he speaks.
“You know those movies where an investigative journalist prints something innocuous and the government kills him for it because it is linked to some huge conspiracy?”
“That really happens.”
I think about it for a while. “Then how can you report anything? How do you know that something you report won’t turn out to reveal some big secret?”
“There’s a list.”
I pause again. “Really? Can I see it?”
Now he sighs. “You ask that each time.”
Only later do I realise that that isn’t an answer.
I remember all of this while I wait in the cold.
We are down by the river. Their tardiness in responding to my call gives me no increased faith in government agencies.
We are there because there is a body. It is a scarecrow stretched out between driftwood branches. The clothes are tatters, and bones are showing through stretched dried skin. It is part of a washed up raft of weeds and plastic milk containers and newspaper and a shoe.
It’s not so bad, I rationalise. Not in all the circumstances. People will understand. Not people, but the people in the job.
People wouldn’t understand a bit. People would come chasing me with flaming torches.
Basically, I’m fucked.
But I was a lizard. A scavenger.
Not then I wasn’t.
I try not to look at the body. Rationalisation doesn’t work when I can see it.
I try to be stoic, but after they’ve been poking around for a while, I have to ask the question that is weighing on me.
“Did I do this?”
“Did I do this?”
A technician looks up, smiling. His curly straw hair is inappropriate for a person acting in an official capacity, and his mouth is crowded with small teeth. There is something off about him.
“Worried, are you?”
“Did I kill him?”
“Dunno.” He keeps working, leaving me hanging, but then he smirks, can’t resist. “Maybe you just chewed on him a bit,” he says. Then his eyes widen and the overflowing mouth closes and he goes back to work quickly, so I know he’s seen something to shut him up.
I turn and there is a man in a black overcoat behind me. “You did the right thing in calling us.”
“I didn’t mean to… I meant to call you, I didn’t mean to hurt him.”
“You didn’t. You were just sniffing around. You all do that. It’s going to continue for a while, while the whole thing works itself out of your body.” The man steps down the bank. “He was washed up dead. The crabs have been at him since he landed, but no people, not until us.”
A weight so heavy is lifted that I spring up, lifted among the stars. Not me. Not me. But the anxiety doesn’t want to leave, it has set up a home here. “No lizards?”
The man shakes his head. Relief rules, washes through.
“Natural causes then?”
“He was murdered. Dogs or such had at him before or after, but a person finished him off. Clean slice at the throat.”
“Oh. That’s terrible.” I mean it, but it doesn’t feel as terrible as I felt until a few moments ago.
“It surely is.”
I think he’ll tell me something, but now we’re reduced to commuters with nothing in common except we are waiting for the same train. Should I just leave?
“What happens now? Do I make a statement?”
His lips are tight. “We can’t risk exposing you as a witness. Not with everything.”
“So, someone found him and rung it in anonymously?”
He shakes his head. “We can’t go near a court, something will slip up. We’ll pack up here shortly and slip away. Cover our tracks.”
“The killer will just get away with it?”
“Someone else will find him and report it.”
“You’ve seen this dump, nobody comes down here.”
The man just shrugs in reply, though he looks embarrassed.
“They will get away with it.”
“These things tend to work themselves out in the end.”
I refuse to believe that this is official government policy.
I look up at the stars, starting to vanish from the pinkening sky. My brain draws lines between them, trying to sort them out. I stare as though I will find an answer to another question: how did I ever fall in with these people?
No one will find this body. I’m disturbed, but not stupid. They will hoover it up, dump the whole riverbank in an industrial shredder. They will incinerate the body. The wind has worn the remaining skin and the exposed organs to parchment. It will burn quickly. In rictus the face is one big smile, but I feel terribly sad. Later, will I believe any of this happened?
I liked my neighbour. He asked insightful questions. After some vigorous prodding from him one day, I eventually retorted, “I’m bored.”
“Perhaps that’s what got you into this situation in the first place.”
Before he died, he wrote a letter to me. His wife had dropped it round, walking the street with a basket of them. I’ve left it safe at home. Part of it said, “John, I think that you would feel better if you found something useful to do with your time. You seem to be just dicking round a lot.” Can’t argue with that.
I wasn’t being disrespectful staying away from his funeral. I was following his advice. I could use my powers for good. I would be the lizard detective.
That is what led me to the gully, standing on this rock while the others attend his wake.
I am a man, not a lizard. Still, I am the closest thing to a goanna that is ever likely to pause at this rock again, to find peace for a second or two as it draws warmth up through its legs. I flick the air with my tongue, and I’m buggered if I can detect any sign of another big lizard nearby. Surefooted, I stride down into the gully.
Ask a homing pigeon to explain the GPS in its head, a bloodhound to detail its sense of smell. The lizard brain does its own thing with the information that nature feeds it. It has led me here backwards from the corpse in the river.
I’m just around the corner from my house. I’m only going to poke about while my wife is out. I’m walking down into a gully surrounded by suburb, not the wilds of Borneo. I roll my sleeves up, some bloke out on a walk, strolling into the bush on a whim. I’ll be back in forty minutes.
Another bad decision.
Sorry about lapsing into the present tense so often. The lizard tends to live in the moment.
I should have known it would come to this.
What am I? What powers do I have? The ability to seduce a lady lizard? To infiltrate an international reptile criminal gang? This thing happens to me, and I reduce it to a high concept 70s TV show. And I’m not even going to survive the pilot.
Why did I volunteer? Why do I keep doing shit no one would expect me to?
The house is old, but it is inviting. A realisation comes to me. All the questions I’ve been asking, you just need to know how to read the signs. There’s something homely about the decrepit nature of the building, the way one of the walls seems almost to be sliding out. There’s a gap in the framework, making a hole that leads in amongst the foundations. The hole is a sign saying, “Come in, you’re welcome.” How cosy it would be under there, especially once winter comes. Burrow underneath, like a house inside a house.
There’re no birds here. Quiet hangs heavy. What that says is, “Rest awhile. I’ll be back soon. Just getting some firewood, or doing one of those jobs done best out of sight.” The worn path leading to something hidden behind the tree line is a folksy laugh exclaiming, “Don’t you worry. I do all my business back there. There’s nothing to be afraid of, not right here.”
That’s how I got mixed up with that crew. I don’t know why I volunteered, but I know why I trusted them. I’m walking straight to the front door of the hovel, knuckles ready to knock all day long til someone answers, while round the back, hanging sickles and saws and human bones clang together like a monster’s wind chime. I’m an idiot.
Meanwhile, the lizard is busting a gut running the other way.
I’m racing faster than I ever knew I could, at least in this body. Grass whips me, saplings flay me, but I keep going. No wonder I fuck up. The lizard understands just as well as me what the signs say. He’s just not stupid enough to believe them.
I knew there was something bad. Why did I feel the need to stroll down and knock on its front door?
Something in there responded to something in me. It released the dogs.
I ran. So did they. Well trained, they move as a pack. Don’t bark.
I’m fast. They’re faster. The first is upon me. It springs. I turn and thrust. I’ve learned since my brother. The nails are missing, but my fingers are hard like steel, my wrist tight, my arm spearing out. I tear at softness. The dog rips, and is down. A flash of grey at its muzzle. It isn’t young. What does that tell me? They’ve been doing this a long time.
The others must come, though I don’t dare to turn to look. I’ll be hamstrung, knocked down, torn. Something merciless will follow in their wake, something well practiced. It will not care that my questions remain unanswered. It has its own needs.
So I move up, off the track. I have scaled high gums, feasted on shell covered embryos and down-covered nestlings at the tops of trees. I have followed my nose and my tongue up sheer cliffs, and found those that thought a precipice would be safe. I have done it before, I can do it again.
I am up, and they are down. If the dogs leap, they get no purchase, and I keep moving. Disciplined, they remain silent in their confusion. No doubt they pace back and forth below, heads trained upwards. Night is coming, and I keep going as long as I can. It is not just the dogs I worry about.
Eventually, I can move no more. I’m lost. How much bush is there in this small place, how far you can travel? It is as though space folds in on itself. I cannot assume harm lies only below. Someone experienced could have worked their way around, and be waiting above me. Searching fingers find a growing crack, and I slide into a shelf between sheets of sheer weathered sandstone, scrape right in. The rock is tight all around me, but that is comforting. I fit snugly and can’t be seen. I have found my place. No room to pace, held as tight as in an egg. As the temperature lowers, I begin to drowse. Sandwiched, invisible, I shall catch the morning sun. Re-energised, I shall continue in my endeavours. For now, I nestle my questions, and keep safe what I have learned.
I wonder what other experiments they may have done, what else they have made. Is there some equilibrium, some yin and yang, my existence requiring his? Then I get over myself. I’m not even a flea on one of his hunting dogs.
What if I’m really still running out there somewhere, lost in bush two hundred metres from my house? What if no dogs barked because there was no pack, just some poor old stray that was a bit too excited to see me? Why should I have trusted the lizard’s instincts any more than my own? It’s just a big dumb reptile. Farmers shoot them and string them up by the dozen every day.
I collapse my ribs and pull tighter into the shelf, skin and bone wrapped in quality casual wear. Expectation hovers. Something large moves in the night. It shakes the tallest trees so that their crowns dip from side to side. White cockatoos rise and shriek challenges at the darkness.
Everything will feel better in the morning. Everything will look better with a wash of sunlight.
And if it doesn’t, perhaps I deserve a long, long rest.
About the Author
David Stevens lives in Sydney, Australia with his wife and four children. He sometimes blogs at http://davidstevens.wordpress.com. One day, he will finish his novel.