“Did I tell you I have a pet salamander?” I was sitting alone in my client’s conference room, both doors closed. “Did I tell you?” I say.
“Ye-aaah,” my mom says. She draws out the word to make herself sound excited. I can tell when she is faking it, but I appreciate the effort. “What are you keeping him in?” she says.
“He’s in the glass casserole that I use to roast beets,” I say.
I tell her he was buried in my garden when my weeding awakened him At first he was so limp, he looked like a 5 inch strip of wet black rubber. He was stupid with hibernation, limp as I am after a rare night of the deepest sleep, the diving kind where the underworld is revealed and I come back, drunk with the pearls and onyx of Hades’ dreamscape.
I gently pushed him until he unfurled into a rounded head, a slender body, with legs elegant enough for Madison Avenue, at least in my mind. I am a herp nerd. I love amphibians like some kids love toy guns, or chocolate or pink dresses.
“It’s a salamander,” I said out loud. I brought it inside and woke him as I like to be wakened, with a hot shower, strong coffee, almond croissants. Not really. But I talked to him as I like to be talked to. “Wake up, Darling!” I said. And he did. He stretched out strong legs and walked, each toe carved of ebony, eyes like night, like Cleopatra if she’d been amphibious.
I made a home in the casserole: a couple inches of mud, some pieces of bark, green wood sorrel, a sushi dipping bowl filled with pond water.
I told my mom. “It has a lid that is heavy, but not airtight,” but as the words left my mouth, I thought, Wait. It’s actually kind of a tight lid.
Okay. Think Andrews. Last night, he was prowling, looked strong, wolfish even. I thought he might even eat one of the tiny crickets I bought for him. But wait…yesterday I took the lid off a lot. Is that what was keeping him alive?
How long has it been since the lid was off?!?
This morning I was so late. Forgot-my-deodorant, took-Forest-to-daycare-in-his-pajamas late. I did look at the salamander before I left… I remember the thin ribbon of his tail, tip folded over, sticking out from under the biggest piece of bark.
I think I have suffocated the salamander.
But I’ve noticed that these days it’s much too easy to focus on failure. The volcano of divorce is pouring hot lava through my life. I’ve decided to stop saying “divorce.” It tastes like ass-- and not in a good way. I say “Splitting up.” Say “leaving my husband.” Sometimes say “divorcee,” because it sounds like someone who will soon be having sex in Paris.
I want this salamander to thrive. Amphibians represent rebirth. I am a witch, I should know. And I need a little transformation. But, I’ve loved them all my life and I am not about to dismember them. So, this is as close as I will get to eye of newt or toe of frog. Instead, my pond will become a living cauldron. Salamanders everywhere!! New Life!!
Okay, I admit, I haven’t solved the problem of how to establish a new population of long-toed salamanders with only one.
I admit, I haven’t solved the problem of how this long-toed woman will find love again without being hurt.
I admit, I haven’t solved the problem of how I will pay for the house next year, after my contract ends in November.
I admit all of this. Let it be entered into the record. And I still don’t want to focus on failure.
The afternoon sun is shining in my eyes as I drive onto the viaduct, speeding for home.. Did I take the lid off this morning or was it last night? The West Seattle bridge lifts me over the dark wreck of the Duwamish river. The salamander is nocturnal. He is impossible in my city lot, surrounded by lawnmowers on one side and a Round-up user on the other.
I take my coat off as I walk in the door. The sound of my dog jumping off the couch, the smell of fear. It was a mistake to forget deodorant today. The casserole is on top of the dresser. His tail still lies there, limp. The lid is tight and I am scared, I am scared. There is so little to be hopeful for in that limp tail, “I’m sorry. Are you dead? I am sorry if I have suffocated you. Don’t be dead, don’t be dead.”
I am chanting, a child’s voice high and fearful coming from my lips.. I reach in with a finger and nudge him. His head dangles into the mud and I feel the panic like fire coming inside me, and I want to snatch him up, but I remember what my field guide says about handling amphibians: Clean hands: No soap, no lotion, no perfume. I think of the hairspray, the face cream, the many strange and human substances I’ve touched today. I go and wash my hands. I rinse them again and again, trying to wash my human away and then at last I reach in and lift the salamander into my palm and then I feel him stir and he lifts a heavy head, fixes me with dark eyes and says “You got a cup of coffee?”
(Darlings, this is the piece I was going to read last night at Hugo House. It's from mid 2012, an excerpt from the memoir I'm working on, working title "From Wife to Witch.")