Fiction · 06/17/2015

The Salamanders

Kept low, belly to the ground, the salamander of myth often found itself with serpents and other beings of the underworld. It was believed to live in fire. Historically, certain varying types of women have been called salamanders or salamandrine in their behavior. A salamandrine woman — a survivor, a whore, an outsider — may have been deemed a witch and burned at the stake for nothing but refusing to hide any longer. Today, a woman like that is burned in other ways.

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1. I am trying to write. I am outside sitting at my desk, and the two weird children from next-door lean onto my wooden fence and talk at me through a knothole. Not again. Go away. “Hello,” I say. I turn around to catch the big sister’s eye, studying me. Her lashes whisper against the grain, she has her face pressed so close. “We have a surprise. Come see,” she says.

I rise up to find a terrarium half-filled with water, and three salamanders wedged against the glass, huddled on a solitary rock, and trying to get away. “Newts, our daddy caught them.” I nod, the sickness creeping from my stomach down to my legs at the sight of them trapped. “They need some food,” I say, walking toward the trees.

The children follow. Deep within the wood, I pause, and they sit down on the dirt, crossing their legs and staring up wide-eyed with expectation as if I know exactly where to look. I do.

A decaying log lifted houses pill bugs, gnats, a milky nest of termites, and, to the right of my sandaled foot, a salamander so black it is almost blue against the damp brown earth and heavy moss. Its slim hand with its five padded fingertips touches my pinky toe. With two shining onyx pinheads for eyes, it blinks up at me before turning to hide in the weeds. I turn back to the children and their task. “Wow, termites,” I say. “They probably eat those.”

“Another one!” they scream, tramping over and snatching the salamander from the ground. This one’s fate is my fault. They toss their new pet in with the others. Hovering over their experiment, they act as if I have given them a gift, as if I have some sort of magical power to find amphibians so easily.

“Have fun,” I say to them, giving up on the idea of work, the pain deep in my chest rising, an anxiety over what I have done and what I have not. They watch me as I walk. I feel their stares at my back as I retreat behind the walls of my house.

Sometimes, the two of them, the neighbor children, climb the trees beyond my fence, clear to the top, trying to see through the window glass into my house. I don’t keep curtains.

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2. I am on an adventure in an oak-filled wilderness. The hike I walk traces the rim of a ravine and then descends to a stone-filled river and lowland camp. The summer air hangs heavy as I shuffle down the trail. On the way, salamanders the color of ripe plums and rust — one, two, three — climb up through the rocks and underbrush, making way for higher ground. I pause to watch them.

I am not alone on this excursion. One of the men I have been sleeping with stretches his quads several yards away. This one insisted on coming along. He reaches his leg in front of himself and lunges deeply. I wish he would pull an important muscle, lose his balance, and tumble down that slope. I can almost hear his screams for help as I lean forward to better watch him go. But no such luck. He straightens his body and reaches for the neon electrolyte water he brought, drinking it down and smacking his mouth satisfactorily. He attacks the air with his exhalation. “Isn’t this great? We’ll get five more miles in if we keep moving.” He is the type that has to keep plowing forward and to know everything.

Be quiet. Shut up. I watch a smooth red tail disappear between stalks of fern fronds and grass. After it is gone, after I subdue the urge to follow the salamander into the woods and never be heard from again, I turn back to this man I’m with and, hating every step, follow him.

At the bottom of the trail, this man and I step stones across the river to a small island. The sky darkens and gnarls. This man checks his map, and I stand at the edge of a pool sheltered within a bend. I look down, trying to catch sight of a fish, a nymph, or myself. A raindrop falls onto my arm. He squints into the angry sky and shrugs.

The turn in the air is instant. Raindrops splash onto the water. Then, pocks like hurled pebbles drum the surface. The river becomes a rapid then a torrent, and what was a mountain stream that entered into it cascades down the slope, roaring water, ripping through the trees, and advancing for us — a flash flood. “We’re trapped here,” I say. “We have to cross back, or we’ll drown!”

My sneaker steps into the cold rush of water. This man and I must climb our way through the mad river and up. I feel his hesitance, that he is unsure, and glance back to search his face. All the red from the exertion of the hike has washed away. All that is left are his wide, open eyes — a plea for help. I turn away from him, disgusted, and take another step into the water. He grabs my elbow, pretending to steer me clear of a boulder, but I know. I am guiding him. I am unafraid. I could give in to the submersion under the mire and die. A thing he could not. He saps my strength as the river, turned amber with conifer mud, sucks at our thighs, and the rain beats down.

At the middle, the moving water pulls at my chest, pushing me off my feet and almost sending me down. “Hold on to me,” I say. I grab his wrist, stumble, and trip. I yell and pull him along. He is a weight. A broken tree sweeps through the river several yards away. A limb veers and almost strikes me in the face. My body shakes as the sky falls.

This man and I make it to the bank. As I lie on the mud and gasp, he jumps and cheers. “We did it! Ha ha!” I rise, wipe the mud from my hands, and recall that the salamanders had known what was best for them. They had headed for higher ground instinctively.

Then, I didn’t have the instinct to let go.

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3. I am fed up, and not knowing what else to do with myself, I clean. I find a baby salamander behind my inside desk, two baby salamanders under the couch, a baby salamander in the middle of the floor. How did I not see them? Each is a mummy, fragile and empty of blood. I pick up one by the tail and lay it flat on my palm. The hollowed eyes and rippled skin, the limbs as delicate as spider web but hard, are intact.

I walk outside to tell my husband that I’m going to keep it. In my mind, he says, Are you crazy? What for? Instead, he shrugs. “All right, but I don’t think it’s a baby.”

“Don’t look it up,” I say.

He does anyway. It would be too much for the both of us to have a nest of babies in the house. He discovers they aren’t babies at all. They are just small — miniature, grown salamanders. Slender, they’re called. They are so small they might slip beneath the cracks of our doorways or nestle into the seams of the windows to sleep. I plant one on my desk as a reminder.

The next day my husband calls me outside to the woodpile because he has accidentally chopped a living salamander’s tail off — the tail, the width and color of a dark vein at the wrist, wriggles and contorts as if it is alive. “Like a worm,” I say. “It’s a distraction. The salamander is protecting herself.”

“Cool,” he says, watching for a moment and returning to his work.

Is that really all you are inside? I think as the slender salamander, now tailless, slips under the shingles of our cottage house.

I suspect that she is there now.

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Sarah Broderick recently earned her MFA in creative writing from San Francisco State University. Currently, she is working on a novel as well as a Voice of Witness oral history book. This is her first published short story. She tweets @sebroderick.