A small, green lizard sidestepped his way out of the baked depths of a great canyon. He moved slowly, like an insect trying to avoid the attention of greater eyes. By late afternoon, he reached the edge of the forest above, and hid in a tuft of grass. There, he spied a squirrel—just a little thing not much larger than himself—and grinned a thick, reptilian grin.
“Hello there, old friend,” he said.
The squirrel rose on its haunches, a timid look on its face. “Could you eat me? Should I run?” it asked, twitching its nose and stamping its tail with each question.
The lizard explained that he was too small to eat a thing like a squirrel, and that he’d only just come up from the canyon’s bottom to see what friends could be had in the forest. If the squirrel were willing, the lizard would like to sit with it in its tree, which must be cool compared to the ground.
So they did just that. The squirrel taught the lizard to poke fun at slower animals, to perch in trees, and to squirrel away nuts. After a long day of ambassadorship, the squirrel wished its new friend goodnight, tottered off to its drey, and cuddled itself to sleep.
The lizard was quick to work after that. As the sun sank and the squirrel slept, the lizard crept in close. He extended an abnormally long claw from his front foot and eviscerated the squirrel from neck to tail’s tip.
The lizard removed the throbbing meat from the fur, letting the dying sac plop to the ground. He fastened the squirrel’s coat to himself: matching tail to tail and eyes to eyes. Finally, the lizard sewed himself into place. He rose up on his haunches and flicked his bushy, new tail. He even tried nibbling a few nuts but they tasted bloodless and dry. Better to find another thing to consume.
The night yawned wide. The lizard cuddled into his squirrel skin and slept. He dreamed himself in a vast, black space. Legion animal bones danced before him and as the bones clanked together, they made a kind of music.
The next day, a lizard in squirrel skin wandered the quiet forest floor. He was bounding over the tree roots with most of the grace of a squirrel when he noticed a rabbit milling about in a patch of thistles.
“Hello there, old friend,” he said.
The rabbit’s ears perked up. “What have you to do with my hay?” it asked.
The lizard-in-squirrel-skin explained that he was not fond of hay—that he’d only descended from his tree to see what friends could be had. If the rabbit were willing, the lizard would like to wander with it in the grass.
So, they did just that. The rabbit taught the lizard to sniff for the greenest grass, to avoid foxes, sometimes doubling over a hole to shake the scent, and how to break into a dead sprint when a dead sprint was needed.
The lizard listened carefully until the rabbit was done and asleep. As the sun sank low, he extended his abnormally long claw and gutted the rabbit chin to tail. The rabbit felt some brief pain as its skinless bulk was tossed on top of the hole to its own burrow. Its half-dozen children had to smell it over and over as it rotted.
The next day, a lizard-in-squirrel-in-rabbit-fur milled about among the thistles and grass with almost the grace of a real rabbit. Had his nerves and chilly blood connected to the limp rabbit’s ears, he might have heard the approaching fox that bit down on his multilayered coat like a dog gnawing on a stick of beef.
“Hello there, old friend,” the lizard wheezed. “Could I trouble you to ease off for a moment? I have a proposition.”
“Stop all that talking. It will give me gas when I’m done with you,” the fox muttered through its stuffed, drooling maw.
“I couldn’t help but notice that all the other rabbits have hidden in their holes and you’ve only managed to catch me,” the lizard squeaked, “the slowest and deafest of the rabbits.”
The pressure let up but the lizard heard a muffled tearing in the fabric around him. He spoke quickly as the various skins above his own were torn off. “My proposition, old friend, is this: I will teach you the ways of the rabbits, how they are always back to their holes, keeping you skinny and…”
The fox tapped gingerly on the fur surrounding the lizard. It had not noticed that this was, in fact, squirrel fur. “And?”
“And you let me live,” said the lizard, opening his eyes.
Foxes bounce around a great deal when they talk, which make them look like idiots. “You’re all skin, you know,” the fox said.
“My fat cousins take all the good grass and my wife works me to the bone,” said the lizard.
“Wives, huh? Nobody can get a break!” The fox bounced on its front paws as if it were trying to flatten a bump in a rug.
“I could be your break if you just hold off on breaking my meatless, little spine,” said the lizard.
The fox agreed and pranced in several stupid circles to show its excitement at the idea. So, the lizard led the fox around, showing it all the things the rabbit had just shown him.
It was a mistake to think that foxes were clever. This fox was the dumbest animal the lizard had yet to meet. It was fast of course, quick to react, but not so clever. This fox ended up telling the lizard more of its own secrets than the lizard shared about the rabbit.
The fox pounced on its prey to kill quickly. It ran circles around its trail to throw off bigger beasts. Oh, how it ran circles! Some of its cousins even climbed trees. The fox was a bit of a braggart and convincing it to talk grew easier as it was barely interested in what the lizard had to say about rabbits. The lizard did not wish to hear again about catching the field mouse in the red metal box.
Merciful night came and the fox fell into a deep sleep, tired from its day of braggadocio. The lizard was quick to work after that. He extended his inevitable claw and worked the orange fellow’s neck wide open. He had to hide up a tree while the fox gurgled and flailed itself to final sleep. Good thing the squirrel had taught the lizard how to climb.
He returned a few hours later to gut the fox and sew on his new coat. Then, he spent that night thinking on what animal he could befriend next.
Some weeks later, a man walked through a dog park looking for his missing dog. He came upon the thing as it sat oddly on its haunches, watching the other dogs as though deep inside of its own thoughts or body.
The dog had been gone for over a week but it acted most of its usual oafish self for the man. Back home, it skittered to its reflecting dish, slopped water into its jaws and scooped food into its maw, but there was a hollow quality to its actions.
But, as the man came home from work the following day, the dog slobbered all over his descending hand. It weaved through his legs with aquatic vibrancy and the man was pleased with these gestures. He sent the dog to a patch of carpet where it might sleep.
A small miracle was happening. The lizard found that, the more time he spent inside of his skins, the more he grew into them or them onto him. On the first night of each conquest, there had been a definite claustrophobia when he sewed himself in. Dead skin surrounded him on all sides and he had to exaggerate every gesture just to make the costume work.
Now that he’d spent several days as a dog, the sad jowls became his. The wagging tail became his. The man stepped on his rigid paws and the pain became his. The lizard lost track of where he ended and the mimicry of his conquest began. His cool blood mixed with surrounding heat and fizzed, ending in a tepid, circulating current that was the lizard entire. One morning he awoke, and he was most definitely a dog.
For his next trick…
Apart from being clever, man is also quite snooty. Most species of animals will talk to each other once or twice under extreme circumstances and the lizard knew all of their languages, as if by divine instinct.
But with man, it was different. Part of man’s cleverness lay in the fact that he would not acknowledge the languages of the other species. In addition, he hid his own language too well: beyond breaths and gargling sounds that should have only accompanied eating or dying. This made it difficult for the lizard (be he squirrel, rabbit, fox, or dog) to ask the man about his habits. He would simply have to observe until he had learned enough.
Men do this thing where they stand before the counters of their kitchen, mixing one conquest with another: heating them, chopping them microscopic, and generally removing any connection between the tasting tongue and the initial conquest. Men stoop their shoulders when they do this. They lean into the heel of one foot then the other. Doing this foot shifting—this would be the trickiest part. |This and tax returns.
Men do this other thing where they bring the river within their home, corner it into one small space and use it to remove their memories. A few moments under the river and the earth is washed away. These discarded smells would have told the man where he’d last been. They would have told him which animals he had eaten and if any were nearby that might eat him. It was a wonder that men could think of anything with all the smells constantly being wiped from their bodies.
Men do this third thing. When they are about to sleep, they lock themselves away from the rest of their kind because they don’t need the warmth. They pull the sun close into their homes, maybe hiding it beneath the walls to be released in small doses when a noise spooks them or when they need to see back to where the river is kept. This is why their homes are so warm without the real sun to bake its interior rocks.
What strange creatures! Not a lot of their habits made sense to the lizard though he considered himself an expert on a diverse array of animals. Learning men might take too long. The lizard would just have to jump into it and improvise. In any case, he’d sorted out what to do about the man’s neck, which was the most important part.
The lizard waited near one of the magic openings that couldn’t be passed yet let the sun peek through. He needed to know when the sun was setting. The man usually went to bed soon after this. In this, and only this, men did not deviate from the ways of other diurnal animals.
The lizard waited until the sky outside of his magic rectangle rusted and died. He waddled up to the man a little too slowly to be counted a real dog. He tilted his neck, puffed his dead eyeballs, and let out a small, unassuming whimper.
The man patted the lizard’s dog-neck and made a few senseless sounds. The man then whisked the lizard into his private sleeping room.
At first, the lizard worried that he’d given himself away and that the man was imprisoning him, but he used his nose to sniff out the room. It was where the dog had slept in times past, even relieved itself a few times.
“You must be out of that funk now, huh Roger?” said the man. The lizard did not know what a roger or a funk were but he took his place at the foot of the man’s sleeping rock. As the man fell asleep, his nose let out the funniest, most damning noise the lizard had ever heard.
The lizard couldn’t believe that men would make such noise when they slept. How had they not all been eaten? Any creature with larger teeth (or even smaller teeth and some initiative) could make an end of this yacking, hacking thing called man. How had this species achieved ascendency over the others? Once the lizard had gotten used to being a man, he would ask about it.
The lizard groped forward within his rotting wallet of animal skins. At the foot of the man’s bed, in the trapped fire of the man’s sleeping hole, the lizard could have slept comfortably and that would have been a grand life. But the lizard was not content with just any life, even a grand one. He wanted to move forward.
Better to ask about death.
He crawled lightly across the cotton covers. The man did not notice him or his false weight so the lizard sunk down over the man, shimmied out of his many costumes and extended his terrible claw. He made sure of the stretch of his limbs and the sharpness of the claw and carved the man Adam’s apple to ankles.
The man had things like visitors and errands. Strange things. The lizard did not know what to do with them. He tried to pick up the phone and approximate the sounds of men. Those on the other end kept buzzing like underwater bees. When visitors arrived, he tried to turn the slippery knob of the door with his numb man-hand. It was all too much, too soon.
The visitor things would come into the man’s home, sit on the edges of couches, and tilt their necks as the dog once had. They would ask if the lizard had any depression. The lizard looked in the refrigerator for anything that might be depression. He found only rotting vegetables so the visitor things wrinkled their foreheads even more. Eventually, they stopped making sounds at the lizard and left the man’s house.
The lizard had reached the top. What more skin could he wear? He thought about sharks and bears and other creatures whose approach demanded a vibrant fear. But these were stupid animals: giant, fast moving mouths filled with lucky, sharp teeth. He needed more time inside of the man to lick the true smell of things.
What was this man with his exquisite skin, his deft digits? The lizard quivered with ecstasy as his own sensations filled out the sac he occupied and his intentions moved it. New thoughts entered his head: questions that begged for his new man-tongue to dance the right dance and answer. It was a new kind of smelling that did not involve the tongue or the nose. The lizard wondered about the sun and its absence. He wondered about times of sleep and times of nervous gathering. He wondered at those terrible candles in the far-off black that he could not put out.
Oh, that he could put them out!
These skins he’d previously put on, they had eyes for forward, noses for danger and food, and paws considering only the ground beneath them. Even his lizard skin knew as much as them. He had known the cardinal directions. Had he sewed himself into a bird, he would have known up and down as well but that was the limit of the creatures beneath man.
Being a man offered another axis: trajectories through which neither paws nor wings could carry the lizard. Question and answer—these were his new north and south, the X and Y of a deeper plane.
He needed the tongue. The tongue was his new foot. Men were truly monopods. He would learn to work this tongue, as the last limb he must master—the final room of the house he would own. And it was greatly fitting that the tongue was man’s instrument for moving forward as it had been for the lizard long ago.
The lizard left his house and found another place of men. He wobbled like a thing on strings down the hard paths of man to a building that shone like dark water. He sat in a chair, on the man’s bottom. This was uncomfortable because the lizard’s tail bent inward, probably lost somewhere in the man’s left leg. But a smell within the building was doing wonderful things to the man’s skin, nose and stomach. The lizard stretched himself inside of the man’s quivering skin and sighed.
He watched as other men sucked muddy water into their stomachs. The water was hot as canyon creek eddies in the dead of summer. The lizard imagined that, had he drunk the stuff, it would filter down the interior of all the animal skins and boil him alive.
But, under its influence, the other men howled and laughed. They swished like the wind through trees and let their tongues dance freely. The lizard watched, and learned the moves for himself. He watched for days, rapt, as maps into new territory laid themselves out before him.
Satisfied with his studies, he ambled into the evening city-street. This was a deep place of man where all the other animals hid out of sight, where men piled rocks high to block out the sun. It seemed that man was in a private war with the sun and the great, distant candles of night. The lizard could relate to that.
He was growing tired for the first time since he began his expedition. He imagined all of the skins around him sagging beneath the drowning sun—sagging into the man’s thick boots only to ooze out onto the street. The lizard would need a better skin to hide beneath if he were to continue. Better than man’s even.
“God bless you, sir!” A man sat against a wall and shook a metal cup at the lizard. This man wore dirt like all of the other kinds of animal but very unlike man.
Others on the street looked at this man much as they looked at the lizard. Maybe this man was also sagging in his skin. The lizard wished to try his tongue so he answered the dirty bum with mankind’s best invention: a question. “What is God?” he asked and was quite pleased with the sound of it coming out of his dead lips.
“You must be from Europe or something,” said the other man. “He’s the answer to every question. When you’re at your lowest, God finds you. You don’t always see him, but he’s there.”
The lizard leapt inside his flopping layers. Here was the music to which his tongue must dance. His growing awareness of another trajectory, another plane of movement, the questions and answers that the tongue must walk: here was the direction he must follow, the last animal he would find there. This god was the answer. If the lizard just spoke the right combination of questions and answers, he would be propelled to his next skin.
Sharks and bears indeed! That would have been a step backward. But a god: where do you find such a thing?
Ah! The man had told him. A god is to be found at places of low elevation and was very hard to see, perhaps employing some tricks that the lizard’s southern cousins used to avoid being eaten. The lizard was getting all sorts of timely hints, as though the whole of nature wanted him to succeed—wanted him at its top.
On a whim, the lizard sniffed his way back to that night canyon he’d crawled out of so many months ago. In his man-skin he tumbled to the bottom much more quickly than the lizard had climbed out. There, at the bottom, he sensed that the man-skin had come unstitched where he’d sewn it up. Indeed, several skins above him were coming loose.
He lay prostrated, the man’s face to the ground, and said the word that was the answer to every question: “God, hello there, old friend.”
In the dark he imagined that this God creature must answer back in the lizard’s own thoughts since, being very hard to see, God must also be very hard to hear. In the cool night, the lizard thought he heard some faint reply nudging upward in his mind. And he was quick to work after that.
Story copyright © 2016 by J.J. LaTourelle
Artwork copyright © 2016 by Cesar Valtierra
J.J. LaTourelle is so committed to writing, he eats paper. His first foray into fiction? His brother invited him to break into cars and steal CDs. J.J. had to sit on the hood of the car reading liner notes to decide which CDs to take. Once, he won 3rd place in a spelling bee. He didn’t know how to spell maccaroni. He still doesn’t. J.J. lives and teaches in Korea with his wife and son.
Cesar Valtierra hails from the sun-soaked desert of the wild, wild western city of El Paso, Texas. He wields a pencil like an outlaw gunslinger, drawing up a storm since the tender age of two. He is infamous throughout the land for his provocative ink drawings, his meticulous vector illustrations, and his eye-catching graphic design work. He follows the beat of his own drum and answers to no one—except, of course, his fiancée Victoria and their two cats, Chubs and Pretty Boy.