Glass Lizard

by Jens Alfke ⟿ June 21, 1993

The beach that fall was overrun by glass lizards; I had never seen them before. I knew there had been none at the beach when we had visited during the summers (I could remember four summers, and my parents said there had been more.)

In the summer the sand was hot, the evenings cool, and our whole camp stayed for a week to catch the foot-long azu as they swam to the beach and flopped out of the water onto the wet sand. It was easy to catch them as they lay there: we children chased them with nets, while the adults favored spears that we were not permitted to touch or come near. Netting the fish was fun, but we all envied the adults for the elegance of their swift downward strokes pinning the fish to the sand. I was too young to feel much sympathy for the fish, or wonder why they came to the beach so suicidally. Fortunately the adults did, and made sure that enough fish survived to spawn and return the next year. But this was fall, the weather cooler and the azu safe at sea, and I came alone with my parents.

The lizards were new to me. I saw the first only after I stepped on it as we jumped down from the floater. It crunched beneath my shoe like a fragile holiday ornament, and as I picked up and examined the brittle pieces my father told me not to go barefoot on the beach or I would hurt myself. I half-listened, wondering at the detail of the shape and why someone would leave a glass toy lying on the sand of the deserted beach. Then I saw another run past, equally transparent, with the instantaneous starts and stops of a small animal’s motion. I was amazed that something made of glass could be alive, but a torrent of questions extracted little information from my parents, though I strongly suspected that they knew more than they let on.

The beach being deserted beneath the cloudy skies, we had our pick of huts, and chose one centrally located near a small stream. While the cleaner whirred through the small rooms, we ran across and along the strand, enjoying the sensation of vast open space after months in the forest camp. We ran near the waves, along the wet sand which the lizards avoided. Then, while my parents unpacked our bags, I stayed outside to catch a lizard. This was harder than it appeared. The lizards were quick and escaped darting fingers. They had more trouble with running feet, and could be stepped on, but invariably broke in the process. Lizards could be pieced back together, but they did not move any more and fell apart when I let go. I gathered a double handful of glass reptile fragments that cast complex patterns of light on the sand at my feet, then dropped them and went in to lunch.

I gathered quickly that the rhythm of an autumn beach visit was rather different from a summer one. Not only was I alone with my parents, away from the large extended families of the camp, but I was mostly alone by myself during the day while my parents stayed inside together. My parents were always an affectionate couple, but at the autumn beach they seemed closer still, touching and sharing glances that did not seem to include me. From time to time I would cajole them into going outside and we would run together and play tag games, but most of the time I had the beach to myself. Sometimes I felt them watching me as I stood on that sandy plain.

The aloneness was disturbing, but also novel. I was accustomed to sharing the forest clearings and underground halls with dozens of other children. Farther out the forest was vast and empty, I knew, but my anklet would not let me go that far away. Only last week my tutor had explained that being alone was not always bad, that it had power: he had told me stories of boys who ventured out alone and discovered new sights, composed new songs, found new treasures. I was too young to connect this more than dimly with the subsequent departure for the beach, but I made the most of my new-found state and played games of exploration and discovery on the quiet beach.

It was on the afternoon of the third day that, to my own surprise, I managed to catch a lizard. I was still making attempts almost as often as I saw one, which was very often, but only this time did I find myself with a squirming glass lizard in my hand. I held it just behind the neck and examined it more closely. It was hard and shiny and felt exactly like glass except for its motion. Inside, it was absolutely clear and refracted the sand below and reflected the sky above. In a moment of boyish cruelty I remembered seeing a mundane lizard drop its tail when attacked by a cat, and gave the glass lizard’s tail a yank to see if it would pop off and writhe. It stayed put, and the enraged lizard twisted free and sank its teeth into the flesh of my palm.

For a moment I merely stared at the lizard’s tiny jaws and at my blood leaking out over them. Then I felt the pain overcome my surprise, and with a convulsion of my arm flung the lizard down onto the sand where it lay, stunned, with red now swirling inside it like ink in water. Then it darted away and was lost. More red drops fell where it had lain. I cried with the pain and shock, but decided guiltily against telling my parents: I had a feeling that I had done something wrong. I washed the wound in sea water and wrapped paperweed around my hand as the older children had shown me once; the wound soon stopped bleeding. I said nothing of the incident at dinner, but my parents noticed the bandage on my hand and exchanged mysterious glances. I was ashamed, but wasn’t sure why.

That night I lay in my tiny room at the top of the hut and looked out through the skylight at the stars. I counted six meteors before falling asleep, and dreamed that I gave a ruby ring to a girl, before a sharp tapping on the skylight awoke me. It was a lizard, the same lizard, still swirling with my blood in the starlight. Its clawpoints and long tail wriggled and clicked against the glass over me. Without knowing why I did so, I slowly opened the skylight until the lizard slid down the pane and fell onto the bed. I was more than half asleep and thought the lizard to be one of the shadowy things from my dreams. It darted a bright red tongue at me, climbed onto the pillow and curled up there. It was bigger than it had been that afternoon, but there was still room for my head on the pillow next to it. I laid my hand on its warm side and stroked it before falling asleep again.

Late during the night I must have awoken for an instant as a sliver of light appeared, the trap-door opened, and a dim shape that smelled of Mother stroked my cheek and gently took the lizard from beside me. I clearly remember that moment, but not the sea of sleep that surrounded it.

In the morning I had forgotten the lizard. Filled with plans for the day’s adventures, I got up, dressed, and climbed down the ladder to breakfast. Five pieces of glass in the shapes of reptilian legs and a head lay unnoticed on the rumpled sheets. Mother and Father sat close together, and they were beaming, they had a secret to tell. I sat down. “Look, Fern,” Mother said, “you’re going to have a baby brother!” and they held up what they cradled in their hands: a glass ball with a slowly waving tail and a tiny pink seahorse rocking inside.