By Hannah Christensen
I, C’raisses, admit to a preference towards salamanders. Their soft, moist flesh slides comfortingly down the throat. The skittery pricks of their toe tips on the way down contrasts in sharp beauty.
Alas, salamanders are few and far between. That day I had no such aspirations, bordering rather on despair over even finding a hunting spot stocked with lizards or mouth-sized snakes. Every spot I tried I was met by the sharp banded bodies of kin. I could have fought for a place, but the previous days’ tussle with a clean-toothed snake left me reluctant. The clean-toothed snake was smaller than I was, and I should have come away victorious and full, not hungry and sore.
My search led me ever closer to the haunts of humans. Footsteps shuddered the earth and I coiled myself near the roots of a banana stalk.
“That is too quick,” one voice boomed. “It leaves no time to clear the pests from the bananas. What will the manager say when the stores complain of being overrun?”
“The orders call for speed,” another voice boomed. “The south grove must be cleared and loaded today.”
Thunderous footsteps bore the humans and their voices away.
As a rule I try to avoid humans, but I had learned enough of them to glean a thing or two. “Pests” meant food. Often only a chokingly fuzzy mouse, but food. The word “overrun” sounded promising as well. I slithered my way south. The ground and lower vegetation felt most comfortable, but perhaps high in a banana stalk would be a good path to avoid my fellows.
The stalk I climbed held little more than sharp tasting insects. Good for a snack, but I longed for more.
I snuggled in deep to wait.
Humans came and slashed down my banana stalk. I stayed tightly coiled through the fall and the choppy trip. The place of “overrun” awaited me.
My tongue picked up some salt, then the air became stale—stale and cold. Cold ate down through my scales and leached the sunny warmth from the bananas. My breath slowed and cold clouded my eyes as if the skin was pulling loose for a molt. The temperature kept sinking until I felt my very thoughts begin to freeze.
I know not how much time slipped past before a ray of warmth began to tease my tail. I stretched for the warmth and found I could move again.
The air around me was no longer stale as much as rank. Open air and vivid growth only tinged the heavy odors of bodies and their waste. I flicked my tongue, trying to discern the type of animals living is such a high concentration here.
Something rustled the bananas near me and I leaped into a coil. At first I thought I had come across another snake—bigger and longer and roughly scaled. Then I saw two openings where there should have been a head. I stretched my pupils out, and snapped them down to focus. The anomaly remained. It was not a snake.
“What’s this, a stowaway on my bananas?” The voice rumbled lower and softer-edged than a human’s, and came from above. I tipped my head higher.
A mass of wrinkled skin loomed up, two fleshy leaf appendages at the top. From between them dangled the non-snake.
I hissed a warning.
The long dangling part left the ground and curled neatly above me.
“Here, now, that won’t do. If you insist on leaving your bounded place, at least use good guest manners.”
I tasted the words “bounded place”. They seemed suspiciously close to mockery for not having my own hunting spot.
A gust of air puffed out from the holes at the end of the non-snake.
“You might start with your name.” The creature spoke even more gently.
“Hey, who you talking to, Nose Rope?”
I looked, but this new speaker was out of my view. I flicked my tongue. Similar to tapir. Or maybe pig. I flicked again. Definitely male.
“I was just getting his—” the mountainous creature looked askance at me “—name.”
“Oh, no you don’t. I get to hand out the names,” said the second creature.
Another puff of air came from the long—nose? “Ever since the zebra across the road got into a snit and wouldn’t introduce him to her colt, he’s been like this,” she explained in an undertone. “Please don’t pay it any heed.”
“Hey! Hey, I’m warning you, I need to see the fellow.”
“On the other side, if you let him see you, perhaps he will leave us in peace.” The long nose uncoiled and lay on the ground beside me. “Of your good will.”
I was not so certain of my good will, but did twist around and allow myself to be lifted into the open air.
Riding a—nose—feels less secure than climbing a firm tree or a banana stalk. Once the lift had leveled off in a somewhat stable hight, I flicked my tongue in and out several times to gain my bearings. Almost it made me feel more at ease, but the faintness of dust only belied how far above the soil I hung.
My breathing increased, getting shallower as it sped up, and I feared my nervousness would soon impel me to chewing. While I was unfamiliar with the guest rules, I doubted they smiled upon poisoning one’s host. I spread my pupils wide, twice, before bringing them down into sharp focus toward the smell with the demanding voice.
A ditch separated us from what looked like a hairy wild jungle pig, uglier than usual. Tusks stuck out of his mouth like mismatched bananas and his face looked disease-ridden with lumps. I wondered if this was one of those rare creatures with no predators.
“Hah! I should have called you Snake Nose!”
I felt the giant twin flap of air behind me and wondered if that name was directed at me or my—host.
The pig animal galloped around in a circle. “I’ve got it! Fire Circles!” He braked to a stop in front of us. “Or Tiger Rings.”
I just sat, staring.
“Or no—how about Nose Trimmer!”
How long did I need to listen to this foolishness? I shifted to see if I could spot a path back to the ground.
“Nose Trimmer! Hah! I’m the best namer in the world.” He started running in circles again.
I felt the grumble of my host through my scales.
“I’m sure he already has a name—a much more fitting name.”
“But I named him. And you are Wing Flapper! And you are Squashed Bug! And you are Trampled Root!”
I wondered who he was addressing, but we began to turn away.
The pig animal stopped. “See ya, Nose Trimmer!”
I looked straight back. “And I name you Inedible. Farewell.”
“Inedible.” He tipped his head and worked his snout slowly in and out. “Inedible. You’d better believe I am. No one’s going to touch me with their teeth. Inedible? Is that an insult? Don’t think you can get away with insulting me! The last one who tried…Inedible?”
We continued our circuit away from the puzzling pig creature, and I found myself gently returned to the ground.
“You show cunning. Grounder is not easily distracted.
“Grounder?” I did not feel cunning. I felt hungry.
“Great and Mighty Tusk King is no more his name than Inedible, though he has taken to calling himself that. As my name is not Nose Rope.” She dipped her head. “Mmendba at your service. And you?”
I curled into a snug coil. My host watched me, great flaps angled forward as if waiting. I decided to guess that we were still on the subject of names. “C’raisses, if you please.”
“It is my pleasure to meet you, Koraiziz. Is there anything I can bring you?”
I puzzled over this. Surely my host had the strength to bring anything she wanted to. Why ask me about the possibility? Unless she meant “may” or “should”. Was I supposed to name something particular? Was this a test?
“A leaf, perhaps?” she prompted. “Or some water? Traveling always makes me thirsty.”
“I’m more hungry than thirsty. Thank you.”
Mmendba did not seem to notice the pause before I recalled some pleasantries. “I am sad to say I do not know what a snake of your colors would eat,” she said.
“There wouldn’t happen to be any salamanders around here, I suppose?” When the pause dragged through several heartbeats, I elaborated. “A bit like slimy lizards.”
Mmendba waved her headflaps twice. “I don’t remember humans bringing in any salamanders.”
“Yes. They bring everything in and out. Food, water, droppings…”
“Droppings?” My tongue fluttered. “You want extra droppings?”
“No! They take those out.”
“Humans want extra droppings?” I knew humans were odd, but this made even less sense than they normally did.
“I can’t imagine. I expect they bring them to someone else. Worms, maybe? They supply all sorts around here. I’m just glad to be rid of them.”
I raised myself. “Other animals? Such as salamanders?”
Mmendba twitched her nose. “I suppose there may be. I’ve heart that lizards live in that building.” She pointed, but I could only see the direction from my place on the ground.
“My thanks.” I started heading toward the promised building, starting to feel hopeful. I usually tried to stay out of human structures, but this place seemed crazy enough to hope I could find a tasty meal there instead of panicked human feet.
“Are you leaving so soon? Are you sure you haven’t time to share a little about your part of the world?”
My hearing is not my keenest sense, but even I could hear the yearning in Mmendba’s question.
Carefully I recoiled. “When I left, the steam had lifted into the upper trees, drawing up the forest floor’s damp. It smelled dark and heavy and fusty, no touch of living leaves coming through. No wind blew, so the ground scent remained full and spicy. Dead leaves clung faintly at my scales. Starchy rows of banana stalks stood tall and warm. The fruits clustered hard and stiff, almost sharp at their angles.
“Then salt licked up the other scents and died to a cold, empty staleness.”
The creature gently rocked side to side, humming. I paused, but he seemed content with that, and I slipped away.
I tried to keep in a straight line, but soon ran into complications: humans. They seemed to have a main thoroughfare right in my path. Feet stamped and tromped, ran and strode in my way. Voices echoed in the air—loud and often shrill—until the vibrations made me dizzy.
I could no longer tell which direction I was heading. I needed to find a place to retreat. I broke down into a zig-zag, stretching far with my tongue.
There! I could taste a wisp of cool air. I followed the intermittent drafts. They led me to a hard human-laid wall. Sun-warmth shivered off it, but a long crack along the bottom still leaked a thread of cool.
I nestled up against it, but could not fit through. Footsteps still shook the ground. I decided to see if I could find a bigger crack. I had only slithered a short while when a section of the wall swung open.
I flung myself through the opening, right into a tangle of human feet. Human feet to my left, human feet to my right, human feet beneath me. Now there were wheels! I pushed forward, fighting the urge to thrash and clamp onto something with my mouth. All the feet seemed to trample around me in more and more chaos and speed, but it may have just seemed that way to me because of the rising noise. The vibrations shook me until my bones ached.
Finally I broke free. A dark niche lay to my left. I shot toward it. Undercover, I snuggled in as far back as I could and twisted up small. Slowly the cool dark soothed me. I could listen to frenzied tread in calm. As I relaxed, the traffic seemed to fizzle. Then it was gone.
Leisurely, I stretched out my tongue and explored the air. It tasted dry and—reptilian. I flicked my tongue out again. Yes, reptilian. Lizard and tortoise came through the strongest. Underneath wove a whole array of scaly scents, with just a hint of moisture…Surely this was where Mmendba had spoken of. If I found the source of moisture, I might find the salamanders.
I felt carefully for vibrations a few long minutes to make certain the humans were gone. Then I slipped out.
All about, the ground ran in a hard, cool plain. A few stark posts dotted it near the walls. I looked up. Nearby a tortoise loomed on top of a boulder. I stared. Yes, tortoise. But it was even bigger than a human. I slithered away.
Dim passage after dim passage revealed no life—unless one counted the lizard sitting on that dead branch sticking out of the dead wall. All around the smells persisted, with the scintillating hint of moisture waning and waxing almost imperceptibly.
Finally I climbed a post to seek further clues. What I saw blurred my pupils wide with surprise.
Halfway up the walls were windows running the length of the passage on either side, and behind the windows sat the creatures my tongue kept assuring me lived here: snakes, geckos, turtles, frogs. Oh, joy! Where there was enough water for frogs, there was enough water for salamanders. I slipped down my perch and hurried for the stretch of wall with moist, slippery amphibians.
Finding the salamanders took several tries, but then a bigger obstacle faced me. How was I to reach them?
The wall proved unclimbable. I tried several times, but could not get a grip to lift higher than half my body length. I tried climbing a pole and launching myself at them, but only fell hard on the bruising ground.
Every wall has two sides, I told myself. If I found the other side, surely I would find the way in. I slithered along the wall, looking for a break. The wall felt hungrier the longer I grew. Sss! No, the other way! But by the time I ran nose-to-nose with an ant, I actually considered eating it. I stared at it, trying to convince my mouth that the legs would feel almost beetley and that I was over remembering their sickly-spicy flavor. Before I could convince myself, it scurried away. I moved on, relieved.
Finally I found a crack, but it was too small even for that ant. I dragged on.
Human voices sounded again. Humans! I had dealt with too many already. I slipped behind a tall metal block smelling gently of rancid grease and spoiling fruit to wait for them to pass.
“I’ve counted them all twice. I don’t think he knows what he’s talking about,” one voice grumped.
“The man who told me it was a coral snake recited the little ditty about ‘friend of Jack’ and ‘kill a fellow’ verbatim.” The second voice sounded female. “I doubt he got it mixed up with a king snake.”
“None of our king snakes are missing, either. I checked.”
“Stop complaining and help me look. A whole slew of people complained about one of our snakes running loose. Unless you want to search the whole zoo with a fine-toothed comb—”
“No, I just—”
The footsteps faded. I was debating over whether I was so hungry I didn’t care about humans near enough to come back, or too hungry to move, when I smelled something.
It did not smell especially good. It lay heavy and twisted on my tongue, the smell of manure. What had Mmandba said about droppings? I scraped my way toward he source of smell.
A new doorway stood open, doubtless from the passing of the humans. Inside lay a sack—an entire sack—of waste. The humans did indeed collect it.
What use could they possible have for the stuff. There could only be one answer. Humans didn’t need it. But earthworms did.
Somewhere lay a field of earthworms the humans felt bound to serve. If I could just figure out where, I would have all the food I wanted. My mouth watered.
I knew just what to do. I crawled into the sack and curled tightly in a corner, waiting to be taken to the place overrun with earthworms.