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The lizard

Zain Saeed | Updated on January 24, 2020 Published on January 23, 2020

Omen: “The lizard appeared for the first time five days after I was told that Abba had stopped breathing in the hospital, and that we would never see him again”   -  ISTOCK.COM

Amma tried everything to rid her life of the lizard.

In the morning, it would appear behind the kitchen stove, beige or pink and full of muscle, and Amma would stifle a scream — I know because I witnessed all of it, six years old and standing in my underwear in the kitchen doorway, asking for eggs — before bringing her fist down on the gas oven and scaring the lizard away. She would then drag the oven forward, duck and squat and slap the floor with her palm.

But the lizard was magic, and would not be found.

I believed it was magic.

Then in the afternoon, every afternoon, it would appear by the big red dustbin. Some days, I would find it and, some days, Amma. Abba could not find it, because he was unable to, because the lizard appeared for the first time five days after I was told that Abba had stopped breathing in the hospital, and that we would never see him again. I no longer remember how I felt about it.

But the lizard: If I found it in the afternoon, while throwing a banana peel in the dustbin, I would look at it, and it would look at me. I swear it would stick its head out from under the pedal that flipped up the lid. It would cock its head. I’d shoo it, but only in whispers. We would look at each other till one of us got bored and retreated to other places.

If Amma found it in the afternoon while depositing chicken bones post-lunch, her reaction would be different from the morning. There would be no scream, no flinch. She’d gently put the plate with the bones on the counter. She would tiptoe around the bin, keeping her eyes locked on the lizard’s tail.

Then, in a movement I admire to this day, a magic I have never seen in anyone since, her arm would appear above her head, already miraculously holding a jharu, and silently, so quietly and yet so quickly, she would bring it down on whatever part of the lizard was visible. Not just once, but several times. Always silent; not even laboured breath escaped Amma in the afternoons. The swish slap of the broom against the tile would make me jump, and then I’d stand there with my hands behind my back, willing my mother to get the lizard. She did not.

I had never before seen her afraid of anything, no insect, not the tiger that charged at her from behind its cage one day at the zoo, when even Abba leapt back with a squeak, a little mouse Abba was, a mouse in front of Amma the giant who stared the tiger down.

I wish I’d had the language to really ask her what was wrong.

****

She bought strong glue, traps, cut up plastic bottles and baited them with live ants and left them for the lizard to find. She held her breath and crouched by the kitchen, peering inside, waiting for the flash of a tail. She placed eggshells in a circle around the dustbin. She took fistfuls of coffee, mixed it with the tobacco from the half-pack of cigarettes that Abba had left behind, left these mounds by the main door, by the kitchen door, on the countertop by the knives.

The coffee would remain untouched, the eggshells would begin to smell, the ants would escape the bottle.

****

We would discuss it while Amma drank her tea later in the evening: Where did the lizard go? There was a wall behind the dustbin, the counter to its right. Where did it go when she lifted up the bin somedays and peered under, ran the jharu along crevices, dusted the hinges, the lid? Where did it go when Amma and I pushed the oven to the side and gritted our teeth against the sound of metal and also in anticipation?

Our speculations ran the gamut of possibilities in the real and the supernatural. I wanted the lizard to be something that turned invisible when Amma was around. I wanted the lizard to be a self-shrinking alien being. Amma shook her head and kept shaking it. She blamed crevices, holes in the ground that Abba had promised to fix but never did. Her faltering eyesight. The distraction of having to look after me because school was out for the summer.

Perhaps there are several lizards, she said, perhaps there are a thousand.

****

One day over tea, (I was drinking juice through a straw) I told her the lizard was probably Abba come back to hide the holes he’d left unmended with his new body. Amma stopped shaking her head but she did not look at me. She put her cup down. How little she moved made me think she had either frozen or was doing what she did in the afternoon episodes with the lizard, the silence, the measured movement. I clenched my teeth waiting for the jharu to appear in her hand. But she stood up, and retreated to her bed in silence.

****

 

That night, the lizard appeared in my bedroom. It was already past the time when I would go to sleep, but that evening I had snuck our little 14-inch TV into my room to watch a wrestling match.

I was lying on my stomach.

It was during a particularly interesting tag team match that I caught, out of the corner of my eye, a flurry of reptilian movement. I turned on the lights and there it was, the lizard, statuesque in front of the TV. I looked at it for a while and it did not look back. It was looking at the screen, of that I was sure. I turned off the lights again and sat on the floor, and I could still see the lizard there, reflected in intermittent bright flashes from the TV.

I carried on watching the wrestling, but my heart was racing. My palms were sweating and my fists: They were clenched. I discovered I was holding my breath, my body tensed up, my periphery lighting up with the slimy back of the lizard. I pictured Amma. I pictured the mounds of wasted coffee in the kitchen. I missed my father and I was worried about my mother and I did not know how I would become the person I wanted to be, whoever that was.

I saw my slippers under the bed. I slowly reached out with my right arm, still breathing very slowly, no sudden movement. I felt the rubber against my palm. Transferring the right slipper to my left hand turned out to be the most difficult part of this process, but I did it.

And then the lizard looked at me. I was still facing the TV but I could feel its eyes scanning my face. I turned, and the eyes were there. Its tongue, the little flicker must’ve been its tongue. I was crying, even though I did not discover it till much later, by which I mean I lifted my left arm and with it the slipper and brought it down in one smooth motion and it hit the ground with a loud thwack and then I left it there, the slipper, right where the lizard had been, and then I touched my face and found that it was wet.

It didn’t have the time to escape, my non-magical lizard.

I continued watching TV.

****

The slipper was of course still there when I woke up the next day. I did not move it.

In the kitchen, I found Amma standing by the stove with her hands on her hips. The stove was not lit.

“Amma?” I said.

She snapped out of it, shook her head. She lit the stove and fried an egg.

She adopted the same position that afternoon, right by the dustbin.

“Did you see it?” I asked her.

She shook her head, and went on with her day.

That evening she upended our whole apartment. She dragged a couch away from the wall and flipped it over so she could examine the bottom with a torch. She squatted by the oven. She opened up all the cabinets in the kitchen and took out the pots and the pans and the spoons and left them on the floor. She flipped over the dustbin, she stomped her foot by the fridge. She returned to the couch and ripped apart the cloth on the underside, shone her torch on the bare wood, the springs, the webs.

But the lizard was not there.

“Check in your room!” She said, and I ran.

I took out the other slipper from under the bed, put it on, then did the same with the slipper that was still in the center of the room. Just as my foot slid snugly inside, as I flinched at the potential for the squish of breaking cartilage from underneath, Amma barged through the door and started upending everything.

I stood where I was until she left the room.

Then I finally looked under my slipper and there was nothing there.

****

Strange bedfellows: “We looked at each other for a few seconds, rooted to the spot. I think we spoke”   -  ISTOCK.COM

 

Where had the lizard gone after watching TV with me? Amma looked for it madly for the next few days. She took out books from the library even though she could barely read, books on reptiles and their habits, their lifespans, how to tell a male lizard from a female. She spoke to our neighbours for the first time in days, she went to the faraway store and bought imported vegetables, air fresheners and fabric softener. She laughed at the TV.

Eventually, in a few days, she stopped squatting by the stove. She stopped standing by the dustbin. She stopped hiding the broom behind her back. She stopped telling me to shush while she checked in the cabinets.

She began answering the phone again. She left me money to get myself a roll from the restaurant downstairs while she went away with her lipstick on to go and meet all her sisters. She bought new bedsheets. She bought new spoons. She bought new plants.

****

I saw the lizard again, once, I’m sure it was the same one, its head peeking out from behind the couch in the living room. We looked at each other for a few seconds, rooted to the spot. I think we spoke.

Then it turned around on the wall, and I saw it dart from behind the sofa, out the balcony door.

I did not go after it, or look for it again.

I did not tell Amma.

Zain Saeed

 

Zain Saeed teaches creative writing and literature at Habib University in Karachi, Pakistan. His debut novel, Little America is slated to be released in August 2020

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Published on January 23, 2020
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