Pangolin

I was only a slip of a thing when Uncle told me what would likely oc­cur. Doesn’t mat­ter a piff, you’re for it,” he ex­plained. One minute you’re wheez­ing on the ant crawl, mind­ing your own hooter, the next you’re at the bot­tom of an enamel pot, wait­ing for the big sim­mer. Some lip-glosssed wench clank­ing a glass of red, ready to guz­zle you down, hemmed in by kitschy neon. On and on about whole­sale gloom, cold meta­physics, the broader con­cep­tion of na­ture, the tragedy of hubris. Really, he was­n’t mak­ing much sense at all. Awful.

I won­dered if aw­ful it­self stemmed from of­fal. Non-muscular bits of the car­casses of beef and veal, mut­ton, lamb, and pig meat. The place smelled aw­ful, etc. Brains and blood sea­soned with crushed gar­lic, chopped pars­ley and sautéed cubes of ba­con, left to con­geal be­fore be­ing fried in un­ren­dered lard. But the old English was awe’ — and then full’ — im­ply­ing facets of magic. Your mother van­ished in a sim­i­lar way”, Uncle said. Poor eye­sight mak­ing it eas­ier for them. Straight into the belly with the Jack Pyke. This is why we shit on their for­tunes any way we can,” he sobbed. No sooner said, he was va­moose too.

The gush of the wa­ter­fall was deaf­en­ing when I was snatched, a day later. Frozen for a good while, but ris­ing tem­per­a­tures, the park’s ar­ti­fi­cial ir­ri­ga­tion sys­tem, and the old fa­mil­iar din had re­turned. I was grabbed, smashed, punched, squished into a linen sack. Only a small slit for the air to curve through. What was the last thing I saw? A ma­jes­tic but­ter­fly rest­ing her mid-drift on a bunch of bronze chrysan­the­mums. Or one last gaze at day­time sky; pale as yo­gurt. Thoughts re­turn­ing to those pre­cious few months in our nest­ing bur­row, Mama rolling, me hitch­ing a ride on the base of her tail, rum­mag­ing for ter­mites.

My ab­duc­tor was ag­i­tated, mean. Pounded, wal­loped, roared, thumped. Screamed re­volt­ing things, swore. You’re for it. Fuck you. Scum!” The wheels of the mo­tor­bike catch­ing the dry gravel on the ground, mak­ing us skid. I had never moved so fast in all my life. The mo­tion made me puke in my mouth. Screech and I smash your brains,” he said. There are no con­spir­a­cies in na­ture. You must un­der­stand, they think you’re a sta­tus sym­bol,” Uuncle told me. You cure rheuma­tism, al­legedly, rid skin dis­eases, evap­o­rate ul­cers, heal wounds, ban­ish can­cer, ease back pain, im­po­tence or palsy.” Eye of newt, toe of frog. Those scales alone are worth more than $2,700 a piece, think about that!” They want, these bas­tards, and crave and de­sire. Not just you, every puls­ing thing. The whole of what’s out there, be­yond what we can ever see.” Where are the bull­frogs? Who owns the night? How about baby deers? All those quails wad­dling along? A myr­iad of eggs siz­zling in a bil­lion steel pans. Ignorance: in­escapable, be­comes in­evitable. Uncle taught me about the el­e­va­tion of un­sup­ported thoughts. Egoism of per­sonal tastes. He spe­cialised in all mat­ters philo­soph­i­cal, which he said helps pre­serves iden­tity and con­ti­nu­ity in the midst of tur­moil. No other an­i­mal con­sciously de­stroys the very en­vi­ron­ment its sur­vival de­pends up­onit is de­pen­dent on for sur­vival”.

There are many hor­ri­ble sto­ries from the time be­fore I was what I am. Some are prone to evap­o­rat­ing into his­tory com­pletely. Like the woman who got her chil­dren onto the train at the last minute. She fol­lowed in a mo­tor car at dread­ful speed, to wave to them again at the next sta­tion one fi­nal time, be­fore she dis­ap­peared for good. Courage and in­ge­nu­ity, tiny dis­en­tan­gle­ments of love. Or the man who said, I have to go, look af­ter my toma­toes.” He knew what was go­ing to hap­pen! But he had taken great care to nur­ture the plants. Months and months of slow preen­ing time. His en­dur­ing hope was that they would by some means sur­vive and bring fresh fleet­ing joy to the rav­en­ous mouth of the world.

I’ve had sev­eral lives and un­der­stand eight lan­guages. I made con­sid­er­able con­tri­bu­tions in some. I used to be a sci­en­tist, for in­stance. The one who said bac­te­ria is re­spon­si­ble for body odour. I also iden­ti­fied the phe­nom­ena of wet burp­ing, belch­ing caused by mi­cro­grav­ity from as­tro­nauts drink­ing Coca Cola in space. But back in the bleak­est of days, when six hun­dred at a time were stripped naked; arms smudg­ing out of barred win­dows; no wa­ter or even piss to drink; wait­ing to be trooped into the most un­fath­omable lean-to on earth; to walk straight into it, un­think­ingly; I was help­less for the first and last time. They cried and pleaded. They wailed and then they were sub­merged in the de­spair of a com­mu­nal howl. And when the guards opened the doors, the stench was a golden snake wrap­ping its noose around nos­trils miles away.

I could barely keep my eyes open when we ar­rived at the vil­lage well past mid­night, when I would nor­mally be snooz­ing in the hol­lows. I was rav­en­ous but afraid there’d be no in­sects to be had. Or worse, the left­overs from the plates of squalid sol­diers or rick­ety farm­ers. Out of the sack, my back end was be­ing pulled around in cir­cles. Many hands, slowly, and nu­mer­ous smells. Such ex­cru­ci­at­ing noise. A lot of ex­cite­ment. Me and count­less oth­ers. We did­n’t dare look at one an­other. I did not want to hap­pen to me what had hap­pened to so many be­fore. On the point of suf­fo­ca­tion, mak­ing a bolt for free­dom just to be cap­tured again. Bagged and taken to a hut, and re­peat­edly hit with a ma­chete un­til mo­tion­less and bleed­ing. Then, for so-called util­i­tar­ian or greater rea­sons I could never find great or com­pre­hend, thrown — still alive — into a caul­dron of boil­ing wa­ter.

A small boy laughs loud when he crouches down to look at my face. I smile back at him. Stare with my rus­set eye. It makes us friends. Mama’s words, Your ar­mour is in­valu­able, not even a tiger can pierce it.” Mama who wor­shipped me with the good­ness of rain. When trees turned to jelly, she stopped me slip­ping. When poach­ers roamed, she rolled over to hide me. Now there are new tac­tics. Fishing boats and blue bags. Wiggle or die. Cowboy boots, with di­a­mond pat­tern. Belts, a di­a­mond pat­tern. Wallets, in di­a­mond pat­tern. Medicine of mys­tics poured over heads and in­side the saggy womb of a crin­kled crone who did­n’t stop stuff­ing her face with salted fish when her hus­band left; her fat lit­tle girl dy­ing of a swollen brain. We’re also used as dec­o­ra­tions for rit­u­als and jew­ellery.

There is blood on the soil. On top of the blood spat­ters there are in­sects slurp­ing the blood. Maggots squirm on the juices of tur­tles and crus­taceans that once climbed over each other in boxes. The man is ar­gu­ing for my price with an­other man who is ar­gu­ing with a woman for a higher price. She is ar­gu­ing on the phone with a seller else­where, for the great­est price. Uncle was right: Adrenalin is a sur­feit of greed. Mother suf­fered from ter­ri­ble fore­bod­ing around all of this, which is why Uncle pulled me from her as much as he could. All her re­la­tions had dis­ap­peared with­out trace. Robbed, bru­talised. Some shot, oth­ers clubbed to death. They say the body re­mem­bers. It’s in the cells, gets passed on. This way the suf­fer­ing is never for­got­ten but it also never stops. Fireflies are the torch-bear­ers here. Two cocks fight it out on the porch un­til their hour ar­rives. Other an­i­mals off in the dis­tance scream to the mer­cies of gas jets now that their turn has come. You must make your­self use­ful, even bet­ter to con­fuse them,” Uncle ad­vised. Every time they find a new use — crys­tal meth pro­duc­ers cut their prod­uct with our scales — the price goes up and the guar­an­tee of a ghastly death is as cer­tain as boats on an is­land’s hori­zon.

Sometimes a soul gets lucky. Last time I worked in the shit­house, in­doors away from ob­vi­ous dan­gers. Each night, me and my com­rades raked the boil­ing shit out with our bare hands into buck­ets, to take to the cesspits soaked and thronged with moun­tains of swel­ter­ing fresh shit that if you fell in you were dead in min­utes and no-one could even at­tempt to pull you out or save you. Twenty to thirty thou­sand shits a day and most of that shit was liq­ue­fied, pulped and dis­eased. Very few hard or di­gested lumps, the colour of American mus­tard. Entire con­stel­la­tions of shit, kalei­do­scopes of shit. Some poured the shit straight from red bowls they ate from and kept tied to their bod­ies all day. When there was cause for com­mo­tion, when whis­tles blew, thou­sands would pile into the hut to shit. Shoving ar­ses from the shared holes to aim their own shit be­fore it squirted down legs and got them shot for be­ing a filthy de­mon drown­ing in shit. Small chil­dren were too un­steady and fell into the shit and died there. Before a per­son could fin­ish, some­one else would push them off. We never talked about work, how bad it was. We felt too grate­ful to be alive.

There are only a few home­steads here, the main one a crooked house on stilts. Nothing but empty fields drawn in weather out front. The lit­tle boy wants to cud­dle me but the man says, Don’t put your mouth any­where near his, this is a filthy beast,” and Don’t squeeze it too tight, he’s full of stink.” The boy is proud to hold me sunny side up, my yel­low­ish brown belly in full view. Some of them clap. I wish Uncle was here be­ing held up too. That way we could go wher­ever we were des­tined to go to­gether, not alone. Everything is clos­ing down, slow­ing. The air feels hot. I am mor­tally stressed and even more ten­sion rises like bees in­side my blood. I can­not think straight. I can barely move. I’m afraid to move. Lines of danc­ing hens mock me un­der wan­ing moon­light. Curl into a ball. Men smoke long pipes, and laugh, bal­anc­ing their sinewy bod­ies on dry piles of kin­dling.

Love is an­timi­cro­bial. I curl my­self into an even tighter sphere. I want to win the heart of this boy. He is not as vi­cious as the rest. Can he stay with me, papa, please?” He pleads with the man who is busy bar­ter­ing and shout­ing into his phone. The man is rough­ened by life. He strikes the boy hard across the face. The woman is hor­ri­fied. No! Do not do that. Never do that to him!” The boy wins. He gets to keep me for one night if I re­main in­side the box with twelve holes. No lid off. I am not al­lowed out. The boy imag­ines we are twins. This is rea­son­able in his mind; he is lonely. Maybe he has out­grown his mother as I once did. He tells me he has an older sis­ter who is un­well. She burns with a fever and sleeps for over a week. That is why you are here. You are go­ing to make her well again.” He likes that I roll into a ball. He laughs when I blink. If I keep curl­ing he will see how ter­ri­bly thirsty I am. He will give me wa­ter and keep me safe.

Uncle drilled it into me: if you get to the mar­ket, and you will know you are there as sure as a fire­man knows a house is on fire, push your way up in­side the cage to the far­thest cor­ner. Pad your way over what­ever and who­ever to get there. Keep an eye out. Wait for your mo­ment. It may not save your life but it will de­stroy theirs. Eighty mil­lion years of evo­lu­tion and a bul­let-proof back will mean noth­ing when you’re in­side that red glare. Furious frogs, cry­ing chick­ens, yap­ping dogs. A whole heap of re­volt­ing panic. It will be im­pos­si­ble to con­cen­trate. There’s nowhere on earth like it. Greasy snakes are not your friends. Neither are the beavers, bad­gers, or the civet cats. Same for the foxes, the pea­cocks, those stu­pid por­cu­pines who do noth­ing but fail to re­act, they don’t mat­ter a jiff. Look for the bat, he is your friend. For all his faults he is re­spected. The one who knows what to do. Grief is every­where. Mother cows have their calves ripped from them be­fore wean­ing; wails and dis­tress lev­els mea­sured through the cor­ti­sol in their bod­ies. The low­lands of the world are on fire with mis­ery. Heart dis­ease, di­a­betes, kid­ney fail­ure.

Instead I am here in what is a very pretty mis­shapen house, with many trin­kets and fig­urines and strange but beau­ti­ful scents. There is a bas­ket of freshly baked stinkbugs, wrapped in fluffy pas­try. Bamboo shoots, all kinds of spices. Jugs of fer­mented milk, can­died hawthorn berries. Bright green drinks with an inch of blue float­ing down the bot­tom. Perfumes. Rolls of colour­ful fab­ric. Papier-mâché in glass. Barrels of home­brew and plas­tic vats of wa­ter I would be de­lighted to stick my long neck into and drink for a month.

The boy takes me into the bed­room to show me his sis­ter who is a good bit older. She is laid out on a metal bed with­out any clothes or cov­ers. There is a drench of malaise. Smell of al­monds from her skin. I would very much like to help her. She sleeps too long!” he tells me. The cur­tains are an ac­cor­dian for the breezes to waft through in fat smacks, bring­ing with them slabs of much-needed sun­shine. She is very beau­ti­ful, this girl, deep in stu­por. I twist and roll and make lit­tle noises. The boy stares through the round cav­i­ties punched into the box with a pen. Pacifying squeaks al­low the boy to risk tak­ing off the lid. He rolls with me on the rug. He re­ally does have a lovely face. You fun!” he says. But you are slow.” I re­main very scared. I am not much fun when re­lent­lessly stressed. It can take an in­or­di­nate amount of time to calm the rushes in­side of me, to loosen the bloods.

I use my claws and semi-pre­hen­siles to show the boy how I climb. Up the bed frame in tip top time. It is the same prin­ci­pal with trees. I can even climb trees with no branches, stroll up the trunk like it’s no ef­fort at all. The boy’s sis­ter, her legs are drip­ping with per­spi­ra­tion, and salt. There is a ten­dency to be­lit­tle salt, but it is im­por­tant for the elec­trolytes in the body. It helps with fluid bal­ance, nerve trans­mis­sion and, of course, mus­cle func­tion. I am so thirsty. I think of my beloved wa­ter­fall. The spray all around it is ridicu­lous. You can drink up through the ends of your feet, not us­ing your mouth at all.

When I was a sci­en­tist, it was a real thrill to dis­cover that some­thing so in­nocu­ous could help with some­thing quite se­ri­ous. Like the way an­ti­his­t­a­mines pos­i­tively help in the treat­ment of schiz­o­phre­nia. Chlorpromazine had a very clear calm­ing ef­fect with­out se­dat­ing pa­tients, al­low­ing them to live a nearly nor­mal life. A drug that was only meant to halt a runny nose! Science is ha­bit­u­ally ac­ci­den­tal, that’s the thing. The stick­i­ness on my tongue can help re­move the fever from her body. I am sick of wor­ry­ing about what Uncle wants me to do — the in­struc­tions he gave me. Call it blind al­tru­ism, but I don’t be­lieve every hu­man be­ing is evil. Yet I feel such sore­ness with­out him, de­void of his thoughts.

The boy films on his iPhone. I wig­gle up around her knees, push­ing into the in­sides of her skinny legs. I lick the ten hours of thirst in get­ting here. I lick like it’ll be my last. I lick and I lick and I suck and I wob­ble and I lick. My tongue goes in all the way, al­beit with a bit of ef­fort. The boy is in­con­solable with fits of tit­ters and chuck­les. I am in be­tween her legs and there is a lot of mois­ture to be get­ting on with. He runs out to show his fa­ther whose head will prob­a­bly ex­plode. I am truly sick of all the vi­o­lence in the world. Last year the gov­ern­ment of Cameroon burned eight tonnes of con­fis­cated scales, which works out at around fif­teen thou­sand mur­dered an­i­mals like me. My brain can’t even take that in.

The hor­ri­ble man on the mo­tor­bike, he will make some droll com­ment about mak­ing more money this way. Setting up a cam­era in the bed­room, giv­ing freaks what they need. The film he made with the eels in be­tween the girl’s legs, reaped enough to live on for a year. I can­not stop lick­ing the girl. She tastes won­der­ful. The woman will weep and shout, blam­ing her­self for the lengths they had to go to sur­vive out here where the forests have been torn down to make chem­i­cals for food. The boy is get­ting a se­vere beat­ing now. There is a lot of blood. Villagers pile around to see what all the fuss is about. The clip on his phone, they have seen noth­ing like it. They don’t get how thirsty I am. Also, when I lick deep in­side her, I am re­mov­ing the fever that they gave her. Honestly, I hope next time I’m a snail on a win­dow sill or some­thing just as mo­not­o­nous. It is truly ter­ri­fy­ing be­ing alive.

There was an un­writ­ten rule in the camps:, every­thing was for­given or in­stantly for­got­ten. Men were dri­ven to such hor­ren­dous lows in every­thing they were forced to do and not do. To sur­vive they told them­selves that noth­ing in the af­fairs of men is wor­thy of great anx­i­ety. It is nat­ural for the woman to try to pull the man off the boy, but the man is still hard at it. The boy is al­most dead. I’m sur­prised I feel so lit­tle even though I like the boy. He is kind. And that is a mark of faith. Pangolin is a Malay word, pengguling,’ which means rolling over’. That is ex­actly what I in­tend to do when I’ve drunk enough and can sleep it off with­out hav­ing to think what will hap­pen a few short hours from now.


June Caldwell is a fic­tion writer from Dublin, Ireland. Her short story col­lec­tion Room Little Darker was pub­lished by New Island and Head of Zeus in 2018. Her de­but novel Little Town Moone is forth­com­ing from John Murray.