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.