The Salamander

By L.L.W Steward


“I nourish the good and extinguish the bad, purify the gold and consume the rubbish”

-Motto of the Salamander Kings


The boys were playing in Grandma Deeg’s well when they found the salamander. That is, they were playing in the hole that Deeg was shoveling out from under the house by the kitchen door. The town government had forced everybody to work on their old wells; “Prove it up or cap it off.” She’d found the old marker and announced to the town she was “proving up.”She’d been “proving’ on the hole for nearly two years by the time they found the creature; the hole was big enough now that it would hold her and the two boys. I don’t think she worked much on the well except when we were visiting. It was a very good excuse to play together in the dirt. Deeg told me she might grow mushrooms under the house now that she had this fine hole, but, knowing Wyoming winters the way I do, I never once believed this would happen. The hole filled up with water when the river was high from spring runoff and that cut the time they actually spent digging, as the river was high most of May and June.

Her house was in three parts-the original log cabin, the composition board trailer and the big front room her husband had built on before he died. They bought the trailer at the county seat after WWII; the government had hauled it down from farther north where the Japanese people had been imprisoned. It was fit in to the log cabin part. The addition ran south from both structures and doubled the size of the house. The well was at the trailer corner of the house, northeast. Having the plumbing of three different eras and three different constructions was a real challenge. There was a whole ritual about keeping the pipes from breaking-once the ground freezes in early September it doesn’t thaw until early May. This is one of the reasons our part of the family lives three hundred miles to the south. While they were digging they did some work on the plumbing problem; after that, things didn’t freeze up as often. As Deeg says, “If you just keep at it long enough, some good will come of anything.”

The boys thought they had found a baby lizard. It was pale, almost white and thin. When I told them it was a salamander, they were delighted and instantly named it Sally. It seemed a fragile creature, but unafraid, sitting in the cup the older one made out of his hands, stretching its neck above his fingers and looking at me out of its rather large dark eyes. There was intelligence in those eyes, clever lizard intelligence, quick and fierce.

Deeg got the boys a plastic container to keep it in until we could get home and get the old aquarium ready. She kept plastic containers long before anybody recycled them-she kept a lot of things. When I first married her son, and came to visit, I walked into a house that had trails through the things she was keeping. There was a major trail from the front door to the kitchen, with minor branches that went to two big reading chairs, one to the couch, and a thin one to the sewing table. She told me nobody lived there but her and she had only herself to please. When I got to know her better, I heard about how her father had criticized her all her life, particularly for her housekeeping-it was the first time I realized that no matter how old you get, you can still carry your father like a burden on your back. She had kept the house up for her husband, and for her sons after he died, but they were all gone now. Once when we were going on a two week vacation, she offered to take care of our son-we just had one then. When we dropped him off, she had cleaned out the back bedroom for him to stay in, and by the time the second one was born the whole place could be ready in no time if we were coming there for the holidays.

This trip the oldest and I had to go back home early. The salamander belonged by now to the youngest and he didn’t want it to travel back with us in the car. When he

got ready to come home, Deeg found a large cottage cheese container; they put sand from the “well” in the bottom and holes in the lid, and put it in the kid’s backpack with his underwear and socks stuffed around to keep it propped upright. They figured it would live without water the four hours it took to get to the city from North Crossing by bus.

The aquarium at our condoin the city was filled with a combination of sand and dirt. From a book the boys brought home from the library, it became clear to me that salamanders were not “pets”; the book didn’t discuss how to prepare your aquarium or how many mealy worms you should feed it. The boys didn’t notice the lack of useful information. The salamander was an elemental creature of fire, a “mythical miniature dragon-like monster that could live in fire, which it could quench by the chill of its body.” I pointed out they had found it in a “well” that was often full of water in one of the coldest spots in the nation. The youngest said, “See-it’s doing its job. No fire anywhere.”

They got their dad to help and built a pie pan pond and planted spider plants and a couple of corms from the shamrock, put in a big flat rock, and put the salamander in this new world. The aquarium sat on the floor of the breakfast nook, which had a floor-to-ceiling window that looked down on the street three stories below, and out toward the mountains. It got late afternoon sun, and the boys would sit there after school and play with Sally as the sun was going down and sunset filled the sky and condo with a pink light.

Sally built a tunnel under the rock something like the well in which the boys had found her, but to scale. She would come out when she heard them-sometimes she would come out when she heard me. I found her extraversion a little hard to believe, and still think it had to do with our feet shaking the floor when we walked by.

Deeg came to visit and to see how the salamander was doing. She came to visit us a lot, especially when the boys were little. She. would come in and have her things to do and her places to go, errands for the people back home, things to get or sell or fix in the city. Sometimes she would stay a long time and we would settle into a rhythm with her, sometimes she would leave after a few days—“If you leave while people still want you around, they like to see you come back.” We would sit and talk into the night, especially at Christmas time, when we’d be in corners of the house wrapping presents. Just before we went to bed we’d get the boys’ stockings out and put oranges in the toes, and Deeg’s candy especially the clothesline candy. She would make up the candy while I made the mincemeat pies; the recipe for mincemeat came from her side of the family and used venison. The candy would harden to the right consistency, and we’d pour the candy into a tea towel and take it outside to hang on the clothesline to freeze. Last thing we’d bring it in, cut it up and stuff it in the stockings. We would be there, women together, alchemists more than elves, in the secret hours before the dawn. And then, when the boys got up, somehow she would be awake and catch them to say “Christmas gift” before they did, and they would have to give her a walnut or a kiss.

The salamander did not like mealy worms-it ate fresh red lawn worms. The boys would get a big worm and pull it into three or four pieces, a process which they enjoyed. “Oh, Mom, it’s only a worm, with only worm brains.” They would then hold her in one grubby, bloody hand and drop worm bits down her open,snapping mouth. There were no teeth, but a kind of raspy edging around the entire mouth. When it came to me to feed it, I used a knife to chop the worms. The feel of the raspy mouth on my finger was really quite pleasurable; it reminded me for some reason of the boys nursing. All that summer every time it rained we went up and down the sidewalks of the neighborhood with the plastic container and collected worms. I say “we” because when the boys weren’t home, I did it; once their father got up in the middle of the night. “This is the first good rain we’ve had. It’s been dry for a spell and it’s liable to get drier. Better get worms while we can.”

The earthworms lived in the plastic container that Deeg had sent the salamander home in, and we fed them coffee grounds and vegetable scraps. Both the worms and Sally ate lettuce, and Sally ate muskmelon and raspberries. Sally ate raspberries with as much delight and greed as I do. It was during the raspberry discovery that it struck me that I liked the salamander as much as I liked having a cat, and that it had much more personality than the fish, frogs, turtle and other creatures that had inhabited the aquarium at one point or another.

I was beginning to worry about what we would feed it when it got to be winter-how long can you keep up a worm farm in a house? Then one morning Sally disappeared. At first we thought it had escaped, although this was highly improbable even for this remarkable creature. Then my younger son put the hole under the rock together with what he was learning about bears and the fact that it was fall and announced that the salamander was hibernating. We looked in the hole under the rock, and she was there. I thought maybe she had died, as gracefully as she lived. The boys wouldn’t have it. The salamander was hibernating and that was all there was to it. I spread the worm farm out in the aquarium and watered the whole thing when I watered the plants, keeping all the soil moist. The plants grew and grew, and by spring the aquarium hosted a regular forest. It was interesting to think about the plants from a salamander’s perspective-the spider plant as a giant fern, and the shamrocks as tall palm trees.

By my youngest’s birthday, in May, the salamander was out on the rock again. If it had been thin before, it was a shadow now. The boys dug in the aquarium for a worm and fed it bit by bit to that hungry, snapping mouth. They were ecstatic; not even the dog could hibernate. Everybody came to see the wonder of the pet that could actually go to sleep for five months and then come alive in the spring. Death and rebirth. It’s the cycle of life that children are supposed to be learning when they have pets, but in this case that natural process was more like reincarnation. Every year Sally would die and every year she would be reborn.

We needed to have such a thing of hope in the house. The second year Sally woke up in May, my husband-Deeg’s son, the boys’ father-was diagnosed with a brain tumor. The doctors had just found it out, the reason why this man was falling over in the middle of a step, why his personality was steadily more depressed and bitter. The operation was scheduled for June. Deeg came down but this time she didn’t stay with us. I had moved out of the condo in February and told my husband he had until March to get out until he got himself straightened around. That’s why he went to the doctor, I think; once he moved out he still fell down, he was still depressed-contrary to what he had been saying, it became clear that his family wasn’t causing it. At any rate, it didn’t seem right that Deeg stay with me when I wasn’t living with her son, so she stayed with some friends. The tumor operation was a success from the brain surgeon’s point of view; the stroke was a complication, better than dying which was his other choice. And even though, at first, he couldn’t speak or move, we could see the man alive in the body, in his forced hibernation.

Deeg took the daytime shift at the hospital and I took the night. She’d call me at work when something wasn’t going right and I would hassle the doctors or the nurses until wegot it fixed. It took a written order from the brain surgeon to get them to leave the radio on KCLA, the classical station. The nurses and room help kept turning it to country western or rock n’ roll. We knew he wanted it left on KCLA and that he wanted it on at night, to help orient himself when it was dark and neither of us were there.

Deeg and I were very careful with each other, she motivated by her love for her broken son and me by my struggle —will I go back into this marriage? Who was I remarrying?

I would sit there in the darkened room and think about this while he was sleeping. When I went to visit first thing in the morning, watching the sunrise, I would feel hopeful: Deeg would come and I’d go to work. But late at night, driving home, still needing to get prepared for the next day’s work, I wouldn’t feel so positive. Different nurses would tell me that they liked the classical music, and some were taking their breaks in the room now. “I feel better after I’m in there for a time. No wonder he wants it on.”

I knew Deeg would take care of him if I went ahead and divorced him. But I had said those words “…in sickness and in health.”It came to me that it was my own honor that was at stake. It had nothing to do with love. He couldn’t help what he had become-it had been the tumor speaking in him. And the man in the hospital was a fighter, as stubborn and proud as the man I’d married. I decided I would go ahead; perhaps I could learn to love him again.

By the time Sally went to sleep in the fall he was out of hospital in a wheelchair. I checked into having an elevator installed either inside or outside of our condo but it cost thousands. So I rented the condo to two artists and we rented a three-room apartment and tried living together. The hospital worked with more than the patient’s body-we all did family therapy, learning what to do and what not to do. “Pick up what he drops for him and make him an invalid for life. If you can’t stand to see him struggle, leave the room.” Deeg and the boys went to these therapy sessions too, and we talked about the anger and the grief we felt. It was hard on Deeg to know how angry we were. First he’d gotten so bad that the love we felt for him was dead; now we needed to learn to love him again.

We carefully negotiated a new marriage and a new family. It was tough on the oldest who was in high school now, and who needed a lot the family couldn’t provide. He went to live with his uncle, Deeg’s youngest son. Our younger son retreated, read a lot when he was home, spent a lot of time at friends’ houses. Their father learned to get up from the wheelchair and move around the tiny apartment on his feet. One day he said to me, “If I can’t hunt, if I can’t crawl through the sagebrush or chase a deer down the mountain, then who am I?” I didn’t have any answers for this question-it wasn’t mine to answer.

That winter Deeg moved to Arizona-she was tired of living in a place “as cold as witch’s tits.” About the time that Sally went to sleep, Deeg moved down and lived her new life in the south. About the time Sally woke up, Deeg came back and things went on as usual. The well was all finished now and she did other things with her time, primarily genealogy. She came to see us a lot and we still sat up late at night talking. One night I was helping her write up some little histories about the various branches of the family. I learned something that scared me to my bones.

Deeg’s husband had died of a wasting disease, and his father of stroke at about the age my husband’s occurred. That much was common knowledge. But Deeg had discovered that her great grandfather had died of a wasting disease, and his father of a stroke at the same age as the others, and his father of a wasting disease. No one had ever put this pattern together before we sat looking at my computer screen with its notes of the unconscious destroyer of five generations. And that was only to the end of our memory how many generations before that? I called my sons in and showed them the screen. They seemed unconcerned. I pointed out that AIDS is the wasting disease of their generation. And I said that their father had not died, this time, but had lived and would see them raised. He had broken the cycle, I said, but be careful; hold any secrets that you find to the light, and give no quarter to the insidious patterns.

That spring, when Sally came out, we were living in a little house we had bought over by the university. It had belonged to a great grandmother on my side named Havens. In August, Sally stopped eating. The worm would start to go down, and then Sally would throw it up, almost like it gagged her. We got smaller worms, but it made no difference. We tried muskmelon and raspberries with no luck. When it wouldn’t eat raspberries we knew it was sick. I called the vet. He said he had never had a call about a salamander before-he didn’t know what to recommend. They must teach them how to keep a serious tone to their voice in vet school.

After two weeks of this, the salamander just laid on the rock and barely moved. The boys were beside themselves. What could we do? Nothing, I said. Sally was dying. We had to accept this. They would not. We had to do something. Maybe she was tired of us, maybe she needed a change. Deeg was going to Arizona now in the winter after all the years in the cold. We needed to take Sally to Arizona. Or the other direction, back to Grandma’s “well.” I suggested the park by our house, where there was a pond north of the skating lake, right by the firehouse. Right by a firehouse was a very appropriate place for a salamander. It appealed to them.

We got the plastic container and put her in it with some of the small worms and drove to the park. I took a picnic-it seemed like it needed to be a party. We found the perfect place on the edge of the pond, in reeds, with rocks to keep cats and geese and other predators away. The boys put her down, full of hope that she would like it there and get better. I touched her forehead, looked once more in those huge eyes and said “Goodbye.” When we finished the picnic we looked for her in the reeds, but she was gone.

The following summer the oldest pulled it all together, graduated from high school, and found a way to go to college. The younger boy got good grades, ran with a pack of boys that we really liked, stayed up late and burned his teen-age years from each end of the candle. My husband and I began to sing in the choir of the church near the new house, and he told stories to the Sunday School. He could walk with a cane, except in the winter —

Pets are supposed to teach life lessons to children. The boys wanted to believe that Sally got better in her new environment. Deeg was happy in Arizona. In our hearts she lives still, sleeping through the winters and coming out in the spring, gulping worms she finds for herself now. Our practical minds know something else, but I am not sure that reality is useful to anyone, least of all the salamander. Perhaps I will set it aside, and believe, like the boys, that she lives on, constantly reincarnating. And that Deeg will live forever and never leave me alone some spring, with only trails of memories that lead to her and all she was to us.

With thanks to Chris Hoffman for his dream of The Salamander.