‘Salamander Love’, Petra Kuppers

Illustration © 2019 Cécile Matthey

 [ Salamander, © 2019 Cécile Matthey ] Maria tapped her way across the rock. Her cane’s sensitive tip explored the depth of grey granite cracks, finding anchor points. She levered herself up the half-clear-cut hill. Maria’s breath pushed out and in through her nostrils, full of pine scent and the subtle metal tang of last snow remnants. Thigh muscles clasped hard onto her unsteady joints, tried to keep Maria’s progress upward straight and arrowed.

For the first time in a long time, she was far removed from her usual spheres, the careful circle of scooter travel, wheelchair van, and curb-cut streetscapes. The world extended spiky branches, sharp stone blades. Blood drops fell from her supporting hand, leaving red domes on cold stone.

Out here, there was the tightness of thin air. No one to hold her up, to press her, steady her as she faltered. Where was everybody? Had no one else heard the tsunami warning? Had no one heeded it by heading upward, past the granite, to the far small trees that stabbed fingers into the cold white sky?

Maria continued. Fingers gripped ice cold rocks, hove up, arm muscles trembled. It was too cold for spiders and poisonous snakes, wasn’t it? Were there scorpions around here? A foot rammed heavy onto stone, impact reverberating up a tender spine. Breath. Push. Cane arc.

The small of Maria’s back. Pain flared a blood-red butterfly. Her ears listened back, downward, to the coastal plain. She listened for silence, or the boom of a wave, or the crushing roar of a freight train—any of the ways of the watery end.

She stopped. Ahead of her, cradled by a slight hollow in a boulder’s surface, a creature stared back at her. Salamander. Small, less than the length of her palm. Black skin glistened in the dense light of winter. Highlights of sky blue dots, as if paint dripped onto the animal’s back. Gentle lid tents sheltered protuberant eyes. Small delicate feet anchored, black and blue toes spread wide. One dark bulging red line ran across the creature’s neck.

Maria recognized this red line—a local mutation she had read about on water activists’ blogs, surrounded by much speculation about third genders, new holding nooks and distribution patterns for sticky sperm packets. The news about the mutation had been part of a long article on the erotic dances of salamanders, males offering sperm packets to females, everybody tied up in a ball of salamander lust, shivering in the water as male salamander fanned glandular promises toward receptive membranes. Female salamanders winnowed, carefully nosing sperm packets dropped into mud. Eventually, they were ready to make their choice.

Now, pollution and environmental change were shifting the epigenome. The genetic material developed in contact with the world and created more options for survival, as endocrine disruptors shifted direct hormonal contact. New body pouches appeared in spotted bodies to extend readiness in case of catastrophe. Lonelinesses, no more entwined water wheels. Maria looked for sadness in the salamander’s eyes, this lonely creature, one of a kind, ready to extend a sperm packet into a new kind of eternity.

This salamander—He? She? Them?—fixed dark eyes on Maria. Their calm openness. A shiver ran through spine and electric tail of both living beings.

In that shudder, she remembered a different creature on the edges of water and land. An ancient alligator, huge to her 6-year-old self, staring at her as she sat between her dad’s legs on a kayak in a state park in Florida. She remembered the story of the white trapper who lived alone in a cabin far out in the swamps. Looking into the reptile’s eyes, she had imagined herself developing scales. She grasped her father’s corduroy pants, rough and fissured, and wished for a green carapace to grow over her own brown skin. She had wanted to swim out and gobble up that lonely trapper, swallow hands and feet, thick shoe soles growing tender in her stomach acids. There had been iron in the air, a slow amphibian wink, then a father’s hard slap when Maria tried to lower a small hand into the water.

The roar came. Maria and salamander held their gazes, eyes bright. The salamander addressed her.

Will you swim with me?

Maria blinked.

The wave came quickly. The cane came adrift. Rocks levitated. Dark green pine boughs jetted by, made Maria twist out of the way in shock and fear. The salamander’s toes wrapped around Maria’s finger. There was a pull to the left. There was a cave. She sheltered.

Will you be with me? It is your choice.

Maria listened, searched for breath. The red line pulsed. Synovial fluids in Maria’s knee joints drifted toward the gaps between her femur head and her pelvic bone. The red line opened. Hollows shifted, released, contracted.

She remembered her biology class: spotted salamanders’ gender can only be determined by examining and comparing their cloacae, holes of elimination and reproduction. You need more than one salamander to know, and you need to handle them during breeding season.

Breath. Oil-shimmered surfaces pulled a rainbow apart as the water jumped toward the hill’s brow.

The water was brown now, gritty. Maria’s eyes, scratched, turned inward. The surge ran over the land, crested on the hill, and settled. The salamander’s sky blue shimmered toward her.

Maria decided.

© 2019 Petra Kuppers

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