Dead Lizard 2020

We’re all cooped up together, isolated.

The COVID-19 quarantine is long enough underway that people are becoming more crazy, backlashing against safety, demanding that the economy “restart.” People are wasting time in grandiose gestures of  futility, in tiny mundane surrenders. The microbes are among us.

I’m spending time in the yard, a luxury of being able to take phone calls while pulling weeds, kicking at tufts of rotted leaves left from the autumn. I envision the yard in an “optimal” state, like the meticulously manicured gardens we saw in Japan. I envision it in another “optimal” state, overrun with verdant tendrils and complete luxurious chaos.

The neighborhood kids run in a pack, mostly three houses worth, with assorted cameos from visitors — fewer of those in the pandemic. I enjoy hearing them laugh while I pick at my tiny square of property, remembering what it was like to be that age. I like watching their pecking order and their reckless abandon and squealing. A few of them helped me learn how to fly my drone once. They’re nice kids.

They also do the same dumb shit I used to do when I was that age — a little reckless with BB guns, probably a secret stash of fireworks somewhere, experiments with nature.

The other day, I saw that one had hopped the chain link fence and was walking around in our back yard. I went out to investigate this heinous trespassing, and discovered that he had captured a tiny bird in the kind of small animal trap designed for catching feral cats (or possums or ferrets or whatever else you might be hunting, I guess).

He said he had been able to scoop up the bird because it had an injured wing, and I wished him well with whatever he planned to do with it. Kids and their parents can figure out what to do with an injured bird without the neighbor offering advice. And what do I know about bird wings? The last thing I wanted to do was to suggest a veterinarian and have the parents overrule that merciful suggestion because of quarantine or money.

The next day, I saw the kids and asked after the bird, and they said that they let it go. It hadn’t been all that injured anyway. We both shrugged. Nature. Whadda’ ya’ gonna’ do?

A day after that, I saw a small, similar looking bird become startled by my appearance in the back yard and attempt to take flight. It smacked into the side of the garden shed. Dazed by this miscalculation, it then did make a second effort and landing on a tree branch. I wondered if it was the same bird, slowly recovering from whatever allowed the kids to catch it.

Today, I saw two other similar looking birds, both grounded, both struggling to fly, and the story I’ve now told myself is that our backyard is home to some baby birds that are, in the immoral words of Tom Petty, learning to fly.

It was in this bucolic mindset that I looked across the fence and saw the neighborhood kids drowning lizards.

Before I elaborate, allow me a brief disquisition on our neighborhood lizards.

We think they are Carolina Anoles (anolis carolinensis), often called confused with chameleons because they do seem to change color. They are a beloved sign of spring, and we notice them when they are small and translucent (you can see their organs inside them) and we honor their dinosaur ancestors when we see them fully grown, usually basking in the sun, slowly inflating a bright red fan of skin under their chins. They are wonders of nature — windows into the past, and mosquito-eating friends of our neighborhood ecosystem.

That said, I was recently in the back yard putting around with my various decomposing piles and doing a bit of digging. I overheard the neighborhood kids doing their usual squealing and one of them kept saying, “Oh, the humanity!” And while I was wondering about what form of media content brought them in contact with some twice-removed cultural reference to the Hindenberg tragedy, and whether these children would ever learn about that actual historic event, I overheard one talk about killing something. So I wandered a bit closer to the fenceline.

Three or four children were staring into some kind of plastic container, while the one on the swing explained that death was the penalty for trying to escape. I then realized that they had captured a lizard and were trying to drown it in some kind of weird ritual of childhood experimentation and boundary-setting.

It was partly amazing to witness something so intimate, since my childhood memories of killing a lizard by throwing it in a fire ant bed remain vivid proof of my own potential for blurring curiosity into cruelty. But it was also amazing to see the extent to which the child on the swing had become the lizard’s judge, pronouncing the capital sentence, while the other children were slated to carry out the deed.

As she yelled at them to “hurry up and kill it” and urged them not to “let it get away,” I could see that some of the kids were uncomfortable with being instructed to kill the living creature that was no doubt scrambling to get out of the water. And in that moment, all of the social baggage of our American capital punishment system came crashing into the sunlight spring day — the way that we subjugate the world around us, the way we solidify our pecking order through obedience and obliteration, the way we absorb these lessons about our capacities to kill or heal from our earliest unsupervised adventures.


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