The Back Blocks

I am walking–the path is a sandy cement and on either side it is banked by grasses so thick and green that they tendril across the way. Lush stacks of grass stems make it impossible to see the mud below, but I can smell it. Mangrove. Behind the grass, dark green trees clamber towards the smoky light. It is a landscape of dreaming. All at once I am always here and have never been here before. The air has a wetness, the heaviness before rain. I know I am somewhere tropical and it presses on my chest like a bad memory. It is always like this.
But I am walking along this path that runs straight ahead into dimness. It doesn't matter where I’m going, though I have some vague notion that there is a train or plane to catch. Or perhaps an exam? I will be late. I am lost. On one side, the trees give way and there is a shadecloth fence tied to bamboo poles that rise and rise into the thick sky. The shadecloth is ragged with many low holes and I notice the grasses are flattened at the breaches. The small, sharp leaved vine that in other places is making this fence into its own trellis is torn aside, almost as if it has been eaten. When I bend low, I can glimpse more grass through the holes, flattened paths winding off and out of sight. I walk on, peering at these holes until there he is on his belly, by the path’s edge. His whole body is lit in a patch of brightness.
And he looks at me with his reptile eyes but he does not move any of his own dark length.
I am panicked, but neither of us moves.
We can’t. We are stalemate, held together by some tight-pulled thread of fear.
I watch him. He regards me.
I take in his size. He is longer than I am, his head a stack of scales and his claws like melted hair combs, but sharper–curved and unkind. His belly is wider than my chest. I am all instinct, all inhalation, knowing his bulk might be more than mine. I see his neck move, soft under his great hard carapace of scales. I stay still.
There is not enough air here.
We are like this for a long time. Regarding one the other. Tiny flies swarm between us and move on. The grass is translucent around his tail, where it folds over itself. He flicks his eyelids. I stand on the path and carefully move my shoulders back. I try to stop the smell of fear that’s running in my sweat.
I look at the pattern of his grey scales. Knotted all over his skin like knitting, like needle point. As if he were a man-made thing. His eyes sum me up. His reptilian mind knows the jungle and the swamp I’ve strayed into. He understands the laws here. I am an outsider, oblivious to my own transgressions.
I can’t turn away. I can’t know that he won’t charge at me, run me down, use those curved claws to carve rivulets into my skin. I wonder if I’ve brought a knife, or if my own teeth or nails could penetrate that dark hide. I know that this is a useless thought and I toss it aside to stay exactly there, where I am. In a moment of doing nothing in which nothing can happen. The place I have always known and yet never been in before.
Further down the path there is movement. I do not look away, but I lengthen my gaze. Something brown-yellow and furred, muzzle down–a dog. She knows about the lizard, perhaps she’s hunting him. The dog comes up the path towards us, hackles raised. Behind her, two smaller swamp dogs, pups following their mother. They are unsure, they lag behind her, nosing the grass.
The monitor swivels its gaze, raises its head and lashes its tail. He seems to have grown in size. His neck puffs out as he turns the bulk of his body side on. The dog stops, much as I did.
There is a pause.
Then, the dog leaps forward, teeth bared, paws splayed. She is a whirling demon of dog, a furious mother-love yellow-brown fuzz of protection. The monitor whips his tail back. And again. The dog leaps–all four paws off the ground.
The lizard decides to retreat.
He lowers himself and charges at me, his body narrow like intention. I skip aside, landing in the warm mud below the grass. He fits himself through one of the holes in the makeshift fence. Gone with a swoop of his crochet tail, as if he was never there. The dog sits and gnaws her own curled tail. Mud oozes over my toes.
Now it is the dog. We eye one another. I wonder what she will do next. I don’t like the cock of her ear. I remember the sharp teeth and how high she can jump. Hackles raise along my own spine.
She saunters past me, slowly, to make the point that she is making a point. Her claws tap the path. And her two youngsters ramble after her. Passing me, they begin a game of jumping and biting one another’s ruffs. They disappear into the trees in a way that suggests they will be back.
I stir myself and step out of the mud. But were the mud has touched me I am no longer there. Somehow I am balancing on a footless body. I leave a trail of dark mangrove mud on the sandy cement as I continue along the path.