“Lizard à la Heart” is the opening story in Roberto Ransom’s short story collection Desaparecidos, animales y artistas (Conaculta, 1999), which I’ve translated as “Missing Persons, Animals and Artists.” Ransom is an award-winning Mexican writer whose published work includes novels, short-story collections, poetry, essays as well as children’s literature. The stories in “Missing Persons, Animals and Artists” possess great humanity—in their exploration of character, emotional depth, and universal themes—and deliver an impact akin to Cortázar and Poe. Told in a clean, elegant prose style, they make use of irony and premises that are whimsical, and at times fantastical; their protagonists are elusive animals and artists or other individuals. In the story that follows, for example, the narrator speaks to her pet, a lonely crocodile she keeps locked in her bathroom, imagining it swimming in the tub. Thus begins Ransom’s mysterious and existential tale. —Daniel Shapiro
To the Tuesday friends
This fantastic animal was usually referred to as the “cruell craftie crocodile.”
Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean.
The bathroom hasn’t been open for days. Under the door, as always, it smells like a swamp. The last time I opened it was to throw you two dead chickens: I know that when you’re very hungry, you’ll accept cadavers. The bathroom is another world that’s been transforming from a typical space in houses of this development, located on the second floor along with the bedrooms, shared by the whole family, to your place, which is neither terrarium nor aquarium but both things. The shower has been turned into a bathtub, the tile floor has been covered with gravel and sand, the little window has been enlarged to let in more light. The changes didn’t happen right away. We claimed we were doing it for ourselves. We’d always wanted a bathtub in a spacious bathroom filled with light.
The neighbors have gotten tired of complaining. They know that House 17 smells bad. They like their musk in perfume. You no longer feel offended when I tell you that. Personally, I like your smell, it makes me giddy. Sometimes they hear blows against the wall, as if from a very heavy object. The house is closed to everyone outside. They don’t know that it’s your tail, which you learned to wag, imitating the dog in the house. Then, as could be expected, without a model or playmate, you forgot why tails are wagged—you do it with your whole body—and now, above all, you choose moments of rage or frustration. You want to knock down the walls. The house-paint is peeling, no one has cut the grass, the doorbell doesn’t work. Number 17 lowers the value of the neighborhood. They think I’m a widow accompanied by a dog that sometimes howls at night. They think you’re a dog, can you imagine? An enormous dog sniffing the underwater lamp-posts. The house is a magnet for children; they dare each other to see who can penetrate further from the street into what looks like a vacant lot. They walk through the tall grass as if they were swimming, leaving a wake behind them. Among the bushes and under stones, they find snakes that they toss in their pockets. There are also field-mice and lizards. They hunt them with slingshots and B.B. guns. But they’ve stopped coming since they broke one of the front windows and there was no reaction from either the señora or her dog. That scared them a little and after a while, eliminated any risk—and therefore their interest—in vandalizing.
I don’t have to open the door to know that right now you’re crying. Your smell attracts me. I feel affection for you. You know that, but I shouldn’t come in. I’ll sit here, next to the door, so you can talk to me. I’m also lonely but so what? You’re not going to solve anything by hitting your tail against the wall. You’re no longer a baby. Ay, it’s no longer possible to carry you in a plastic bag!
I used to go with my son to the pet shop near the Saturday Bazaar, alongside Batallón de San Patricio Park. Miguel liked you. I asked him, why not a canary? They’re related, you know. Most of your relatives became extinct 120 million years ago. Nevertheless, just recently, you’d cracked your eggshell open with a beak; and now you made short, sharp barks like a Pekinese. You were incubated in that dark, dusty place, among collections of moths pinned to the walls. The owner was a collector. His fondness for reptiles was obvious. He also had a section of exotic animals and that’s where we found you. You were from the Nile. I found you attractive. You were so small and grotesque. Like a fat, lazy lizard. You looked nightmarish. It didn’t make sense that they’d be putting you in a plastic bag like the ones I used to wrap my son’s sandwiches and, what’s more, immerse you in water. There was nothing fishlike about you. You sank to the bottom as if a bit surprised, rose again, floated, glanced outside, but . . . above all you paddled with your stubby feet and moved vertically through the water and this added to your charm because you looked like a little seahorse. We bought you an aquarium, with colored marbles lining the bottom.
It’s not true that I wanted to kill you. Simply put, when you grew long enough to touch the glass walls, on one side with your snout and the other with your tail, I thought there was no reason to order a larger aquarium, or should I say, crocodilarium. It occurred to me to follow the example of those New York housewives; they didn’t know what to do with the baby alligators that their children had brought from Florida as souvenirs of their December holidays. True, this isn’t New York. But I thought that there must be a network of sewer-pipes beneath the city large enough to keep you happy. I read that you would live a hundred years if nothing extraordinary happened to you (what could be so extraordinary in one of the great African rivers?) and if your existence unfolded in a natural setting (how does one measure what’s natural for a creature that begins its life in a pet shop in San Angel?). I also read that you’d never die of old age. If it weren’t for accidents (someone killing you for your hide), you’d keep growing and would live forever. You’re the closest thing to a god in the natural world. You’ll be chatting with my great-grandchildren about us. Meanwhile, you walk along river-bottoms, where the water is unbreathable and you bump into a hippopotamus who’s doing the same thing. You greet each other on the bottom where you walk. Good morning. Good morning. Upright like the two-legged animals that roamed the earth two hundred million years before the first man appeared. The image seemed so comic, and then so atrocious, that I tossed you into the toilet-bowl and pulled the chain. But everything changes in Africa’s rivers, except you. You appeared in the shower downstairs, in the kitchen sink, in the water-tank. My husband and son were on your side. They placed you in the shower and seemed delighted by your company as they bathed. They assured me that soon we’d bring you to the zoo.
I’d like to see you blind, with opaque, half-closed eyes, almost non-existent, not like they are now, golden and, on the contrary, beautiful. You should have traveled up the current, or let yourself be dragged by it, to grab him by the legs or knock him down with your tail and then, although the water was shallow, drown him. It wasn’t you who killed him, it was the water in your pool. Your rows of conical teeth serve poorly for such tasks. You let the water do what you couldn’t. I should have killed you the way they kill rats, in a cage, submerged in a bucket of water, leaving you there all night, or feeding you small poisoned animals. I imagined that you’d carried my son to the surface and in a grotesque dance, whirled like a top on your tail, holding his body by one of its limbs until you dismembered it. The pieces had to be small enough to fit down your gullet. You carried what remained to an underground cave; you submerged with the torso to the bottom where you imprisoned it under some heavy object. You returned to feed on the cadaver for days, sometimes weeks. . . . In my imagination, you repeated it again and again. One day, as you were weeping, I had a vision. My son was entering a kind of marsh. It was the place where you’d taken him. He would have been eleven or twelve, and he balanced himself in a canoe made from a carved tree-trunk in order to trap snakes with a long forked stick. I watch him perform a strange ritual: he presses the backs of the snakes’ heads against a hard surface and then grabs them behind the jaw. There’s a rope running the length of the stick that ends in a loop in case they manage to escape or he has to trap them in the water. He travels with a silent dog, passing through the swamp. He doesn’t kill the snakes; he puts some in huge canvas bags, extracts the poison from others, keeping their jaws open and stimulating the reflex that makes them surrender their liquid into a previously-labeled vial. Then he releases them in the water or on land in the same place he caught them. The image is starting to fade. I want to communicate with him but he doesn’t hear or see me. It’s as if he existed in another world. He’s my son but he doesn’t know it.
I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to approach me. I know that you want to put your snout in my lap, but I can talk to you from here. Next, you’ll want to put on your goggles to swim underwater.
During one of your nights of weeping, I don’t know how you convinced my son to enter the bathroom. We’d told him not to respond to your call because your behavior made us distrust you. We told Miguel you were like a rabid dog during the hours or numbered days of your desolation. We’d already put him to bed. Your weeping was unbearable and shrill. We decided to deliver you to the zoo the very next day. Your own noise enraged you, injured you, and your howls grew stronger, reaching their climax cyclically at certain hours of the day and night.
You place your head in my lap like a child or husband. My son. Do you want me to call you that? My love. Would you like me to scratch you here, behind your eyes? Do you want me to place a little gold ring in your ear? But don’t cry anymore. And don’t look at me like that. Pleading. You have the eyes of a fish. And you’re growing heavy. Your head a thousand times heavier than your little body when we bought you. We paid a price that seemed extravagant for a pet. My voice consoles you, that’s the only way you’ll stop weeping. Was it because of that you asked me to keep you company? What have you done with my son? With my husband? I’ve entered because of you as well, I admit it, although at first your weeping seemed unbearable: we’d watch a movie with the volume turned up, listen to music, go for a drive although it was four in the morning, just not to hear you. These last few times I’ve awaited your outbursts with longing.
Caring for you, changing the water in your pool, obtaining animals for food . . . it was a routine, I felt like a zoo-keeper. We ignored each other. You dropped your pretension of acting like a pet a long time ago. All that mattered were your moments of delirium. For my husband, with his typical male reasoning, the most important thing was to solve the mystery of our son’s disappearance and to find him. He entered to see if it would be possible to negotiate with you. I’m not reproaching you now. So many times I was about to kill you and trying to find the cruelest way to do it. You heard my reproaches and curses. I’m looking for my husband and my son, I feel their presence and nearness. Sometimes I feel that we’ve been lucky to know you. You’ve brought us to ruin. Do you think you could have brought us to any other end? I know that your pool is bottomless. I see the milky waters, at times your body looks colorless, and this isn’t a bathtub’s usual depth. I know that crocodiles don’t have the strength to open their jaws. A child can hold them closed by the snout. Once open, their power is enormous. Once a crocodile captures its victim, only a miracle would allow it to escape. The moment I want to hold your snout closed, I’ll know that my life is over. I ask this of you. Let it slip through my hands. Take me by the waist and submerge with me.
Award-winning writer Roberto Ransom was born in Mexico City in 1960. He holds tenure at the Autonomous University of Chihuahua and teaches in the Institute of Fine Arts and the School of Humanities. He lives in Chihuahua with his wife and three children. Daniel Shapiro received grants from PEN and the National Endowment for the Arts to translate Roberto Ransom’s Desparecidos, animales y artistas. He is the director of literature at the Americas Society in New York, where he serves as editor of Review: Literature and Arts of the Americas.
Image credit: Savara
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