EXCERPT FROM THE LIZARD CAGE
It’s hard to catch a lizard with your bare hands.
Sometimes they are far down the walls, already close. More often he lures them down from the ceiling with live moths, the odd fly. He once used a small preying mantis but that was early on, before he knew better. The mantis was bright new-leaf green, a rare colour in the cage, never to be used as mere bait.
The lizard hunt is a terrible compulsion. Occasionally, disgusted with himself, he has stopped it for long periods.
But it’s like giving up smoking. Starting again is irresistibly attractive.
He has always needed the tiny reptiles. Always, he thinks; then, how pathetic, to talk as if he’d been born here. Even when his food parcel arrives on time, he regularly supplements his diet with lizards. Despite his mother’s generosity, a parcel every two weeks is not enough food, because he shares what hasn’t been already been stolen with Sein Yun. He’s not obliged to give his server food, but it makes his life easier. In exchange, Sein Yun will bring him extras: cheroots and lighters, rags and soap. Some time ago--he can’t remember if it was in his fourth or his fifth year--one of the warders, in gratitude for the extra food, used to bring Teza extraordinary and frivolous things, like real toilet paper, or a cup of warm tea. Some of the men have been as kind as the cage allows. He owes them a lot. Senior Jailer Chit Naing, for example. What would he do without him? Teza is sure that the Chief Warden himself somehow got wind of their friendship. That’s why Chit Naing’s duties no longer include overseeing the teak coffin.
The singer will always be grateful to the Senior Jailer, but when he thinks about it pragmatically, measuring out his allegiances, he knows that he owes the lizards his life. The protein has been crucial, but the best part is the hunt. The anticipation and physical prowess involved in stalking is a great relief from the boredom.
Even if you hate killing a lizard, a feeling of triumph fills you once the wriggling body goes still. Then you must eat it because to waste the death is another crime.
For the first couple years of his imprisonment, he counted them. Three hundred and sixty two. That may seem like a lot, but it wasn’t. The early years were the worst: his body rebelled against so many kinds of deprivation. The hunger for food was only one of many hungers, but it caused him a very particular kind of anxiety. He used to have long conversations with the tapeworm he saw coiled in his belly.
Four hundred and sixty two times, he sent apologies to his mother and reflected guiltily upon the First Precept, which is to refrain from taking life. In his infinite compassion, the Lord Buddha would understand, but he suspected his mother would give him a big lecture. Daw Sanda might allow the eating of insects, but not small, four-legged creatures with red blood.
His mother has been a vegetarian for years. She is a devout Buddhist.
By the time he was an expert at catching and killing the reptiles, the numbers started bothering him, adding to his guilt. Certain records, he decided, shouldn’t be kept. He talks to himself often, without embarrassment, and when he decided to stop counting the executions, he said out loud, “Some records just go missing.” But these words were followed by an unnatural, forceful silence, as though his cell were talking back to him without words, as it sometimes does. At that particular moment, the silence reminded him of ’88, when he and his mother lost Aung Min, his younger brother. Those eerily quiet Aung Min-less days made them utterly frantic, because they didn’t know who’d been shot in the streets, or how many, or where the bodies were taken after the big trucks came through and the soldiers jumped down and dragged the students and other protestors off the sticky roads. Every one of the bodies, even those with groaning mouths, were hauled away.
Besides the blood and the broken, hand-drawn signs, many slippers were left behind, for hours, sometimes for days, missed in the clean-up by the regime’s squadron of over-worked sweepers. The slippers lay scattered over the pavement, lodged in the gutters and at the base of the occasional shrine-bearing banyan tree. Shoes bereft of feet are capable of making terrible accusations. The people who scurried along the roads before the evening curfew knew ghosts were stepping into those slippers, the simple flip-flop kind with the single piece of leather or plastic that fits between the first two toes of each bony foot. During the day, a few parents went out, and brothers and sisters, to search among the flip-flops, but it was hopeless, impossible to know which shoes belonged to whom. They were the kind everybody wore.
Everybody wears them still. The singer always takes his off when he paces because it’s not easy to get new slippers in the cage, and walking wears them out. He kicks them off just now, into a corner, as he always does before hunting; the flip-flop-slap frightens his prey.
Anyway, certain records were never kept, some records get lost. The singer has no idea how many lizards he’s eaten in total. He doesn’t apologize anymore, especially at a time like this. No food all day long. The parcel over a week late. And only one fish three weeks ago. Eating the lizards is a necessity.
Most of his warders have had no idea, and surely Senior Jailer Chit Naing never knew. That sharp devil Sein Yun probably suspects--little bones in the shit pail--but he’s never said anything. Like masturbating and weeping, the singer tries to keep it private. But the need for lizards is more intense than the other two. Any stranger would guess about the jerking-off, and a woman might guess about the crying, but eating raw lizards is outside the realm of most people’s experience.
Years from now, the lizard hunt will be a story to tell certain friends, close ones; it will become a tale from his heroic old days in prison. He won’t tell dear Daw Sanda, though. There are certain things devoutly Buddhist mothers should never know.
Here and now, in this cage of men, the singer thinks, Let no one see. Let no one know I do this.
The bait is easy. He watches a moth spiral down toward the clay water pot, which he he has set under the light for this purpose. Attracted to the light’s reflection, various flying insects end up in the water, wings spread and shuddering against the glassy surface. He plucks a velvet, pulpy moth out of his drinking water. In a moment, it begins to flap and dance between his left thumb and forefinger.
Silver dust stripes one of Teza’s dark brown knuckles. Finger-tips glittering, he raises the insect up, as close as he can to the light, stretching his arm and standing on his toes. The moth is big, fluttering wildly. With a mechanical, hinge-like swivel of its head, the lizard notices. Then the singer walks slowly, slowly to the wall; above him, on the ceiling, the creature follows in its darting, relentless way. From fingers to hand down through his straining arm and back, the singer’s ropey muscles pull long and taut. He likes to pretend he is magic, drawing the creature down with a spell. When he reaches the wall, the lizard hesitates, trying to hold on to the enormity of the hand, the figure beyond the moth. It never ceases to fascinate Teza: the reptile’s own predatory instinct draws it into the hand of a bigger predator. The wings whisper the irresistible h’dah-h’dah-h’dah, the sound of injury or entrapment, and on the lizard comes.
The singer brings his body close to the wall so his right arm—the lethal weapon—will not have to extend too much. The moth whirs like a tiny engine as the man’s elbow bends, drawing hand, insect, and lizard down. The reptile runs smoothly, then stops, returning to its jerky forward paces. The singer thinks, If I were a bird, I would pluck it off the wall this second, in my beak.
Just a little farther down now.
In the looming presence or scent or shadow of the human body, the creatures sometimes turn tail and scurry back up the bricks. Even then, the singer will make a move, and he often gets them.
When his left hand is parallel to the top of his ribcage, he stops moving it, and holds the moth lightly against the wall. His right hand is loose-fingered, ready. The lizard rushes for the head of the moth, unhinging its jaws and already gulping as the wings beat against the reptilian snout. The moth flaps furiously, pushing the tips of the singer’s fingers. It’s hard to resist the illogical impulse to release the moth, let it have a last chance at its own life. But the lizard will escape if the singer does this, so he stifles his sense of charity. Still pinching the insect as it enters the lizard’s mouth, the singer takes advantage of the small, violent flurry and slaps his palm down on his prey.
It’s hard to kill a lizard with your bare hands. A crude method at best.
The lizard’s head and jaws and the moth between them are crushed against the brick. These are the singer’s least favourite executions, because of the blood and moth innards and wing-dust smeared over the palm of his hand. The lizard’s legs still run, escaping uselessly into the air, as the singer begins to pick insect from crushed reptilian jaws. Other times, he manages to catch a tail or break a couple of legs; the lizard drops neatly off the wall and lies writhing on the cement. Then the singer breaks its narrow neck as though he were twisting the cap off a bottle, with a sound like a cracking knuckle.
He puts the twitching lizard on the floor and moves the water pot back to its corner. Then, lizard in hand again, he squats down and pours a tin cup of water over the small corpse, rubbing the sides of the bloody and flattened head to get rid of the moth. He doesn’t like raw insect.
“Absurd! What’s the difference? Raw reptile, raw moth? May May would be completely horrified either way if she could see me. Her good son devouring his innocent cellmates.”
The singer likes to make fun, but it’s true. If his mother could see him now, squatting like an old man by the water pot, avid and shining-eyed after the hunt, she would begin to cry in her silent way, which made the devastation of her weeping worse. If only she would howl like the melodramatic women in the Indian movies he and Aung Min grew up on, if only she had given them a voice to cling to.
But, no, the boys had a mother who held herself in stoic silence.
Despite these thoughts of his family, the singer is weirdly light-hearted. He forgets himself. Or perhaps he remembers himself best in these moments, squatting, the dead lizard in his right hand going into his mouth with its dull khaki skin still on. He doesn’t bother to strip them anymore.
Yes, he is very much himself this way, teeth cutting through the meagre flesh, crunching the little bones. It tastes only of what it is: lizard skin and cool blood, neither sweet nor bitter, just raw, but nothing at all like chicken, despite the evolutionary connection. He chews the lizard until he knows the bones are safe enough for his throat. At the moment of swallowing, he is without regret, without any remorse, secure in the knowledge that as long as he can do this terrible thing, he can survive the terrible things they do to him.
That night, before the lights are switched off, he eats six lizards. Or seven. Or eight. Nine? He really doesn’t count anymore. But when he’s lying in the dark, a black wave of shame rolls over him. He speak to the night in an unequivocal voice, “There is no alternative. “And furthermore, I am not the only one.” The darkness pounds on and on, moralizing. “Whatever happens has happened before. I am not the first. Others did this, and later, they were men again.” He raises his voice, to make sure the darkness hears him. “I am still a man. My name is Teza.”