There is a remote Mexican beach where I go to write. Well, it’s not the beach so much as what’s behind it, a steaming swamp that cools at night and gives off a fragrance that is equal parts ginger, coriander, and cardamom. This time, I sat apart from coconut trees, in order to keep my distance from danger. The moon rose, full and soft and shy. In a pool, at the edge of a bank of light sand, lay—I counted them—seventeen Caymans, one easily twice the size of myself and two, nearly so.
I approached them slowly, from downwind so they could not smell me. I don’t know if they can smell. I don’t know if they see behind themselves. They lay still facing the west where the sun had set, reluctant, I supposed, to give up on warmth. I eased crab-like across the sloping sand, my notebook on my belly, my pen in my mouth. Ten feet or so from the water, I lowered my bottom and sat with my legs out straight. Then, too quick to see, the water exploded – a collective thrash of tails that could have gone badly for me. But didn’t.
The moon wobbled a while in the churn. Innocent waves rolled swampward, without a sound. My heart slowed, and I thought to breathe again. I unscrewed my pen, opened my book and wrote black ink on pages paled by moonlight. I wrote about the Caymans, their eggs – perhaps I was sitting on them that very moment – about their cousins the crocodiles and alligators, about iguanas and lizards, and acquaintances and colleagues at the university where I taught. And then I sang praise, as Medieval poets did, to the special one.
O great horn-eyed beauty, with under overbite, how your scaliness draws me to your stinking bog.
As I wrote, eyes then snouts rose and drifted closer. I wrote on, first about their bellies all soft and white. They closed the gap and rose out of the water, their backs aglisten. The big one first, on tiptoe, hissing that I was on her sacred spot. I thought it was wise to move. Except that something kept me in my place. Was it the look she gave me? Was it the width of her lumpy neck? I angled the trembling page, to catch the moon, so I could read aloud. She stopped and swayed. She lowered herself, slid her lids from down to up, overwhelmed by my Sumpfsang bog song – inclined to weep, softly, at the minstrel’s feet.
In the end, all seventeen caymans lay before me, in swamp formation. The moon leaned forward. The night was heavy, soft, in need of love. Leave no girl un-danced, my mother taught me, and so I did my best. That took time. We stayed until the sand grew sleepy, and I heard my pillow speaking. But when I grunted to get up, the large one unveiled her eyes – from top to bottom – and pinned my boot with two yellow thumb-sized teeth, as if to say, One more, je vous en prie. If you please.
And so I recited something new, on the spot.
Distinguished Lady, of this teeming sink, the moon your mother can’t warm your snout. And even if you let me go, I would not leave, except, of course, to save my toe.
The line appeared to please, because she gave her deepest most gaseous mating wheeze. She snapped her teeth, and I clicked mine back. I was free to go, it meant, I think. And so I got up and climbed the sand, then turned around to look.
They were not there. Not one of the seventeen was exposed to air. There were no ripples, nothing more to see. They had sunk down to rest on muck. My pillow was white, soft, and clean. The moon lay down on the wooden floor. The host was in another room, asleep. On the other side of the beach, the breakers boomed. The house was still. And I wondered whether Caymans actually sleep, in their bubbling sink, or just lie there submerged and try to think?