I was a boy, lost in the wonder of small things, fallen in the shadow of larger things, aware, but unaware. Surely, the widening shade falling over the creek was from the trees, towering in watchful silence.
It was a corrugated-pipe muddy-shoe oasis, running under a forgotten road, known only to the local children, the explorers, a tractor, or car, passing by on occasion, aware, but unaware. Between the rumble of wheels, beneath the road’s crown, another world teemed and trickled, its only tides– Upstate New York’s summer-storm floods.
It wasn’t easy to see them at first, their grayish-brown shells blended well with the gray sediment twisting in watery cyclones as the crayfish retreated beneath the stones. Finally, I caught a few. Curled upon themselves in defense within my clenched hand, you’d think they had encountered a human boy once before.
Something red caught my eye, as red things always have, something moving to my left, crawling on a stone. I’d never seen one before, except in books, and on the nature shows I’d watch with my father. It was a small salamander. Tossing the crayfish back into the creek, I shifted focus. I was the great salamander-hunter, though I’d forgotten my safari hat and camera crew.
They were faster than one might expect for such small things, and they had strange skin. I was expecting their skin to be more moist. Managing to collect a handful, as they writhed, I realized I’d nowhere to keep them. Into my pocket they went, squiggling in the blue-denim lint and rustling in the bubble-gum wrappers.
I mounted my bike, which had been laid down by the roadside, and I rode back home, salamanders squishing in my right pocket with each crank of the pedals. I didn’t live far away from the oasis, but the world is bigger reflecting in the eyes of a child and the few minutes seemed like hours.
No one was home. My mother kept the spent plastic butter containers in the cabinet. I procured a red one with a with a white lid. It said “Shop Rite” on top. A few holes poked in the lid with a bit of grass ripped from the backyard tossed in seemed a perfect habitat for salamanders. I was proud. If I were a salamander, I’d like to live there.
A few had survived the trip in my pocket, although I hadn’t considered what sort of internal injuries they might have. The others were tossed out my bedroom window, landing in a gooey red mess somewhere outside. I shuffled the others into the butter container. One did wiggle loose, while I was fussing with the others, disappearing into the shady sanctuary under the bed. This was also where monsters were known to live. He was a goner. Nothing could be done to save the wayward amphibian now. I shrugged my shoulders.
There might have been five or six salamanders remaining. It was difficult to count them while they were sheltering beneath the grass in the butter container. I closed the lid, checking that my holes were large enough to give the little red critters some air, and then placed it on the windowsill over my bed. It was still early afternoon. There was more playing to be done.
As I tucked into bed that night, snuggled up in my blue Huckleberry Hound sheets, I thought about my happy salamander friends. I had no idea what they might be doing in there, playing, or reading comic books maybe. I realized that I hadn’t given them any toys, and what do salamanders eat anyway? Well, in the morning there would be time for all that. I was tired.
Morning came and went. Afternoon arrived, and as I played in the backyard, something red caught my eye again, as red things always have. I could see the red butter container sitting in my window, almost glowing in the sunshine. Remembering my new friends, I went upstairs to check on them, bringing Regina from next door with me.
I creaked the lid open slowly, careful not to let any escape. I let Regina look first. She gasped, presumably in amazement, and I swelled with pride.
Then I looked. The salamanders had all dried out!
They were completely flat, and split apart, like cracked red stains petrified to the inside of the container.
“Get some water, quick!” I shouted.
She brought back a dixie-cup from the hall bathroom, spilling most of the water on the floor while running. Only a few drops dribbled out of the cup.
“More! Hurry, Regina!”
This time she brought two dixie-cups, carrying them carefully. We dumped both cups into the container, filled with a child’s hope, and then watched as the salamander bits floated in the water, now becoming tangled and wedged in the wet hay which had been grass yesterday.
We had a small funeral for the salamanders, with only two in attendance. Dumping the contents of the red container into the toilet, we both genuflected as we’d seen done in church, and then I pulled the gleaming silver handle. Twice, just in case.