Lizard Luck

When we were ten, Mandy Lin claimed she’d given half a hand job to our neighbor Steven, a boy with a cleft lip he liked to lick, flicking bullets of spit at us. What’s half a hand job? I asked. Do you have half a hand? And she said no, she’d just done it over his clothes. I told her that didn’t count, not unless she’d really touched it, and she asked if I’d ever done anything. We were lying on our bellies on the sharded hardwood floor of the shed where she and her mother and two brothers lived, and my mother said it was shame they had to live in an aluminum shack on someone else’s drought-drunk land, where the soil was so thirsty it stuck to our skin just to sip at our sweat, the kind of dirt that was always a verb, humping whatever it could touch. My mother said I should never laugh at Mandy’s family, nor should I allow their dust to demean my lungs, but I’d always liked Mandy’s shack, with its tin swing set that her father built, the chains stolen off bicycles, the plastic seat made of plumber’s buckets. Mandy’s oldest brother staked archery targets all over the yard—sofa cushions from the corner dump with haloes spray-painted onto them—and slung their sharpened chopsticks like javelins, bright as thrown bones. I lived in a two-story house beside Mandy’s lot, and from my room on the second floor I could look down at her shed all I wanted, the crows that conferenced there and crowned the roof with their shit, the swing set doubling as a laundry line, Mandy’s Hello Kitty underwear bulging full of wind like a mast, leading me to any land, every city not yet weaned from the sea.

I wedged my hand through the burglar bars over our windows—my mother said the neighborhood was getting dangerous, even though she’d once bragged about growing up in Wanhua with a razorblade tucked into her braid—and waved my fingers at Mandy’s shed, though she never looked up and saw me. Mandy did not look up at all—her mouth grazed the ground, her eyelids shadowed with soil—and when I asked her what she was always looking for, Mandy said it was important to suture your eyes to your feet. Somewhere here, she claimed, there was water, and one day she’d find a cremated creek scattered among the soil, handfuls of blue confetti we’d spit on, reviving them into water, or a rope of river to soften in our mouths. It was a 102-degree summer, and the city distributed Drought Awareness flyers that warned us against excessive water usage, but in the dark shed where Mandy and I lay on our bellies, learning from lizards how to bathe in our own shadows, there was no plumbing or sinks to leave running. She was reptilian, not in how she looked but in her reliance on other bodies, her veins so porous that her blood could not keep any of its own heat, and she always found ways to worm her fingers between my thighs or store her tongue in my ear, even when I flinched away from her, afraid she might taste everything I’d heard about her. Crawling on her belly, Mandy showed me the shovel in the corner to dig shitholes, then pointed her tongue toward a hose that was attached to the main house where the landlord lived. She sprayed herself in the dark when neighbor boys like Steven couldn’t spy on her, and that night I stayed up by my window, waiting for her to emerge from the door dressed only in the sky, waiting to match the shape of her body to the sun-blitzed clothes fluttering from the swing set, her skin wet and reflective, her light subsidized by the moon. But I fell asleep and never saw her, and in the dim of the shed I pretended to be looking at her bare walls instead of at her white shirt, sluggish with sweat and cleaving so closely to her spine that I could see its exact curve, like a silver spoon cuddling my tongue.

Because I couldn’t admit to Mandy that I’d never done anything with a boy—the only thing I’d ever seen was my older cousin peeing onto a chili bush to encourage its ripening—I told her that I’d been pregnant once. Mandy rolled over on the hardwood, her shirt curtaining to reveal a sky-strip of belly, and I turned away to face the opposite wall, racked with bunk beds where her brothers slept. Really, Mandy said, and asked me how it happened. I thought this must be a test, so I said a boy had gotten on top of me under the sheets and we’d rolled over and over down a hill together, an endless hill with octopus feet, and then I’d been pregnant but slept too much on my stomach and it’d fallen out of me like a pear. I thought Mandy might ask for more specifics, and I wasn’t yet ready to turn back around, but then Mandy slung her leg on top of mine, her chest chancing upon my back, and said she’d heard that could happen and she was sorry. I said nothing, holding my breath as her leg jousted with mine, laughing when our knees stuck together with sweat. We panted, her dollar-store handheld fan dangling from a hook in the ceiling I suspected was for butchered animals, and then she rolled on top of me. I thought of the lizards that sought coolness on my mother’s carpet every drought summer, how they corralled themselves into the shade I made, how I wasn’t allowed to kill them because lizards in the house meant money would soon enter the home. There were so many lizards beading the walls of Mandy’s shed that I told her she’d be a millionaire, even though I didn’t know if her shed counted as a house, and she laughed and said it was stupid to anticipate things, why wait for anything to arrive when you could slaughter it here with your hands. I don’t need any lizard luck, she said, and jimmied one of her mother’s cooking chopsticks out of the wall—having been lodged there by one of her brothers—and stabbed it at a lizard on the wall, its body the green of a rusted penny, its tail a stump the height of my thumbnail. The lizard shuddered into dust, sprinkling our palms with its dandruff, and Mandy said it must have been so thirsty, all its blood calcified inside it. I asked if that would happen to us, my tongue so dry it tore beneath the weight of her name. Mandy laughed and ran outside barefoot, even though my mother said only peasants and white people do that. Her word for peasant was the same word for earth.

Ahead, Mandy grabbed the hose and pointed it at me, aiming the water like an arrow, except we couldn’t turn it on or her landlord would get mad for violating the drought laws. Our mothers were born in countries that rained heavy, cities wriggling with rivers, and so we never thought of water as something to save or spend. My mother said there used to be a creek where Mandy’s landlord is now, that the entire lot used to be underwater, and it was so alive that it could lash out of its bed and bite you on the breast. Thirsty, I spread my toes across the soil, raking for a river, and Mandy ran to the swing set where her wet clothes hung heavy as udders. Look, she said, wringing out the gray sleeve, dribbling the water into her mouth. She flailed the sleeve like an elephant trunk and said come here, and when I came, she yanked at my ponytail until my head tipped back, her hands twisting the wrist, droplets of water thickening into nickels on my tongue. I swallowed until the elephant trunk was empty, and I decided then that I’d shun my spit in favor of this: her fists fattening into clouds, wads of water filling my throat.

That night I stayed up by my window again, waiting to see her bathe, and because the city defunded our streetlights as punishment for spending so much water on ourselves, only the moon was left on. It was the shape of a molar, biting into Mandy’s back as she ran out of the shed, still barefoot, her two braids battering the air. I could only see the mirrored soles of her feet, and despite my mother, a part of me envied the dirt for touching her, for perching between her toes, for being allowed to live on all her undersides.

In the dark, Mandy lifted the silver tip of the landlord’s hose and reached out her left foot, turning the tap with her toes. She was wearing only a long shirt with sleeves like sails, cinched at the wrists. Water wailed out of the hose-mouth, and she pressed her thumb into the stream to divide it. Ducking her head, she aimed one arrow of water at her neck and the other at the back of her head, loosening her braids with her other hand. Her hair tasseled in the wet, heavy as the ropes hanging from the ceiling of the temple I visited with my mother to ring the bronze bell and call everyone to their knees. I knelt and pushed my face closer to the burglar bars, seeing her body in panels: Mandy’s bare feet rinsed like roots, Mandy’s neck raised like a vase, Mandy fingering the water into a fan. Then the hose reared out of her hands, recoiling and slithering away, knotting itself at the base. The metal tip jutted into the dark, hissing around its silver fang. I thought Mandy would flinch or kick or stab it with something like she did to the lizard, but instead she backed deeper into the dark, all the way to the opposite side of the lot where people dumped dead roosters in the creek bed. Her knees lunged into the soil, her arms splaying out to grip the ground, and even from above I could hear her heaving, drowning in something I couldn’t see.

I ran from my room and out of the house, following the glow of the rusted chain-link fence dividing our yards. Pressing my face to the metal, I called and called to Mandy, but I couldn’t see far enough to aim her name with any accuracy. A metallic sound ruptured the dark like two forks butting, and I called for her again. There was a hole in the fence that a racoon had made and then gotten stuck in, dying halfway between my house and hers, rotting on a rusted spit, and I found its skeleton with my foot. Squatting, I nudged its bones aside and fit my head in first, impersonating the hose when it threaded through her hands. I wriggled on my belly and groped at the night, standing to follow the sound of scraping.

The far end of the fence is where I found her: Mandy’s head harnessed by the dark, the moon spraying light onto her scaled back. I followed the line of her green-scaled torso all the way to her tail, her legs fused and glistening like armor, flicking up and down, hazing the air with dust. She tried to wave at me, but her four arms couldn’t lift from the ground, so instead she stirred up more soil with her tail, moon-cratering the dirt every time it landed. I saw that her lizard-arms had girl fingers attached to them, and she wiggled her pinkies at me. The only thing I recognized was her face, framed in scales and soldered to a gray-leathered neck, and when she blinked at me, I saw that her lids were the color of fogged glass, her pupils blurring beneath. Look, she said, spreading her fingers and parsing the soil with them, her tail scanning the night behind us. I kneeled in front of her and reached out my hands, searching for that sink in her spine I used to follow with my finger, that well of sweat I drank from. Her spine was ridged now, a blade knighted by moonlight, and she laughed as I pet its edge. It feels like I’m found, she said, and smiled at me, her tongue flicking forward like a ribbon. Scales crowned her browbone, and I pressed them with my thumb, whetting my fingers on their edges.

Mandy tossed her head back and swam her hands into the dirt, parting it. Then she lifted her head and said there was water down here, she knew it, and she was going to find it. She was going to flood this place to the forehead. Her four arms shoveled into the soil and her tail jackhammered the earth. I fell back onto my ass as the dirt rippled beneath her like water, opening its gullet. She slid into it and paddled away, her torso twisting, and I could see the flash of her white belly as she turned over beneath me. The surface of the soil flexed under my feet, a translucent, amber skin rivered by veins, and I remembered the time Mandy and I found a fistful of lizard eggs behind a plumber’s bucket in her shed, how we held each one to the light to see what was inside, and all we could recognize was a shadow the size of our pinky tips, arteries knotted into a berry, the eggs so ripe we shelved them in our mouths. One of them burst open, and when she opened her mouth, a worm wriggled between her teeth, so white it bleached her backmost molars, and then it disappeared into the deep of her. I imagined it still living lodged inside her throat, snug as the filament of a lightbulb. I looked down at the glowing ground, her spine lit up like a strip-mall sign, and ran across the soil before she could swim away entirely, kneeling to say wait, blading my hands, birthing open the dirt to follow her home.

K-Ming Chang is a Kundiman Fellow, a Lambda Literary Award finalist, and a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree. She is the author of the New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice novel Bestiary (One World/Random House, 2020), which was longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award. In 2021, her chapbook Bone House was published by Bull City Press. Her short story collection, Gods of Want, is forthcoming from One World, as well as a novel titled Organ Meats