The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2017

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APR 2017 Issue

LOST AND FOUND ANIMALS a misplaced bestiary
Part 7: Caswell's Inkfan Lizard (polyphonia metamorphica)

In the realm of deception few animals have managed to disguise themselves as well as Caswell’s Inkfan Lizard, a hardy breeder in the deserts of the Southwestern United States. The ever-shy tapir hides among the shadows of tropical forests; the line-designed, geometrically shaped "walking stick" lies almost rigid among the shadow-straightened twigs of its special trees; and a multitude of moths blend almost indistinguishably with the tan or dark or light-stained bark whose colors they “choose” to resemble. Moths open their false eyes to frighten predators, lizards shed their tails when caught, and some bugs (and marsupials, like the opossum) "play dead” pretend to “imitate” the inanimate—all methods of disguise, methods of life-saving transformation which help to insure their hopefully longer survival.  But within both the animal and vegetable kingdoms, Caswell’s Inkfan Lizard, recognized as an absolute master of disguise and multiply creative prestidigitation, may indeed be greatly instructive to our own species, which boasts either a very little or a great deal of it, depending on whom we talk to these days.

If denial of self is one prerequisite for survival, then Caswell’s Inkfan Lizard has reached the point at which no one has been able (except in rare instances) to tell what it really is.   And, to a large extent and for a part of its life, it is, simply, the sum of its disguises. It is so adept when pursued that it is a veritable Proteus of the animal kingdom, changing, for example, into a hand, elephant droppings, a deer fly, a passenger pigeon (though extinct by now), a shipwreck, a rancher in Maine, the shadow of a pear, etc. Indeed, the list of its other "bodies", besides being legion, is an often meticulous drawn and behavior colored map of the animal, vegetable, and mineral kingdoms, and in the mirror of the world which it assumes, one would say it makes other living and non-living things look like itself.

However, there do exist a few, rather faithful renderings of its "actual" person, which, surprisingly, is not the picture of the drab and earth-colored garden lizard one finds in the Southwest American deserts. In "reality", it is about fourteen inches in length, has a divided, fishlike tail which moves laterally and ventrally to its astonishingly fluid body, a mauve skin covering most of its upper half, and a pink underbelly, opaque, which is often likened to a very dilute, almost non-existent sunset, red and black stripes, which run down two-thirds of its shimmering body, and on its underbelly a series of hatch marks also running laterally and ending two inches before the tail joins the body.  The teeth are set in rows, one inside the other and colored green and blue.  (They glow in the dark when the animal is excited.)  A short tuft of skin crowns the underside of the head, much like that of some ordinary lizards, but this crown functions instead as a very sensitive heat detector, existing, unlike that of many snakes, on the outside of its seemingly “ordinary” body.

Its feedings habits are relatively unknown at present, though many attempts have been made to separate the eating habits of its disguises from those of its natural likes and dislikes.  Though the range of its meals seems to be enormous, our observations may be the result of an, as yet, crude understanding of its actual existence, rather than of the natural consequences attendant upon an enormously versatile omnivore.  We know for certain that, in its “natural” state, it is more than fond of raw peas, and if a little butter is added, it finds this a superb meal. It is also, almost excessively, attracted to chrome, for it inhabits various moonlit junkyards in the desert when it has a need for this trace mineral.  It finds mustard in its natural or prepared state a veritable treat, and at least on one occasion it has been seen with a slightly yellow chin after a meal made from a discarded jar of Dijon mustard left at a picnic ground near Alamogordo, New Mexico.  Though it will eat corn kernels and beans of all kinds, it generally avoids them, since they result in quite audible and visible eructation—-sudden, distinct pops, which appear as delicate clouds, fine particles, akin to an invisible sneeze caught in slow motion.

The mating habits of Caswell’s Inkfan Lizard are also curious, for they are a veritable game of disguises, each sex attempting to outdo the other in variety and artful surprise.  But the end result is always the same—one sex gains the upper hand and is mounted or mounts the other, visibly changing the stripes on the body of its partner while in the act of mating and at the same time preceding to disgorge itself in loud pops and snaps and crackles from its ample posterior. 

The rhythm of these fierce encounters is something to behold.  First, a series of thin squeals functions as signals of recognition or sexual approval while the heat sensors on the ridges of their heads light up and blink, becoming, like a dilute sunset, almost transparent. These squeals, interestingly enough, are true musical palindromes, able to be played backwards or forwards and at times represent in talented Inkfan Lizards double fugal canons of great length. The second stage is, of course, the level of disguises and the third the mating act itself, which is performed, as far as we know, without exception, in absolute silence.

After they mate, the lizards go their own ways, except that the female, her body soon laden with several dozen eggs, seeks a dark place in a cool section of rock, and there, waiting for the full moon to appear, deposits her burden, and having accomplished her task, departs, leaving her offspring to find their own way, as, of course, like all lizards, they will.

The young are born in a dark place because a momentary blindness at birth aids the growth of their abilities at disguise, for once having seen their "close relatives", they would hardly be able to invent those remarkable transformations which make them such monsters of the actual.  Once, to show how dependent they are on their temporary “night blindness” at birth for the growth of their abilities at disguise, a clutch of these eggs was exposed to the light for twenty-four hours prior to and after the hatching. The offspring continued through their lifetimes to act like "normal" lizards, losing their tails when caught, playing dead, going about their lives like any other lizard.  An observed parallel group, not subject to the same conditions, developed a veritable madhouse of shapes, forms and persons, which they assumed at every opportunity.

Caswell’s Inkfan Lizard (polyphonia metamorphica) performs its magical acts (as it is so far understood) by casting layers of shadow over the photons of light which enter it and is able, by means we know very little about, to turn this "ordinary" light into almost any shape it wishes.  Because it has evolved in the desert, it has learned (so it has been thought) to adapt mirages to its purposes by changing the reflections of light and bouncing them off slightly higher and lighter layers of air to produce those images we "think" we see. 

A highly evolved, light-processing central nervous system must be in operation, though sound, too, is transformed.  Once, two Inkfan Lizards, who had been caught dozing inside an ocotillo flower near sunset, performed an entire section of Bach’s Second Cello Sonata.  Unperturbed, they immediately proceeded to transform themselves into two eighteenth century German musicians who performed a section of the cello sonata with great sensitivity—indeed, it was (or seemed) an outstanding performance.  There, before the eyes of the astonished listener (both viewer and listener) the light in front of him began to warp, wrinkle, take shape, and grow.  Speechless, the intruder, who had become for that time both an open observer and an attentive, transfixed audience of one, dazed to the point of a trance-like, floating immobility, walked away for hours, stumbling toward the mountains, and was, luckily, found by a park ranger, who happened to have been passing that way himself.

The most amazing part of these "performances”—for that is often what they are, performances which leave the viewer and/or listener in awe and give the Inkfan Lizard an excellent chance to escape, (leaving the images hovering in the air for a few moments before they dissolve)—is the rapidity and absolute logic with which they move from one image to another, as if the end were completely foreseen in the beginning, the solution of a problematic situation retracted to its origins and then expanded into theatrical performance.  We have managed to catalog about two dozen of these "parades" and have a pretty good idea of the artistic methods of the displays (or “shows” as they are called), each one being geared, somehow, to the audience which appears before it, startling it into its movements of disguise, creating a necessary “structural integrity” of performance, and “over-layering” its structured photons with logically “assembled” sounds and echoed symbolism, in effect, (rife with interpreted and multi-layered overtones,) creating a completely artistic performance.

     For certain generally archetypically essential categories of phenomena, the Inkfan Lizard produces one narrow band of joined and patterned transformations. For example, if confronted by a desert sandstorm, it will often turn itself into a shadow or series of shadows, each rippling over an almost indistinguishable desert floor until the storm is over. At that point the lizard returns to its "natural" shape and form.  For more complicated phenomena, a sudden encounter with a gray fox or a coyote, for example, it will first throw up a puff of smoke and then, out of that smoke, become, for example, a chicken with enormously complicated, serrated teeth (some even fang-like), proceeding to become, perhaps, a watermelon whose seeds and pulp are all on the outside and whose skin exists, inwardly, as a soft kernel, green and transparent.  Then, it may turn (and turn is the correctly descriptive word) into a vague, slowly moving, loosely coiled rope of light, twisted in colored strands around itself and swaying gently in its own, rhythmically ordered breeze.  Meanwhile, the coyote or gray fox, who has been clearly hypnotized by the protective responses of the lizard, sways sympathetically within its lizard-provoked trance throughout these successive images, which are compatible with the various images of its deeper dreaming, and finds that there is no difference between its own body and the body of the world itself, no difference even between its thoughts and its body, and proceeds to become "deluded" in what may be called a “pan-sensoric” or  “cosmic” manner; that is, its dualism ends abruptly with the appearance of these proffered images—it becomes the world, it becomes the images it absorbs (or which absorb it, though we are not at present clear on these “directions of dependency”).

Indeed, Caswell’s Inkfan Lizard seems to know exactly what to "tap" in each onlooker’s brain and where to leave off its image-making process in order to escape; for, as can be seen, too much attention to creation would be a hazard to its survival, loosing, in effect, its original identity and floating, lost in its “appendages”.  Among experts in Inkfan Lizard image creation and processing, logic and literary analysis, the joke about the American officer fighting for the Germans is often told to illustrate what happens in this process:

An American officer is captured by the Germans during the First World War and is given a choice of being executed or fighting for the German army. He chooses the latter alternative, but on his first battle he loses a leg.  Bringing it back to his commanding officer, he asks that he be allowed to ship it back to his mother as a momento.  The officer finally agrees.  Again going into battle, the officer loses an arm, which he asks to be shipped back, this time to his father.  The officer again reluctantly agrees.  The third time the officer loses another arm and the same thing happens.  The German officer finally says to him, "We are getting wise to you.  We know what you’re trying to do.  You’re trying to escape."

And so it is with the Inkfan Lizard, for its whole purpose is escape, and it uses the world of the imagination to do precisely that. It is as if a playwright knew that his audience had come prepare to assault him with a horizontally sudden, de-petrified storm of rotten eggs and extremely soft, mold-infested and blood-saturated tomatoes immediately after his performance.  And thus while the play is in progress, the actors he had set in motion performing to their utmost, the scene most vividly presented, the author quietly and quickly, and of course deliberately, leaves town and is only heard from on another occasion when he has to repeat the same strategy, the play being a means of escape and the escape being a means of producing another play, the author each time becoming more adept at extracting the assumptions carried by his audience and gradually, in a baroque manner, taking more and more chances, until finally he is caught, if he is caught, for an evolutionary survival mechanism is clearly at work. This, in short, is the life procession, the parade of parades produced and directed (and applauded by) Caswell’s Inkfan Lizard, whose apologies are written in the very air itself and whose projected life is vividly remembered almost exclusively by its various audiences (accidentally encountered, of course), however suddenly or deliberately these illusions may appear or pulse out of this creature.

Yet there is a hidden life to the Inkfan Lizard, a life as quiet and solid as its protective life is evanescent and volatile.  Though we have seen this private life only twice, we expect that it is played out universally among all the members of its species when it is not being threatened, either sexually or physically.  Here, the Inkfan Lizard assumes the proportions of a real and believable reptile of the first order, tangible as the earth on which it walks its whole and weighty lifetime. 

After years of wandering, the male and female lizards—who first mated and produced their brood or precious offspring, which were, as we remember, then left to find their own ways in the desert—these long separated lizards meet and are united, as if their separation were followed by an intense, partial amnesia whose shadowy recollections caused an even greater desire for return to the original pair and an even greater need to slough off the weighty and unnatural outpourings of the imagination (their heavier and heavier burdens), to return to the naked body full of fear and the longing for the actual. 

And thus, in their middle age they do return, as if the whole community of Inkfan Lizards had found the territory of their inner and species-binding vibrations.  And also, as if through a kind of programmed cellular response, some (though not all) of the children wander back, recognizing, through the fog of their transformations, their true parents, though they had never seen them before.  The generations of lizards, then, do a short and simple dance, circling around and around a stone and licking up the heat waves which rise from it with their absorptive, dun-colored tongues until the rock is devoid of heat, is merely, solidly and tangibly, an actual, unchangeable rock.  The family is united at last, holding themselves together in the actual, naked body of their fear and wonder at the world into which they had been really born and the one from which it had been and would still be impossible to escape.


Sid Gershgoren

Sid Gershgoren has published six books of poetry and prose: The books of poetry: Negative Space, Mutual Breath (a book of 65  villanelles), Symphony (a medium long poem in a "symphonic" form), Through the Sky in the Lake (a book of "lines"), The Wandering Heron (a book of haiku), and two prose works, Past Rentals (a fictional "catalog" of a company that rent its "customers" space, place, and situation in a particular area of the past within a particular time, place, and situation), and The Extended Words (an imaginary dictionary). Sid Gershgoren has published widely in various magazines and anthologies. 


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2017

All Issues