I watched a car disappear as it turned right at the end of the track, dust rising up to momentarily obscure the hedges and trees. A buzzard appeared overhead and skimmed the tops of the ash trees, letting out a lonely cry. I rode my bike back to the farm and let myself in the back door. Ma was up to her elbows in feathers, breasting out pigeons for our tea. Sal, the old dog, freeze-framed in an eager pose, sat looking hopeful for any spare bit of meat. She turned and wagged her tail at me before resuming her position by Ma’s legs.
“What you been up to son?” Ma spoke with her back turned away, but my face reddened as if she were looking straight at me, reading my thoughts. She pulled back the feathers and skin, then sliced through another pigeon breast, dropping the floppy carcass into a bowl on the worktop. Sal shook her fur coat and let out a soft whine.
“Just out on my bike,” I mumbled, still breathless from racing back, wanting her to ask me more questions, wanting her to slice out the truth like she did with her knife on those dead pigeon carcasses.
“Good lad. Go fetch me some beans from the garden, will you?” Her hair was tied up in a loose tangle atop her head, exposing the dark-blue discoloration on the back of her neck, just above the collar. Her apron ties were coming loose behind her back, and I noticed how the hem of her skirt was uneven where the fabric had hitched up over her behind.
I scraped my chair back across the slate floor and stood. Sal yapped, impatient for attention, still looking up at Ma, eager for any morsel that might magically appear. Ma glanced over her shoulder at me as I ruffled Sal’s fur around her collar and pulled back her ears to feel the warm, silky lining between my fingers.
“Ma,” I said. “Do you remember the Lizard Man?”
Ma paused for a moment as if catching her breath, hands held over the sink. She twisted round again to look at me.
“The Lizard Man?”
“Yeah, I think he’s—’ I was interrupted by a loud knock on the door that made both Ma and myself jump. People rarely knocked when they visited; they just walked straight in, round the back. But the knock was at the front of the house. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d even entered through that door. Sticky cobwebs had formed a skin across the wooden frame there, and ivy had crept up like a leafy serpent to conceal much of the door.
Ma raised her blood-flecked hands above the sink as if to excuse herself from answering the door. “Be a love, will you?”
I trudged to the door, and Sal followed at my heels, yapping with excitement, distracted momentarily from food. As I got close to the cobweb-infested entrance, I could see through the frosted glass window in the door the outline of a large man in a hat. The sunlight silhouetted his head and broad shoulders. Sal yapped as I unlocked the door, the bolt stiff where the heat of many summers and the damp of many winters had made the wood warp and move as if it were still rooted and alive.
I tugged at the door and Sal lurched forward through the gap, sniffing around the man’s legs. He was dressed in a light-colored suit, with a white shirt, and linen trousers. He wore a trilby and had the kind of tan you only acquire from leisurely watching boats chug down a jungle river. He looked familiar, but it was possible that he just reminded me of an actor on the telly. Sal sniffed his shoes with a passion even I found embarrassing.
“May I speak with Mrs. Pritchard?” the man asked. His accent was unmistakably American. He removed his hat, held it against his chest, and smiled. ‘Is she home today?’ He was polite, but I sensed urgency in his voice.
It was odd hearing Ma’s name formally announced. Mrs. Pritchard. It had been an age since I’d heard her addressed this way. Everyone just called her “Ma.” I turned to fetch her but was surprised to see her already standing behind me. She wiped her hands on a tea towel, straightened her skirt, and pushed back her fringe.
“I’m Mrs. Pritchard. How may I help you?” She put on a fake posh accent that she always used when on the telephone or when she was in the company of strangers for the first time. I felt unnerved when she behaved like that, talking through her lipstick and straightening her back. She was like an imposter wearing someone else’s skin.
The man nodded a greeting. “I’m Detective James,” he said. “I’ve taken over for Detective White. I believe you knew him as Bobby.” He reached into his breast pocket and flashed his ID. Looking up at him was like peering up at a tall monument carved from marble.
Ma’s face slackened, and I thought she was going to faint.
“Is he…? Have you…?” her sentences were unfinished, but the man seemed to understand her whispered half-questions.
“Mrs. Pritchard, perhaps it’s best if I come inside.”
Years ago, back when I was only nine, Ma used to hire men to help around the farm. One of the men, Dougie, even lived with us for a while. He was big with soft edges and ancestral strength, reminded me a lot of a bull. I once saw him lift a car with his bare hands and hold it up like he was lifting a child. I liked Dougie. I laughed whenever he made shadow puppets on the barn walls: a rabbit with big ears, a dog with its tongue lolling, an elephant, a tortoise.
There was also a girl called Bridget who said she was traveling. She arrived in the middle of the night with just a knapsack and needed somewhere to stay. Her hair was so blonde it was almost white. She reminded me of a dolly, but she could lift bales of hay and sacks of spuds with ease. And she used to cook me pancakes and twirl honey from a spoon. I missed Bridget after she left. She taught me words like kartoffel and gesundheit, but Ma said I wasn’t to go repeating them in front of the others.
Then there were the others I didn’t warm to, like slinky Jeff, who would creep about at night, making the floorboards creak in the worst of ways. I was convinced he was a spy or a peeping Tom but I was only a kid, so no one believed me. Then there was old Mr Shawshank who never cut his fingernails and always smelled of mold and rotting dung. Ma would scrunch up her nose whenever she came near him, and at meals, he would chomp noisily, mouth opening and closing like a dustcart.
But it was the Lizard Man who I remember best. He was slight in frame, with long, muscular limbs, and he had big blue eyes like Ma’s. His head was bald and smooth, and he seemed to not have any body hair at all. Most of the time he wore no clothes, but he’d cover up his privates with a small loin cloth if he was around company. He never seemed to get cold. He would often sit motionless and gaze at some random point in the distance without blinking. On days when the heat was too much for most people, he’d lay out in the sun and absorb the rays. He came and went often, and every time he disappeared, I felt a pang of loss, like a tree might feel after shedding its final leaf before winter.
I imagined he had come from Scotland, but in reality, he had grown up on an island in the Pacific, the name of which I can’t recall. Most of the villagers knew of him, and they gave him a wide berth when possible. Ma always said that we had to make the most of other folk no matter their differences, because they were our greatest teachers.
He must’ve been old a long time before he came to the village, because his skin was wrinkled and faded, marked with dark blues and greens. Tattoos covered him from his neck to his feet, scaly patterns that made him look like a human/reptile hybrid. When he first came to the farm, I ran and hid behind the barn, where I watched him step barefoot across the yard and peer oddly into the windows of our home. He crept silently along the perimeter and disappeared round back. That’s when I heard Ma’s voice and hushed, excitable conversation.
He never really stayed with us inside the house. He preferred to sleep in the woods. But he was around for a long time. He’d bring Ma rabbits he’d caught and fruit he’d harvested from the hedgerows in exchange for a cooked meal. Sometimes he wouldn’t turn up until dark, but he always returned the bowls or mugs she left out for him. I saw Slinky Jeff throw a rock at him once when he thought no one was watching.
I don’t ever remember Lizard Man smiling, but I knew in my bones that he was as content as a man could be. He seemed happy in his skin. I would stare at his bare legs and think about touching the intricate patterns tattooed on them. I would wonder about the colors in the rain. Did they smear? One time, I drew all over my arms and legs with a pen. Ma scolded me and made me scrub it off until my skin stung, raw and red. She gave me a look like I’d shamed her, and in my confusion, I shouted at her, told her she loved the Lizard Man more than she loved me. She just looked pained and sent me to bed.
One night, not long before the Lizard Man disappeared, I heard voices outside my bedroom window. One voice was Ma’s, and the other was the Lizard Man’s. The high pitch of his voice was unmistakable.
“…Won’t let you tell him…”
“…Not fair on the boy…”
“…Flesh and blood…”
After that night, things started going missing. Neighbors would complain that their windows had been tampered with, that items had been stolen. Nothing was ever taken from our house, but we didn’t own anything of much value either. Plus, Sal would bark if anyone came near the house, and the geese were good at chasing off intruders. After a few meetings between the villagers, suspicions grew. Whispers spread like weeds.
Mrs. Pritchard’s been entertaining layabouts, vagrants, ne’er-do-gooders.
Mrs. Pritchard is one of them.
Mrs. Pritchard harbors spies.
I thought of Bridget, with her sweet humor and generous hugs, and Dougie, with his slow, gentle ways. But I knew in my heart who they were really talking about: the Lizard Man.
Ma said it was because they didn’t know any better. It was easier to judge than to accept. She told me how when we first moved to the village, we were ignored. The only ones who helped us out and treated us like real people were the odd strangers who visited the farm.
That night I heard the Lizard Man outside my bedroom window with Ma turned out to be the last I’d see or hear of him. Still empty bowls continued to show up on the windowsill, the occasional rabbit was still strung from the door frame, and random piles of nuts and berries still gathered by our gate. Ma never hired any more help. She decided we could manage on our own. And I suppose we did. She kept a few sheep, and we trundled on as best we could.
There were times when I thought I’d seen a blue-green pattern shift between the trees or hear that high-pitched wail on the wind. But it wasn’t until that day when I saw his body, curled up and silent as a rock, that I questioned who the monsters really were. He was laid in a sort of burrow, next to a large oak. His skin was covered with dead leaves and ferns, and flecks of soil obscured the intricate patterns, making him blend seamlessly into the ground. He could have been sleeping, so I left him alone. I did not want to disturb him, and I was afraid that if he awoke, he would simply run away.
But it was Ma’s heavy hand on my shoulder after that new detective left, asking if she could have a few moments to talk with me, when I realized that the worst monsters lived inside of me and not out there in the woods.
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