Second place winner of Bookshop's annual short story contest, 2022.
"A Salamander Moon" By Ian Andrew Hamilton
“Dad, look, there’s a snake over here.”
I slide the rear glass door shut behind me and take a step towards my son, who is crouched among my moss pots, rummaging through the rocks that form the garden’s surface layer. I see that he has lifted one of the largest of them, and that he is propping it at an angle with one hand and gesturing at what lies beneath it with the other.
“There’s a - I think it’s a snake. But it’s small.” His face lights up. “It’s a baby, like a baby snake.”
“Well, don’t touch it, no, stop it.” I quicken my pace, and upon reaching him lean over, so that at first both he and the stone are darkened by my shadow.
“Oh, it’s one of those guys,” I say when I see the small, tapered creature stretched out motionless on its bed of compacted mud. I shift positions so that its slick figure is illuminated by sunlight.
“It’s a snake right, like a baby snake?” My son looks at me and I am tickled by his expression of earnestness.
“Well, no, look closer at it. See along its sides, it’s got those tiny little things sticking out?”
“These?” My son brings his finger close to the creature but does not touch it.
“Yeah, those; they’re legs.”
“Legs?” This idea appears vaguely to disgust him.
“They’re tiny, but yep, they’re little legs.”
“Snakes don’t have legs,” and extrapolating what this means, he appears to become disappointed. “Oh.”
“It’s a salamander. Do you want to try and pick it up?” I ask after a moment of silence.
“It looks sticky.” He shakes his head.
“I bet him being here means our garden’s healthy.” And after another pause, “Well then, should we just leave him be?”
“Let’s leave him be,” and without saying anything further, my son slowly lowers the rock so that it is resting flatly again against the soil.
I stand to make room, and my son squeezes carefully past me. I watch as he makes his way to the large oak tree at the yard’s rear. Reaching it, he stoops to pick up a chunk of crystal, which I only remember as he handles it was placed there to commemorate the death of my pet lizard as a boy.
Peeking out through the curtain of my bedroom window, my view of the salamander rock is obstructed by an overgrown bush of honeysuckle.
“What are you looking at?” my wife asks. “Possum?”
“Jacob found a salamander today.”
Our mattress groans as my wife shifts to look at me.
“What, like a big one?”
“No, it was just a little guy, one of those little slender salamanders.”
“Oh, those things.” The mattress protests again as she returns to her original position. “Nasty,” she says half-jokingly.
“They’re not nasty.”
“They look like gross little worms.”
“They’re good for the garden.”
I crane my neck, still hoping that I might be able to see around the honeysuckle. Even with my face pressed against the cool window glass, however, the rock remains hidden.
“Don’t bring those things inside, though.”
“We didn’t even touch it.”
I lower the curtain slowly back into place. As I do, I close my eyes and attempt to picture how the salamander might look now, nocturnal, exposed, foraging in the midnight shadows in search of food, its long tongue flicking ambitiously at a garden snail twice its size. I imagine that, done with its scouring for the night, the salamander has crawled to the rock’s top, and that it is basking in the hard moonlight that filters its way down through the vegetation. I see that it is no longer alone: in addition to those which have climbed up to join it, every other rock has a salamander on it now as well, and they are rocking together slowly in the light.
I make my way back to my bed. My wife is not yet asleep, I don’t think, but her eyes are shut, and she is already breathing heavily.
“Find anything good out there?” she asks me without moving. I sit down on my side of the mattress, and she gives a small moan as her body rocks.
“It’s a salamander moon tonight,” I finally say to her. I am not facing her so I cannot be certain, but I sense her again turning to look at me.
“A salamander what?”
“I don’t know. A salamander moon.”
“What’s that supposed to be? What is that?”
“I don’t know, that’s just what it seems like.”
“You’re weird,” my wife says. She gives a small chuckle and reaches over to poke me in the side. Then she turns over to readjust herself, this time for good.
“Yeah,” I say, and I switch off my bedside light. I swing my legs up onto the mattress but don’t go immediately to sleep. For the last little while I instead picture the moon shining down on my house, staring like a great luminous eye into my garden. I imagine everything bathed in its light, the honeysuckle and the oak transformed into monuments of silver, the frosted moss almost bubbling as it proliferates. Then there are the salamanders, dancing their slow nocturnal ballet, and the crystal, beneath which my childhood pet - so dear to me as a boy - was buried.
Next to me I hear my wife begin to snore.