"Salamander Prayer" is the grand-prize winner of the 76th Annual Writer's Digest Writing Competition.
On the last day of camp I took home of a jar of salamanders.
I stole them really.
Looking back, I don't know how I managed it.
Salamanders were abundant in the Camp Ketapalunka swimming lake. There was a group of boys who killed them for fun. Others died by mistake. There were so many of us kids in that lake it was hard for the salamanders to not get kicked or smashed. Their lime green bodies and hungry webbed hands would come floating to the surface - always on a place somewhere along the delicate body there would be a tear, a place where inside had broken through.
They did not bleed how we bleed. They bled thickly. It did not kindly spread itself out and disappear. It coiled like spaghetti and only journeyed so far away from its home.
I would look away from these discarded bodies and feel the waste of it. I wanted their secrets and they had been carelessly crushed.
I had a need to possess and protect these salamanders. I believed that they would share their secrets. I wanted more than the world I knew. A place where air was unnecessary and gravity did not hold me.
I convinced my parents to let me dig a hole in the backyard. A hole lined with black plastic garbage bags and filled with water taken from the still places in the reservoir. It would have the sort of things that an underworld would need: food and snails and a jungle of water breathing plants that sway like hair. Among these things I would learn to swim, without breathing, without blinking.
I would glide.
My movement would be silent music.
There would be no death, no broken bodies, no spilling of secret things.
I was shaping a prayer.
My plan of rescuing the salamanders was carried out on the last day of camp. As kids chased each other into the water I weaved among them carrying an empty mayonnaise jar wrapped in a towel.
I walked at odd angles and used the loud cries and blurred bodies of my peers for camouflage. I waded into the deep water of the lake where all movement quieted. I held the jar beneath the surface and the salamanders came to me.
There was a power in how effortless it had been.
I waited for the day to end, the hours stretched until they were so thin I thought the afternoon might tear and then it was time to go home.
I had done it. I had stolen my salamanders.
When I saw my mother I resolved to keep my mouth shut. I couldn't risk ruining the power of the secret by letting an adult in on it. I began to talk the moment I collapsed into the passenger seat of our blue Volkswagen bug. My mouth won't close. I try to force it shut but the words wiggle between my teeth and I am powerless.
"I've got four and they're in here," I point to my backpack.
My mother doesn't say anything. She is concentrating on pulling out on to the main road. My mother does not like to drive. My tongue twists against my mouth. I am sure I have ruined the power of my secret. The words float around us in the car. I don't need to say anything more I tell myself. Wait until she asks. I look ahead as if I am concentrating on something.
My mouth opens and it all begins again.
"One of the counselors said there are so many of them, that really there are too many of them and that it is good some of them are going to a home."
I watch the telephone poles go by. My words echo, bouncing against my skull, embarrassing me. My mother doesn't say anything but I can feel her smile growing.
A boy in a red hooded sweatshirt and blue pants rides by on a bicycle. He is bent over the handlebars peddling hard. For a moment I see his face. His mouth is pulled tightly together and his forehead is creased. I do not notice right away that the day is too hot for his clothes. I only notice that something in his face makes me feel lonely.
"Well..." I can hear the smile in my mother's voice. I ignore it. "Those salamanders couldn't have found their way into the hands of a better little girl. I am sure they will love their new home."
"Yeah," I say, "because they'll be safe. They won't have to die".
My mother takes her eyes off the road and I scrunch into the seat, fixing my eyes on the road so that we won't crash. I want her to be the one watching, it's hard work controlling the car from where I am.
"Honey, they'll die some day, it's natural."
"No, they won't". I glance at the side mirror. I can see the boy peddling in the heat and dust. He is small now and growing smaller. Soon he will disappear. I pull at the waistband of my shorts, they snap back against my skin and make my flesh feel spongy, like I am absorbing the heat and swelling up. I don't like it.
"What was that honey?"
I don't say anything. She doesn't get it. They won't die - they can't die. That's the whole point. I want to scream this but I sit there silent, feeling my skin shrink.
The salamanders make a cool thunking noise against the jar. The sound makes my heart feel too big for my body. I love the salamanders. It hurts.
"You do realize that you can't keep them forever. Nothing is forever. Everything lives for a certain amount of time, but you can enjoy them for that time and give them the best life you can".
I can tell she is trying to give me something, but she doesn't understand that if I accept it, I am losing something, so I close my ears and wait for her to stop.
I want to tell her that dying isn't always about having things leak out of us. It is important to not break the surface that keeps inside from the outside, but that is just the beginning. Not dying is about being able to remember the right thing at the right time, to remember some things all the time so that if something threatens to break our surface, it won't matter, it won't matter if our insides leak out.
Like the girl behind the pizza place.
I wasn't supposed to know about her but I found out. She was only a year or two older than me.
She had been stabbed 100 times.
I couldn't stop thinking about her, I wanted to know if she was able to remember, if while her outside was being broken did her insides remain.
Was she able to hold onto her story?
I wanted to know if I would be able to remember. If I were lying on cold earth with a knife and a man above me, would I be able to look at the stars and not lose myself in the horror of his eyes?
She was young, but maybe too old to remember. To old to hold on to those stars so that fear would not steal everything - so that when they found her buried beneath piles of dirty aprons, they found more than a murdered child, they found a body with a soul that had leaked out, rather than risen.
One night in bed I counted to a hundred because I didn't believe there was room on one body to be stabbed that many times.
Counting to a hundred, a hundred slashes, I ran out of space on my body.
I began sleeping on my stomach because I thought that it would be too hard for someone to stab through the bones of my back. It would be too much effort. But I didn't want to depend on those things, I wanted to know that if I became that girl, I would be able to look at the stars and see only the stars. If there were men that would bury a girl beneath dirty aprons behind a pizza parlor, I wanted an escape route from this world.
I waited until sunset to release my salamander prayers.
When the light was gold and slanted across everything so that it caught the edges of leaves, blades of grass, and made everything glow, that was when I took the salamanders out into the back yard.
I sat by the pond, the sun creeping over my skin, the way sleep crept over me. It tucked me in beneath its warm blanket but instead of sleep, this time of day made me want to play, to go exploring.
The air smelled of summer barbeques. I could hear other children laughing in their yards. There were adult voices drifting through the trees, raining down around me. I breathed it in and opened the mayonnaise jar, releasing the salamanders. They looked up at me with soft black eyes. Their mouths looked like smiles. I wanted to trace the gentle lines of their bodies. It made my stomach tighten, the way they were so fragile. But they would be safe now. I would feed them. I would watch over them. I would love them.
The circular drone of crickets had begun to spiral out from the corners of the yard. Soon I would be able to hear the frogs from the reservoir, the two choirs weaving together like a lullaby.
I wondered if the girl behind the pizza parlor had heard the crickets. I wondered if she had cried out for her parents. If she had been able to hear the sound of children's laughter in yards that must have felt a million miles away. Had it been the sound of traffic that drowned her calls for help? Did the man's shadow smother her so that all she could hear was his threat?
I didn't want the stars to be cold and distant for her that night. I wanted the light to have crept across her; I wanted the song of crickets to have surrounded her. I wanted to believe that she wasn't alone when what was inside broke through to the outside.
I wanted to believe that her outside bled into the world and joined it:
Joined the smell of lilacs blossoming on summer trees.
Joined crocuses as they pushed their way through dark earth.
Joined the smell of melting cheese and laughter.
That her insides had escaped from the monster and found their way to that place where children adventure along new paths that sometimes lead through dark woods Ð A place where the children become something more than children along the way.
They do not forget.
And they return with stories; stories to be read to other children. Children snuggled beneath blankets with bellies full of warm milk.
I sunk the mayonnaise jar into the pond. The pond I had dug with my mother's help. My father had lined it with the plastic, promising me it would be safe, that the water would not escape back into the earth, and it didn't.
The water was dark as the salamanders slipped silently, one by one away from me. I hugged my knees to my chest and waited. The sky was turning a color that I had no name for, but it was warm and beautiful and it made my eyelids feel heavy. I waited until I saw them appear, one by one. The salamanders surfaced, to look at me with their round black eyes. Eyes liquid like the night, eyes that reflected dreams. They looked at me with their mouths like smiles and then one by one they sunk back into the shadows.