Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Modesty aside

I'm finally able to ride my bike around the grounds, five months after knee surgery. When I saw Tammy working in the Cactus Garden, next to the ramada, I pulled up beside her. “What’s been happening over the past few months?" I asked. “Seen anything interesting?”

It was a muggy, mid-July morning and she was busy consolidating the red gum Eucalyptus bark that falls in long, sinuous strips this time of year, accumulating like twisted ribbons of stiff butcher paper. She paused next to one of the neat piles she’d created and leaned on her rake to consider my question. Her eyes narrowed into a squint of focused thought, and, after a few seconds of shaking her head absently towards the ground, she answered, “No, nothing that I can think of.”

Her answer came too quickly, so I provided some suggestions to keep her thinking. “No snake sightings, or something eating something else?” I asked. "Come on, what I have I been missing?”

She squinted again, but looked up this time, and I hoped that one of the passing clouds might resemble a sleeping bobcat, a bull snake being attacked by a trio of rock squirrels, or a coati feeding on myrtle berries, all of which we’ve seen before. I thought these familiar images or others like them might remind her of something she’d forgotten. I was still waiting for an answer, when I heard a loose crackle of eucalyptus bark, and saw two western whiptail lizards run between the wheels of my bike and stop abruptly in the middle of the trail.  

They were barely ten feet in front of us and resembled two playground buddies taking a quick breather before continuing their high energy chase. But seconds passed and neither of them moved. We knew something was up when one of the whiptails began to climb onto the other’s back, slowly and deliberately, one leg at time, like scaling individual rungs of a ladder. The presumed male jockeyed himself into position on top of what we deduced was the female, and we knew, as Sherlock Holmes would agree, The game was afoot.  

I’ve been caught in a handful of embarrassing situations in my life, so watching this scene develop allowed me the humility to respect the lizards’ complete lack of inhibition. Paul McCartney reportedly wrote all three lines of the song, Why Don’t We Do It in the Road¸ after watching two monkeys in a zoo and marveling at how they could act with equal indifference to the judgment of onlookers. With that same spirit, Tammy and I assumed the roles of itinerant journalists from National Geographic, and watched with equanimity as a scene unfolded before us that few humans ever witness.

Though both of us were familiar with the basics, neither of us was prepared for the finer points of what came next.

The male continued to creep onto the female until their pelvises were roughly aligned and then he began a motion that reminded me of trying to insert slugs instead of quarters into a hotel washing machine. Each time the coin tray is pushed in, it’s rejected, in and out, time and time again, until real quarters are inserted and the machine starts to fill. He moved to the left side of the female’s tail, then to shifted over to the right side, alternately pushing in the coin tray a dozen times on each side over the course of a long minute that proved as frustrating to watch as it must have been to execute.

Then everything stopped. The female, who had been looking in no particular direction was now arching her head upwards. It was apparent that the male had procured the proper number of genuine quarters but he wasn’t through yet. He slowly began to contort the upper part of his body into a compound 90 degree angle, simultaneously turning to the left and down, curling around the female’s abdomen like a soft pretzel and burying his head below her body. Once in place, the two were locked motionless for about 45 seconds, his body clamped securely around hers.

Then, suddenly, they exploded apart. As uninhibited as they were during most of the process, it was as if their nakedness overtook them during what is generally thought of as the recuperative cigarette phase of the process. They were a babysitter and her boyfriend leaping up from the couch, surprised by homeowners returning home early from a party. The two lizards sprang apart in opposite directions, both of them dashing off in fits and starts, running at full speed and then stopping to look around, acting like neither quite understood what just happened.

Just after they separated, I noticed that the tails of both the male and female arched upwards, as if molded with clay over the curve of a golf ball. They were held slightly to the side, too, five or ten degrees from their normal position. Usually, their long tails follow directly behind, dragging unselfconsciously like the train of wedding dress, so it was odd to see them held at such uncharacteristic angles.

The entire process took less than three minutes, and the lizards were gone, resuming the normal duties required for their day-to-day survival. Tammy returned to her raking, and I pedaled up past the lake, glad to finally have my legs back.

Kim Stone