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On Pulling Newts From Ponds

Stroud Short Stories May 2018 Top Ten.

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Lucy and I had passed through the gulf of babyhood together, when friendship was a mere matter of proximity. From there we had evolved to become one little girl split between two bodies. We gabbled a single language of our own devising; each of us so profoundly aligned so that pain to one (physical or otherwise) transmuted to both in a way that the grown-ups found very frustrating.

But by our thirteenth year, the bond had begun to stretch, and with increasing frequency there were glimpses that her thoughts and mine were no longer so combined and that solid shield between us and the outside world was starting to crumble.

The holes in the web between us let in a ghosting awareness that things which had once seemed silly or funny, the clowning of adults, now had some deeper, sinister meaning.

We carried this unborn understanding heavily around with us, like an egg in the gut, hoping that one day it would crack, and anxious of what would happen when it did. This is not to say we were aware of it in any organised way, it was just a new sort of worry to cart around, alongside dentists and the wolf in the woods.

And when the stress got too much, when the stretch felt too tight, our recourse was to double down; to rush to the pond and forget ourselves harassing the newts.

I say ‘harass’ because that what the adults always said we were doing, and in truth the newts never appreciated our zoological efforts very much. They would writhe in our fingers, jaws flapping, their stiff tails flicking back and forth like windscreen wipers. You’d think a newt is silent; it’s not. They hiss, gently, and exude a rhubarb-like odour, which I found particularly lovely.

The pond contained upwards of sixty of the little beasts on a good year. The females were universally a ruddy brown, whilst the males were black, streaked with marigold, knobbled, dashing and unmistakably virile. Even the young ones who hadn’t come into their colours yet could easily be picked out from the females by turning them over.

Bulldogs have nothing on the average male newt.

You can catch a newt two ways: by stealth or surprise. My favourite was to lie, nose at the surface with the full length of my arm greened by the water. Lifting my palm in increments under a newt, I could bear it up into the air without it even realising I had done so. Sometimes, caught this way, the newt would be relaxed and permit tickling.

The biggest males were wily, and could only be collected by persistent attempts at the dash and grab. The danger here was not being bitten (for all their dramatics, they never bite) but of dropping or squashing the newt.

Once caught, they were set to bask in a sandbox generously topped off with water. Here we constructed them an oasis of sandbanks, and would squat until our knees creaked, watching them raft about in it. A freshly caught newt would settle in quickly (we could only assume their memories were short), and stretch himself out to sunbathe and be admired.

They got no shortage of admiration from us. We enjoyed the conceit that they were in fact alligators, waiting simply for the right conditions to grow up in. If only we had a swamp, we thought, we would have alligators.

We introduced pond snails to the banks in herds, and gazelle-like beetles, for the pleasure of seeing the newts lunge to take them. In dealing with the snails, the newts would often clamp their jaws on the soft underbelly of the animal and shake it loose from the shell with surprising violence.

Alligators in the making, for sure.

I empathised with them deeply; the pathetic ones who would play dead, and the bullies alike. Lying on the edge of the pond waiting for a snout to surface and betray one, I would dream my own newthood, and my alligator potential tucked inside of my soft newt skin.

In that state, I would hang in the water, the murk cool against my eyes, holding my breath. How rude a shock it must be for that world to be disrupted by the plunging hand.

The gasping outrage you would surely feel, hauled into the air! Confused, the newt is a helpless thing. It hasn’t the sense to fight back. Try that with an alligator, and see what happens to you. Pluck a baby from the water, and it will croak high and loud, and mammy will come. Not so the poor newt. All it can do is hope that it’s in for the false comforts of a sandbox, and not the darkest part of a heron.

It was an important lesson in leaving things in their preferred element, but one that passed us by.

The friendship broke over a secret. On my part I imagined Lucy’s keeping of it a deliberate move to exclude me and was hurt, but it wasn't that kind of secret. The web had stretched enough to let the adults in; that was all.

The day her father moved out for good, I was an intruder in the garden. No keeping me out, and it wasn’t like the event was advertised on every loose board in the fence to warn me off. I arrived in time to see the car pulling off, Lucy on the driveway, arms waving left-right-left-right, pale to the gills. She came wheezing down onto the grass after, her mother grimacing back into the house. Neither of them could explain. It was simply the kind of disaster that lands you flat on your back, looking at the world from a different angle. I didn’t have the same perspective.

My goggle-eyes were still in the water, watching a blur of light and shadow separate me from my friend in ways I could only guess at. And to her, what was I at that point? A vulnerable thing, still waiting for the hand that was coming; that would come down one day and either lift me up when I wasn’t paying attention, or snatch me out of everything I knew.

But it was also a lesson: If you are a newt, then learn to hide deep in the weeds. The hand will come, but before it does, buy enough time to harden your skin. Grow your teeth. Know who to call for.

When it grabs you, maybe then you’ll be ready.