Mai stares at the nearest girl in a circle of sneering and booing schoolmates, sees the smooth face of a future cheerleader, the tiny, pointy nose, the aquamarine eyes, Blanche, or Valerie—they resemble one another so much. Valerie—let’s say—yells words that resound in Mai’s head, meaningless. The stiff electric cable that ties her to the cherry tree trunk bites into her flesh, but Mai feels nothing.
A shout louder than the others pierces her armor—disparaging words about her chubby cheeks and oversized thighs. She doesn’t care. Nor is she afraid. Her fear is hidden behind a walled corner of her mind. She was scared when they grabbed and tied her to the tree. Not anymore. It’s not because Mrs. Turtledove will look for her class, eventually, behind the tool shed in the seventh-graders’ orchard section, where they are supposed to be. Mrs. Turtledove, who is busy planting beets with another group, will come here soon. The girls have the nerve to torment their victim on the school grounds, not far from the teacher. She must give them that.
The torturers plan on releasing Mai in a couple of minutes. The mocking and the pinches and the poking will stop soon, but it’s not this thought that keeps Mai from being terrified.
A thin line of green—thin as a papercut—speeds across the edge of her vision. Mai catches a glimpse of a tiny reptilian tail, a clever, narrow eye, claws light as sharpened pencil points gripping wood. And she remembers the first lizard, buried in her past along with that long-ago afternoon.
It happened the summer of her first bumblebee, her first lick of ice cream, her first Ferris-wheel ride. Mai was sitting alone, cross-legged in the sun on warm grass, next to a large, long rock eaten through by lichen. The green smell of grass and distant flowers, the feel of the tickly ground, the clean taste of the air—all of this delights her. And then the sly scuttle onto the stone of a small brown lizard, head bobbing, throat pink and throbbing. A giggle trickled from her at the sight, a subconscious thought—a wisp of a thought, lighter than cotton candy—and her secret talent manifested, the lizard became as skillful as any Catskills song-and-dance man.
Standing, the lizard slid its right leg forward with a thin, pointed toe. The minuscule foot moved forward and back, alternating in a rhythm. A jump, a chasse, another leg swing. Mai knew the brown little fellow with velvet eyes danced because of her special talent.
Every day until the end of the holidays, she went out into Grandma’s garden and waited for the first lizard to come by. Each time she thought “Dance!”, the lizard danced. When she said “Stop,” it became an ordinary lizard and made only ordinary lizard movements. She tried to make other beasts dance but it only worked with lizards. All of them. A plump one with short legs. A smaller one. A green one. They danced for Mai, better than her big sister Carla, who took dance lessons.
When Mai told Grandma, Grandma looked at her with grave eyes, saying, “Dinner’s ready. Wash your hands.” Mai knew then that her talent had to remain a secret.
“Mai” means “dancing ” in Japanese—her mom had picked the name because she wanted her daughter to stand out. Mai thought that her talent was written into her name, that her name had created the talent. This bothered her vaguely, like an itch she wanted to scratch but couldn’t locate.
The summer of first things ended. Mai went home to Atlanta, Georgia, and forgot. She grew up into a promising rhythmic gymnastics athlete, and by the age of ten, she was a little champion, but when a year later the bathroom scales displayed a number the coach didn’t like, the club left Mai off the roster for the season. She’d have to be an alternate, probably never get a chance to compete. She stopped training and put on a lot of weight, the skin on her face as stretched as a watermelon peel.
Now a girl pokes Mai with something sharp. A dribble of blood runs down Mai’s arm. She doesn’t feel the pain. She’s observing the “critter,” as her mom calls all animals. The lizard near the carrot patch rises onto its hind legs and begins to sway, foot forward, foot back, foot to the left, foot to the right, while she watches with a sense of astonishment. Why did she see nothing for so many years? Bright eyes stare up at her. There is the almost-silent scrape and patter of lizard foot and lizard tail. Faint sounds of delight seem to issue from its throat.
Mai taps her foot in cadence. The stupid girls keep shouting that she’s fat and ugly. Mai doesn’t hear.
“You know what a cardiac arrest is, don’t you?” asks the hospital psychologist. The diminutive woman’s tag reads “Karen Lowe, Ph. D.”
As she wonders what talents that name brings with it, Mai watches a lizard float outside the window. The lizard has deformed antlers springing from its head. Tubes go through its body, carrying experimental chemicals. Mai thinks the doctors are cruel. The psychologist must know the critter suffers a great deal. Maybe she’s in on it, or maybe not. Dr. Karen Lowe has a kind smile.
“Ninety pills are enough to stop your heart, Mai.”
Mai agrees. Three bottles of pills should have taken her away. Instead she woke up with a headache, temporary facial paralysis, and no recollection of the previous week. She recalled only the terrifying sensation of endlessly falling through space, and not being able to scream. Now the inside of her mouth feels dead and peeling.
Dr. Lowe sighs. “Do you know what I’m saying? Your muscles were dying. The condition flooded your bloodstream and caused kidney failure. It’s a miracle you’re alive. Can you tell me why you took the pills?”
Mai thinks she must give the psychologist something, to make her happy, and also to sound reasonable so she can leave the hospital soon. “I took the pills because the other kids said I was fat.”
It works. Dr. Lowe’s expression becomes more intense. She’s the first to hear Mai’s confession and she will surely look good at the doctors’ meeting. Mai has noticed that the medical doctors and the psychologists get together twice a week to discuss their patients.
“Your mother isn’t angry at you. I just talked to her.” Dr. Lowe pauses to take a deep breath. “A beautiful lady.”
“D’you mean that she’s slim, not fat like me?”
Dr. Lowe says nothing. Mai senses the psychologist expects to hear more, something satisfying.
“I didn’t take the pills to punish my mom, if that’s what you’re thinking. I love my mom. I didn’t want to make her sad. It’s just that I’m fat, and the other girls laugh at me. I can’t stand it anymore. It’s stronger than any other feeling.” As she talks, Mai realizes she’s telling the truth.
After a silence, Dr. Lowe asks, “What do you want to do when you grow up?”
Mai thinks she would like to be as nimble as a lizard, but she can’t say that aloud. She can’t even say that she wanted to be a top model, before she got fat. Anyway, it’s been awhile since she dreamed of a career in fashion. Now she’s twelve and she wants to be a dancer. But she can’t, of course. She says she wants to be a naturalist.
Dr. Lowe says it’s a good choice, and she’d make a good naturalist. Mai hears the usual words grownups say to make her ugly looks seem unimportant: You don’t need to be thin to be a naturalist. They’re wrong, though. You can be an adult and be fat but you can’t be fat in a classroom, unless every other girl is. Until she’s grown up, it won’t pay to be a fat naturalist. Something about this thought makes her stifle a laugh.
Mai says something else—maybe about how much she likes critters?—that she doesn’t remember later.
Dr. Lowe asks another question. Mai says something neutral in response.
Finally, Dr. Lowe rises to her feet and goes away.
It’s about time.
Two other patients emerge from the visitor’s chair, like cushions, as soon as Dr. Lowe stands up. One of the patients is a bodiless lizard head as big as a balloon, but its green companion is a tinier head as small as a tennis ball, with a tail attached to the neck. They nod, sympathy etched into their saurian faces. When the psychologist came in, Mai wanted to warn her to be careful of them while sitting in the chair, but had said nothing because she didn’t want to sound crazy. The two heads melted into the moleskin as the woman sat down. But now they’re up again, three-dimensional and smiling.
Mai nods in response to the heads while green fluff floats down from an unseen source in the ceiling and covers every object in the room.
The nurse walks in and attaches a transparent plastic bag to the IV rack. Written on the back are the words “Lizard Viral Music.” When the fluid enters the drip line, Mai hears notes from a keyboard and a flute reels and skips inside her head while the steady rhythm of a bass guitar and drums resonates in her bones.
A lizard comes out of the closet and executes entrechats. It has short, stubby legs, and its body is plump. Lacerta agilis. Mai learned the name of the species in science class, and she wondered why they called it “agile,” when there’s another species, the common lizard, which is much thinner.
Mai would like to dance, too, but the needle stuck in her wrist prevents her from moving. And she’s too clumsy anyway.
“I can teach you when you’re out of here,” the critter says. As if that were possible.
A white manta fish swims across the room, undulating in sinuous lines, electricity crackling when the edges of its wing-like body touch the walls. The manta halts above Mai’s bed and hangs there like an oddly comforting cloud.
The first day back to school, Mai feels lighter. She did shed at least ten pounds, thanks to the hospital food, but the effect is lost on the mirror. It’s a lightness from within, like waking up to an unexpected holiday. All morning long, Mai looks to the classroom window by her desk and waits for the bell to free her. A visit to the orchard is in order. Besides the gardener, who tends the border that marks the frontier leading to the garden, no one works on the squares of vegetables today. Every plant is tender-green while the fruit trees still seem to believe they’re meant to carry flowers forever. Her chubby friend—or is it a different lizard?—dashes out from under the mint bushes, capers around her. After a few minutes, Mai tries to follow. Halted movements. Broken arabesques. Tears prickle Mai’s eyes.
“Don’t sweat it. It’ll come naturally to you,” the stumpy teacher says. “Let’s do some jazz steps,”
Fancy footwork, big leaps and quick turns. Cheeks burning from the efforts, Mai explodes with energy. Chaines, piqués, pirouettes, grand-jetés, turning jumps, tour-jetés.
And slowly, by the ones and the twos and then the dozens, a torrent of lizards scuttles into the orchard and begins to dance and gyrate; they even do a little soft shoe. Closing her eyes, she sidesteps the squares of patty pan squash, ghost chili, bell peppers, elderberries, onion and lemon balm. She knows the perfectly arranged rows, like the carefully folded clothes in her drawers, always tidy because her mom says that your drawers are the mirror of your soul.
A flurry of laughter punctuates her jazz dance from behind the mixed border. Someone—Valerie or another harpy—is admiring her prowess and offers a tribute to her grace. Mai takes a bow and pushes the sound into the background of the sundrenched leaves. The court of tiny chorus-line performers glides around her, never tiring, short legs never brushing against other legs, in faultless coordination.
The day after—it’s a Wednesday, the day of deft thieves—during history class she goes over the routine of jazz steps, taps her chubby foot to the rhythm of the Lizard Viral Music. She’s wearing her ballerina flats, black and shiny after a serious rubbing. Her friends will do a square dance, and she, the lead dancer, will direct them under the limelight of the sun.
When the bell rings she’s already running to the door. The garden is scented and friendly as she hastens to her theater, knowing that the crowd of silent-footed ballerinas waits for her, ready to scuttle forward from under the bushes.
She passes under the hedge arch that opens in the mixed border, and bursts into the orchard. A thin layer of dust covers her shoes from running on the gravel paths, but it doesn’t matter, even if Mom says a person’s station in society always can be determined by her footgear. One ear attuned to the distant sounds of kids playing in the schoolyard and the faint noise of traffic from the road beyond the old oaks on the edge of the garden, she stands next to the strawberries. And she finally spots her chorus line.
The greetings she was about to give die in her throat.
Her friends are waiting for her in a tidy row between the carrots and a kind of clover with five-petal pink flowers. Each of them is neatly skewered on a wooden stick of the kind Dad uses for brochettes when he invites the neighbors to a barbecue party.
Mrs. Turtledove finds her after the recess is over. Mai, sitting on the ground in tattered clothes, plays Mikado, picking up skewers and sticking them into the ground around a carrot patch that no longer holds any carrots. A scrap of paper as large as a thumbnail is impaled on every skewer, with an illegible letter scribbled onto it. Mai refuses to explain herself. She refuses to utter one single word. The school principal calls Mai’s mom, who turns up very quickly, a battle of embarrassment and worry on her classical face.
It appears that Mai dug a hole in the middle of a planted patch. After class, in front of the principal and all the staff, the gardener goes to work on the freshly dug dirt with his old spade and unearths twenty-six minuscule bundles of fabric tied up with blades of grass, each bundle containing a dead lizard.
Mai spends six months in the hospital. Not even the psychologist, Dr. Karen Lowe of the kind smile, succeeds in extracting a word out of Mai’s lips. The hospital room is white and calm and no green fluff floats down from the ceiling, no sympathetic heads emerge from the moleskin on the chair when the visitor stands up. Outside the window there’s just a branch of lime tree, and the wind, and a dappled sky. The serene white manta fish is just a dropped ceiling of a substance that looks like Styrofoam. She doesn’t try to speak to it, wondering if she’s learned anything at all about the world.
Sometimes, as she’s looking out the window, a lizard will sidle along the ledge. She will look at the lizard. It will look sideways at her. Mai has no idea what the lizard might be thinking.