Killing Lizards by Ian McNab

To kill a lizard I drive a knife through its back, up near the base of its head, and pin it to the ground. They writhe and thrash even with a blade in them, like they take a moment to realise they’re dead. The lizards come out early to feed so we have to collect worms, turning over muddy ground with digging forks, bringing out squirming wet bodies and grabbing handfuls of them, shoving them deep into our sack until we have a wriggling bagful.

Nathaniel ties string tight at the top and we add the worms to the rest of our gear.

Nathaniel goes first into the woods and yells high and loud like he’s strangled so I rush in and he’s lying on the floor like dead. This time he’s laid over a fallen branch and it’s very dramatic. I inspect him and say,

“Who could have killed my poor brother?” And then Nathaniel rolls over and kicks me in the bollocks. I fall into the dirt beside him, breath struck out of me, groaning while he laughs,

“You dickhead. That hurt,” I say.

“I wasn’t trying to get your balls,” Nathaniel says. I moan and clutch my groin.

“You’re fine. Come on. You’ve got my death to avenge,” Nathaniel says.

I get to my feet, with a trembling ache still in the bottom of my stomach from the kick. I could knock him over, the half-cripple; he’s enough off balance he’d go down and I’d roll him into the mud, kneel on his chest until he cries. But I don’t, I put my filth-covered hand in his face and wipe dark finger trails down his cheeks, and he scrunches his eyes.

“Happy now?” Nathaniel says.

“I suppose,” I say, and we get serious again.

We come up on the big trees and Nathaniel takes out our bait bag. We scatter a handful of worms on the earth around the trees, where the tops of roots are fat and twisted, burrowing into the ground under us. Then we crouch, knives drawn. Lizards are quick, not clever. Despatching a lizard you have to trust your instincts. You’ll have one, maybe two shots at getting the knife in the right place. I see one, dark green, tongue flickering in and out, tasting the air. It’s eyeing up the worms in the stringy dirt spun around the tree roots. I watch the lizard’s back legs twitch and it dashes forward. I bring the knife down just ahead of the creature and catch it in the side, look down and see I’ve taken a leg off and it’s crawling away bleeding. I go to finish when Nathaniel leans forward and pinches its neck between thumb and finger, slides his knife through, cuts its head off and stuffs the lizard body into our bag.

“You taking my kills now?” I say, low and irritated. And Nathaniel shrugs. He’s like that now he can’t chase the things, has to get right down on the ground for them and wriggle around like a snake. It looks odd and I have to hide my smirking.

I collect skins in an old photo album Mum had under her bed. I found it when she moved out. I think she meant to chronicle the family, but she’d only filled three pages. There are baby photos of me and my brother and a picture of both of us together with our dad, carrying fishing nets and smiling for the camera. There’s a picture of the sea. It looks like a postcard because there’s sand and a short jetty. I don’t remember us having a camera, so I don’t know who took the pictures. There’s a pressed flower I put in there a long time ago, its purple faded so it looks dull. Each night, when I can’t sleep, I take the album from under the bed, there’s dust and grime on the cover, but the pages are clean. I turn them gently. I’ve a lot of frogs, bones and all, squashed entire, flat and dry on the pages. There’s always frogs, hopping puddles to buckets by our front door, and then bigger ones that lurk in the marshes and watch us. Nathaniel caught one he swears is a toad, he crushed it with a boulder while we were building a dam down near The Shed. That was the day he trapped his leg between tree stumps, it was held so tight I had to wrench him around a bit to loosen his foot, he howled when the bone snapped getting him out. Bad break, worst ever. He wouldn’t stop talking about the toad after, kept asking to look at it, mushed and pounded into the paper.

“It’s not a toad, toads are enormous.” I said.

“Look, it’s the eyes, and the head, the eyes are more bulgy and the head’s thicker. Toads have thick heads.” Nathaniel said.

Also in the book I’ve got snake skins; they’re easy to catch, but the grey ones bite, and it stings like fire for days. The skin’s like an old man’s scalp. It’s smooth though. Sometimes I sit for a while and run my finger across it. I remember the thing was curled around a stick someone had forced deep into the mud beside a crater off the Black Path. I prodded at it with my knife and it hissed. I’d seen old men reach out and grab the things and squeeze their heads, or use pitchfork handles to pin them to the ground. I got close and wiggled my fingers in its direction, limbering up for the grab, but the snake looked at me like it knew what I was going to do. So instead I stabbed at it again and again, clumsy and ferocious, until it fell from the stick in bits, some remnants of the thing still hanging off the wood. Later, I slit it open and peeled the skin off, torn in places with jagged cuts my knife had made. I liked the feel of it then. As the book got fuller, there were lots of lizard skins; we used to get a lot of lizards. Dad taught us to kill them, silent next to him, as he showed the way, me first, the eldest, in boots stuffed with rags to make them fit snug. I’d never seen someone stay so still as my dad, his arm like a snare, lightning fast, skewering lizards before we’d even seen them. He took us both out every day until we could do it ourselves. Nathaniel was so quick. I was nine or ten, coming back from the woods, Nathaniel in tow, counting dead lizards from the sack on the wet wooden board Dad brought out from our shed. He’d get us to show him how we gut them, and Mum boiled them later. We only get one or two lizards now when we go out. So we take the skin and dry it, and chew on that for a few days to keep our stomachs quiet.

Nathaniel and I sit motionless at the base of the tree looking for more of the slimy bastards, but the patch is emptied out and there’s nothing. I say,

“Take the path to The Shed?” Nathaniel breathes deep, but nods and rolls his arm out to invite me to lead. As we walk on it’s with hands on the hilts of our knives. This place is full of ghosts. When we used to follow the river from the hills down, through the swamps and to the sea, we walked past couplets and triplets of cottages, groups of people, families, smiling and waving. Sometimes they’d talk to us and we’d say we we’re Giles’ boys and they’d slap our backs and ask after Dad. Now there’s marshland where houses used to be, and old echoes over thick undulating mud. Sitting on a tree stump, on a late morning, there are invisible people still whispering to each other in the damp mist that swirls in before it drifts back out to sea. Their presence soothes, and I don’t mind the dead if they bring soft words to my ear.

We hike west where the ground’s drier and out on the paths sometimes birds fly in almost too high to see them. It’s cold and the marshes stretch off in all directions, the flooded land and the slight shimmer in the black water, everything lies in salt, little by little everything falling back to sea. Nathaniel hobbles along behind me, keeps pace. Some pride of his, though his face is pale. Mine too. Hunger lifts up in me like a creature and scrapes my bones. I’m sick and spit a wad of bile. Nathaniel’s started to take on some green this last month and his skin’s always cold to touch. At home, I hear his bed rattling with his leg shakes and it reverberates through the timber in the house until he calms and the house is quiet again. Now I start to worry when he slows so I make him rest,

“We’d better keep moving, better to get earlier to The Shed,” Nathaniel says.

“Let’s take a minute. Throw me the bait sack,” I say. There’s a kind of a rule that you don’t snack on the bait food. Dad wasn’t even keen on us playing with worms we caught. He wanted them in the bag and out of sight.

“That’s Lizard feed,” he told us. But that was then, and principles are luxury. I pull a couple of fat worms, dried a little from being rolled around with each other in cloth. I hold out my hand and the worms ball and unball themselves, flipping over and back again.

“Take one,” I say to Nathaniel. His face launches a decent act of being appalled, and would be more convincing if I hadn’t seen him sneaking his fingers into the bag since we left the house. The dried slime on his lips gives him away.

“Suit yourself. I’m hungry.” I toss one of the worms to the back of my tongue and then bring my teeth down on it. With the worms, it’s best to mash them as quickly and as finely as possible. If you only bite a couple of times you can feel them moving all the way down. It’s the texture I never get used to. At home, Nathaniel and I boil up water with weeds, like salty cabbage, and we chuck anything else we find into the pot with it, it’s not all that good. I leave my palm open, until Nathaniel takes the worm and turns half away from me. While I’m trying to spit the pieces of worm that are stuck in my teeth, Nathaniel props himself up against an unsteady wooden post,

“Someone’s over there,” he says.

Ahead there are two women, already close, spattered with mud. They hide their trowels under cloaks and come to us, with slow uneven grace and grey hair. Both women have one eye out, an empty socket. The good eye on each woman, one brown one blue, moves constantly, darting side to side and in circles, they turn heads in our direction,

“Got anything for us, lads?” blue eye says, as though her throat is moving away from her, and her speech is trying to reel it back in.

“Got any matches? Got drink boys?” brown eye says, much higher, quivering. We don’t, we haven’t had either for a long time.

“No we don’t brew,” Nathaniel says. Mum could make homebrew, boil up lizards and nettles for days, cool, leave it in bottles outside; it’s got to turn brown. The longer you leave it the more potent it becomes. Everyone calls it Flush, because after a couple of swigs you can’t told on to your bowels, and after a mug or two you can’t hold on to anything. There’s no such thing as good Flush, but there’s stuff that gives you a heavy long drunk and gets the unpleasant bit out of you fast. The day’s heading to its end, so the men at The Shed will have been on it for a few hours.

“What you got then lads?” brown eye says.

“We’ve got worms.” Says Nathaniel, pacing on his good leg. Tired legs need moving to keep the cramps away.

“We’ve got nothing.” I say. “And we need to move on.” The two women look at me, like they see me burning, black bones in ashes and part-cinder kindling. They scowl at me, and their faces so embrace the gesture that they work to fold their faces in tighter, more strained contortions.

“Can you spare the bait bag?” blue eye says.

“We’ve got nothing.” I say again.

“We’ve got eyes you can have. They’re lucky,” blue eye says. I sigh. Promises of good fortune come hot with desperation, and I feel odd pockets of hope drain inside of me. There’s a trade in superstition when it’s not just charity, but these meetings make me sad. Blue eye opens a small purse, of knitted weeds, and inside there are eyeballs of all sizes, congealed and staring out at me, like spiders magnified.

“You have the eyes, we’ll take the worms,” brown eye says. Nathaniel limps over like he’s about to give them the bait bag.

“No.” I open the bag and let six or seven of the worms fall to the dirt and start wriggling, and brown eye rushes to her knees to pick them up and hammocks them in the bottom of her turned-up cloak. Blue eye offers us the purse of eyes, but I shake my head and start to go. Nathaniel follows after me, but blue eye jams a few of the eyes into his pocket as we depart. We get a short way down the path when we start talking again,

“You were going to give them the bag weren’t you? Have you gone full mental?” I say.

“They were just girls.” Nathaniel says, pulling his finger from his pocket with an eye stuck to the end of it, and waves it under my nose until I slap it away.

“We don’t give our stuff away.” I say. “What are you going to do with all those eyes anyway?”

“I don’t know. Maybe we’ll get lucky,” Nathaniel says.

The Shed’s down a steep trail, muddy and narrow. We end up getting onto our arses and sliding down, using our tools to slow us. The Shed’s in a clearing, on wooden boards above the bog. It’s loud, even from outside, men’s voices so brash they’d bring trees down, swearing and puking and talking at the same time. We go in and The Shed’s about as big as a minor boathouse. When we’re spotted there’s a collective rising growl flying to us, before we’re pelted with whatever’s to hand, cups, cabbage, vomit, spoons, boots, and Flush. We duck and weave and the booze stings my face. I reach for the geezer nearest to me and pull him to the floor. I wrestle my way up him until I feel what seems like a face, it’s soft enough. I claw at him with my nails, pull at loose skin, and pound my fist into anything that crunches or clicks. He’s screaming and around me I hear cheering. Someone grabs my back and pulls me up. I wipe my face on my arms, leaving a sheen of fluids over it. The bloke I’d been hitting sits on the floor, his face bloody. There’s about twenty men, all drunk, some more able to stand than others. The Shed stinks of everything that’s bad.

“Come ‘ere.” A voice from further in, where there’s less light. We follow. Ralf stands next to a row of cups, drinking from a metal cylinder that looks like it might have once held a toilet brush. Every few words he retches into one of the four buckets by his feet.

“What are you… lads doing here?” Ralf says.

“Hunting lizards. Bad day for it.” Nathaniel says.

“I was talking to your brother.” Ralf says.

“Like he says. Lizards,” I say.

“You’ll not do any better down here. They’ve been had round here I reckon. Had a lot dropped off, swapped for Flush, berries, biscuits, you know.” Ralf walks over to a large open trunk. Inside is food,

“You boys got anything you want to trade?” Ralf says.

“We’ve got some eyes,” Nathaniel says and holds out a few to prove it. Ralf studies him, like he’s just been shown a talking dog.

“What’s fucking wrong with him?”

“We haven’t got anything. Thought maybe you could…”

Ralf cuts me off, “Can’t sorry. I told Giles I’d keep you alright, but I’ve done my best. You know I’ve got a space though.”

“We’ve got worms,” Nathaniel says.

“Why’s the cripple keep talking?” says Ralf, and I tap Nathaniel on the shoulder to go.

“Come up the hill and see me when you feel it’s time.” Ralf says, and goes back to filling the bucket with chunks of his insides.

Outside The Shed it's started raining. Nathaniel and I put our hoods up.

“Ralf's a real cunt,” Nathaniel says.

“Maybe you keep your mouth shut for a while,” I say. “We’re going to see Mum.” We can’t get back up the mud slope so we have to hike around, it’ll take us through the hillside camps and the Water Barn, so we might as well look in on Mum.

The hillsides have the really long grass, the kids who have the camps all across there hide in the grass, and leap out at each other, it’s the only game. They have tents close to the ground so they don’t get blown away, they can only lie down underneath them. In the day, they’re all at the lower end of the hill gathering worms, and brown water. We reach the hillside and the rain’s dropping buckets on us and I’m wet through and cold. Nathaniel can’t keep his stick in the ground and falls to his knees every other step, swearing to himself. We push forward past laughing children, all matted hair, teeth the same colour as their faces. They keep trying to push Nathaniel over until he whips a kid on the back of the legs with his stick and they cry off. Higher than the tents, and behind some bushes and trees we see the Water Barn, big roof curved over the top of it, where raindrops shatter, wet explosions in miniature. We leave our things under a bush, to be lighter. If anyone saw us we’d have some trouble. There are cracks in the wooden barn slats all the way around the outside and no way we can go in, so Nathaniel follows as we wander from one side of the Barn to the other whispering “Mum” and then “Alice” and then wait to see if there’s an answer. It’s hard to hear because there’s so much wailing and sobbing, and lots of low rasping breaths. On the second time around, skin presses up at the wood in front of us and we get angry hushes,

“Oliver, Nathaniel, boys, go home.”

“Mum. We’ve been killing lizards. Have you seen this rain?” I say.

“That’s fine, just fine. But go now boys. It’s not good here,” Mum says.

“Are you eating?” Nathaniel says.

“I’m eating just fine. Is Giles with you?” Mum says, her whispering harsh but less angry.

“Dad’s not here. Talk to us on other things while we stay dry,” I say. Mum pauses and I know she’s relented, so me and Nathaniel sit with our backs against the Barn, shielded from the rain.

“How’s it in there?” Nathaniel says.

“Not bad. I’ve got one on the way, so it’ll be a couple of months or so,” Mum says. “Where’s Giles then? Didn’t you bring him?”

“How many before?” I say.

“What?” Mum says.

“The kids,” I say, “How many before this one?”

“How would I know?” Mum says.

“Four? Six? Twelve?” I say, and I feel my toes and fists clenching, out of nowhere.

“Six,” Mum says. “And anyway. How are you? Are you eating?”

My stomach does some full loops and the spit builds in my mouth, “Six?” I say.

“Six what?” Mum says

“Forget it,” I say, and bite down hard on my tongue.

“We met some girls, got eyes from them.” Nathaniel says.

“Eyes?” Mum says.

“For luck.” I sigh.

“Oh right, yes. So where’s Giles then? You’ve not let him go hiding?” There was some shuffling behind the wood.

“We let him hide. He’ll be along soon,” Nathaniel says.

“He’s dead,” I say.

“Here. Take this.” Mum slots three biscuits through the wood and they fall by my leg. The biscuits are never sweet, they taste of nothing at all. But they are hard and filling and leave my mouth tingling.

“Thanks Mum,” Nathaniel says.

“Now see if you can find Giles,” Mum says. I want to tell her that I’ve been filling up her album, that we got a lizard in the morning, but she’s away now and there’s wailing getting louder inside. When we go we pass the doors at the front, rising all the way up to the roof. They’re locked except when men go in to feed the women. They came in a big group, after Dad had gone. They had a trailer and sat Mum in the back of it. She told us not to worry. On a full moon, men like the ones at The Shed, who have things to trade, go to the Water Barn and spend the night. And after that there’s always babies on the way. The hillside kids come from The Barn and older kids teach the younger ones about feeding themselves, and killing lizards.

We’re on the move again, slower with each step. Nathaniel winces as he walks. I offer him a biscuit, and he won’t take it unless I split it. His arm shakes, being all day on just worms.

“Want to go to the shore, cook up our lizard. And some weeds maybe?” I say and wait for Nathaniel to try and tell me no, that he’s fine, that we can press on for home.

“Sure,” he says. His face still green, mouth turned down sad with a taste of something. So we follow the hill as it lows, where the grass starts to disappear in patches, spiked tendrils of plants curling up to our shins, splashes of water underfoot and the ground turns wet and spongy. It’s getting darker now and the earth sports a heavy shadow. I look all around, like I’m remembering, there’s only me and Nathaniel and the sky and our breath, and our lungs tight and tired.

Different paths bring the land down to the sea, with no beach to speak of, just marshes deepening until there’s only water. There’s scattered rocks, heavy enough to be stubborn against the tide. We perch on big stones, kit and sacks tucked away. There’s sticks too wet to gather, so we stay and watch the water erupt into spray against things beneath the surface we can’t see. I lean over the rocks, reach in the water, Nathaniel pulls back on my shoulders while I feel around and haul out tufts of seaweed, slimy with hard warts on leaves dark as oil. I take out my knife and cut at the weed. It reeks of brine. From the sack I take the headless lizard. I hook my blade into its neck and score down, pulling it apart across its chest until its guts fall out onto the rock and I nudge them to the water with my knee. I carve the light flesh into pink green segments, and peel back the skin. I lay the pieces of lizard with the seaweed.

“Hungry?” I say. Nathaniel looks down at the raw meat and the leaves below it. He takes a piece and sucks it down, pushing the last longer stems of the weed in between his lips. He gags a little. I eat too. It’s like salted fish insides. I choke it back, and convince my stomach to keep it down.

“Let’s finish this before the sun goes down,” I say. I think about The Shed, and Ralf, who Dad promised would look after us, if need be. Both big men, and the kind that make a good deal of oaths. I heard Ralf say to Dad,

“Don’t worry Giles, boys are tough.”

When we found Dad in the woods, dangling from a tree, he’d been fed on and some of his skin flapped away from his arms, it sounded like a slow clap. Ralf said,

“That’s hard going.” And I saw something like anger, or disappointment behind his eyes. He visited us after that, dropped things off. Made sure we ate. We still got lizards then, and we gave some to Ralf and he took them in a cart he pulled around with him. He came around again after Mum went up to the Barn,

“I’ll look in on her. She’ll eat,” Ralf said when he passed by.

This heavy living takes so much mental energy that space for anything else gets pressed away to nothing. People forget what they’ve said, forget how they said they’d be, drink too much. It gets so hard to care. Each morning I have to remind myself to tend to Nathaniel. I listen to the rise and fall of his breath in his bed, and think to when he was a baby, and his soft sighs in the night lulled me into sleep. Sometimes I start to have tears for the baby before I hear his stick clump on the floorboards and it jolts me into the day, and the hunger comes again. Ralf barely came once Nathaniel needed the stick. He left biscuits tied in a bundle by our door. I caught him once as he was leaving. He said he might have a space. For a lad who was quick. I said I didn’t know if I was quick and he said,

“You’re not a cripple though?” and he looked me in the eyes, held my shoulders, told me, “There’s things you can’t stop falling.”

Nathaniel leans back and I watch his eyes freeze to stare into a far off horizon. I call his name and his lips turn a smile. I reach into my belt, put my arm around him, hold him close, his chest to mine, and put my blade through him. He shudders a little, barely flinches. I feel the warmth of his blood on my wrist. I hold him there longer, until his jaw hangs loose and I hear the last of him fall from his lips. I peel a piece of seaweed from the rock, uneaten and put it away with everything else I have. I shove my brother’s body until it slips down and I roll him into the sea. He floats there, face down, being beckoned out by the waves. Before the high tide, I scramble off the rocks and up to where birds circle in a wide arc. I stand, eyes closed with the sea behind me, and hear whispers from the water. They urge me uphill, and quickly, so I shake off a long piercing shiver and make steps to stay ahead of the dark.

Ian McNab lives with his family in London, UK, where he writes short stories, among other things and is currently working on a novel. You can look at some writing and other stuff he has done on his blog at and follow him on Twitter @Ian_McNab.