Because the rain had cleared again by morning, bright rays blasted onto Sadi’s face and woke her up early. She let out a sigh, but the moment she opened her eyes, she felt a swell of joy when she found that the lizard lady’s arm was still draped over her in a spooning embrace.
“I can’t believe you stayed,” she said, stretching her stiff bones. The scales of the woman’s chest felt a little itchy against her back, but she didn’t mind it. “Huh. You know, I remember you being a lot heavier last night. Maybe those were just the emotions I was feeling—they were really burdening my soul, even after you showed up.” She reached down to grasp the lizard lady’s hand, to lock those rough fingers into her own, but as soon as she squeezed them, she cried out in surprise.
They crunched into pieces. It was as if they had been filled with air instead of flesh.
Sadi jumped out of the bed and pulled the sheets with her. Wide-eyed, she stared at the dried-out corpse of the lizard woman, which still lay in the same pose as when they had fallen asleep together. A shudder blew through Sadi along with a rising anguish, but she was unable to process what she was seeing before her bedroom door flew open.
“Sadi?” Her mother had stepped all the way into the room. “Sadi, are you all right? I was making breakfast and I heard screaming and—OH MY GOD! What is that? What is that?”
“Mother, go away! For the love of all that is holy, don’t you realize that I’m not decent?” Sadi screeched, wrapping herself in the thin sheets. “Knock first or else you’ll see things you cannot unsee!”
“I don’t even know what it is that I’m unseeing here!”
Just then, her father’s head poked out from around the door frame of her bedroom. “What on Earth is going on, you two? Sadi, my dear, are you all—OH MY LORD IN HEAVEN! What the hell is that thing? Is that a dead body? Why are you naked with it? Is it because of how we raised you? Is it because of that one time we sent you to your room without supper when you were five?”
“We’ve failed you as parents!” Her mother had already started crying. “No one can know about this! If anyone finds out that our daughter sleeps with dead lizards, then how will she ever get married?”
“It’s fine, it’s fine,” Sadi’s father said. He pressed a comforting hand to his wife’s shoulder, then brushed past her towards the bed. “I will get rid of the body. Don’t worry, Sadi, we’re on your side! We didn’t see anything. The less you tell us, the better.”
But as he neared the corpse, he tilted his head with confusion, and when he reached to touch the edges of those translucent scales, the confusion turned to realization.
“Oh! Oh, thank God!” he said. He laid his hand over his heart and turned to Sadi’s mother. “Dearest, it’s not a dead body. It’s just the lizard’s skin!”
Sadi raised an eyebrow and pressed the covers harder against herself. “Her skin?”
“Yes, of course. Lizards shed their skin every once in awhile, everyone knows that. In fact, it’s the season right about now, so there should be creepy sheddings like these all over the forest. When I was a boy, we used to gather them and fry them up like pork rinds. My my, seeing this really takes me back! I don’t remember the lizard people leaving them around town, though.” He scratched his head. “Sadi, where did you get this? I didn’t know you had been wandering in the woods. What were you even doing with—?”
“It’s none of your business!” she cried, hiding half her blushing face behind the bed sheet.
“Ah yes, of course, of course! You’re a grown woman now,” he said, though he was glancing at Sadi’s mother when he said it, as if to make a point. “And grown women all have their secrets.” He took his wife by the arm and started leading her to the exit. “Come now, dear, let her have a moment alone with the skin. Clearly it means something to her that we might never understand.”
But he had dragged her mother away and shut the door before she could say anything else.
Sadi looked away from the skin because she couldn’t bear the pain of what it meant. Instead, she gazed through her still half-open window as the cool breeze made the curtains dance, and she wiped some unbidden tears of longing from her face.
* * *
The oil bubbled on the stove, sending hot droplets flying in every direction like firecrackers. When Sadi’s father dropped in the first shaving of skin, it only agitated the pot even more, and Sadi’s mother came running with a wet rag and a sour look on her face.
“You’re making a mess.”
“Nonsense, this is how we always used to fry lizard skin in my day. I’m not letting such a good find go to waste, especially if Sadi has no use for it! It’s recycling.”
When he dropped Sadi’s portion on a plate in front of her with a pair of fried eggs, Sadi had already lost her appetite. She stared at the pattern of the scales, and though her father had taken care to cut the skin up into pieces with scissors, if she looked closely, she could somehow tell that her portion had come from the lizard lady’s brow. It was like an invisible third eye was gazing right back at her.
Sadi pushed the plate away. “I’m not really hungry,” she said, fighting back tears. “I think I’m just going to take a walk.”
But when she went out onto the stoop, her gut wrenched at the thought of going back into the forest, so she sat down right where she was. She watched the tree branches as they swayed in the wind, and a few times she thought she saw the form of a reptilian hopping through the canopy, but it always turned out to be the shadow of a bow and nothing more.
In time, she was startled out of her thoughts because she felt someone sitting beside her. The smell of fried lizard skins had followed her father outside.
“Sadi, my dear, what is going on with you lately? You haven’t been yourself for weeks.” He patted her lightly on the back, but it gave her little comfort in the face of her inner turmoil. “You don’t have to tell me if you really don’t want to, but it’s not good to hold things in.”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“Oh c’mon now, I may be an old man, but I remember what it was like to be young.” When she did not reply for a long time, he followed her gaze up towards the treetops and sighed. “Look, don’t tell anyone this, but…before I met your mother, I was in love with a lizard woman. I know how it can be.”
Sadi turned to him in surprise. “You almost married a lizard?”
“No, no. I wouldn’t go that far. I just became enamored with a stunning lizard beauty one summer during my youth, but she paid little attention to me—and besides that, the cultural differences between us were quite vast, as you might imagine, so it was hard to figure out how to win her favor. I’ll never know what it’s like to shed my skin, after all.”
“Maybe there’s nothing to win, Father. Maybe there’s nothing I can do to ever make her love me.” Sadi pressed her hands to her face.
“This is true. And there’s nothing you should do, either. As tempting as it might be to try to act more like a lizard in order to make her comfortable—or to wish that she was more like a human so that you had less work to do—if you ever do come together, it will only be genuine if you can bring your whole, authentic self and immerse in the full complexity of a lizard-human relationship without compromising who you are.”
Sadi slowly looked up from her hands. “What?”
“You have my blessing, dear.”
Her father pulled a piece of lizard skin from his pocket and took a loud, crunching bite.
* * *
Sadi ran through the woods. She could still remember the scaly tenderness of the lizard lady’s touch, even if it had only been for a short time, even if a good portion of that time, she had actually been embraced by some crunchy skin instead. The skin had still come from the lizard woman, Sadi thought, and the lizard woman had left it behind, so for all Sadi knew, it could have been a parting token of love.
When she reached the lizard’s den, Sadi dove right into the entrance and knocked on the circular wooden door that blocked her way. Before long, the door creaked open, and a pair of slitted eyes appeared in the crack.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m home. Quit making such a—oh, it’s you. What are you doing here?” But she shuffled around nervously. “I told you that I’m not letting you in my house, human.”
“So what we shared last night meant nothing to you?” Sadi cried.
The woman rubbed her green face. “It doesn’t mean nothing—it just doesn’t mean I want you to visit me at home. Wait around at your place and I’ll come by if the mood strikes me.”
“If the mood strikes you? I can’t just wait around for someone who might never come, for someone who only leaves their discarded shavings behind for me to embrace!”
“Oh, yeah, sorry about that. You’re right, I should have cleaned it up, but there’s not a whole lot I can do when it starts to come off.” Even as she talked, the woman kept looking over her shoulder and back into the den, and it was making Sadi suspicious.
“That’s not the point,” Sadi said, and though she craned her neck to see past the woman, it was too dark inside the house. “You should have said something before you took off, or at least left a note. And the skin startled the hell out of me, I’ll have you know. I thought you had died! I thought I had suffocated you with my love! I didn’t even know you could just crawl out of your skin like that in the first place. I thought you lizard folks had to rub yourselves against rocks and trees and stuff like that to get it to slough off.”
“We do. I rubbed myself all over your furniture all night while you were sleeping.”
“What? Then why was the skin in bed with me when I woke up?”
The lizard lady paused, as if she were trying to come up with an excuse, but as Sadi did not unlock her sharp gaze, the woman finally sighed and admitted, “All right, it was a decoy. You started stirring as soon as I opened the window, so I gathered all my skin and laid it around you, and that seemed to make you content enough to fall back asleep. What difference does it make, anyway? I’m a reptile, so it’s not like the real me would have given you any more body heat than just my empty shell.”
“Haven’t you realized by now that body temperature regulation means nothing to me the way it does to a lizard? I don’t want any body heat and I don’t want an empty shell. I want you!”
“That is me. That is what I am. What else am I besides a bunch of layers of skin upon skin, waiting to be shed? So that’s what I left you with—only the outer layer—because we hardly know each other yet. You do the same thing to me: Your skin dies and comes off on my hands when I touch you. It’s just that it happens a little bit at a time and it’s too small to see, so it’s less dramatic and you don’t notice. But you’re still dying a little every day like I do. If you don’t like me the way I am, and you don’t like that my body parts fall off because it makes those daily deaths too obvious for your taste, then just avoid me!”
“It’s not about my tastes,” Sadi began to say—but then she smacked her lips. “Well, maybe it’s better not to talk about it that way, since my parents fried and ate your skin this morning.”
“Yeah, obviously you should bake it in the oven. That’s how I usually have it. Less greasy that way.” The lizard woman was shaking her head as Sadi gave her a face of disgust, but she smiled a tiny smile that eased some of the tension. “Look, Sadi—”
“You remembered my name!”
“Yes. Look, I like you, but there are things you don’t understand about me, and maybe it’s best if—”
But Sadi wasn’t listening. She had grown immediately distracted by the three pairs of eyes that had appeared in the crack of the door all of a sudden, right beside the lizard woman’s leg.
Those eyes were yellow-green and slitted, just like those of the lizard woman—just like those of their…
“You’re a mother?” Sadi said, shocked. “You have kids?”
The woman followed Sadi’s gaze and she raised her brow in realization, but as the tiny, knee-high clones emerged into the light of the entrance, she did not try to hold them back anymore. All three looked up at Sadi with curious faces.
“Why didn’t you tell me, Lizard Lady?” She crouched down and held out a hand, and the bravest among them reached out to touch her fingertips.
“You eat meat, don’t you?” the woman said.
Sadi shrugged her shoulders. “Yes. So what?”
“So…I have to protect them from predators.”
* * *
Sadi sat in the kitchen, moving the roasted mealworms around in her plate so that it would look like she had eaten some. The three little clones sat across from her, staring at her with astonishment, paying no mind to the bowls of water filled with mosquito larva that danced in front of them.
The lizard lady had not said much. She was shoveling food into her mouth with a wooden spoon, and she hadn’t paused to answer any of Sadi’s dozens of questions. Just as Sadi had begun to stand, just as she realized that she was too overwhelmed and that maybe society had been right about lizard-human relations, the woman dropped her spoon on the table.
She grasped Sadi lightly by the arm.
“Do you want to spend the night?”
Sadi looked at her with astonishment.
“If you can spend an entire night here without running away and screaming like most people do, then maybe there’s a little more Lizard in you than I thought at first glance.”
She tasted the air with her forked tongue.