The Lizard Cage

Karen Connelly
22 February 2007

openDemocracy's editor Isabel Hilton interviews Karen Connelly on our weekly poDcast, click here to listen.


This extract is from Karen Connelly's first novel, "The Lizard Cage" (Harvill Secker, 2007).

For the first couple of years of his imprisonment, Teza counted them. Three hundred and sixty-two. That may seem like a lot, but it wasn't. The early years were the worst. His body rebelled against so many kinds of deprivation. The hunger for food was only one of many hungers, but it caused him a very particular anxiety.

Three hundred and sixty-two times he sent apologies to his mother and reflected guiltily upon the First Precept, which is to refrain from harming or taking life. In his infinite compassion, the Lord Buddha would understand, but Teza suspected his mother would give him a big lecture. Daw Sanda might allow the eating of insects, but not small, four-legged creatures with red blood.

His mother has been a vegetarian for years. She is a devout Buddhist.

By the time he was an expert at catching and killing the reptiles, the numbers started bothering him, adding to his guilt. Certain records, he decided, shouldn't be kept. He talks to himself often, without embarrassment, and when he decided to stop counting the executions, he said out loud, "Some records just go missing." These words were followed by an unnatural, forceful silence. The silence spoke to him of 1988, when he and his mother lost Aung Min, his younger brother. Those eerily quiet days without Aung Min made them frantic, because they didn't know who'd been shot in the streets, or how many, or where the bodies were taken after the big trucks came through and the soldiers jumped down and dragged the students and other protesters off the sticky roads. All the bodies, even those with groaning mouths, were hauled away.

Besides the blood and the broken, hand-drawn signs, many slippers were left behind, for hours, sometimes for days, missed in the cleanup by the regime's squadron of overworked sweepers. The slippers lay scattered over the pavement, lodged in the gutters and at the base of the occasional shrine-bearing banyan tree. Shoes bereft of feet are capable of making terrible accusations. The people who scurried along the roads before the evening curfew knew ghosts were stepping into those slippers, the simple flip-flop kind with the single piece of leather or plastic that fits between the first two toes of each bony foot. During the day a few parents went out, and brothers and sisters, to search among the flip-flops, but it was hopeless, impossible to know which shoes belonged to whom. They were the kind everybody wore.

Everybody wears them still. The singer always takes his off when he paces, because it's not easy to get new slippers in the cage, and walking wears them out. He kicks them off just now, into a corner, as he always does before hunting. The flip-flop slap frightens his prey.

Anyway, eating the lizards is a necessity. Most of his warders have had no idea, and surely Senior Jailer Chit Naing never knew. That sharp devil Sein Yun probably suspects - little bones in the shit pail - but he's never said anything. Like masturbating and weeping, the singer tries to keep it private. Years from now, the lizard hunt will be a story to tell certain friends, close ones. It will become a tale from his heroic old days in prison. He won't tell his mother, though. There are some things devoutly Buddhist mothers should never know.

Here and now, in this cage of men, the singer thinks, Let no one see. Let no one know I do this.

The bait is easy. He watches a moth spiral down toward the clay water pot, which he has set under the light for this purpose. Attracted to the light's reflection, various flying insects end up in the water, wings spread and shuddering on the glassy surface. He plucks a velvety, pulpy moth out of the water. Almost immediately it starts to flap and dance between his left thumb and forefinger.

Also on Burma on openDemocracy:

Emily Barroso, "The gap that divides us"
(June 2004)

Maura Stephens, "The heart of Burma" (September 2005)

Kyi May Kaung, "Burma's struggle, Aung San Suu Kyi's role"
(August 2006)

Kyi May Kaung, "A reality-check in Burma" (November 2006)

Nick Cumming-Bruce, "Burma and the ICRC: a people at risk" (December 2006)

Fingertips and knuckles glittering with silver dust, Teza raises the insect up as close as he can to the light, stretching his arm and standing on his toes. Within ten seconds the lizard sharply swivels its head toward the fluttering moth. Then the singer walks slowly to the wall; above him, on the ceiling, the creature follows in its darting, relentless way. From fingers to hand down through his straining arm and back, Teza's ropy muscles pull long and taut. He likes to pretend he is magic, drawing the creature down with a spell. The lizard hesitates, trying to hold on to the enormity of the hand, the figure beyond the moth, but the reptile 's own predatory instinct leads it into the hand of a bigger predator. The wings whisper the irresistible h'dah-h'dah-h'dah, the sound of injury or entrapment, and on the lizard comes.

The singer brings his body close to the wall so his right arm - the lethal weapon - will not have to extend too much. The moth whirs like a tiny engine as Teza's elbow bends, pulling hand, insect, and lizard down. The reptile runs smoothly, then stops, returning to its jerky forward paces. The singer thinks, If I were a bird, I would pluck it off the wall this second, in my beak.

Just a little farther down now.

In the looming presence or scent or shadow of the human body, the creatures sometimes turn tail and scurry back up the bricks. Even then the singer will make a move, and he often gets them.

When his left hand is parallel to the top of his rib cage, he stops moving it and holds the moth lightly against the wall. His right hand is loosefingered, ready. The lizard rushes for the head of the moth, unhinging its jaws and already gulping as the wings beat against the reptilian snout. The moth flaps furiously, pushing the tips of the singer's fingers. It's hard to resist the illogical impulse to release the moth, let it have a last chance at its own life. But the lizard will escape if he does this, so Teza stifles his sense of charity. Still pinching the insect as it enters the lizard's mouth, the singer takes advantage of the small, violent flurry and slaps his palm down on his prey.

It's hard to kill a lizard with your bare hands. A crude method at best.

The lizard's head and jaws and the moth between them are crushed against the brick. These are the singer's least favorite executions, because of the blood and moth innards and wing dust smeared on the palm of his hand. The lizard's legs still run, escaping uselessly into the air, while the singer picks insect from crushed reptilian jaws. Other times, he manages to catch a tail or break a couple of legs; the lizard drops neatly off the wall and lies writhing on the cement. Then Teza breaks its narrow neck as though he were twisting the cap off a bottle.

He puts the twitching lizard on the floor and moves the water pot back to its corner. Then, lizard in hand again, he squats down and pours a cup of water over the small corpse, rubbing the sides of the bloody and flattened head to get rid of the moth. He doesn't like raw insect.

It's absurd. What's the difference? Raw reptile, raw moth? May May would be completely horrified either way if she could see her good son devouring his innocent cellmates.

The singer likes to make fun, but it's true. If his mother could see him now, squatting like an old man by the water pot, avid and shining-eyed after the hunt, she would begin to cry in her silent way. If only she had howled like the melodramatic women in the Indian movies he and Aung Min grew up on. But no, they had a mother who held herself in stoic silence.

Despite these thoughts of his family, the singer is weirdly lighthearted. Squatting, he puts the dead lizard, its dull khaki skin still on, into his mouth. He doesn't bother to strip them anymore.

Yes, he is very much himself this way, teeth cutting through the meager flesh, crunching the little bones. It tastes only of what it is: lizard skin and cool blood, neither sweet nor bitter, just raw, and nothing at all like chicken, despite the evolutionary connection. He chews the lizard until he knows the bones are safe enough for his throat. At the moment of swallowing, he is without any remorse, secure in the knowledge that as long as he can do this terrible thing, he can survive the terrible things they do to him.

That night, before the lights are switched off, he eats six lizards. Or seven. Or eight. Nine? He really doesn't count anymore.

But when he's lying in the dark, a black wave of shame rolls over him. He speaks to the night in an unequivocal voice. "There is no alternative.

"And furthermore, I am not the only one."

The darkness pounds on and on, moralizing.

"Whatever happens has happened before. I am not the first. Others did this, and later, they were men again." He raises his voice, to make sure the darkness hears him. "I am still a man. My name is Teza."


openDemocracy's editor Isabel Hilton interviews Karen Connelly on our weekly poDcast, click here to listen.


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