Autotomy Lessons

Lizard tails keep wriggling after you pinch them off. Not a momentary death rattle, not one or two sporadic jerks of confused nerve endings – they twitch for minutes, still attached to invisible bodies. I know this because Max would pluck them from his cargo pocket and leave them on my pillowcase.

The first time it happened I was twelve years old: the year of mermaid sheets and boy band magazine posters. My room smelled like cucumber-melon body spray and glowed blue from two lava lamps won in Accelerated Reader contests. I always went to sleep at nine o’clock, because there was nothing better to do when you’re almost a teenager in the country.

“Goodnight, Zac,” I said, kissing my love’s glossy cheek. “Goodnight, Taylor. Isaac.” I smoothed over the poster’s creases – one had ripped through Isaac’s nose – before crawling under the covers, eyes glazed over in a world where I answered to “Mrs. Hanson” and wore bedazzled floor-length confections. Sunset blazed over a pink sand beach. Zac played acoustic guitar while his older brothers served colorful drinks with tiny umbrellas. I heard a soft thwick by my right ear. Imagining a seagull perched by my bedside, or the whipping of a white gauze canopy, I sleepily turned my head. Two green slivers popped like the Mexican jumping beans we bought at that roadside amusement park in Dillon. One touched my nose.

“Mom! Momma! Momma!” I tore at my hair, not thinking to actually get out of the bed. Oh, Jesus. What were they? Oh, oh Jesus. My feet kicked against the hospital corners, one of those plastic bathtub divers swimming to nowhere. I screamed louder as the tails kept dancing. “Momma! Help, please, Momma!”

“What in the Lord’s name is going on in…” She entered barefoot, wearing an oversized T-shirt and no pants. I had interrupted her own evening routine, that of watching the Home Shopping Network and drinking boxed Zinfandel until she fell asleep on the couch, and she was none too happy. But when she saw what I saw, the clicker fell to the ground. AA batteries disappeared into my orange shag carpet.

“I’m gonna kill him. I am gonna kill that boy.” She scooped both tails into one hand and marched outside, I scrambling to follow. “Max!” she yelled, losing balance as she shoved her tipsy feet into the boots next to the screen door. “Max, you get out here right now!” I grabbed her arm, providing leverage so she could force her cankle through the second hole. “Max!” She stomped, still pantsless mind you, down our corroded deck stairs and across the mucky grass towards the barn. I stopped on the bottom step, content to watch the scene unravel from afar. Her once-white T-shirt glowed under the moon as she trudged a worn path to where the big barn loomed. It was two stories, with a big tin awning wrapped around the first floor. At one point the awning probably covered farm equipment, but in my lifetime, it only did a sorry job protecting our old plastic riding toys, broken and blackened with mold.

With all her rage, Momma still had to carefully open the front door, as it would come completely off the hinges if you pulled too hard. She stuck her head through the frame, the backs of her thighs still visible. I heard something about “God’s holy name,” and “terrifying your sister,” then a much louder: “MOVE IT. NOW.” Momma briefly stepped inside and emerged from the barn with Max held by the wrist, dragging him back through the switchgrass. His feet went ahead of his body, and his free arm dangled behind him like an orange flag on a pickup’s hitch, warning you not to get too close. They stopped in front of the deck.

“Now apologize like you mean it. Don’t play games.”

Max’s shaggy brown hair fell over his eyes, so thick I was sure he couldn’t see me. He poked out his lower lip subtly, yet effectively. Shuffled his feet a little. He was master of apologizing like he meant it.

“Sorry for scaring you, Suzie.”


“Suzanne Layne. No ma’am.”

“Okay. Fine. I forgive you.”

“Better. Now hug it out.”

Max lifted both arms, like a zombie, or a rag doll, and moved up the stairs until his fingertips were on the outside of my elbows. He always went 80% of the way, just standing there, waiting for me to come the last 20%. I didn’t want to give any percent, and I definitely didn’t forgive, but with eyes closed I leaned into his embrace and patted him on the back, once, twice for good measure. We bounced back to our original positions. Momma was satisfied.

“Well, then. I don’t want none of this happening again. Leave those damned lizards alone. We’re through here.” She stumbled through the screen door, back to where the mustached man was selling her edible leg wax or a luxurious stainless steel back scratcher. Max brushed past me to his room, no more words between us.

For three straight nights, I tore apart my bed and remade it before going to sleep.

Our dirt driveway was long, so long you couldn’t see our house from the road, so long I could recite my multiplication tables three times before getting to the screen door. Before doing homework I would have to take a breather, usually on the toilet, since I’d never dream of using the bathroom at school. (Unless it was an emergency, in which case I requested a nurse pass.) Max, on the other hand, ran straight from his bus to that dilapidated tobacco barn. I hardly ever saw him go in. I just knew he was there.

Even back before Max was born, people said the barn was bound to collapse into a heap of toothpicks. It was a hazard, the leaves dried up and hanging for God-knows-how-long with nobody to purchase them. When I was still a baby, cooing in Durham with two parents and a springer spaniel, my uncles auctioned off the farmland without calling. PaPaw grew smaller on his deathbed. They puppeted his shrunken hand to sign the papers. Investors razed the fields and turned our family acreage into modular storage units, plopping corrugated metal boxes onto fertile soil. I never knew the farm as a farm. But the barn somehow remained, awaiting us when we moved after the divorce, mostly because people feared what was inside. All sorts of critters infested the rotted planks, even beyond lizards, things like field mice and copperheads and (according to legend) the ghost of our great-great-grandaunt Marcia Lee. I had no interest in trudging through the field to see it up close. But it’s where Max spent all his time before sundown, and sometimes after, unless he was playing video games, which he only did when it rained. I imagined that one day the barn would collapse around him, disintegrating into a fine ash, and he would be consumed by those now-tailless lizards who survived all things.


It happened again two weeks later. I screamed, again, flailing my arms against the bed and accidentally catapulting the tails across the room. “Jesus, Mary and Joseph! Max!” I heard from across the house. Her footsteps moved with more force this time, shaking the porcelain dolls on my shelf as she marched straight past my room to the kitchen, where I’m sure she grabbed either the slotted wood spoon or that flyswatter hanging above the trashcan. It had been raining.

“Max, you better turn that damned thing off right now. No, no don’t save it. Turn it off. Right now.” I stood up in bed and pressed my ear against the wall above my headboard. Engines revved and synthesized music continued to loop. A woman screamed, presumably hit by a car under my brother’s operation.

“Max. I’m gonna count down from five. Five. Four. Three. Two.”

“Wait!” I could not comprehend why, in a tense moment of imminent whuppin’, you would tell Momma to “wait.” She proceeded to let him have it, and based on the way the air whistled, I would say she went with the spoon. Mom was no tyrant, starting with two solid licks to get her point across. But when he did not cry, did not apologize like he meant it – did nothing at all, except resume his game – he had to go pick a switch.

“March,” she said. I scrambled to all fours on the carpet and peered through the half-inch gap at the base of my bedroom door. Once they passed, I ran out of my room to the kitchen and watched through the rooster curtains. They stood by the brambles, Max scanning for the thickest branch he could find in the drizzle. Momma stood with her arms crossed behind him, tapping her bare feet against the grass. I never had to pick a switch, because I never did anything worth switching. Justice made me uncomfortable, though I craved it, so I went back to my room and searched for the tails before they shriveled up in the carpet.

After the fifth reptilian incident, one week before Thanksgiving, I just walked into Momma’s bedroom with right arm outstretched, the tail pinched in my eyebrow tweezers. “Throw it in the trash,” she said, without turning her eyes from the lady in a pink pantsuit who advertised a Limited Edition lint roller for only seven easy payments of $8.95. Max could not be controlled; he must simply be tolerated. I waited until the tail stopped moving and slid it back under my brother’s door, which he now kept closed and locked at all times.

“I hate you,” I said through the thin laminate. “I hope you die.”

After I said it, I hoped he wasn’t in there.

A few months passed without an appearance from a lizard or lizard appendage. Max turned to other, equally effective forms of torture, like when he decapitated my Barbies and knocked their heads clean across the pasture with a plastic tee-ball bat. I was outside in the spring sunshine, reading Matilda, drinking a sweet iced tea through a paper straw and trying to move bits of gravel with my mind. Out of the silence came a home-run whack, and there went Max tearing towards the barn with a grocery bag full of artificial blonde hair, dozens of eyes staring through the stretched clear plastic. “Help us!” they seemed to ask in unison as he batted them into the cloudless sky mid-stride. He led me panting towards the old barn. “Come on,” he teased with his eyes. “Come on, Suzie. Save us. Follow him in,” they cried, “we beg you.” But I didn’t. I turned around and walked home.

The sound of his bat stopped, and I wondered if ignoring him had stopped it, if that was truly all it took. I should have known better. He just climbed to the second floor of the barn and sent them soaring through the top window. Most of the heads landed deep in the brushpile, eventually burned up in a bonfire later that year. I found one right after the blaze, the eyes stretched from forehead to chin, mouth completely missing.

When Momma got home that night, I showed her the few heads I had been able to rescue from around the storage units. She was painting her nails on the sofa, knowing good and well that hand-washing other people’s delicates and bleaching their floors would erode it away. But a lady never went to town with chipped enamel.

“Look what Max did! Look! Look!”

“It’s a phase,” she said. “Nothing like this lasts.”

“But, but—”

“One day you’ll appreciate your brother. Look at me and Frank! We used to hate each other, and now I can’t live without him.” My Uncle Franklin, a car salesman in Fayetteville who did not participate in the auction, visited every other Christmas and enjoyed riling up my mother by putting black babydolls and candy cigarettes in my stocking. “It’s time, sugar. Just ignore it and eventually it will go away. All things change with time.”

“Not all things.”

She stopped painting her nails for just an instant, almost negligible, but enough. I wished she would tell me. “Most things. Go busy yourself.” She waved me off with her fingers splayed, not wanting to smudge the first coat of Wanted Red or Alive. I tried to put the dolls’ heads back onto their bodies, but they were too loose and gave the impression of a stroke, or paralysis, or brain damage. It was depressing.


For my thirteenth birthday, six of my mother’s friends’ daughters came over for a sleepover. She said it would be good for me, to see what other girls my age were doing. They taught me how to braid my hair without using a mirror, and talked about how if I did this and that differently I could actually be pretty sometimes. We compared breasts to see who was first becoming a woman, then used that information to decide who would get the first date with a high-schooler. Max waited outside the door until we were asleep. I knew he was there; it was an opportunity not to be missed, so I jammed a chair beneath the doorknob and locked it from the inside. But he didn’t need to get inside. Just past midnight, the tails returned, only this time still attached to the lizards he slid under the door. That was my only sleepover birthday.

I attempted to retaliate. I hid his Playstation controllers, took the laces out of his sneakers, covered his doorknob in Vaseline. If he had friends I would have told them he had diarrhea and a godawful rash, “No, I’m sorry, he just can’t leave the bathroom today. You don’t want to get anywhere near him. Contagious.” But nobody ever came to see him, so I never got the chance.

I stopped sleeping. I stayed up all night reading my books, or staring at the void where the Hanson brothers resided until Max cut out their eyeballs. I turned all my porcelain dolls to face the other way because I thought they were staring at me, then I turned them all back out again because I thought they would be my lookouts for Max. Then I put them in a box and shoved them in the attic, because I decided thirteen was too old for dolls, anyways.

Fun fact: You never really pinch off a lizard’s tail. It acts first. The tail amputates itself when danger nears, freeing the lizard and leaving the predator with something that only seems alive.

I saw lizards on the school bus, under my desk, in the water when I showered. I felt them constantly on my back and between my toes and in my hair. One day I rubbed my arm in Pre-Algebra and, finding the scab on my elbow texturally similar to a reptile’s skin, I scratched through the brown crust until blood appeared on my scantron. Momma said, “Boys will be boys,” when she eventually decided to say something. Boys will be boys. Girls will be girls. Men will be men.

I had a nightmare during spring break. It was scarier than the ones about lizard apocalypses or eyeless pop stars. It was a year after we had moved to the farm, the sun was shining, and a man came to visit. He had two big cardboard boxes, labeled JOANNE STUFF. I watched him drop them on the deck through the kitchen window. The man was crying. Momma walked through the screen door, wearing her pink cleaner’s dress, and from the back of her head I could tell she wasn’t looking at him. “Please,” the man seemed to say, “please.” She continued her not-looking. He fell to his knees. She turned her back. He grabbed her ankles – shapely, then, almost thin – and pleaded for her to listen. Stop. Please. Listen. Stop. It was only then I recognized Dad, as he had grown more disheveled and dirty, equaling in appearance what I always imagined his insides to be. He pulled her to the ground. I could not see her anymore; they had fallen out of view. I ran through the screen door and kicked him as he shook her shoulders. “Leave!” I shouted. “Leave! And stay left! We don’t need you! We don’t want you!” And then he shoved me. I collapsed on the deck. And he got back in his truck, and he left, and we never saw him again. Momma held me tight for a long time. And then she carried the two boxes across the field, into the barn, and I never saw them again either. Through the window Max was wailing, mouth wide open and fogging the glass.

I woke up with my face plastered to a damp pillow. It had to be three or four in the morning. My room looked like an aquarium, devoid of anything but the shifting blue glow of my lamps. I was underwater. I could not breathe. I needed to come up for air. I put a jacket and some dirty jeans on over my pajamas and went outside, barefoot, through the muck. I had no flashlight but I did not need it. The sky was a black piece of paper with holes punched through, God or someone like him shining a light down on the barn. The door gave easily to my palm, as if it had been waiting for me to push in.

Dried out tobacco leaves still hung from the beams overhead, spider webs linking them to each other in a fragile tapestry. Below them, cardboard boxes were stacked along the right wall, holes chewed out by mice or squirrels or perhaps my great-great-grandaunt. A ladder leaned against a small platform on the left, adjacent to the beams where the tobacco hung. I climbed.

It was a small square, made comfortable by hay stuffed under an extra-large green overcoat. Old yogurt tubs with holes poked in the sides, blueberry baskets turned upside down, a Tupperware container, and a Pop-Tart box with bars cut out on the side like a prison – a lizard in each. Along the wall were pictures, pictures of Mom when she was hot and young, with my dad on the beach. At football games. Their engagement party. A quick wedding at the courthouse, with a tasteful white suitdress and daisy bouquet. And pictures of Max when he was a baby, in my father’s arms, smiling and giggling and looking so happy and pure. Riding on his shoulders at a baseball game.

“It’s your fault he left,” said the Max in my mind, the Max who spoke. “It’s your fault.”

“It’s not.”

“He would have fixed it. He would have fixed all of it.”

“You did not know him. You were so small.”

“Did too.”

“Did not.”

“Did too.”

“Did not.”

“I did. I remember him playing trucks with me. And he bought me a Mickey Mouse ice cream at the beach. And we walked to the watermelon patch. And we played with toys.” Max, the real Max, had built a small K’Nex roller coaster in the far corner of the platform, but without batteries the car just sat at the bottom of the hill.

“You don’t know him, though. You don’t really know him. You don’t want to know.”

“No, Suzie. You don’t know.” And it was then I realized I did not know. I had no idea.

I left the barn and got the red gasoline can from under the carport. It was heavy, but with two hands I was able to pour half its contents all over the outside walls. I walked inside next, the can now lighter, and carried it to the top platform. I poured it on the photos, on the old clothes, the memories, the twisted menagerie.

I went back outside, lit a match, and threw it towards the barn. I lit another. And another. I walked around the perimeter, tossing matches like pebbles into a pond, watching the ripples of fire extend towards the toys, through the wall, up towards the roof. It really burned. It burned and burned. I was surprised by the heat. For some reason, I did not expect a fire to be hot. It did not dissolve upwards into some magical ashy cloud as I expected, either, but cracked and groaned. It snapped. It hurt. It was slow and painful death from which I could not turn away. At some point Mom ran out of the house waving her arms, Oh My God, Oh My God, Suzie, Back Away, running back in to get the cordless and call the fire department. Max walked out behind her, eyes wide, mouth straight. He slowly made his way down from the deck, until his body could not move any further, cemented to the ground.

In my zippered jacket pocket, I felt for the two lizards, the nubs of their tails halfway grown. They crawled through the spaces between my fingers, over and under my flesh, but I was not afraid. I pulled one out and placed it on his shoulder, the second on mine. We stood side by side, facing the fire, wondering if we had escaped in time.

Adrienne Burris is pursuing her MA Writer/Teacher at Goldsmiths, University of London. South Carolina born and bred, she is fervently introducing the United Kingdom to grits, buttermilk biscuits, and sweet tea. This is her first publication.

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1 Response to Autotomy Lessons

  1. Mary Kendall says:

    Beautifully written and so well told, Adrienne. Living in the south, I could picture everything you described so well. A very engaging story. I look forward to reading more of your work. Congratulations on your first posting.

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