Pliny the Elder, whose melancholy fate it was to become one of those ancient authors more quoted than read, described the salamander as “an animal like a lizard in shape and with a body starred all over; it never comes out except during heavy showers and disappears the moment the weather clears.” Which is a nice description for an unscientific age. Pliny also says the creature is so cold it can put out a roaring fire by treading on it, and that sharing a cup with a salamander can kill you (which is true, but only if the salamander has died or been boiled in your drink).
I came face to face with the salamander this past weekend. I was engaged in a mortal struggle with two juniper bushes on my property. These are those thorny, wicked sort of junipers popular with landscapers: evil vegetables that collect all manner filth in their underskirts and make impregnable redoubts for spiders and earwigs and other noxious bugs. Saturday, in heavy leather gloves, I came at the junipers with shears. By evening I had stripped them naked, reduced them to gnarled stumps that looked like nothing so much as two claw-like hands reaching up out of the earth.
That evening, watering the roots to loosen the soil, I uncovered a little tunnel twisting downwards from the base of one of the junipers. There seemed no end to it. I turned the hose into the hole and ran it for five minutes before the water finally bubbled to the surface. In bed that night I had a vision of some eldritch earth-demon (rather like Blake’s Ghost of a Flea) lodged in the rock a hundred feet beneath my house, arms stretched up toward the surface: the claw-like stumps of my junipers were its hands.
Next morning, with the help of my brother-in-law’s winch, we pulled the juniper roots from the wet ground – slowly, mercilessly. The roots cracked and groaned with the force of their eviction. Some minutes later, surveying the churned earth and the gaping voids where the stumps had been, I watched, dazzled, as a salamander came creeping out of the hole. I had the irrational conviction that this was the fellow responsible for my unsettled dreams the night before. Weird and slow, with blind bulging eyes and speckled all over with Pliny’s yellow stars, the salamander made straight for the steps that lead to my door, as if inviting himself for tea.
Of course, I knew better than to join him for a cup.