I find it while clearing away big chunks of rotting old-growth cedar, dark boles of shake wood inspected and rejected no doubt by my great-grandfather early last century. I’m opening a space in these woods for a writing cabin. I think this may be a good sign.
It’s the Oregon variety— the salamander, I mean. That’s what the book says, though in the photograph the Oregon race is lighter, and this one is the color of Irish stout. I didn’t even notice it at first, lost in the bric-a-brac shadows of the lady ferns, but when I returned to kick up and cart away another rotten wedge, there it was, standing tall and stiff as the Royal Guard— well, as stiff and tall as a salamander can stand, anyway. It often does that, I’ve read, holds up the tail like a shitting cow, waits for something to snatch it off so it can run like hell— well, as fast as a salamander can run, anyway.
There are those who believe, or have believed, that a salamander can withstand fire; I see that. Though exposed now, this little guy was quite safe under that soggy lump of wood, and if the crowns of the forest were raging in a holocaust above it and baking everything around it to embers and cinder, there is every chance in this world it would remain damp and serene, bathed in its regenerative and protective darkness. And I can imagine some scavenging opportunist like me, in whatever century, in whatever millennium, scouring the smoldering aftermath, pulling back a block of charred wood, not noticing anything right away, then returning to find this naked, perpetually wet little thing standing, as alive as the gods, in the pale brimstone and ashes. A startling new element! Not good to eat, but sure good to marvel at and to shiver about— because it’s weird, isn’t it, how just a smidgeon of truth can cause the heart to flip? There, where nothing was before, is something now— a shining, black homunculus, standing tense and ready, utterly naked and vulnerable and yet seemingly immune to the universe, obliging me to center my whole life on it. It’s as if some tiny creature living at the base of my skull has suddenly recognized itself and is shrieking.
Maybe I don’t know if this is a good sign or not, but what can I do but stand amazed? Under these boughs, in this spot where I hope to build my own refuge, here is a wonder. And if I ever get this cabin to rise, I pray this little wonder will choose to live beneath it; I require something this dark, something this cool and immemorial at home below the orange heat, under all the burning questions I have to ask. I need that immunity, that alertness and vulnerability— that willingness to be whatever it takes.
Donald J. Mitchell lives on his family’s 130 year old homestead in Deming, WA. He digs up and repairs water lines and works at several other labor jobs. He has written poetry and non-fiction all of his adult life and is currently trying his hand at fiction.