Dana Diehl: "Going Mean"
Art by Jon Timmons
A month after we moved to Pforzheim, Germany, my husband came home with two baby Komodo dragons swaddled in his tweed work jacket. The size of kittens, scales soft, they looked like the newly hatched alligators I’d seen in documentaries.
“For you,” Philip said, basketing them into my arms. “Companions for when I’m away.”
The dragons nipped at the ends of my sleeves with tiny, white teeth. I could feel their soft weight pressing against my chest as they squirmed in my arms.
“I got them from Letta, the chemistry teacher. We’re allowed to keep them for two months, and then she’s sending them to the zoo in Stuttgart.”
He pulled a book out of his suitcase, Caring for your Reptile. He read, “Reptiles are challenging yet rewarding pets that require regular attention.”
The dragons’ claws pricked through my wool sweater. Their muscles moved under their scales, which were as cool as stones. I wanted to drop the dragons, to push them away with my toe, to hide them under the furniture. “Where will we keep them?” I asked.
Philip and I lived in a restored German farmhouse with a sloping roof and large attic but small rooms that held the heat and had us bumping into each other in doorways. Behind our house, the Black Forest was dark with pine and fir trees. Our closest neighbor was miles away. This was no place for lizards.
“We’ll block them in the kitchen,” Philip said. “I’ll order crates for them to sleep in.”
He scooped the dragons out of my arms and tipped them onto the tiled kitchen floor. They skittered, scattered, running for the shadowy spaces under the chairs. Philip went outside to the car and returned with a baby gate, which he placed in the doorway. The dragons growled against it, tested it with their teeth.
“They’re completely legal under the Animal Regulation Act 4862,” Philip said, seeing my uncertainty.
“They don’t like the gate,” I said. “Aren’t Komodo dragons vicious? What if they attack us in our sleep?”
Philip laughed and kissed me on the cheek.
That night, a storm roared overhead. Philip didn’t stir. He’d slung his arm over my shoulders in his sleep, pinning me to the bed, and I moved him carefully back under the blankets. I couldn’t hear the dragons over the sound of the rain, and this made me nervous. The sky beyond our bedroom curtains was bruise-purple, and lightning struck once, twice, over the Forest. Philip’s grandparents had once told me that the Black Forest contained all of the mammals that scientists believed were extinct. The Irish elk, the bilby, the Tasmanian. The Black Forest hid all, and I imagined them now, recoiling against the thunder, finding shelter under roots.
When I woke the next morning, Philip was crouched on the kitchen floor, feeding the dragons cubes of leftover pork off the end of a toothpick. His hair was mussed with sleep, dark and prickly, in a way I’d found attractive when we first met. I could see a sliver of skin where his shirt lifted up above his flannel pajama bottoms, exposing the scar from a childhood street hockey accident.
“Guten Morgen,” he said to me, and then again to the dragons. Good morning.
Over the past month, I took to carrying an English-to-German dictionary around the house with me. I flipped through the pages. I spilled coffee over conjunctions. I tried to put new names to the objects I’d carried across the ocean with me.
I joined Philip on the floor. The dragons snarled at me, and Philip pushed them away with a swipe of his hand. I noticed teeth marks in the wood at the base of our table.
“Maybe we should keep them outside,” I suggested.
Philip shook his head. I could smell dark coffee on his breath. “They’ll learn to hunt if we leave them out. They’ll go mean.”
“Won’t a cage make them meaner?” I asked, but he ignored me. He distracted the Komodos by placing food in front of their noses.
“Aufwachen, drachen,” I said. Wake up, dragons.
“Too harsh,” Philip replied, not looking away from the dragons. “Aufwachen. It’s a soft word.”
Philip was raised by first-generation German immigrants in Brooklyn. When Philip was a child, his parents told him stories of the old country around the dinner table. Stories of the Krampus, a beast-man that stole misbehaving children from their beds, and of wolves that disguised themselves as people. “Nonsense,” Philip called it. Like most children of immigrants, Philip’s primary language became English once he started school. But his dreams always remained in German. Sometimes I’d wake up to him muttering in his sleep, harsh consonants, soft umlauts.
When we married, Philip flew me to Germany for our honeymoon. I met Philip’s grandparents, who spoke all the English words they knew, calling me pretty girl, asking, how many babies? “Not for a while,” I’d laughed. We ate pot-roasted bratwurst and buttery bread rolls. Philip was three years older than me, quieter than me, mysterious. We walked in summer-warmed cattle fields. We went to pubs in Dusseldorf and danced polka with other couples. We were the happiest we’d ever be. So, four years later, when I made the mistake that bent our marriage, I was the one to suggest we return to Pforzheim.
“We’ll be happier there,” I told Philip. “It’ll be our chance to restart, away from everything, back where we began. We’ll visit the villages where your parents grew up, we’ll go dancing.”
Philip’s grandparents had passed away a year ago, and I knew things would be different this time. Nevertheless, I hoped that Deutschland, with its magic forests and beast-men, could heal us.
The dragons swallowed the last of the pork, then scuttled to a patch of tiled sunlight. Philip sighed, stretched, rose to his feet. “Time for work,” he said.
Philip taught sixth grade biology at the Buckenberg school for boys. He graded pop quizzes with a red pen at the dinner table every night, a “check” for right, an “x” for wrong.
He poured a to-go cup of coffee. I placed a hand on his back. I whispered, “Aufwachen, aufwachen,” more to myself than to him.
After Philip left, I let the dragons into the yard with me. I didn’t trust them in the house alone. My husband was at work, the sun out, and I hung wet shirts and pants from the clothes line. As I rung the water out of pockets and seams, the dragons climbed onto each other’s backs and rode each other like horses in the unmowed grass. They were too small to escape over the fence, and outside of the house like this, with the sun warming their scales, they seemed almostcute. I sat on the front stoop and watched them dinosaur-step over each other. It didn’t seem possible, but already they looked bigger than they had the night before.
Four weeks in Germany, and I still hadn’t found a job. Back in America, in New Jersey, I’d managed a no-kill animal shelter for dogs and cats. In my free time, I perused local pounds, looking for animals on the kill-list to bring back to my shelter. Feral cats, half-wild dogs that I’d given names to. Philip called me sentimental. He said I was guilty of anthropomorphizing animals, the most dangerous mistake a scientist could make.
Philip, at the time, taught middle school science. I raised a fuss every time he had his eighth grade science class dissect rats. He learned to stop telling me when it was dissection day, but I’d always smell the disinfectant on him, the latex on his hands.
Philip wanted children. He wanted to move back to Brooklyn and fill an apartment with babies. He wanted me with a child on my hip, another in my belly. I refused to have children until I had a stable career, until I’d traveled.
It was after one of our fights that I met Nico, the newest volunteer dog walker at the shelter. In his early twenties, a few years younger than me, tan, born and raised in Venezuela. Not as muscular as Philip, but slim like a tree limb and with beautiful, dark hair he pulled back into a ponytail.
After work one day, he invited me back to his apartment to see his collection of rescued pets, and I accepted. He lived close to the airport, under the Newark flight path. Jets roared overhead as he showed me his box turtle with the chipped shell living in his bathtub, his pygmy goat in his backyard, his three-legged Husky. Seeing him on his knees, forehead pressed against the dog’s, melted something in me. I kissed Nico there on the floor, and he kissed me back. I’d never been with someone younger than me, someone who wasn’t asking anything of me but the moment. The pygmy goat butted at the back screen door, the turtle scraped against the tiled floor. Once I started I couldn’t stop.
When it was over, I put my clothes on quickly. The exhilaration I’d felt minutes ago had vanished. I remembered Philip, in his fifth period right now, teaching sixth graders about cell mitosis, and was suddenly terrified by my attraction to Nico. It’d been so easy to cheat. For years I’d looked down on faithless husbands and disloyal wives with no idea that the potential to cheat had been inside me, too.
I left Nico, still reclined and bare-backed, on the tiled kitchen floor.
A week passed before I summoned up the courage to tell Philip.
“I understand if you want to leave me,” I told him. We’d just finished dinner. Dirtied plates and an unfinished, bony turkey breast sat between us.
Philip left without a word and didn’t come home that night. When he returned in the morning, he took my cellphone and threw it into the garbage disposal. I stood in the doorway and watched without trying to stop him. I heard the clunk of the phone landing against the disposal blades.
After that, things seemed better. Philip tried to pick the parts of the phone out of the drain with tweezers. He told me, “You made a mistake, but it wasn’t only your mistake. I take responsibility for not paying enough attention to you, for not recognizing your needs.” He held my hands in his. He took off his glasses and placed them on the coffee table.
In bed that night, he told me his grandparents had split up for a short time before he was born. His oma moved to Prague, his opa to Brunswick, and it took only four months for them to realize they’d made a mistake and return to each other. I reached for Philip under the blankets, but he twitched away from me.
“This will take time,” he said. “I haven’t forgiven you yet.”
The dragons circled the perimeter of the yard, rubbing their black and yellow scales against the fence, looking for a weak section. As I watched, I coiled grass around my fingers. The dragons licked the air, and I smelled the air. It was late summer, and the air that flowed out of the Black Forest was cold and dark.
When the dragons reached the back of the yard, they started to fight over something in the grass. They shouldered each other and dug into the soil with their front claws. I watched, mesmerized, as one of the dragons tensed. The other backed off as its brother dug its feet into the lawn and pulled. An earthworm, the longest I’d ever seen, nearly two feet, snapped out of the soil and hung, swinging, from the dragon’s jaws. I stood, but before I could reach them, the dragon had slung the worm up into the air, swallowed it whole.
Every day, Philip came home from school with a set of dragon facts. “Did you know baby Komodo dragons spend their first few years in the trees?” “Komodos see the world like a snake does, by tasting molecules in the air.” “Komodos engage in ritualistic combat for their female mates, wrestling in an upright position, sometimes fighting to the death.”
The weekend came, and he read from the reptile book, “Your lizard will molt several times during its first months of life. Help it along with regular scrubbing.”
He filled the upstairs bathtub with hot water and asked me to bring the dragons upstairs.
I hadn’t touched the Komodos since they ate the worm. I’d seen dogs and cats attack each other or stalk mice at the shelter, but with them there was always an element of play in the fight. There was always hesitation before the kill. The dragons’ approach had been unapologetic, and I didn’t know what to make of it.
I herded the dragons upstairs with the end of a broom. They didn’t resist, eager to explore a new section of the house. In the bathroom, Philip lifted them by their chests and dropped them, one at a time, into the full bathtub. They dog-paddled in the water and clawed at the smooth sides of the tub.
I stood in the doorway as Philip scrubbed them down. With a toothbrush, he brushed at the space around their eyes. He cooed to the dragons, rubbing their bellies with bars of soap.
“What are you going to name them?” he asked me.
I looked at the dragons, but no names came to mind. “I’m still deciding.”
The dragons kicked suds up onto Philip’s T-shirt. One of them twisted in the water, nipped at its brother.
“Nicht,” Philip said, flicking the dragon on the nose.
The dragon turned on him. It coiled under his hand and sunk its teeth into Philip’s ring finger. Blood bloomed in the water.
“Damn it,” Philip said. He jumped to his feet, cradled his finger. His first dragon injury. “I’m okay, I’m okay. Just watch them.”
He left the room, dripping blood onto the floor behind him. I listened to his feet hit the steps. The dragons were back to paddling circles in the tub. So serene now, all their aggression spilled out. I sat on the toilet and watched them.
Philip returned with his finger wrapped in gauze.
“You should get stitches,” I said. I realized now that I should be helping him, comforting.
“What do you care?” Philip snapped. He took a deep breath. I could see blood pooling under the white gauze. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. Maybe I’ll stop by the doctor before work tomorrow.”
I helped him empty the tub, scrubbing the blood from the rim of the drain. We lifted the dragons onto the toweled floor. They were heavier than I expected, nearly the size of beagles.
As Philip changed into dry clothes, I sat on our bed and Googled Komodo dragonson my laptop. I learned that they originated in Indonesia, where they’d swim from island to island searching for mates. I learned that adult Komodos can grow up to ten feet long and weigh 200 pounds. Adult dragon saliva teems with over 50 strains of bacteria that can kill a bitten animal within 24 hours.
I shared this information with Philip.
“It was just an accident,” he said. “They haven’t been trained yet, but they will be soon. You can train reptiles like dogs. And we’ll give them back before they’re too big.”
Philip crawled under the covers next to me, and I closed my laptop. I took Philip’s hand in mine. His injured finger had swollen, the knuckle almost the size of a grape. I felt badly for not helping him when the dragon lashed out. Since my one-night stand, Philip and I had been intimate only rarely, and seeing him in pain reminded me of why we’d moved to Germany.
The bedroom window was open, and I could smell the Forest, hear branches brushing against branches. I kissed Philip’s knuckle. I slung my arm around his waist and kissed the peak of his shoulder. At first, I thought he might already be asleep, but after a moment, Philip rolled over and embraced me under the blankets. He kissed my neck, and I bit into his shoulder. A quick, hard bite to the shoulder blade.
Philip recoiled. “What was that?”
He pulled away from me, and I pulled the blankets up over my chest.
“Maybe we should talk,” Philip said. “Is that what you want?”
I was silent. I felt like a reprimanded pet.
Philip started talking. He told me that he had started a science club at school. He and Letta were planning a joint field trip to the city science museum next month. I tuned him out. I was confused by what had driven me to bite him. I was confused by the spontaneity of it. I could still taste the saltiness of Philip’s skin in my mouth. I realized I wanted to bite into his shoulder and not let go. To see him run into the yard, shoeless, and howl at the Forest.
When Philip fell asleep, I reached over him for his reptile book, which was sitting closed on his nightstand. I took it into the bathroom to read under the light. The pages fell open on the Komodo dragon chapter, and I read, “Indonesian legend claims the dragon as their kin. Modern villagers still see the Komodo dragon as an ancestor.”
I thought of the dragons stalking insects under the couch. Or waiting by the foot of the stairs. Their thoughts so far from human.
Philip spent the rest of the weekend dangling cat food in front of the dragons’ noses, trying to train them to use a litter box. The harder he tried, the more the dragons rebelled. On Sunday morning, they knocked over the baby gate and rampaged the house while we were still in bed. We woke up to Philip’s lesson plans scattered over the living room floor in snow-like shreds. The rocking chair legs were splintered with teeth marks. The dragons were nowhere to be seen.
“Tap into your lizard brain,” Philip told me.
We searched the house together.
I found the first dragon, curled in the hallway closet, tail coiled around the handle of Philip’s briefcase. He found the second hiding between the folds of the living room curtains.
I could feel the dragons’ tension growing and was relieved when he left for work on Monday. I wanted to try something.
I heard the car clear the driveway, and I stepped into the kitchen, now barricaded with chairs. The dragons were sprawled in a patch of sunlight, and they didn’t move when I approached them. They looked thinner than they should be. Their skin was leathery, too big for their bodies. It draped over their shoulder blades, hung under their dragon-chins.
I sat next to the closest Komodo, cross-legged.
“Gute drachen,” I said. Good dragon.
I leaned back and turned until, like the Komodos, I was sprawled on my stomach across the tiled floor. I reached slowly, touched the dragon’s side. The scales felt like chain mail. The dragon’s eyelids flickered. I could see my reflection in its black pupil. I expected it to twist, to bite me like it had Philip, but instead it flicked its tongue. Nudged me with its scaly nose.
I inched away, my heart pounding. The dragons recognized something in me, something they didn’t recognize in Philip. I was afraid of what that might be.
“Was ist das?” I asked the dragons. What is it? What is it?
That night I told Philip I wanted to go into town the next day.
“I just need to get out,” I told him, and he seemed pleased. He looked up from his grading.
“You can meet me for lunch,” he said. “We’ll meet at Coffee Boxx.”
For dinner, he made schupfnudel, rolled noodles over sauerkraut. He hummed as he cooked, and warm steam filled the kitchen. The dragons watched with their noses tipped into the air. The meal was bland. I itched to pour salt over it, or pepper, but didn’t want to insult him.
“My grandparents’ recipe,” he told me. “True German cuisine.”
The dragons licked at his ankles, tasted the air.
At noon the next day, I shepherded the Komodos into the kitchen. They looked at me with coal-like, betrayed eyes, but I ignored them. As I climbed into the car, I realized I’d forgotten my translation book. I thought about going back into the house for it but decided I wouldn’t need it. I could learn German the old-fashioned way, through experience. I could make my way through the world by reading emotions and inflections instead of words.
For the first ten minutes of the drive into town, the Black Forest streamed by the window, dark and dense and earthy. The steering wheel hummed under my palms. A dirt road turned off the pavement and vanished into the pines. For a moment I thought I might take it, give in to the sweet, quiet pull of the Forest. Drive until the wheels were muddy, until the car resembled something more animal than machine.
I forced myself to keep going. The Forest gave way to city. Geometric, red-roofed buildings, carefully sculptured trees. I drove slowly, unsure of the rules here.
The café was small with salt-streaked windows and tight booths. Black and white photos of cityscapes hung on the walls. I ordered at the counter, “Darf ich einen Kaffee?” and was proud of myself for remembering the words.
I spotted Philip in the back of the café, and he waved me over. A woman sat in the booth next to him.
“Sweetie, this is Letta,” Philip said as I approached.
I slid into the booth across from them.
“How are the dragons?” Letta asked, smiling. There were spaces between her teeth, and I could tell by her tight-lipped way of smiling that they embarrassed her. She wore khakis and a buttoned-up shirt. A careful ponytail. I imagined her teaching chemistry classes, mixing perfect solutions in lab beakers, showing twelve-year old boys how to create controlled chemical fires. Each of the boys is in love with her. She never sweats in her lab coat. She doesn’t hold pop quizzes like the other teachers. She’s kind, even to the boys who don’t participate.
“Letta and I were just having a work meeting,” Philip explained, reaching across the table to touch my arm. “Discussing the problem mit privaten Bildungseinrichtungen.”
“The problems with educational institutions,” Letta translated. “I was just leaving, I don’t want to interrupt.”
Philip put a hand on her shoulder. “Oh no, stay. We don’t mind.”
I watched how Philip’s hand lingered and wondered if it was for me to see.
Letta settled back into the booth. “How brave of you to fly to Germany with your husband,” she said. “Germany is so fast.”
“She’s learning the language quickly,” Philip said. “Show her, hun.”
I cupped the hot base of the coffee mug in my palms. “Um. Die Drachen sind. Sind in Ordnung.”
“Dee-dra-ha-hen,” Philip corrected.
“Great, such good enunciation,” Letta said.
I sipped my coffee. It blossomed hot and dark on my tongue.
“She’ll be a true German soon enough,” Philip said.
I turned to Letta. “You grew up here. What do you know about the Black Forest?”
“Oh, I don’t go into the Forest,” Letta said. She dabbed at her mouth with a napkin, then folded it into a triangle. “My family has a story about my great-grandpapa. He was a craftsman, a woodworker. One day he went into the Forest to do his work, and he never came back. My mother says he was eaten by a beast-man. Silly, I know, but I can’t break tradition.”
Philip laughed, and as he laughed his pinky touched Letta’s forearm. I watched the ease with which he touched her and waited for the jealousy to rise. I was surprised when it didn’t. Watching Philip interact with Letta, I felt nothing. All I felt was a need to return to the Forest, to return to my dragons.
“Maybe your grandpapa ran away,” I said. “Maybe he wanted to leave.”
Philip glared at me, but I felt none of it.
“Excuse me,” I said, and stood.
I walked out of the café, didn’t look back. I returned to the car. As I merged onto the highway, I passed a sign for Prague. I thought, I could slip over country lines. I could let Europe unfold beneath me.
Philip and I were silent for most of the evening. I could tell he thought I’d been rude, but I didn’t want to fight. I was tired of the tension between us.
After dinner, he told me, “Do you know why words in the German language are so long? Lebensabschnittpartner, for example. It means, the person I am with today. In America we would simplify it and say ‘partner’ or ‘date.’ But here, we understand that nothing can be erased, so we let our words build.”
I didn’t respond. Sitting on the floor, I played tug-of-war with the dragons and a piece of jerky.
A small, brown mouse skittered across the kitchen floor, and in a flash the dragons had forgotten the jerky.
“Grab them,” said Philip. He stood, reached for one of the dragon’s tails, but it slipped out of his grasp.
The dragons skidded across the tiles. The mouse cornered itself between the oven and cabinets. One of the Komodos pinned it with a claw.
I sat, watching, as Philip swung at the dragons with a broom.
“Help me,” he said, and I shook my head.
I heard a small click as the mouse’s spine broke under a Komodo’s claw. The dragon swallowed the body.
Philip sat back down, put his face in his hands. “They won’t always be like this,” he said. “They’ll get better.”
“Letta is going to send them to the zoo,” I said.
Philip went upstairs to shower. A few strands of mouse fur lay in the corner of the room, and I swept them into a dustpan. The dragons orbited my ankles. When I didn’t give them attention, they scrambled to the backdoor and scratched at the wood.
“You don’t want to go out there,” I said, but they kept scratching.
I thought of something Nico had told me, before we’d kissed on the floor, when our relationship was still simple and guiltless, and for the first time in a while I allowed myself to think of him.
It was his first day volunteering at the shelter. I’d just brought in a wild Doberman I’d found rooting around a dumpster in the city. It growled at other dogs until I gave it its own kennel. It wouldn’t eat the dog food I poured into its bowl. Its eyes went wild when I slid a muzzle over its jowls.
“No one’s going to adopt him,” Nico said, watching me struggle to calm the dog. “He’ll never be happy in a house. He would have been better off left alone.”
I remember looking up at Nico, the end of his ponytail tucked inside the back collar of his shirt, and not believing him.
I tipped the mouse fur out of the dust pan and into the garbage.
Philip called down the stairs, his voice faint over the sound of the shower, “I invited Letta over for dinner tomorrow. I think you guys could really hit it off.”
The dragons scratched at the door with urgency. They were leaving shallow scars in the wood, and I pushed them away with the side of my foot.
One day the Komodo dragons would be as big as I am. One day they’d tear apart an animal larger than a mouse. It wouldn’t matter to them if they were in a zoo or in our house. It wouldn’t matter that Philip and I had cared for them all those days. They’d experienced violence and couldn’t forget it.
I listened to the water traveling through the walls of the house, up to Philip, who would be coming downstairs soon to tell me about his lesson plans, to correct me on my pronunciation, to make me feel guilty about the mistakes I made.
The dragons returned to the door like magnets to metal. This time I opened it for them. I stood in the doorway and watched them skitter off into the dark grass. Their skin looked ocean-gray in the starlight, loose around their shoulders and ready to molt. Their noses tipped into the wind like overturned wine glasses.
The water stopped.
I put on shoes and walked out into the yard. The grass was wet on my ankles.
“What do you want?” I asked the dragons.
They licked the air, smelling for me, and I knew their answer. The dragons wanted to stomp into the forest. They wanted to grow large there, larger than their brothers and sisters in Indonesia. Winter was coming, but it was okay, because they wanted to dig holes with their strong claws, bury their plated bodies under the soil and let their blood turn to stone until spring came again. They were dragons, full of muscle and sinew, and they wanted more than love. They wanted wild.
“Sweetie?” I heard Philip’s voice faintly, traveling down the stairs.
I walked to the edge of the yard, the dragons at my heels. I knocked down the decorative fence with the bottom of my foot, and the dragons claw-climbed over it. Together, we approached the dark line of trees. Together, we faced the place where all the forgotten beasts hide.
Dana Diehl is a recent MFA graduate from Arizona State University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Passages North, Booth, New South, and elsewhere. She lives and writes in Tucson.