The first of the two ponds is murky. Light penetrates only an inch. We walk past it to the second. The Sunday afternoon breeze has blown the duckweed to the second pond’s east side. We sit on the west. They are there beneath the water, hundreds of them.
The California newts are mating.
They come out of the woods after the rains — the females with new, sharp keels on their long tails, the males with new little suction cups on their toes to grasp the females — and they find the nearest water of around a foot in depth. There the males offer up spermatophores, which the females may or may not accept and place in their cloacas, fertilizing their eggs. The eggs are laid in spherical packets, stuck to submerged twigs or to the ground. They hatch in two or three weeks.
The newts often walk some distance before finding water. We found one a quarter mile away this afternoon from this the nearest pond. We two have hiked here before. Becky was stricken with remembrance, with desolation. The woods are moist and the creek running, and she laid her right hand on the moss-covered bole of a bay laurel and sobbed. That part of the trail was especially steep.
The newts weave in and around the stands of egg packets, now seeming to nip at one another, now clasping one another, sometimes a dozen at a time. Adult newts sometimes eat the eggs themselves, and they are likely the only animals that can. The gelatinous cloak that covers the eggs is loaded with tetrodotoxin, the same poison in fugu and blue-ringed octopus, the same poison in the skins of the adult newts themselves. Children capture newts here all the time, molest them briefly and then reluctantly loose them back into the world, and no blaring headlines result in the local newspapers. There is a fatality on record in Oregon: someone decided to swallow a newt of a closely related species. The toxin shuts down the nervous system, paralyzing the respiratory and then the circulatory system. A few garter snake populations have evolved an immunity to the stuff. I walk to the east side of the pond: a blanket of duckweed obscures the mating. Little snouts break through the leaves here and there, newts coming up for a gasp of air. They dive again and the duckweed swirls in their wakes. A few of them walk the shallows, their outlines rendered vaguely beneath a carpet of minuscule red leaves. They are comical in cadence, a child’s wildly imagined windup toy, limbs wheeling in absurdly exaggerated arcs one after another, spines flexing leftward and then rightward. Somehow they scale impossible, overhanging four-foot cliffs, walk miles through the forest.
The carpet runners I bought for him are rolled up in the garage, soiled beyond repair. I will take them to the dump on Wednesday. The sunny corner in our bedroom where once he slept is full again, cycads and sundews and pitcher plants in the window above bare hardwood floor. We cleaned the house the day before Chinese New Year, something between tradition and obsession, and little of his hair remains. I am impatient with his memory. I long to be full of something else, or empty altogether. Westward, a ridge backlit in late-day sun, and on it ten years ago he stared down two coyotes as Craig and I watched. This landscape breeds some things that will seize up your lungs whether you swallow them whole, or leave them alone to multiply beneath the surface.