I have never been afraid of snakes. Not even when they started going in and out of the walls.
It’s not as though there’s even a chink for them to get in and out of. They just come and go as though they own the fucking place.
I say “them” because there’s more than one, although the final count remains a mystery. Maybe there’s one that is two at the same time – I get that impression. Of one inhabiting the body of two. Of ripples in a still pond that from one angle appear to be separate, but from another reveal themselves to be just parts of one never-ending wave.
I never even understood people’s fear of snakes. Spiders? Sure, creepy little bastards. Bats? Okay. Rats? Scratchy claw hands. But snakes? Just a long tube of muscle with teeth at one end; it would sooner slither away than be caught dead by you. They eat mice very slowly and become sluggish in the cold. They can hardly be considered sentient beings.
These snakes don’t slither away. In and out they go, just as though they own the goddamn place.
The day I first saw one I was alone in the house, although there’s nothing so unusual about that anymore. I was standing in the middle of the dusty front room on the south side of the house, also optimistically called the music room, though no music had been played there in years and ages, since my sister had abandoned her harp to design costumes and write post-by-post Star Trek fanfics. The only sound was the ringing of silence, and then I heard it: a sigh, a long-drawn whisper, a susurrus, as of a soft cotton sheet being drawn over the edge of a table. And there it was – a long streak of mottled brown, moving effortlessly over the dentine, like a pinstriping brush. It flowed over the white woodwork in open defiance to gravity, never once pausing to look at or acknowledge me, then plunged its head into the paint and burrowed smoothly into the space behind the crown molding, leaving no scar behind it.
I stared, then walked out of the room. If I could only get away from the room, I reasoned, it will never have happened.
The next time, I was in the kitchen, alone, making dinner. The skillet was cold and empty, and I couldn’t remember what I was about to do with the wad of mustard greens in my right hand, when I heard it again: like the death rattle of the space inside a seashell. Above the sink, above the horrible gingerbread wood panel that we always swore we would change when we got the chance and never did, a colorless snake dripped from the ceiling to the counter like a blob of paint. It was an albino thing, eyes pink as rubies, like pomegranate seeds, scales translucently white, so pale that I could almost make out the pulsing arteries and veins along its length. It flicked a baby-pink tongue in my direction, then crawled into the sink, insinuating itself rather obscenely into the black hole of the drain.
I looked into the disposal, expecting to see a snake curled there – there was a rush of movement, but weather it was the snake or the disposal itself, I couldn’t tell. I put my left hand out to touch the switch for the disposal – the hand not holding the greens – but I couldn’t find it in myself to flip the switch.
My foot moved of its own accord, and I glanced down. The albino snake had appeared from the base of the cabinets, muscling his way along the terrible gray and pink vinyl floor, tasting his way through the air, with no apparent goal in mind. (Not sure why I’m calling it “he;” this one always seemed like a male to me.) He found the large pantry cabinet, newer than the other cabinets but not by much, and slid inside, passing through the wood with no apparent difficulty.
Suddenly my appetite was gone, and did not return. I haven’t opened the pantry since, though I know I won’t see the albino snake in there. It’s alright – I needed to lose weight anyway, right?
After the snakes came, I tried to leave the house to visit other people – family, mostly, like Grandma. I try to fill up the days, her voice rasps over the phone, thick with sixty years’ worth of tears – I try to fill up the days but they’re just so long. She hadn’t been the same since the doctors in the ICU split her in half over a ten-day period. She always blamed herself for not understanding sooner. When that other half died, she could still feel it, feel the death of it sucking at her, feel it trying to speak to her, but she couldn’t listen, wasn’t strong enough to. I try to fill up my days, she said again and again, but the day is so. Long.
She’s never been alone, not in her whole life, but she’s alone now. More than alone. I can see it, but I can’t touch it.
So I try to visit her, to chase away the alone, but the house turns and turns and keeps me from finding the door. Just like Baba Yaga’s chickenfoot cottage in the blackpine woods, this ill-placed suburban pre-fab keeps the world and I apart. Even when I get a good hold on the knob, round it spins and I look down and in my hand I hold a balled-up snake.
Why are you doing this? I ask that question all the time, and never get an answer. The house was born mute, and never learned to speak, except in sighs, creakings, scratchings and drips. Just like you, it could never make a scene, just a pastiche. No great failure; just a series of small ones.
The snakes come and go, just the way you think they would. Once I watched one flatten itself to no thicker than a razor blade’s width and stroke itself between the cherry floorboards, disappearing after only a minute or two of inhaling and exhaling. I never much cared for the cherrywood floors the way you did, but they don’t deserve that.
I would love to tell you about this, but the majority of you has been gone for a long, long time now. There are times, and I’ll be honest here, when I feel like crying, but then I remember how much you hated it when I cried, and I’m able to stop myself. You’d be proud.
I think the snakes have eaten the dogs. I’m sure they’ve eaten the cats. They were fleabags anyway – the cats, not the dogs – always begging for milk and ham when we opened the fridge, always mincing around as though they didn’t have tiny white tapeworm segments clinging to the fur of their haunches. Dead, but a sign of what was misplaced inside. The dogs, though… I do miss having them around, in spite of their barking. I remember how they made you so mad you’d have to stomp into the garage to stop yourself from kicking them.
Shut them up! Quiet! Shut them up!
They were sweet, in their way. They would curl up on me, beside me when I used to sleep, all bony elbows and pointy little feet, fishy breath, black eyes and black noses, watching. I think the house spins more now that they’re gone.
Yes, I’m certain they must have been eaten.
My palms ache now, thinking about them. That’s where my heartache goes, into my palms, and into my throat, but it never goes out. I keep it in. You taught me that well. You’d be proud.
I stopped laying down to sleep because I was sure the snakes were crawling into one ear and out the other, laughing as they crept down my throat and out through the palms of my hands and the soles of my feet; finally, I stopped sleeping altogether, which seems to have made the world a bright and crystalline place. The darkness at the edge of my eyesight is easy to ignore.
I remember – and that seems to be all I do anymore – the black snake that haunted the campground at your brother’s trailer by the little pay lake. It always seemed to be in different spots, without having moved.
I remember the snake that curled itself around the metal pole in the garage in the desert, and froze there – how you prodded it into a box and left it on a hill of dirt in the Wayback, as we called the no-man’s-land of sagebrush and cattle skeletons beyond our backyard. It warmed to life there, and wriggled away without thanks, and then we realized we didn’t know if the snake was poisonous or not. Was it red and yellow, friendly fellow? Or kill a fellow? Red and black… well, the snake was gone now. Maybe we should have killed it while it was frozen.
The windows don’t open in this house anymore. I can’t even see out of them. Maybe the windows are just a memory.
Baba Yaga had a magic lamp, didn’t she? It illuminated all that was unknown. I find myself searching for this lamp in all the closets, shifting the towels and the ancient shampoo bottles and the dusty-smelling curlers in rose-printed cosmetics cases (my hair has never been long enough to hold curlers). Once we locked a cat in the linen closet for half a day – her maiowing led us to her when she was hungry enough, and though we were guilty she never forgave us.
What was I looking for, again?
I look down to find my legs have become two snakes, thick like pythons or boa constrictors, disappearing into the ugly cherry flooring like a mangrove into the still coffee surface of a swamp.
I remember the dead green snake on the side of the road, its pink and orange guts squirted out through its genitals. You laughed at me when I pointed it out. It was rolled pale side up, belly to the sky, ready to backstroke down into the storm drain, and only doing so when the rain washed it down with the leaves.
I look up at strands of my hair growing upwards into the ceiling – long brown snakes, hanging down, waiting to catch a bird. As though there were birds living here.
I remember what you said when I mentioned I wanted to visit New Orleans – It’s filthy, you said, greasy and filthy. As though the air was oil and the people made of mud, like reverse snowmen. I never did go.
The house spins. I wasn’t even trying to find the door. I stopped trying a long time ago.
Why are you doing this? I ask. The words flow from my mouth like tiny, thin snakelings, dropping to the floor, scattering like newborns, like earthworms towards the shade.
I remember how the dogs used to love hunting snakes. They were never afraid of anything.
In my hand, a balled-up snake. No – my hand, a balled-up snake.
I want to open my mouth wide and let out the snake in my heart, but I keep it inside. You would be so proud of me.