We thought, at first, that we were imagining them:
that sliver of disturbed dust by the sidewalk, that
hint of damp on the kitchen floor. Then we thought they
were an aberration: the one found coiled in young
Markowitz’s bathroom sink, the other around
the apple strudel in Mrs. Polski’s icebox.
The beasts have been sent among us, said Leopold,
to rob us of our children and to destroy our
cattle. Since we knew he drank his meals, we shook our
heads and pitied his daughter Leah who came each
night to drag her father home, his arms waving like
snakes. Then others began to talk. Everywhere, there
was snake talk: It’s been pretty dry the last few years;
they’re just looking for water. Old Farmer Johnson
must have turned up a lot of rocks in his field this
spring. If you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you.
Some people even laughed. Then our neighbors began
slicking back their hair. Our children practiced flicking
their tongues in front of the bathroom mirrors and changed
their names to snake names. By September the snakes were
everywhere. Glistening black bodies swarmed over
the sidewalks, bubbled out of the water pipes, milled
out of morning cereal. Some tried to ignore
the snakes. They were the first to disappear. Others
argued: They don’t have any reason to hurt us.
What have we done to them? If we don’t bother them,
they won’t bother us. They were next to vanish. A
few brave ones tried to learn snake words, to untangle
the slithering black unrest. Their facility
at languages could not save them. But most of us
tried to protect ourselves. The snakes caught us any
time: when we were gathering fruit in the garden,
when we reached into the basket of knitting, when
we crawled into bed at night. Then suddenly, one
spring day, the snakes were gone. A cold wind blew in their
place. We lost most of our village to the snakes. We
heard the same from neighboring towns. The wind chilled us.
We swept the brittle carcasses out of our homes,
replanted our gardens, and tried to rebuild new,
snake-less lives. The years passed. The wind blew cold, hard words
at us: There must have been something to upset the
snakes: they only attack to protect themselves. It
could never happen here. I never saw a snake
in my life. If they were here, they weren’t in my house.
But we have taught our children about the snakes. We
teach them how to wield bats, how to ignore wispy
whispered snake charms, how to crush a snake’s head with their
heels. Because late at night we hear them, late at night
rustling feverishly around the base of the house,
their long fangs clicking, their lidless eyes watching.
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© 1980-1986, 2000-2007, 2013 by Alexandria Constantinova Szeman.
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