Dance of the Adders
Written by Stephanie Dickinson
Art by Mehrdad Zaeri
1. Scratchy Messages
This week I’ve forgotten to go to school and missed three days. They won’t try to hold me back because I’m the rare thirteen-year-old who knows the habits of gazelles. We kept two from Bahawalpur here for a month. They grazed between my bed and the card table, trembling in their shyness, their ringed horns curving backward. I’ve watched parrot eggs hatch. The chicks are long-legged like ballerinas. That first blink is something to see. I cry every time. I tickle golden Gavrail’s underbelly, and then he slips from his branch onto my hand. He is hungry; he’s more playful when his appetite begins to open and he’s wondering if my tickle finger might be dinner. The sensors in his upper jaw hone in on warm-blooded objects. The eyelash viper might be the most beautiful snake in the world. His skin is a mesmerizing yellow, and horned scales grow above each eye like a girl’s lashes. I spend hours staring at him. If he’s hot and musky smelling, I give him a sink shower. If he shivers I turn up his space heater and his skin glows as if each scale is a golden lantern. He’s like no other captive, cold-blooded being I’ve met. He shows me affection. I love him almost more than Spas, my poppa.
“Raina, in the kitchen!” Spas calls out from the hallway. ”We have to talk!”
I ignore him while I tend to my best friend. Even with the heat lamp on it gets cold this far north in November and my body warmth entices Gavrail. I wear the same coral tank top whenever I’m with him in the bathroom where he lives in an ornamental tree next to the tub’s trickling water. The motion of his rough scales (definitely not smooth, more like Velcro) on my bare shoulders makes me laugh. Like a scratchy message. Through my skin he reads my messages back to him. My classmates might find it strange that I’ve helped smuggle, and then lived with boa constrictors and rare turtles. I fall in love with the captives and never want them to leave; I become their little mother. I tell them how sorry that instead of moist rain forest, their world is now a walk-up tenement apartment in lower Manhattan. “Your basic slum,” Spas likes to say, “but the rent is right.” In school I’m the tallest girl and taller than half the boys. I have blue eyes [father Bulgarian] set in double lids [mother Han Chinese] and short black hair [mother] and long legs [father]. Most mixed race kids are pretty but not me. I look botched. If I arrived on a plate I’d be sent back to the kitchen. My mother must not have liked what she saw since she left me with Spas before I could talk. No one looks at me but to laugh except Gavrail.
“RAINA! In the kitchen. NOW!” Spas thunders.
“There’s a storm coming,” I tell Gavrail. “Her name is The Bombshell. Number 1, we eat only take-out around here and Spas is in the kitchen cooking. Number 2, I think he’s trying to foist a mother on me as if it’s not way too late for something asinine like that.” My friend doesn’t answer but he understands.
2. Denge Fever
The bathroom door swings open. It’s my poppa Spas, a human male in an apron, boxers, a muscle shirt and bare feet. A band-aid decorates his big toe where a deranged parrot took a taste while Spas napped. Gavrail tenses as if the dance of adders is rising inside him. Likely, he fears Spas, as the one whose hand plucked him from the broad-notched leaves and coarse bark of a palm tree, who blind-sided and bagged him.
My father prefers being called Spas instead of Poppa, since it makes him feel younger than his 35 years. He waves a wooden spoon over his head and slaps his palm with it. “Three days, kid! Denge fever! The school nurse called to say they can’t let you back in until the Public Health gives an okay. I told her you’ll be in Monday if I have to carry. You aren’t sick, you’ve been vaccinated. A liar, that’s what’s wrong with you.” He’s all soft black curls that fall into his blue eyes like overhanging lilacs and some women melt over his looks. I don’t see it. Braces crisscross his teeth trying to pull together the space that used to separate his two fronters. If we’re in a pinch with a custom official and it’s a female, he’ll let loose a bit of charm, and then he’ll wink. This year we could afford braces because last year was our best—he smuggled a baby tiger in my suitcase, showing airport security his daughter’s adorable stuffed animal asleep on top of her nightie. Hide in plain sight. That’s the ticket. And make sure airport security and the IRS get their cut. And La Leona Eco Lodge that offers nature’s bio-diversity to those with hard currency. We’ve perfected smuggling live snakes, fish, and birds across borders. We’re good, too, with mammals and butterflies. Officials search for metal and sharp objects and heroin, not feathers and fins. I’ve flown wearing prize pigeons in my socks. Once we boarded a plane wearing sixteen green tree pythons each.
“Denge Fever, Raina? Three days! Public Health!”
“I was sick. It was a girl thing.” That’s all I usually have to say to shut my pops up about hygiene or healthier living highlights. This time it doesn’t; his mouth goes on. He wipes his free hand on his apron.
I have no warm-blooded brothers or sisters. No friends. I have only the captives. They don’t stay. Sometimes they sicken from loneliness before Spas sells them, and when that happens I ask to die instead of them. After Mr. Bolly arranges a buyer, they vanish. Not Gavrail though. “His buyer croaked,” Spas cheerily mentioned two weeks ago. “Bolly will find another buyer pronto.” I balled my fists, thrust out my chin. “No, Spas, I’m keeping him.” Gavrail is coiled on my outstretched arm, his beautiful head resting on my shoulder. “You are the first captive I’ve named. Gavrail, hero of God.
“You want to get us thrown into Rikers? How about Child Services taking you over or maybe you’d like to be tossed into a foster home? We don’t need any suspicious eyes pointed our way. And you might as well sleep in the viper’s tree for all I see of you. Ask yourself if all this attention to Gavrail might be hurting Marco Polo’s feelings.” Spas approaches the terrarium set on two step ladders where Marco Polo, the legal Royal Python we’ve had for years lives. “Hey, kiddo,” Spas addresses him. Marco’s in his blue phase, meaning his skin is beginning to shed and his eyes bulge, filmed with a bluish membrane. Spas’s eyes are that same twilight blue-grey and he admits there’s a family resemblance. “Yes, you’re my brother.” My poppa favors Marco Polo, who knows he’s just for show, a common pet store snake with papers. In his blue phase, he prefers to be left alone. I stay in a blue phase year-round.
“Put the viper up and go set the table.”
“It’s supper time.” I tickle Gavrail’s yellow belly and he laughs. “I have to feed him first.”
“That devil can go a month without eating.”
It is always supper time in the rainforest whether the sun is rising or setting, whether you hear birds croaking like frogs or frogs crying like birds, and whether or not you see shining flashes of amphibians like rings on the fat fingers of a medieval pope. Rubies and emeralds and sapphires sparking the wet forest fungus, appearing as fruit and leaf and jewel, never protein. The secret is to be unseen. Spas has drilled me in the secrets of mimicry and invisibility, that the vulnerable butterflies take on the coloration of their poisonous cousins. Under the leaf canopy and far from the sun, Spas forbids us to speak and we stand in place letting the vines nuzzle us and insects drink.
Listen, Raina, what’s it going to be next time you call in sick to school?”
“Bubonic plague,” I answer.
4. Liar Spawn
I am the spawn of expert liars on both sides and so deception comes to me naturally. I open my mouth and a bubble of untruth pops out. Both Spas and my Beijing mother wanted a fiancé’s visa into the USA and thought the other was a citizen. When smuggling animals across borders Spas claims he doesn’t need me, but I’ve been helping since I was able to walk. Conservancy signs are posted every second in the Bosque Tropical Illuvioso. Do not take out animals or plants from their natural habitats. Spas always winks at such signs and tells me we are affording the captives a rare opportunity to immigrate to the richest country in the world. Aren’t they all wealthy homes the captives are placed in? “It’s a living, Raina, isn’t it? Do you want me to drive a cab 16 hours a day and, excuse my language, get hemorrhoids in my ass that feel like chili peppers? And besides isn’t it fun gaming the Custom officials who are so interested in our passports that state you are my daughter and not a sex slave that they forget to pat me down and they never touch you?”
Usually, I pretend to be deaf and use sign language, and sometimes I’m blind and groan and let my mouth hang open. Spas always tells officials I require a wheelchair. Naturally, Gavrail and I were rolled onto the plane first. For the first leg of the journey we traveled with captive Blue Morpho butterflies at rest in their netted pouches behind my knees, breathing the slight vapor of a sweet death. I could feel their colors camouflaging my flesh: pollen-brown wings with turquoise bands and vermillion spots; the glass-winged butterflies trembling like heat lightning, the pale green lunas like lit ashes. Each butterfly has its own odor and the rooms in our scruffy apartment often exhale the muskiness of various serpent and bird and mammal mulch.
5. Deaf and Dumb Customs
Gavrail stays draped around my neck when I join Spas in the tiny kitchen with a crooked window, a sink, a table, two hanging cupboards, a refrigerator, and a gas stove. What’s missing? Countertops. That’s what the bread board balanced over the rinse side of the sink passes for. I cock my ear to the hiss and sizzle from the cast iron skillet. Spas is making a Bulgarian specialty for the Bombshell who goes by a rather common name—Marie. The bat cave of a stove doesn’t know what to make of kebapce, the grilled sausages and its flying grease. And the skillet that only fried eggs visit on a regular basis sputters with excitement as Spas squeezes his tongs around a sausage. Before Marie became too friendly with Spas, hardly anyone in our neighborhood bothered to think of our existence.
I take out the green plate and the two brown ones and wipe the water spots off the knives and forks. From the dusty salad bowl on top the refrigerator I get out the Jacks 99 cents store bag with the table decorations.
“No, set the table with the paper plates we bought. Then use some elbow grease and wipe your fingerprints off the refrigerator. And ditch those taped-up menus, Miss Denge Fever.” Spas whistles and jumps back when a grease bubble hits his chin. All four gas burners are lit and making merry with their blue flame under kettles of sauerkraut, potato dumplings, kebapce, and applesauce.
Spas is becoming an idiot. Since meeting the Bombshell he’s dropped 20 IQ points. He’s been fussing since this morning, first spending too much on grass-fed sausage, beef, and pork, and then adding spices too beautiful for the pots in this house. After he broke an egg into the mixture, he stirred it for fifteen minutes with his bare hands. “Only bare hands will do.” How disgusting. “You’ll see, Raina, how many the Bombshell eats. Just you wait.”
“Don’t be trying to finagle a mother on me, by the way.”
“Listen, Raina, no mother would accept you as their child. And now you’re going to get us all into trouble if you keep skipping school. Next time the principal calls here and tells me you have something like the Black Death,” he says, “I’m enrolling you in PINS. Persons In Need of Supervision.”
“Humph,” I say, knowing Spas hates that word.
“Put Gavrail back into his tree and shut the bathroom. The Bombshell will be here in an hour. You’ve got errands to run for me.”
Food for turtles: Dark leafy greens i.e. collard greens, mustard greens, dandelion greens,
Kale, (not the garlicky kind in the E. Houston Street Whole Foods salad bar or jalapeños)
Romaine lettuce is okay but not as nutritious as leafy greens
Never ever feed iceberg lettuce. Spinach (rarely) hibiscus, grapes, clover, strawberries
Food for snakes: Tiny, fluffy mice. Frozen mice: thaw overnight in fridge, use zip lock baggies, run hot tap water until thoroughly thawed. No boiling water. No microwave.
Robot Mouse Rumba: Warm in oven to body temperature, hold between tongs and jiggle.
7. Nervous and Jerky
Spas is the whistler, the looker, the winker at pretty girls on the street, but after marriage to my mother—the Chinese liar, the passport forger and in general crook—he’s stuck to flirting. He carries the one surviving photograph of his mother in his breast pocket. His personal Virgin Mary who protects him against snake venom and customs agents. His mother on her wedding day poses alone. Her eyes, vivid blue like the tunics of medieval jesters, shine over her pale pear of a wedding dress. A silver skull cap drips rain-shaped beads from silver strands over her forehead like a beaded curtain her groom will brush his hands through.
“Just don’t be nervous and jerky around Marie,” Spas says. “Be sweet. How you are to customs agents.” He takes a sip from his red plastic party cup.
“Humph. The Bombshell’s barely five feet tall,” I grouse. “Why do you want someone whose height interferes with her reaching anything on a second shelf?”
“Is it my fault you’re almost as tall as me? You’re a freak of nature.” Spas is trying to re-light the oven pilot with a stick of incense. “You know I hate humph’s.” He runs a hand through his black curls.
“What’s wrong with you? Are you in love or something?”
“She is from Sofia and not spoiled like Americans. Even the homeless here are rich.”
Her picture’s now Spas’s laptop screensaver.
There’s a rap on the door and we freeze. Then we hear one finger tapping, three longs and one short. I roll my eyes.
“It’s open,” Spas yells. “Come in, Bolly, and don’t use your stupidity code.”
The door flings itself ajar and in struts Mr. Bolly, whose first name is the hated Bobolal, dressed like a gangster retiree in a beige leisure suit and weighed down by a black valise. His thick silver hair has been brushed off his clay-colored forehead and he looks like Burt Lancaster in Atlantic City, an old movie Spas loves. He’s the middle man, the one who connects the buyer and the seller, and always receives 30 percent of the sale. “Good evening, Miss Raina,” Mr. Bolly says. I hold my breath at his approach. A peacock drags his tail because it has so many eyes, and Mr. Bolly splashes designer colognes on, one layered over the other. “And for the most ravishing girl in Manhattan, may I present…” From his valise he proffers a chocolate-covered strawberry like a velvet casket, a rare brown pearl. I bite into the strawberry, not one of those degraded kinds, picked green and shot up with red food coloring, and juice spurts over my tongue. This strawberry ripened close to the musky earth.
“Mmmm,” I say as way of thanks. I don’t ask Spas if he’d like a bite.
“What are the three branches of government?” he asks as if I’ll get the answer wrong. His posture is straight as a barred window: around him swirls the dark of hidden money and illicit electronic transactions bouncing from satellites in space.
“Legislative, executive, judiciary,” I answer.
“How many original USA colonies?”
He chuckles, “Name them.” The pouches under his eyes remind me of saggy backpacks.
“Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey, New York, Delaware, Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland, South Carolina, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine,” I answer, then turn my back counting on my fingers to twelve. “And Pennsylvania.”
He nods at me and I amble to the cupboard and fetch down a red plastic cup and pour in apricot rakiya. Two fingers, he’s told me enough times. He’s from Guyana and likes to inform anyone interested that his forebears were indentured workers shipped from India to pick the cotton and plant the rice and clear the jungle. Mr. Bolly is studying for his citizenship test as well as taking ESL classes, although English isn’t his second language. Once I insulted him by asking what language they spoke in Guyana. English, he told me. I’ve shared that with Gavrail and it amused him.
He sips his drink. “Spas, good news! I have a buyer for the eyelash viper. $20,000 is his best offer.”
The hairs rise on my neck and stand on my head. I picture seeing Gavrail for the first time. There on a leaf platter a lizard sat perfectly camouflaged but then flicked his tail and that movement gave him away. In the humid air where orchids bloomed from vines thick as wrestlers’ arms, the yellow viper lifted its head. The jitter of hummingbirds and bird cries stopped. A sudden silence. The forest held its breath. The yellow eyelash viper snatched the lizard, injecting it with paralyzing poison via its hypodermic fangs, and then swallowed.
“You did well,” Spas says, busy draining bacon grease from the iron skillet into a tin can before adding a dollop of lard to the boiled sauerkraut. “When will we see the money?”
“Tomorrow. I’ll deliver the snake to the Dakota on Central Park West,” Mr. Bolly says. “I won’t need you, Spas.”
I lift my eyebrows. That’s not how Spas operates. He’s an expert handler; he won’t allow any of these highly endangered creatures to be jostled about. Spas lets out a long breath and blows a curl off his forehead. “If anyone delivers the snake, it will be me.” He reaches for his own red plastic cup and pours himself three fingers plus of apricot rakiya. Like the three-toed Tapir from an ancient mammalian lineage.
“Really, Spas, I’ll make the delivery.”
A cloud of grease explodes above the skillet. “What’s this, Bobolal? From my hands into the buyer’s is how I’ve always operated and that it is how I intend to operate. I allow no injuries in transport.”
I notice there’s two more bottles on the counter—one plum and the other apricot rakiya.
9. Supermodels and Lichen Synagogues
I run my finger through the piles of bright yellow saffron. The color of Gavrail. Paprika, red-brown. Turmeric. Cumin. I love these spices. Like ground jewels. Spas tells me to get my hands out of the goods. “You’re the most unsanitary person I’ve ever met.” He has room to talk after massaging raw hamburger with his bare hands.
I’ve been dreaming all week of walking in the wet forest, alone except for the captive poison darts and honeycreepers and rare butterflies that have returned with me to the leaves that endlessly trickle rain from tiny troughs. I kneel to touch the red-eyed tree frogs, the tiny Anne Franks of the lichen and moss synagogues. They remain motionless all day long like the Frank family in their attic, balled up to hide their blue bellies, keeping their scarlet eyes closed. I am at home too in this dripping world. Why hasn’t Gavrail come back too?
“This gentleman isn’t worried about injuries.” Bolly takes a long swallow and makes himself comfortable on a stick-like chair that Spas found full of dry rot on the street. “He desires only a tidy transaction.”
A thunderstorm is brewing.
“And I am untidy?” Spas booms. “Ask the customs official I walked by wearing Gavrail as my tie, if I am untidy.” His forehead has broken into three furrows. “You drink my rakiya and then insult me. Tell the buyer to buzz off.”
“I meant only that the buyer, since he is a friend of my second cousin, would like to deal with me. He is a hedge fund manager and a connoisseur of fine women. He’s dating a supermodel who loves snakeskin.” Mr. Bolly clears his throat, gesturing to me. Bug off, disappear.
For Gavrail’s sake I stay planted between Mr. Bolly and Spas. Human beings bring trouble, especially semi-friendly ones. Rule 1 that Spas drilled into me from my knee-high time—trust absolutely no one.
Spas takes out his wallet and peels off four twenties. “Raina, get me a cold Coke and two six-packs of ginger ale from East Village Farms. No diet anything, understand? And pick up a dozen roses while you’re at it. Turn the bouquet upside down, shake it first. Make sure none of the petals fall off. Pronto!”
I stuff the money in my pocket and walk down the hall. I open and close the door, then tiptoe back, holding my ears out on stems.
“The buyer wants the yellow viper’s skin for a size 27” waist belt,” Mr. Bolly lowers his voice as if he knows I’m listening. “A unique gift for the woman who has everything.”
“What?” Spas blurts out, “He wants to turn one of the world’s most coveted snakes into a belt? The guy’s an idiot.”
“$20,000 is a beautiful price. The viper he’d like delivered tomorrow freshly killed. Okay, Spas, we’ll go over there together. In the morning.”
There’s the sizzle of more sausages hitting the skillet. “That’s a waste of a damn priceless animal,” Spas says. “I don’t like it. I’m not slaughtering him here, and then getting over to the Dakota, and the idiot’s not at home or he’s changed his mind. We’ll dispatch Gavrail in his bathroom. Otherwise, forget it.”
10. Bulgaria Calling
I slam a warm coke, two six-packs of diet ginger ale on the table. Instead of roses, I’ve chosen lilies—big soggy Easter lilies, the leaves thick as green waffles. After I rummage through the silverware drawer where spoons, forks, silver and plastic, have intercourse, I spot my Swiss Army Knife and pocket it. Mr. Bolly has poured a whole fist of plum liquor and his eyes shine like puddles of purple radiator fluid. All the colognes make him smell purple too. I hate him. I want him to flunk his citizenship test that he’s terrified of taking. That a cretin like him would have a hand in deciding Gavrail’s fate is beyond comprehension. I pray to the god of fire ants and serpents to change the eyelash viper’s fate. I am the high priestess of amaryllis.
“What are the first 10 amendments to the Constitution called?” Mr. Bolly drunkenly addresses me. It is our game and I want to kick his gap-toothed smile in.
“The Bill of Rights,” I say. “The right of freedom of speech, press, religion, peaceable assembly. The right to bear arms. The right not to be tried for the same crime twice. The right to not be fucked with.”
“Enough!” Bolly interrupts me. “That was very unladylike. None of my nieces use vulgarities.”
Mr. Bolly favors getting drunk on other people’s liquor and once he begins to talk there is no stopping him. He tells me of a mosquito’s kiss spreading affliction. Guyanese are industrious especially those of Indian descent. Americans, on the other hand, excel at laziness. “That’s why there are no USA engineers,” he likes to say. “All Indians and Guyanese. All itching lilies and God birds.”
I tote Bobolah’s valise to the door and drop it on a spare pair of Spas’ shoes.
“By the way, Spas, and you too, Mr. Bolly, no one is turning Gavrail into a belt for a 27” waist. I will kill anyone who tries to take him away.” I show them I’m carrying my Swiss Army Knife and they know I can throw it. “And if Mr. Bolly tries to touch Gavrail, I will cut him from ear to ear.”
Spas starts to laugh, a low rumble, then like a train screeching away from the subway platform, a knee-slapping, body shaking hilarity. I bite my lip. Blood is rushing to my head and I ball my fists.
Mr. Bolly chuckles. “I have to admit it’s beginning to smell good in here.”
“Laugh all you want. I’ve put up with enough. A mother who dumped me, a smuggler for a father, a slum for a home, a big body topped by a flat-nosed face like a genetically modified maraschino cherry. Do I complain? No. I’m an earner. Do I ask for clothes and iphones? Never.”
“Raina, I will buy you an iphone.” Spas opens the oven and out comes the aroma of baking bread. Like the lace of an Edwardian wedding veil.
“Spas I didn’t know you were a baker?” Mr. Bolly says, taking off his leisure suit jacket and lifting his eyebrows at me as if telling me to set him a place at the table. That his fat ass, solid as Plymouth Rock, is going nowhere.
“How would you like it if I cut my own throat? I’ll do it.”
Spas offers Mr. Bolly a taste of fresh warm bread and worries he might have burnt it.
11. The Bombshell
A paper tablecloth trimmed to resemble lace drapes the square table, and in its center an aqua candle inside a pink vase flickers. Plastic goblets sit atop aqua napkins next to doubled aqua paper plates. All the dinnerware and cutlery to match from Jacks 99 cents store.
“Everything’s disposable except life,” Spas says, opening a bottle of sweet wine.
Marie is late and Mr. Bolly has already eaten five sausages and polished off two fluffy dumplings and the bottle of plum liquor. He snores from the daybed in the living room between the empty bird cages and terrariums.
Then the doorbell.
Marie arrives in a strapless black cocktail dress with a sheer net showing off her shoulders. Her face shines with goodwill. “Greetings to you, Spas,” she says, gifting my poppa a wrapped package that contains another bottle of plum rakiya. “And greetings to you, Raina,” she beams, handing me the plate of baklava she’s made. I can smell the honey and raisin through the saran wrap. Marie smells like honey and raisin, too. When she smiles you think you’ve eaten baklava. She’s also brought two thermoses of cold yogurt and dill soup that I dip my finger in. One taste makes me a believer and I go for the wooden spoon. Dark blond hair curls at the lobes of her smallish ears that remind me of pink shells, and her brown eyes (gold-flecked like someone dusted them with glitter) smile too. Even her upturned nose and medium-sized pillow lips, their corners upturned unlike my corners that Spas claims are downturned and a curse from my hornet of a mother, give off sunbeams. Good riddance. The pleasure Spas takes in the sight of her brightens his blue eyes. He’s smitten and that’s obvious. He smoothes his black curls, especially the ringlets that fall in his eyes.
“You’re an Eastern European bombshell,” he says, beside himself.
“Oh, don’t be silly,” she laughs.
She wants to help serve dinner and asks me if I have a hair clip. A laugh pops out of me considering I’ve always cut my hair at the barber Spas frequents. I offer a long bobbie pin I use for the Robot Mouse Rumba and help sweep her hair up off her neck and into the pin so tendrils creep down her nape and her temples. Modest hair roots I bet Spas wants to whisper to or blow on.
“You could easily fit under Spas’s arm,” I tell her and she giggles. “He’s smuggled wild animals larger than you through customs of a dozen countries.”
“My daughter is a wild animal herself. She escaped from a pet store and claims to be related to me.”
Yes, Marie’s pretty face stands out because it appears quiet rather than noisy. The most beautiful girls sometimes stop being pretty when their mouths open. That counts for men too. Marie’s like a patch of buzzing soft grass you want to lie down in. Her small feet have selected high heels to enter our apartment and I doubt her shapely thighs and buttocks could shoehorn themselves inside the skinny jeans favored by the party girls. I can’t deny her look of tranquility: the look you sometimes see on animals when they are at rest.
“Do you like school?” she asks.
That must be the stupidest question to ask an ugly mixed race kid.
“I’m an unattractive thirteen-year-old who nobody likes and that includes my teachers. I’ve been suspended twice for fighting.”
Her quiet smile spreads from her lips into her gold-flecked eyes. “Oh, I hated school too. My front teeth were knocked out by the handle of the butter crank. It was three years before I could earn my own money and afford my two front teeth. The boys called me the toothless milkmaid.”
“Would you like to meet my pet snake?”
The shy smile doesn’t leave her face but she glances at Spas who shakes his head. Is that a negative or an affirmative.
“I’ve named him Gavrail after my Bulgarian grandfather who lived in a mud-and-wattle house with forty birds and all you heard were wings. He’d retired from snaring wild birds for wealthy Russians, repented, and went on his knees before his winged roommates to ask forgiveness. ‘Spas, someday you’ll repent too. You’ll see,’ he’d prophesied.”
12. Hazelnut Marmalade
Spas is loading up Marie’s plate with sauerkraut and dumplings and now the entrée. The chef’s specialty.
“I hope you like meats, Marie. The kebapce is 60% pork and 40% beef.” I excuse myself, letting them know it’s time to feed Gavrail, the most beautiful snake Spas has ever liberated from the rainforest. Most times I feel like liberating myself from stupid civilization. You’re just unlucky, Spas likes to say, you’re at the unlucky age. I’m unlucky whenever my age is an odd number.
“Luck is very much a part of success in our business,” I tell Marie.
“What business would that be?”
“Exotic animal foster care,” Spas interjects. He’s changed out of his apron and put on pressed black trousers and a long sleeved white shirt cuffed to the elbows. Like a waiter at a pricey dive. Spas serves himself the meat dish and the sauerkraut drizzled with lard; he fills her plastic goblet with plum rakiya and they toast. The candlewick flickers like last rites at a Babylonian tomb. A ziggurat. I could draw a bubble around both their heads. Spas could tell her we are in the business of promoting jellyfish soufflé or importing giant cicadas that resemble torpedo-penises and spurt bug brains—pure proteins and considered an aphrodisiac in Korea.
Keeping my back to the table, I go into the freezer and remove the zip lock baggy where Gavrail’s dinner awaits its resurrection. I intend to unthaw the white mouse on a cookie tin. The tiny pink nose, the white whiskers look like they belong to an angel. I set the thermostat low. Then I fill my pink paper plate with everything but the meats.
“You have unusual eyes,” Marie says to me in her warm voice that could simmer the applesauce Spas left on the stove.
I look down at my plate and the scrambled remains of a fluffy dumpling. Marie is nice. “My eyes are bluish, and then turn gold, not the shocking yellow of Gavrail’s scales, but somewhere between hazelnut and marmalade. They’ve seen tree boas squeeze the life from lizards and swallow them. I understand that all life is like that—bigger mouths eating smaller mouths. It isn’t a kind-hearted universe and I’ve accepted that.”
Marie giggles, “Spas, your daughter is very smart. My goodness.”
“Goodness, she is not. Try badness.”
“He worships you, Marie,” I say, not caring if I embarrass Spas. “We first saw you in a red skirt and a short leather jacket. Spas stopped dead in his tracks.”
“Oh, Spas, you are badness too. Such a flirt.”
We’ve hardly started on our baklava and Bulgarian coffee when the buzzer rings. It is a bicycle messenger for Mr. Bolly, who has to be shaken awake and walked into the foyer. He opens the door for an envelope and parcel, and then closes it. “The timing on our delivery has been moved up,” he tells Spas, plucking a plastic goblet from the counter and pouring himself plum liquor. He taps the edge of the sink with his index fingernail, buffed and long with a purple half-moon of cuticle. The rest of his nails are blunt cut; only one is manicured into a dagger. “The buyer has arranged for his craftsperson to pick up the item at 8:00 a.m. He would like us to arrive well in advance of that deadline.” Mr. Bolly uses his dagger to slit his parcel apart. “And for the most gorgeous woman on three continents, I have special delivery ordered a deluxe Godiva strawberry.” He’s presenting the chocolate pearl to Marie, whose eyes are aglow but hardly straying from Spas face. “Spas, the buyer would like the item brought over well before blue dawn.”
Spas nods, “No problem, buddy.”
Deadline. I’ll show them, I think, biting my lip, and then marching to the oven to retrieve Gavrail’s dinner.
The Bombshell has to use the lady’s room. Although she argues that two snakes don’t frighten her, Spas says he cannot allow her in the exotic animal bathroom. Listen, the Soviets stole her grandfather’s farm. Her grandmother died in a Communist prison between walls of seven-foot stone. Spas insists on escorting Marie next door to use Frank the Fisherman’s bathroom.
I take out the cookie platter from the oven and turn off the stove. The mouse has bloomed in its purity, in its whiteness and pinkness. “That item is my best friend. You’ll take Gavrail over my dead body.”
He continues to tap his fingernail on the metal edge of the sink “Do you think Marie liked her Godiva? I’ve found that most girls do. But this one—your father’s right—is a bombshell.”
“Go to hell, Bobolal,” I say, squeezing the thawed mouse like a white rose made of frosting between tongs. I shake the poor innocent in Mr. Bolly’s moon face.
13. Angel Food
I turn on the space heater and call for Gavrail. He senses my vibrations. It’s time to go home, Gavrail, yes, back to the rainforest, where this bathroom will seem like an awful dream. There you can forget this cold place with its pretend heat. His triangle-shaped head watches from his ornamental tree, his pupils like cracks of light between blinds. “What are you thinking?” His two fangs are hypodermic needles and fold back when he’s not biting his prey. “A belt for a size 27” waist? Do you want to meet the man who has the audacity to suggest making a belt out of the rarest snake in the world and the most desirable? Should we make him into a belt? You are not like the others who find a branch and forget life. You’re curious like a cat and friendly.” Truly, he is a yellow-gold god, the saffron color of a Buddhist monk’s robe. I mourn for his dusk and thick scrub in Costa Rica. He has the patience to wait for his lizard for days.
We stare at each other through the stems of his eyelashes. I stroke the little mouse that belongs on a wedding cake not in the belly of a snake, and then I wiggle its body before Gavrail, whose diamond eyes elongate into slivers like the crack of a limo door, like the garter of a fishnet. He blinks. He’s trying to tell me something. “Gavrail, you are the smartest snake I’ve ever met. Aren’t you hungry?” He licks the air with his forked tongue. Raising his head up from his golden coil, he unhinges his jaws by gummy ligaments and gulps the mouse’s head first, then the rest of the angel food. If God made the snake why does he get no hands, no feet, no ears? Gavrail, what is your experience of eating? Any taste? Is it only a good sensation to be full? Did the same God who fashioned the leaf’s drip drainage system make you? I tickle Gavrail’s belly and he knows it’s time to slither up into his tree. From that height my yellow friend settles onto the thick branch as he’s in a post-meal stupor, sluggish for days, while digesting the slight white groomsman.
14. Robot Mouse Rhumba
Marie and Spas are locked arm in arm and having a rakiya toasting contest. They are splitting their sides laughing, and Mr. Bolly joins in. “Raina is pouting in the bathroom,” Spas tells Marie when she asks where I am. “She needs a distemper shot.” Mr. Bolly cackles. I’ve packed all the frozen mice in a Tupperware container with dry ice. I’m trying to decide if I should steal Spas’s old car that he parks on the street—not that he couldn’t afford better but he doesn’t want anyone to think he has money. Rule #2 after trust no one is keep a low profile and never never flash money or possessions. Someone is always ready to snatch what you have. I’m wondering if I’ll be able to unpark Spas’s rusty hatchback from its spot wedged between a white van and black SUV, I envision me cratering the white van with the bumper, all the while Gavrail coiled in his carrier still sleepy and trying to digest his meal. I’ll need maps to mark out a route to Costa Rica. I’ll take the precaution of stealing Marie’s driver’s license and slapping on make-up. She is 32 years old and appears in the photo like a teenager in all the dreary colors of post-Soviet Sofia. Don’t I look old for my age anyway? I’m too young to travel alone and otherwise they’ll stop me and call Spas. It’s the only way. I need to steal Marie’s passport. I have my own but my birth date makes me 13, a minor. Or I can follow Spas and Mr. Bolly to the Dakota and I’ll say I have to be with Gavrail because I’m his little mother. I’ll kick up such a fuss in the hoity toity highrise where multi-millionaires like Yoko Ono live. But Spas will tie me up before he lets me tag along. If Gavrail and I drive I’m worried about crossing the border into Mexico, all the kidnappings and shootouts, but one way or another we’re leaving tonight. Maybe I should steal Spas’s credit card instead and charge a round trip plane ticket to Costa Rica so they don’t suspect I’m a terrorist on a one-way trip to paradise.
“It’s getting time to break our drinking party up,” Mr. Bolly says. “The buyer is waiting for us.”
“Who is this mysterious buyer?” Marie asks, her voice beginning to blur. “What are these goods you are selling?”
Mr. Bolly and Spas both try to enter the bathroom.
“Liars and murderers! Get away from here! I have my knife.”
They try to trick me; they only need to take a whizz. I tell them to use a soda can.
I have to make them listen to me and this is the only way. I know what journey I must take. I tickle Gavrail’s underbelly and he coils himself around a high tree branch. I don’t intend to go all the way out on the red river; therefore, I need to be careful because Spas and Mr. Bolly are drunk and likely Marie’s blood-alcohol percentage tips the legal limit. I begin filling the tub with hot water, and then I take off my jeans and sit in my panties and coral tank top. I can feel Gavrail’s drowsy icicle eyes on me. I open my Swiss Army Knife to the razor sharp blade.
I make the incision horizontally across my left wrist. If I really wanted to kill myself I’d make a vertical one. I watch the blood seep from the thin lips I’ve cut into my wrist. I cut identical lips into my right wrist. My head feels light and Marco Polo in his glass terrarium starts to spin, staring with his bulgy blue eyes. If they don’t want to see me die, they’ll leave Gavrail alone. I wish we were running away, Gavrail. In four million years the sun god will have dried the rainforest no matter what idiot humans do. The Amazon will turn to savannah. All the Gavrails will be gone and yet there will be a lingering music of green. Green shimmering moving up the waist of the Americas, up the befouled Mississippi and swirling East, the green overtaking vertebrates and invertebrates, fungi and chameleons, the forest world’s essence.
Red strings of blood float on the surface of the water, red threads that trickle from a concubine’s tapestry. Gavrail, we are alike. Your mother must not have liked what she saw either since she left you on a branch alone only days after your birth. Perhaps you were shorter than your siblings, more or less, by an inch. Your brothers and sisters left you for life in some far off overhanging trees. My mother disliked what she saw too.
“Raina! Are you okay?” Marie asks, knocking lightly. The bathroom door is unlocked because in Spas’s house a locked anything’s not allowed. “Raina!”
The blood is draining from my face and my heart pounds. I can’t answer. It’s open, I want to shout but can’t get the words out. Alarmed, Gavrail has slid down to a lower branch. The red strings are opening into the water, blooming like hibiscus and orchids. Like Blue Morpho butterflies. I’m cold, I’m hot. I’m digesting a heavy meal—a forest frog, the most gentle of creatures.
The door opens and cold rushes in, and then the noise begins. All at once Spas is lifting me from the tub, shouting orders, tying his belt around my arm. Marie and Spas both kneel beside me. “Compress, Marie. Keep the pressure on her right arm. Clamp down.” We don’t need to go to the ER because Spas is practically a veterinarian. Too many questions and no one wants to end up in Rikers. Once the blood stops there’s bandages and tape wound tight; there’s a blanket and the space heater’s glowing coils. “She doesn’t have any sisters or brothers. It’s no wonder,” Marie murmurs.
“Where is the viper?” Mr. Bolly shrieks. “He’s not in his tree.”
15. A $20,000 Stunt
Months pass. The apartment has been taken apart and put back together three times. I have a new stepmother, who prefers I call her Mom rather than Marie. Gavrail has disappeared; perhaps he’s crawled into one of the mouse holes along the floorboards and is holding up there. I call his name at the entrance to the world of mice, although Spas believes the smell of decay that permeates the floorboards underneath the bathtub is Gavrail. “Snakes aren’t smart,” he says. “The viper got himself in but couldn’t get himself out. Likely he ate too many mice and got fat.” Humph. Aren’t we Bulgarians and isn’t gold the sacred suspension bridge between the lands of the living and the dead? Golden Gavrail is holy in the chain of being. “$20,000, Raina. That was a $20,000 stunt but I’ve forgiven you and so has Mr. Bolly. Gavrail would have lasted longer as a belt.”
I will never forgive either of them.
I’m waiting for Gavrail among the leaves, the narrow ones that collect water like tiny spigots with rain barrels at their bottoms—wet cradles where frogs deposit their eggs. I watch a strawberry-colored mother carry a tadpole clinging to her back and am teased by the green shadows, knowing that here the sticky tongues wait for moths and damselflies, here the eyelash vipers sense the hot-blooded frogs, and here ocelots dream of snakes. Every leaf, a universe, every ant, a citizen of a hungry planet.
Stephanie Dickinson raised on an Iowa farm now lives in New York City. Her novel Half Girl and novella Lust Series are published by Spuyten Duyvil. Her work appears in Hotel Amerika, Mudfish, Weber Studies, Nimrod, South Loop Review, Rhino, and Fjords, among others. Port Authority Orchids, a novel in stories for young adults is available from Rain Mountain Press. Her fictional interview Heat: An Interview with Jean Seberg was released in October 2013 from New Michigan Press. www.stephaniedickinson.net. She received the Dr. Neila Seshachari Fiction Award given by Weber: A Journal of the Contemporary West.
(Updated Jul. 2014)
My name is Mehrdad Zaeri. I was born in 1970 in Isfahan, Iran. On December 24, 1985, at the age of fifteen, I came to Germany with my family applying for asylum there.
When I finished school at Heidelberg in 1992, I decided to draw pictures for the rest of my life. I began to work as a taxi driver and to line up many expositions with my own works.
In 2001, I stopped working as a taxi driver and started freelancing as an artist. Since then I work together with artists and story-tellers on the stage at (dance) theatres, musicals, readings and concerts. I accompany their performance with my drawings which become generated and then projected during the event. So the audience can attend the creation of pictures. Since 2008 I work as an illustrator.
A year later, I founded the live performance group KNOPFKINO with Enno Kalisch (actor and story-teller) and Friedwart Goebels (pianist). Out of the moment stories are being improvised and told with visual, musical and spoken elements.
(Updated Jul. 2014)