ISSUE 5 · FALL 2010




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Copyright © 2010

Mike Meginnis





The Snake Charmer's Teeth

MIKE MEGINNIS

 

 

The snake charmer Fanish had a dream. He was curled beneath a cherry tree and the blossoms were fallen on his arm and leg. On waking, he remembered the dream with clarity that made his teeth ache to their pulp. The dream had been with him all his life: an itch on the back of his neck, a tickle in his throat, a need in his jaw. He felt the long bone beneath his skin from one ear to the other: its slow sweep, its hard grace.

There were heavy rocks scattered around him and nestled in the roots of the cherry tree. The half-moon glinted through its tangled branches and their fingers, and patches of moss bristled on its bark, alive to the night and the damp, cool air. The snake charmer wiped spit from his beard. He ground his teeth together, heard their wooden straining in his head.

He took the lid from his snake basket and set it aside. “Vachan,” he said, and he tapped the basket with his flute. He honeyed his voice. “Vachan. Please come out.”

The serpent raised her head to peek out over the basket’s rim. Her eyes were sweet small wells of black like olive pits, or the mouth of an ink pot.

“Vachan,” said Fanish. “Please come out of your basket.”

She shook her head, or seemed to. She tasted the air.

“Pretty Vachan,” said the snake charmer. “Pretty Vachan, don’t be shy.”

He began to play his flute. His serpent ignored him at first. Then her rattle twitched inside the basket—the sound of several pebbles jostling. It twitched again, and her head perked up, and she raised her head out of the basket, watching the end of his flute as he swayed it left and swayed it right. He reached a hand to her, playing with the other a repeating pattern of rasping lows, ha mm hmm ha, aa aah, ha mm hmm ha, and she slithered up his arm, aa aah. If there was a strange glint in his eye, or a certain stiffness in his motion as if from evil muscles coiled, the serpent did not notice. She twitched her tail, rattle-rattle, tattle-tattle. She threaded herself through his underarm, over his shoulder, around his neck. Felt the humming flutter-flutter in his throat.

And down his other arm, through the many hanging bracelets—the silver, the grimy false gold, the jade, the carved bone, the red quartz. She stopped at his wrist, wrapped now around both arms and his neck, tail twitching with pleasure.

He seized her just beneath her head and pressed her nose into the dirt. Her body seized around his—shiver shiver, shiver squeeze—and her rattle clattered. He squeezed the air out of her. Her body slackened, drooped loose from his arms, she felt all sludge inside. He took a wide, flat rock from the cherry tree’s roots and pinned her with it, six inches down her neck. She could barely breathe, but could not turn her head to bite her charmer, and could not slither free. He peeled the rest of her from himself and lay it on the ground.

She thrashed. She whipped her tail about. She sent waves through her, sent trembles.

“Be calm, pretty Vachan,” said the snake charmer. He grasped her middle and ran his hand down her body, squeezing tight, as if to wring something out of her. His grip was iron. As cold, as hard. She gave up. She lay still. He held her by the rattle. “Be calm,” he said. “Be sweet.”

He said, “You are a good girl.”

He said, “Do not think this means what it does not mean.”

She folded her neck such that her head was set to rest on the rock that pinned her, upside-down, looking at the charmer, so that he seemed to hang from the Earth, and the cherry tree to hang behind him, swinging slowly, pendulous, clutching the half moon. He took the rattle to his mouth. He bit into it. Her rattle crunched like an apple. Sand and beads of glass spilled from inside, poured out onto the dirt. Fanish chewed loudly—grit and glass in his teeth. He took another bite, finishing the rattle. More sand, more beads. The serpent hissed and bit the air. Now her rattle was gone.

“You can end this very easily,” said Fanish. “I know that you can.”

Skeins hung from between his teeth. Scales glittered thin, yellow, and transparent on his lips and in his beard. Streamers hung from her open body, brightly colored, and strings, yarns—red, blue, yellow. The serpent thrashed her head against the rock, worked her jaws, but there was nothing she could do.

“Vachan,” said the snake charmer, and he laughed. “You taste differently from what I imagined.” Green blood dripped down his chin. She struggled limply. Soon there was only half of the serpent left. Then there was only a third.

Vachan stopped watching Fanish. She lay her head on the dirt and waited to feel her charmer’s teeth on the back of her skull, on her eyes, on her snout.

“You can stop this very easily,” said the charmer, again. “I saw what you would do.”

He licked his lips. “If you do not stop me,” he said, “that will be fine as well. I find you quite delicious.” He chortled. His hands twisted on her body, around, loosing scales, tenderizing the meat. He was coming to her heart. She would be cold when it was gone. She would be limp and she would feel as a shadow.

The serpent closed her ink pot eyes. She tasted the air. She tried one last time to shake free, to whip what was left of her out of the charmer’s hands. He only laughed.

His teeth grazed the heart itself. Great gouts of green serpent’s blood, pink confetti. The moon was going pale, the sky turning blue—she opened her eyes when she felt the sun.

The serpent opened her mouth.

“Don’t eat me,” she cried. “Don’t eat me, don’t eat me, please, don’t eat me.”

This was the first time she had spoken. It came out of her in a rush, undifferentiated, inarticulate. She had to say it again to slow down, and again, and again, until finally it really sounded like language. She said, “Don’t eat me!” She begged, “Please, don’t eat me. Please, oh please, don’t eat me up. Oh no, oh please.”

She pled, “Please, aren’t you full? Haven’t I given you enough? Oh please, Fanish, please, oh, please, don’t eat me.”

“That’s good,” said Fanish. “There you go. That’s all I wanted. Just as it was in my dream.”

He said, “If I let you go, will you bite me?”

His concern was perhaps excessive, as he had himself removed her venom glands with a small, sharp knife several years before.

“No Fanish,” said the serpent. “I will not bite you.” She wept, and rolled this way and that on the ground, still pinned beneath the flat rock.

Her charmer lifted the rock.

“I knew you could talk,” he said.

“You’ll pay for it someday,” said Vachan, who had not known as he did. “It’s an abomination to make something speak that doesn’t have to. Someday I’ll say something so awful, it will kill you.” Then she clamped her mouth onto her open end where she had been eaten, and she would not let go. Though her black eyes filled with green blood, though the blood poured down her throat and filled her lungs, she would not let go. She did not let go. She kept her mouth bitten down, forming a ring. As the sun rose and the blood inside her thickened, she baked and hardened like clay, until she was a ring—round, hard, still. Fanish did not know what to say to her threat, and gradually he decided that he didn’t care—that there was nothing she could do to him, and that, regardless, it had been worth the risk to hear her secret voice.

The snake charmer slept for several hours, dreamless. When he woke his mind was empty, and he had no ambition, and his stomach was painfully full. He put Vachan around his wrist; he wore her for a bracelet.

For the next thirty years he would not remove this bracelet, even when his flute was broken, his basket shattered, and all his snakes were lost. He could have sold the bracelet, which was unusual and very beautiful and entirely unique, and eaten several months on the proceeds (if poorly, and without beer). Instead he starved to death. The bracelet was quickly removed from his body, the next day pawned. The thief did not know the bracelet’s value and was cheated by the buyer.

. . .

Yuktha’s father bought the bracelet for her as a gift, and an apology. He left it on her pillow with a note that said, “Your father is an old fool.” Yuktha reminded herself to forgive and thank him the next time they saw each other. That would not be for several days; he would be in meetings until then. Yuktha hoped, as she always did, that her father would come back with news of a husband. It wasn’t important who, as long as it was someone she had never met. All the men her father knew were too much like him. She couldn’t bear a lifetime of apologies, of pillow gifts.

She slipped the bracelet over her wrist. The snake was finely detailed, each scale rendered, finely etched. The surface had begun to smooth with age, however, and had taken on an oily sheen from too much handling. The scale etchings were shallow. Yuktha slowly turned the bracelet on her wrist. Fingerprints caught the light and faded—her own, her father’s, or another owner’s. They were small, yes, but her father had such small, girlish hands—smooth, yes, and very soft. She clicked her tongue behind her teeth with each revolution of the bracelet, marked by the coincidence of the snake’s head and the small nub of bone that protruded from her wrist like a mushroom cap.

She decided to polish her bracelet. Using only water and a fine blue rag, she worked human grime and other impurities from the surface, scrubbing until the bracelet looked new, and then scrubbing again, until it looked properly old. Someone had applied a lying polish to the surface—there was, beneath the golden tint, a swirling vein of swamp green, and another of pitch. She turned the bracelet on her wrist. Click, click, click.

Yuktha walked the gardens. She touched the lotus blossoms, the orchids—orchids white and limned with orange. These were slightly colder than the air, and lighter on her fingers, yes.

Yes and the collective smell of the garden was like a wine: bittersweet, corrosive to the mind, faintly burning in the nose. This was the smell of Yuktha’s mother, whom she had not seen in several days—who was haunting, it seemed, the other house, apparently by her own choice, avoiding the windows, sometimes playing the piano her husband bought her for a gift (an apology).

There was the ivy on the wall that surrounded the gardens, budding with little purple flowers. They were a different color every year.

There was the small hole in the wall, the brick gone missing, veiled by ivy. Yuktha put her nose in the gap. There were no eyes that day. Only the breeze, and the smell of outside: dung, dung, dung.

She read a while in the sitting room. She read aloud, as if to the bracelet, running her long fingernails through the shallow grooves of the scales. It was cool metal, but not cold. It was soft, almost pliable. Yes.

. . .

The next day the servants gave her olives. They gave her grapes. They gave her sweet balls of dough. They gave her mango ice cream, a small pile of orange cubes, just a little grainy, yes, and very sweet. They eyed her bracelet and whispered to each other at the room’s edge—seeming to assume, as they always did, she would not trouble herself to hear them.

Yuktha walked the gardens. The lotus blossoms, the orchids. A fat bee: dizzy buzzing, a dilettante in paradise, sampling every flower. It kissed her cheek.

In the hole, behind the vines, two watching eyes. The twitching tip of a nose. The eyes followed Yuktha. The nose inhaled the garden. Yuktha wandered back and forth, out of view and in. Moving closer each time, through hedgerows and past small, tame trees that seemed never to grow.

Yuktha could not know if these were a boy’s eyes or a girl’s. She could not know if they came to see her, or if it was really all for the nose, the nose seeking the flower smell, dizzy as the reeling bee. She could only touch her nose to the other, and breathe in as it breathed in, and gaze into these other eyes. And she did, and they breathed, yes. Yuktha’s father breathed more quickly than she; when they shared a room, they would modulate their breathing until he was inhaling more deeply, and she less. Sometimes they stopped a little closer to her rhythm, sometimes closer his. These other eyes and this other nose were very slow, however. They had a terrible calm. She could never match the other nose’s breathing, and it would never modulate to meet hers. So Yuktha tried to slow her heart, to swell her lungs. She fingered her bracelet—traced the serpent’s jaw, fingered the hints of its teeth.

Today the nose retreated. A mouth replaced it, and (breathing slowly, deeply) kissed her nose. Dung, dung, dung.

She breathed it in. This was not like her father.

At night she slipped the bracelet underneath her pillow. She dreamed serpentine dreams: dream slither, dream slink.

. . .

The next day the servants did not feed her. She rang a bell for them. They did not come. She searched the house, but could not find them; they were gone to town, she thought, or perhaps all hiding in the other house. Creeping in shadows, yes: creeping like vermin.

She walked among the rooms alone, turning her bracelet on her wrist. The serpent’s head pursued the serpent’s head. She opened every window. The chimes that hung about the house chimed some of them for the first time in years, shedding motes of dust. The serpent’s head pursued the serpent’s head. It was like lacing her fingers in her fingers, or another hand—the simple, the infinite weave.

That day was mud slow and blank, like her father’s forehead, like the backs of his legs.

She did not tell her father what the servants did when he came home. They reappeared for dinner, whisking through doorways as if they would always, pouring tea at regular intervals, bringing fresh bread and rice.

Yuktha touched the bracelet when her father looked at her, indicating all was forgiven. She did not ask after a husband. He would tell her when he told her, if he told her, if there was a husband, if there would be.

His small, round spectacles fogged in the steam of their meal. Her bracelet beaded with moisture.

“Could you come to see me in an hour?” asked her father.

Yuktha, eyes downcast, nodded yes. She made the serpent’s head pursue the serpent’s head, the head, and round.

. . .

When Yuktha came to him in his room her father sat naked on the edge of the bed. His body was soft, his glasses smudged from handling, his small, pale gut as round and firm as a coconut. Waves of silky black hair (each thread shining, each thread discernible among the others) washed over him, as if to wear him away.

Her father lifted his flute. He began to play. This was the snake charmer game. It was her invention, from some years ago. She was the serpent. He was the charmer (the player, yes, the beggar). He played his flute and she danced, hands raised up above her head to make a serpent’s watchful eyes (each one bobbing as the flute bobbed), head bobbing, hips turning. It had been her father that introduced the idea, several years before, that she would remove her clothes as she danced. She unwrapped herself with each turn. It had been she that decided to step closer to her father with each unwinding of the sari, though she knew—she really knew—this was what he wanted too.

He grew stiff as he watched her. Her snake-eye hands bobbed. He let go of the flute with one hand, motioning toward her, playing a low, hollow series of notes with the flute hand, like blowing on a bottle’s mouth. Ha mm hmm ha, ha mm hmm aa aah, and ha mm hmm ha, ha mm hmm aa aah. The snake bracelet grew warm. Yuktha took her father’s hand.

It was smooth and soft and small. Only a little stronger than her own. It was not a good hand. It was not the hand she wanted, her father’s hand. It was too much like her father’s hand. Her father’s hand was too much like her father’s hand.

The bracelet began to spin on her wrist. Ha mm hmm ha, the serpent’s head pursuing the serpent’s head, aa aah, the father’s hand too much like the father’s hand like the father’s hand. Ha mm hmm ha, ha mm hmm aa aah.

Yuktha kissed her father, which was too much like kissing her father, which was too much like kissing her father. His lips were too much like his lips, too wet like his lips were wet, too small like his lips were small. The bracelet fell from her wrist. The sound of a bell as it hit the floor. Yuktha’s father pushed her away.

There lay Vachan, gold and swamp green, veined with pitch, her mouth open, her eyes against the floor, her open end pulsing (her heart exposed) and oozing reptile blood. “It is wrong to make something speak that does not have to speak,” she shrilled. “It is wrong! It is wrong! Please do not eat me! You are a destroyer! There is nothing left in my bones! Your music is a lie. Your hunger is false. Your nose is full of dung. Your eyes are clogged with it. You think you see. You think you know. Leave me be in my basket, in the dry dark of my basket. Leave me be, I do not want to talk, leave me be.”

The serpent unhinged her jaw. She bit Yuktha’s father’s foot, and swallowed it, and climbed his leg—excreting his foot as she passed his knee, excreting his knee as she reached his groin.

Yuktha was screaming. She screamed as the seething serpent ate her father’s midsection and it passed out its other end, as it ate up his neck and excreted his chest, as it wrapped his head like a leather mask, closing (finally) closing its jaws atop his head, a weird crown, and slipping off the head as he lay down, and sliding off, like a sock, like a sleeve, onto the bed. It worked its jaw but could not speak, could not bind again the hinges of its bones to form the sounds that make the words. It pulsed and bled. Until it was done. And Yuktha was still screaming.

Vachan felt her heart go cold.

Yuktha threw the serpent out the window, into the garden, and it landed in the roots of a tree, and it lay there.

Yuktha sat by her father, though it was too much like sitting with her father, and wept, though it was too much like weeping. When he asked she would say it was a dream. When he asked after the bracelet, where she had put it, she would say that she had never worn it—that he was not forgiven this time. And he might weep, which would be like her father weeping, and she would not speak to him again, until he found her a husband, or died.