August 19th, 2017
Maya Alexandri is the author of the novel, The Celebration Husband (TSL Publications 2015). Her short fiction has appeared, or is forthcoming, in The Stockholm Review of Literature, Fabula Argentea, The Light Ekphrastic, Boston Accent Lit, Adelaide, Cacti Fur, Gone Lawn, Thrice Fiction, Loud Zoo, and The Mulberry Fork Review. In addition, she is one of the founding organizers of the Amplified Cactus inter-disciplinary arts-event series in Baltimore, Maryland. She has lived in China, India, and Kenya, and has worked as a lawyer, UN consultant, blues-rock singer, and EMT. She is a medical student at Hofstra Northwell School of Medicine. For more information, see www.mayaalexandri.com.
Filial Piety, or This Be the Story
The Snake’s egg was large, and its occupant proved, upon hatching, to be a human baby. The Snake was surprised to see the fleshy creature. Surprises, in the Snake’s experience, were occasions for fear.
The Baby was surprised to be alive. Although the Baby had no experience of prior surprises, she had intrinsic knowledge of mortality: the process just begun was not going to end well. Plus, she was hungry. The Baby began to cry.
The Baby’s crying was unbearable to the Snake. Roiled by the vibrations, the Snake convulsed. She hastened into her nest of rocks and wound her muscles into the most impenetrable shape she could make. For maximum muffling, she wrapped her tail around her head like a turban.
Hungry still, and now uncomfortable – burned by exposure to the sun and wind, raw from rolling in dust and over rock – the Baby cried louder and longer. The Snake suffered. The Baby suffered. After a time, the Baby fell asleep.
When the Baby lay quiet, the Snake slid forth. With tongue and eye, the Snake appraised. The Snake sensed not danger. With tail, the Snake prodded. Discovering that the Baby was warm, the Snake curled around, then atop, the Baby. Soaking in the heat, the Snake rode the gentle wave of inhales and exhales traversing the Baby’s abdomen.
The Snake made a decision. She pushed first with her snout, and then with the spade of her diamond head. She angled, positioned, situated and squeezed, until she succeeded in balancing the Baby on her topside. She conveyed the Baby to her nest of rocks. The Baby was too large to fit within the nest, so the Snake dropped her on top and nestled beneath the Baby. How warm the Snake was!
When the Baby woke, she was alone. Pain of various sorts assailed her. Her back had been scratched and pierced by the rocks of the Snake’s nest. Her stomach was empty. She was dehydrated and weathered. She was lonely; existential anguish came easily to the Baby.
She cried. She also tried screaming, howling, yelling, gasping, blubbering, and tearful mucus release – all, admittedly, variations on a theme. She’s a baby; her repertoire is limited.
Her eyes closed, her mouth open to expel the terror that her body, tiny as it was, could hold, the Baby was interrupted by the sensation of liquid spilling over her mouth, under her lips and across her gums, surrounding her tongue and pouring down her throat. Dense and salty, full-bodied and metallic, the liquid drew the Baby’s manifold sufferings from her like an antidote. The Baby opened her eyes in astonishment.
Above the Baby’s mouth, the Snake dangled a stoat, gashed and dripping blood. The Baby lapped the blood and, clapping her hands in it, licked her fingers.
The Snake had restrained herself from swallowing the stoat whole upon capture. She had persevered to the Baby, across ground tremorred with the Baby’s cries. Now that the Baby’s anguish had subsided, the Snake’s breathing slowed. When her muscles began to tire from holding the stoat aloft, the Snake ventured onto the Baby’s stomach in order to steady the stoat more comfortably.
How warm the Snake was, curled on the Baby’s belly and basking in the sunlight!
And yet the process begun was not going to end well.
Surprises, in the Snake’s experience, were occasions for fear; and the Baby was so very surprising. The Snake was surprised at the Baby’s appetite. Whoever heard of eating every day, multiple times a day? How frightening this endless hunger! How exhausting this insatiable demand!
The Snake was surprised at the Baby’s process of expelling waste. How detrimental it was to the nest of rocks! How repellent to encounter the waste of another!
The Snake was surprised at the Baby’s poor communication skills. The Baby tasted not the air with her tongue, emitted no discernible pheromones, and failed to hiss. To the exclusion of all other approved methods of communicating, the Baby insisted on creating sonic tsunamis.
Despite instincts sharpened on fear and intolerant of delay, the Snake attempted to teach, to model the survival behaviours. But the Baby hissed not in imitation of the Snake. The Baby released not pheromones in emulation of the Snake’s example. And the Baby watched not as the Snake lapped the chemical currents of the air. More terrifyingly, the Snake gathered – through heroic examination during open-mouthed screaming fits – that the Baby’s tongue lacked division into left and right prongs. The Baby was defective, a useless progeny.
The terror of hopelessness oppressed the Snake like a skin that refused to shed. The Baby would ruin the Snake. The Baby would rob the Snake of the beauty she enjoyed as a creature perched at the pinnacle of accord between purpose and function. Fatal exhaustion would result from the hunting schedule necessary to feed the Baby. The environmental pollutants of the Baby’s waste and vibratory upheaval would provoke seizures and rapid decline. Even a brain as limited as the Snake’s is expansive in its capacity to catastrophize: the tendency helps identify threats. The Baby was a threat. The Snake bit. When the Baby next cried, the Snake restrained herself not. Ground and air and rock unhinged and swung with the Baby’s ululation. The Snake cowered not in this boiling cauldron, struggled not with the conflict between escaping the environmental riot and protecting her young, but reared and lunged and plunged fangs into pudgy limbs. The escalation from crying to shattering screams reached not the Snake’s sentience. The Snake bit with abandon and pulsed with relief. Biting liberated the Snake: she was born to bite threats.
The Baby flailed and thrashed. She writhed and curled. She contorted and spasmed. Continuously she screamed. She screamed to the exclusion of breathing. She choked on mucus and coughed blood, inhaled dust, drank tears. Still she screamed. Having scrambled from the nest, she screamed. After the Snake desisted, she screamed; even after the Snake withdrew, first to the nest, and then to locations unknown, the Baby screamed.
She screamed because her body burned and swelled. Puffiness and pressure occluded her eyes and collapsed her nasal passages. Edema deprived her extremities of their shape and utility. Her throat narrowed to a hard straw through which swallowing was excruciating. The sensation of weight constrained her chest and oppressed her lungs. The bloody punctures covering her body crusted and oozed. The Baby screamed until her wordless consciousness ebbed, and she lay insensible.
When the Baby awoke, she was surprised. That a being had capacity for so much pain was unexpected. Her head and neck were searing and rigid. A survey of the remainder of her body suggested that if she inhaled a fraction more than a catch breath, she would explode into shards. The poison stiffened and immobilized, bloated even the interstices, and alienated the Baby from any sensation of undulation. The Baby felt not the confidence of blood flow, the comfort of her pulse, or the calming power of her regular breath.
By and by, her eyes moved side to side, and between the slits of her inflamed lids, she glimpsed the Snake, sunning herself on her nest of rocks. The Snake had returned from whereabouts unknown to find the Baby pleasantly quiet and situated at an ideal remove from the nest. With darting tongue and surreptitious glance, the Snake continually confirmed the Baby’s presence, but otherwise revealed not any concern she might have.
Swaddled in the rigor of her injuries, the Baby gave satisfaction to the Snake. The Baby cried not; moved not; ate not. Nor did she evacuate waste. She encroached no space, and posed no threat. Having chastened the Baby thus, the Snake drew from the Baby’s proximity much succor.
The Snake nonetheless encountered a new experience that was displeasing: emptiness. The Snake’s emotional range had not previously stretched beyond the polarities of terror and calm, with quick stops at irritation, lust, surprise, hunger, and comfort in between. Nothing within this range seemed adequate to the present situation.
The Baby’s good behaviour and near-distance seemed precipitants of soothing; and yet some aspect still gave cause for alarm. Perhaps the Baby’s inability to shed her skin was troubling? Lacking capacity both for moral reasoning and empathizing, the Snake could not recognize, analyze, parse or placate the agitating sensations that assailed, and eventually overwhelmed, her. In consequence, the Snake felt vacant, empty from cause not hunger.
Instinct having provided no guidance for this instance, the Snake opted to sun herself on her nest of rocks and look in the direction away from the Baby. To be sure, she tasted the Baby’s presence in regular laps of the air. But face the Baby, she did not.
After the elapse of more time, the Baby died not, but coped. Owing to mysteries of genetics, the immune system, and other dimensions of human perseverance, the Baby proved resilient against the lethal dose of snake poison. Her edema drained, her sinuses reopened, and her breathing resumed its easy automation. Pain retreated from its immediacy and intensity. The poison remained, but seeped into the remote centres of her organs and nervous system, and curled up for an uneasy hibernation.
Eventually, the Baby sat up. Near starved, she dared not complain. Smeared and unclean, limp with dehydration, she made no motion towards water. Instead, she hung her head and sat in the dirt. She looked not at the Snake. The Snake looked not at her.
When the sun was high, the Baby raised herself and toddled away.
Now the Snake swiveled her diamond head to watch her daughter go. The vacuum within the Snake filled with fear, emptied, refilled, emptied, until the Snake pulsed with fear. Her tongue flicked rapidly, and her eyes focused and refocused on the Baby’s wobbly departure. Otherwise, the Snake moved not.
The Baby bumped, fell, stumbled, crawled, and persisted her way down rocky terrain into woodland. Enveloped in shade, she tasted in the air the rich flavors of soil, leaf, fern, fungus, decay, and flowering. Finding an animal path clear of most brambles and obstructions, she followed it to a river. At the river, she washed and drank. She pried mollusks from the riverbed, broke them open with rocks, and nourished herself with her first independent sustenance.
She waded through the shallows of the river until dark. Fish tickled and nipped, watery grasses encircled her ankles. She stepped carefully and curiously, made cautious – and, at times, overjoyed – by the glut of sensations. She slept by the river and, in the morning, resumed her splashy progress along the periphery of the river. In this way, she progressed until she came to a road.
Here, the Baby witnessed for the first time traffic. Sheep and pigs driven to market collided with platoons of warriors on the march. Caravans of merchants and their beasts of burden raised dust around the many hurrying on foot, the lawyers, artisans, keepers of the peace, philosophers, shamans, and servants. Dignitaries in their carriages peered from windows with pinched frowns and furrowed glances.
Having ventured from the environs of the river upon such a bustling composition, the Baby was surprised. Delight and inquisitiveness welled up at her recognition of fellow humans. Yearning came to the Baby.
As the Baby watched the scene, tumblers bounded through the crowd, followed by a tremendous character on stilts. The Baby wished to study his loping motion, but a monkey menacing a dwarf distracted and arrested her attention, and then the Baby swooped upwards, lifted by a strongman, who plucked her from the highway gutter and deposited her amongst the clowns. A circus always needs a baby.
And so the Baby acquired an education. She learned to feed and water elephants, and to grow and shave a beard. Her head within the lion’s mouth she feared not. Flipping off a seesaw she mastered. She walked, ran, skipped, and danced across the tightrope, and then rode a bicycle across it. She juggled clubs, cajoled dogs through hoops, compressed herself into a space insufficient for a kitten, and expanded her presence to command a tentful of drunkards. She charmed snakes.
More a baby need not learn, and when the circus came to a city of wondrous beauty, the Baby stayed to dwell among its denizens. The Baby had known from her circus mates kindnesses and tutelage, guidance and discipline, nourishment and reciprocity, and so she was sad to leave them. Yet she felt confident in her choice. Throughout her education, the Snake’s poison, not quite dormant where it pooled in the Baby’s recesses, continued to corrode and corrupt, and so the Baby felt not at home among her companions. The Baby felt both unappreciated and impossible to appreciate, unprotected and unprotectable, unloved and unlovable. The situation was not going to end well.
In the city of wondrous beauty, the Baby assimilated. She sought gainful employment. She endeavoured to live a life both blameless and dignified. She was kind to stray cats, and gave whatever pennies she found to those poorer. She articulated gratitude for her luck. She swept the communal yard, and cooked her own simple and nutritious meals. She walked the cobblestone alleys of the city of wondrous beauty and appreciated the architecture and the sunsets. She observed the colors of the fruit at the market, the sound of fish leaping in the canals and the glitter of sunlight on their scales; the stench of the gutters and the perfume of the flowering creepers came and went both; the clamour of parades and drunken brawls, the display of power at the seat of government, the pressure and discord of crowds, all these she witnessed.
But the Snake’s poison continued to fester, to sap from life its savour, to skew the Baby’s experience of the world. The Baby suffered, but complained not, not of being poisoned, not of loneliness, not of pain, not of exile, not of being people-less; and when tears came, she withdrew so as not to upset her neighbors. The Baby withered respectably and without inconveniencing others.
The time came when, in the midst of the city of wondrous beauty, the Baby drooped like a seeding sunflower. Her heavy head slumped against the floor, her body broken with the season’s work. Proximity to the city’s wondrous beauty had not transmuted the Baby’s burden of suffering into an experience of transcendence; and, anyway, babies cannot live on beauty alone.
“Seek you, go, the Poison Drainer,” advised the passing knife grinder. “The Poison Drainer to you now,” agreed the affable vegetable seller. “Oi, Poison Drainer, nigh!” shouted the gardener between transplants of rose bushes. “There’s even a Poison Drainer on the fucking boat,” said the sailor. Busybodies are so abounding with recommendations.
The Baby was skeptical. She had been educated in a circus, after all; she had seen her share of carnies. A Poison Drainer was no better than a guru, a cult leader, a baba, a spiritualist, a fraud. And she hadn’t asked. And what was her suffering to these busybodies?
So the Baby lay decrepit and declined further. The stray cats she had fed gathered at her door for their next meal. Apathy closed the Baby’s eyes. “Meow, meow, meow, Poison Drainer,” said a cat. The Baby opened her eyes in surprise. A large cat sat tall amongst the furry assembly, her orange tail wrapped over her front paws.
Hiss, hiss, the large cat had bared her teeth as she batted the snake’s head. The images played before the Baby, a glimpse within the large cat’s memory. Beige and black diamonds spattered the snake’s length, then blood sprayed from the large cat’s shoulder.
Kinship established thus, the Baby sat up. She had many questions. “What must I do? How fast will it work? Is it expensive?”
The large cat yawned. She licked her nose. She stood stretching, arching, releasing, expectant. The Baby rolled unsteadily to her feet and, holding the wall at first for support, followed the large cat through the field of fur, out her door, across the communal courtyard, down the cobblestone streets, around twists and turns, descending staircases, into tunnels, ascending ramps, until they stopped at a shop front adorned with wrought iron detailing. The shop’s placard bore the words, “poIson dRainEr.”
The Poison Drainer answered no questions and sought no specifics, poison draining being a matter of universal application. Anyone could be drained – even beings hatched from snake eggs – and dwelling on individual particulars tended to promote little more than the ego.
The Poison Drainer was a muscular man, bald, with a handlebar mustache – a plumber of the depths of the psyche – except that he also appeared, to the Baby, during the procedure, as a midget, tousle-haired, and full of jesterish humour. Multi-dimensional he was, and talented, as well. The technique he taught drew her manifold sufferings from her like an antidote.
The Baby shook, and came tears; the Baby was brave, and she persevered; and the poison came out, and it evaporated. Lighter, the Baby felt, and smiling. The poison gone, a miasma lifted: this was going to end better than expected, if weirdly. The Poison Drainer, presenting now as a cherubic oldster, a blind poet, bid the Baby to go in peace.
The Baby left the Poison Drainer’s shop and retraced her steps through the city of wondrous beauty to the road. The road she tramped until she came to the river. She left the road, hopped down the embankment, and skipped through the eddies. At the animal path, she bounded up it, through the woodland, and then ascended the rocky terrain.
The Snake had been sunning herself by her nest of rocks when she tasted on the air currents the chemical signature of her daughter approaching. The information was surprising. Trembling, the Snake feared her daughter’s return. But she deserted not. The Snake had missed the Baby after she had left. By no sign or action could the Snake’s longing be perceived; but, for the duration of the Baby’s absence, gurgling to the surface of the Snake’s sentience had been the alarm that part of her was elsewhere, a notion unfathomable, nonsensical, and persistent.
The Snake faced not her daughter. The Baby observed the Snake ignoring her. Dry skins littered the vicinity of the nest of rocks. The Snake’s scales gleamed gray in the sunlight.
The Baby moved intently, taking large, fast strides and, swooping her hand confidently, she grasped the Snake by the neck, just beneath her diamond-shaped head.
Oh, the Snake was frightened! Now, brandishing her fangs, she faced her daughter, enraged. Immediately, she gagged – on her fury, yes, but mostly on the teething rusk that the Baby pushed into her mouth, sheathing the venomous shards. The Snake tossed her head to the left and thrashed it to the right, but fell not the teething rusk from its impaled post.
The Snake looked questioningly at the Baby. The Baby smiled. The Snake was not encouraged.
The Snake’s eyes were unused to the view from just-above-fist level, and she struggled to comprehend the visual inputs she received. Her tongue found no exit from her mouth into the atmosphere because of the obstacle of the teething rusk, and the only information she tasted related to the ingredients of that biscuit. Of what use to her flour, milk powder, wheat germ, yeast and salt were, she could not say. Her disorientation contributed to her mounting panic.
The Baby breathed deeply. The air, hot with sun-baked dust, bore no imprint of home. The Baby began to walk.
Despite her impairments to perception, the Snake eventually registered the movement away from the nest of rocks, and writhed emphatically. Terrified, she convulsed her head in an effort to spit the teething rusk. She whisked her body in order to flay the Baby.
The Baby stroked the Snake’s head with her free hand, and made soothing “shush-es.” Unable to accept her helplessness or quiet her fear, the Snake after a time hung limp from exhaustion. The Baby walked on.
The woods again, and then the river, this time to a bridge, and across it to a field; through the field, through another field, and another, past haystacks and barns, threading between grazing cows and staring sheep. The regularity of the steps lulled the Snake to sleep dangling in the Baby’s hand. All the venom released during the Snake’s earlier resistance, and later drooling in her sleep, soaked the teething rusk and caused it fall from the Snake’s fangs. The Baby inserted a fresh teething rusk without waking the Snake, and the Baby walked on.
The moon rose, and the Baby lay down on her cloak on the meadow grass. The Snake she cradled in her arms. In the small hours, the Snake awoke and took note of the differences. The nest in which she found herself was fleshy, not rocky. Her jaw ached from being forced open continuously by the teething rusk. Oh, but she was warm!
In the lambent light, the Snake slithered from between the Baby’s arms and traversed the length of her body, surveying, assessing, exploring. At the Baby’s toes, the Snake peered not beyond. She feared departing from contact with the Baby’s body. How would the Snake find her way back to the nest of rocks? And, if she became lost in search of her nest, how would she then find her way back to the Baby? Such a journey would be filled with many dangers and tests of strength and faith. The Snake had appetite for it not. No, the Baby was now the Snake’s home. A captive wild thing, depressed, cabined, yet arousable to instinctual fury with certain provocation, the Snake marked the vivarium of the Baby’s body as her terrain.
And so onward they traveled, a quare pair. The Baby, perpetually walking; the Snake in her fist, perennially muzzled. Wherever possible, the Baby gathered botanicals and hunted small creatures. Some few they passed gave them food, or allowed the Baby piece work. So fearful to observers was the sight of the sleeping Baby with the venomous Snake coiled about her body, though, that none offered board more than a single night.
The Baby complained not. Other options she recognized, and she declined them. Loneliness she felt, and she accepted. She chose not to be separated from the Snake; nor, she understood, had the Snake chosen to be parted from her. All the Baby knew of flickering home materialized when then Snake curled on her sleeping belly and rode the gentle undulations of her inhales and exhales. How warm the Snake was!
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