by Ann Henry
I fell in love with S. in the library at Columbia University, where I wasdoing an Anthropology post Doc, reading up on the Goddess images in the indigenous iconography of Australia and New Guinea. There are not many Goddess images in the indigenous iconography of Australia and New Guinea, which made itboth a wide open field and a total pain.
He was a snake, a boa, with green and gold iridescent scales, slithering andflicking his way through a book on Zoroastrianism. I am not given to impulsivebehavior, but I knew I could not, would not live unless I touched him. Thetingling ache in my fingertips overcame my shyness at approaching strangers, muchless strange reptiles.
"How do you keep your scales so beautifully shiny?" I asked, allowing myfingers to briefly caress the articulations of his spine.
He lunged irritably at me and hissed, "I bathe in the blood of virginsss"
"How lovely to make your acquaintance, Countess Bathory," I replied, pleasedwith my graceful batting back of his reference to a certain eighteenth century Hungarian noblewoman famous for her gory beauty rituals. I went back to my texton Walbiri fertility figures and tried to give the incident no more thought.
He was waiting for me when I came out of the library, curled, thawing himselfin an anemic patch of winter sunlight. "Zoroastrinisssm is thirsssty work," hehissed. "Let'sss go for a drink."
He was so clever, discoursing over Apple Ciders. I am a quiet person, alistener rather than a talker. Males usually interpret this as feminine docility,when in fact it is merely cold and judgmental sullenness.
"You aren't in the least ssshy," he said, flicking his forked tongue."Sssilence," he hissed, "holdsss all the cardsss."
Nevertheless, like all males confronted with my appearance of gentle reserve,he did rattle on, with only the faintest and most aristocratic bit of a snakeaccent. He talked about the iniquities his species had suffered at the hands ofmine, of Judeo Christian barbarities, from Genesis to St. Patrick's Irisheviction notice, to the theatrical cruelties of Southern snake handlers. "MilkingVenom," he spat. "How would you like it if sssome illiterate hairy hillbillymilked your venom?"
It is far more common now for women to go with snakes, now that they allspeak and write in English and French, now that socially one sees themeverywhere, and it is rare for an interspecies relationship to end as tragicallyas ours. But in those days, our love excited a fair degree of comment.
"What is the attraction?" my girlfriends asked, locked into theirrelationships with triple chinned Dutch industrialists, whining grad studentslaboring over their never-to-be-completed-dissertations on sexual tropes in theworks of Frank Norris, computer geniuses with megabyte overbites.
What was the attraction? Don't ask me, I'll tell you. He was brilliant, agorgeous shimmer of information on the snake as a figure of fertility inCaananite paganism, the familiar of the Goddess Ashertoth, on the snake bitingits own tail as a symbol of eternity in the cosmography of the Hopis, the Voodooserpent cults of Haiti, the ancient Egyptians and the cult of Set, the HinduCobra God, the Aztec myths, the ambivalent fascination of my species with his.
"The Sssnake," he said one day, playfully nipping at my ankle, "and the womanhave a natural affinity towardsss one another, according to Dr. Johnssson, whocherissshed unkind feelingsss towardsss usss both." He was writing, he said, anepic poem which would explain the ways of snakes to God.
He made a change from the anemic tenured dust mice I usually dated, all thoseherb tea swilling leather elbow patched ninnies who would have been shocked by myoccasional desire to be tied up and talked dirty to in dead languages, who werealways upbraiding my tendency to jaywalk. "I think it's rather dangerous to crossagainst the light," they would say. They were right of course, butso...pedestrian.But S. knew my secret side.
"You like to sssteal things, don't you?" he said. I gave him a Baroque pearlearring I swiped from Tiffany's, forgetting that snakes don't have external ears.He hooked it to his tail. "I will wear it alwaysss," he said. "Why don't yousssteal sssomething sssignificant?"
I took a Rolex from a German tourist in Soho, a wallet from the purse of anenameled blonde in the elevator at Saks. We spent the proceeds on liquor, drugs,and a long lewd weekend at a Connecticut B and B. I slipped him in my handbag,since in those days the better establishments did not permit snakes. What mustthey have thought when I requested the Bridal Suite for one, and spent the wholeweekend getting loudly carried away? Oh well. That was in another country, andbesides, the wench is dead.
One day, when I should have been preparing notes for my lecture on culturalcomparisons of circumcision rites, he came over with a charming Medusa hat, acreation of snakes striped in black, red, and yellow velvet with shimmeringrhinestone eyes. He claimed to have fashioned it himself. ("A tribute to our verypoisonousss Coral friendsss.") He was lying, of course, but there are certainadjustments you have to make when seriously involved with someone who lacks bothopposable thumbs and a reverence for truth.
He wound himself around my neck and whispered in my ear, "Let'sss go to aparty."
We crashed a bash in The Village. We didn't go out, usually. There was a lotof anti-snake feeling in the air ever since they started speaking and writing andliving in cities. The apartment discrimination was the worst. S. had to live in apit of vipers all the way out in Queens.But I looked so wonderful in my new hat, it was a shame not to take the show onthe road.
It was a terrible party. He glided away to talk to a Cobra in a fez. I wasleft on my own, in a group of the dullest women I have ever met. Either they werepregnant, their wombs filled with the spawn of some malign stockbroker, or theyweren't and they yearned to be. They sipped their mineral waters and rehashedtedious scandals about dull people I didn't know personally.
"So," said one particularly unadorable creature with a collagen enhancedsmile, "What is it with you and the snake?"
"I beg your pardon?" I had a hell of a bad mood coming on -- migraine, PMS, andthose post-millennium blues.
"Is it true what they say?"
"Is what true?"
"That they're...bifurcated down there," she tittered, drunk on carbonatedwater and her own limitless vulgarity.
I slapped her and threw my drink in her face. S. and I departed in HighTemper an Haute Couture. We shared a taxi with the Cobra, who was headed to asnake party uptown.
"Thatss what I love about you," S. said. "Your gorgeousss excesss. You couldhave jussst ssslapped her. You could have jussst thrown your drink. But you didboth. That'sss the woman I love."
The "L Word" had never been spoken by either one of us before. How happy Iwas at that moment. Oh human happiness! Small unexpected tropical islands in ourvast gray sea of mediocre sufferings!Then he told me he was accompanying the Cobra, whose name was Hakim Al HabiquDeath, to the snake party, and that they would drop me off. I made a scene, whichthe Cobra watched with amused distaste, puffing the two Bidi cigarettes danglingfrom his nostrils.
"You'd be bored," My Beloved Boa hissed. "You don't ssspeak sssnake."
This is perfectly true, although I did make an effort. It is a language ofinfinitely subtle declensions, of fifteen different cases, all in aid of sayingperfectly boring things. "That mouse was sure tasty." "Let's scare people." "Nottonight, I'm molting." "Excuse me, I need to regulate my body temperature now."S. assured me these commonplaces held great poetic resonance, but obviously I wasmissing something. Later I was to miss him, terribly. After my unfortunatedisplay of jealousy in the taxi, he didn't call and didn't call and didn't callsome more. I obsessed on the sinuous undulations of the telephone cord, until Iunplugged the phone and put it in the freezer, so that I could imagine himflicking away at my number only to be met with an incessant unanswered shrill.
I knew that in his own way he loved me, but he was, after all, a snake,warming himself on the hot rocks of amour before setting off to do what hedid -- writing his response to Milton in Latinate verse, an activity he subsidizedby selling guns and drugs to school children. I was shocked when he told me, butafter all, someone had to do it. Imagine trying to get through the New York Cityschool system these days without at least a derringer and a bag of pot.
It might have been a week that I paced my apartment, not eating, sleeping onlyin edgy, dream polluted naps. I covered the mirrors in black silk, cut off all mylong brown curls with kitchen shears, so that they nestled on the linoleum likean unhappy nest of rattlers. I sat in corners, imagining myself as an undigestedmouse wriggling inside him.
And then one morning I woke up feeling better. Not well, just better. Iwanted coffee. This is an important vital sign, the desire for coffee.
I was returning from the bagel shop at the corner, restored by caffeine andthe determination to put things in their proper perspective, to call him and havea little talk, when I saw him across the street. "S.!" I called. Like a true NewYorker, he jayslithered to me. Just before he reached the corner, an ancientDodge dart emblazoned with apocalyptic slogans appeared from nowhere and ran himover. The driver got out, triumphant. "I have crushed the serpent's head!" thefat little man behind the wheel shouted.
"Actually," said S., dying in agony, but, as usual, remarkably suave, youhave sssquished my gutsss." Which, in fact, he had. S's intestines -- Boas aremostly intestines-were laying in the gutter.
"Oh dear," he said. "Thisss iss not the entrance I had planned.I came to tell you that I do love you, in my way, dessspite your penchant forsssocially unattractive hysssteria. You will be...ssso sssad when I die." With alook of Garboesque infinite regret, he died in my arms like a reptile Camille.
I raised my tearstained face. A crowd had gathered, including the little manin the Dodge Dart, who was beaming odiously, pleased with his handiwork. I tookthe Smith and Wesson that S. insisted I carry from my handbag and shot him dead.
I got off with a diminished capacity defense. Hakim Al Habiqu Death was notonly a snake-about-town but a well known criminal defense attorney.
As for S., I had him stuffed, and he reposes now on a red velvet sofa thatsets off his scales magnificently. His glittering yellow eyes seem to follow onearound the room.
The Cobra made rather clumsy attempts at consolation, but I told him I wasdone with love. I quit my post-doc, and am now assistant to New York's mosteminent Herpetological Veterinarian. The patients like me. "Sssuch gentlenesss,"they hiss, "Such a lovely bedssside manner."
In my spare time, which is considerable, I work on completing his poem. It isdifficult; I lack his rhetorical gifts, his passionate imagination. But heinspires me, sitting on the sofa, looking as if alive, in the room I keep at aconstant tropical 80 degrees -- snakes hate the cold. And at night, all through thehorns and shrieks and gunshots of the New York evening, he twines himself aroundmy dreamsss.