This early in the day and the air was sweltering – I wiped the sweat out of my eyes on my forearms. It was my first day off for about three weeks, I’d come home late from the bar and thrown myself jeans and T-shirt on onto the bed. I didn’t bother getting up for breakfast, just remained there on my back studying the ceiling; there would be a note from Marise upstairs about something I had to do, clean out the closet or fix the lamp-shade, I don’t know, I couldn’t recall what she had told me exactly while she was stumbling out of bed and getting dressed and ready for work. She must have noticed I wasn’t all awake so I’m sure she had scribbled something down for me and left it upstairs on the kitchen table. While lying there trying to recall what task exactly I was neglecting I noticed our friends the spiders were with us again; I’d collected them on the tip of an umrella into an empty water bottle and shaken them out across the roof two nights before, now they were back already spinning their webs in all four corners of our bedroom.
It’s strange how sometimes you become aware of a presence near you although there is nothing you could actually relate it to. I suddenly sensed just that very slight and feeble indication of a motion, a mere essence below the curtain fanned by no drought at all through the wide open shutter, and, yes, it took something like that to get me going. I stepped over and checked what it could be, and then staggered backwards against the bed in disgust, my blood frozen: I swear I’ve never seen anything so revolting in my life. There on the sill was a small reptile, hardly thicker than two of my fingers across, its body cut off some inches below the head and the head still alive, squirming, struggling slowly in direction towards the room, twisting the stump of itself forward although there wasn’t really much of it to twist; no blood or insides visible but the trace a snail could leave moving across a dry and even surface (and from this trace alone I knew the serpent was moving, the motion itself was so slight you could not perceive it with your eye). Yes, unbelievable as it seemed this creature was clearly alive, it wasn’t the twitching of surviving tissues in an already dead trunk but a focussed movement; eyes still seeing and the tongue, flash-like, shooting out between the fangs. The head marked a steady pursuing of an aim, it tried to get somewhere, it did what it could to progress in a precisely defined direction.
In all the stump wasn’t longer than twice the thickness of the head, not even that: three of my fingers across, considerably less than the breadth of my hand. We were six floors above street level here, I couldn’t see how this writhing stump could have gotten up so high, it didn’t seem possible – unless somebody came on purpose the way across the roof top and planted it there or threw it at our window from a small distance.
It doesn’t sound like much, I know, but the effect it made was of profound disgust. I stood there paralyzed, my eyes unblinking and nailed at this one single spot: the snake’s-head against the window sill. For the first half minute (I think) I was unable to act or gather any thoughts. Then, having recovered, my first impulse was to run away. Get out of there, lock the door behind me and run. At least that way I’d have it trapped where I knew it wouldn’t get away, escape somehow into the apartment and assault me again with its appalling maimed appearance. If it did, if it managed to get loose I would never again be sure where to expect it, it could hide under any chair, in any corner of the house, dragging itself along unseen for years watching for a chance to catch me off my guard. It wouldn’t die, it was obvious, it would persist forever. I turned the key to the bedroom, staggered up the staircase to the front door and kept on going till I reached the street; once on the sidewalk I turned and watched the bedroom window from below, and, sure, I’d left the shutters half open, that creep in the room could come out anytime through there, get around and enter the flat some other way, another open window or something, I would never be safe from it again. I would have to remain on the alert always, watch out for it constantly, everywhere, not a moment’s rest, never allow my attention to slacken. My life would turn into complete torture, I knew. I couldn’t go up there right away, I needed time to get over the shock, I was still shaking. But on the other hand I knew I couldn’t wait too long. True, the thing was struggling forward slowly, painfully slow, and it had been headed into the room as I left, but even so I couldn’t afford to leave it out of sight too long, not more than one hour or two, or I might not locate it again. I had to get back in there before one hour was out, get rid of the thing once and for all and not leave room for any doubts – kill it, in other words, and throw the remnants away – and to accomplish that I had to know exactly where it was, that specific spot underneath the dead curtain. In case it had had time to move I would never bring together the guts to go looking for it, I could not bring myself to do that, I knew, I’d lift the coverlet of the bed and there I’d have it right in front of me, its peeling eyes, tongue shooting out between the fangs of the live chopped-off serpent’s head, no, I couldn’t take another beating like that, not yet. I wasn’t ready for it yet. And, like I said, if it got away I would spend the rest of my days in a cold sweat.
I walked over to the Coleman Corner Bar, my legs numb, and sat down at the small table close to the entrance. They’d just opened, there was no one around except a strange couple, as I gathered German guests form the Lindenhof Hotel in front having late breakfast between sullen glances and a nonexistent dialogue. They must have missed breakfast hours at the hotel, so reluctantly they’d come in here and the coffee of course wasn’t the way they liked it at home, and what about the buns and this muesli? the eggs? so on and so forth, and on top of all now they would have to pay extra, this wasn’t included in their holiday-package, mein Gott, they wouldn’t profit anything here, no small sensation of gain. Any wonder if these people looked sour?
The forenoon sun traced its path between the roof tops onto the floor, composing a still-life of squares under the loaded sideboard. The air was breathless, it was steadily building up for thunder.
“Hey, what’s up? A little early for you, isn’t it?”
Judd spotted me and came from behind the counter and sat with one leg on the chair opposite mine. “A little early, right? Listen,” he fixed his eyes on me, “you’re all white in the face, what the hell happened?”
“I’ll tell you, the most disgusting thing,” I said.
I shuddered. “Somebody must have come and climbed down the roof, you know, to the side where our bedroom lies, giving to the street. Carried a cut-off snake’s head and threw it at our window, it lay there wriggling on the sill as I got up just now. Yes, that’s right, must have come some time during the night, the bastard.”
Judd changed from one leg to the other on the chair, searching my face.
“Come on, you gone out of your mind on me or something? You sure you didn’t have one drink too many last night?”
“That’s right, cut its head off and somehow managed to keep it alive, came over the roof and threw it from where he couldn’t miss, during the night, during the dark, and the head still moving by itself, still showing signs of life. That’s sickening, isn’t it, it’s maimed but even so it lives. My stomach turns.”
“Say, listen. Listen, I’ll bring you something to drink. You don’t look like you’re doing so well. Okay?”
“Yes, okay. Just leave out the ice. I hate that stuff with ice.”
“Sure you didn’t have too many of these last night?” Judd asked again, returning with the drink. “I mean it, listen. No offence.”
“Come on, I worked overtime every day the last three weeks. Sweating my butt off, what’s the matter, a guy can’t come in for a drink in peace when he finally gets a day off? That it, Judd?”
“I don’t know. The way you look. I mean, you’re shaking, just watch you. You really can’t steady your hand now, what? Can you?”
“So what, I already told you. Anyway, all I had was two quick beers.”
“Yeah, two beers?”
“Yeah. Ask Ruth, she was on duty, she’ll tell you. Two beers is what I had.”
Judd didn’t look convinced, he went and attended the Germans.
The point here was I couldn’t wait too long, my hour was running out. I had to catch it before it escaped, otherwise I was finished. I’d just sit here a while to get some strength back, I thought, just wait a while till I felt a bit better. Then I would have to get back, I knew I had to. I couldn’t avoid it, I couldn’t put it off much longer, one way or the other this thing had to be done. I tried all I could, but I wasn’t able to finish the drink. The drink might have helped, but it stuck in my throat somehow and in the end I didn’t get it down.
The bedroom door was shut and locked exactly as I had left it. I stared at it, there wasn’t a sound from within, nothing whatsoever that could have called your attention; then I went up to the closet to get the shovel Marise used for the plants. What if the head wasn’t where it had been, it might have gone over the edge, dropped on the floor and rolled somehow out of sight, behind a corner of the drawer or who knows where, and, yes, what then? I’d have to get in as quick as I could, close the door behind me and, if it wasn’t where I expected it to be, search the room, look under the carpet, behind the wardrobe, one end to the other. In case I didn’t find it I could not be sure that it wasn’t actually there, it might still be there, just slipped my attention, only three fingers long, it could disappear anywhere, into any small hole. It must still be there, it couldn’t have moved fast enough to escape, wouldn’t have had the time to turn and get out the way it came in less than an hour, the chances here were nonexistent. None. I felt sick again, I kept seeing myself lifting that coverlet and there it appeared, there it came at me from under the bed, the nauseous little bitch, like a removed member having caught independent life, winding and twisting on its own, in pain. I knew inside I wouldn’t have the nerve to search the room, I was too sick. Too scared. My hands were sweating, I grabbed the handle of the shovel and filled my lungs with air.
It’s unbelievable, I put the weight of my left shoulder against the door, threw it open shovel in my right hand, ready to strike, and the head was there, still alive, it had not moved more than an inch at the most and even so it was immediately clear to me that it lived. As I raised the shovel I was caught by the spark in its eye. I could anticipate the sound the skull would make being crushed under the iron blade, the stain it would leave, a bloody mash over the white of the window sill – I hesitated, my mouth filled with water the way it does when you’re about to throw up, I got so sick, I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I simply didn’t have the strength. I went in a half circle to the window, pushed the shutters wide open and quickly, with a quick, reluctant touch flung the thing over the edge; even conveyed across the shovel the contact horrified me, I expected to hear the head strike the pavement but the sound never came and that same instant it occurred to me Marise would be coming from work any minute now, she’d pass that way, close to where it had fallen, might even step on it, she wouldn’t watch out, unaware of what had happened. I should have gone down and swept it into the gutter, I thought, warned her somehow, but I was too weak, I felt myself sink into a dark painful sleep across the bed.
I had automatically presumed the head would die in the fall, although now I realized it wouldn’t. It was too light, too floating, its weight would not produce enough of an impact hitting the ground. Nothing would kill it, too late now, it refused to die. It resisted. Resisted.
“What’s the matter with you lately, you’re very silent these last days?”
It was true, I had noticed it too. I drifted deep into myself and couldn’t fight it any longer.
“Me?” I said.
“Yes, you. Hey, there’s no one else here. Is anything the matter?”
We were both just home from work, having coffee together at the kitchen table.
“I don’t know, wasn’t I always? Silent, I mean. Wasn’t I always pretty silent?”
“Sure, in a way, but that’s not the same, that’s not what I’m saying now. Now you’re far off, I can sense it, you’re lost in worries somehow. That’s how you look to me.”
“I don’t know, Marise. Nothing’s the matter, I’m only tired. I’m all washed out.”
She looked strangely at me. “Well, aren’t we all, that’s nothing new.”
“No, it isn’t. We’re all tired, I know. I know.”
Marise put down her cup. “Come on now. Tell me.”
“Listen, I guess you never heard about the cottage we had when I was small? Did I ever tell you about that? A summer house, a place we would go to on weekends and like that, down by the coast. The house was built right onto the rocks, close to the water, simple and cheap, the whole structure a kind of box on concrete supports to keep it steady. And those rocks were swarming with snakes. You know, small snakes, adders and so. We didn’t see them except on occasions, we weren’t allowed to go under the house, not even under the staircase leading to the front door, but anyway we knew they were there, the rocks were swarming with snakes.”
“No, you never told me.”
“Cozy inside, my mother had a hand for that, and all the time right below those things were crawling in thick layers.”
“My God. How old were you?”
“Ten or so. You could see a snake or two as they sneaked into the grass, that was okay, that didn’t scare you. But under the house it was different, that’s where they had their nests. That’s where they usually stayed. In the fall when the days got shorter we’d light the fire-place sometimes, sit around it frying frankfurters or something on sticks, I used to love that, slowly getting dark outside, the wind raising wavetops in the bay, the sound the sea would make. Raindrops rattling on the roof and the windows while inside it was warm and nice, and all the time you’re aware that the floor is nothing but a board, only a board some inches thick, or less. All the time you’re aware... “
Marise waited. “Sure, go on. Aware of what?”
“Nothing, I guess. The danger, maybe, I don’t know.”
I mean, those snakes, they’d lie there tangled into clusters sometimes, big black balls they would resemble, fat and lazy, as I thought, enough rats to eat and a lot of peace while we were away in town, and then once I remember the autumn storms raised the water so high the shed where Dad kept his tools was washed with one edge off its supports. The week after Dad had the neighbors from around the bend come over, called and asked the boys to help him get the shed back in its place. At some point during the work the whole thing crashed to the ground, clusters of snakes caught between its weight and the rocks, squashed all to pieces beneath the building, the maimed stumps rushing out in the open, wriggling and swarming to all sides, hundreds and hundreds of them, thousands of them, all cut up. Of course I couldn’t tell Marise about that. I couldn’t tell her what I thought, there was no reason she should know. This was a sham, everything we did, everything we said, all just a pose, a poor attempt to cover up what lay at the bottom. It’s our protection, a shell we’ve built, a fragile shell that could crack any second, and then the vermin comes right through, our rooms are not clean any longer, our streets are not tidy. Just underneath the artificial surface they lie in wait for us, yes, and all those gestures, that performing, it’s completely insincere. It’s ridiculous, I had really lost faith in life completely. It’s ridiculous how people actually go for that. I mean, just watch them, they’re so convinced of what they’re doing, just swallow everything they’re fed with no capacity at all to doubt or question, they lack that dimension totally. I hope death, when it comes, is for real, because death I guess is what this whole pitiful show boils down to.
Nothing new about that, I know, I just couldn’t seem to get it out of my system lately. I was constantly reminded, everywhere. And I couldn’t tell Marise about that reptile’s head, what would life be like to her if I did. Her life would be like mine, constantly on her watch in case it turned up again, knowing it was out there somewhere, knowing I hadn’t finally managed to finish it off. Life would turn into pure agony to her, pure torture. Or I guess she knew already, sure, she was aware of all that, she just didn’t say anything to me. She tried to protect me. She was just stronger, on her a thing like that didn’t show. It didn’t get to her that hard, she simply wouldn’t let it.
“Hey. Come on, come back now, please.”
“Yes. What?” I said.
“There you go again, see that, drifting away from me. I wonder where it is you’re going?”
“No place, Marise, I’m only thinking.”
“Well, yes, that’s obvious. Thinking of what?”
“I don’t know, all kinds of things. Nothing precise. Nothing important. I’m only tired, that’s all, don’t feel too much like talking.”
“Drink your coffee and let’s go for a walk, okay? Let’s take a walk down to the Spaniard’s shop, see if he got that olive-oil he said he’d have for me this week. Okay?”
“Get ourselves out of the house for a while.”
“Good idea,” I said, but I felt I couldn’t finish the coffee, I got up and poured it in the sink. There was a blunt crash as the cup flew from my hand and hit the floor: through the brown gruel washing down the drain I saw its eyes peering at me, the stump of it working itself slowly, slowly up the pipe. My hands trembled, I could barely get the plug into the hole. "It just slipped, Marise," I said, biting my teeth to keep steady. "I'll clean the pieces up, then we can go."
"Okay," she said, but I could feel her eyes on me, studying my back. I knew then that I'd have to start from the beginning, or I’d break.
© 2002 Arndt Britschgi - Email: [email protected]