Purge by Gregory Jackson
In their final weeks together, Alice had lain rigidly beside Henry on the bed at night, feeling a curious hunger for what, inevitably, lay ahead. During the thirty-seven years they’d slept alongside each other, Alice had been barely conscious of just how far her own identity had become entwined with that of her husband, but as Henry approached the end she’d had the unmistakeable sense that she was about to be cut free. It was a strange and in many ways rather delicious thrill of anticipation, the longing of one who knows things are about to change irrevocably. This, she thought, was what the butterfly must feel before it emerges from the chrysalis. This was what the snake must feel before it sheds its skin.
Alice had watched Henry’s pet boa constrictor, Eve, do just that many times over the years. When Eve was young it had happened about once a month, but in recent years it had become a far less frequent occurrence. The snake would grow tetchy and reserved in the lead up to the shed, her eyes milking over, leaving her nearly blind and at her most defensive. Alice admired Eve’s persistence during the process, the way she would flex and shift until the old dry skin was off and her new scales shone like oiled cordovan.
In the first year after Henry brought Eve home, the snake had frightened Alice, those dead reptile eyes patiently following her around the kitchen when she was preparing supper. It was only Henry’s rapport with the creature, his absolute insouciance when Eve would uncoil her scaly length along his shoulders and around his chest, that had made the situation tolerable. “Come on, old girl,” Henry would say to the snake, just as Alice was becoming uncomfortable. “Don’t stare at the wife in that way. She’ll only take offence.”
Once Henry was gone, Alice had been quite prepared to get rid of the thing, to rehome it, or whatever euphemism for desertion you were meant to use when discussing snakes. Somehow, though, she never got round to it during her initial purge of Henry’s things, and now she couldn’t bring herself to do so.
It was sad to watch the way Eve would slide across the back of the sofa in the evenings now, seeking the familiar contours of Henry’s welcoming back and neck, the warmth of his belly, the remembered girth of his thighs and calves. The snake would make her way across the room expectantly each night, and search the empty space on the cushion next to Alice, unsure of where her master had gone. Occasionally Eve would look up at her with black eyes, behind which Alice imagined the creature must be suffering the pain of the sudden loss, all the more bewildering for her, perhaps, since she was unable to comprehend Alice’s explanation. What have you done with him? She imagined the snake must want to ask her. Where have you put him? When will he be coming back? And then Eve would flick out her black tongue as if she were appealing against the silence between them, before sliding back across the room on her belly.
When Eve started to go off her food after Henry’s death, Alice began to wonder whether there might not be some truth in these anthropomorphic fantasies. They’d always kept a stock of mice in the freezer and the weekly feed used to be an established ritual for them when Eve was younger. Henry would come in to the study, reach over the side of the vivarium and lift Eve out. The snake had still been a manageable size back then. “Alright old lady,” he’d say. “What do you fancy tonight? Chinese? Indian? Or something lighter?” Sometimes he would hold the snake’s head close to Alice, as if teasing it with an exotic and inaccessible à la carte item. It made Alice squirm. “What’s that old girl?” Henry would joke with the creature. “Looks a bit too scrawny and tough? Yes, you’re probably right.”
Finally Henry would line up a few of the mice on the garage floor and Eve would slide over efficiently between them, gathering them up one by one, her jaws having to pull apart more and more as the size of the mice increased over time, her body accordingly growing larger and larger to accommodate the prey. In the last few years, Henry had moved her onto the larger mammals from the cold cabinet in the pet store. Small rabbits and guinea pigs with maybe the occasional delicacy such as a mole if she were really lucky.
One Christmas, they even bought Eve a poussin from the butchers. Alice and Henry had watched as the bird stuck out part way down the snake’s gullet, like a present in a stocking. Whatever Henry put before her, Eve was game. Uncomplaining and unintimidated, she would size up the offering, no matter how large it appeared relative to her own body, and then slowly and delicately open her jaws like a ballerina executing an arabesque. After a really big meal she would go several weeks without wanting to eat again. Alice would imagine Eve lying there in the vivarium feeling the prey move along her digestive tract in the thrall of peristalsis. But even when the creature binged like that, Alice never detected a trace of remorse in those dark reptilian eyes. How she envied the snake that guiltless freedom to devour whatever was put before her.
So Eve’s sudden lack of appetite after Henry’s death, came as an interruption in the established routine Alice had felt obliged to continue. Alice wondered at first if there was something wrong with the food she was offering. Maybe the smaller rabbits were no longer big enough to entice the snake. She cleared the freezer and restocked with a selection of the larger animals they kept in the cold cabinet at the pet store. When that did no good, she turned up the thermostat to see if that would improve Eve’s mood. She even cleaned out the vivarium, replacing the newspaper covering on the floor and introducing a fresh dry branch for Eve to curl around.
“What’s up, Eve?” she’d found herself saying to the snake one evening. As a rule, Henry had been the only one to address Eve directly. Alice had never felt it appropriate to pretend to share in the relationship the snake had earned with Henry over the years. And she’d never really felt confident that she knew what was going on behind those eyes. To attempt a dialogue with the creature had always seemed to her a rather presumptuous act of ventriloquism. How could she, with her backbone and her warm mammalian blood, ever pretend an intimacy with that ten foot-long stretch of cold muscle ending in a Mona Lisa smile?
But now, with Henry gone, it seemed that something was indeed going on inside her head. Was Eve missing Henry? Could a snake mourn for a human in that way? Were reptiles even capable of the kind of emotional bond she was imagining? It seemed preposterous. But the uneaten carcasses she found herself sliding into the dustbin, with their still staring eyes silently reprimanding her for the waste, suggested otherwise.
At night, she noticed that Eve wouldn’t stay in the vivarium any more. In the first month or so after she began refusing her food, the snake started moving about in the evening, so that a few times Alice was startled to turn on the bathroom light and find Eve lying in the tub or the sink, or winding herself around the heated towel rail. “You poor, poor thing,” she’d say to the snake, although she still held back from reaching out and patting that smooth scaly body. “I miss him too, you know,” she’d explain. “We’re in the same boat, you and I.”
It was tragic to watch. Alice began to worry. Could a snake really starve itself to death? Should she take it to see a vet? But if it really were experiencing the pangs of loneliness associated with the loss of a loved one, would there be anything a vet could do?
It was a few weeks later that Eve began to come into Alice’s bed at night.
The first time it happened, she had a real shock. The snake slithered across her legs, over the top of the duvet, and for a moment she was reminded of the strength the creature possessed. It felt to her like the weight of a man. “Jesus, Eve,” she said after switching the light on. “You’re not meant to come in here, remember?” Henry had always been strict about that, turning the creature away whenever it had tried to slither round the bedroom door. “Not in the bedroom, old lady,” he’d have said. “This is my wife in here. You go find yourself another man.”
But now, with Henry gone, would it really matter? Alice just felt pity for this beast, for the way it was pining for its master. Once the nightly visits were a regular feature, Alice became more comfortable with the arrangement. Most of the time Eve remained on Henry’s side of the bed. She wouldn’t cross over. It sometimes amused Alice to think how it might have looked to an outside observer, this chaste and hopelessly mismatched pair, a painfully thin Jack Sprat and his wife.
After a while, it occurred to Alice that Eve might be trying to comfort her. She certainly slept better with the snake in the bed. And was she imagining it, or was Eve trying to mimic Henry’s physical shape in the way that she no longer always knotted herself up in a tight curl, but sometimes preferred instead to stretch out to her full length? The snake couldn’t really be sentient of her loss, could she? “There, there, Eve,” Alice would intone to the creature lying beside her, whose patient eyes watched her silently until she fell asleep.
When about two months had passed, Alice became really worried. Eve was still not eating, and had become more and more lethargic during the day, sleepily watching from across the kitchen as Alice tried to come up with appealing arrangements of mice on the willow pattern plates. Presentation, she thought, might tempt the snake to eat. She could remember doing just the same for Henry when they were first married, spending hours in the kitchen before he came home from work, eager to ensure that what she presented to him would not be rejected, would be devoured eagerly. But Eve simply watched Alice carry the plates across to her, and then imperiously flicked out her tongue in dismissal.
“Please, Eve,” Alice said eventually. “You must eat. You can’t starve yourself like this. It isn’t healthy. We all need to eat. I know you are missing Henry, we both are, but you can’t do this to yourself.” Oh Christ, she thought, as she felt a tear roll down her cheek. What must she think of me?
It was only when Alice returned once more to the pet store that she managed to shed some light on the matter.
“You see,” she said to the man behind the counter, after pouring out her story. “She won’t eat and I’m beside myself with worry. The poor creature has been devastated by my husband’s death. I just don’t know what I’m supposed to do.”
The man narrowed his eyes at her.
“You don’t know much about snakes, do you?” he said slowly. His expression had none of the patience an adult might show towards the transgression of a child or an animal. As Alice watched his dry lips slide over each other she felt a terrible knot of guilt tighten around her heart and squeeze. She sensed that her ignorance of how to care for the poor creature, her only living connection to Henry, had been about to deal it a cruel and unnecessary end.
“It’s a purge before the next feed,” the man went on. “The snake’s not sad. They don’t feel sadness or joy, or love. They don’t feel anything at all other than hunger, and an instinctive drive to locate the next meal.” He rested his hands on the counter, and for a moment Alice prayed that he might end this shriving by laying them on her, offering her absolution for all her sins against the snake. “It can’t remember your husband, any more than you can remember what you ate for lunch last month.”
“I’m sorry,” said Alice. “I’m not sure I follow.”
“The snake is measuring you.” The man said. “When it lies on your husband’s side of the bed and stretches itself out, it’s measuring your size relative to it.” He looked Alice up and down. “No wonder it’s been off its food. The anticipation during the purge must have been one hell of an appetite suppressant.”
Alice looked up at the man’s eyes. Where did she recognize it from, that expression? It was a familiar sort of amused contempt, but in this case the type that men reserve for their own kind.
And at that moment, and for a reason that seemed to slither away and escape her, Alice became aware that she had yet to remove Henry’s wedding band from her ring finger. It had slipped on so easily on their wedding day, but over the years her fingers had fattened, the band becoming tighter and tighter, until now it was sunk deep into the flesh behind her knuckle, to the extent that she wondered whether she would even be able to get it off, were she to try.
© Gregory Jackson, 2012
Gregory Jackson has studied at The City Literary Institute (UK) under John Petherbridge and Zoë Fairbairns. His poetry has been published in The Times newspaper, and his stories have been shortlisted & longlisted in the Bridport & Fish international writing competitions. He lives in the urban paradise of London and can’t make tonight’s event, but would like to give a big shout out to all the Liars in NYC.
Purge was read by Karen Leiner on 6th June 2012.