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Vol. 6, No. 3

The Snake Handler
by Anthony Doerr

 

Carlos Ninguna is seventeen; he lives with his father in San Diego, in an apartment building on Fuentes Boulevard. His father is a snake handler and Carlos is his apprentice. According to his father, Carlos performs his job poorly—he will never make a great snake handler. He is too delicate, his father says, too fainthearted. He lacks the qualities required of a true daredevil.
          Carlos, for his part, doesn’t want to become a snake handler. Although he loves snakes—loves their limbless efficiency, shyness, and easy grace—he does not wish to torment adders with sticks, or climb into sleeping bags stuffed with rattlers, or lower Iranian cobras into his waistband for money, or for the spectacle, or for the sheer thrill of it, as his father does.
          Carlos dreams of other things: he dreams of Idaho. He keeps a road map of the state gummed to the wall beside his cot and in the thinnest hours, after his father stumbles in, finally, from the taberna where he drinks, Carlos studies the northern reaches. Names like Bonners Ferry and Clearwater, Cocolalla and Cabinet Gorge. His mother was from Idaho and although he cannot remember her stories, he remembers the atmosphere of them: pine trees and blizzards, slashing creeks and mountain lakes. Sometimes, just before it begins to rain, the wind outside the apartment fills with an almost crippling odor—a smell like iron—and he imagines it is northern air, Idaho air, his mother passing invisibly in front of him. Carlos would like nothing more than to go to Idaho and live in a cabin and swim beneath the sky each morning in some glacial tarn, a pond so cold and clean and unstirred it would stop his heart just to step into it. The heart of the lake below and his own heart stalled inside his chest—this is what, in the depths of him, he dreams of most: deep, frigid water, and what it would do to his heart. There are mornings when he waits for his father in the van—the snakes are loaded into the big terrariums in the back, the oboe case waits on the dash—and it is all he can do not to leap into the driver’s seat and speed away, turn the van northward and draw it across the great deserts of Nevada, through the sage flats of southern Idaho, into the mountains.
          But he never does. He waits for his father to come up the block from the all-night liquor store with his bottle of Fuerza so they can go to whatever pier or beach or fairgrounds they are going to, and put on a snake show.
          
˜
Dave, the cobra, is dying. He hasn’t eaten in eight weeks. Carlos mounts three frozen mice on a skewer and forces them down the snake’s throat. Five minutes later Dave regurgitates. The mice, three slick gray stones, sink in the cedar shavings. The snake does not move. “Please Dave,” Carlos whispers.
          There is a tapping at the door. It is the neighbor girl, Marnie. She is in grave danger, she says. She needs to talk to Carlos immediately.
          Marnie is maybe twenty years old, a short girl with a body that looks capable of gymnastics and a mayhem of orange hair twisting from her head. She has been watching Carlos for nearly six months. He knows this because he has seen her handing out samples of suntan lotion at his snake shows. This is her job, it seems: to rollerblade the beaches and piers of southern California with plastic hearts bobbing from her head on springs and press tiny lotion capsules slotted inside heart-shaped cards onto passersby. Usually, she does this vigorously, charging with her basket between surfers, tourists, Rasta men, fishermen, sunbathers, lifeguards, cops. But other times—when Carlos is handling snakes—she seems to forget herself, standing rapt, knuckles at her teeth while potential customers drift past unsolicited. A few times, in rain or fog, on a slow Sunday, she has been the only attendee, watching intently as Carlos coaxes snakes from one basket to another with the mouth of his oboe.
          “My father isn’t home,” he says. “I’m sorry.” He closes the door.
          “It’s you I want,” she whispers from the hall. “Please. Five minutes.”
          He kneels before Dave’s cage. The snake’s breathing is labored; mucus bubbles from his nostrils.
          Marnie stutters through the keyhole: “I’ll be murdered . . . You’ll let it happen. You’ll have it on your conscience the rest of your life.”
          He seals the lid to Dave’s terrarium and flings open the door. “Oh wow,” she says, fumbling forward. “Oh, thank God.”
          Her apartment has linoleum floors and a hundred potted plants and Doug Flutie posters on every wall. There is Doug throwing, Doug diving, Doug doing bicep curls in sweats. A cardboard cutout of Doug enjoying potato chips. Doug in a suit and tie, lobbing a Nerf ball to some underprivileged-looking children.
          She locks the door, holds a finger to her lips. “We have to be quiet,” she whispers, pulling Carlos to a computer desk in the corner of the apartment. On the screen are two mug shots of a bald man. “Recognize him?”
          He looks closer: a man with shiny cheeks and a dogleg in his nose. “No.”
          “Ssshhh. You should.”
          “I don’t.”
          “Wait. Two seconds.” She clicks on the man’s ear. “This is the FBI’s Web site. They post pictures of their most wanted criminals.” Statistics fill in under the photographs: the man’s nationality (U.S.), his age (29–35), his height and weight (6’5”, 235 lbs.). Known occupations: swimming instructor. At the bottom of the screen, in flashing blue: CONSIDERED EXTREMELY DANGEROUS. Below that, in smaller letters: FBI IS OFFERING A $120,000 REWARD FOR INFORMATION LEADING DIRECTLY TO THE ARREST OF THIS MAN.
          Marnie leans over the computer chair and dangles a sandal from her toe. “Sixty thousand dollars,” she says. “Each.”
          He studies her: the small, pinched face, the black eyes, the dress. “I don’t get it.”
          “He’s Shep Stevenson,” she hisses. “The child-murderer. He just moved into the apartment upstairs.”
          At her insistence Carlos goes outside to sit in her Volkswagen. Her vanity plate reads FLUTIE. A dozen boxes of lotion samples fill the back. She takes binoculars from the glove box and hands them over.
          “That window there.” Their building is cheap clapboard painted faux Tudor: three floors, six apartments, brass mailboxes in a glass foyer. The trunks of five coconut palms lunge up from the front walk. A place that allows pets: ALL PETS WELCOME, the sign says. Carlos and his father keep thirty-one snakes: twenty-five rattlesnakes of various species, four eyelash vipers, a bull snake, and Dave, the cobra. Escape artists, all of them. Their terrariums are glass, capped with galvanized eight-gram heavy gauge mesh lids.
          According to Carlos’s father, it isn’t what a handler does with his snakes, it’s what he says while he’s doing it. A good handler, his father says, knows how to build drama, how to take a crowd into confidence, whisper secrets to it, lull it into a trance. The king cobra in that basket there, his father will say, swaying back and forth, has killed a six-hundred-pound heifer, paralyzed a four-thousand-pound elephant. “It’s the danger, the chance to see death up close and personal,” he tells Carlos. “Get them to where they hide their eyes in their sleeves.”
          “We have to wait,” Marnie says. “He’ll come to the window and have a smoke at 11:41. He always smokes at 11:41.”
          “Why?”
          “How should I know?”
          The car clock reads 11:34. They wait. A bus rumbles up Fuentes. On I-5 a block away he can hear brakes grinding. “My father will be home soon,” Carlos says.
          She leans over him to look up at the building. Her elbow is in his lap. “It was in Utah. Moab. He killed eleven kids—an entire swimming class. He led them out from the YMCA, piled them into his truck, and drove them to a ramp on the Colorado River. He told them it would be their final swim test, something all the swimmers who graduate from his classes do. These were nine- and ten-year-olds. He led them in—maybe threw some of them in—and they got caught in the current, of course, and at the first big rapids they drowned. All of them. They say he jumped in after them. Ended up floating all the way through the canyon. Came out three days later in Lake Havasu. Wrists and legs all broken. He turned himself in to the cops, then tore his way out of a police van and escaped. You never heard about that?”
          “No,” he says. He imagines dead children in a river, their bodies rising in eddies.
          “There.” A window on the east side of the third floor slides up. A match flares, touches the end of a cigarette. Carlos lifts the binoculars and finds the orange cinder in the viewfinder. He looks a moment, then hands the binoculars over. “It’s not him.”
          Her elbow turns in his lap. Her hair in his face.
          “Oh, it’s him all right.” She shivers. The cigarette goes out; the window slides down.
          
˜
Carlos and his father do a twilight show on Hart’s Pier. Carlos sets up the wicker hampers and his father plays a few songs: Marcello’s oboe concerto, then Mozart’s. By dusk a small crowd, eight or so, has gathered. A few dollars drift into the oboe case. His father begins a Schumann piece, and Carlos removes the lid to Dave’s basket. The cobra barely lifts his head. His normally jet black color is faded to ash; his spots look washed-out. Twice Dave tries to rise up, threatened by the mouth of the oboe passing in front of his eyes, but the effort seems to overcome him. He flares his hood once, weakly, then drops his head onto the cotton floor of his basket. The song peters out. People wander.
          Calmly, as if it is part of the show, his father sets down his oboe, reaches into the basket, takes Dave by the tail, and swings him against the rail of the pier. The snake’s head strikes the wood with a dull crack. He spasms once, twisting, flashing his white belly, then his patterned back. Carlos looks at the sea; a slow fog is building. Scraps of dreams surface: dust beneath a sofa; the hem of his mother’s dress, sandy and worn to threads. He hears his father swing Dave again: a whistling through the air, a crack of bone against wood. Finally his father drops the snake, and Carlos pulls the cuffs of his shirt over his hands and collects Dave
in his arms.
          “What are you doing?” his father asks. “What the hell are you doing?”
          Carlos crosses the beach with the cobra twisting in his arms, folds him into his terrarium, seals the lid, and breathes. Dave hisses once, balefully, then pools like water into the corner of the cage. His pupils, usually slits in the dome light of the van, have bloomed into full circles. Carlos climbs to the front, sits in the driver’s seat, and tries to calm his heart.
          After an hour or so his father clambers into the passenger seat and anchors a bottle of Fuerza between his thighs. On the drive home he sings strange, invented songs. “Damnit, girl, this is how it goes,” he croons. “This is how it has to be-eee.” They stop for gas and his father orders Carlos to drive off without paying.
          “We can’t, Pop. We have to pay.”
          His father looks out the window a while. “Boy,” he says, “you’re never going to be anything. Hate to tell you, but I’ve tried and tried and you’re not going to ever be anything worth anything.” He spits slowly into his bottle, then raises it and drinks.
          “Go to sleep. Get some rest. I’ll pay for the gas.”
          “Nothing worth nothing,” his father sings. “I got a son and he’s worth nothing.”
          He passes out before they get home. Carlos leaves him in the passenger seat and ascends to the apartment with the baskets of snakes. A yellow glow from the streetlight washes through the window. Upstairs the neighbor is pacing, his feet making loud, uneven thumps, as though he is carrying furniture on his back.
          Carlos squats in front of Dave’s cage. A white crust is chalked around the borders of the snake’s mouth. His eyes are a cloudy blue.
          
˜
That night he can’t sleep. The hearth shape of Idaho looms in the darkness above him. Footsteps on the third floor cross to the far corner of the ceiling and fall silent. He tries to remember when he has seen the new neighbor. Maybe a week ago, he passed him by the mailboxes. He remembers flip-flops, grains of sand stuck to the man’s calves. He held the door open for Carlos. Do killers hold the door for people?
          Carlos tiptoes into the hall and taps on Marnie’s door. There are the sounds of chains rattling and a dead bolt disengaging. She grabs his elbow, pulls him inside.
          “He paces at night,” she whispers, and gestures toward the ceiling. “It’s driving me insane.” She is wearing red sweatpants and a tank top. Her hair has been wrestled into curlers.
          “Here’s the thing: If you’re so sure it’s him, why not call the cops and collect the money yourself?”
          “I have a plan.”
          “A plan.”
          “The Web site says he has a scar across his back.” She watches him. “All we have to do is see if this guy who lives upstairs has a big scar on his back.”
          “That’s ridiculous.”
          “But it makes sense.”
          “And you need me to do that?”
          “I’ve tried looking through his windows with binoculars, but the guy always wears a shirt. Always. And he never turns on any lights.” She shudders. “It’s so creepy.”
          “Why me?”
          “Because you’re a snake charmer! You face danger every day! You handle killers, you clutch them, you care for them, you make them do your will. You’re used to risk. You’re like Flutie, standing there even when danger charges in from all sides.” She collapses her hands around an invisible center.
          “What about my father?”
          “You are braver than your father.” Carlos groans. She bats her eyes and whispers, “I say we invite him to the beach.”
          “To the beach?”
          “What’s the harm in that? We’ll tell him it’s a tradition among tenants or something. I offer suntan lotion; he takes off his shirt. If he’s innocent, the worst he gets is a sunburn. If he’s got the scar, we split and call the FBI. The phone number’s right there on the site. We give up his address, wait a few days, and we’re rich.” She is short of breath. He glances at her throat, the rise and fall of her chest.
          “Ridiculous,” he says.
          “Rich,” she whispers.
          
˜
In their cages snakes fall in and out of sleep. Carlos thinks about his mother. Peculiar, unpredictable things summon her: the smell of Ivory soap, a sudden shift in temperature when he steps outside. She was something willowy and dark-eyed who leaned over his bassinet; she was heat rising from a car seat, the smell from an upturned log, sage crushed between fingers.
          She died when Carlos was seven, in Costa Rica, from a fer-de-lance bite. They found her beneath the rear bumper of their Chevrolet Impala. Her right arm was dark purple and the skin had fissured and leaked plasma in dozens of places. The snake was nowhere, its basket unwired—an escape artist, a hit-and-run. Carlos’s father held her a long time. Then he clambered into the flatbed, picked up a tire iron, and began upending baskets of snakes. When they were all out, sizzling around his feet, he started hacking away. In that year he had forty-one snakes and he decapitated most of them in five minutes. “Hard to kill,” he grunted. “You have to separate them at the necks.” The snakes did not go quietly. He was bitten three times, all rattlesnakes, all at least three-footers, all loaded bites.
          His mother lived four more days, sitting up in her hospital bed two separate times, as if she had something to say. Carlos roamed the corridors. Death, he learned, was not sudden, not a fracture between this world and the next. Our bodies live on, burping, bloating. Long after his mother stopped moving, her stomach kept working, digesting itself from the inside out. Four days and her eyelids still twitched. A monitor still beeped. Every cell in a dying body winks out at its own pace. He thought of the decapitated snakes, how they pulsed and quivered in the flatbed. Death, and the determination not to die.
          His father’s legs swelled so much the doctors had to cut off his jeans; he was in bed for six weeks and lost two toes from each foot. And he was changed in other ways: he blacked out occasionally; his blood sugar fluctuated wildly; his strength fled at odd, unpredictable moments. He gave up speaking about the mysteries of snakes, gave up reading herpetological journals, scribbling in notebooks. He brought a new and frightening intensity to his performances, putting snakes in his mouth, between his legs; once, in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, he let a canebrake rattler drive its fangs through his tongue and staggered into the crowd with the snake hanging from his mouth.
          He wanted the boy to be immune, to grow into the ultimate daredevil, the king of snake handlers, someone who could stick his head into an anaconda’s mouth and smile and tell a story the whole time. But what rose up instead was unexpected, repulsive to the father: the boy loved the snakes, not the spectacle. Carlos hid at snake beheadings, wept when his father made him tear the white threads of gut out of an eviscerated pit viper. He began to nurse injured snakes to health in secret, hiding garter snakes with broken ribs in his duffel, concealing a half-severed dwarf boa in a Crockpot and feeding it milk with an eyedropper.
          Carlos was ten when his father took the head of a rattler, forced it over the lip of a porcelain cup, milked the venom, and mixed it with orange juice. “You’ll be immune now,” he said. “This’ll save your life.”
          “I don’t want it,” Carlos said.
          “Drink.”
          It tasted like salt and cinnamon. Within a minute he felt like he’d swallowed a handful of razors. He lay in the backseat of the Chevrolet, sweating, moaning.
          “Snake venom is black,” his father whispered. “It turns any tissue it touches to black mush. Each beat of your heart moves it a little farther through your veins, disintegrating more of you, until finally you’re left with nothing inside, just dark, stinking porridge.”
          My life, Carlos remembers thinking. This is saving my life.
          
˜
From the apartment peephole Carlos stakes out the stairwell all morning but no one comes or goes. His father is still out, at the taberna or sleeping in the van or who knows where.
          Marnie is at the door. He locks it behind her. “I saw him by the trash cans,” she whispers. “Carrying a big white plastic bag.”
          “His trash.”
          “Could have been. Could have been some kid’s head.” She pushes into the apartment and squats in front of the terrariums. “What are they doing? Sleeping?”
          “They bask under the lights. For heat.”
          She taps the glass. “Have you decided?”
          “About what?”
          “About the plan.”
          “Told you, I don’t think it’s him.”
          “Oh, it’s him all right. I saw his eyes the other day and about jumped out of my skin. His irises are this weird, unnerving gray. And when he goes anywhere, he walks. I don’t think he has a car. It’s like he can’t get a driver’s license.”
          “Maybe he’s into fitness.”
          “Look. It’s him. I know it. I know people.” She turns and runs her fingers over the glass. He watches her neck, the slope of her shoulder. He can see the outline of her bra beneath her shirt.
          “His mailbox says R. Perry.”
          “A pseudonym. Obviously.”
          In the afternoon he scans news files at the library: Shep Stevenson, swim instructor, accused of killing eleven children. The story is as Marnie presented it. The YMCA director is defensive: “Seemed like a normal guy. Had solid credentials.” The childhood friend is surprised: “Shep? Impossible. That boy was gentle. Came from a good family.” There is a different photo, blurred and dotty: a large head, that same crooked nose. He looks, Carlos realizes, like an oddly-inflated version of his father.
          By the time Carlos returns, Dave has died. He waits until dusk, then carries the limp sleeve of Dave’s body out to the van and takes I-5 to Mt. Soledad above La Jolla. Below him the whole city stretches out. House lights shimmer; heat blurs rise. The sea hovers against the horizon like a platter of black oil. He pulls the van into a cul-de-sac and cuts a shallow trench in a sandy lot where a house has been razed. Then he takes Dave’s body—thin and flattened, as if in death the snake can no longer accommodate dimension—and buries it. A feeling like he might cry rises in his throat. On I-5, far below, a thousand twin sparks of taillights stream northward.
          It is late when he tiptoes up the stairs and stands in the apartment and studies the terrariums. His father still hasn’t returned. The heat lights burn low and red; the snakes are coiled on each other, dreaming perhaps. There is the odor of captive reptiles: cedar chips, bonemeal, and a smell like overcooked lobster. Upstairs a toilet flushes.
          He empties Dave’s cage and washes it slowly in the sink. Steam rises past his face. Every time I opened his basket, Carlos remembers, Dave would lift his chin. He’d send out his tongue to taste the air. Hoping I’d let him be. Hoping the oboe wouldn’t come waving in his face.
          Carlos wipes the cage dry and replaces it on the shelf and crosses the hall and taps on Marnie’s door. The chains slide and the bolt falls-to. “You look terrible,” he says.
          “How do you feel living below a mass murderer? I’m going crazy. I need to move out.”
          “I’m ready,” he says. “To ask the guy to the beach.”
          
˜
Carlos once read that very cold, very fresh water is lighter than seawater, more penetrable; he imagines it is like plunging into air. The body slips through it. In a dream Marnie is a mermaid and she holds his head between her breasts. “Sixty thousand dollars,” she whispers. Her words rise toward the surface in bright, round bubbles. Her tail flits. “That’ll sand the edges off. Keep your lanes open.” He wakes damp, his blanket thrown off. A fly writhes in a corner-spun web. From upstairs there is only silence, a brooding patience, the rising hum of nothing.
          On her vinyl sofa they eat scrambled eggs and invent lives for the neighbor: he is Boo Radley, Magwich, Hannibal Lecter. He is Roland Perry the child-eating real estate salesman, Rick Perry the vampiric schoolteacher.
          Broken pieces of morning light fall through the windows onto the floor. He can’t take his eyes from the shiny cap of her knee, a lone freckle stationed there.
          She asks, “Do we just walk up there and ask him?”
          “Let’s leave him a note.”
          “What if he says no?”
          “Then he says no. Maybe the note will scare him away.” She goes to her counter and produces a sheet of pink paper. After a minute or two, he writes: Come to the beach tomorrow morning and get to know your neighbors! Meet out front, 11 a.m.
          “Sixty grand,” Marnie says, shaking her head. “I’d take Doug Flutie out in a limo. One of those limos with a hot tub in the back. We’d drive into the hills and strip naked and have a hot tub at sixty miles an hour.”
          Carlos looks up at the ceiling. “We’ll see,” he says.
          In the stairwell dread sets in. Marnie freezes and won’t step forward. Carlos takes the note from her and starts up the stairs. A smell lingers on the landing, boiled animal fat and soap. His footsteps echo. “Be careful,” hisses Marnie.
          He crouches on the top stair and slips the note under the big walnut door. No sounds come from inside. Before turning he presses his eye to the peephole. There is nothing, a brass funnel into light. “Not home,” he says aloud, down the stairwell.
          But before he can blink, an eye blots the hole. The door rattles. Carlos’s heart stalls in his chest. He recoils, staggering back, his hand groping for the railing, and lands on his tailbone. Marnie backpedals into her apartment, hands over her face. Carlos spins, descends the rest of the way, and crawls in behind her. Wheezing, he sets the dead bolt and chain, and leans against the door. Marnie crouches behind a potted ficus in the corner.
          Five minutes later she is kneeling in front of him, taping a gauze pad over his elbow, when a note whisks under the door. It comes to a rest in the center of the hall rug. The same piece of pink paper. They stare at it. Carlos can hear Marnie struggling to swallow, a low, dry clucking at the back of her throat. After a minute he stands. “No,” she hisses. “Forget it.” But he reads it. On the reverse side, in block printing, is written: Love to. See you at 11.
          

˜

His father is in the apartment, slouched on the floor beside the terrariums with the bull snake looped in his lap. He rolls an empty bottle of Fuerza back and forth beneath his calf. “Where’ve you been?”
          “Where have I been? You’ve been gone two days.”
          His father rocks back and forth. “Been thinking,” he says. “We need to get more out of our shows. We need to bring them to a new level.” He stands and strokes the snake and goes into the hall. Halfway down the stairwell he calls back up, “Bring all the snakes.” Z
          
          

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