Death Benefits 2: A Fictional Fraction
February 29, 2012 § 7 Comments
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I was angry. He’d done it again, the fat bastard, gotten under my sensitive-girl skin. I didn’t tell anyone. I drank gin and smoked blunts, popped Christine’s cancers meds—he’d kept them after her death, tucked between the dog’s heartworm pills and the Viagra—and minced freeze-dried white mice in the Cuisinart. My cat Fitzroy had been feeling poorly since Charles’ territorial Lola had ripped off one ear and half his tail. (I have the ear. I’ve pressed it between the pages of The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath. Mouchette has the tail and she’s not giving it back.)
Then the woman next door told us about Pocahontas—everyone’s favorite neighborhood five-year-old, sent to her room for a nap and not seen again. Immediately I thought of snakes. I’d been reading about the African pythons in the Everglades, released as pets, breeding, destroying the native population of rabbits, foxes, even deer. The so-called experts said they were no threat to humans, but any fool knows that if one food source disappears, predators will seek another. Bears prowl towns in the Northwest, sometimes coming right into the kitchen, polishing off half a dozen cooling Thanksgiving pies. Why would you expect more discretion from a snake?
The police were out in force, as well as volunteer search teams made up of college-age surfer dudes and tiny Jewish widows, with the occasional adult male not yet on a sex-offender list. The cops had the whole amber alert thing going on, and salacious newscasters in the 95 IQ range gloated, tossing possibilities back and forth. They dragged out the old stories, the Megans and Jessicas, mutilation and shallow graves, botched investigations. There was the usual speculation that the father had done it—whatever ‘it’ was—and his shamefaced alibi of being shacked up with the Norwegian nanny in a motel in Boca (the couple next door affirming that the squealing and smacking had gone on unabated for 14 hours, the man stumbling out only once to urinate, drunk, in the parking lot while mumbling incoherently on his Blackberry) only made certain elements more certain he was the culprit.
Poca was an only child, silver-blond and green-eyed, her parents recent transplants from California or New Jersey. The father bought distressed properties for an investment firm in Lithuania, rumored to be funded by the North Koreans. Poca’s mother didn’t work, at least not at anything anyone had ever heard of.
The little girl was fond of sneaking out of the house, cutting through the back yards of the rococo beachfront McMansions and playing by herself at the edge of the water. She liked the waves curling over her raspberry-painted toes and she collected shells and rocks, which her mother returned to the beach every night. There were some who said they’d seen her mother slip out of her human skin and frolic in the waves as something else—they could never say what—but Poca’s mother had the kind of beauty that does things to the imagination. So nobody believed them but me. I knew what she turned into, and I knew Poca hadn’t inherited the ability, although the next daughter would, the one the father kept squandering in the nanny due to his growing fear of his uncanny wife.
Even so, there was a contingent of women on the beach, deeply tanned, tough as boots, looking murderously at the ocean. They were discussing how long it would take to gather the whole wet mess and fling it back like a blanket, exposing all the crimes and bodies. I could have told them not to bother. Poca never went in the water by herself. She’d been knocked over by waves more than once. I’d seen her skirting the lacy froth, moving unerringly back and forth, letting it slither between her toes but never reach past her slim ankles. So Charles and I dug out the vintage cattle prod we’d bought at a local yard sale for $8 and went hunting African python.
First we fed the cats and warned them not to open the door, not to anyone. Lola was on the kitchen table pawing a pack of matches, Mouchette sleeping on my discarded bra, and Fitzroy in the bathroom, looking for answers.
We walked through the fragrant Florida night, all the outdoor lighting making the square lawns fluorescent green. The gay couple down the street still had Santa and his reindeer up, though it was the end of February. “My brother died on this date in 1965,” I said, and Charles squeezed my hand. “His face was gone. It was a boy named Richard Mischia who killed him.”
“Are you supposed to name names?” my husband murmured. “You promised this would be fiction.”
“I’ll do whatever I please. Everyone else does.”
We looked under bushes. We looked up the trees. I played my recording of pitiful animal noises. We looked in the parked cars.
“Let’s try the beach,” Charles said. “The ladies have gone home now.”
They were gone, but the moon was up, swaggeringly full in the Southern sky. “Fuck you, you evil bitch,” I shouted. “You never gave me anything I wanted, you promised everything and it was all lies!”
“Darling,” said Charles. “I love you in the moonlight. You look like a maidenly maenad, a sweet soul scorched to sorcery by a demon debutante’s wonky curling iron.”
“How come you never said things like that in the ‘90’s?”
“You weren’t writing my dialogue in the 90’s.”
“I did too write it. You just wouldn’t speak it.”
He sighed. “I feel sorry for a lot of things I did and didn’t do in the 90’s.”
“Well, I feel like I should have died before I was born! My insides are stuck on the outside!”
“You’re special that way. How would you write poetry otherwise?”
“I hate the whole world.”
“As you should, but we’ve got a problem here. Pocahontas…”
I knew. Pocahontas was human, but only just. Her father’s selfish genes had given her the potential for rapine and murder, the despoilment of the planet and wholesale corporate fraud. She had that as well as her mother’s connection to the Old Ones. This was serious business, and I was stupidly hung up on the last sarcastic email from a man whose pet name for me used to be Botticelli Girl, now morphed to Backstop.
It’s not difficult to find a murdering snake when you’re in touch with your own self-loathing. When you follow it faithfully—what a masochistic mutt I am, falling for the same old tricks; my gruesome empathy as Dr. Guss called it, my grubby, gimcrack, groveling heart—your inner GPS finds the hiding place of nightmare. For those whose mission it is seek out monsters, it’s considered a bankable talent.
The beach was empty but for the crabs strung out across the sand, waiting for the sea-turtle eggs to hatch. They made me so mad, but what sense did my outrage make? I’ve spent more time eating crustaceans than any of these small creatures had spent being alive. There’s a reason most beings have opted against big brains. All they do is make you want impossible things, like life without death and romance without dishonor.
The python was barely hidden in the grass at the crest of the dunes, lolling in the moonlight, body grotesquely swollen. It was patterned chocolate brown and harvest gold, two man-lengths long, plus some. Charles had the prod ready, but I stopped him.
“What if she’s still alive?”
“Inside a python?”
“Her mother is magic. She may have survived. Perhaps we should stun the snake and then slit open its belly.”
But the cattle prod was a wicked instrument, and we weren’t sure how to only stun. The man who sold it to us said he’d killed a dog with it, the neighbor’s dog that was chained up and barked all day long. “Got that little turd machine right in the balls. He rolled over and died sweet as could be. Made my whole weekend.” We stood in the grass debating. The moon poured her stolen light on the sleeping serpent whose middle part was stretched in the shape of a little girl, down to the barrette in her hair and the straps on her maryjanes. Finally we decided we couldn’t risk it, and Charles went off to get a hatchet.
I stood guard. Never had I regretted more throwing away my red gun, my haunted .22 with the whisky voice. When I’d tossed her off the bridge, she’d laughed, as only a ghost in a body of fatal metal can do. “Trying to be a good girl again?” she’d asked, refusing to sink until she’d had her say. “Caretaking, nice-making. You should have shot them and been done with it.”
But then I’d be in jail, I thought, and unable to rescue Pocahontas. That was the most important thing. The fate of Florida depended on it. So I watched and waited, and it seemed to me that the child inside the snake was shifting the way a person does as she begins to wake. “Hurry, Charles,” I whispered. “Hurry up before it’s too late.” I saw her eyes open; I saw her tears. You’ll say I couldn’t have—not under the skin of a python—but I once saw a fetus in a plastic bag inside the toe of a day trader’s python boot in the Spanish bar on 10th Street. I mean, I think I did. That was in October of ’08. The world was imploding.
I did, I did see the fetus, and I saw Poca’s tears. I saw her lips move.
Later, I found out Charles had been dragooned into a search team. Nobody had believed his story about a 13-foot snake stretched around the shape of a five-year-old girl. They’d gotten him in their SUV, then gunned it in the wrong direction, certain the child was being held captive in the low-rent part of town, if not by a black or Hispanic man, by some white-trash meth-snorting tattooed piece of puke on a stick.
I should have gone back myself for a hatchet, a knife, an ice pick. Charles had the beach key, but I could have gone through the backyards like Poca. I knew the way. Instead I sat through the interminable smug ecstasy of the moon intoning all the poetry lovesick idiots had written for her. “The moon, too, abuses her subjects / But in the daytime she is ridiculous,” I riposted.
She’s dead, said the night with a thousand sighs, and it’s true that Sylvia is dead, her voice stilled by oven gas and love gone wrong. Was Poca also dead, child named for the princess of the unspoiled wilderness, the one who was taken by the white men swarming ashore like serpents? She gave one a clutch of babies, that original Poca, each twist of her DNA an instrument of retribution.
The python had her eyes. It woke up and looked at me, and it was both snake and the woman the girl might have become, beautiful and blessed and brave, now wholly incorporated into the reptile evil. I thought about grabbing it by the tail and running into the sea. Poca’s mother’s people might have saved us then, but probably not. Even in Florida, the sea grows cold deep down.
The snake spoke to me for a long time with its yellow gaze, and when it was satisfied I understood slithered away, making show-offy Mobius strip curves in the sand so nobody looking could say what had been there. What it told me, you won’t believe. Why is it always like this? So many will die.