Prologue:

SnakeThe summer before we moved, my husband Colin took a scouting trip to find possible places for us to live. He called to tell me he had found the perfect house. The big selling point for him was that the family who was renting out their house had an albino corn snake and they offered to let us “snake sit” her. My son, who was eight at the time, was obsessed with snakes. For his birthday that year we had gotten him a snake puppet, rubber snakes, and books about snakes. (See photo at left). He was unhappy about being uprooted from his school and friends, and Colin thought the snake might be a good way to get him excited about the move.

I half considered it, but asked him to do a little further reconnaissance. Most importantly, I wanted him to find out was what the snake would eat. I had worked in a science museum when I was in college, and I remembered with distaste the tank of doomed little white mice kept in the basement of the building. The sole reason for their existence was to feed one of two boa constrictors that were on exhibit.

“We can’t keep it if it eats live mice,” I said with finality. “I refuse to feed live mice, or even live crickets to the snake. If it eats live food, they have to find someone else to take care of it.”

He called me back about half an hour later and announced with glee, “You don’t have to feed it live food! You buy frozen mice and thaw them in a pot on the stove! You won’t have to do a thing. I’ll do everything myself!”

I shrieked with laughter and horror at the thought and told him, “No. No. No. No. No. No. NO.”

We ended up renting the house, but the owners found someone else to take care of their snake.

More than once that year I got a nasty surprise when I’d be groping around the freezer for a pint of Ben & Jerry’s or a package of frozen chicken nuggets and would pull out a frozen mice in a ziploc bag instead. It was truly horrifying, and it inspired the darkest thing I’ve ever written. Writing it, researching all the (true) gory details about how snakes are fed, and thinking about how the story would end scared the living daylights out of me.

A Snake Tale

I wish I’d known that snakes don’t blink when I first locked eyes with Belinda. We had just arrived at the house we were going to rent for a year and the first place my husband wanted to show me was the room where she was kept. Her enormous 75 gallon glass vivarium was perched precariously on a rickety chest of drawers that looked in imminent danger of collapsing.

Peter had gotten a fellowship from the National Humanities Center for his sabbatical year and had driven to North Carolina earlier that summer on a two day house-hunting expedition. I could hear the delight in his voice when he called me the first evening from his hotel room to tell me that he had already found the perfect place for us to live. Aside from the master bedroom, there was a room with a bunk bed that would suit our sons Aidan and Michael, and another smaller room with a single bed low to the ground for our three year old daughter Grace.

For Peter, the biggest selling point was the pet snake that belonged to Ava, our future landlord’s college-age daughter. Ava had met Peter at the house and had given him the tour. When he noticed the snake in the room that would be our daughter’s, Ava shyly suggested that we might keep the snake while we lived in the house, as she wasn’t allowed to have pets in her dorm room.

Peter described Belinda with obvious excitement in his voice, “She’s a baby albino Burmese python. She’s not actually white, but a very pale orange. Her eyes are startlingly red.” He was not winning me over. I started to protest vigorously.

“But it would be so great for Aidan. It would really help him to make the transition,” he pleaded.

I could see his point. Of all the children, our oldest son Aidan, who was about to enter third grade, was the most apprehensive about the move. He also happened to be fascinated with snakes. His room was littered with realistic life-size toy snakes and tiny rubber snakes. He had wooden snakes with articulated bodies, stuffed snakes, wind-up snakes, and even a boa constrictor puppet. His desk was covered with piles of his own detailed renderings of snakes. Half of the books strewn on the floor around his bed at home were about snakes. He petitioned us regularly and in great earnest for a real snake pet of his own. Peter and I had heretofore presented a united front in our unequivocal rejection of this idea.

“Peter, I’m not going to take care of a tank full of doomed mice. And I couldn’t possibly feed the poor things to the snake. Feel free to blame it all on me, but make sure you tell them they have to find someone else to take the snake while we’re there.”

“But Ava says you don’t have to feed the snake live mice. You buy prepackaged frozen mice at the pet store and you keep them in the freezer. Once a week you warm one up in a saucepan and you feed it to the snake.”

“Are you kidding me?!” I shrieked over the phone. I couldn’t help laughing, but I shuddered too as I pictured a mouse simmering away on the stovetop. “Tell her no. that’s disgusting. I don’t want the snake in the house.”

“I’ll take care of it, I promise,” Peter persisted. “You won’t have to deal with it at all. It would only be for a year. Think how happy it would make Aidan…”

And that’s how we ended up with a snake in our house, or rather, how we ended up in the snake’s house.

I got down on my knees to inspect Belinda more carefully. She wasn’t large, maybe twenty inches long at the most, and a quarter inch in diameter at her thickest. She was dwarfed by the enormity of her tank. As I peered into the tank she slowly turned to face me, her tongue making exploratory flicks in the air. From her side of the glass she drew her own face up to mine and began staring into my eyes. I’m sure I wasn’t imagining it. Her expression was cold, malevolent, challenging. I felt myself drawn into a ridiculous contest of wills. If she was going to stare at me, I would stare right back at her. I sat there silently glaring at her, growing more resentful the longer she held her insolent, unblinking gaze.

“Come on. Let me show you the rest of the house,” Peter said after a moment.

“I’m coming. Just a minute.” I sat there a little longer

“What are you looking at?” What are you doing?” he asked.

“I’m…Oh never mind. I’m coming.” Too embarrrassed to admit that I’d been trying to outstare the snake, I stood up, the first to look away. As I left the room, I glanced back over my shoulder to see what Belinda was doing. She had turned away from the glass, but by the relaxed sprawl she had adopted, I could swear she was smirking.

We quickly settled into the house and our new routines. Peter was thrilled to have free time to work on his own projects in his office at the National Humanities Center. Aidan and Michael plunged themselves into their new school, and were soon juggling a busy social calendar of activities and play dates with new friends. I had taken the year off from teaching to join Peter on his sabbatical, and found myself with the unaccustomed luxury of ample, unscheduled time. During the days I spent many happy hours exploring the Research Triangle with my charming little daughter Grace. She was at a lovely age when everything was interesting and delightful. Even grocery shopping was an adventure for her. She radiated pure joy at the simplest of pleasures. I treasured the time I had to spend with her.

In the evenings after the children were in bed, I feasted on the bounty of novels I found on the bookshelves lining almost every wall of the house. There were books I’d wanted to read for years, but never had the time to, and there were unexpected treasures I had not heard of before, but hungrily devoured in late night reading orgies. I jokingly referred to these sessions as my “reading frenzies.”

I took up writing for the first time in years. Throughout my childhood and youth I had always harbored the hope that I’d one day be a writer. I had abandoned this dream when I went to graduate school so many years ago, where I endlessly dissected and dismembered the works of other, real writers. I could remember the despair I felt as I struggled for years over my dissertation on Gogol’s short stories, feeling like a hyena gnawing on the poor man’s dessicated bones.

It was thrilling to rediscover something I’d loved, but had kept simmering untouched on the backburner for so many years. I started hounding my family members for details from our shared history to include in personal essays. Everywhere I went I was on the prowl for ideas. When I took Grace to the playground, I’d sit quietly on a bench and eavesdrop on other mothers’ conversations to get material for my next writing endeavor. I took to carrying around a small notebook in my purse to record any good lines I overheard, or to jot down any ideas that popped into my head for future projects. With Peter I joked that I was becoming like a vampire, in my quest for fresh blood. I think he was a little jealous of the time I spent writing into the late hours. It was eating into the little time we had alone together, but he could see how revitalized I was by writing, and he was happy for me.

The one nagging worry was Belinda. As he had promised, Peter diligently tried to feed her, considerately waiting until I was not around to heat up a mouse and lower it into the aquarium with a long pair of tongs specifically designed for feeding snakes. I squeamishly insisted that he keep the frozen packages of mice in a paper bag in the door of the freezer where they wouldn’t touch our pints of Ben & Jerry’s or the boxes of chicken nuggets. I set aside one banged up saucepan for him to use for heating up the mice. I refused to even wash the pan after it had been used to thaw the frozen mice, insisting that he deal with this task himself.

For three weeks Belinda ignored all the mice Peter proffered. By the end of the second week he began to get worried and did some internet research to get tips on how to deal with reluctant eaters. He experimented with several techniques to no avail. He read out to me some of the more extreme measure suggested on some websites, including cutting off the tip of the mouse’s nose, or slicing off the top of its head to expose its brain. Aghast, we wondered how people could possibly bring themselves to do such atrocious things. In the end, the most he could bring himself to do was to try one of the more modest proposals he had found. He brought home a can of tuna fish and drained the liquid out into a bowl. He dipped a mouse in the oily liquid and tried to entice Belinda with it. The stinking basted carcass was apparently as repulsive to Belinda as the very thought of it was to Peter and me. She turned her back on it. I instructed Peter to seal the rejected, desecrated, fishy mouse in two Ziploc bags and to bring it straight out the trash bin. He sent an email to Ava explaining the situation, but she seemed unconcerned. She wrote back to explain that Belinda was probably off her food because she was about to shed.

Until then I had studiously avoided the snake. There had been no rematch of the stare down in which I’d been roundly defeated. When I tucked Grace in at night, I tried my best to ignore the tank, even though it loomed large right next to her bed. It made me uneasy that the tank was so close to Grace’s head when she slept, but we were reluctant to relocate it elsewhere, lest we found ourselves unable to properly reconfigure the elaborate setup. In any case, it wasn’t a large house, and it was difficult to think where else we’d put the huge vivarium. For her part, Grace was thoroughly enamored with Belinda and loved having the tank in her own room. She seemed blithely unperturbed by the feeding ritual and insisted on watching whenever Peter attempted to do it.

One morning shortly after Peter had left to drop the boys off at school, Grace came to find me. I was writing at the desk in my bedroom. She was crying hysterically. She pulled me into her own room and led me to Belinda’s cage. “Belinda is starving. She wants you to feed her, Mommy.”

“Daddy tried yesterday and she didn’t want to eat. I’m sure he’ll try again today,” I said soothingly as I tried to walk back to my own room.

“No, Mommy. She wants you to feed her,” she managed to choke out between sobs as she clung to my legs, making it difficult for me to move.

“Why do you think she wants me to feed her, Grace? Did she tell you that herself?” I teased, trying to calm and distract her with some gentle humor.

She nodded her head.

“Hey, Grace. Let’s go find a book to read together.” Reading was always a guaranteed diversion for her. She would keep bringing me book after book until I would finally get tired of reading and would suggest another activity. She was not to be dissuaded from her mission.

“Mommy,” she screamed desperately as she resisted being led out of her room, “Belinda wants you to feed her.”

I grudgingly looked into the tank for the first time after my initial encounter with Belinda. I couldn’t help gasping when I realized how diminished she had become. She was perfectly still and was lying unnaturally on her side. Her skin seemed to hang loosely, especially around her neck, where it looked almost puckered. I got on my knees again and peered in at her. This time she did not meet my gaze. Instead her eyes looked unfocused and unseeing. The situation looked dire. I wavered, trying to decide what to do.

I called Peter at work and asked him to describe the technique for heating and feeding mice to Rowena. I had to strain to hear him over Grace’s racking sobs.

“So you’re going to try to feed her?” he asked with obvious relief.

“I might,” I answered, my uncertain voice reflecting the measure of my enthusiasm for the project. “I still haven’t decided for sure. I don’t know if I can actually get myself to do it.”

“Well, good luck. I hope it works out,” he said.

I hung up and walked to the freezer. I stood for a moment with my hand on the handle.

“Hurry, Mommy,” Grace said with real urgency in her tear-stricken voice. I’d never seen or heard her like this before. I didn’t like it.

“O.K. Grace. But I’m doing this just for you. And I absolutely refuse to dip the mouse in tuna juice.” I opened the freezer and reached for the bag of frozen mice. I opened the bag and gingerly pulled out one package with my thumb and forefinger. I shoved the bag back into the compartment and shut the freezer door. I grimaced as I placed the plastic encased mouse on the kitchen counter so that I could fill the saucepan with water and put it on a burner. I cut open the packaged “pinkie mouse” (the term for a sightless, hairless mouse only a day or two old) and shook it out into the pan.

Under the watchful gaze of my toddler, I read the instructions on the package as the water heated. In bold capital letters the unsuspecting consumer was warned of the calamitous, explosive consequences of attempting to microwave a mouse. In smaller print I was horrified to read that after removing the mouse from the water I was to mush its head and body between my fingers to make sure that it was thoroughly thawed and softened. I hunted around under the sink for a pair of rubber gloves and got a giant wad of paper towels ready. I drained the hot water from the pot and shook out the baby mouse.

“Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God!” I couldn’t help squealing as the dead mouse landed into my gloved hand and the paper towel wad clutched there. I clenched my eyes shut and began forcing myself to squeeze my hand shut, first gently and then with more and more pressure. Grace continued to watch me with her big, round, dark eyes still glistening with tears. Although her little shoulders continued to shudder convulsively, she was calming down, visibly relieved to see that I was going to feed Belinda.

We walked to her room together and I found the feeding tongs next to Belinda’s tank. I transferred the mouse in its temporary paper towel nest into my left hand and reached for the tongs. Ridiculously, I tried to put as little pressure as I could on the tiny red mouse as I grasped its body with the tongs, as if I could avoid causing it any further pain. When I opened the lid to Belinda’s tank, I saw that she had not moved at all from the position I had found her in earlier. My heart was hammering violently and my hand was shaking as I lowered the mouse offering into the tank close to Belinda’s head. she lay unmoving for another moment, and then slowly her head rose toward the mouse. Suddenly she struck at the mouse and I released it with a scream and slammed the lid shut.

“She’s eating it, Mommy!” Grace crowed. She was unruffled by the gruesome sight of Belinda unhinging her jaws to take in the mouse, but I didn’t want her to watch what was happening. I ripped off the gloves, grabbed Grace’s hand, and told her we’d go out to get some ice cream. I didn’t want to be in the house with that snake, especially while it was gorging on its meal.

When Peter got home from work that day, I told him what had happened. He went to see for himself. He came back out of the room with a surprised look on his face. “It’s amazing! She looks a thousand times better than she did yesterday. I could swear she even grew a little. What in the world did you do?”

I explained to him exactly what I had done in excruciating detail. I was never going to feed that snake again. Maybe if he tweaked his own technique so that it more closely matched mine, he’d have better luck when he took over the feeding again next week. I speculated that the involuntary trembling of my hand might have helped create the illusion that the pinkie mouse was alive.

The following week Peter tried to duplicate my method with no success. He even shook his hand as he lowered the mouse into the tank. Belinda ignored the mouse and Peter had to fish it out of the tank and dispose of it the next day. He tried a couple more times the following week with the same results. Aidan eagerly volunteered his services, but he was no more successful than Peter in getting Belinda to eat. Finally, Peter begged me to try to feed her again.

“I’m worried about her. She looks terrible again. I think she’s going to die if she doesn’t eat soon. I’d feel just awful if she died while we were taking care of her for Ava. I hate to ask you this, but will you try, just one more time, please? I’ll watch this time so I can do it exactly like you do it from now on.”

I sighed heavily and my shoulders slumped and said, “Do you realize this is my worst nightmare?”

I made him heat the mouse and get it ready to feed to Belinda. I grasped the mouse in the tongs with visceral revulsion. Peter opened the lid of Belinda’s tank for me and I held the mouse close to her head again. A sudden strike and the mouse was snatched from the tongs again.

“Ugh!” I exclaimed with a shudder, and rushed out of the room.

The striking change in Belinda’s appearance happened just as quickly as it had the last time. She seemed immediately to flesh out and even grow longer and thicker in mere days. But as a couple more weeks passed and Peter was still unable to get her to eat, she became listless again and her skin started to hang off her body in saggy wrinkles. Finally, I surrendered to the obvious conclusion that it would have to be me who fed Belinda. It never ceased to be distasteful to me, but I slowly became more accustomed to the task, as I began to do it every week. Belinda grew before our eyes at an astonishing rate.

Grace and I had to make frequent trips to the pet store to restock the freezer with Belinda’s frozen dinners. We became friendly with Gabe, a portly clerk at the pet store, who fancied himself to be an expert herpetologist. When Gabe found out we were the guardians of an albino Burmese Python, he always made a point of coming over to chat with us when we came in for her food.

He was a southern gentleman of indeterminate age, the kind who would call you “Ma’am,” and say, “Y’all have a blessed day, now,” raising his hand as if delivering a benediction, when you parted ways. He loved to accessorize with an extensive assortment of tie pins that would rival Queen Elizabeth’s jewelry collection in quantity and variety, if not quality. “You like Mr. Gabe’s tie tack, hunh?” he said to Grace one day when he caught her staring at his rhinestone fish tie tack with JESUS in the body of it. After that, he always made sure to show her the pin he happened to be wearing that day, a different one each time we returned. There was the gold-plated cross with a piece of paper tacked to it reading “Paid in Full,” a black enameled Bible with John 3:16 on the cover, and another one that read “God’s Steward.”  At Christmas he favored a pin that read “Jesus is the Reason for the Season.”

We’d politely listen to him, as he would regale us with gossip from the latest herpetology club meeting or snake fanciers’ convention he’d been to. He was fascinated by our own reports of Belinda’s rapid growth. He would shake his head in wonder and hint that he’d love to come see her in person one day. He was, in fact, quite knowledgeable, and we had come to depend on his advice, which he dispensed freely and with well-meaning, if slightly officious authority. It was Gabe who explained that we should feed Belinda prey that was roughly the same diameter as her largest point. He initiated us into a whole new world of unfamiliar herpetological terminology, as we were obliged to buy larger and larger mice for her to eat. We could tell she needed more food, he said, if she restlessly paced the bottom of her aquarium, as if hunting, even after being fed.

When the “pinkies” became too small for her, Gabe advised us to move on to “fuzzies,” the term for slightly more developed feeder mice, who are about five days old and covered with a thin layer of peach fuzz. A couple weeks later she graduated to “hoppers,” two week old mice. Another couple of weeks passed and we were buying her six-week old “weanlings,” mice who were no longer nursing, and whose ears stood erect. Finally, only a few months after we’d moved into the house, Belinda had graudated to eating full-grown adult mice. By this time she had grown to five feet and was a couple inches in diameter. We soon found ourselves obliged to move on to rats to satisfy her appetite.

I was still feeding her, but my interaction with her was limited to the very little time it took to drop her meal into the tank. Several times Peter or Aidan tried to take over feeding her, but she remained entirely uninterested in anything they had to offer. Whenever I approached her enclosure, she would immediately slither over to me and raise her head expectantly. I left as soon as I fed her, unable to watch her swallow the rodent of the week.

Aidan and Michael loved being the temporary owners of a Burmese Python. It gave them a certain caché to casually announce the fact in the cafeteria at school. They gloried in recounting to their friends the gruesome details of how she was fed. The skins Belinda shed with alarming rapidity were the star attraction of every show and tell. Their weekly appearance would immediately extinguish the gleam in the eyes of the once proud bearers of pressed souvenir pennies, bird feathers and pinecones. When friends came over to play, the first place they would run to was Grace’s room to look at the now legendary snake.

For her part, Grace seemed to be developing a more emotional attachment to Belinda. We had decided before moving that it would be too complicated to figure out how to get Grace into a preschool for this one year away, so she had no friends her age to play with. When the boys were at school, I would often become engrossed in my writing. As I typed away at my desk, Grace would wander in to ask me to read her a book or to play with her.

“Just a minute, Gracie. I’m almost done with this part.”

“I’m trying to work on this Grace. Will you please just go find something quiet to do for a minute?”

“Grace! Give me a minute! I promise, I’m almost done…”

Grace would slip away to her own room to sit on her bed and stare into Belinda tank. She would come in to check on my progress from time to time, and when she saw that I had at last closed my laptop, she would report to me the conversations she’d had with Belinda. Rather than any meaningful dialogue, it seemed to be all petulant demands Belinda supposedly wanted Grace to convey to me. She did this with a straight face, her sweet, still babyish voice, and her inability to pronounce the letter “r,” giving a comical effect to the lines she would attribute to Belinda. I would listen indulgently, charmed by Grace’s imagination. I thought it so clever of her to create a real, cohesive personality for Belinda by the things she would have her say. Although she would never say that her roommate was demanding and manipulative, it was clear from the conversations she would make up that this was the way she imagined her to be. It seemed not to diminish her affection for her friend in the least.

“Belinda said she wants better plants in her tank, because the ones in there are paf…pafet..”

“Pathetic?”

“Pafetic.”

“Belinda doesn’t like my dirty fingerprints on her tank. She wants you to hurry up and clean them off.”

“Belinda told me to tell you to give her a bigger rat next time.”

“Belinda said she needs a bigger tank and she wants you to change the water in her bowl twice a day.”

“Belinda told me the last rat was still cold in the middle. She wants you to get her a live one next week.”

It worried me that Grace’s emotional involvement with the snake was unhealthy. I gently reminded her from time to time that we were only going to have her this year and that we would have to say goodbye to her when we returned to Virginia in June.

I took Grace to the pet store one day to restock the freezer with rats for Belinda.

“Hi, Gabe! We’re already back for more rats. We can’t keep up with that snake! She’s already almost four inches around, if you can believe it. You said that if she still paces around her tank after eating, she’s probably still hungry. So do you think we should maybe start feeding her two rats at a time?”

“No, Ma’am,” he drawled, fingering his lip with a thoughtful expression on his face. “I think you’re going to have to move up the food chain a little. At that size, she needs a larger prey animal. Let me show you the guinea pigs we just got in.”

“Oh, good God! You have frozen guinea pigs?”

“No, Ma’am,” he answered looking at me primly and making it clear that he did not approve of my taking the Lord’s name in vain. I tried to police myself when I talked with Gabe, but this time it had just slipped out.

“We don’t stock frozen guinea pigs,” he continues. “I don’t reckon anyone does. You might could mail order them, but that would get real complicated, what with trying to keep them fresh and all.” There was a pause as he considered the problem. “You’re going to have to start feeding her live ones.”

“No. No way, Gabe. I am not feeding live guinea pigs to that snake. That’s just not right.”

“Now you know I’m going to have to argue with you there,” he said patiently, with his benevolent smile. “There ain’t nothing unethical or evil about a snake eating a prey animal. It’s all part of the natural cycle…the Divine Plan, if you will. Humans eat cows, pigs, chicken and nobody demonizes them for doing that, except maybe some crazy extremist animal rights activists, right? Here’s the thing…You’ve been entrusted with the awesome responsibility of taking care of this beautiful, amazing creature of God. She is entirely at your mercy. She depends on you to get what she needs to survive. Oh, and by the way, let me tell you something. If you don’t feed her an appropriate diet, she’s going to get harder and harder to live with. By the way, what kind of lock do you have on the lid to her vivarium?”

“Lock?! What? Why? There’s no lock.”

“Well, that’s the first thing you’re going to want to take care of. A hungry snake is a determined snake. You wouldn’t believe what amazing escape artists they can be when they’re not getting what they need. Didn’t you say the vivarium was in your little girl’s bedroom? You’d best make absolutely sure that lid’s secured. Gimme a minute and I’ll pull a lock for you.

We brought home the lock and a guinea pig. I asked Gabe to pick one out and put it in a box while Grace and I went to look at the birds so that I wouldn’t have to see Belinda’s next victim. I tried to block out its squeals and grunts by chattering incessantly to Grace all the way home.

When we walked through the door I said, “Gracie, I need you to wait for me here in the living room for just a minute. I’ll be right back and then we’re going to go out to have lunch, o.k.?”

She nodded obediently and settled herself on the couch to wait for me. I walked down the hallway to her bedroom with the box gripped tightly in my trembling hands. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” I whispered over and over in time with the wild thudding of my heart.

I opened the box with the squealing guinea pig and dropped the whole thing into the tank, box and all. I hurriedly installed the lock, fixing my eyes only on the lid to avoid seeing what was happening in the tank. As soon as I had it secured, I ran out of the room, slammed the door shut, and swooped Grace off the couch. I carried her to the car and backed out of the driveway as fast as I could. I drove to a diner, where I sat sipping water, while Grace ate her lunch.

We stayed out of the house all day, skipping Grace’s usual afternoon nap. I took her to the mall where we wandered around killing time before it was time to pick up the boys from school. We picked them up and I took them all to the public library. At first they were happy to have a change in their routine, but after an hour Michael said he was ready to go back home. I placated him with a trip to a coffee shop where they all happily munched on muffins. Finally, I loaded the kids back into the minivan at about 5:30, which was when Peter usually got home from the Center. I was relieved to see his car in the driveway when we pulled up to the house.

“Nobody go into Grace’s room when we get inside, o.k.?” I ordered the kids as they were piling out of the car.

“Why not, Mom?” Aidan asked, “I want to see Belinda.” It had become a daily ritual for the boys to check in on the snake as soon as they got home from school.

“Aidan, I mean it,” I said sharply, startling him with the tone of my voice, “Do NOT go in there right now. Promise?”

“O.K., Mom. Relax!” he said.

“Hey! There you all are! I was wondering where…” Peter began as we all entered the house. Before he could finish his sentence, I hustled him into the bathroom. “Remember! Don’t go into Grace’s room!” I called over my shoulder before closing the bathroom door.

“What’s up?” Peter asked bemusedly.

“I had to give that damn snake a live guinea pig today,” I hissed angrily, accusingly. “I want you to go into Grace’s room right now and make sure there’s no sign of the guinea pig, or any blood, fur, limbs…anything! There should be an empty box in the tank, which is now locked. Here’s the key. Check and make sure the box really is empty. And if there’s any trace of sacrificial guinea pig left in the tank, please, for God’s sake, clean it up so I or our kids do not have to see it.” By the end of my whisper screamed speech, I was smacking him hard on the chest with the palm of my hand to emphasize each word.

“O.K. I’m going. I’m going right now. I’ll take care of it. Let’s talk about this later,” he said as he left the bathroom, talking to me as if I were an escaped madwoman, who needed to be placated and then led back to the attic to be shackled with stronger handcuffs next time around.

“And don’t forget to lock it again when you’re done!” I shrieked down the hall to him.

There was no sign of a guinea pig to be found. It was as if it had never existed. I could almost think that it had all been a figment of my imagination, but for the fact that Belinda was for once satiated. Once I had taken over feeding her, she had never gone more than a week without eating. This time, it took her two weeks to digest the guinea pig, during which time she lay sleek and smug, coiled in her artifical cave “hide” at one end of her vivarium.

By the next month I was buying a rabbit for Belinda every week. She had grown to a monstrous 12 feet. I groaned out loud as I skimmed through the Wikipedia article on Burmese Pythons. It reported that although the average Burmese Python was about 18 feet, the “heaviest living snake in captivity,” (a Burmese Python, naturally), weighed in at 408 pounds and was 27 feet long. Thank God we only had another month before we moved back home to Virginia. I couldn’t wait to be rid of my charge.

Belinda’s 75 gallon tank that had seemed so incongruously large when we first moved into the house, now seemed rather confining. Even little Grace noticed it, and kept reporting Belinda’s dissatisfaction with her cramped quarters.

“Belinda said her tank was a disk…disk…,” she searched for the word.

“Disgrace?” I prompted drily.

“Disgrace.”

“Did Aidan teach you that word?” I asked, exasperated. She gravely shook her head.

“O.K. listen, you go tell Belinda she needs to shut her yap,” I snapped irritably. “She should be grateful for what she gets.” Grace ran off to do my bidding.

A minute later she came running back.

“Well?” I asked.

“She told me to tell you that it’s quilty.”

“Quilty, huh?” I thought for a second. “Do you think maybe she was saying ‘cruelty’?”

Grace’s face lit up. “Yes! That’s the word!

I was going to have to have a word with Aidan when he got home. I assumed it could only be my 9 year old with his highly developed sense of absurd humor who was putting her up to this.

“Well Grace, you go tell your friend we’re off to buy a chicken for her now, so she can just put a sock in it. If she’s so worried about her little tank she should stop stuffing her pie-hole all the time!” Grace obediently turned to go report my silly speech to Belinda.

“Come back, Grace. I’m just kidding. Don’t bother. Just go get your shoes on and let’s go get that chicken.” A few blocks away from us lived a family who kept a small flock of chickens in a coop in their backyard. I had arranged to come buy one from them.

Belinda was unappeased by the chicken. She thrashed about her tank, her forked tongue flicking, a mere hour after devouring the bird.

“Well, hello there!” Gabe said with his usual cheer as he bustled over to us the next morning as we entered the store. “So, how’s our…”

“I’m at my wit’s end, Gabe,” I interrupted him. I knew it was rude to cut him off, but I had woken up that morning with a headache and I was in no mood for a leisurely chitchat. “I don’t know what I’m going to do with that snake. This is an absolute nightmare. She just ate a huge chicken yesterday and she’s still hungry. So, what next? What am I supposed to do now?”

“How big did you say she was now?” he asked sympathetically.

“Well, she’s probably 12, 14 feet long. And about this big around in the middle…”

“Whooooeeee!” he said appreciatively, shaking his head. He paused for a moment, looking speculatively at the circle my arms were describing. He nodded and said, “A pig. Mmmhmm. A pig is what you want.”

“Seriously?!” I exploded. “Gabe! Where the hell (he winced), I’m sorry, Gabe, but where am I supposed to get a pig?” My voice was climbing and I spat out the last word with a barely suppressed scream. Gabe looked hurt, but he spoke with quiet dignity and composure.

“Well, now, I can see you’re upset, Ma’am, but you just need to calm yourself down now. Just gimme ten minutes, walk around, you might want to have a look at the new shipment of Angelfish we got in this morning. I’ll just go back to the office, make a few phone calls and see what I can do about getting you that pig.”

I stared at him, shaking my head, my palms raised in helpless disbelief. When I spoke again my voice was dry, but calm.

“Gabe. How am I supposed to deal with a pig? They’re huge.”

“Oh, no! No, no,” his tone lightened as it dawned on him that this had all been a huge misunderstanding. Order had been restored to the universe, and our friendly relations reestablished. He chuckled as he continued, “Here you was thinking I was going to have you find yourself a huge hog. No, Ma’am. What you want is just a little bitty pig. Not big at all,” he continued in a reassuring voice. “In fact,” he paused to look down appraisingly at Grace, “What you need is a pig just exactly the size of this young lady right here. Yep. That’ll do you, just fine.” He smiled down at Grace and patted her on the head. “Now you can pick up little Grace here, no problem, can’t you?”

I turned my stunned gaze on Grace. My eyes widened. Gabe’s voice droned on, but it was drowned out by the roaring of the blood in my ears. I took Grace by the hand and stumbled out of the store without another word, leaving Gabe shaking his head in bewilderment as he watched us make our way out into the parking lot.

I drove home in a daze. My daughter’s happy chatter washed over me like rhythmic waves that left me dry. I didn’t answer any of her questions. I didn’t respond to anything she said. When we got back home, I helped her out of her car seat and she nestled her hand in mine as we walked toward the house. She chirped cheerfully on as she trailed behind me to the kitchen and watched me search through the slotted knife block on the counter. I pulled several kinves out of their slots, rejecting the smaller ones, and pulling out a few of the larger ones. I had a 10-inch chef’s knife, a 7-inch santoku knife, and a heavy 6 inch meat cleaver. I weighed them in my hand and made a few experimental chops with each. I ran my finger lightly over the edges to see how sharp they were. I turned to face Grace, the santoku knife in my hand. She had finally fallen silent. She eyed the knife and then turned her uneasy gaze on me.

“Mommy?” she finally ventured when I didn’t say anything to her. “What are you going to do with that knife?”

I couldn’t speak for a moment. The nagging headache I’d had all day had become a vicious migraine. “I love you, Gracie. Don’t ask any more questions. Don’t say a word. Don’t move. Please, for the love of God, don’t move.”

I ran down the hallway to Grace’s bedroom and slammed the door shut, locking it behind me. I unlocked and propped open the lid to Belinda’s vivarium and waited, knowing she would slither out when she saw me.

Our eyes met as her head emerged from the tank. Never once breaking her gaze, she worked her way out of the tank and approached me, tasting the air with her forked tongue. I backed up and watched the lateral undulations of her awesome, muscular body. It was pure poetry in motion, effortless artistry. I was mesmerized by the sight of her. All along the rippling length of her body were irregularly shaped, pale creamsicle colored patches. Each of these patches was framed by a pure white outline and then by another golden outline that followed every curve and contour. The irregularity of the large patches contrasted with the small glistening diamond scales, uniform in shape and size, sheathing her entire body. She was truly magnificent.

I waited until she was within striking distance. As she reared back ino the familiar “s” shape I had come to dread, the position she adopted right before striking, I leaped to the side of her and brought the knife down on her beautiful head. With my first blow I almost severed it cleanly off. I recoiled as the body continued to move, a primitive reflex, leaking blood all over the bedroom floor. I struck again and again, screaming now with each blow. She was in pieces, her head now completely severed from her body, but still she writhed, and still I struck. Her eyes continued to stare at me, her jaws opening and closing as if in a silent scream. I turned my own eyes away, dropped the knife, and stumbled out of the room.

The End

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