Before her time as a senior editor at
, Amie worked at
. Here, at
, she would often blurt out things like “Ding, dang, doodle!” really loudly for no apparent reason, and then she would go ahead and pull in great pieces by hugely respected writers. It was great. Then one day she said, “Hey, I’m moving to India. Goodbye forever.” And she did. Now she’s our editor at large and she sends us funny emails about her 60-year-old Chinese roommate, Melitis. Amie is also embarking on a fiction career of her own, which is looking pretty damn promising, damn it.
Story Read by: Faris Badwan, singer for the Horrors and a world-class drawer of doodlings.
I thought of her as the defender of snakes. She was a German woman with shaggy, sandy blond hair. The first time I saw her, she was sitting with a group of paragliders at the Friends coffee shop. A snake charmer, dressed as a holy man, opened a flat wicker basket containing two cobras, whom he briefly serenaded.
“Your snakes hate you,” she said. “You’re terrible to treat them like that.”
Her teeth reminded me of a donkey’s—the gums protruded, the teeth met outside her mouth. Later that day, I saw her at the monastery where I often had dinner. She was crouched on the lawn, removing nits from a stray dog’s coat. And then again at dinner, where she caused some disquiet, because, you see, it was the way of two of the monastery guests—a Western nun and a retired Indian professor—to sit across from one another before meals, close their eyes, and sing, in Hindi, a popular prayer for peace. On this night, the defender of snakes, having sat at the head of the table between them, added her voice to the song, braying, lisping—it sounded like mockery, and yet apparently she was serious, because, when they had finished singing, the snake defender slowly opened her eyes and peacefully tore a chapati in half. She ate for several minutes in contented silence.
The professor was teaching a weeklong, nighttime class on Ghandi and Tagore, and the Western nun had a poorly attended daily Hatha Yoga class. The nun was from America but often pronounced her consonants like someone educated outside London. She became very tense on subjects touching status, often introducing them herself. “I met Rinpoche twenty-three years ago, his English was wonderful then. It’s even better now.” Rinpoche, the guru. The professor leaned his head in toward the snake defender and purred, “Do you get along with all animals as well as you did with that dog this afternoon?”
“No, not all animals,” she said. “In the last room where I stayed, there was one I didn’t get along with—a monster.
“It was about this size”—she held up two hands, a space of eight inches—“and wore a black overcoat, and a Guatemalan poncho.”
She took a bite of cauliflower, and before she had time to fully chew, added: “It smelled like motor oil.”
As the nun and the professor were quiet, I asked her several questions about the monster’s appearance. It was humanlike. It had a large head. It had tiny, five-fingered human hands and an orange butt like an orangutan’s—which she was able to see when, late in their relations, the monster took a leak in an unused water glass on the bedside table. His penis seemed proportional, she said, to his body.
I exchanged glances with the professor. All of us were unsure how to react—unsure what we had before us. A crazy person? This was India after all. Or had she really seen some odd creature? And so we were silent, and she proceeded.
It was midwinter in the Kullu Valley of the Indian Himalayas. Having been granted only a three-month visa, the snake defender was at loose ends. Three months was too long to vacation but not enough time to get settled down, and so she did neither, and by no conscious decision, she became a truculent woman. She wasn’t aware of it. Remote areas protected her from awareness of herself—no visions of herself in the white fat faces of foreigners, no knowing witnesses to her folly—both conversation and baths became rare. She developed a tan. She got in the habit of defending herself. Her disposition became at once confused and fearful—she was aggressive—and she often aroused casual obstreperousness in the Indian country people.
“No, we have no vacancy.” A sari-clad matron at a remote hill station months off season.
“Then what are those keys hanging behind you?” Spoken too loud.
The matron rolled her eyes and fanned a fly from the expanse of her desk. She unrolled a magazine and huffed her weight beneath herself.
“I asked you a question,” the snake defender said. “What are all those keys?”
“And I told you: We have no rooms.”
And so the snake defender sat on her pack and several hours passed in the tense mutual silence of women, when finally toward nightfall the matron withdrew, her father emerged. White haired, grandiloquent: “Madame, please, you must be so tired, having journeyed so far, and truly, we have
” And more hours passed until, close to nine, the snake defender heard shouts in the other room, and it seemed to her the matriarch relented, for she emerged in a gust of wind, smiled tightly, and led the snake defender to a windowless mildewed room at the bottom of the rooming house, on an otherwise empty floor.
“I have not wanted to put you in this room because you see for yourself it needs renovation, but since you are so determined.”
She spoke with irony.
The snake defender snapped the key from her hand. She dropped her pack to the ground and, showing her Teutonic roots, said, “That will do.” The matron withdrew. Before the door had even closed the snake defender had the lights out and was asleep fully clothed on the king-size bed, a bed which occupied most of the floor space of her awful and overpriced room, and when she awoke after midnight, perched on her bedside table regarding her was a monster.
“It wasn’t a terrible surprise to me,” she said, gazing long and deep into the professor’s amorous eyes. He was a short man, and so though over 65, he found himself asking, in gesture, every woman he encountered, that question.
The snake defender snapped her eyes to the nun and said, “Ever since I was young, my life has been filled with monsters.”
“Unfortunately, I think this is true for most of us who… having grown up in the Western world… I can say for myself that my entire Latin education was received at the hands of a fearsome—”
“I mean real monsters.”
“A fearsome…” the professor stammered.
“Dangerous monsters. On the farm where I grew up, I used to ride them—like deer, but with a bull’s hide.”
At this the professor belched softly. The snake defender ate several bites of chapati. The monster, she said, sat erect, his tiny hands folded in his lap. He had, she said, very sensitive hands, with long brown delicate fingers, one adorned with a golden ring (moonstone).
“Good evening.” His voice was deep and mellifluous.
“What do you want?” Fractured, airy.
“Only, Rita, a place to rest for the night, the company of a good woman, so large as yourself.”
The snake defender, Rita, was quiet, taking a moment to master herself, and when she spoke, it was with clarity, volume, and Teutonic aggression.
“How do you know my name?”
“I know many things, Rita, Rita from Düsseldorf.”
“You looked at my passport. So you can read. I’m very impressed, now get out.”
“It’s possible.” He kicked one leg across the other. “But after all, it hardly matters. I’ve only asked for your company—a night’s rest—you see, I haven’t slept for several days.”
Finding that she was not scared, that in fact, she liked this monster, Rita, a very acute woman when it came down to it, spoke her mind: “Why did you go so long without sleeping?”
“Ah,” the monster said, eminently pleased at this turn, “you may well ask—and certainly should you, I will answer, but first, could you do me the kindness of removing my boots?”
He extended two matchstick-width legs toward Rita, who began to unlace his boots. And so it was that the monster opened his heart to her. He had, he said, what one might term a human problem.
“You see,” he said, “I was not always as you see me now.”
The monster had begun this life a great scholar. Whole schools, he explained, in magic and mystery existed in the mountains beneath their feet. Monster colleges, secret chambers of men whose lives had begun crawling up and down the Norse tree of life. Adolescences spent tying the bodice of Heloise, withdrawing as she composed fevered letters to Abelard. Lifetimes apprenticing as flouted men, flouted women, cats, dogs, sheep, fevers. The fleas on rats. And then their old age, spent in splendor, happily married kings, death, and other things a woman like Rita could not yet know. The point was that centuries passed to bring these men to little rooms in the hill below, where they taught monsters things like subtraction, cooking, the mastery of subtle gastric winds.
“Well, look,” the monster said, “it doesn’t matter. The point is that I can’t leave here until I convince a woman to make love to me.”
He smiled, revealing sharp, gleaming teeth.
And all the permutations and negotiations—all the descriptions of the complex forces holding him in the guesthouse, of the good Rita would do if she were to release him, allowing him, at the very least, a normal life, the family operating the guesthouse a livelihood—you can easily imagine. What matters only is that Rita agreed, that the monster dove inside of her cunt, that once there, he massaged folds she had not formerly known existed, and awoke in her some deep, soft, feminine something. Something ridged, pink, sexual, formerly glimpsed only in the naked bodies of Swiss women of the 70s, and on feeling it, she wept, and wondered how she had passed 24 years of her life at least unaware of what it was all those women from the 70s had been painting signs about, when she was called back to herself, sitting at the table, across from the professor, the nun, myself—tense, aggressive, dirty, tan—uncomprehending, and so she was quiet, until the nun asked what happened to the monster.
“I threw him out,” she said, “in the morning.”
At this we were all quiet. And birds cawed, and a wild cat mewled, and we finished the food that was left on our plates, withdrew to our rooms, and passed nights in total mundanity, as though nothing at all had happened. The next time I saw the snake defender it was on a rocky path, and I complimented her t-shirt, and she paused for several minutes, to explain to me at length that it had been a gift.