Hurley had a snake in his belly, and so he had to be very careful on the subway. There were always a lot of people, and they liked to shove up against you when you sat and cram you against the window or dig their elbows into you when you stood and held the poles. Hurley understood; space was precious, and competition for the best spots was fierce. Still, a stray strike in an unguarded moment could be dangerous. Hurley’s snake was no anaconda, no ponderously muscled constrictor, but a slender viper. He’d seen a skeleton of a viper once in a science museum, with ribs as fine as hairs running in endless rows down delicate vertebrae. Someone shoved past him, aiming for the doors, stepping on his toes. Hurley felt that his fellow passengers would not have treated a pregnant woman so carelessly, although sometimes he wondered. Hurley wasn’t pregnant, exactly, but he did have another life to protect, so he usually chose the emptiest cars, the ones that stopped furthest from the exits, and he never rode during the busiest times if he could help it.
He climbed the stairs to the street. It was cold outside, as yet, the occasional chilly day still sending brisk winds whistling past the upper floors and tugging at the clothes and hats of the pedestrians on the streets. Hurley kept himself bundled up in his winter coat, even though most people had switched to lighter jackets by now. Snakes, after all, were at the mercy of their environment and could not warm themselves easily if they became chilled. Hurley always smiled when he felt his snake shift drowsily in its space below his stomach, even when the iciest breeze clawed at them. On the coldest days, Hurley walked with a hot water bottle strapped to his torso. But it wasn’t that cold anymore. Soon, they’d be able to go and sit in the park, and Hurley could bask in the sun with his shirt-front open and feel his snake rolling around and luxuriating in the warmth. If Hurley had been married, there might have been questions about why he only ever had a tan down the front of his chest and stomach and nowhere else. Luckily, that wasn’t a problem.
They were almost home, Hurley and the snake. Hurley had his bag of feeder fish, swimming glumly in drifting specks of their own pale feces. He always washed them before swallowing them down for his snake. He’d tried mice, once, but their fuzzy little faces had looked at him so imploringly that he’d just dumped them out into the alley behind his building. Hurley knew, when he could admit it to himself, that they’d probably gotten eaten anyway, but at least he hadn’t had to do it himself. His snake seemed content with the goldfish, at least, even if Hurley shuddered every time he gulped another slimy morsel down. He knew his snake appreciated it. It wasn’t everyone who would swallow a goldfish for a snake.
He made his way up the seven flights of stairs – the elevator took nearly as long, and it smelled funny – and let himself into his apartment. It was “cozy,” which meant he had enough room to squeeze between the counter and the stove, and he could open his closet most of the way if he moved his chair onto his bed. Hurley preferred to think of it as a den, like his snake would have had if it lived in the wild instead of in his belly; a tunnel just big enough to fit through and a small chamber for sleeping and, perhaps, nesting. No sense having more space than you needed. That just invited some other animal to try and take your burrow away from you. Hurley turned on his little radio and hummed along to the music while he prepared dinner for himself and his snake. He only got reception for three stations, what with the interference from the other buildings around his, but he was getting to like the Spanish station and the relentless cheer of the accordions and horns and guitars. It felt educational, too, like he was back in school and learning to conjugate verbs. Mostly he’d learned “amor” and “corazon” and “ai yai yai,” but he was confident that his prowess would continue to grow.
That night, after brushing his teeth thoroughly to get rid of the sticky taste of the goldfish, Hurley lay in bed and stared at the ceiling. This was the worst part, like waiting for Christmas morning. He remembered the anticipation, even when he knew there was nothing worth waiting for, even long after anyone in that house had even pretended to smile at one another. This was the purer waiting, hopeful and nervous. The sounds of the city seemed to press around him, car horns and rumbles, rushing wind and a clatter from upstairs. Hurley was disciplined and practiced at this by now, though, and soon enough he drifted off to sleep.
Hurley dreamed, as he did each and every week after the feeding ritual.
In the dream, the snake crept out from his bellybutton, pushing through the soft, dark hole that had once been Hurley’s sole connection to the outside world. The skin stretched taut around it as it slipped out, a tension at once painful and exciting. The snake lay coiled on Hurley’s chest for a moment, as if to gather its strength, and then it began to crawl. It slipped along Hurley’s pock-marked skin, brushing against him with the susurrus of scales on flesh. It was warm from its time inside him, and he felt it coil down one leg and up the other with a tingling shudder. Its feathery tongue danced along the sensitive skin along his side, down his thighs, on the bottoms of his feet, and Hurley clenched himself tight in an agony of glee, unwilling to twitch or flail and risk injuring the snake. It lay itself along the length of Hurley’s body, its tail-tip wrapped around one ankle, its blunt, blood-slick snout next to Hurley’s ear, and began to sing to him. The snake had a woman’s voice, deep and husky, and he could never quite recall the words to the song the next morning. Hurley knew, though, that the snake loved him and thanked him for his pains, for all the efforts he made to keep it comfortable and safe. This was what he waited for. This was what made it all worthwhile.
The snake sang, and Hurley smiled like an angel in his sleep.
Hurley enjoyed his job in the office building, though he was slightly fuzzy on the exact function of his company as a whole. He was only a clerk, barely more than a temporary worker, given the most menial of tasks, but as such he got the lowest and least prestigious office, the one down by the archaic steam boilers that heated the whole building. The steam banged and clanged through the pipes, warming the water that warmed the rooms. It was clunky and inefficient, but no one ever wanted to outlay the money to upgrade the system, and so the steam remained. It was always warm and moist in Hurley’s office, like a tropical enclave in the cold north. The snake sometimes grew alert enough in the heat to uncoil and slither through Hurley’s innards, giving him odd chills and making his stomach gurgle unexpectedly. He smiled to feel his friend so lively. Hurley was sitting with one hand on his belly, feeling his snake ripple across his abdomen, when Meerscroft came through the door.
Hurley did not enjoy Meerscroft. For one thing, he never knocked before barging in. Indeed, if there was a word that summarized Meerscroft, it would be “barge,” verb and noun. He was broad and plain, ugly rather than elegant in his functionality, and his forward motion tended to ignore obstacles entirely. In other cases, such as his position as assistant general manager of the lower clerical office and his incomprehensible failure to move beyond that post, it was Meerscroft himself who acquired the psychic dents and scratches. He continued forward undaunted, nonetheless. Hurley wondered sometimes if anyone else had an animal living inside them, animals as comically mismatched as round-bellied Hurley and his beautiful snake. If Meerscroft had an animal, if something lived inside his unsinkable ribcage, then he was full of ferret, of mongoose, something furred and insane, with needle-sharp teeth and a nitroglycerin temper.
Meerscroft was shouting, moving his hands wildly. In Hurley’s tiny office – larger than his apartment, but still not large enough to fit two men comfortably – this posed a serious hazard. Hurley tried to think what could have upset Meerscroft so much while he sheltered his snake with both hands; loud noises were upsetting, particularly basso roars like Meerscroft’s voice. A sudden quiet caught Hurley’s attention. When he looked up, he saw Meerscroft staring at him with a peculiar twist to his lip. A sneer, yes. Hurley realized that he had shoved his hands completely inside his shirt, undoing the buttons and letting the pale half-moon of his belly peep out. Now Meerscroft was truly angry. He leaned in, hissed words and spittle at Hurley’s face, his eyes flaring red like a mongoose at night. “Freak,” he said. “Last straw.” “Terminated.”
At that word, a spasm of pain ripped through Hurley, centered on his stomach, just where his hands rested. Terminated meant no job. No job meant no money. No money meant no apartment meant crowded communal housing meant cold and frozen nights meant a poor snake, a poor dead and lumpen snake like the one under the porch back home all those winters ago, a frost-edged serpent of ice in a hibernation too deep to ever return no matter how he warmed it and pleaded with it to wake up, wake up, please wake up. Hurley looked down, tears in his eyes, wanting to protest, wanting to beg with Meerscroft not to doom his poor snake again, but Meerscroft was already gone, down the hall, muttering imprecations loud enough to be heard by anyone he passed. A memo. An official reprimand. Management. Human resources.
Hurley rocked as another wave of pain hit him. He arched his back, his elderly chair squeaking like a dying mouse. His belly was on fire. He was full of poison. He had knives in him.
Gasping, Hurley tugged his shirt open, spraying buttons in every direction. He saw his skin flex and stretch, grow pale and translucent, then ruddy as blood spilled beneath the fat and connective tissue. he saw the serpentine head outlined through his skin, wearing his skin like a mask, crimson dark through mushroom white. Hurley did not remember screaming.
When Hurley woke up, Carol and Clifford from down the hall were standing over him. Carol was chafing his wrist. Hurley hadn’t known what that was until now; the words in old novels had always been a mystery to him, but what Carol was doing was definitely chafing. Clifford had a hand on Hurley’s neck, which bothered him. He tried to sit up, but Carol and Clifford pushed him back. They talked, both at once. “Stroke,” they said. “Blood pressure.” “Heart attack.” Hurley looked down. His shirt was open and spotted with blood, but not nearly enough. He felt something on his lip, two streams of crusted blood below his nostrils. There was no hole in his belly. There was no anything in his belly. He pushed away the helping hands and prodded at his skin, at the flesh and organs beneath. An empty space, a hollow, like a shed snakeskin.
Then he heard another word that broke through his rising grief. “Meerscroft.” Carol told Clifford that the manager had been found unconscious, too. Clifford wondered if there was some gas, something unhealthy in the air. He thought they should leave, warn the emergency response crew who were with Meerscroft. Hurley staggered upright and pushed past them both before they could react. He ran down the hall, his shirt flapping behind him, his front-belly-only tan glaring through the shreds of its winter ruination. He skidded to a halt in Meerscroft’s office doorway, looking in. A paramedic was there, a pair of medics, two of them, female both, dark-skinned. They looked at Hurley with wide eyes. Hurley ignored them.
There was Meerscroft, his head flung back in his chair. His teeth were gritted. His hands were clenched on the armrests. He looked as though he’d been in great pain. His shirt was open where the paramedics had tried to save him but had been too, too late. There, on his tanning-bed abdomen, if you knew where to look for it, was the mark Hurley had feared to see. Above the belly button were two tiny holes, skin barely puffed around them, like the mark of a tiny vampire.
That’s when Hurley began to cry.
They never found his snake. It wasn’t in Meercroft’s belly like he’d feared it would be. That would have been too much like betrayal. There were worried questions, a mystery of poison and escaped reptiles. They would call the zoo. Hurley thought he knew what had happened. Meerscroft would have flung the snake away, stomped it, snapped its finger-thick neck in the moments after it had struck. The mongoose instinct was strong, even in the final extreme. The paramedics had insisted on checking Hurley, too, but they had found no trace of venom, no cause for concern. His fainting fit was unrelated, they told everyone. Hurley should see a doctor about his blood pressure. Hurley did not discuss what was actually missing.
Hurley rode the subway home, and he did not look for the emptiest car before he boarded. Hurley had never realized how long the ride was, when all one had to do was sit and think. Someone elbowed him in the ribs. Someone’s backpack pressed sharp book-edges into his kidneys. He did not move away. He had only himself to worry about, and what good was that? He left the subway and entered the afternoon, cold and sunless. He left his jacket unzipped, accepted the icy touch of wind as his due punishment. Every step on the stairs to his apartment felt like an hour’s work, his elderly sneakers suddenly made of lead.
When he opened the door to his apartment, his heart pounded. There, on the floor of the kitchen, was a dark, curving line like a dropped hose. Hurley threw himself to the floor, heedless of his kneecaps impacting the linoleum, and snatched up his snake’s body. It crumbled to dust in his hands. Only a skin. A dead skin, a shed skin, the ghost of where a snake once was, inside out and backwards.
Hurley did not eat dinner. He could not bring himself to cook anything. It all smelled of dust and tasted of acid. What he wanted, what he craved more than anything, was a handful of wriggling little goldfish and the warm contentment of a meal shared. Instead, he lay on his bed and stared at the ceiling, shirtless, massaging his belly as tears fled down his cheeks into ever-expanding patches of dampness on his pillow.
There was something there, just below his stomach, tucked between the folds of his viscera. A round shape. Solid. He poked harder. There was another. Another. A half-dozen at least. He fondled them through his skin as best he could. Not completely round; slightly ovoid. Not completely hard; a trifle leathery.
Then one of them moved.
Hurley lay on his back, his tears now running hot and wet and free, tears of joy, tears of pleasure. He was not empty after all. He had not lost his snake for nothing. He might hear snakesong again once more, one day, one day very soon. And so many! It was an embarrassment of riches. Where would he find food for them all? What would he do on the subway, or the bus?
What would happen if someone like Meerscroft came around again, poking and prodding? Hurley didn’t think he could stop a dozen snakes. He hadn’t even stopped one.
Hurley thought for awhile, alone in the dark. He patted the eggs in his belly, stroked them, soothed them.
Eventually, he began to sing.
Nathaniel Lee is a writer who lives in North Carolina with his wife, child, and obligatory cats. He publishes a microfiction blog at www.mirrorshards.org. You can find his work at various online and print venues, including Daily Science Fiction and all of the Escape Artists podcasts. “Splinters of Silver and Glass,” a collection of microfiction and short stories, is available as an e-book from Amazon. He says:
My wife and I spend a lot of time at the local library. (I think of the inevitable late fees as my way of supporting literacy.) At one point, we picked up a graphic novel (I think it was called “Snaked”). The back described the main character as having “a snake inside him.” It turns out what they meant was he was willing to bite various body parts off of people who angered him, and also he periodically turned into a lizard-person to molt. I was kind of disappointed. I kept a (non-poisonous) snake as a pet through much of my childhood, and I just didn’t associate snakes with the sort of mindless aggression and general sociopathy that book portrayed. Then I remembered that I was a writer, too, so I wrote the story I’d wanted to read, a story about a man who has a snake, and what that means to him.
Poisonous snakes, like most “dangerous” animals, are mostly not a threat to humans under normal circumstances. We’re generally too large and inconvenient to eat, and overall the snakes would be quite content to live quietly and not bother anyone so long as they get a nice mouse or cricket every now and then. But people *will* tend to poke them with sticks or go tromping through tall grass without thinking about who they might be disturbing…
Armenian viper illustration by Tim Vickers is in the public domain.