Serpents of the Middle East

Conor Rowell

Featured Image: Serpent Bones © A. Anupama 2017


Awake. Still alive.

The shades are outlined by the first light. The room is gray. Shady. Webs tangle early thoughts. Submerged in pillows and feathers. A stem is pricking my nostril. Two in my forehead. Something drips from them. Blood? Electric signals sear through my meaty nerves. Bones and sinew creak. My shoulder shifts. Dry fingers tap above my brow. Nope. Just sweat. It’s already soaked through the pillow. Another pool holds near my lips. Probably snoring too. Hope I didn’t wake Mary with it. Need her help this morning.

Roll over. Snow globes gleam down from the high shelf. Years after my parents died, I’m still a sucker for their collection. Each of them holds a stable, globular world. A place that remains, no matter how much the world shakes. Snow globes make me happy. Not my snow globes! Harrharrharr. Ma loved ‘em. When they passed, I got them.

I’m lightheaded. Am I hungry, do I have to piss? Plan.

Twelve hops to the kitchen. Then seven back to the bathroom. Hmm. Every movement must be calculated. Base camps set between the bed, bathroom, and kitchen. The fear of not being able to make it back keeps me here. Can’t remember when I got out of bed last. Mary probably helped me.

This room’s a vast desert. Eight years is a long time. I just need to sleep. That’s all it is. I’ll feel better when I wake up.

Thirsty. Old coffee’s on the side-table. Cold. Still full. Why didn’t I drink it? Bleh. Black. I told her I hate black coffee. Must’ve forgotten. It reminds me of that MRE instant. We could have as much as we wanted on base. Mainly because no one wanted to drink it. The hell would they serve hot coffee in the desert?

My book’s next to it. Been trying to read it. ‘Bout halfway through. Serpents of the Middle East, Revised. One of the nurses in the VA gave it to me. Cutie. Black. Mary didn’t like her. The newest dog-eared page is on the next viper: pseudocerastes persicus fieldi.

Pretty. But it’s not the one. None of the ones I’ve read look like it. Maybe I don’t remember what it looked like after all. My arm is sore. Slept on it wrong, I guess. Squeeze fingers. They feel stringy.

“Alright,” I croak, “up, Booter.”

My voice surprises me. Feels like my mouth has been open this whole time. Weird. Up, up, up, okay. Foot on the carpet. Gotta clean. Grimy. My big toe is digging into my prosthetic. Something in the chrome there, mocking me. It knows. From the knee down to the goddam Home Depot pipe to the “Caucasian” rubber foot. That plastic socket pinches the inside of my thigh if I don’t wear the stump-sock right. My balls shiver thinking about when their hairs got stuck. Key-RISTE!

Hairs on my stump are beginning to stand. Excess nerve-endings jolt to life. Always do when I think about being there. Shaking. Bed’s moving now. Need to move. Do something. Stand.

Shit! Knee buckles. Reach for nightstand, but hit coffee instead. The cup and I fall together. My chest and dogtags are covered in cold coffee.

“Mary!”

Snakes can’t see. They look at the world through taste and feeling. Feet shuffle on the carpet in the next room. Doors open. Snakes, to protect themselves, will retreat if they sense a large predator near. I am the snake. Move away from her footsteps. She lifts me up under my armpits. I’m wriggling, but end up on my seedy mattress again.

The snake, whatever Latin name it had, was in the sand, you know. Just waiting for us. Snakes like that, desert ones, stay under the sand to block out the sun. Except when they get spooked. We didn’t see anything until… BOOM! The earth shook and the snake flew through the air. Below, four men lay next to a giant black cloud. Everyone, even that stupid snake, died. Not me, though. Nope.

Mary’s babbling away and takes those twelve steps to the kitchen. There’s something dripping from my cheek. Sweat? Nope. Tears. I am crying, apparently. Pathetic.

“You’re not pathetic,” Mary says, holding a bottle of club soda and the salt-shaker. “Did you take your medicine yet?”

She crouches over the pool of coffee. The bottle belches open and soda soaks into the stain. Then salt flecks the surface. The carpet looks like it might if one of my snow globes committed suicide. My chest sticky with coffee. Shut eyes.

Mary’s rifling through my nightstand. Ma bought most of them at the thrift shops. Eyes shut, I can picture them all. There’s one of the manger scene. Tiny Jesus. Three of ‘em are Christmas villages. A hand grips the back of my neck.

“Open,” she says.

My eyes stay shut. Ma even bought one when we moved here. Paradise, California. Big ol’ gold nugget with a tiny miner on top of it.

Three pills hit my tongue. After six months, twice a day, I know them by taste. Neurontin, flat and circular, deadens nerves. Baclofen, rubbery and pill-shaped, a muscle relaxer. And Vicodin, tube-shaped and thick, the napalm of painkillers. It makes you forget the meaning of pain. The Paris, Texas one is my favorite. It’s just an Eiffel Tower with a cowboy hat.

“Swallow,” she says.

A bottle meets my lips. Drink. My throat clenches and I cough. But enough club soda forces its way down my throat, along with the pills. These drugs keep me feeling loopy. My head is heavy. The pillow hasn’t dried from the night’s sweat and drool. But it’s all right. I can’t move anyhow.

Mary grinds away on the carpet. The sound reminds me of woodshop. What was it called? Wood planer. Look at her down there. I should be doing that stuff.

“You couldn’t if you wanted to, Thom. Come on, let’s get you in the shower.”

Beside the coffee aftermath, Mary raises herself slowly. Squeezes my shoulder. Shiver. She pulls me up and stretches my arm around her neck. The hair on the nape of her neck gives my arm goose-pimples. She heaves me up until I’m standing. She moves one foot in front of the other. I hop. Fat, unused muscles jiggle.

Frozen tile stings my foot as we cross the threshold. She leans me against the counter. As she turns on the bath faucet, I notice someone in the corner of my eye. Turn my head. It’s the mirror. The man in it looks a little like me, I guess. His hair, dark blond, is long and mangy. Nearly to his shoulders. It goes with his ZZ Top beard. He’s deathly pale. Or whatever the shade is that means he can’t leave the house. Anyway, his skin almost has a yellowish tinge to it. The lines on his face are hard. Deep. Leathery would be a good description, but he’s not tan. His eyes also have that sickly quality to them. I’ve seen guys like this before. On base and in the VA hospital. Shell-shocked.

Behind the man, a huddled mass of gray sweatshirt and hot pink sweatpants is letting water rush into the tub. The shower seat isn’t in there anymore.

“Thought I needed a shower.”

“A bath would be better,” she says lowly. She’s tipping the carton of Epsom salts in. She’s probably right. She always is.

“Ready?”

The woman in the mirror stands next to the man. Each is eyeing the other in the reflection. This woman, perhaps an older relative of my wife, an aunt maybe, looks tired. Haggard is the word. No makeup hides her greasy face. Her fake blonde hair, in a ponytail, is being taken over by her natural brown.

“Just stop talking, Thomas. Please?”

So what if she doesn’t look like the woman I married? If she doesn’t keep the house as fresh as one expects? Then it hits me: we’re married. These dirty, sad strangers, husband and wife. Shell-shocked and haggard.

Arms snake around my waist. My foot arches up in anticipation. Her hand grabs the top of my boxers. She rips them down to the ground. They crumple around my foot in a plaid pile. Sex. The mirror couple doesn’t have sex. How could these ugly things do that? A tickling ponytail pushes into my armpit. On what feels like my big toe, I try to put my other foot forward. Wait. That foot is gone. Blown off. Mary’s feet stomp hard and she catches me.

“Do you need to pee?”

I shake my head.

“Are you sure?”

Thinking about it, I probably do. Her body lunges up and I’m twisted away from the space between the tub and sink. It needs cleaning. Mary’s still under my arm. A sudden rush of anxiety hits me. Can I pee while she’s there? Does she always do this? The sound of water hitting porcelain echoes out of the bowl. Yep. I’m peeing, apparently.

When snakes are ready to mate, the female secretes pheromones through her scales. She leaves behind a trail as she moves. The male, upon tasting her scent, will follow that trail for as long as it takes.

“You’ve told me that before.”

Toilet flushes. Head’s spinny. Mary’s mouth is moving, but I can’t really follow.

“One, two and three!”

Midair. IED? Nope. Bathwater. Ponytail moved from sweaty armpit. Grab tub. Focus, goddammit. I feel… heavy. My foot’s in the scalding water. I lower myself in. The water’s not even up to my waist yet. Vicodin is kicking in. Euphoric out-of-body-ness commences.

That’s the thing they tell you in boot, you know.

“What?” Mary asks.

She’s looking at me with squinty eyes. She’s reaching for something in her sweatpants pocket. Her phone. I try to finish my thought in a coherent way:

“That only once you forget you’re holding a rifle, then you can actually use it. This thing, this weapon, is a part of you. Being without it is like losing a limb.”

I laugh. Good one. My stump, the fat mass of uselessness now halfway in the water, jolts up in appreciation. Or pain. Probably both.

“Jesus, Thomas,” she says, looking annoyed at her phone, “that’s not funny.”

She starts tap-tap-tapping away on the screen. The flickering light above her head makes her look pretty. What would I do without her?

“I’m going to make us some coffee.”

And she’s off. Her sweatpantsed thighs swish together down the hall to the kitchen. Has she gained weight? Eight years is a long time. Didn’t write many letters to each other while I was away. Not much to say, I guess. We grew up here, and went to school together, but we didn’t really know each other. After my parents died, I stayed at friends’ houses until I shipped out. Married her the day before. In the courthouse. All the other booters were doing it, so I figured I might as well. My pay would have helped out my family, but at least it helps her out.

Am I still getting the pay? Probably. Mary takes care of all that. Water continues to pour in. I’m used to the hot water now. My muscles are beginning to relax. Mary’s so smart. I’m nothing without her.

This body. What is this body anymore? A shell. Garbage. Not ten months ago, I hauled at least forty pounds of gear around on a daily basis. Not to mention my fatigues. When you put it on for the first time, you never really know how it will feel. I mean, you can guess or talk to other guys about it. But until you put it on, you’ll never know. The thing no one tells you is what happens when you take it off. Oh, things will go back to the way they used to be. Bullshit. Once you put that uniform on, you’re wearing it for life, whether it’s actually on your body or not. When I took mine off, it cost me my leg. There were two separate people who put on and took off that uniform: the eighteen-year-old cocky bastard and the twenty-six year-old cripple.

All that’s here now is a nub. Stripped away of all its life. A stump and a leg flecked with shrapnel. The water makes the pink scars look like huge craters in my calf. But I’m the lucky one. No one else made it, Mary. Not Marquez. Not Fitzpatrick. Not even that prick Kowalski. Just me: the booter who stood behind. Some luck.

Mary’s in the doorway, two mugs in hand. She puts them on the counter and plops down on the closed toilet. She sips her coffee and looks at the tub as if I’m not in it. The water reaches the ends of my hair. My chest is under. Little lines of brown coffee are dispersing in the bath. My stomach is woozy. It’s the drugs. Head still sluggish. Bonkers. Her phone appears in her hand again and she’s back tapping away. My arm moves out of the tub and reaches over the rim.

Water drips across the divide toward the sink. My fingers barely reach the handle. Focus. I tighten my grip and slowly move the coffee back to the tub. Propping my elbow on my thigh, I stare into the abysmal cup of tar-like coffee. Black.

“I don’t like,” I sputter, my tongue feeling funny, “black.”

“Huh,” Mary says, keeping her eyes on her phone. “Have you told me that before?”

Rub my tongue against my teeth. Not feeling it. No, I don’t think so.

She jerks her head up to the ceiling. Her mug slams against the counter, a large splash of coffee jumping out the top. Her hand is covering her eyes. Her head’s on her chest now. I try to open my mouth, to tell her I’m sorry, but I can’t seem to move my lips. I set the coffee mug on the floor.

Her body is convulsing. Whimpering noises. Anger? Nope. Crying.

“Thom, I can’t do this anymore. Do you even know what year it is?”

Year? When did we graduate high school? 2002? Eightish years… Ten?

“No. No, Thom, it’s…”

She is out of the bathroom in seconds. I call out to her, but nothing comes out. The faucet is still running. Bathwater is reaching my chin. Half of my beard is submerged. I’m tired. Must be the Neurontin. Or the Baclofen. All my muscles are relaxed. Thoughts flash by like billboards, but I’m too tired to notice.

My head slips under. The woosh of water is overwhelming. Every movement is amplified. I’m cerastes cerastes, the horned desert viper. I tripped an IED at 0821 four clicks away from camp. I killed three U.S. soldiers and maimed a fourth. My head hurts.

Close eyes. I’m weightless. Pain-free. For a moment, I’m in a snowglobe. Where life is going on, but everything is calm. Peaceful. There’s even a hat on the Eiffel Tower. Life in a snowglobe is eternal. Houses don’t age or need fixing. When those tiny little places are in there, they stay exactly as they were. It’s like whatever lives the even tinier people had just stopped. Everything is just the same. Darkness.

I open my eyes. There’s a figure above the surface. Can sea snakes detect things like that? Not sure. Don’t have that book. Suddenly, something big drops into the water. It’s black at first, but I can recognize the picture on the cover. Serpents of the Middle East, Revised. It floats for a bit, above my chest. My arms are weak. Can I move them? Maybe. Nope. It’s Mary. Course it is. She leans closer. She is saying something above water. Outside my globe. She pushes her hand down, through the water. It’s soft on my forehead. I sink a bit lower. Is that snow shaking around me?


Conor Rowell is a writer, amputee, and illustrator. He is a graduate of the University College Cork MA in Creative Writing and CSU, Chico BA in Political Science. In previous lives, he’s worked as a theatre critic, social worker, librarian, photographer, knife salesman, and wedding officiant. His articles, art, and stories have appeared in Synthesis Magazine and The Quarryman.

 

 


A. Anupama

is a founding editor of River River. Visit her at Seranam.com.