Little Reptiles

By Doug Dorst

Let us strive to do what is in our power and guard ourselves against these poisonous little reptiles, for the Lord often desires that bad thoughts afflict and pursue us without our being able to get rid of them. Sometimes he even permits these reptiles to bite us. –St. Teresa of Avila, “The Interior Castle”

I. BOOMSLANG

On an after-tours tour of the natural history museum, my friend the herpetologist shows me the laboratory in which, fifty years ago, the division’s curator gathered with several colleagues to puzzle over an African tree snake that the city zoo had sent for identification. Thirty inches long, bright green and black-beaded, with folding rear fangs: it was almost certainly a boomslang, they agreed, but for the matter of the anal plate, which ought to have been divided but wasn’t. The men were confounded; this snake was a taxonomical impossibility. The curator picked it up for a closer look, but he took his grip too far behind the head and the snake whipped around and struck, burying those rear fangs into the soft flesh at the base of his thumb. That it was a boomslang was dramatically manifested by its behavior, the curator would write. Still, they all agreed, the snake was young and had been in captivity for some time, so it wouldn’t possess venom in enough quantity or potency for the bite to be fatal. The curator did the old cut-and-suck, then retreated to his office to chronicle his symptoms as the hemotoxin pulsed through his body.

By 2:30, the area around the puncture had blackened. By 4:00, he had developed chills that shook him as he donned his overcoat and headed for the suburban train. On the train, he noted waves of nausea. At home, in bed with heating pad, pencil, and notebook, he recorded continued nausea, a fever-spike, bleeding from the mouth. Midnight: blood in urine. Later, just blood — no urine — plus abdominal pain and violent nausea. In the morning, heavy-lidded and sore, he paused in his writing and asked his wife to call the museum and tell them he’d be back at work the following day. Mouth and nose continuing to bleed, though not excessively, he wrote. This was his final entry. He fell into a coma. By 3:15 p.m. he was dead. His colleagues, though saddened, told the newspapers that a good herpetologist never misses an opportunity to record a case study. His wife’s thoughts on this subject were not reported.

The office that once belonged to the late curator is locked (and it has someone else’s nameplate on it, besides), but I linger there, one hand on the dark-grained wood, and I imagine him in his office that afternoon, in his creaky chair behind his bulky desk, staring at his hand as he flexes his swollen thumb. Along one wall are maps of southern Africa, India, the Pantanal; along another are two tall and packed-tight bookshelves. At his back, a window open to the lake breeze. On his desk, a gila monster’s skull serves as a paperweight. Perhaps he has a moment of doubt. Perhaps he finds himself with the telephone in his good hand, about to connect to the hospital, but he turns his gaze to the clock on his wall (brutishly plain, as institutional clocks are, with cold black numbers on a white face and a second hand that buzzes, insectlike, as it sweeps its arc) and decides he can catch the next train home if he hurries.

The air around me is chilly and spiced with formaldehyde. My friend calls from down the hallway, tells me to hurry up because we have much more to see in the museum tonight: the lab where a T. rex is being reassembled; a fearsome collection of shark jaws; the insane menagerie that is the birds-of-prey specimen room.

I let my hand drop from the curator’s door, suddenly sheepish. I am forty and graying; by now I ought to know what, if anything, I will give my life to, or for.

In the distance, down some other hallway of the vast museum, a floor-polisher thrums and thrums, getting the place clean for tomorrow’s visitors.

II. GALLIWASP

Christopher, the best man, is on his fifth rum-and-Coke when the music stops and the stage is cleared and his thoughts turn to Jamaica. To the inn in Montego Bay where he and his wife got engaged. To the garden where they had their breakfast that next morning. To the creature they saw darting across one of the flowerbeds. The strangest thing: a lizard head on a thick, stubby-snake body with cartoonishly tiny legs and feet. It paused on a flat rock, and they admired it until the gardener, a dark-skinned man in flawless white linen, crept up to the creature and smoothly decapitated it with one strike of his shovel. “De galliwasp,” the man explained to them. “De most dangerous ting on de island. Got de venom in dey teeth.” He scooped up the two pieces of the reptile with the shovel and carried it away, whistling, leaving them to their plates of ackee fruit and saltfish and their stunned silence. What they found out later, back at home, surprised them even more: galliwasps aren’t venomous. Aren’t dangerous at all. The lore is a lie, and the things are nearly extinct because of it.

There’s another piece of island wisdom about the galliwasp: if one bites you, you’re supposed to run for the nearest water. If you get to water before it does, then you’ll live and it will die. If it gets to water first, you’ll be dead before the next sunrise.

Christopher wants to share this with the guys at the table — it feels important, somehow, in his rum-fogged mind — but they’re all busy scoping out the lap-dance talent and conferring with each other on same, and the groom-to-be is already blind on tequila shooters, and now there’s a new girl on stage and the music starts pumping again. He couldn’t make himself heard if he wanted to.

He looks around the table. Eight men. They’ve been friends since they were teenagers; they’ve screwed some of the same girls; they’ve boasted-slash-confided about sloppy-drunk hookups, about each of their Top Five Blowjobs lists, about conquests in bathroom stalls and faculty offices and graveyards and parking lots and business-trip hotels and delivery vans and dank basements while parties thump away overhead, about the demure ones who fuck like wildcats, about stalkers and stalking, about walks of shame and cold sores and amoxicillin, about the I-swear-I’ll-call-you-agains and the Ones That Got Away. And now he understands why his thoughts are on Jamaican galliwasps instead of the C-cup cowgirl pole-dancing ten feet away: each of them spent the first two decades of his adult life treating sex like a galliwasp bite. There is the bite, and then there’s the running. You might be the human or the reptile, you might be the biter or the bitten — you might have no clue, either way — but the barest fact of it remains: jaws sink into flesh and then you’re both running for the water. All those bites, all those sprints, all those deaths by sunrise. But it’s different, he thinks, now that they’ve gotten older, now that they’re settling down. It’s different. Isn’t it?

He decides this is a question that should not be contemplated with an empty glass. He raises his hand and tries to catch the eye of the bone-skinny cocktail waitress, who for some reason is dressed like a matador.

III. ARGUS MONITOR

The Argus monitor, a/k/a Varanus panoptes, is a diurnal metaphor and an important predator in today’s global biomeme.

In Greek mythology, Argus Panoptes was a giant with a hundred eyes who was assigned by Hera to guard a white heifer from Zeus, that mad rutter.

The Argus monitor has sharp claws for digging, climbing, and ripping apart aesthetic distance.

When scanning its environs, the Argus monitor will often “tripod” — i.e., raise itself high on its hind legs and tail. It sees all. Keep your shoes shined and your underthings clean.

The Argus monitor is a major employer in most American cities and towns, but it is nervous and quick to startle.

A powerfully built, rapacious eating machine, the Argus monitor is the “bottomless pit” of the animal kingdom, feeding on fish, snakes, insects, corn syrup solids, rodents, birds, consent, “The Fountainhead,” frogs, rage, synecdoche, arbitrage, apathy, wounded dingos, that new car smell, marketing, Bowery river crab, theocracy, wonder, limited-liability corporations, Tibet, exhaustion, single-stream recycling, degenerate art, phenomenology, cake, the proposed Trans-Afghanistan pipeline, and, in times of scarcity, other monitors.

Off-camera, Marlin Perkins would refer to the Argus monitor as “a bad mamma-jamma.”

The Argus monitor’s droppings are super-concentrated pellets of hope and bones, prized as trophies by some and as protein sources by others, although government scientists have not received funding to sort out the demographics underlying this situation.

The Argus monitor pays well. Sweet rutting Zeus, does it ever.

On March 14, 1983, an Argus monitor urinated on Johnny Carson’s shoulder during a live broadcast of NBC’s “Tonight Show.” When they cut to commercial, it tore off and devoured both of the TV host’s legs.

The Argus monitor offers many opportunities for internships as well.

Venom? Damn skippy!

It prefers to bask in the morning, with a two-gallon MonolithiGulp™ of coffee, a raw goat, white phosphorus, and the Wall Street Journal it swipes from its neighbor’s driveway.

The Argus monitor has a forked tongue and a vomeronasal organ in the roof of its mouth, which is why one should not speak ill of it. And also on account of it pays so well.

Its underside is cream-colored and surprisingly soft.

IV. DABOIA (THE LURKER)

Last night, S____ , a thirtyish man, dreamed that he was sitting on the couch with his wife — not his real wife, but a dark-haired dream-understudy whose face he was never able to see clearly. They were watching a show called “Hot Herps” on the Circle Of Life Channel, which was following up a feature on Lizards That Eat Their Young with a profile of a species of viper called the daboia (which name comes from Hindi for “lurker”). In one clip, an Indonesian film worker presented with a daboia bite on his hand, the wound blistering, the arm swollen to more than twice normal size. A real-time computer simulation reenacted the bite, showing a daboia being held (much as that infamous boomslang was) with fingers carefully arranged around the head, pinning the jaw. Then: a flash of movement, a whipflick of brown and black, and suddenly snake and hand were attached by a pair of long, curved fangs. Normally, bites like this are due to careless handling or inattentiveness, the narrator said, but not in this case. The simulation ran again, in super-slow motion, revealing the snake’s secret: unable to break the man’s grip, it had struck the only way it could. It had bitten through its own lower jaw to get at the field worker’s hand. S____ backed up the DVR, and he and his dream-wife watched the simulated strike over and over, rapt, alive with this glimpse of the pure, concentrated menace of the natural world. He put his hand on her neck and felt her skin warming.

Perhaps they should not have watched any further; perhaps S____ ought to have tried some lucid-dreaming stratagem to take control of the narrative and cause his dream-self to pick up his dream-wife and carry her to bed where they would whip themselves about, dangerous and sharp, driven by the intense, atavistic passion so rarely unleashed from its tight coils inside in their reptilian brains. But S____’s real-self didn’t have that kind of power. Instead, his dream-self sat with his dream-wife and watched as a lab-coated German discussed the physiological effects of the daboia’s extremely potent venom and noted that a dilute form of it is often used in an in vitro diagnostic test for autoimmune disorders.

At that, S____’s dream-wife ripped herself away from him, curled herself up at the far end of the couch, hid her face in her hands, and convulsed with sobs. He — dream-self and real-self both — tried to tell her, We can try again, we can try again, but the words wouldn’t come out clearly. He knew she wouldn’t have heard them anyway; everything was drowned out by those jagged, bloody, apocalyptic sobs. And he felt afraid to go to her, afraid to touch her, so he curled up on his side of the couch and covered his ears and told himself he’d wake up before too long. He tried to comfort himself, then, by imagining the face of the dream-baby that had been taken from them, but he couldn’t. The baby seemed to belong to another dream altogether, and everyone knows that the membranes that divide our dreams, though they may seem thin and translucent, are ultimately impermeable.

V. GHARIAL

Lately, every time you finish a story, the gharial that lives under your writing desk darts out and bites off one of your toes, then scutters back into the shadows. To ask how it knows you’ve finished is pointless; it just does. Anyway: it’s sad, how little work you finish, but it’s understandable. A person needs to walk, after all.

When you limp into your psychiatrist’s office, he asks what’s the matter.

“I have a gharial problem,” you say. You wanted to bring a photo to show him, but every shot you’ve taken has come out as a murky blurred nada. The creature is surprisingly quick. Why, if it weren’t for your lost toes and the dark-red spatters and swirls tracing the hardwood floor in your office, you would doubt its existence yourself.

He admits he knows next to nothing about this species of reptile, apart from the fact that gharials have narrow jaws and long snouts that are ideally suited to their piscivorous feeding habits.

“They’re native to the Indian subcontinent,” you offer, because you’ve looked it up. “Although apparently they can thrive indoors in central Texas, too.”

“Yes,” he agrees. “And also they rarely if ever attack humans. But if one is going to, it makes a degree of sense that it would choose a writer.”

You ponder this. “Is it because they can sense the dread in our blood?”

“Precisely,” he says. “Studies have shown that dread is sweet and umami-rich.”

He gives you a referral to a specialist, an old college roommate of his who runs a semi-licensed snake farm on a ranch road outside Wimberley. You ask if your insurance will cover your consultation with this herpeculturalist, explaining how, on account of, you know, money and your utter lack of it, and also how these days the things you get paid for — stories — require body parts from you (even if they are minor ones), etc. “Almost certainly not,” he says, but he hands you a sackful of benzodiazepines, which you take to be an expression of empathy.

You arrive at the snake farm late in the afternoon under a seasonal-affective-gray sky and find the man sitting in a recliner on a spacious screened porch. Around him are chunky metal filing cabinets, the drawers all open and spilling out loose papers. “Come on in,” he says, having heard your uneven footsteps as you scuffed up the gravel drive. At the door you peer through the screen and see motion everywhere, dark shapes creeping and pulsing and darting along. Snakes writhe around on the floor, slither-twist over and around the man’s boots and his faded-denim thighs and his faded-tatt arms, wrap themselves around the brim of his ten-gallon hat, curl in and out of the file drawers. You catch glimpses of bushmasters and taipans and banded kraits. Armored lizards jostle and grunt and snap as they raid a trough full of meat that smells like steak fajitas. A snapping turtle lies in wait inside a Scooby Doo kiddie pool, sizing up a fat feeder-frog. Caimans and crocs prowl the inner perimeter and regard you in ways you do not like; the screen looks too thin to hold back a thousand pounds of reptile on the attack. Your phantom-toes start to itch inside your new steel-toed boots, your latest attempt to up-armor.

“Come on in,” he says again. “Don’t be a stranger.”

“I’ll stay out here,” you say. “I just need to know if you can help me with my gharial problem.”

“Depends,” he says. “Do I get to keep the critter, or are you looking to eat it?”

“Eat it?” Something about the idea appeals to you. Vengeance, perhaps. Or irony. But the itching flares up, hotter now, maddening, and you tell him you don’t care what happens to it, you just want the damned thing gone.

“Gharial grills up nice,” he says, and it sounds like he’s smiling, but you have trouble seeing his face in part because the last daylight is leaking out from the miserable sky and in part because of the steady traffic of snakes traveling across it. He says he’ll need cash in advance, and you pay eagerly. You figure you’ll make the money back with, two, maybe three new stories. On the drive back to the city, you take off your boots, set the cruise control, and scratch scratch scratch all the way home.

Two days later, he rings your doorbell. Wings of white hair poke out from under his hat. Without snakes obscuring his face, you can see he’s handsome in that leathery, half-a-century-of-Texas-sun kind of way, as long as you overlook the scarred-over puncture wounds that cover his cheeks like a bumpy purple beard. He has left his truck idling in your driveway, and you admire that kind of confidence, wish it were contagious. He drops his cigarette and grinds it out with the toe of his boot on your welcome mat.

“So,” he says, “Where’s the little reptile?”

You lead him to your office and point under the desk. “It lives down there,” you say, “although I can’t be more specific than that.”

He shines a flashlight on the floor, around the wall moldings, behind the desk, inside the drawers, over the tangled wires that snake out from your CPU. “Ain’t no gharial here,” he says.

“It’s here,” you tell him. “It comes out when I hit Control+S. When I’m saving the final version of a story. It bites off my toes.”

“Welp,” he says, “then I guess we need to lure her out. You’d best sit down and get to it. My time ain’t cheap.”

“You mean write? Finish? Hit Control + S?”

“Hell, yeah, if that’s what makes her hungry.”

You settle into your desk chair, crack your knuckles, wiggle your remaining toes. You turn on the computer. You open a new document. You get ready to write. You listen to his truck’s engine grumbling in the driveway. You wonder how much gas it has in the tank.

The man puts his flashlight between his teeth, adjusts the coil of rope on his hip, pulls a mesh net from a deep pocket, and crouches down to begin his vigil over the dark beneath your desk. His hands hold the net perfectly still — they don’t tremble, they don’t twitch — and you know that when (if?) the time comes, those hands will strike with precision and purpose and cold-blooded quickness.

You could pretend you have hands like that. Maybe that’s all you need to do, is pretend.