Snakes

An earlier version of this was published in Ambit 187, Winter 2007, illustrated by Anne Howeson.

SnakesMonday, Greta woke to find snakes in her hair.  As she stretched, her fingers brushed cool-bodied shapes on the pillow and she raised both hands to her head.  Her hair surged through her fingers, writhing and striving.

She leapt from the bed as if bitten, though her hands were without marks.  Blear-eyed, she saw nothing in the bathroom mirror at first, then caught a movement above her ears and peering, saw darting, finger-like heads, shining eyes, the flicking split ends of tongues.

To quell panic she made coffee, toast, peeled an orange, turned on the tv.  Then she showered, eyes closed tightly, feet anticipating a fall of wriggling bodies that didn’t come.  She dressed and made up using the hand mirror to focus on her face.  The flat’s tiny lobby was always dark: when she looked in the glass by the door she saw only her scared eyes returning her glance.

The walk to the tube was short.  People poured towards the station from all directions, faces blank, fumbling for passes, mechanically exchanging money for newspapers.  No eyes made contact and as the train drew up all pushed with a frenzy to get in.

So far so good.  Greta found a seat wedged between a man reading The Sun and a girl with balcony breasts and a bent bestseller.  The rest of the carriage fingered their phones.  Normally at this point it was Greta’s wont to check her reflection in the opposite window, but a huge Fijian sat there, obscuring her view.  She hadn’t dared touch her hair, her other habitual movement.  So, had she imagined the whole thing?  Was she going mad?  The man on her right had reached page three: flesh without hair, hair without snakes.

She scrabbled in her bag for a bit, knowing it was rubbish that being occupied would prevent people noticing, and suddenly glimpsed a young man next to the Fijian, staring at her.  Immediately she looked away, taking an image of his face, its leering fascination, disgust, amazement, amusement, repulsion.  She wanted to jump up, rush off the train, bury herself somewhere; instead gazed harder at blurred words swimming over the page.

The next stop was hers.  Perhaps she should not get out, should sit there until the end of the line, until everyone had left the train, ring in sick, take a taxi all the way home, crouching in the corner of the back seat.  The doors opened and she spurted out with a group of others.

Surely it would be all right at school.  The girls were polite, well-behaved, obedient.  Everything was ordered by the timetable; changes, differences were impossible.  Yet she knew that children, like missiles, could seek and find weaknesses with absolute accuracy.  Although her colleagues would be intent on registers, assembly, first lessons, there’d be the usual exchange about the weekend, the rapid, eagle-eyed inspection of each other’s outfit and hair.  (Hadn’t she read that eagles eat snakes?)

Greta made straight for the lavatory.  She locked the door, pulled the curtains and sidled to the mirror.  For a moment her reflection looked good: her wide, pale-complexioned face surrounded by a mass of dark tresses.  She drew the curtain to let in more light and her whole head heaved, flailing and waving at her in the glass.  Her suppressed moan merged with the bell and hundreds of feet tramping up the stairs.  Immediate action was needed.  There was a small silk scarf in her bag which she folded, placed on top of her hair and tied underneath at the back of her neck.  Smooth bodies curled round her wrists so that she withdrew them hastily, the knot inadequate.

Her class were second years, stupefied by weekend excesses, subdued by the prospect of a week of work.  Greta didn’t try to rouse them but took them through deadly noun clauses.  Her next class, anxious, competitive first years in fresh shirts, their unused dictionaries prominently displayed, were unnervingly attentive.

‘I like your scarf, Miss Gordon,’ said one.

Grammar kept them occupied until almost the end of the lesson.  She’d written exercises on the board for them to copy and underline the verbs.  Like all her grammatical material, these were sentences she’d composed years ago, partly designed to amuse herself.

‘Please, Miss Gordon.  In number three it says ‘all girls are serpents’.  What is a serpent?’

She turned from the board to rows of gaping mouths as the scarf fell from her head.  She saw the faces contort into shrieks, screams and did the only thing possible: opened her eyes as wide as she could and glared ferociously.  And as she did this, the snakes rode out around her head, winding, stretching, coiling, tongues triumphantly licking.

There was no sound.  Greta faced a class frozen into silence.

Later, summoned by the headmistress, she felt hardly nervous at all.  In her mind’s eye was the extraordinary image she’d caught reflected in the classroom’s picture window as she’d stood before the class: her hair fanned about her head like an aura.  The power of that moment hadn’t left her.

‘Come in, Greta, and sit down,’ said the head with exaggerated sympathy, as if Greta had period pains.  ‘Girls from U3D tell me that they’ve been terribly frightened.  One said they couldn’t move for ten minutes!  And they all said that you’d had snakes in the classroom.  They were very upset, but their accounts are quite garbled.  Can you explain?’

‘Not really.  Sorry.’

‘Now, are we having personal problems, Greta?  Are we under the weather, perhaps?  PMT?  Or is it just our job?  Teaching is stressful, as I know so well, myself.’

Greta had always loathed the head’s unctuous manner and use of the first person plural.  To compound that with the lie about her teaching – she never did any – was more than she could stand.  Releasing her scarf and tossing her hair, she looked the head straight in the eyes, took in the pupils widening with horror, the mouth forming a puckered O of outrage and glared at her with the force of years of unrealised rebellion.

Greta signed herself out ‘sick’ before the head’s paralysis could wear off.  She felt relieved at avoiding trouble but bitten by a sense of great power unused.  On the way home she didn’t wear the scarf, shook the snakes free to curl about and glared at anyone who stared.  The tube was much emptier than in the morning, yet she knew that all the passengers in her carriage had seen her and she rivetted their appalled expressions with a long look as she stepped off the train.  They’d stay on all the way to Heathrow now.

It was only after she’d inadvertently paralysed her dear neighbour, a sweet Gujarati woman with whom she’d exchanged many cups of tea and delectable snacks over the years and then, absurdly, herself as she practised her glare in the bathroom, that Greta decided to get help.

But who could help her?  Who should she ring?  A trichologist?  (‘I have a problem with my hair.’ ‘Oh, yes?  Thinning?  Alopecia?’  ‘No, snakes.’)  A vet?  (‘I need to have my pet snakes put down ‘  – she felt a pang at this  –    ‘Oh, yes?’  ‘They’ve been causing a nuisance.’  ‘Why don’t you advertise them for sale?  Bring them along, anyway.  Do you need a cage in which to transport them?’).

She googled.  Snake hair resulted in something that cleared slow drains fast, several porno sites, organic shampoo, a plastic ‘hair set’ of snake slides, clips, grips.

Part of the ‘problem’, she realised, was her sense of attachment to the snakes.  This was laughable  – they were attached.  She’d gripped one and pulled it hard but it had struggled within her grasp, wrenched her scalp and lashed her fingers with its tongue.  Pacing about the flat she longed to find authority for her condition.  Snakes were evil  – at least two major religions taught this and everyone believed it, even the snakeless Irish.  Snakes were cursed, sliding about on their bellies, eating dust.  But her snakes were not like that, they swirled exultingly around her head.  Cleopatra had ‘loved’ her asp, ‘sweet as balm, as soft as air, as gentle’ but Greta didn’t want to kill herself, and the snakes had not bitten her once.  Nor did she want to be beheaded like Medusa, by a Greek hero in winged sandals.

Over the next few weeks she tried several counsellors and therapists.  The Freudians never progressed beyond her relationship with her father.  Others quizzed her about her sex life, accused her of inadequate fantasy management.  Her doctor gave her Prozac which caused the snakes to undulate more slowly.  Quite depressing.

Greta’s last therapist was an old man called Percy.  Exhausted by failure, she fell asleep at her first session with him.  As she breathed heavily on his couch, he noted her frowning eyebrows, how she clenched her jaw muscles, ground her teeth,  tightened her lips.  He saw, too, the paleness of her skin and the astonishing beauty of the creatures that slept in tight coils about her head.  He shook her gently and the serpents’ eyes flashed into life.

‘Look at these snakes, Greta,’ he said, holding a glass in front of her. ‘Look at their glorious variety: blue-striped, red-bellied, river green, furling and unfurling together; this delicate grey queen and whippy, chequered garter; red, yellow and blue coral snake knotting and unknotting beside the shining white bullsnake’s underbelly; calmly smiling copperhead and gaudy red-white-and-black eastern milk.

‘Love your snakes.  Realise their beauty.  Remember Coleridge:

They coiled and swam; and every track

Blue, glossy green and velvet black,

Was a flash of golden fire.’

That was Greta’s only consultation with Percy.  She took his advice.   When, one day, she awoke and found they’d shed their skins in a rainbow around her head, she remembered Titania asleep, where ‘the snake throws her enamelled skin,/Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in.’

As Greta grew to love her snakes, they asserted themselves less and, encountering fewer reactions to her appearance, Greta lost the power to paralyse.  She resigned from school and worked for a natural history publisher specialising in reptiles.  Serpents were more rewarding than girls.

One Monday, much later, crossing in front of two lines of traffic at a standstill, Greta saw Percy half way down the road.  She noticed that he’d abandoned his therapist’s leather jacket for a loose tunic-like shirt and sandals.  Then she saw his hair glinting and gleaming in the morning sun as it twisted and twined ecstatically about his head.

© Alix Nathan 2013-2014