Laura Maylene Walter
1. Snake Charmer
On stage she wears a long black dress glittering with miniscule sequin stars. With every movement she shimmers like a galaxy, the skirt’s side slit opening to tease against her bare thigh. No stockings for this performance. Nothing but midnight-dark heels, that dress with its thread-thin straps, her obsidian hair in all its gloss and shine. At her feet waits a red-bellied black snake, four feet long and venomous, moving in serpentines toward her toes.
We are gathered in a dim theater with three dozen seats. The stage is amber-tinted and hot under the spotlights, but the snake charmer doesn’t seem to notice. She doesn’t sweat or sigh or fan herself. She stands in front of a gray velvet chaise lounge and eyes the monster coming toward her. The snake curls behind her feet for one breathless moment before it rears back and slides its body against her skin, twisting around her right calf like the ribbon on a ballet slipper.
The snake charmer grabs handfuls of the glittering dress and hikes it up, pulling the fabric open at the slit to show the snake’s progress up her leg. She wears no underwear, just a single useless garter, pure black lace, around her right thigh. The snake crosses the garter and slithers toward her pelvic bone, its scales blinking alive in the glare of the spotlight.
The air is so thick in this dank theater we can barely breathe. We perspire. We lean forward in our seats and watch with glorified horror as the snake flicks its tongue once and then, with little ceremony, enters the woman.
The snake charmer throws her head back in exaggerated ecstasy as the serpent pushes inside her, inch by inch. She stumbles backward and lowers herself onto the chaise. Her legs are open, the latter half of the snake dangling and struggling between her thighs. The tail of its body is slick and gleaming. The audience—every last one of us—in rapture.
Deeper the snake goes, three inches, four inches, five and more. We wonder how it can breathe. We think of its venom, whether it can bite from the inside. We wonder if the snake charmer is somehow immune to this poison, if her pleasure is enough to save her. Because there on the chaise she cries out from the pressure of the snake, and if we look closely we swear we see its movements against her belly. The snake charmer writhes on her back, the snake pushes deeper, and we wonder why we never thought of this before: all the twisting coils that might crawl or climb or slither into our own selves, impregnating us with black thrashing horror, a mouthful of hot venom just waiting to spit into our depths.
2. Erotic Zoo
He visited the zoo only once, shame-faced and sweaty, to exchange a wad of cash for an hour alone with the animal of his choosing. Miniature donkey. Sorrel mare. Blinkingly stupid sheep. It was the llama that got him in the end, that soft-eyed lovely prancing on delicate two-toed feet. He was so taken that he passed the first forty-five minutes in the stall in stunned awe, not moving, not touching the llama. When he realized his time was almost up he fumbled with his pants buckle, but he couldn’t bear to rush the animal. He used his own hand and, moments later, ejaculated into the soft hair on the llama’s side. He stroked its nose in gratitude before leaving.
At home he thought of the llama with other men, or worse, standing balefully over a woman. He sent away for llama breeding publications, tore out the full-color photos and scattered them over his bed. He clutched his llama-fur pillow and pressed it to his groin. At night he dreamed of Peru, of mountains aclatter with those gentle beasts. He saw cleft marks in the mud, a miraculous trail he followed until the end of time.
He was afraid and desirous. Alone. He dated women and then he dated men, but nothing came of it, and so he prayed for something else. Anything. Pedophilia, he would have taken, instead of this. To at least love a human being. But always he collapsed in bed amid softness: llama hides and blankets that held the musky smell of animal.
Time ran out. The government closed the zoo and seized the livestock. He cleared his computer history again and again and finally bought a new laptop. He floundered at work, lost two accounts. He lost weight. He lost the color in his skin. At night he dreamed of the llama, furious at himself for not returning when he had the chance, for not consummating their relationship, for not offering the zoo his life’s savings so he could take the llama home and build it a snug stable where they would live out their lives together.
One year to the day of the zoo’s closing, he posted an ad online seeking a woman interested in a sex-free relationship. He received a handful of responses and, after months of chaste dates, chose a woman with chestnut hair and a little snub nose that reminded him of the llama. They married in the courthouse and negotiated separate bedrooms; he was able to keep his blankets on his bed, the Bolivian llama rug on the floor, the photos stacked in his locked bedside drawer.
He and his new bride enjoyed taking walks together and playing chess. His wife made vegetarian chili on cold days, had the neighbors over for cocktails on Fridays, and accompanied him to formal functions in a smart black dress. Sometimes she offered him a backrub. He started going to the gym. He recovered at work, got a raise. He made elaborate plans for their anniversary, a surprise Bermuda cruise.
And then, on a Tuesday evening two years into his marriage, he came home to find his wife standing in the living room wearing a llama-trimmed nightie. Behind her he could see the open door to his bedroom, the drawer jimmied open, the splay of llama throws and blankets. His wife spoke his name in a quiet voice. She was dressed in flyaway hair, rippling clouds of llama coat caressing her breasts and hips. She pivoted to face him, ran her hands through the downy softness and said, I want to try something new.
3. The Lost Ledas
For centuries it has been ongoing: the depiction of Leda being raped by that swan. Sculpture, sketches, and the paintings—so many paintings. One layer of pigment barely dry before the artist hurried for his brush again, so much excitement over a fowl splaying his feathers against the soft white body of Leda, her breasts exposed, her throat flung back in agony to match the phallic neck of the swan. In some paintings it is the beak that penetrates her, that flash of dark against the white down, but in most it is the press of the swan’s fuselage against Leda’s pelvis, a flutter and a wisp and a thrust.
Da Vinci painted it. Michelangelo painted it. Their masterpieces were lost or stolen or destroyed, but others persisted. The Correggio, the Cézanne. And these only the best known; so many others exist, scores of men working in the heat of their lust to dab blue paint into white, black into peach.
They pictured her like this: shy and virginal, terrified but also privately pleased that Zeus chose her. That he turned himself into a swan before forcing into her body didn’t matter. He was all power and flight and she had soft hips that opened to him. This is what the painters, the men, see: Leda on her back, arched and miserable and yet also in ecstasy. How could she not want it, they wonder, the feathered touch of a god, the roaring thunder in her ears? To be so desired by the most graceful bird, by that lover’s neck and pinched black beak.
The painters envision a romantic scene in the woods, a nearby stream for Leda and her lover to dip into afterward. As water beads on the swan’s feathers and runs off like tears, Leda is wet and reborn: shiny hair turned black by river water, the pink kiss of her beautiful backside. There in the river—the painters imagine, their own pulses quickening—there in the river she takes the swan again, this time wrapping her legs around the gather of wings, pushing Zeus inside of her, asking for more, rearing back until the water swallows her, enters her. The swan is squeezed between her breasts, thrusting, taking, until Leda is consumed by rapturous feather and hollow bone.
The painters put down their brushes. The painters take deep breaths. Centuries of these men dream themselves into the place of the bird. They ache to take the girl they most desire and flatten her to the forest floor, to lift their necks from first one breast to the other. As imagined animals they are gods, and Leda is nothing more than a pretty girl in a picture, another virginal maiden in the throes of her own ruin. They are upon her; they are panting above her; they are creating inside her body four golden eggs. In the end Leda disappears, her purpose served. After the swan has ascended, and after the painters set down their palettes, only then do her eggs begin to crack—one by one by one by one.
4. Hammond’s Nature Atlas of America
At recess they showed him the pictures and he nearly cried. A woman with a pony. A woman with a dog. Both on stage, with rich heavy curtains behind them, the expressions on the animals’ faces bewildered but willing. The women split open. The other boys laughed at his reaction and said he’d never be a man. They were twelve years old.
After school, his mother made him a plate of round crackers covered with pieces of Velveeta cheese. He ate them all in a row, barely tasting, his mouth so full it glued itself shut. He swallowed milk, thought of the women in the pictures, and gagged.
Upstairs his bedroom had a broad window overlooking the woods out back. He shut the door, sat at his messy desk, and gazed outside. Once he saw a cardinal on the branch closest to the window. Another time, a raccoon easing its fat body through the trees at dusk.
Today there was nothing, or at least nothing he could see.
From under a pile of papers he pulled out his copy of Hammond’s Nature Atlas of America, a solid hardcover that had belonged to his great-grandparents. The book was outdated, yellow-stained, with a cover boasting 320 birds, animals, fishes, flowers, trees, reptiles, amphibians, and insects displayed in full color with descriptive text. Some of the pages inside were ripped, and the outer edge of the spine torn clean off, but he loved the book for its soft drawings and unusual descriptions. The atlas described opossum toes as miniature hands; accused the wolverine of being a disagreeable countryman; conjured an elk’s call in the lonely valley wilderness; and called the Luna moth a glamour queen.
He had never seen a Luna moth. He pictured it glowing as bright as his nightlight, a green ghost in the dark.
Slowly, he flipped through pages. Woodchuck. Ladybird. Weasel, mink. The black bear. Egret, pelican, loon. Mourning dove. Meadowlark. Walking stick. He held in his hands an entire collection of mysterious creatures with glimmering descriptions, but the animals he loved best were not in the nature atlas. They didn’t exist at all, like mermaids and centaurs. Half man, half beast.
Before he could stop himself, he was thinking of those women in the pictures. A woman under a pony like that! And the dog. Whose idea could it be, in this giant churning world, to put a woman with a pony?
He felt sick. And yet he felt something else, something that had become more and more difficult to ignore. He slid his hand into his pants and closed his eyes. He was a monster. He thought of centaurs with their muscular biceps, mermaids with their big breasts. A woman lying with her legs open before an animal.
When he finished, he wiped off his hand and shut the nature atlas. After a long moment, he raised his eyes to the window. Two swallows were circling each other above the trees, lightweight and free. The nature atlas described swallows as iridescent greenish-blue, a delightful sight. He watched them, thinking how small they were against the sky, how unknowable, how fast and lovely and part of everything. Even him. The whole world, round and turning, the birds and bugs and marmots and fishes, the people and the animals, the myths and magic. The swallows zipped right past his window and then, no matter how he pressed against the glass, no matter how much he said sorry, sorry! to them and to all the others, they were gone.