April 30, 2017

Serpents and Toads, Carina Bissett


“Sign here.” Painted a lurid scarlet, the dark-haired woman’s lips spread into a thick smile. She tapped a red fingernail on the paper she pushed in front of me.

“That’s it?” Now that the promise sat in front of me, I was hesitant to take the next step. What if this was like all of the other false miracles I’d tried? But then again, what if it actually worked? What if I could be as thin as the women I envied? “That’s all I have to do? Just sign this paper?”

“Yes. Simple and efficient.” The woman grinned, white teeth flashing, teeth better suited to tearing into rare meat than nibbling at lettuce. A salad, dressing on the side, sat untouched near her elbow. Overripe strawberries beckoned in their bed of bitter greens. “At least it is at this stage in the process.”

What the hell. I took a deep breath and scrawled my name at the bottom of a contract I hadn’t bothered to read. “Now what?”

I didn’t feel any different. My pants were still too tight, my bra pinched the extra fold of skin below the band, and my fingers were still puffy around rings I hadn’t been able to remove in years.

“Now you say something particularly nasty to someone.” The woman glanced around and raised a hand to summon Danielle, my favorite waitress at the club.

The girl scurried over, a haunted look in her in her eye, a look I recognized too well.

“She should do quite nicely.”

Danielle was overweight, although she wasn’t nearly as fat as me. Even if I didn’t know her from previous visits to the restaurant, the way she hunched her shoulders as she walked and her apologetic attempts to avoid eye contact told me all I needed to know. Those few extra pounds weighed on her, which is why I knew exactly what to say.

“Are you stupid or just slow?”

The girl jerked back. She quickly regained her compose and began to clear the empty plates off our table, but she couldn’t control the tremble of her hands. “Is there anything else I can do for you?”

I paused, but the sharp tap of red fingernails drumming on the table top urged me to action. The contract was signed and I was on the clock. I tossed my napkin to the floor and watched the girl flinch as I kicked it under the table.

“The check, you stupid cow,” I said, the words bitter with venom directed more at myself than at her. “How difficult can it be?”

How difficult, indeed.

The waitress fled, but not before I saw tears welling up.

As soon as I’d spit the words out, something began to work its way up my throat. I choked and gagged, but the sensation persisted and I clutched at my convulsing neck convinced I was going to die. The woman in red leaned forward to watch me with eyes as sharp as black diamonds. I ended the struggle with a hacking cough, which abruptly cut off when a small muddy-colored toad jumped off my tongue. It landed with a plop on the crumbled remains of the raspberry lemon muffin I’d devoured with my tea. The woman in red frowned.

Bufo bufo. A common toad,” she said. “You’ll have to work on that.”  

The little toad stared at the muffin with unblinking eyes.

“Don’t forget to secure the payment,” she added as she folded the contract and slipped it in a red snakeskin handbag. “The bigger the better.”

I wiped a shaking hand across my mouth. “That’s it?”

“We try to keep it simple for the common folk.” She stood up and looked down at me. Her dark hair hung straight and sleek down her back. A low-cut red dress, better suited to a black-tie event than an afternoon country club luncheon, clung to her enviable figure. “I’ll see you when the moon is full once more. Do try not to disappoint.”

The woman in red left, all eyes following her. The little toad hopped off the dessert plate and onto the prim white tablecloth. Not knowing what else to do, I gingerly scooped the creature up and deposited it in the depths of my purse. I had work to do.

***
I perfected the edge of cutting insults in just days. I had been on the receiving end long enough to know just how to inflict the deepest of wounds. I traded my old purse for a messenger bag large enough to hold my vengeance. Sometimes my victims even deserved it.

When I ran into the man who’d broken my heart years ago, it wasn’t an accident. I found him in a nightclub, recently arrived and dressed to the nines even though it was well past midnight. I knew that Dan liked the attention that came with being late to the party. Most people assumed a man as polished as he would never have taken a fat girl home. But he had, once upon a time. He was curious like that. And it didn’t help that he’d been about as drunk as drunk gets. The next morning had not been a pretty affair.

I approached him with two drinks in hand, arms spread wide enough to show my emerging curves hugged by a green dress so dark it almost appeared black. Dan stopped talking to the girl at his side and his gaze slid up and down my body before coming to rest on my face. He tilted his head, a slight frown creasing his tan forehead.

“Hello, Dan,” I said. “Long time.”

He smiled and stepped forward. “Is one of these for me?”

“An Old-Fashioned, just the way you like it.”

“Thanks.” He took the proffered drink. “I haven’t seen you in forever.”

I sipped of the whiskey, savoring the blend of bitters and cherries on my tongue before swallowing. “My name’s Amanda.”

“Of course it is. I remember.”

I knew he didn’t. The music boomed through the floorboards, threatening to shake me apart. Overhead, lights flashed, piercing the velvety darkness with flickering white shards.

“I’ve lost some weight,” I said, trying not to grimace. “We hooked up once. Hardly memorable.”

Except it had been, for me.

His eyes lit up. “Amanda.” He let out a low whistle. “I almost didn’t recognize you.”

“It happens.” I shrugged, showing off the winged edge of collarbones peeking out from the scoop neckline. “Is there somewhere quiet where we can catch up?”

He chuckled.

I just smiled and let him usher me to the VIP room, which was only marginally quieter than the main floor. Couples sat in dark corners, some of which were obscured by heavy drapes. It was the type of place where the wait staff wouldn’t intrude unless summoned. Perfect.  

“I remember thinking you’d be pretty if you lost some weight,” Dan said as he slipped into a low-slung leather loveseat reserved in the far corner. “But I never expected you’d be this beautiful.”

“Is that supposed to be a compliment?”

He set his drink on a black lacquer table and patted the place next to him.

I complied. 

A few minutes later, I collected a sleek grey snake from where it had curled up after striking my old flame. No one had noticed Dan’s reactions to the kiss of death. Dendroaspis polylepis. I looked at the puncture wounds on his face and watched the fluttering rise and fall of the paralyzed man’s chest.

“Well, that’s a first. How interesting.” I settled into the sofa and enjoyed the complex flavors of my drink. “Don’t think you’re off the hook.”

Dan didn’t reply. I was liking this more and more.

“I know you’re not dead yet and I have a few more things to say to you.”

The music shifted tempo. I opened my mouth and let the poison slither off my tongue.

***
I stood in front of my dressing room mirror that now reflected an image I once would have thought of as perfect, only now I knew I was far from it. Just a few more pounds to lose; that’s all I needed. And then I could finally be happy. I could finally be free.

But at what cost? The familiar voice in my head was just a ghost of who I used to be.

“Shut up, you lazy, worthless bitch.” I felt a serpent start the slide up my throat. “You don’t own me anymore.”

Vomiting the serpents and toads had become easier the more I did it and now it was a relief to purge the bile still swimming in my stomach. I welcomed the feeling of my throat giving way to the wedge-shaped head spearing its way toward freedom. I opened my mouth and watched in the mirror as the serpent worked its way free.

It paused for a moment and let its head rest against my tongue as it tested the air. Even in the cave of my mouth, I could see the cross-hatching diamond pattern streaking back from its glittering black eyes. Crotalus atrox. The rattles on its tail buzzed deep in the confines of my gut, but I was long past being bothered by such shows of temper. Which of my sins was this one? I wondered. What hateful thought have I given birth to this time?

I gently cradled the serpent as it slipped from my mouth, coils looping around my bare arm. The diamondback was easily six feet in length, but I wasn’t too surprised. The hatred I had for myself outweighed even the worst of insults cast at others. Being nice to others had never gotten me anywhere, betrayal after betrayal had collected like pearls on a choker. Food had become the only comfort that could fill the emptiness left behind.

Panels of mirrors followed my progress into the bathroom.

In the depths of the claw-footed, cast iron tub, my other sins boiled in a slithering mass of muscle and sinew. The susurration of 82.5 pounds of serpents and toads whispered savage secrets I could almost understand, but not. I lowered my newest purge to the collection and released it to join the others. As I watched its striped form entwine with the others, I ran my hands down hips so slender the bones jutted out. But it wasn’t enough.

***                           
When the moon was once again full, I returned to the restaurant where I’d met the woman in red just a month ago. I ordered champagne to celebrate, even as I plotted ways to extend the agreement. What if the suffocating weight returned?

I couldn’t allow that.

The champagne burned as it slid down a throat rubbed raw from curses cast, but I didn’t care. I enjoyed the pain. It meant that I had finally been able to find the strength to have my desires fulfilled. I poured another glass and then sat back to watch the response of the diners around me.
No one looked at me. Not one single person.

They were all looking at her. The woman in red approached with elegant ease, a seductive smile on her painted lips. It didn’t matter that I’d spent hours preparing for the occasion, I was small now, but not in the way I expected.

She slid into the chair opposite of me and placed that red snakeskin bag on the pressed tablecloth. “You’ve done well for yourself,” she said as she eyed my thin frame. “So well, in fact, you’ve almost disappeared.”

“I want an extension,” I blurted.

“That’s not how it works,” she replied in a voice as smooth as the mad honey they harvest in Nepal. “I will be collecting payment at midnight.”

“But I need more.”

“Of course you do,” she said. “You need a better nose, higher cheekbones, a fuller mouth, larger breasts, longer legs, and much, much more. There is so much work to be done.”
The woman pulled a fresh contract out of her purse and slid it across the table with a black pen containing ink as dark as the blood of the damned. I should know.

Better. Higher. Fuller. Larger. Longer. Idealized beauty traded for the pieces of my soul that still remained. The words repeated again and again—a whispered litany of disappointment and despair. It would never be enough. I would never be enough. But the whispers continued, rising in volume until they were the only thing I could hear.

I pushed back from the table. “Stop!”

And they did. The beautiful people stopped all conversation, stopped pushing food around on white plates, stopped pretending to be alive, and finally looked at me. They looked at me with hungry eyes.

The woman in red arched an eyebrow. “Did you notice your favorite waitress isn’t here any longer?”

I hadn’t.

“She killed herself. The poor girl couldn’t handle a few petty comments,” she continued.

Danielle. That had been her name.

“It’s not my fault.”

The woman picked up my champagne flute and took a sip. The lurid red lipstick clung in a perfect pout to the glass. “Of course it is.”

Understanding dawned and with it the implications of the price I’d truly paid.

“I’m sorry.” The words spilled from my lips along. A ruby red gem fell with it.

“Now, now,” said the woman with a frown. “None of that.”

I picked up the stone and rolled it between my fingers. Shaking, I pulled myself to my feet and hurried away from the woman and her hollow promises. Although the polished floors were as smooth as the faces of those who watched my retreat, I stumbled in my shiny new stilettos until I finally kicked them off and ran barefoot towards the door. The woman’s throaty laugh followed me. One by one, the other diners joined her revelry and not even my screams could drown them out. 

I burst through the doors and stopped. The late afternoon light cast a golden glow over the white buildings. Even the lawn looked different. I stood there in the portico, shaking with the realization that I had left my messenger bag slung on the back of the chair. I opened my hand and looked at the ruby that dug into my palm. It was a pitiful exchange for the car keys I so desperately needed, but there was no way I was going to return to that place. I needed help, but had no one to turn to.

“Miss? Miss? Are you alright?”

I wondered how long the valet had been standing there.

“Help me,” I begged. But once again, my pleas produced gems. Diamonds this time, if I wasn’t mistaken.

I scrambled to pick them off the asphalt, uncertain of these new rules. The valet’s kind eyes turned flat

“What do you have there?” He moved closer, but I stepped back.

“I’m sorry,” I said. My appeal was cut off by the sharp edges of diamonds and rubies tumbling from my mouth.

The valet’s face grew bright, hungry as those beautiful people sitting inside pretending to eat.

I turned and ran down the driveway, bare feet slapping the pavement, a handful of gemstones gripped in my fist. I looked over my shoulder, but I hadn’t been followed. Still the urge to get to the relative safety of my home kept me moving.

Was I denied forgiveness for sins committed? Had I truly moved so far from redemption?

When I finally arrived home my feet were bloody and bruised. Once I gained entry, I walked straight into the bathroom, ignoring the trail of blood I left behind. I turned on the lights. The tub was more than halfway full, scales and skin slithering together. I dropped the diamonds and rubies into the tub with the rest. To my surprise, the slow revolution of serpents and toads turned into a feeding frenzy as they fought with each other for those transformed pleas of mercy.

Out in the living room the antiquated grandfather clock began to chime. The clock had been passed down for generations. One. ­ Walk in beauty. I stood still and counted blessings even though I didn’t deserve them. Two. ­ Circle the soul. Three. Dance at midnight. Four. Hug the faithful. Five. Seed the garden. Six. Harvest the love. Seven. Share in kindness. Eight. Wear the gloves. Nine.  Gather the wood. Ten.  Practice patience. Eleven.  Embrace the good.­

I waited for the twelfth hour to toll; I waited for peace, but it didn’t come. I had an hour to repent, not a minute less. There wasn’t time to wash up or to prepare for what needed to be done, so I tucked my hair behind my ears and kneeled in front of the tub.

The gems were nowhere to be seen and my sins had once again settled into a restless lull. I reached into the tub and grabbed at a vibrant yellow frog. Phyllobates terribilis. Terrible, indeed. Just one of these golden frogs was poisonous enough to kill ten or more full-grown men. Before I could change my mind, I popped the creature into my mouth and swallowed it whole. The creature didn’t struggle, but that didn’t make it any easier. I bent my head and meditated on my breathing, waiting for nausea that never came, despite the convulsions of my throat.

For a moment, I wondered if I had gained those few ounces back. I chided myself for dawdling. The woman in red would find me here, I was sure of that. And midnight was less than an hour away. I was running out of time.

Could I ever really take those insults back? I wasn’t certain, but I had to try.

I reached back into the writhing mass, this time without looking, and locked my fingers around the lithe body of a serpent. It calmly curled around my fist as I lifted it from the tub.

I opened my mouth and swallowed.


Carina Bissett is a writer, poet, and educator working primarily in the fields of speculative fiction and interstitial art. She completed her M.Ed. at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs; her short fiction and poetry has been published in multiple journals and anthologies including the Journal of Mythic Arts, Mythic Delirium, NonBinary Review, Timeless Tales, and The Horror ‘Zine. She blogs at carinabissett.com.

Art by Amanda Bergloff.

7 comments

  1. That's a good one, more scorpion than serpent, as there's a sharp sting in the tale.

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  2. Very moving. ~ Luisa

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  3. "I looked at the puncture wounds on his face and watched the fluttering rise and fall of the paralyzed man’s chest." This was the highlight for me.

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  4. Fantastic. Wild and wonderful.

    The illustration, too!

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  5. Wow, what a vibrant and moving retelling! This one stays with you.

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  6. Talk about eating your words...this story is delicious! Wonderful exploration of our inner versus outer selves. Well done!

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