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SNAKE BITE Short Stories
by Ann Diamond



Ann Diamond has written a powerful sequence of short stories set in contemporary Montreal. Through a series of female protagonists she delineates, with irony and self-mockery, delicately etched stages of growth and degrees of loss. Snakebite is Ann Diamond’s first book of short stories, written and published separately over more than a decade.

Short stories: Nineteen seventy-five — Life on the roof — Confession of Lucille Robillard, accomplice — Life forms — Roses — Limbo — Sphynx — Mermaids — The Jupiter effect.

SNAKE BITE and other stories, published by Cormorant Books, 1989
First published in Rubicon, McGill University, 1984,
and FATAL RECURRENCES anthology, edited by Vehicule Press, Montreal
Also Montreal, Mon Amour, anthology, published by Deneau, Toronto, 1989

SNAKEBITE (excerpt)

There is something strange about twins, even when they are not identical. People look twice at twin children, as if hoping for weird traits to appear: psychic powers, talking in unison. My brother and I had presence, and a kind of inner harmony, as lovers have. He was a squat, black-haired little dynamo with a persistent, trusting grin. I was taller, and blonde, a dreamer and complainer. Perhaps we looked peculiar; in any case there was a time when our father tried to photograph us, hoping to solve the riddle of our existence.

His efforts seemed doomed to fail; we were camera-shy, and he was ill-equipped. He used an old box camera, the kind with the viewfinder at the top. You looked down into it, and you aimed blindly, hoping the picture you thought you had would be the picture you got. It was forever hit and miss. Our father had never quite mastered portrait photography -- he was better at landscapes. When he tried to focus on us, his children, unexpected objects always crept into the frame, things he hadn’t wanted to be there. And sometimes things were missing. Once we appeared in a photo as Headless Twins, our smiles lost in limbo beyond the frame. Once we turned up as legless amputees, sucking on Popsicles, oblivious of our tragic deformity. Sometimes the sky came down and crushed us to the very bottom of the picture, sometimes our little bodies disappeared in fields of snow.

At times our father seemed to have a problem getting us in focus; perhaps the trouble was mutual. We seemed to have been born with a gift for distancing ourselves from others. We played in a curtained-off corner of the basement, using our own private language, a sort of made-up, sinuous, Saudi Arabian musical dialect meant to be whined like a song by Oum Khaltsoum. Our father watched our ingrown, twins’ existence with a twinge of helpless resentment. By the time we became aware of him, he always already almost an old man, peering at us over the breakfast crumbs as if we were not his children at all, but some other man’s mistakes.

We were nearly five years old, and our parents were getting on in years, when they bought their first house in the suburbs, on a street newly invaded by young, married couples, It was 1956 and good times had descended on North America. Ideal families proliferated, not only on television, but in the streets and homes of our neighbourhood, giving us plenty of opportunity to observe that normal fathers and mothers were almost twenty years younger than our parents.

Normal mothers (we were quick to note) were pretty, with dyed blonde hair; they wore bathing suits in summer and shaved their legs while reclining in lawns hairs on the front patio. Normal fathers were strong, energetic men. They played catch and built swing sets, and chased their kids around the yard in wild games of “King Kong and the children,” a favourite with our local crowd.

Normal family life was something we longed for, as we longed to be like the happy children of “Father Knows Best.” It seemed to exist at one remove from us. We observed it like twin beggars, freaks barred from the feast; we were children born unwittingly into our parents’ old age.

And as if our exile were not already complete, circumstances had thrown us into a neighbourhood inhabited by French-speaking children with whom we could not communicate…

It is 1956 and we are five years old. I am having a dream I will never forget.

My mother stands on a chair in the living room, staring down at the swirls in our imitation Persian carpet. Her face is crimson. She is screaming. A poisonous snake is curled at her feet. She holds up her hand, palm outward. I see the four fang marks. Four. Red. Her face has opened, tears are shining on her skin, then they appear to turn to blood. I see the four fang marks like the corners of a square. I know that death is a square, with four ragged corners. Do not enter the box. I stare at the hand. My mother notices me standing there and begins to sob and scream: “See what you’ve done to me! See what you made me do!”

I am in my bed and the door to my room is slightly ajar. A little triangle of light pierces the dark of the room. I am aware of objects in the room: the white bureau, the folds in the curtains, which change into human and animal shapes. A chair in the corner. I feel under the pillow for the magic rosary, stolen from my mother’s perfumed drawer.

At five, I’m an insomniac. I have frequent nightmares which wake me in the middle of the night. At an earlier period, when I was three, I used to stumble from my bed and wander into the living room, calling for my Daddy. “I wanna see Daddy. I wanna see Daddy knee.” Now I am too old for that. I lie awake in the dark, for hours. I have heard you can count sheep. I try. I try to visualize them leaping, one by one, over a fence, as I have seen them do in Mickey Mouse cartoons. But I don’t visualize well. And besides, sheep are boring. I imagine a jungle filled with talking animals: leopards, tigers, panthers and snakes. Giant cobras with emeralds in the middle of their foreheads. And a girl who swings through the trees, and rides around on the back of a lion.

Beyond the jungle there is a mountain. And in the mountain, a network of subterranean caves where witches dwell. There is a great fascination in those caves, and this draws me to them night after night, causes me to leave the beautiful jungle where I am known and loved by the animals. The witches are rulers inside the mountain. Inside the mountain, everything belongs to the witches, and their minds survey and control every inch of space, every corner. It is a magnificent, mechanized kingdom of secret chambers linked by slowly-moving conveyor belts. It is a place where children must go, where they are irresistibly drawn. The witches’ caves suck in children, and children are a kind of industry there. As soon as a child arrives, she is welcomed, caressed, and strapped in place on one of the conveyor belts. Then she is in their power. She has to lie there passively and be transported slowly from room to room while the witches “operate” with pins, knives, and other long, delicately pointed things. Some of the tortures are sexual and rather pleasant. There are hundreds of children tied to belts on these moving tables, delirious with suffering. Sometimes all the little bodies seem to sigh and tremble at once.

There is something strange and comforting about this fantasy. Soon from sheer exhaustion, I drift gently to sleep.

But tonight I lie in bed and feel the darkness is alive. There is no jungle, no mountain, no witches’ cave, only darkness. I try to seal myself in, holding down all the blankets, so there can be no opening where the dark might come in, The air is wet with darkness, and I must protect myself from the air which is licking away my warmth. I bury my face in the pillows and blankets so the air will not be tempted to snatch me, and I breathe only the safe, warm air of the under-blankets, the air that has the smell of my body in it, not the air of the outside where everything dangerous and “other” comes from…