by Raji Singh (my immigrant great grandmother, Shelva Fiction’s fear and musing on life in the 19th century Czarist Russia)
I am so afraid of snakes.
As little girl, in Moscow, I greet kindly visitor friend of Papa. He arrives with his new pet, a cobra. From far off Lindia they come. Never have I seen anything so exotic as what rises up, in a swaying line, from the wicker basket. Its eyes bite into mine and beckon,“Come hither, Shelva. Dance with me. I shall caress you. We shall become one.”
Nightmares of that first haunting meeting, often, have I: They are dark as my little girl imaginings of the murderous Czars, and their barbaric Cossack enforcers. To most Russians, Czars and Cossacks are the real versions of other peoples’ bogies, banshees, and demons.
Papa’s visitor friend stayed the summer. We two became great friends. But it was not so with the cobra pet. Too many times to count I feel it studying me through the wicker slats. Is it readying to strike? Or is it, as the visitor explained, “Intrigued with you, Shelva, and scared of you as you are of it.” Hmm? I do not think so.
Often our visitor played a small flute and tapped lightly with a cane. Beady cobra eyes beckon, “Come dance, Shelva.” Its mysterious silver hood seemed to curtain over its coiled trunk, so you couldn’t even imagine how long it was. If it roped straight upward it would seem one tall tale, reaching from the basement to the roof of Mama and Papa’s two-story house.
It was wide as a Papa’s arm.
So scary, the sounds it made – laughing, like a sore-throated hyena one minute, growling-barking like a temperamental Great Dane the next.
Ach! It smelled: Sometimes like rotten horsemeat, other times, some poor dead museum creature preserved in formaldehyde. Worse, was, when you didn’t smell it. That’s when you were afraid ‘it’s maybe lurking in a hallway, might be creeping up to, and, at any second… coiling around you.’ Brr! Probably slimy and cold like peeled cucumber just out of the icebox.
I tell these memories, so you know that when I look in cave, near my new home, in Amerika, nearly 20 years later, I am sure, just so certain I see a cobra; very same one arrived Mama and Papa’s so long ago. Again, it beckons. This time its eyes speak finality. “Enter, Shelva. We shall have our last dance.”
Cossack, Czar, and snake face, they become one. “Come, little girl…”
All, in a split of second, I scream, feel dizzy, drop basket of fruit and vegetables I bring to Efraim Ephraim and his cave workers. I sway, as if hypnotized. I begin to faint.
“Whimsy, lark, imagination, Shelva. You must incorporate it into your guile to survive the beastly snake the Czars make our Mother Russia into.” ‘How many times Mama, Papa tell you this, Shelva?’ I heed their wisdom. I learn to incorporate it in all my trials, tribulations, and travails.
So, how can I not imagine that Efraim will rush out, and – like a grand gentleman in Chekov dramatization – catch me before I hit the ground; and say to me, “There, there, dear sister Shelva. No evil will harm your smooth as mink skin, or mar your delicate soul. You will be safe, and soon, your loving druzhyna husband; he will arrive and comfort you.”
What’s this? The cave workers all keep on working. No one comes to save poor Shelva. Of course, I know, a man such as Efraim, he is so lost in his man-cave world. Little desire has he to escape to enter some princesses’ storybook world to ‘save her’. But, of so devoted a brother, a damsel can still dream? Yes?
The echoing thumps of excavation have drowned out my scream – that is really, why he does not come. Efraim is busy digging into the floor and ceiling, and then shoveling the earth onto a cart hooked to our mule, Sir Winston. I straighten up, breathe deep, and force my fainting spell to depart.
I exit my storybook world, and return to the real.
I sigh. Relief: The cobra is only in my imagination. The sight of Turt’s thick, swaying neck in the cave’s long shadows triggers it. Hood looking is his beak-snout. He uses it like a mechanical crane, to yank away rocks from between dirt he loosens with his fin-claws.
I feel silly, a dreamy schoolgirl again, as I think about what I have imagined. Yet I perspire and tremble.
I retrieve the dropped fruit and vegetables. To help shed the snaking fears of my thoughts, I study the cave. I cannot believe all the changes made by Efraim, Turt, and Sir Winston since last I was here. The entrance, so low I must duck to enter, is now a ten feet tall opening. Roof so low inside, I must crawl, and give me, what mine loving druzhyna, Doc Fiction call, “claustro…” I cannot pronounce. Now, I cannot reach up and touch the ceiling.
Before, the cave was dark, eerie, giving you the deathly fear one senses, when seeing a picture of a Cossack encampment on a Russian countryside. You see the murderous hate in their faces as they gird themselves mentally, to annihilate the poor nearby village the next day at whim of Czar. That paralyzed, twisted look: You’ll remember it always. It painted their faces when they came, took most of your family.
You want to enter the picture, enter the village, and shout. ‘Escape, them: Before it is too late for you. Somehow, save yourselves, fellow countrymen; as I was able.’
Efraim’s cave is bright now. About half-dozen bats remain, of the so many that once lived here. They are the hangers-on: as are the villagers, blinded so by hope that all will be well.
For a moment, cave noises cease as Efraim begins levering into place a timber roof support. His back is to me. To Efraim, I am not there. I hear him say to Turt.
“Well, ol’ fella. Would you just look at the length of the snake I just found? I’ll just bet Mz. Shelva never seen anything like it back in her home country?”
I freeze in fear. Yes, I have. Now, has it returned for me?
NEXT WEEK: We meet again, mine Cossack enemy.
(Join me every Sunday night at the Fiction House, your place for short story, lark, whimsy, and merriment. Meet the many residents as I archive their lives and centuries of adventures. You can read their origins in my novel TALES OF THE FICTION HOUSE, but that’s a different story. It’s available at Amazon, and Barnes and Noble.)
©2013 Raji Singh