by Raji Singh (My dear, sweet immigrant Great grandmother, Shelva; as a new bride in the 1890’s writes…)
Greenhorn am I, to so many of the ways of mine wonderful new country, Amerika. Even greener when it comes to knowing poisonous from friendly snakes: Human ones, I mean. I learn. When it comes to the cold-blooded variety, ach, now that is another matter. I do not believe I shall ever desire to get close to any, and learn the difference between safe and harmful.
An indelible fear of them – as if they were cousin to the scarier-than-any-snake-Cossacks – was imprinted on me as little girl.
I have irrational fears of the one that caused it. I believe it follows me all the way from Mother Russia, across the ocean. Nonsense, impossible, unbelievable – Of course it is.
Yet…as I approach the man-cave mine husbant and I’s hirert hand, Efraim Ephraim is building, I scream. So high pitch, birds in trees vamoose. Efraim looks up from his and his workmate’s excavation.
“I’m sorry, Mz. Shelva. I know you ‘afear snakes. I wouldn’t have talked about one being here, if I knew you were near. Come on in. You’ll see it’s not real.”
Turt’s looking at me. His beak-snout shows his compassion for my plight. I hand him a tomato from my basket. He takes it in his fin-claw, nods, and begins noshing. Sir Winston trots about ‘hee-hawing’. I give the jackass a cucumber. Winston relaxes. Efraim’s creature-worker-friends need a snack break, and I, quiet respite from my fear.
Efraim takes my hand, leads me inside. I tremble. I know I must face my fears. It is so hard to. But I am in a new land. I must get used to new things. This I know is one – facing fears.
“See Mz. Shelva. It’s a small seam of iron and copper mix; but it looks like a snake?”
“Yes, Ephraim.” I breathe deep. Cough. Put scarf to mouth. So much almost-invisible dust in the air. I stroke the mineral snake, ‘S’ ing the cave wall. It is an exercise to excise my fears. Not only does it look, it also feels reptile – COLD. I pull back.
Efraim proudly shows me around his man-cave to be. He says. “We’ve been working so hard to make it as grand a palace as your Hermitage in Saintly Petersburg. So we haven’t had time to ‘splore everywhere, just yet.” Efraim’s a natural show off, but a good-nature one. So the touting he’s doing now is for my sake: To help take my mind away from my fright. (That is a wonderful trait that I see growing in Efraim – caring about others.)
He looks about, and then suddenly shouts. “We best skedaddle, Mz. Shelva. See that sizzle. I may have opened up a gas pocket. I, Efraim and Sir Winston quickly exit. Looking back in, we see Turt hasn’t budged. He shakes his head and points his beak-snout at a flat boulder the height and width of a house door. It’s a dozen times as thick. Some sort of cloud rises from its seam and rests just above it. Efraim slowly re-enters the cave, sniffs, and goes and waves his hand through it.
“Turt’s our canary in the mine. By golly, he knows his common scents. It’s plain old water steam.” He beckons me to return.
I come, put my hand in the cloud; taste the moisture. “Not ordinary water. It is very high in the minerals mine Doc puts in the elixirs. Why, Ephraim! You’ve found a virtual treasure trove.”
These words spark Efraim. So quickly: He harnesses up Sir Winston and ties onto the rock. “We’ll have it moved in no time.”
Sir Winston pulls. Turt pushes at it with his shell and digs at it with his fin claws. Working together they slowly move it, revealing a natural hot springs. One like so many mama, papa took me to in Russia.
Of course, I knew what it was as soon as I tasted the steam. ‘My impromptu plan will work,’ I tell myself. Once he’s felt the sweet warmth on his skin, Efraim will bathe twice, maybe three times a day: Not the every year or so that is his habit now. Now maybe he’ll have a chance actually to find a woman, instead of tall telling about them and the strange and unlikely twists of fate that tore them apart.
Efraim’s voice interrupts my matchmaker scheming. “Pardon us, Mz. Shelva. But we workers need a break after all that pullin’, heavin, and hoin’.” I turn as Efraim disrobes to his long underwear and he, Turt and Sir Winston slosh into the water. Mutual, “aahs”.
“Well, well,” he says to his compatriots. “Won’t the ladies all love this. And right in my very own man-cave. I can see myself immersin’ here two or three times a day.”
I say to myself. “They’ll like a clean smelling Efraim. That’s what they’ll like, Efraim Ephraim.”
Turt’s taking up most of the space in the hot drink. You wonder how he can take the heat that must be leaking into the inside of his shell.
Sir Winston crowds into a corner. Being a mule, you just don’t know if Winston used to be a he or a she. Poor dear. I choose to think of our Winston as a handsome, debonair, Sir. Wouldn’t be a pleasant looking woman. That is certain.
I excuse myself to get some towels from the house for them. When I return Turt’s crawled out of the water – obviously, it’s too near a turtle soup recipe he may have almost became main ingredient of at some time.
Remembering the good times with Mama, Papa back home…“I just have to…” I say. “Please Avert your eyes, Efraim. You too Turt, Sir Winston.” I slip from my dress, down to my camisole, and get in. “Aah! Just as I remember. But in Russia, women not so immodest. All wear special spa clothes, bulkier than the thickest mink. And the men, ach, they are in special suits so all-covering that the only skin showing are from their eyes up to where hairlines start.
As I relax, I feel my thigh being stroked. Not Efraim. His hand would need to be six feet long, to reach me: Not hairy enough for Sir Winston, nor rough enough for Turt. I freeze in the hot water. I just know it is the snake from Moscow. I divert my eyes downward. I am right. I’d know those markings anywhere.
Too scared, am I, even to run out of the water screaming. As it moves up the middle of my body, and then looks me in the eyes, I imagine it says. “We meet again, mine Shelva. You have come to me; at last.”
NEXT WEEK: More of Shelva and her Cossack snake.
(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