By Raji Singh (the further adventuring of my great grandmother, Shelva Fiction)
Last Week: Shelva enjoys a warm soak in a just discovered hot springs inside her hired hand’s, Efraim Ephraim’s, man-cave. Efraim partakes. Their mule, Sir Winston leaps in. Big ‘ol Turt figures it’s something too akin to what humans use to make turtle soup. He relaxes along the water’s edge. The soothing bath is just like the ones Shelva often visited in her native Russia. Except, little does she, or any of them know until after they’re in, this one comes with its very own cobra.
…I freeze in the hot water as the snake slithers up my body and looks me in the eyes…
Believe me, these seconds seem hours.
Not mere coincidence is it that we are, face to face, again, thousands of miles and an ocean apart, after nearly twenty years. Let me explain. I was a little girl in Moscow then. The Crimean War and serfdom was ending. Czar Alexander ruled. It was the 1870’s.
Safely inside mama and papa’s house, (or so we assumed) away from the turmoil of Mother Russia, so many screams of fear did mine brutter Ivan and I make – in a seemingly perpetual scared anticipation. It was all because Papa and his visitor had kooky idea to have our visitor’s pet cobra, Cecily, roam free to catch mice.
“Everybody in Lindia does it,” said the visitor.
Mama went along. She hated mice, more than any thing. (aside from the Czar, Cossacks, serfdom, and wars)
Visitor, tell Ivan and I, “Don’t be afraid of Cecily. She likes children…”
“For lunch,” our cook, Vampira, whispers to us as the visitor educates us in Cecily’s diet. “If it swallows big rabbits, like he says, it could open just a little wider for little children.” (Ivan and I nicknamed her Vampira because of the spooky stories with which she tormented us.)
“Well,” you’re probably asking yourself as you read this. “Why not get a cat? Your Mama’s not allergic, is she?” No. It’s just that cats were hard to find in Moscow at that time. The reason for that becomes evident as this story progresses.
The visitor and his Cecily spent a few months in Moscow. I hadn’t seen Cecily, since then. But the visitor, him I see a great deal. He is James Thaddeus ‘Blackjack’ Fiction, my kindly father-in-law. I am glad the father is the snake charmer, and the son the Shelva charmer. I’d never asked Blackjack what became of Cecily. Now I know. He brought her to America, to roam the Fiction House environs. Hmm. I wish he would have gotten around to informing me.
“sssShelva,” it sounds like Cecily is saying to me. Her eyes glow like bright silver bars as the steam of the hot sprigs sifts past her. Her trunk continuously slaps the water, echoing like drumbeats in Efraim’s man-cave. Efraim, Sir Winston, Turt, I, none of us move. I tense even more than I think I am able as Cecily circles my shoulder, necklacing me. How, ever til the day I die – if ever I should live that long, as my koo-koo Uncle Vanya would say – could I forget the sensations of this experience? Breathing becomes hard, but the brushing of Cecily’s hood to my temple creates a slight, briefly refreshing breeze. Her fork tongue kisses my cheek. It feels like two tears rolling down. The round of her fangs traces – like a pair of shushing skis – over my nose. Her steady breath is volcanic hot, and the medicinal balm of an apothecary. Any second now, Shelva, will be your last.
A voice from the past, and the present, suddenly thunders out in the man-cave. “Here now, Cecily. There’s a point where you risk being too friendly.”
I am hearing the voice of Efraim Ephraim. But I recognize the words of Blackjack, years ago in Moscow. At this most traumatic of time, it seems both the present, and memories of the past, intermingle as one.
When Cecily was loose, back home in Moscow, I believe she had a mind of her own. She seemed to take a pleasure in tormenting Vampira often as she could. Vampira was a moody, solitaire woman. She acted and seemed ancient and gray as the Carpathians from whence she came. Looking back though, I believe she was probably not more than 25 or 30.
Cecily loved traversing the open rafters, and resting on the one in the kitchen above Vampira’s ever steaming cooking kettles. Cecily moved so quietly, you never knew where she was. She would dangle down, right over the jungle-like humid kettle, just in front of Vampira’s face. Vampira’s scream was a dozen times more blood curdling than mine and Ivan’s ever could be. She’d stand petrified, as if hypnotized, not by Cecily, but by the superstitions and fears, her own horror story creating had instilled in her. Everyone came running to the kitchen.
Blackjack, always a well-dressed man in a black suit, with a red rose in his lapel, says, “Here now Cecily. There’s a point where you risk being too friendly.” Blackjack takes a long stirring spoon from a rack, and slowly lifts the snake. “Don’t move an inch,” he tells Vampira. You’ve already frightened Cecily enough with your caterwauling.”
Ivan and I smile at each other. We sense what the other is thinking. ‘It’s Vampira’s resemblance to a smushed poisoned toad that quakes the snake.’
“Now back away slowly, Vampira,” Blackjack says. Ever the diplomat, he adds. “Those lovely spices you cook with must have attracted her.” With snake on spoon, he tastes what Vampira is cooking; and so does Cecily. “Ah delicious.” Cecily reaction is different. She spits it out and hisses at Vampira. A team of mice races across the rafters and Cecily abandons us to rampage after them.
Past is suddenly present when Efraim slowly reaches for his shovel that looks like, to me, for a moment, that spoon Blackjack curbed Cecily with so long ago. Efraim says. “Cecily’s not hissing, Mz. Shelva. She must just be welcoming us to her version of a snake-cave.” Efraim uses the shovel handle to let Cecily climb on, and off, of me.
Cecily slithers to atop Turt’s shell and coils into a relaxed position. Sir Winston leaves the water, gets a carrot from the vegetable basket, and gives it to her.
Seems everyone, but you, dear Shelva knew she was around.
After a few minutes, when I regain my composure, I confront Efraim. “Why did you not have the courtesy to let me know she was here?”
Efraim stammers. “I…I…”
His eyes suddenly twinkle. I know he’s just now invented an excuse, or at least taken a semblance of the truth and str-e-e-e-e-tch-ed it into some concoction of the truth.
“Well, Mz. Shelva. It’s like this. Blackjack always wants his dear Cecily to be a free-ranging snake. That comes from his long ago abolitionist activities. You can understand that. You saw the same hurt, back there in your land with the serfdom. So Cecily comes and goes. I guess Blackjack either forgot to tell you about her, or was afraid you might pack up and leave if you knew she was here, and he didn’t want that. It’s all conjecturin’ on my part, Mz. Shelva, but that’s my guess.”
Exasperated, trembling now, I look at him contemptuously.
“I swear to you Mz. Shelva. I had no idea she was makin’ a home in this water. I swear it. Well, what the heck. Cobras do like the warm. The spring’s big enough for all of us, right?’
I won’t say Efraim is right. I won’t say anything. Of course, I won’t just pack up and leave. I love mine sweet druzhyna, mine husbant, too much. Though, I’ll sure give Blackjack a stern talking to about Fiction House rules concerning letting a person know what is what.
“Hmm,” I say to myself. “So it is Cecily, dear Cecily is the reason I see no rodents around the Fiction House. Thank you so much Cecily.”
“Why do I thank Cecily so profusely?” you may ask.
Because. I hate mice as much as mama did.
NEXT WEEK: Where the cats of Moscow disappeared to following the Crimean War. (and, no, they weren’t eaten.)
(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
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