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“A Snake In My House”

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“A Snake In My House”

a short story by Drew Saint-Claire

***

When I was a young boy, I went to a Catholic elementary school with a chunky blacktop for a playground. It was on a hill that overlooked the tobacco factories and smoke stacks of downtown. One day, I was picking up what I thought were sea shells off of the blacktop. They were cigarette filters. I didn’t know. There were hundreds. I began to wonder how there were so many, if they fell from the sky like one of the plagues we learned about in school, or if they were here to punish us for the evil deeds of the men I believed lived in the tops of those smokestacks down the hill. I stuffed the shells into my high-waisted navy blue shorts. It was May…maybe. A nun came from behind me and took my hand. I watched the seashells fall out onto the asphalt as her wrinkled fingers dug into my palms. She had grey teeth. She asked what I was doing. I said, “Collecting seashells, Sister: you don’t often find them this far inland.” She took the last of the filters with a slap and said they weren’t seashells. I spent the rest of play time sitting on the steps of the friars’ house, which was the punishment for all nonviolent offenses. I wondered what the seashells really were and whether more would come from the sky, or whether they’d spring forth from the blacktop during the next hard rain, when the Earth would purge itself from taking in too many of them. Maybe, in the middle of the night, the men down the hill came out from their smokestacks and scattered them around for little boys to find.

 

I waited until the friars came out. I told them they should consecrate the ground again to make sure the seashells wouldn’t come out of the ground. They told me to go play.

 

***

When I was 25 years old, I began renting an old bungalow in a well-to-do part of the city with a female acquaintance of mine. It was our first taste of attaining the American middle class all by ourselves and this bungalow was the symbol of our ascension. I relished every moment of it. I especially loved it because it was something I knew I shouldn’t have- and because it was something I knew I would lose soon enough.

 

I moved into this house a full month before my roommate did, during November, while on a furlough from my job with the state government. In that month, I saw and went to war with many ghosts.

 

The month did not start with the ghosts though. It started with an ax.

 

In the time leading up to moving into this house, I had come to believe that nothing in this life would ever excite me again. A void had taken over inside me, an absence of form that fit me better than anything tangible ever had. It was a primordial thing, something I came to realize had always lived inside me. An immense thing had come home to roost, and I obediently prepared room for it. At night, lying in the dark, I slipped into it and we became one. I could stand at the edge of myself and peer into the abyss- I could throw stones into who I once was and watch the stones be consumed without a sound. The weight of the stars was here, but there was no burden. I came to see the void as me; I came to see the void as home. I longed to return home.

 

So, I resigned myself to the fact that I would take my own life. This was a matter of practicality. There was a sense of respect even. There was no sadness. It would be humane, like putting down the family pet. I was curious too. I wanted to know what it felt like to take down an animal of my size, to hear the sound it made when all these things inside me, seen and unseen, collapsed onto the floor. No challengers had ever arrived: I was the only one worthy of destroying the thing I loved most in this world, and there was a small sense of pride in that. I had trouble deciding on the best way to go about this though. It had to be done the right way, so I gave myself a week to decide on the right method. I gave myself a week just in case I changed my mind.

 

That first night in the house I went to clean out the basement. It was unfinished- a dirt floor with brick walls. In the corner of the basement, in the sliver of light that spilled in from the open door, I saw an ax. It was an ax like any other ax, but I knew this ax was put there just for me. Everything that had happened had happened just to put this ax in this corner of this basement of this house. The ax spoke, and it used my mouth to speak: self-decapitation. That was it. It was strength; it was was finesse; it was pageantry; it was ritual. It was decided. I would decapitate myself.

 

The next few days I worked out the logistics of this, admittedly, clever idea. I dragged my nightstand downstairs into the kitchen and etched lines into the black lacquer with the ax to measure out the best spots to lay my head. I took notes on which swings worked best, how much force to use, and whether I should face left or right. I trained myself not to flinch when I felt the ax above me. I practiced breathing so I would exhale on the swing. I was so focused on every detail that I would forget the purpose in all of this till I’d have to etch another line on the drawer. I walked around with the ax all day and all night and I sharpened it obsessively with a honing steel while I did chores. I carried it around while I puttied holes in the walls. The ax was my main chore though. The ax was my favorite chore.

 

Then the ghosts came.

 

They came on the day when I was going to swing the ax just once.

 

I heard them above me. I heard them below me. I heard them everywhere around me. I ran into the dining room and grabbed the wall putty. I drew a circle of protection around me using my very limited knowledge of the occult (which had been taught to us in school so we could prepare ourselves for when we encountered it.) I knew the names of the major demons of Hell, I knew their sigils, and I knew a little bit about which herbs I could use: garlic, sage, rosemary- all of which I had on hand, all of which were local and organic. I slept in the circle that night and it protected me, but I knew it would not be enough for much longer. I pried up up the putty circle in the morning and made another one with a piece of chalk I found in the basement. Many more circles would be needed. I mopped them away each morning with Pine-Sol. There was a knife I had purchased from an amputee veteran at a flea market the previous summer in the nightstand. I took it out and sharpened it with the honing steel. I locked all the doors to the house. I covered up all the windows with fitted flannel sheets and duct tape. I put the ax on the mantle above our fireplace. I sat there, in the middle of the circle in the middle of the living room in the middle of this very large, very old house. I sat in the middle of all this with my knife in my hand looking at the ax on the mantle. That night I would have my first fight.

 

At the time, unbeknownst to my roommate, I had brought into our house a large amount of LSD, “magic mushrooms”, cocaine, and ketamine (the latter of which I obtained purely for the novelty.) I also brought what I considered at that time to be my routine groceries: an ounce and a half of Afghani Kush, six pints of Tennessee whiskey, and several bottles of cheap Merlot which I purchased (chilled) from a convenience store down the street. The owner of the store was a short and cheerful Congolese man of about forty. He had glassy, happy eyes. I spoke to him in broken French. He treated me like his own son.

 

My only solid sustenance during this time were tuna salad sandwiches (balsamic vinegar, red onion, salt, pepper) from a sandwich shop up the street. I ate these sandwiches only because I had amassed a pile of coupons from the state fair a few weeks prior. I took them on my way out from an elderly woman who was giving them away on behalf of her church. I left the fair because I had been asked to do so. I had jumped the gate into the petting zoo and, sobbing uncontrollably, had tried to release the baby goats. I don’t remember it. I only remember grabbing handfuls of coupons. I left my house only to get more of these sandwiches or to buy more chilled Merlot from the convenience store. The coupons were nice to have in the beginning, but, toward the end of the month, I wouldn’t need them anymore. I started eating grass from the front yard. It was enough.

 

I had knives. I had sandwiches. I was ready for the siege.

 

When night came, I began smoking and snorting and drinking. I did all of this in front of an altar I had assembled from the nightstand and my roommate’s pumpkin-spice scented candles. The wax flowed out and filled the etches in the lacquer. In several rooms throughout the house, I put more of these candles. I did this so I could see the ghosts. Since I didn’t know how to pay our electric bill, our house was in darkness the entire month. I wouldn’t have known it. I was using the bills we received in the mail to start fires for the candles, of which there were now forty or more. When the bills ran out, I used the coupons. After I was finished smoking and snorting and drinking, I poured some of the Merlot over my head and over the knife. Then I fought ghosts.

 

Every morning, all I had to show for the previous night’s fights were bloody forearms. Straight cuts, many- always across my forearms. I couldn’t understand it. Towards the end, when I was truly bezerk, I mixed the blood from my wounds with the Merlot and I drank it in front of the altar. It tasted like Sambuca. I wasn’t using the circles anymore- I had gone on the offensive.

 

In the final days of that month, there were fewer and fewer cuts on my arms. I guess I was getting better at fighting.

 

When I went to get more wine, I wore long-sleeve shirts. This was out of respect for the convenience store owner, but also to cover up my wounds. He smiled when I walked to the counter with the bottles of wine. I never had the heart to tell him you shouldn’t chill Merlot. My French was getting better.

 

I spent most of the days sleeping in the chalk circles and most of the nights fighting the ghosts. These were fevered and frenzied fights: they left me exhausted enough to sleep for twelve or fourteen hours straight. I was naked during these fights as well, for what I told myself were tactical purposes. I welcomed this opportunity willingly though, to fight the ghosts. To fight the ghosts was to fight for my life.

 

I approached these fights with a feeling I could only describe now as “love”: I loved this. I realized that I had loved few things and few people in my life up to this point, but I loved fighting the ghosts. I loved them passionately. I loved them in every room of that old house. I loved them naked and heaving. I loved them naked and screaming. I loved them with a big, wine-soaked knife. In a way, I think they loved me too. Everything in that house wanted me dead. I never felt so alive.

 

Those were intense nights, but I lived. By the time my roommate arrived in late November, I had become a different man. I walked with a spring in my step, I laughed constantly, and I ate only a few handful of cherry tomatoes a day for sustenance. I had saved a bottle of Merlot for us to drink on her first night at the house and we did. It wasn’t chilled. My roommate never knew about the ghosts. I never told her. I never told anyone. I had confronted everything in that house I had to; I had gone to war with many ghosts and I had re-grouted the guest bathroom: there was nothing left for me to conquer.

 

I locked the knife in the nightstand. I would not have to use it again until the next summer. The cuts on my forearms had disappeared. I never knew how.

 

I put the ax back in the basement. I haven’t been down there since. I always feel it down there though, through the thick plaster and the crown molding- I feel it. I feel it wherever I am. I always know where it is. Part of me thinks it knows where I am too.

 

I never painted over the etches in the nightstand. I wanted to remember.

 

***

 

On my first day during that month, before the ghosts came, I took a break from repainting our dining room and went out back to see where we could plant a garden. There were oyster shells everywhere along the ground. I picked one up. I thought about the cigarette filters. I thought about the Sister. I looked behind me, but no one was there.

 

I realized there never would be anymore.

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Written by dstclaire

August 2, 2016 at 10:55 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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