A Fork Tongued Whisper
The children rushed to the glass screen and immediately smeared it with their breath and fingerprints. On the other side, a pair of pink beady eyes watched, and a flickering tongue tasted the air. Its yellow head was poised and motionless above its large coiled maze-like patterned body.
“Is it even real?” enquired one of the noisiest children of the group; a boy with spiked up hair and prominent front teeth.
“Don’t be silly Stevie, of course, it’s real; isn’t it?” enquired one of the worlds dumbest school teachers. Miss Ubens; the teacher entrusted with the group of twenty-one pupils, looked upon their guide for assurance.
“Actually, this one isn’t real boys n’ girls. It is in fact sculpted from marshmallow. Completely edible and absolutely delicious. Who’s first up for a taste?”
Miss Ubens and her twenty-one pupils gawped with disbelief. The stout man in his scout style uniform with a name tag pinned to his chest, which read Adriano, gazed back at them. Convincingly, he waited for a volunteer. He was on form today, or at least he thought so. He winked at Miss Ubens with a swanky crinkling of his left brow. Miss Ubens had the type of mouth that was never closed even when she meant it to be. There she stood, mouth agape, face all teeth and glasses. She wore a tight floral dress that was inappropriately short for a school teacher. In the moment, Adriano was torn between glimpsing two things: the way that a ray of sunshine was highlighting her sandy blonde hair and enhancing the prettiness of her face; or the shapely curves of her voluptuous body.
“Of course she’s real,” he eventually caved, “as real as the looks on your faces. This here is Samantha, our newest addition to the park. She’s an albino Burmese Python, one of the biggest in captivity in England.”
“I knew it!” said Stevie, as the group of children looked around at each other unable to grasp the humor.
After some delay, Miss Ubens laughed loudly, “You silly man,” she reacted with a dismissive wave of her arm, “it was a joke.”
“Does it bite?” asked a boy named Vincent.
“Yes,” answered Adriano, “but only if you’re a mouse or a rat; or a small pig. Oh, and she loves marshmallows.”
He expected to rouse a gaggle of laughter from his diminishingly captive audience, but it seemed he would have had more luck with geese.
“What about a small baby human? Can it eat one?” asked another boy.
“Oh Vincent, why do you come out with these things?” remonstrated Miss Ubens.
“I’m Marty,” claimed the boy, “not Vincent.”
Adriano looked at Marty and had to check back on Vincent. The resemblance between the two boys was uncanny. They were considerably taller than the other children of their age. At first glance, they appeared to be identical twins. Their swarthy faces featured the same wide cheekbones, pointed chins and narrow hairlines as one other. Even the haircuts were the same, shiny black horse-thick hair combed over from a side parting. A distinguishing feature was that Marty’s parting was on the left and Vincent’s was on the right, which gave the boys a symmetrical look when they stood side by side. A more obvious and very distinguishing feature was that Marty had a missing front tooth.
“It’s a valid question Miss…err…” answered Adriano trying to summon the teacher’s name from memory, “…technically, the answer is yes. Samantha is a big girl, thirteen feet long and weighs two hundred kilograms. She needs big meals to sustain her. An infant of the human species would be an easy and satisfying snack.”
Some horrified and concerned looks on the children’s faces urged him to continue without further ado.
“…But Sam is a human-friendly python, luckily for us. Her diet consists of a large rabbit or chicken once a week.”
“Could it eat a shark?” called out one of the children whom coincidently had a face identifiable with that of a shark.
“If it wasn’t human-friendly, could it eat an adult?” asked Vincent testily.
“Of about your size?” added Marty for specific detail.
“Vincent!” warned Miss Ubens with a disapproving wave of her index finger.
“Theoretically a python of Sam’s size could eat a man of my size, but I have never heard of one eating a shark.” Adriano laughed, “Although they are excellent swimmers.”
“Is it poisonous?” asked Lilly, a girl with very neatly braided brown hair.
“Good question. The answer is no, pythons are not venomous snakes, they are constrictors. They have poor eyesight, so they stalk prey using chemical receptors in their tongues and heat-sensors along their jaws. They kill by constriction, gripping a victim with their sharp teeth, wrapping their bodies around it, and tightening until it suffocates. They have stretchy ligaments in their jaws which allows them to swallow all their food in one whole lump.”
“Gross!” said a gum-chewing plump girl with a screwed up face.
“Awesome!” said Stevie with the agreement of shark face.
“Can we get to see it eat something?” asked Marty.
“No Vincent, stop being silly,” reprimanded Miss Ubens.
Adriano smiled, “well in actual fact, it is feeding time in about half an hour.”
“Oh, I don’t think the kids want to see that.” Miss Ubens emphasized the word ‘kids’ by saying it louder.
Marty and Vincent lead the protest of some of the children who were keen to see the snake eat something.
“It’s educational miss.”
“I don’t think to witness a live horror show comes under the banner of education for eleven-year-olds. Now Mister…err…Adriano may we please move along to the next part of the tour…”
“Besides,” she added, “I’m not a lover of snakes.”
“Ok, fair enough,” replied Adriano, “Where to next then kids?”
“Crocodiles!” was the general consensus from the group, apart from Marty and Vincent who were still protesting about missing the snake feed.
“Absolutely not, let us proceed to the aviary,” insisted Miss Ubens. This did not evoke much cheer among her pupils.
The navy blue uniformed children filed in a line, atop the wooden planked walkway following their guide towards the aviary, with Miss Ubens trailing at the rear to keep a watchful eye on the group; like a prison chain-gang’s scantily dressed dream warden.
“I fucking hate birds,” said Vincent to Marty under his breath as they walked side by side.
Marty looked at Vincent agreeably, “I’ve got an idea,” he said as they walked by the terrapin enclosure, “distract the teacher.”
Vincent nodded and turned to the teacher.
“Miss Ubens, what’s that smell? Has Timmy had an accident in his pants again?”
Miss Ubens’s nostrils twitched at the putrid and intrusive smell.
“Don’t be so nasty Marty. I’m sure even Timothy couldn’t make a smell as terrible as that?”
While her attention was sidetracked, Marty tossed underarm – a handful of drawing pins along the floor, ahead of where his class peers were walking. The result was immediate and loud.
Timothy shrieked with pain and fell down clutching his foot, and the group came to a halt. Miss Ubens ran to the aid of the small distressed boy.
“What’s the matter Timmy, is it your bad stomach again?”
Marty flashed his missing tooth with a grin and winked at Vincent, “I knew those pins would come in handy,” he said as the two of them slipped away unnoticed in the din of disarray.
The words, “I think he’s trodden on a pin or something,” barely audible as they put distance between themselves and the ensuing incident.
The twins rested their identical foreheads against the cold glass. Much to their surprise, Samantha had moved to the other side of the enclosure.
“It really is real,” stated Vincent.
“No shit Sherlock,” replied Marty.
He stared at the Python as its body slowly moved over a piece of driftwood like a yellow ocean swell, its smooth rippling skin reflecting in the light. The pattern on the snake’s skin pulled him into a trance, it’s body a never-ending freight train passing hypnotically through a station. It turned its narrow head slowly towards Marty and tasted the air with its pink tongue. Its eyes fixed unblinkingly on Marty, and Marty stared back into them like there was some inexplicable bond between them. There was a voice, a distant voice. It was faint, but it was there. Marty listened. He slowed his breathing and tilted his head.
“You’re being weird again,” said Vincent, breaking his trance.
Marty looked at him, “Vinny, do you ever hear Billy speaking to you?”
Vincent gave a nonchalant tut, “No. Billy’s dead Marty. He’s dead.”
Marty turned his attention back to the snake enclosure, wondering how it was that he could sometimes hear Billy.
Marty, Vinny and Billy were born a triplet; but Billy had gone missing three years ago. During a holiday in Greece with their foster parents, Marty had been unwell and stayed at the apartment while Billy and Vinny went down to the beach to swim. Only Vinny came back. He claimed that he and Billy were caught in a rip current, and that Billy had not made it back to the shore. There was a huge search operation, but Billy was never found, and eventually presumed dead. Marty had always had a closer bond with Billy than Vinny, and for that reason, he could not help but resent Vinny for being the one who had returned.
“I’ve got an idea,” said Marty.
Vincent followed Marty to the back of the enclosure where there was a door leading into a building. Marty tried the handle, and the door was not locked. He opened it. The two boys looked at each other, a grin of understanding shared between them, and went in.
They found themselves in a storage room at the back of the enclosure used for storing shovels, brooms, mops and cleaning materials for maintaining the reptile cages and Samantha’s pen. There was a sink basin in the corner and a wheelbarrow leaning up against the wall. There was another door leading directly into Samantha’s enclosure, and the padlock that hung through the draw bolt tab was not clicked shut.
“What are you thinking Marty?” asked Vinny.
“This is going to be great!” he could not control his laughter.
“What is your idea?” Vincent was feeling impatient.
“We put the snake in the school bus,” announced Marty, smartly. Vincent looked blankly at him to begin with.
“Imagine all their faces. Imagine Miss Ubens!” chuckled Marty.
Vincent broke into a grin, “That’s genius!”
“Timmy really will poo his pants!”
“I know! They all will. There’ll be shit everywhere!”
Vincent joined Marty in his fit of giggling.
When the laughter finally subsided, they went to the door.
“What if it bites us?” asked Vincent with a look of trepidation.
“You heard what the Mister said. Samantha is human-friendly.”
Marty removed the padlock, drew back the bolt and with a push, the door creaked open. The two of boys entered the pen. Samantha turned her head towards her two unfamiliar visitors, pink eyes wide open and focused, it’s flicking tongue could taste their scent.
Marty approached the python and Vincent hesitantly followed.
There was a fart. It was from Vincent. Not loud enough to be intentional, but certainly loud enough to be heard in the quiet of the situation.
Marty almost ‘snotted’ from his nose trying to stifle his laugh.
“Bloody hell, a fart made me jump!” he said.
Vincent smirked, “Must be nerves.”
Marty put his hands around the body of the snake and heaved at it.
“It’s heavy, don’t just stand there, give us a hand.”
“Is it slimy?”
“No, but it weighs a ton!”
Vincent put his hands around the fat yellow body and together they tried to lift it.
“No way. Even a grown-up couldn’t lift this.”
“Wait a minute, I’ve got an idea.”
Marty let go of the snake and left the pen through the door leaving Vincent to feel alone and anxious for a few moments. He returned with the wheelbarrow.
“Yes,” said Vincent, “good idea.”
“I guess I got the brains.”
Marty put the barrow close to the head end of the snake.
“Now all we’ve got to do is get it in there.”
“Okay clever clogs, how we going to do that?”
Marty thought about it for a moment like it was some kind of common sense test. Before he could answer, Vincent had a suggestion. Vincent felt challenged to show that he too had brains.
“It looks lighter at the head end. If I tilt the barrow, you can guide it in. With any luck, it will slide in by its self.”
“slide in?” Marty mocked.
“Well ok, slither then.”
Marty thought it through, “Why don’t you guide it, and I tilt the barrow?”
“Oh, you’re scared. Looks like you didn’t get the balls,” Vincent teased.
“Shut up Tarzan! You tilt the barrow then; I’ll guide it.”
Marty went to the head end of the snake and put his hands around its body about one meter from the head. He heaved it in the direction of the tilted barrow, and to the surprise of both boys, it began moving towards.
“It’s working!” squealed Vincent excitedly as Samantha’s head reached the barrow and began making its way up the middle. Her tongue tasted the air, the remnant feathers of its previous meal was the only thing the cart had to offer. Her head meandered up the barrow towards the handles. Beady pink eyes followed the stem of the handle up to where Vincent was holding it.
Suddenly the snake drew its head back, opened its jaw and struck! It latched onto Vincent’s arm. As the boy flailed with panic and the barrow tumbled in the fray, the snake brought the rest of its body up and coiled around the body of its prey.
As it tightened its grip, Vincent looked to his brother, eyes filled with terror and pain.
“Do something, Marty!” He screamed.
But Marty just watched. He felt no compassion, as he heard the bones of his brother cracking and his joints popping out of their sockets. The screams seemed somehow distant and strangely unconnected to him. When the snake’s mouth unclamped itself from Vincent’s arm, it opened its gullet to encompass his head and began the process of swallowing him whole. Marty could only marvel at the sheer awesomeness of the big yellow snake named Samantha.
To his back were the screams of the children and Miss Ubens, who were witnessing the horror through the viewing glass. They had come to look for the two missing pupils.
Adriano kicked open the door and ran into the enclosure, dramatically skidding to his knees and trying with all his strength to prize Samantha away from her half devoured meal.
Marty could not care about any of it, he was utterly entranced by the gruesome embrace between his brother and the giant snake. He could hear whispers of Billy, stronger than ever now as if the dial on a poorly tuned radio had just been adjusted. The voice Marty could hear was unlike the sound created by vocal chords, but more alike to the sound of speaking through water. Different, yet clear.
“You can hear me properly now, can’t you Marty,” came the whispery voice, “Vinny was blocking our connection, but now he’s gone – good job. Just you and I now. We can be together again.”
“But you’re dead Billy!” Marty said aloud. Suddenly he was feeling very confused.
“I’m not dead,” answered the voice, “I’ve been well looked after by ‘the friendly’s.’ They can hear us too, it’s part of their research. I’ve been so lonely here, but that’s going to change, because guess what? They want you too. This is going to be so great?”
The chewed face of Vincent, fell to the floor with a fleshy thump, and a spatter of snake saliva hit Marty on the cheek. It was all too much; he closed his eyes and began to scream.
short story collection