In the mirror I watch my python wrap around me like Mother’s feather boa. I’ve borrowed the belly dancing costume she wears for Bearded Lady performances but the sequin bra is too big. Then again, I’m only sixteen. Mom always gets gasps for this outfit when she’s facing away from the audience. Her waist length red hair moves with the canter of her hips when she shimmies. The second gasp comes when she turns around and shows her full flaming red beard. Dad always says he fell in love with Mom at first sight, being a fire eater and sword swallower. He was attracted to fire of all kinds.
Their firstborn, my brother, was trained to be a strongman from a young age. He developed ropey muscles that perched on his arms like ornate decorations. They were so big his arms didn’t stay flat by his sides, but looked as if they might take off and fly. He finally rebelled against the cirky life and let his muscles melt to fat. Now he’s billed as The World’s Heaviest Man. His girlfriend has stayed with him through thick and thin. He used to lift her like a barbell and toss her into the air, and she would always land with precision on his shoulders or head. She has to be agile enough for both of them now, I guess.
As for me, I’m an ordinary girl. I have no real talents, nothing useful to get paid for. I can’t juggle. I’m afraid of heights. I’m no daredevil, so the human cannonball is out. What’s left? A clown? But I’m allergic to makeup and I can’t breathe in those round red noses.
I’m just glad my parents love me for my ordinariness─it helps them remember when they were just regular people, long before their peculiarities emerged. They don’t mind me spending my days watching the other show kids practice their future arts from a painted horse in the motionless carousel. I’ve heard my parents discuss whether I’m average enough to make it on the outside. That’s not my goal. I like it here.
One day Dad brought me a baby python. His name was Slither. “If you raise him right, you’ll be able to make a living as a snake-charmer.” The ringmaster must have objected to my freedom, when all the other kids were busy becoming acrobats, tightrope walkers, magicians. He wanted me to work, or else get married.
“My beard hasn’t even come in yet!" I said to Dad.
“Maybe it never will,” he replied.
Today my brother’s girlfriend Connie is coming to teach me how to charm Slither. So far all he wants is to loll around my neck and be carried like a baby. When I curl him in his basket and begin to dance for him, he falls asleep. I must be doing something wrong. Connie will tell me what. She’s good at this.
She arrives in a cape made of her old snakes’ skins. Being a contortionist, it’s no surprise she’s a good dancer. She turns on some flute music, not for the snake – we both know snakes can’t hear – but for her own dancing. She twists her hands one at a time out of the slit in her cape. She undulates her fingers winking with rings bright as eyes. Then she throws off the cape like she’s shedding a skin, and forms her body, painted with a snake’s diamond markings, into shapes I wouldn’t believe were humanly possible. Slither is intrigued and slides closer to her. She rolls and writhes on the floor as if she means to drive him mad. He raises his head but does not strike. Instead he follows her back to her trailer, his body dragging a trail of S-shapes through the dirt. I watch him disappear through my brother’s thick ankles as he blocks the dark mouth of the RV.
I have lost Slither. I return to my family’s trailer. I have no other place to go.
Cheryl Snell’s books include several poetry collections and the novels of her Bombay Trilogy. Most recently her writing has appeared in Gone Lawn, Your Impossible Voice, Necessary Fiction, Pure Slush, and other journals. A classical pianist, she lives in Maryland with her husband, a mathematical engineer. Visit her on Facebook.