We meet in what I can only describe as a violent way, in that he spots me as we both watch the old man die in the middle of Portage Ave.
We meet in what I can only describe as a violent way, in that he spots me as we both watch the old man die in the middle of Portage Ave. Three cars are spread across the intersection, mangled and still. Metal and glass and plastic decorate the pitted pavement. In the centre of it all crouch two paramedics, working away at the man with all they have. When they step back, I know it’s over. I look above his body to see if my crazy aunt is right about being able to see a soul ascend if you pay close enough attention. All I see are the flashing lights of the ambulance and the gaping maw left in the old man’s car by the Jaws of Life and the boy, staring at me.
When the spell of the accident finally breaks and people begin to get on with their days—a little sad, a little enthralled, a little excited—the boy jogs over to me.
“Hey,” he says. He shoves his hands in his pockets and looks at me in a probing way that feels invasive. “I saw you from across the street. You’re really cute.” He looks me over then, from my Payless flats to the unstylish black work pants that strain across my thighs to the oversized Levis jean jacket that I got for ten dollars at Value Village by swapping the tag with a children’s windbreaker.
“Thanks,” I say, deliberately looking over his shoulder at the closing doors of the ambulance. I can feel his attention on my face and wonder if he can see the zit I popped this morning. “Were you here when this happened?”
“No, I work in that building over there.” He gestures behind me. I risk a quick look at him. He is cute too, I guess—tall and skinny with red splotches on his cheeks and the tip of his nose. Not quite a boy, up close, but I’m not used to calling them men yet. He is dressed like he might work in an office. He ducks his head to look me in the eye better, smiles. “Heard the crash, came out. Pretty gnarly, huh?” Still smiling.
“You wanna go out sometime?”
Heat climbs up the back of my neck and spreads across my jaw. “Okay,” I say.
We exchange numbers and I mumble something about getting to work, which is a lie, but I don’t want to stand blushing next to a possibly ascending soul. The boy squeezes my arm and we walk in opposite directions. He says his name is Todd.
Todd calls me that night. I am sitting on the floor in front of my closet, surrounded by every pair of shoes I own, staring at the empty swath of clear carpet underneath my hanging clothes. When my ringtone begins to sound I crawl inside, tuck myself into my little cave and pull my knees to my chest. I watch the screen of my phone glow for a minute and then go black again. I pull my shoes in after me, and bury myself in them. Soft slippers across my eyes. A running shoe on each thigh. My heaviest boots on my chest.
The next morning the old man’s obituary appears in the paper. Alexander “Sandy” MacIsaac. 1929–2016. A man called Sandy. He is survived by no one, which the paper says by saying nothing. And nothing means no one left to remember him. All it gives me is his name, which is a lot of responsibility. I saw him die, so maybe I owe him. How many other people who saw the accident will read this and take his name and commit it to memory forever? Todd calls again.
The TV at work is playing the news. I half-listen as I pick up scummy coffee cups with cappuccino foam caked around the rim. I hear Sandy’s full name and stop. I guess one of the other people in the cars was a young woman who’s now in critical condition. I guess Sandy’s license was revoked last year. I guess he was stubborn about giving up his freedom. Who wouldn’t be? Nobody mentions how he died alone in the street. There’s a message from Todd when I go on my break.
“Hey, Laura, it’s Todd. We keep missing each other. Maybe you gave me a fake number. Who knows. I know I want to see you again. I know you’re beautiful and interesting. What I don’t know is why you won’t give me a chance to show you something you’ve never seen before.”
I play the message three times to listen for tone so maybe I can understand what he means. There are no clues. I wonder if he thinks I’m a virgin. I look at myself in the bathroom for signs of naivety that might show on my skin, but end up taking handfuls of myself instead, tight fists with razor sharp nails digging deep. If I could tear myself up, shove the excess down the garburator, maybe this would be easier. I sit in the tub in my bra and underwear and draw the curtain and think of the lint-covered blanket they used to cover Sandy’s body. I wonder what it’s like to get in your car in the morning and by three in the afternoon, to not exist anymore. I think being old is a lot like being fat. People stop seeing you.
I remember the feeling of Todd’s eyes on his face; how he left work to see the accident. I dial his number and as the phone rings I run my hand along a stretch mark that snakes up from my abdomen, wish I could erase it just as easily as I touch it. Todd answers at the last moment. He says he’ll pick me up tomorrow, early. I ask where we’re going. He says somewhere I’ve never been.
We drive north, out of the city. Todd is quiet but smiling. He asks me a question and listens until I stop talking. Then he asks another. I get caught up and lose track of time. After forty minutes I ask where we’re going.
“Have you ever been to Narcisse?”
“No. Just driven past,” I say, with a nervous laugh. Narcisse is nowhere. It doesn’t show up on maps online unless you zoom right in.
“Why are we going there?”
He’s quiet, so I stay quiet too. I pull on the bottom of my shirt so it skims better over my stomach. Todd accelerates to pass a slow-moving minivan. “Did you hear that girl died? From the car accident?” He glances in my direction.
My heart seizes. “No, I didn’t hear that. I thought she was in a coma or something.”
“She was. Died yesterday, I think. Heard it on the news. Pretty sad, eh?”
Poor Sandy. No one will remember him now. “Very.”
Todd puts his hand on my knee.
They always say you should have a first date in a public place, which is something I don’t remember until Todd drives straight through Narcisse. His hand is on my thigh now.
All I manage to squeak out is “Why?” as the sign signalling the town limits whizzes by.
Todd grins. “Don’t worry,” he says. “It’s just a few more minutes. You’re gonna love this.”
As they streak past the windows, I study every billboard and road marker but nothing stands out. The landscape is dull, the colours washed by the recently melted snow. The sky stretches, suffocating, too huge to look at. I forget sometimes what it’s like to be out of the city. To see forever and be seen forever.
Finally, Todd slows and takes his hand off my thigh so he can make a turn onto a dirt drive. A giant sign rears out of the grass, bearing a streaked green and black snake, coiled in a neat circle. Narcisse Snake Dens, it says. Todd almost stops the car as he stares at me, judging my reaction. “Well?” I’m silent, processing those words and what they mean put together.
“You’ve never heard of this place?” Todd struggles to contain his excitement. I shake my head. He smacks the steering wheel. “You’re gonna love it.”
We drive on toward something I’ve never seen before, I guess, even though it looks like every other inch of the prairies. I try not to think about the snake part. A large dirt parking lot blooms ahead of us. It’s empty. At one end, a small wooden hut claims to be dispensing information. Todd parks and looks over at me. “Ready,” he says, not asks, and pats my knee. I nod, try to smile. I get out of the car and shove my purse under the seat before I close the door. How do I feel about snakes? My only encounter was in elementary school, when Mike G. brought his green python to Show and Tell. Mike fed him a tiny squeaking mouse and the snake swallowed it haltingly until it settled halfway down its body like a third trimester pregnancy belly. I stared at the mouse’s shape for the rest of the class, willing it to move.
Todd leads the way to the small hut. The bored teenager behind the counter looks up from his book and pulls out two pamphlets, which he hands straight to Todd. He wears a white T-shirt with yellow bubble lettering that makes the place seem more like a water park than a nature reserve. “Welcome to the Narcisse Snake Dens. As you explore our grounds, please watch where you step. You may pick up the snakes but handle them with care. If you have any questions you can ask me or anyone wearing this T-shirt or a badge.” He taps his name tag, but all I see is the little coiled snake next to his all-caps name.
We turn away, and Todd takes my hand. “My family comes here every year. I used to go nuts for it when I was a kid.”
My palm sweats next to his as we start to walk into the brush. My eyes are on the ground with every step, scanning for movement, my heart pounding. Todd chatters on about the snakes, how they’re harmless—toothless garter snakes. He calls them cute, like he said I was.
I hear a low sort of static, like a broken TV, a sound of intense movement and friction. It grows louder as we walk, and suddenly we emerge through the brush into an uneven sort of clearing. I stop short and our hands tear apart as Todd keeps walking. He looks at me, eyes bright and focused, and steps aside to give me a full view. Every word I can think of is wrong. Or just not enough. The ground is boiling with tiny, lithe bodies. As though the trees lost their leaves last fall like usual but this time they hit the ground and turned into snakes. They surge around each other, tangled, knotted, one thing and a million things.
Todd bends over and picks up a handful of them, like so many leaves. A small one curls around his forearm, inching toward his body. They wave and hiss into the air, nonplussed but never still. “What do you think?” he asks me, a touch of vulnerability in the upturn of his question.
“I love it,” I say. A snake slithers across the top of my shoe. “Thank you for bringing me here.” I don’t know where these words come from, but they leave Todd smiling and he gently places his handful back on the ground. He pats his pockets.
“Shit, I left my phone in my car. I wanted to take some pictures. I’ll be right back.” He jogs off before I can say anything.
Once his footsteps have retreated, it’s quiet except for them and me. My breathing sounds too loud. I take a few steps closer to the hollow in front of me. If I don’t pay attention I lose track of their individual bodies and they become one heaving entity. I search for their heads, their sort-of-smiling toothless mouths, trying to keep them separate. They aren’t interested in that. It’s embarrassing to be alone in front of them.
I begin to walk, following the path deeper. Snakes hang from the trees like vines, waving in a breeze that isn’t there. A tangle falls to the ground with a thump, fifteen or twenty smaller snakes wrapped around the body of a larger one. This must be mating, I think, as the restless males scramble to swarm the female again. She glides on in a slow wave, waiting for none of them, knowing they will follow.
Through the trees I notice the earth begin to slope westward and I veer off the path. I pick through their bodies—a ghost, an alien, beyond their realm. The bush thins, and I am looking down, into a deep hollow formed by cracked limestone. Snakes cover most of it, but here and there the rock shines through the seething mesh. And then my legs move without me thinking about it and I am slipping down, and the static grows with each stuttering step until I stand even with them. There are more than I thought. I look up, deep enough now that the brush obscures much of the blue sky. I think I hear Todd calling my name from the path.
When I sit down, the stone is warm against my legs. When I lie back, the warmth spreads across my back, and I close my eyes. It only takes a few moments for them to slip over my legs, for me to become another piece of the world to cover. One crosses my belly, curls in the triangular divot of my crotch. Their bodies are warmer than I thought. Heavier. Soon they cover me up to my waist. I think of Todd’s hand, the dead weight of it. This weight feels different, better. It moves, it breathes. It’s detached and alive at the same time.
I fight the urge to swat at them when they reach my neck, breathe slow. They slide—smooth, up over my jaw. A tongue licks my cheek. I smell them now, dusty and deciduous. I worry for a moment about my mouth but they just slip over my lips, happy to be moving, not looking for a place to hide. They weave through my hair, probe my scalp, and make a nest of me. I close my eyes against the last slivers of sky between dark striped bodies. I breathe deep, and hope that Todd will get to see my soul ascend.