“The Advocate for Exotic Reptiles” by Emmy Piercy
November 10, 2014 § Leave a comment
Art and Tom smoke cigarettes below the balcony. Art can’t afford to smoke, but Tom can, and Art is freezing, so he draws in a lungful and ignores his seething eyes as Tom regards him from over his coat collar.
“She’s nearly through with you,” Tom says, with ashes tumbling down the front of his coat. He brushes them off. “You’ll have me put in the nick if you keep on like this. She keeps summoning me to talk about you. And Milady never talks to kitchen staff.”
“It’s not as if I’m not trying.”
“Jesus, Art, what does it matter if she keeps the bleedin’ crocodile? S’not any of your business. How can I put in a good word for you if you keep running around like a bloody picketer?”
“You didn’t see him in there.”
“Well, I know she’s had it for years. It’s probably grown up in that room. It’s better off this way. S’not like it could go roaming off into the wild and survive.”
“Maybe it could.”
“Well, it’d be a bleedin’ idiot to try.”
Overhead, the sun trembles like a silver minnow behind the dead white overcast. Art squints at it, gauges it at about the center of the sky.
“Lunch’ll be ready, then.” He slips back indoors to put on his tailcoat and white gloves.
In the steamy recesses of the kitchen, Art joins the other footmen waiting in a herd by the cook, who tosses a word of approval over her shoulder as she inspects the quail in the oven. Then they all file out into the house like ants, and he helps them ease the cart of glassware out to the dining room before he realizes that they’re all staring at him.
He sighs. “So it’s my turn today, then?”
They nod scantly.
As they begin to lay the table, he departs for the servants’ passage that stretches like a splintery wharf behind the parlor. A staircase as narrow and peeled white as birch hangs from a doorway at the end of the passage. Art tromps up two stairs at a time and wobbles out over the cushy red carpeting of the eastern wing. As he comes to the door of Milady’s chamber, the scratch and lull of a sleepy waltz on the phonograph rolls out to his ears like a beast turning over in its sleep.
He raps neatly on the door.
A long moment passes. Her voice drifts out over the waltz: “Come in, darling.”
She’s perched, just then, like an oversize Pekingese on the pallid pink loveseat next to the phonograph, bound up in furs pinched tight beneath her broad, powdered face, like a Matryoshka doll.
His still smoke-smarting eyes are bombarded again by perfume, an ancient, putridly sweet attempt at gardenias.
“Milady,” he says. For a moment, he can’t remember what he came in for—not with the music, and the perfume, and her stare beating his eyes in. God, he can’t believe this place. “If you’re ready, luncheon will be served in the dining room.”
“A nice change of tone, Arthur,” she said. “Here I was, all prepared for another diatribe about Sobek. You’ve forgotten your lecture notes, I suppose?”
“You mean to say the crocodile, Milady? My apologies for the disappointment, but I have nothing more to say on the subject.”
“Ah. Well, I must give my thanks to Thomas. It appears that we’ve both trained our pets not to bite.”
Art’s mouth twitches as Milady’s pink-varnished bratwurst fingers close upon his. With his arm aloft, he escorts her away.
During those first hellish nights on the estate, he believed the sounds were the stuff of fitful dreaming. In a new bed, too warm, too soft, too smothering, he wasn’t sleeping well. But one night, when he had lain blinking blearily long enough to know that he was awake, Art thought robbers had come to break in.
God, he thought as he stared at the ceiling, watching sawdust shudder out from between the boards and sprinkle down on his bedspread, if it’s one of Angus’s people again, I’m right out. I’ll never find work again.
Angus’s crime rings had spread all over the city now, and if Milady’s estate had cropped up on one hitlist or another, his past with Angus would be thrown out into the light at once. But surely Tom had told them to stay away. Tom had done it before. And he’d do it again, as many times as he had to to keep Art fed and clothed and bedded.
Even so, Art could scare them off if he tried. So he crept out like a little black cat, up the rear stairs and into the corridor, then, and stationed himself against the side of the grandfather clock to wait for signs of movement. Its pendulum swung and beat in the silence.
Window lock still intact. No broken glass. Nothing smashed. This wasn’t Angus’s fashion at all.
And surely he would have seen something by now. Just as he resolved himself to bed and began to pad away to the stairs, he heard it again: a sluggish, dragging thump, from a disused bedroom door on the far right—perhaps not disused at all.
Through the keyhole, his eye adjusted to distinguish the blur within. First came the moonlight, through a high lightbox of a window pitched up near the ceiling, that fell as a silvery dust sheet over the bare floor of the room. The sheet was rent through with deep wrinkles, patches of shadow that covered the wallpaper and floor. No, not shadows—Art squinted—stains, all over everything, a brackish brown that bled through the moon’s soapy wash of light, and scratches that rent deep in the wood and pulled the wallpaper to hang in curly orange-peel ribbons from the walls. The room had no furniture, but debris littered the ground: sodden shreds of wallpaper, rusted buckets, an old fur coat with great patches torn from its back. The only structure Art could see was a great silver stake planted in the middle of the floor. A chain dangled loose from its tip, rolling in lazy coils over the floorboards.
Another thump. The chain tightened and strained.
The air that poured from the keyhole boiled the winter air, and Art caught a draught as rank as a butcher’s shop.
The chain scrabbled forward, and a fat, scaly claw scraped into view, then another, then a tail that swung and beat like the clock’s pendulum. Then the head swayed across the keyhole, and Art looked into the yellow dragon’s eye of the whole form that had dragged itself into view: a vast, swollen, torpid beast, sallow as the moonlight.
Afraid was the wrong word. Art fled to his bedroom, and he did not sleep again that night, but he was not afraid.
None of this occurrence came as any surprise to Tom the next morning, and that made Art angry.
“Look,” said Tom, pushing out through the kitchen door with his shoulder, “I’m not saying the whole ordeal’s proper. I’m only saying you don’t understand how the house works. I know it’s not what you’re used to, but this isn’t like it was with Angus. You can’t just go poking about where you don’t belong. Milady does as she pleases. If she sacks you, you’re sacked. If she wants an exotic bleedin’ reptile, she gets an exotic bleedin’ reptile.”
Art follows him out with the beverage tray. “And everyone just ignores that the exotic reptile’s been stuffed in a tiny room and left to wallow in its own shit?”
“I mean, I dunno—isn’t that what crocodiles do anyway?”
“I suppose that generally they do, Thomas.”
Tom and Art freeze. Milady’s lips draw up in a smile.
“Darling, I’m afraid you’ll find that the only advocates for the rights of exotic reptiles are exotic reptiles themselves. Perhaps you and Sobek should discuss forming a social justice coalition.”
Tom knew just as well as Art did that certain habits never left, even after Angus was through with them.
“Art?” His voice hitched, though he shouldn’t have been altogether surprised. “What are you doing out of bed?”
“Be quiet, Tom. Mrs. Morton wakes up early to do the washing and she’ll hear. Come here.”
Tom came into the narrow nook where Art sat in his nightclothes, his outdoor coat pulled over his shoulders so that he looked like a shaggy dog sitting on the carpet. The fires were all out in the house, and the chill huddled close upon them so that they drew their shoulders up tight.
When Tom settled down next to him, Art broke off a chunk of Gruyère from the block nestled on a cloth in his lap and offered it to him, who gawked at it as though the cat had just dragged in half of a bird.
“God, honestly? Are you trying to get me sacked? If the cook finds that missing, she’ll be on a bloody rampage.”
“I was hungry.”
“Art, they feed us here. It’s in our contract.”
“It’s more than Angus ever gave us. Come on, now, Art. You’ve got to try to keep yourself in line if either of us are going to stay. You should be in bed. What are you even doing in here anyway?”
Art pointed in front of them, where there leaned a stack of peeling gold-leaf frames, wrapped in oil cloth. In the bleak light of the moon, the heady, textured ridges of oil paint cast soft, odd shadows on the portraits they formed. Art had unwrapped the painting at the forefront of the stack: a stout, heavy-lidded young woman in a bright headscarf, with what appeared to be a large lizard perched over her arm.
No, Tom realized. Not a lizard. A young crocodile.
“I told you that thing grew up here,” he said. “Now you know.”
“No,” said Art, “you said it grew up in that room.”
“What’s the difference?”
“The difference is that she used to like him. She used to treat him like he properly existed. I mean, the family had portraits made of her with him.” He puttered through the stack of portraits, running his fingertip over the ridges in the oil-work. “Look. She used to take him out on a leash, to fancy dinners and things. They had reporters come in. It was a local oddity.”
“Doesn’t surprise me or nothing,” said Tom. “She’s an odd woman.”
“But what changed?”
“I’ve already told you. That’s just her way. When she’s done, she’s done. The thing probably got too big for her to manage. Probably got scared it’d try to eat her, but wanted to keep it on hand in case the reporters got nosy again or she found something else to use it for.”
“And nobody has done anything to change it.”
“No, Art. We’ll be sacked. And I like my job a lot more than I like that thing. Though lately, I’m not so sure that goes the same for you. You bloody picketer.”
“I just don’t think it’s fair to adopt things and then leave them to rot.”
Art threw the oil cloth back over the portrait, where it landed cockeyed. Milady’s marshy eyes vanished from sight, but Sobek’s yellow dragon eye glittered still in the gap of the moon.
After those first weeks, Art did learn to sleep again eventually, but sleep did not come without dreams. They grew only more lurid the more he learned and remembered.
He always began in the water, humming with quiet, sacred blue, cut through with sunbeams. Then the water began to churn and foam, and the blue bled through with a rotted, intestinal green, and a thick-fingered hand snatched Art up by the scruff of the neck and shook him out. Shook the colors away, shook out the blue of the water and the gold of the sunlight, so that only the dead white overcast of the sky remained.
The hand bound a leash around his neck, then, and put him in a dim, pallid room and shoved his face in a bucket and made him eat. And he ate, because there was nothing else he could do in that room that seemed to shrink and shrink around him, until Art realized that it wasn’t the room. He was growing, sick and stagnant and massively fat, too fat to move or care. And whenever he looked over his shoulder, Milady stood over him with her smile pinched up on her face.
Then, her massive form shot up another foot; her furs festered into Angus’s muddy green coat. He spread out like a roll of thunder above Art, who tumbled to the floor fifteen and filthy, splinters in his knees and palms, his face burning and prickling from a slap.
You’re not walking out, the old voice shrilled. I fed you! I clothed you! I kept you alive for years! And now you think you can just up and leave?
You said would my life would get better, Art said. His voice echoed like a well in his throat. You said I would be like one of your own sons.
Angus caught up the leash in his hand, and it gagged tight on Art’s neck. He grasped at it with slippery fingers, but it would not come off. Angus dragged him in close, shaking the collar at the neck. His teeth moldered inches from Art’s face.
My sons all died in the gutter like cockroaches. That’s life, boy. And if you think life’s not gonna come and smash a boy like you under its heel the minute you try to make it on your own, go ahead. Leave. See what happens. So don’t you dare bite the hand that feeds you, boy. I bite right back.
Angus yanked on the leash with all his strength. The ground fled out from under him, and Art fell, fell, fell, through a massive, yawning, blood-red keyhole.
When he awoke, he had landed in his bed, swampy with sweat, covers thrown across the floor.
For a soft-eyed, unassuming footman twenty years of age, a spare room key isn’t hard to obtain.
The door cruises open. His head sinks in the muddy, animal scent of the room, of urine and chicken blood that festers proudly on the wallpaper no matter how many housemaids come to scrub it away. God, this thing could stalk a wildebeest on the riverbank, and here he lies, licking up greenish chicken innards out of a pail.
Perhaps he should be afraid. But the slits of Sobek’s rheumy yellow eyes pluck his gaze as taut as a bowstring, and Sobek’s hoarse, chest-deep wheezing quiets to a breath as soft as a baby’s, and Art’s mind has never been calmer.
He kneels down. He won’t talk to soothe Sobek, not like one would simper to a lap dog. He will say nothing. They have no need for words.
Together, Art and Sobek’s eyes follow his hand as it touches the scabbed rudder of flesh at his snout and traces the band of the leather muzzle, sunken into the flesh, down to the gap of his mouth.
Sobek opens his jaw slightly, and Art slides two fingers in under the muzzle, his flesh prickling against one long, slimy tooth. Sobek closes his mouth again, gentle as a mother, and Art pulls the muzzle away.
At the door, Art pauses only once, to regard Sobek’s heightened, steady gaze before he walks away. The door moans, an open mouth swinging loose on its hinges.
Below in his bedroom, scrambling for his trunk in the dark, the stuffy air bellows on Art’s back like swells from a furnace. Funny, he thinks, for he’s normally so cold. As he pokes the battered cuff of a shirtsleeve back into the trunk, sawdust sprinkles down on his head as a slithering thump drags past over the floorboards.
He tips his head to listen to the scratch and lull of its raspy melody.
When he’s alone on the midnight street, where he’ll go doesn’t matter. He’ll find a place to go. All that matters is that his breath is as hot as Nile mud on his face, and his trunk drags and thumps behind him over the pavement, and one thought burns clean in his head:
We’ll see, Milady, who’s taught their pets not to bite.
A junior from the Dallas Community College District, Allison “Emmy” Piercy is attending her first semester at the University of Texas at Arlington. She is an English major with a minor in Creative Writing and plans after graduation to pursue a master’s degree in Library Science. Her work has won local acclaim in the Inner Moonlight Student Literary competition hosted by the League for Innovation in the Community College.