BY JOHN ELIZABETH STINTZI
In the lonely, foggy summer mornings before I met Stephen, I would sometimes wake up early and look out my bedroom window to watch an older girl walk a reticulated python down my street. She wore a pink cotton robe cinched over pajamas—her hair up in a messy bun—with the python cleanly slung across her shoulders. While they walked, the snake would scan the world, its head perched on her upraised hand. Neighbors, walking their dogs, would cross the street to avoid them. It wasn’t until later that I learned she was Stephen’s sister.
A week before I met him, Stephen’s sister’s python—Balthazar—bit him three times on the upper thigh. He showed me the scars the first time he undressed, guiding the tip of my finger to brail the bubbled tissue. He told me how Balthazar required daily socialization; otherwise, he could turn wild again. Stephen told me how his sister walked Balthazar to the park most mornings, where they’d sit on a bench and watch people do Tai Chi. The night Balthazar bit Stephen, his sister had been at summer camp for three days, a summer camp that didn’t allow snakes, but did allow each boy she liked. Stephen had been having trouble sleeping, and since it was the middle of July, he’d also been postponing his chores—one being to walk Balthazar. When Stephen began pulling the snake’s long, slowly waking body out of his deep, glass tank—to go on a moonlit stroll—Balthazar snapped down three times on Stephen’s left thigh.
After biting him, Balthazar slithered away through the dark house and stayed lost for two days, until Stephen’s sister came back from camp and found him curled up inside the washing machine. She only needed one hand to pinch Balthazar behind the jaw and slowly coo him back, while the other gesticulated to her frantic mother—begging her not to have her snake put down.
I remember Stephen’s sister walking Balthazar best on those foggy, pre-Stephen mornings. How I started to wake up early just to try and glimpse them. I never told him I’d seen his sister, or the snake who bit him. When I met Stephen—him leaning against the wall at the mall, legs slightly spread, smoking like the child he was—he still had a slight limp from the swelling. The more I saw the scars in the back seat of his old minivan—the more I watched them fade—the more Balthazar enthralled me, and the earlier I’d wake up just to see them walking by. Just to see her scratching Balthazar’s chin while Stephen somewhere snored. The more I saw the scars, the more I wanted to have that effect on someone. I wanted to make a temporary mark. To play a role in a story that would, with time, fade away.
I never met Balthazar or Stephen’s sister. I never even learned her name. But I would sometimes lie in bed, alone, with my mouth wide open, one hand pinching the back of my neck.
I would sometimes bite him, too.