“Little Roy’s Roving Reptile Zoo”

Little Roy is not so little, never slim like us serpents, and bigger in the britches since the Reptile Zoo pulled up stakes from LaFargeville near the 1000 Islands and added “Roving” to our name. May be he’s not paying attention as his eighteen-year-old, sweet Roy Junior, is growing, too—growing up too fast as our travel stretches his horizons. This weekend, we’re campered out in the greensward beside Buck’s Eat Here and Get Gas in Wooster, Ohio. One night open and already the Zoo’s garnered fans, in particular one who seems a bit too interested, name of Evie.

I have my interests, too. My name’s Maya, the favorite cobra on the snake-charmer’s team—Little Roy’s story-tellin’ wife Scheherazade—so I spend time in a comfy woven basket as well as my glass display. I see and sense things, the human dynamic much more entertaining than our own slithers and hissing. Oh, the Flying Dragon Brothers, draco lizards, across the aisle create a flutter now and then, and the ancient tortoise Granny offers sage advice on those rare occasions she lumbers by. Otherwise, we go about our reptilian business, the least showy show creatures you’ll ever meet, if you’d wander across our stage’s simulation of a lush jungle.

Human nature, our humans’ and the customers’, is the real show here. Just yesterday, this Evie showed up and, after she’d paid her $10 admission and toured our tents, talked Little Roy into having Junior give her a backstage tour. She tells him she’s been interested in snakes since her childhood gerbil got eaten by her older brother’s rosy boa. Her parents claimed it was a mistake but Evie then defended her turf with a ball python that had now outgrown her small bedroom and her parents’ patience. She seemed taken with Junior, a few years younger and naïve regarding womankind, potential sweeties put off by his wingmen, us reptiles.

Then I caught Evie trying to kiss him beside the alligator snapping turtle’s huge tank. A cobra has only one way to offer warning and I flared my hood and struck the glass but Junior had been charmed. He practically knocked over the small turtles’ terrarium when Evie pressed her body against him. I prayed that Scheherazade or Little Roy would interrupt to save him, but Junior took off, as shaky on his feet as a bearded dragon in need of calcium. Evie caught her breath and stood beaming. Oh, people were supposedly tempted into such “sin” by one of my forebears, but this girl didn’t need any help. She even winked at me.

Junior’s the boy I’ve watched grow, and I’m just waiting for my chance to rise and straighten Evie out. Today she’s back and Scheherazade isn’t complaining. An extra pair of hands never hurt. The girl’s cleaning out cages and exercising the tamest snakes. Really, there’s little danger here, since all of us have been de-venomed and Evie is hardly squeamish. She checks out Junior constantly, and the covert looks he returns warn me he’s a goner.

But maybe Little Roy and Ms S actually want to pair Junior Roy up, to keep him happy so he doesn’t go missing some upcoming morn in Indiana, Kentucky, or Tennessee. It’s bad enough he’s been home-schooled by folks with no real home. Math is keeping the ledger, Language Arts reading the Herpetologist’s Guide, science lab the mix of diets. And the psychology practicum is tricking us to work for little more than warm lamps and weekly rats.

Would we be better off in the wild? I’m no philosopher but I think not. Most of us arrived in the Zoo from far worse captivities. Little Roy brags on taking in ophidian orphans abandoned when they outgrew a cage or frightened the new bride of an owner. I can attest that Scheherazade and I care for each other. She strokes my head, lets me wind around her strong arms, coos to me with warm breath. All of us nurtured in our fake wilderness. Even the mischievous tree monitor is given space to play, shown the forbearance parents grant their own children.

In fact, Little Roy is more apt to stare down a frisky customer than one of us. Last evening a boy of twelve made faces against my glass but Roy’s bark chased him away. I tried to give Roy a smile, but how would he know what mine looks like? He’s the boss man, but in a laissez-faire way, eyes open, pacing past our displays, pondering who knows what? To us, he’s gentle, and everyone tries to stay on best behavior to thank him for our sustenance. Least I can do is look out for his kid.

But here is Evie again, smiling at me. “You’re the special one, aren’t you, cobra? Always dancing and twirling.” She spins around a bit clumsily. “Music lover. Like me.” I’m no critic, but it is cute. If she weren’t tempting Junior I might even like her, as I’m fascinated by movement. I rise a bit and she steps back, her coordination askew.

“You okay?” Junior’s voice calls from the doorway flap. Then he’s right here, too, all attention on her.

“Just chatting up the cobra.” She bends at the knee, a kind of curtsey. “I’m not sure he likes me.”

“Oh, Maya’s a she,” Junior says, patting my glass.

Evie tilts her head and rolls her tongue, mimicking me. “I’d much rather talk to you, Junior Roy.”

The kid smiles, soul lost to this sex thing. Some nights, when the work’s all done, I see Little Roy and Madame S make eyes at each other. Then I’ll hear (of course, cobras can’t really hear, but we feel a universe of vibrations) their RV bouncing a ritual beat, followed by a morning of whistled tunes, chirps for the lizards, smiles all around. I wonder at the humanity of it, our serpentine conjugality as complex, our joining a savage rapture that may last for hours.

Anyway, there’s still plenty of cleaning and feeding to do and Junior’s a good son who gets right back to work, though his eyes keep meeting Evie’s and their movements from tank to tank become a clumsy dance, theirs alone.

Tonight’s show goes well. I am again beguiled by Scheherazade’s pungi music, her own sinuous movements as she tempts me with the flute into the dramatic contortions that never fail to sway the audience. The Dragon Brothers glide between their makeshift trapezes. The alligator turtle chomps an easily trapped fish as he paddles across the kiddie-pool “lagoon.” The tree monitor takes advantage of his temporary freedom to climb the potted redbud on loan from a local nursery. The geckos chase their crickets. The iguanas slither through tubes and leap low walls. And of course Little Roy displays his mastery, limbs enwrapped by a dozen slithering boas.

Now Junior Roy comes on stage with his giant python, to my surprise joined by Evie as his assistant, costumed as a Middle Eastern princess like Ms S. Little Roy’s voice booms with pride as he announces Evie’s addition to the Zoo. She’ll be working with his talented son. Like a magician’s helper, she curtseys and I recoil, wanting to sound alarms. Junior “wrestles” the big constrictor but soon flails on the sod in pretend panic. Evie rolls eyes wide and beckons the audience to whisper worried “ohs.” Then she touches Junior’s shoulder and he calms, regains control. The python slinks away and balls around itself, the displeasure in its hiss audible before Evie leads the crowd into applause.

Junior stands tall, stomps the ground to stake his victory claim. His eyes fly over the fans, his parents, our display tanks, then alight on Evie, who swells in her tight costume and gives a hippy shake not unlike my own sinuous moves. I wriggle to catch his eye, warn him that humans can be enraptured by one another as we serpents have been, our natural freedoms lost in exchange for creature comforts.

They grasp each other’s hand and take a bow—together. He is lost and there’s nothing I can do. Even if Evie eventually trains to become my charmer, my use of fangs would only provoke Junior Roy’s protection. He was certain to fall someday and Evie seems sincere in her love of us serpents, perhaps also of him.

So I sidle against the glass, coil to make my colors shine, tap with my snout for their attention. I stretch out my tongue to tease the air and welcome Evie to our Zoo, bid her to share my secret knowledge: it’s not always the charmer who leads the charmed.

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About Jim Powell

Jim Powell holds an MFA from Bowling Green State University and teaches creative writing at Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis (IUPUI). He directed the Writers’ Center of Indianapolis (now Indiana Writers Center) for twenty years, during which time, ironically, he stopped writing. Since receiving a Creative Renewal Fellowship from the Arts Council of Indianapolis in 2011, he has written over seventy stories, with work published in Bartleby Snopes, Crack the Spine, Flying Island, Storyscape, and Typehouse Literary Magazine. A collection of his stories, Only Witness, will be published in 2019.