Jason Zouave

Two Forgotten Stories of a Guest


Illustration by Naomi Bardoff

I think a man visited the house when I was seven. He was middle-aged but handsome, carried a guitar case. English was not his mother tongue. My little sister and I led him up the stairs to our apartment. He took his shoes off when he entered, when he saw us take off our shoes.

We continued into the living room. The gentleman sat on a dusty trunk, my sister near him on the couch, and I on the carpet. I crossed my feet beneath me, and locked them in the hollows of my knees.

My sister asked if he had children; her belinted, striped socks kicked at random when she talked. The gentleman told us very frankly that children were too expensive and that he could live how he wanted without them. Above all it was college that was most expensive.

My sister asked if he had a wife. As she asked, she regarded us both, me and the gentlemen, with wide eyes that would have made any glimpse in the direction of her socks extremely obvious. What’s strange is that I don’t actually remember the gentleman’s socks. He said he did not have a wife. Many people he knew did not have wives, he said. One always overestimates how many people have wives and children, he said, because one has married parents. But the inference is fallacious.

I know that he told us a story. I remember the whole story, and on the basis of the story, I know that I must have asked him to show us a trick, but I have no idea why I would have done that. My best guess is that, having heard him called a “performer,” I assumed he worked at the circus.

“When I was a little boy like you I was in a similar situation. A traveling man was visiting the house. We chatted for a while, the traveler, my sister, and I. In hindsight, I think he was probably trying to take a nap, but my sister and I wouldn’t leave him alone until he showed us a trick. Here is the trick that the Monsieur showed us.

“The traveling man opened his guitar case. Inside were thick black snakes. He asked me for a pitcher of water, which he drank, and a sugar cube, and he picked up a snake and let it coil around his wrist. I ran to the cabinet where the sugar was kept, and fetched a cube. The snakes were beginning to squirm, although they remained in the case. The Monsieur raised the snake to his mouth, and showed us the cube of sugar, with his fingers fanned out in a kind of flourish. The snake slowly turned her head as he brought the cube of sugar past her. When he placed it on his tongue the snake followed. The man tilted his head back and the snake slid down. I heard a sound in his throat like laughter.

“His hand lowered to the guitar case and snakes reached across to it and climbed his arm. He croaked at me for another cube of sugar, and grabbed my wrist. I ran to the kitchen, mostly because I wanted to get away from him. I fetched the sugar anyway, and stood with it, hesitating. He called my name and my sister came after me. She tried to wrest the sugar from my hands… It spilled all over the floor… My sister grabbed a bunch in her dress and ran back into the living room.

“When we found the man he was covered in blood and the carpet was covered in blood. He was a snake-swallower by trade; ordinarily he would bring them up again alive. But, bickering, we hadn’t brought him the sugar in time. The snakes had become angry, and threatened to attack him. He had been forced to tear them to pieces and really eat them. Now we would have to pay for all the snakes. What’s more, there was a huge mess and we were obviously responsible. And, most of all, our parents would be appalled that we had caused such a horrible thing to a houseguest through our bickering.”

He paused for a long time. “We were grounded,” he added. Then he leaned back and laughed like a bullfrog.

In his guitar case was a real guitar. He offered to my sister to play and she held the guitar on her lap like a pizza and smacked the strings. The next time my mother wandered through the room I followed her away.

Since then, I have researched his story of the snake-swallower, and though it is obviously invented, and certainly a bad joke, some evidence indicates that “snake-swallowers” really did exist; I tracked down a paper by A. Chandrahasan Johnson and Satyabama Johnson in Clinical Radiology, 1969, which describes a snake swallower discovered by two radiologists in Vellore, India. They asked him if he would repeat his act in front of a radioscopic camera, and, injecting the snakes with barium, filmed his stomach and chest. Squiggles of light are swallowed. Their movement downwards is very unnatural-looking, and I had the impression that the film was faked until they landed in his stomach, where they moved gently and gracefully; not at all clustered at the bottom, as I expected, but floating free like trailing ribbons on a maypole. Then he turns and a great fist kicks up out of him; the ribbons fly left, are caught momentarily, and fall. The detail about the pitcher of water is substantiated: the paper states that the man “drinks copious amounts of water” before his act.

I remember another story from around this time. At first I thought I had read it in Huck Finn, in the chapter about the feuding families, their mansions, and the dead boy. But when I finally reread the book it wasn’t there. I’m sure, now, that the gentleman told it. I don’t think he told it to me. I imagine him having narrated it to my sister, who sat on his lap, or sprawled elsewhere on the couch. I listened from the doorway. I saw the back of his head, my sister’s elbow, the guitar by their feet, and the case open on the carpet.

“A wealthy slaveowner, who had been a very fat man, because he seldom left his home, and because he ate constantly, began to starve. He would joke that this was a moral failing of his, and at dinner, if he had guests, he’d make it into a joke, and gulp down a whole rotisserie chicken. Whatever it was, he joked, he’d ‘out-eat’ it.

“His stomach bulged. It was hard, when you pressed on the side of it, because a tapeworm was living in there.” Here, he pressed my sister’s stomach; she giggled—

“No poison would kill it. The slaveowner retched constantly—retching is vomiting when nothing will come out.” My sister’s face was blank. He looked at her quizzically, not quite believing in her incomprehension. “It was decided that the man must fast. But he couldn’t keep himself from eating, so he had to be tied down. After three days, a jar of honey was brought to his lips. A white, eyeless head poked out of his teeth. His stomach shrunk, folded, collapsed, as if someone let her knees fall beneath a sheet.

“The man’s eyes watered. The tapeworm was wide. When its head reached the honey, the doctor grabbed it around the neck and pulled. He pulled ten feet. The man’s face turned grey. The tapeworm had grown too large. The man suffocated. They kept pulling long after he was dead.”

On his face, interest, and the fading expectation of a compliment.

Rereading what I’ve written, I have to add a coda. I can reproach the gentleman for his ambiguous unconcern for our age, but in the end the story out-ate me. When my father died, in my teens, the story provided my metaphor for mourning: not a detachment, but a long, belated attempt to pull out of him what I couldn’t leave halfway, and what I couldn’t tempt out with honey.

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