and then they all ate poison berries, and died
I once picked up a man in Mississippi who was a professional snake milker.
I don’t know why I want to tell you this.
You’re crushing cloves with the back of a knife as you hum. I can smell the rich scent from across the kitchen, but I can’t quite catch the song. Knowing you, it’s probably something country.
And I do know you, remember.
I met the snake milker at the Amtrak station in Jackson. I’d just got off the train from Memphis, and was drinking $4 wine in a plastic cup in the waiting room bar. My nose was curling at chardonnay the colour of cat’s piss, but I knew how the words sauvignon blanc would sound across the scuffed counter.
I almost told you this story once, the first year we were together. I wanted to tell you that I went to Jackson for the song, so I could sing ‘Hotter than a pepper sprout’ as I crossed the town line. I knew that a man with as many Johnny Cash records as you would appreciate it. But I couldn’t really tell the story without the snake milker, and I wasn’t ready to talk about the men of my past, even if this one was 10,000 miles and seven years away.
The snake milker had just put his teenage daughter on the train back to her mum in Ponchatoula, Louisiana. I remember rolling the word around in my mouth, slowly: Pon.Cha.Tooool.A. He’d finished his whiskey almost before he sat down, and the bartender laughed.
‘Still trying not to drink in front of the kid, hey Jack?’
Jack grinned, and held the glass out. I wanted him to have a southern accent so badly I almost leaned forward as he spoke.
There were many more whiskeys behind its gravel and gravitas, the southern vowels unmistakable. I pressed my legs together, and felt the muscles in my thighs contract.
When he wiped his hand across his mouth I saw a small tuft of gauze in the hollow between his thumb and forefinger. The hand hooked under his shirt collar for a scratch and for the briefest of moments I saw the dark hair there, streaked with grey.
He caught my gaze, and kept it as he drew his hand lazily out of his shirt.
I felt my spine straighten, bone by bone.
‘Drinking injury?’ Jack looked down at his hand, and waited until both our cups were full before taking a sip of whiskey.
A slow smile spread across his face. It was a story for a bar on a sultry southern evening, and a woman drinking cheap wine with dirty fingernails. I didn’t even care who else he’d drawled that line to. He was my first cowboy, and the cat’s piss didn’t taste so bad anymore.
If I were telling you this, you’d stop me here. You’d want to know if I was really drinking white wine, as though that were the part that mattered. I watch you at the fridge, vodka bottles clinking as you shut the door. I’m a vodka woman now, I want to say, but I was a wine wench then. You take a pat of butter and smear it in the pan, your back to me. You don’t know everything, I want to whisper.
I’m not always good at storytelling. I leave parts out, get bored by others. Once, when I was thirteen, I had to write a story for English class about travel and I tried to imagine what freedom would taste like, crossing the country by road. True to form I got restless halfway through and despatched every single character with the ending ‘And then they all ate poison berries and died.’ The teacher circled it in red pen with three question marks. I tended to keep my stories to myself after that.
The thing is, I really do want to tell you about the snake milking. Turns out he wasn’t spinning a line; it was an actual snakebite, still angry and red in the curve of his hand. He told me he worked in a serpenteriam. I had to make him repeat it. I was so sure he was making it up, but he bought me more wine and slid his foot onto the bottom of my bar stool, between mine. We didn’t touch, but I knew it was there the whole time we were talking.
He milked diamondback rattlesnakes for their venom, to send to labs to make medicine for stroke victims. I nodded at this, and tried not to look down at his bandage. He’d stretch latex over a jar and massage the jaw until the snake spat its venom out. The bite didn’t come from a rattlesnake but from one of the Mississippi water snakes he kept as pets. I asked where they lived and when he told me about his bedroom, I knew what that meant. I moved my feet together, gently, until they touched his. He didn’t look down, but I guess he didn’t need to. He knew what it meant too.
I want to tell you about his house at the end of a dirt road, the cowboy boots scattered against the lounge room wall. I want you to know about the glow from the lights in the snake tank, as he yanked me across the bed by my feet. When he put one hand on my throat and the other between my legs I was trying to remember which one had the bite, but my eyes were closed and I wouldn’t have opened them for anything in the world at that moment. And in the morning as he slept, I slipped out of bed and counted the snake skins lined up on his shelf, where no books had ever sat.
You’re still humming as you cook. You know I like a shimmer of brown sugar on my crepes, but you don’t know about the snakes, or how beautiful their skins looked in the morning light. You still don’t know I’m the kind of woman who can be wrenched by her feet across a bed. You don’t even know I went to Jackson for the Johnny Cash song. I got told later that it wasn’t even the right Jackson, that there’s several in the US. The song isn’t about any one of them in particular, it turns out.
I think if I ever tell the story about the snake milker, I’ll keep that part to myself.