The Viper

By Paige Cooper

The symbol of the town was a woman holding two vipers to her breast with her right foot, bare, planted upon her own swaddled infant.

“It means,” the Director of the Tourism Board explained, “that we love tourists.”

Carmen nodded. The symbol—painted fresh in ochre and emerald on the windowless clapboard cheek of a house abutting the town’s main square—was two stories tall. Despite being the size of a wheelbarrow, the child’s features had the specificity of a potato. Naïve art, Carmen decided. Bad without being worthless. The vipers’ black tongues were arrows.

“Of course,” the Director of the Tourism Board amended, “you, yourself are not a tourist. Or not for long. Maybe for another few minutes you qualify. But almost immediately,” she snapped her fingers, “You are one of us.”

Carmen smiled gratefully and humbly for the Director of the Tourism Board—who was a surprisingly young woman for the apparent importance of her position—and for the documentary filmmaker and for the lens of his video camera, to which she was almost growing accustomed. The Director of the Tourism Board was the only person in the town who spoke English, except for the documentary filmmaker, and Carmen. For the most part, the townspeople spoke a language which the Foreign Service Institute had ranked a Category Four. An appended asterisk indicated additional difficulty for English-language speakers—difficulty measured in hours. The town spoke a twelve-hundred-hour language. Carmen had been here two hours. The documentary filmmaker, who was also Carmen’s driver, was also Carmen’s translator. But he did not translate the affect of the Director of the Tourism Board’s speech, because she had spoken in English. Carmen did not attempt to interpret it herself, and instead smiled and bunched her shoulders up around her ears in a way she thought might be cute.

“Well. Now the tour of your new home is over,” said the Director of the Tourism Board, turning towards Carmen’s house. “Perhaps you would like to rest? Before the welcome banquet?”

“Thank you,” said Carmen. “Please. Thank you.”

“This is your house,” said the Director of the Tourism Board, folding her hands with a simple, benevolent gesture. “We hope you will feel right in it, and live in it forever.”

“Yes, forever, of course,” said Carmen.

The documentary filmmaker backed up a few steps to get a wider shot. The red light over his lens glowed steady. Carmen mounted the three wooden steps of her house—the papers signed a week ago, before she’d packed, before the plane ticket arrived, before the overnight rush to renew the passport she’d found, finally, in the pocket of a dirty, forgotten backpack. Above the front door—paint-slivered and weathered as the rest of the town—a teardrop of gas-fed flame hung pendant in a great diamond cage. It would burn through the duration of her stay here, apparently inexhaustible.

*
At sunset, Carmen woke to the documentary filmmaker’s red light glowing from beyond her cracked bedroom door. Her bedroom—the servant’s nook, not the master bedroom, with its decades of grime, garbage, mouse carcasses—was golden with low sun from the window. But the hall was lightless and himself invisible, as always, behind the red pinprick.
Had she been speaking to him and his camera? For how long? They had, early on, established a mysterious and uneasy co-silence; in the twelve-hour drive from the airport, for instance, Carmen had woken twice, in hypnogogic jerks, to find herself mid-conversation with him, conversations which resulted in the documentary filmmaker’s illegible silence. Now it seemed too late to ask what she had said, in her delirium. Her nightmares had been merely typical. And she did not remember his name. Many interchangeable vowels. Behind the camera’s lens, he was bearded, long-haired, bespectacled, as if he required every mask available to disguise his features.

“Oh my god,” she mumbled, and pulled the crotcheted wool blanket over her head to form a hot and itchy veil.

“How did it happen?” said the documentary filmmaker, without entering, sounding, as always, mild and reasonable, deliberate, slow-spoken, his accent with its unconscious sneer, which reminded her of an exciting breed of espionage thriller.

“What?” Carmen pulled the blanket back down, wiped the corners of her foul mouth.

“Tell me the story of how you’ve come to live in this town as the owner of this house,” he said.

Carmen sat up. She had, before her nap, removed her bra from under her t-shirt to sleep, and under his and the lens’ attention her tits lolled pendulous and spilling. She crossed her arms, tugged up her knees. Now would be a good time to tuck a piece of hair behind her delicate ear, if she had that kind of hair.

“I clicked on an email. I filled out the form. Then they called a week later while I was on the bus to work. It sounded like a scam.”

“What was the email?”

“Oh, it was. You know, just a contest. I was eligible because I’d bought a certain kind of liquor in the past month. The kind of thing they paid some creative agency a billion dollars to come up with.

“What kind of liquor?”

She furrowed her brow at him. “It was the first time I’d bought it. It’s like a black brandy. I guess they’ve been making it here for three thousand years or whatever.”

Carmen paused. The red eye didn’t waver. It was waiting for her to say the rest, namely that she had bought the brandy as part of an effort, brought on by the yearly phone call with her mother, to lose weight and save money; that is, drink hard alcohol alone at home rather than downing pints of blonde poured from the dirty tap by the rabid bartender at the tavern across the street from her expensive basement apartment, the tavern where certain regulars would make blowjob motions when she passed on her way to piss. On the shelf in the store, the brandy had been attractive due to its astonishingly low price and evocative branding, she remembered. But when she’d emptied her apartment last week—a swift and depressingly familiar process—she’d re-discovered the cherubic bottle scarred silver with frost at the back of her freezer, still full to the neck with black, viscous spirit. She poured a sip. Grimaced. The label depicted the symbol of the town, yes: the woman with her naked breasts, one serpent latched on at the nipple, the other writhing towards striking, tongue flickering, the baby waiting on the ground under the woman’s bare, powerful foot.

The camera waited. Carmen shrugged. “It’s true. I didn’t have anything else going on. Is that boring to say? I mean. I didn’t do anything, is my point. It just happened.”

“But this house is yours now,” said the documentary filmmaker.

“Yeah.”

“Forever.”

“Yeah, I guess.”

He waited for so long that Carmen felt guilty for her inadequate response. Then he said, “What will you do?”

“Well. We have to go to the banquet.”

He paused again. What was she supposed to say? His questions were so vague. Surely the act of just speaking into his red light was enough. One of her nightmares in the car from the airport, as he drove her here, had involved her mother giving her a robot that was programmed in a way that, if she expressed anger or even alluded to anger, it would murder her. The robot lived in the closet, but she thought about it all the time, testing her own emotional consistency, terrified of identifying the wrong feeling, knowing that once the anger flickered on it would engulf her completely. Then she would be punished, she would be destroyed; if not by the robot then the anger then her mother. All three had the same goal.

The documentary filmmaker said, “Do you look forward to the banquet?”

“Uh. Well I don’t know what it’s going to be like. I guess it’ll be fine if you’re there to translate for me.”

“Yes, I’ll translate for you.”

“Ok,” said Carmen. “Thanks.”

She waited to say something normal and personal to him, but instead of putting down his camera, the documentary filmmaker receded into the hall with it. Recording footage of the house, Carmen guessed, to interleave with her vapid, delirious interviews. Atmosphere: the curtains shifting in the thick, ancient sunset. The dead palms scratching the barbed wire. Detail: a spider making a web across a stock pot; the cracked ceramics in the bathroom with its foreign plumbing; a fat, black-eyed mouse hopping, terrified, in the new plastic garbage pail under the sink. Atmosphere: the gloaming in the salon with its furniture sheeted like spirits; an intact segment of fortress wall. And the view of the valley descending behind, outside the wall: the wooden houses, each constructed from the omnipresent forest, the paint wearing off the silver-green clapboard, the mildew black or pink, the muddy road snaking down between them, towards the long, weathered armbone of the salt lake, and then up, again, into the geometric cleft of the mountain above.

*

The welcome banquet was held in the verdant upper courtyard of the town’s medieval fortress, which was too large to see all at once and therefore mostly imaginary to Carmen. Its tall stone wall ranged up and down the town’s various complicated ravines, forming a listing pentacle of safety against dangers from the past, which she also found difficult to imagine. The level of danger, the distance of it.

At the head table, the Director of the Tourism Board sat beside the Mayor, and both deferred to the Marketing Representative from the brandy distillery, which had been owned for some time by an international spirits conglomerate, and which had allocated the budget for everything from the rental car to the plane ticket to the sundry amenities needed to refurbish the house, down to the plastic garbage pail with the trapped mouse under the sink in Carmen’s kitchen.

Accordingly, everyone was apportioned a large quantity of the black bile, though it was unknowable whether anyone was actually drinking it, because the mugs were stumps of heavy ochre clay.

The documentary filmmaker did not drink, or even pretend to.

Antanas!” the Director of the Tourism Board hissed when he did not lift to the toast. Was Antanas his name? Or maybe that word, sounding more like uhntanes, meant cheers, or drink up, or stop sulking.

The filmmaker grimaced and lifted his mug, but as everyone closed their eyes against the sear, he put his down. Carmen noticed this because the choice for Carmen, when deciding how to pace her swilling, was usually shame now or shame tomorrow, but with the filmmaker and his sober camera beside her, her conception of consequence teetered. For the benefit of the Director of the Tourism Board, the Mayor, and the Marketing Representative from the international spirits conglomerate, she raised her mug to her mouth at easygoing intervals. For the benefit of the camera’s eternal record, she sealed her lips against the burn.

This tactic left her undrunk after dark. The food disappointing, pointless. She ate everything, took more. A squalid potato dish, a wet salad, tough meat. The meal reminded her of a wedding she’d attended at a hotel once, where, in the bathroom after the dinner, she’d heard her name exclaimed by the bride—attended in the large stall by her maids: “I just can’t believe she actually came.” The marriage ceremony had been marked by the symbolic pouring of two differently coloured sands into a decorative glass vase, for permanent display on the happy couple’s mantel. Bad without being worthless.

But tonight Carmen was supposed to be at this banquet. Definitely. The dinner was for her, in her honour. When could she recall an event in her individual honour? On the other hand, she’d done nothing to deserve celebration. Once for her birthday she’d dared to book a table at an Irish chain pub near the office, though she hadn’t had the gall to ask anyone to confirm their attendance beforehand. Carmen lifted her mug again. Something in her right neck was choked and hot, a muscle that hadn’t loosened its cinch in days.

“What are they saying?” she asked the documentary filmmaker, who had so far translated nothing, except to point out the food on her plate: potato, salad, meat. He had set his camera down, still recording, and periodically turned it to capture different angles of the courtyard. Crosswise, lengthwise, Dutch, etc. The dignitaries at the other end of the table murmured amongst themselves.

“I don’t think they want to be translated,” he said.

“Ok,” Carmen said. “What kind of meat is this?” she asked.

He regarded her plate. “Nothing exotic, I promise you.”

The Director of the Tourism Board stood up, then, and put a hand on Carmen’s shoulder to guide her to the stage—a spotlit box, really, with a mic and a small loudspeaker and just enough room for them both—though she came reluctantly, an unexotic meat forewarned by the smell of slaughter.

“Don’t worry,” the Director laughed, gesturing with her mug. “We just want to get to know you.”

The documentary filmmaker also stood, and came to stand with his camera in front of the stage. The audience of townspeople stilled at their tables, and the Director of the Tourism Board did something with the microphone that made the loudspeaker squawk a baby wail in protest. The documentary filmmaker rotated the speaker with his free hand, and the hellish noise subsided.

“Well!” The Director of the Tourism Board turned to Carmen, holding the microphone, spotlight illuminating her pointed face. She was younger than Carmen, and neater and thinner and wearing an impassive grey suit with no lapels. Like a trained dolphin, Carmen thought, ready to walk on water for a crowd or deliver a bomb for the CIA, ready to drown a swimmer or rescue a drowner, depending on who was watching.

“Carmen Carter. Carmen Carter. How have you liked our town so far?” The Director of the Tourism Board said it first in English, and then again in the difficult language.

“It’s been very nice,” said Carmen, and then again into the proffered microphone: “It’s been very nice. It is a very beautiful town.”

The Director waited, then took the mic back. She translated for the audience, who were silent. Then, “You were born in a small town, yes? How does our town compare to that one?”

“Oh,” said Carmen. Again, she accepted the mic. “They are both so different. This town has such a long and interesting history, and beautiful architecture, and, of course,” she lifted her mug winningly, “the world’s finest black brandy.”

The Director laughed in her obligatory way, though her translation did not have a laughing affect. The townspeople, invisible beyond the boundary of the white light brutalizing Carmen’s forehead, kept their silence.

“So you like it here,” said the Director, twice. “You intend to stay.”

“Oh, yes, of course,” said Carmen, her voice still on that sweetened note that reminded her of her mother; an incessant, limp insincerity.

“For how long? We have given you a house. Do you like it? Will you live in it forever?”

“Sure,”—what did they want to hear?—“Of course. Forever.”

A few feet before her, just under her line of sight from the soapbox, the filmmaker’s red light.

“What were you doing at your previous home that you can so easily give it up? It’s not an easy thing. To move into a new country, a town, into a new language.”

“Oh,” said Carmen. “I was in inbound marketing.”

The Director of the Tourism Board did not translate this.

Carmen added: “The um, commute was pretty bad. In winter.”

The Director translated in her flat, clipped way. Then: “What about children? Don’t you have a family?”

“My family lives all over. In different places.” Carmen imagined elaborating, but even more so than her work, the details were all boring, bogging, meaningless. “I mean, my mom and my dad and my sister are all in different… places.”

The red light.

“And no children.”

“No. I mean, no.”

“So you are saying you had nothing that you loved, in your previous life.”

“I had friends,” Carmen protested. “A couple of them are going to come visit. They’re artists, so.”

“Are you an artist?”

“No, I mean, not really, anymore.”

What did the red light see. What were they all seeing.

“Anymore?”

“I mean I’m not.”

The silence turning bad. Carmen lifted her chin, lowered it. Her face, she knew, was difficult to make appealing. She was doing her best. The red light angled up, catching the worst.

“So what will you do here?”

“Oh. Well, my old company said they’d hire me for some remote work, so I can, you know, pay for food. But it’s so cheap here, I’m not worried, yet.”

Carmen knew immediately—by a new intensification of the bad silence—that this was the wrong thing to say. “I didn’t mean cheap,” she said.
The Director did not translate her amendment. “I am asking do you have any skills that you bring to us?”

“Skills?”

“An instrument. Or gardening: herbs, flowers. Cooking poultry or sauces. Star reading to find your way out of the wilderness. Calligraphy. Carpentry. Hunting, herding, sewing. Sculpting stone, or clay. The training of dogs to guard valuables and be gentle with children and calm in the home. The upholstering of furniture. Ballet. Knot-tying. Rhetoric. Driving large vehicles with trailers in reverse. The recitation of poetry. The baking of bread. Or perhaps you are a very thorough cleaner?”

“Oh,” said Carmen. “No. My mother tried to teach me to knit but it didn’t work because I’m left-handed.”

“Then what do you do?” the Director asked. “With all of your time?”
Carmen thought guiltily of the bright games and funny feeds on her phone.

“I brought some colouring books. They’re therapeutic, for meditation.”
Carmen could see the shadows of the men at the tables. The Director of the Tourism Board gazed hard at the top button of Carmen’s good shirt.
Carmen added, “I thought I might try to learn the language. I mean yours. But I hear it’s really hard.”

In humiliation, Carmen’s brain stopped recording what happened next, though the documentary, one day, would show her, slouching and glistening, her hair flat and dry, mumbling monosyllabically away from the microphone as the Director of the Tourism Board finished up the interview, appending a long clause in her own language. There was, finally, a brief drizzle of applause, and then Carmen skulked back to her seat, where she picked up her huge, ugly mug, drained it, and subsided into a full, dead silence that she hoped would become permanent.

*

In the morning, the filmmaker left before dawn—his own bed was a sleeping bag on the sheeted couch in the salon—and brought his camera up the mountain to shoot certain boulders and trees he had known as a child. He came back, dripped coffee, and steamed several eggs over an inch of water. When Carmen shuffled into the kitchen he was standing beside the sink, tapping the eggs against the counter and rolling them so that the shell cracked and webbed like a shot windshield against the clean white rubber of the albumen.

His name was, yes, Antanas. And he had grown up in the town, speaking the language, stacking firewood with his uncle until they all left for America, where various lucks had conspired and he did not go to law school, or marry, or buy real estate. He had won a grant for his second film—which was about the ceramicists of this region under the old government, now deposed—but he’d spent it on filming and now there wasn’t enough money to live on as he edited it. An ex had forwarded his CV to a connection at the international spirits conglomerate, who required digital video content in the form of a brand documentary. The contract required a thirty-minute horizontal cut, a seven-minute horizontal cut, a sixty-second vertical cut, and a series of six teasers ranging from seven seconds to thirty in both vertical and horizontal—to buy himself more time to finish the ceramicist film. Unfortunately, in the past two days he had already shot nine hours of footage of this woman Carmen stumbling through his town.

“I am dreading that this might be a film itself,” he told her, as he peeled the membrane, then cooled the naked glob in a bowl of cold water, then poured salt on its wet surface, then ate it all, still steaming. “I think if I just don’t mention the shitty brandy, I don’t violate the contract. But then how do I explain why you’re here. Suddenly it’s far too arty.”

Raindrops crackled the windowpanes of the kitchen, which framed the concrete wall of the next house over. The tile floors were jagged, swept with particulate, and frigid in a way that echoed up the soles, into the ankles. Carmen, wearing a jumble of trashy layers, shifted around and tucked her sock feet under her bum. It was clear she felt slightly abused by the smell of his eggs. But she seemed, also, lit up in a new way.

“You can be vague. Just say I won a contest,” she suggested.

Antanas huffed. “I truly do not want to fuck with those people.”

“Well, that’s good,” Carmen said. “Because last night was mortifying.”

“You weren’t that drunk.”

“No, the interview,” she said. Her eyes darted to him, seeking consolation.
Instead, Antanas swallowed his third egg and picked up his camera. He adjusted the aperture, hit record. The red light opened.

“You’re embarrassed?” he prompted.

Carmen glared, then turned her gaze to her hideous mug. “I hate that light,” she said.

“Do you want me to cover it up?”

“The light or the whole thing?”

“I keep the light uncovered so you don’t forget I’m filming,” he said. “But I could put some adhesive over it, if it would make you more comfortable.”

“You are trying to keep me uncomfortable?”

“I want you to choose whether you want to perform.”

“But I’m not a performer.”

Antanas said a word.

“What?” said Carmen.

He repeated it for her.

“What are you saying?”

“It means the shame of having been seen in a personal way by a stranger or near-stranger,” he said. “You are naked and they are clothed. You tell them the story of your deepest heartbreak and they turn and ask the next person the story of theirs. You are consumed and rejected at the same time. Your shit is washed off your ass by some person you sat next to on the bus. You show yourself, and they judge you, but will never say how. Whether they hate or pity you. Yes?”

“Yes,” said Carmen. “That’s the word.”

“It’s also the cost of making art,” said Antanas.

“Oh,” Carmen said.

“But there are rewards, too,” he added.

Carmen dropped her eyes again, this time in humility; she looked pleased, flattered by his speech, flattered, too, by the red light. “Like intimacy,” she murmured. Her eyelashes fluttered as she dared to half-raise her eyes to him.

“This is not intimacy,” he corrected her. “I am not in you.”

*

The town was known for several things, among the towns in the region.
For sending its children out at sunset on the shortest night of the year, in single file, to walk up the hairpin mountain path in the dark carrying lanterns to bridge the year with light. If a child comes home before dawn, she is punished for the whole year with muteness: any word she says will be ignored by her parents, treated as inaudible.

The town was also known for its role in the wars: feting and feasting the conquering soldiers who marched in—liquor, meat, dancing, pretty maidens offering delicacies to cavalry officer and foot soldier alike—and then again, when the next army came through; and then again, the next army—the music lively, the liquor new, the women thin as broth, the town horseless, but always meat on the platters for the newest wave of brave men, all the very brave men, of whatever army they’d cared to join.
And it was known for, of course, the pointed mountain that blocks the town, the town which sits in its hollow on the rock’s clavicle, from the direct touch of sun for three months every winter, even when the sky is clear as glass, which is why the town is snidely referred to, by the people of the region, in their difficult language, as Sunshine City, or, more grandly, the City of the Sun.

It was known for how every person who lives in the town writes poetry, but does not share it.

It was known for how its cats were all black with white bibs and crooked eyes.

For the stumpy brown mugs fired from clay fetched from the shores of the withering salt lake, and used exclusively for drinking the black brandy.
For the black brandy, which was said to be black with all the poison the visitors of the town inject into the townspeople, who tolerated it, and tolerated it, and tolerate it still.

*

“A terrible incident occurred,” Carmen intones. In the film, she is sitting on the front steps of her house, hugging a ghost’s worth of bedsheets in her arms. The sun is playing in her hair. She is especially ugly with tears, hunched in psychic pain. “It was terrible.”

“What happened?” says the filmmaker. He is unseen behind us, his camera.

“You were there,” Carmen glares at us.

“Please tell the story,” says the filmmaker.

“We—you and I—went to the market, to buy dinner, and we were walking home, and there were people running towards the distillery, and people standing outside, and men came running out because there was a leak. I don’t know if it was gas, or. . .you went in, with the others, but two men had already been—they were boiled. And you pulled their bodies out into the square and I went into the house for sheets to put over them because they were awful, their families couldn’t see the way they looked, not like that, but I saw their faces and you saw their faces. And someone else got sheets first. And you got your camera.”

A silence. Carmen hides her face from us.

“When was this?” he asks.

“Ten minutes ago. Five. I don’t know.”

“And what else? What’s happening now?”

Carmen looks past us to the townspeople milling in the square. “Their mothers and children are here, but not the doctors or the ambulance, the ambulance isn’t here yet. There was a heart attack in the countryside and it’s on its way but it’ll be another hour. It doesn’t matter. They’re dead. They’re all obviously dead.”

We wait.

Carmen looks beggingly at us. “Can you stop now?”

“Describe it again,” the filmmaker says, “Take your time. How did you know there was a leak? Who said it? Who went in?”

“You didn’t have your camera,” she says. “You went in. But now you have it.”

“What else did you see? What happened while I was inside? What did their mothers say?”

“Antanas,” Carmen begs. “Antanas, come here, come sit with me now, please,” On film, swaddled in her armful of sheets, she looks helpless, despised as a child.

*

In the next scene, the camera is trained in a medium shot on the curtained window in the house’s salon. The grimed sill and the jags in the lace are in crisp focus. Sunlight glows like a screen, bluish and indirect, illuminating the walls, where paint is peeling in patches. Antanas is speaking English, but his accent is unusually strong, perhaps affected. His silhouette passes across the frame.

“I began the ceramicist film eight years ago, the year I stopped using intoxicants and cut off contact with my family. But as the editing process stretches on, and these commissioned pieces interrupt and dominate my time and decisions, I grow divorced from the impetus. I’m not sure, exactly, what I am making, or thought I was making. I find myself in purgatory, layering new thematic concerns and also technical adjustments inconsistently over the span of the final piece, which remains unfinished, and, possibly, unfinishable.

“At my worst, I find myself jealous of another artist’s suffering, because of the gravitas it lends even their laziest material. What is lazy to a dying person, for instance? Probably it’s true that some artists, myself included, court suffering, pursue it in ourselves and others. Like Borges said, quote, Everything that happens, including humiliations, embarrassments, misfortunes, all has been given like clay, like material for one’s art. End quote. I am startled by the brassiness of Carmen’s sensibility. Her suffering is not insubstantial, though, like mine, it seems randomly appointed by nerves rather than circumstance; and possibly optional. Watching her make her bad art, by which I mean her performance of herself, and in doing so turn my art bad, is an embarrassment, of course. She fetishizes the people, who are my people, whom I normally only fetishize for others. I admit I enjoy her drinking and her hangovers like they’re my own. I admit I enjoy her ugliness, and her neediness. I enjoy—”

Antanas’ monologue continues for another four minutes, intercut with shots of the mouse in the pail, the spiderweb over the boil pot. Shots of Carmen cooking at the gas stove and complaining about the brandy, lugging water in a bucket when the toilet breaks, gossiping with the Director of the Tourism Board, whose name she finally learns is Vesna, squinting in the sun in the summer, sleeping off a drunk on the porch under the gas lamp. The arrival of winter’s deep mud. Another summer. Carmen scrambling up the boulders of his childhood, smiling up at the trees of it. The flame in the pendant burns. Even when Antanas’ voiceover stops, we cannot hear her. He didn’t record her voice, only her whole paltry life as a viper in the house in the town under the mountain.