The Snakelet

Source: The following is a story by Aleksandar Prokopiev, taken from Best European Fiction 2015. It captures beautifully my feelings when I re-entered the city.

He found the snakelet at the very beginning of his solitary life, and now, after five years of living together, they had the same trust in each other as close relatives. The snakelet ate out of his hand, went with him on walks through the forest — dozing in the pocket of his faded but still warm fur coat, or crawling along behind him when invigorated by the sun. On winter nights it slept long and peacefully, coiled up in a nest of twigs, leaves, and moss he had made for it by the fire.

The little snake was patterned and only four inches long, at most. It enjoyed climbing along his arm, hissing joyfully with its little tongue. And it loved to lie in wait for its prey — a hypnotized bug, perhaps — and weave its hunter’s dance around it.

By the end of the second year, he had taught it to recognize his whistle. Now he was trying to teach it to distinguish the short, sharp whistle that meant “Come!” from the long, protracted one that meant “I’m bringing you food,” and the two whistles of equal length meaning “Lift yourself up!” — at which the snakelet would raise its head and upper third of its body and sway from side to side.

He was happiest when it brought him his pipe. This difficult task, announced by one short and one long whistle, required the snakelet to perform several actions in sequence: to find the pipe, to pick it up with its little teeth, and to bring it to him. The snakelet would leave tiny, wet bite-marks on the stem of the pipe, and when the man lit his pipe and drew on it, he felt he was imbibing a special tenderness.

Yet, after five years of seclusion, loneliness began to oppress him. While absentmindedly stroking the curvy body of the snakelet, he realized that the blame lay in himself. He might have been offended, and people might have been nasty and unfair to him, but he had no right to be angry with him for so long. How could he forget the beautiful days of his childhood and youth? How could he forget that he had once been loved and that he himself had offended others? He was only human too, after all.

So he decided to return to the city. He put on his fur coat, slipped the snakelet into his pocket, and set off. As soon as he saw the first houses, he almost broke into a run.

But when he came face to face with the city, he sensed that invisible barrier again — the one he had felt whenever, in his solitary years, he had descended from his cave into the city in search of food. The same sense of breathlessness came over him. The city was suffocating.

Already he was met by the astonished, derisive stares of the passerby. His wild hair and shaggy beard, his tattered old coat, which his arms jutted out of like rusty spades, and his fearful reaction to any loud noise, made him stand out. In the eyes of the city he belonged to the class of beggars who come out at dusk to rummage through the garbage cans, glancing around nervously like hungry dogs.

By the time he made it to the first cafe, he was shaking like a drunk. At the last moment, before going in, he thought to take the snakelet out of his pocket. It zipped across the sidewalk as fast as lightning and disappeared into a crack in the wall of the nearest house. There, in the stone crevasse, it calmed down. It’s friend’s disquiet had unsettled the little creature. Instinctively, it felt safe in the dark. It waited.

In the cafe, the barkeeper and five or six guests — all men — were listening to a football match on the radio. The shrill, eunuch-like voice of the commentator, combined with the shouting and cursing of the sweaty men made him seek the farthest table. He sat and huddled there on a chair, covering his ears with his broad hands, until the feel of his own skin gradually calmed him down.

Only then did he noticed the fellow at the neighboring table. He was sitting away from the men with the radio and gazing peacefully out into the street. A pair of crutches rested against the chair beside him. Turning from the window, the fellow smiled and said, “Nice day today …”

He went on talking in a lively, rambling way about the coming of spring, pollution in the cities, and the impossibility of true communication. It turned out that both men harbored the same bitterness and the same contempt for the crowd.

At first our man just nodded in agreement, later tossing in the occasional “yes,” “that’s right,” and “I think so too.” But when the fellow moved on to the problem of friendship, he felt he needed to interrupt his monologue: “Where can you find sincerity? People are selfish and care only for their own interests.”

Unconsciously, the two men moved closer to each other. He was now resting his arms on the neighboring table, while the like-minded fellow was learning toward him. All of a sudden, our man exclaimed: “I’ve got something to show you — a true friend!”

And as the fellow sent him an almost cheerful look of approval, our man gave a short, sharp whistle. The football fans by the radio turned and cast him angry glances.

The snakelet did not respond. The man had never asked it to enter a room full of people before; he had taught it to be wary of them. It decided to stay in its hole.

“Please hear me and come out!” he begged. “Just this once!” He whistled again, how with an air of desperation. His whistle brought a tirade of curses from the other men, and the barkeeper yelled: “Shut up, you dunce! Can’t you see we’re listening to the game?”

The fellow from the neighboring table scratched himself behind his ear. “Sorry, but I don’t understand,” he said.

Just then, the head of the snakelet appeared under the front door. Warmth filled his heart. “There he is!” he whispered. “He’s coming.”

But the very next instant, as if in slow motion, the curiosity on his neighbor’s face changed to revulsion and his hand grasped murderously for the crutch …

Translated from Macedonian
by Will Firth

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