DEAL 1 — SAM
I’m fourteen the first time I bargain with the indigo snake. I find it basking on the rocks that are piled against the south side of our house, a lazily drawn line of black, like a cursive letter that has gotten away from itself.
It lifts its head as I walk up.
“Can you hurt Sam Mueller?” I ask.
I’ve taken health class by this point, so I know that I’m not supposed to speak to snakes. There are videos about what happens to the kids who do. But they’re so poorly made, the actresses too peppy and the snakes no more than plastic-eyed puppets. Hardly sinister; we all laugh at them.
We laughed after the school assembly, too, when the administration brought in people who had bargained before. They spoke to us about how they had been duped, thinking they could get away with one deal, one trade.
“But it’s never just one!” they all yelled.
They were from an organization called S.N.A.K.E.S, which stood for Say No And Keep Evil Silent. One had lost an arm to the venom of a Massasauga rattler, and he walked around the auditorium, shoving his puckered scar in people’s faces, asking, “You want this for yourself?” Another started crying as she recounted how, in the midst of a blackout, she had promised her unborn child to a python in exchange for more opiates. Later, it had slithered in and out of the hospital delivery room—first sleek, then full.
None of these scare tactics are necessary. We’re good kids, smart kids, and for the most part, the snakes are easy to ignore. They make promises that don’t entice us. They’re too out-of-touch to know what a middle-school girl would want, these garters and cottonmouths that follow us home, whispering rubies, gold coins, silks! And if you pause to hear what one has to say, a friend will catch you by the arm and keep you walking.
The indigo snake has never called out to me. It suns its iridescent body in full view every afternoon, waiting for me when I get home from school, and that’s enough of an offer. My parents don’t know, don’t worry, or have already bargained with it themselves.
“I don’t want him to die,” I say. “I just want him to get hurt a little bit.”
Why? Its black-diamond head drifts upward until it’s level with my eyes. The forked tongue tastes my breath. I am not afraid. Like every teen, like every person who has ever bartered with a snake, I think I have the game pegged.
“He’s a bully,” I say. “He talks about my boobs and tries to grab them in the hall. He’s disgusting and he deserves . . . I don’t know, whatever. He’s just awful.”
The indigo snake studies me. Then it lowers all of itself back onto the rocks, slowly, vainly.
Find my name. It says. Put it in your mouth and bring it to me.
The Wiki sidebar for indigo snake lists its conservation status (“least concern”), its most common temptations (“vengeance, medical cures”), and its taxonomical information, including its genus name. I learn that this is a common gateway trade—the snakes act like they long to know how we label them. But maybe asking for something so simple is just a way of setting their trading partners at ease.
“Drymarchon,” I say to the indigo snake. “It means ‘lord of the forest.’ That’s pretty cool, right?”
Right, it agrees.
I stand awkwardly in front of it, my eyes traveling along its length.
“Do you want me to call you Drymarchon?” I ask.
We’ve done it. The rush of looking backwards at the risk is delicious, a lightness plucking at my stomach. It shouldn’t be possible to give something so small for such a large and personal favor. I’ve bet and won; just as I anticipated, I’m the rare case who gets what she wants.
The next day, Sam Mueller trips on the school stairs between lunch and fifth period. My friend Jenny swears that she saw the moment his elbow snapped inward as he tried to catch himself.
DEAL 2 — CHEMISTRY
I make my second bargain a few days later. Our first one had been a getting-to-know-you arrangement, I reason; the next will yield something more serious.
“Thank you for hurting Sam for me, Drymarchon,” I say as I approach its hoard of rocks.
I live here, it replies, and then it somehow shrugs, sending a casual wave from its neck through its midsection.
“I was wondering if you could get me an A in chemistry.”
I watch its face. Its tongue flicks, but its mouth and eyes are frozen. I can’t read it any more than I could read an oil slick.
Complicated, it says. But yes.
“Complicated means it will cost something more than a name?”
Yes, it says. Your hair.
“My hair?” I hold a hand up to my head. I straightened my hair this morning, a process that took two hours. I imagine the snake nesting in it, black scales against black strands.
“Why?” I ask.
That is the deal, it says.
I am too curious about the effects of the agreement to consider the cost. Will my mind change, become a machine for balancing elemental reactions? Will the snake simply tweak Mrs. Erwin’s gradebook, somehow? I agree, falling for an embarrassingly simple trick, the fine print of which becomes clear in six months: Drymarchon wants my hair for as long as I can produce it.
DEAL 3 — BOOK
Burned and smarting, I don’t deal with the snake for more than a decade. Here’s how we come to sleep together: a dull professorship, an unfinished popular science book about high fructose corn syrup, networking events that leave me dry-mouthed and hateful.
“What would it take to finish my book this year? And for it to do well?” I hold a plastic bag full of hair in my hand and watch the indigo snake’s tongue do its familiar slide, in and out of existence. We conduct these hair drops twice a year.
Let me sleep in your bed with you.
I need to stay warm.
My jaw clenches and my newly shorn scalp prickles. I ask, even though I already know the answer: “How long?”
No pitch, no persuasion. I try to weigh the cost of this new bargain, thinking back to my teenage self, whom I despise—the girl who had been too passive to find a topic that fired her up, and had turned to a snake instead. Whose fault is it that I am speaking to Drymarchon now? Who was responsible for the painful birth of my dissertation, the endless categorizing of carbohydrate sub-types and their absorption pathways from villi to liver?
I had felt wounded by our last deal, and swore then that I would not ask Drymarchon for anything further. My subsequent degrees were proof of my independence. I didn’t need the snake to move forward.
But everything is so dull, now. I’m exhausted by my students and how slowly they move through basic concepts. I want to punch my agent in the teeth every time he assures me of his confidence in the book. Momentary flares of anger have blended into a simmer that bathes my brain almost constantly, except for the evenings I spend at casinos, where I briefly reacquaint myself with risk. And forget dating—I bore myself, I can’t subject another person to that.
The indigo snake has grown much longer. As a straight line, it would stretch beyond my head and feet. My bed is a twin, and I tend to sprawl.
The wind rushes against the backs of my ears and I shiver. I know how Drymarchon’s body works, how its blood cools and slows to match the heat of whatever surface it presses against. It can only hope to find a place that won’t betray it while its flesh copycats the environment, completely separate from its will. I want to ask it where it’s been living, how hard it’s been to find somewhere hidden and large enough for nine feet of glistening scales.
Instead I ask, “What if I have someone over? Another person?” It’s the last boundary to this deal, and the only real one that matters, I suppose.
They won’t mind, it says.
Sharing a bed with Drymarchon turns my whole body into a braid. It winds itself around and through the crooks of me, loose but heavy, smooth with muscle. At first I find it difficult to fall asleep. Although snakes do not repulse me, I’m frightened that it will accidentally constrict, perhaps while dreaming of a hunt, like a dog.
We don’t do that. We beat our prey against rocks to kill, it reassures me when I voice my worry.
I feel it relax by degrees every night, a slow unknotting that travels in a helix down my skin. Soon, I start to relax with it. Soon, we start to say goodnight to each other.
DEAL 4 — SIMONE
Whenever I spend the night at someone else’s house, I picture the indigo snake, a lonely black thread beneath my comforter, warm enough but settled into empty whorls that should be cradling my skin. The image brings a strange feeling that isn’t quite guilt—more the sensation of wrongness, a break from tradition.
Simone is the only one I ever bring back to meet it. She likes my buzz cut and the ease with which I insult “certified” dieticians. I like her septum piercing and how she acts perfectly serene in her bartending job, no aspirations and no regrets.
“I asked a California king snake for an amazing singing voice once,” she says, stroking Drymarchon on my bed. “But I didn’t go through with it. It wanted a chicken egg every day for a year and I couldn’t have it hanging around. I had prom to go to and shit.”
“A chicken egg every day?” I raise an eyebrow at Drymarchon.
For eating, it says, as if I’m stupid.
“I know, it’s just way better than . . . my hair, for life.”
Not my choice, it says, and I never do figure out what it means, because Simone starts kissing me right in front of it. She tells me she loves to run her hands over my head because it’s fuzzy. She tells me the cut makes me look like I’m not afraid to show my whole face. I tell her I have to grow it out for a while so that the deal can stand, but if she sticks around, she’ll see it short again.
She has other girlfriends, though. I know about them, agree to them, but I just can’t handle it. I ask Drymarchon what it would cost to have her to myself, joking, mostly, and it says I would need to give it one of my ears.
“No,” I say, ashamed.
Later, I ask for another price check: How much for an inability to forget me? How much to lodge myself in her brain until she dies?
That only takes one of my toes, and I’m allowed to make a doctor’s appointment for the procedure. I watch Drymarchon swallow it afterwards and search frantically for hunger in its eyes.
DEAL 5 — FOOD
I trade Drymarchon six books (of its choice, from my shelves) for a pint of mint ice cream and a large carton of chicken fried rice, delivered to my bed. I don’t get up for three days unless I’m microwaving the rice. It’s a year or so after Simone, but it’s probably about her.
DEAL 6 — WARNING
Gambling debts mean righteous paranoia. I take Drymarchon out with me in public as an intimidation tactic, and it usually works, but the man I owe is no stranger to snakes. I picture a blackboard crammed with deals—some of them canceling each other out, others superseding weaker ones—and attempt to plan a defense.
“Can you get me the money?”
Yes, for your eyesight.
“No. Can you make it so that no one can make a deal to harm me directly?”
Your right arm.
“No. Can you make it so that he can’t find me ever again?”
Half of your liver.
“No! Can you tell me anything of fucking use?”
Yes, if you will help me with my skin.
I pull away at where its skin is flaking, revealing freshly inked scales beneath. It’s too early in the shedding process for a clean peel, and the work takes half an hour. I’m rougher than I have to be. I replay poker hands in my mind as I rip away the translucent swatches, seeing the right decisions in hindsight, grinding my teeth.
Yes. Sherman has given me a boon to reveal your address to him, as well as your parents’ and Simone’s.
My body stiffens, all my joints lock, and my eyes seem to push forward, threatening to leave my skull as I scream at it. How dare it deal with him, when it sleeps with me. How dare it leave when I was not at home to converse with the man who would hurt me and my family and Simone. I could pick it up by the tail and kill it with one swift whip-crack, does it know that?
We can’t say no, it says.
“Are you sad? Are you guilty? Do you feel anything at all?”
We can’t say no. We can only outline the terms.
“Do you want to deal with him?”
We can’t say no.
I try to prevent it from flowing into bed with me that night, but even the thought of thrashing against it makes me curl into a ball, feeling nauseous. There are stories of people who renege on deals, who tie themselves to telephone poles or lock themselves in rooms so that they won’t make good on their word. It never ends well. Either they succumb to the accord or they die, their bodies seizing as they vomit blood.
“What happens to you if the person you made a deal with dies?” I ask, making my voice sound sleepy even though I am helplessly awake.
I don’t know, Drymarchon says.
“I can’t believe I used to worry about selling a book,” I say.
DEAL 7 — GUN
They break into my apartment before they go after my parents or Simone. I owe Sherman upward of $20,000, so I can’t exactly blame him, but I wasn’t expecting his lackeys so soon. Most likely they just want to rough me up a little, spook me into desperation so that I get the money quick.
Drymarchon tightens around me for a few seconds, and that’s what wakes me up. Our exchange is terse.
“Give me a gun.”
Your ability to have children.
The memories are suddenly there, accessible and clear: shopping for the pistol, picking up the box of cartridges, their weighty jingling in my palm. The gun is under the pillow I don’t use. Nothing happens in my womb; nothing will. That’s fine.
I take aim and growl at the two men to get out. Lucky for me, they aren’t armed, having been told I’m not a danger. They leave while laughing at the fact that I surprised them.
DEAL 8 — SIMONE AGAIN
I go to her and tell her about Sherman, and then I end up telling her about the deal I made for her memory of me, too. She slaps me.
“I knew it was off,” she says. “It’s like a dream I can’t stop having. It’s too crisp. It fucks me up. You always being there.”
“I’m sorry,” I say. I’d hate anything that came out of my mouth at this point, including that, but it’s all I can manage.
“Take it back,” she says. “Make it normal.” I nod. Drymarchon unspools itself and slithers forward.
“Can you undo what we did?” I ask it, refusing to make eye contact.
What you did. We can’t say no.
“What I did, then.”
Yes. A pint of blood.
It doesn’t matter.
“I think it should be yours,” Simone spits, but neither of us has the equipment or the medical know-how, and I don’t have the money for a visit to Urgent Care, even if the nearest one would accept snake-based appointments. I end up in Chinatown, Drymarchon draped around my shoulders. Simone follows at a distance as I buy turtle after turtle. We read that the human body contains eight pints of blood; I estimate that ten large turtles should be enough.
But it isn’t. Emptying them above a bucket, their throats slit and shivering, leaves us a full quarter-pint short.
“Can’t you just give us a discount?” I ask Drymarchon, enraged.
Simone throws the turtle corpses in the dumpster while I tighten one of her hairbands around my arm. It doesn’t make it any easier to see my veins. When she comes back up, I’ve got a steak knife hovering over my skin, and she’s on the phone telling someone not to come over just yet. That’s enough motivation for me to push down and slice.
DEAL 9 — HISTORY
I’m leaning against the bus window, my eyelids feeling like wet paper, my throat one big cramp from crying. My parents lent me most of the money when I gave them the vaguest outline of my troubles. I promised that the funds were for a gambling addiction rehab program. I’m praying it’s enough to call Sherman off.
“Do you have a story about the first deal?” I ask the duffel bag at my feet. Drymarchon stirs inside of it, a shadow displacing other shadows.
“Can I hear it?”
If you tell me your version.
“You must have read it before, or had someone else tell it to you.”
I relate what we’re told as children, about that first exchange in the garden, the fruit of knowledge for an escape from the tree. How the first snake entwined about the first woman’s arm as she reached up, then slid to her torso, then her leg, then to the ground, before it finally slithered off to make more deals with her unhappy, ever-gullible progeny.
Drymarchon listens, its head poised on the edge of the duffel.
There is no fruit in our story, it says. The first snake made a deal so that it would not be cold.
DEAL 10 — STEP ONE
I have an immediate crush on Renee, one of the women in our group. Her significant snake is a lovely little emerald tree boa who goes by Corallus, and it’s wrapped in the style of an infinity scarf around her neck. I stand next to her, and I’m struck by how well Drymarchon, my own blue-black shawl, complements the green.
You’re not supposed to date within the program, and even if it was permitted, I’m too old for her. Still, the prospect of seeing her might motivate me to come back next week.
I’m less fond of the program leader, Ollie. He’s looking pompous in a full suit and blue tie, his hair slicked to the side, a king cobra coiled between his feet. I wonder how many times he’s actually bargained with that snake—it’s not native here, that’s for sure. It feels performative.
He begins with a scripted phrase.
“Let’s make a deal, everyone. What do you say?”
“Healthy asks only,” says the man to his left.
“Wish no harm,” says the woman next to him. And so on, down the circle, skipping the new faces (myself included):
“Stick to yourself.”
“Assume no evil.”
And finally, all together: “It takes two to bargain.”
Ollie smiles, claps his hands together, and everyone shouts, “Agreed!”
We are asked to enumerate our deals, and the audience is asked not to judge. I am surrounded by sympathetic nods, which is unnerving. The first step, I am told, is to take responsibility for my desires and their impact.
“You’ll hear a lot of catchphrases around here,” says Ollie. “One is, ‘They don’t make the terms; they just know ’em.’”
I stare down at Drymarchon, certain that my own face looks lined and lost. Its scales are smooth against my bare shoulders. Forces in that long body conspire to give me a squeeze, and I inhale so that I can say what I’ve been told to say in one quick, quiet breath.
“Can you forgive me?”
Yes, it says. Soon.