Julia Hager Tagliere

The Knot

            Jason and Em had debated having children long enough now to have become parents several times over, and still the debate went on. Jason was for, Em was against; Em’s snakes were ambivalent.
            “Why do they get a vote again?” Jason asked as they cleaned up dinner.
            Em’s snakes hissed in unison.
            “It affects them, too. Shh,” Em reached a soapy hand up to soothe her snakes until they settled back down.
            “How, exactly?”
            “I’m not crazy about your tone.”
            “It’s a legitimate question.”
            “I don’t know how.”
            “Maybe it wouldn’t.”
            Em rolled her eyes; her snakes did, too. “Look what my taking the pill does to them. They’re lethargic. And I think they’re bloating.”
            “Well, maybe stopping the pill would fix that.” Jason snuggled his hips against her butt, pressing her against the counter. “They were pretty fun before.”
            “Until Betsy bit your dick.”
            Betsy, Em’s littlest snake, snickered beneath Em’s scarf, then slipped out to cuddle around Em’s right ear, her favorite spot. A cunning little creature, she’d been the last of Em’s snakelings Jason had won over.
            “Well, that part wasn’t fun, but the rest was. Kinda kinky.”
            “Is this about sex or kids? I can’t tell.”
            “Why are you against having kids?”
            “This isn’t about for or against, it’s about understanding the realities of our current situation and not making a rash decision that will affect all of us.”
            “‘Current situation.’ What does that mean? Besides…” Jason scuffed his shoe against the baseboard. “It doesn’t have to affect all of us.” He ducked under Betsy’s chin and whispered into Em’s ear. “You did talk about getting rid of them once.”
            Em shoved him away. “Are you kidding me with this?” Betsy snapped at Jason and a backup chorus of angry hisses exploded in the air around Em’s head, nearly wrenching her scarf off as she slammed the bedroom door shut between her and her snakes and Jason.
            Alone in the bedroom—as alone as a woman with a headful of live snakes ever is—Em removed her scarf. Released from their silken confinement, the little snakes twitched and writhed, agitated. It took Em a few minutes to calm them back down, but after a few minutes of meditation, they started drifting off, even Tank, the biggest and strongest, and Astrid, her mischief-maker; only little Betsy kept the vigil.
            “God, I’m tired, Bets,” Em said. “Why is this so hard?” Betsy curled her spine in a way that suggested a shrug and softly licked Em’s earlobe.
            Em had fallen for Jason the first time they met, as she was walking home alone across campus from yet another frat party that had ended in disaster. He’d arrived late to the party from work and when he heard how his “brothers” had taunted Em, how they’d all tried to goad her into turning one of them to stone and actually torn her scarf from her head, sending her running out the door, Jason set his beer on the table, snatched the girl’s scarf off his roommate’s head and ran after the girl with the snakes. He’d offered to walk her home because he felt so bad and because it was late, and even for a girl with snakes, walking alone—if he didn’t count her pissed-off fanged escorts—on a college campus at night was not the move for a girl, even one with a head full of snakes. Cute and sweet, smart and funny, Jason had been the first guy to approach her not on a dare, not to see if she really turned guys to stone (she couldn’t, of course), but because he wanted to know the woman beneath the snakes, and once he did get to know her, and she him, over pizza and at basketball games and on long walks and snuggled up together at dollar-movie nights at the student center, there was no turning back for either one of them.
            The first night they slept together, he brought flowers for her and frozen mice for her snakes; he thought he’d done something wrong when she started crying, until Tank and Astrid tried to snatch the bag from him. She apologized, still sniffling, explaining that mice were a rare treat. They took turns feeding them, and later, she and the snakes gave Jason her virginity. Afterward, the snakes’ soft hissing snores lulled Em to sleep, safe for the first time in a man’s arms.
            How could she explain to Jason how unsafe now the thought of motherhood made her feel? The world just worked for him, in ways it never had for her and her snakes, not because he was Jason, but simply because he was a man, and what’s more, a man without live serpents instead of hair. Fortunately for Em, he was also a man who had used every advantage he possessed to build around her and her snakes this precious, unexpected life they shared together now.
            He wasn’t wrong that Em had once contemplated euthanizing her snakes so she could have a more “normal” life. Though it pained her to remember it, she took comfort in knowing that she’d only gone there once, briefly, and in a moment of terrible weakness, after having been fired from her job, when Floyd had bitten a co-worker who’d grabbed Em’s ass in the elevator. But as painful as that episode had been for her and her snakes, it had forced them all to search harder for a better opportunity for her, and, now, here she was working her dream job as the director of Special Programming for the Reptile House at the National Zoo, a position that came with fantastic bennies—including top-notch health care for her snakes. She and Jason had found a few new friends in their neighborhood who seemed to accept them, snakes and all, and they were just beginning to experience the freedom to travel and enjoy life a little bit with two steady salaries. But more important to Em than that, they were enjoying just being able to live, and breathe, and sleep, and even dream at night in safety and stability.
            But a child? Now? A child would change everything. If she’d learned anything from friends and co-workers who had children, it was that kids were total agents of chaos, anarchic disrupters of the most orderly of lives — even if some of them were kind of cute, at least when they were really small and not crying constantly.
            Could she even get pregnant? Em wondered, not for the first time. Snakes in the wild laid eggs, she thought. Would she? She snorted at the thought of what size egg she would have to produce. If she did get pregnant, would the snakes have morning sickness, too, then, or labor pain (could snakes have epidurals)?
            A terrible thought struck her: What if she died in childbirth: would her snakes die, too? If they survived, and she didn’t, would Jason take care of them? And if they didn’t all die together during childbirth, what if her snakes didn’t like the child she and Jason made? What if, God forbid, one of her snakes bit it? Would Em have to choose between her snakes, the very things that made her her, and this hypothetical child? Could she choose? How could Jason not understand how terrified she was to have to surrender so much of herself?
            Em covered her face with her hands, feeling sick to her stomach already, and Floyd roused just enough to nuzzle her, flicking his tongue at her pinky finger, trying to ease her obvious distress. “It’s okay, buddy,” Em whispered, stroking his little nose.
            The bedroom door opened, and Jason came and sat on the floor beside them. Lavinia, always a light sleeper, lifted her sleek head and blinked warily at him until he tried to tickle her, but she wasn’t having it; she stuck her forked tongue out at him with a disgruntled hiss.
            “I’m sorry, Em. And you, too, Lavinia,” Jason said. “I’m not sure what made me say that just now. I know you weren’t serious about getting rid of them when you said that before. You were having a rough time then from losing your job. It wasn’t fair for me to bring it up again.” “I still don’t understand how Floyd biting that skeevy old ass-grabber got me fired,” Em muttered. “Floyd was just protecting me.”
            “I know, and I’m sorry I went there,” Jason said. “You know, don’t you, that you and our snakes are a package deal for me?”
            Em blinked at him. “You said ‘our.’”
            Jason blinked back, and for a moment, Em thought he was beginning to favor Lavinia a little.
            “Of course I said ‘our,’ they are ours,” Jason said. “Look, this is really scaring you, and I don’t want that. I love you. I don’t want to push you into something you don’t want, that’s not who I am. It’s never been who I am. We don’t have to have kids to be a family. You, Astrid, Tank, Lavinia and Floyd, even Betsy — even with the dick bite — you’re the family I want. The family I need.”
            “Are you sure?” Em asked, searching his face for second thoughts and finding none.
            “About the dick bite?”
            Em laughed.
            “Seriously, yes, Em,” Jason said. “I’m sure. We’ve talked about this long enough. Let’s just be a family together, okay?” He kissed each of their snakes on their tiny, restive snouts, telling Betsy, “But no more dick bites.” She fluttered her eyes at the ceiling, as if to say she would think about it.
            Jason slid down to rest his head in Em’s lap, and she bent down to kiss him. All their snakes curled in about them, creating a pulsing, Gordian knot drawing itself in against the world — all except for Betsy.
            She eased her head free from the shelter of her family’s undulating core, and continued to keep watch as always, one emerald eye wide open and glittering, fixated on Em’s and Jason’s meeting lips.

Images that inspired This story

There’s this tree along the trail by my house; it looks like a very pregnant woman, hands on her aching back, right down to her belly button sticking out (a knotty hole in the tree). I passed it one morning and a black snake had taken up residence in the hole! Given my vision of that tree as an expectant mother, seeing a black snake slithering from “her” abdomen made quite the impression on me; I think that was what made me put motherhood and snakes together in Tara Campbell’s workshop

Julia Tagliere is a writer and editor and the recipient of a 2022 Maryland State Arts Council Independent Artist Award. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Writer, Potomac Review, Gargoyle Magazine, Washington Independent Review of Books, SmokeLong Quarterly, WritersResist, Birdcoat Quarterly, various anthologies, and the juried photography and prose collection, Love + Lust. Winner of the 2015 William Faulkner Literary Competition for Best Short Story, the 2017 Writer’s Center Undiscovered Voices Fellowship, and the 2021 Nancy Zafris Short Story Fellowship, Julia resides in Maryland with her family, where she completed her M.A. in Writing at Johns Hopkins University. In 2019, she founded the community literary reading series MoCo Underground, to showcase the work of local writers. She serves as an editor with The Baltimore Review and is currently working on her next novel. Contact her at julia@justscribbling.com.