Among Scandinavians, the silent loner is somewhat of a stock character, in daily life as well as in literature. The loner is someone whose view of the world is as bleak and frosty as a snowed in day in the middle of a Nordic winter. He (and it’s almost always a he) is a fatalist, convinced that he’s the victim of a grand conspiracy, that everyone around him seeks to humiliate and hound him every step of the way to his grave. His paranoid fear of them is only held in check by his extreme emotional introversion and obsessive self-control: to his mind, impulsiveness leads by necessity to mayhem and violence – the spontaneity of an axe murderer. He habitually wears a mask of disgusted grumpiness, and there is no joy in his life apart from the satisfaction he gains from offending people in a petty, pedantic way, the faint echo of his raging revenge fantasies. Revenge for what? His misanthropy isn’t a result of disappointed love or lost illusions, it’s existential, even inborn. Thrown into an unpredictable, malevolent world, the only thing that keeps him going is his resentful self-reliance. His longing for order and authority, hatred of difference and contempt of weakness make him somewhat of a tragic figure: an archetypal fascist in an age of unbridled individualism.
He had had the pet shop at the same address for thirty years. He had seen budgerigars and lovebirds come and go. Waltzing mice, guinea pigs, hamsters, lizards, stick insects and tarantulas. They had all passed through the shop at some time or other. For a while he had even sold puppies, in the sixties, until the regulations got too complicated. Kittens had never been a good idea, not even then. For all the unwanted litters that some woman or other had brought there through the years, it wasn’t worthwhile doing anything but put them down. He was always ready to oblige, for a fee. The women didn’t want to know how he did it, only that it should be “quick and painless” as they said. As long as he just nodded in understanding of their wish, they couldn’t care less about how it happened. Often they had forgotten the whole shebang before they reached the door.
The first few years he made do with a sack in the farm well, but when they modernised the town he had started gassing them to death in the kitchen oven instead. It was quicker. And he didn’t have to pull them out of the well.
Aquariums, terrariums, and cages covered the dark shop walls. The rooms were screened with Masonite boards to build protected passages for all the animals.
Furthest in was the aquarium section, with algae-covered panes behind which tatty freshwater fish swam around. Most of them goldfish and catfish. At one time he’d bought saltwater fish from a wholesaler in Germany, but they were a bother with the constant change of water. What’s more, you noticed everything in saltwater aquariums. The tiniest scrap of food stung your eyes like scratches in car paint.
In recent years mostly kids came to the shop who didn’t want to buy anything.
You could still sell the odd rabbit, but that didn’t pay the rent.
That’s why he started with the snakes under the counter. He had no qualms about the trade itself. The municipality refused to allow it just to piss him off. Society had become so rule-bound that you couldn’t even shit without asking for permission. Pets needed their own passports. It was harder to import a tarantula than getting a residence permit in this country. In this way he didn’t have to waste his time on red tape.
The snakes were bred by a young guy who lived secluded outside town. He had furnished his basement with brooders and state-of-the-art fluorescent light fittings. He mainly bred python snakes. The longest he’d sold in the shop was a tiger python which was two meters long and as thick as a beam. A grown man from a town nearby bought it for six thousand kronor because he wanted to “get himself a piece of nature”. It was an odd bugger of an explanation, but at least it meant a decent sum, tax-exempt. Right now he had a paperless snake in the shop. He kept it in a lamp-heated terrarium in the shower room just behind the counter, next to the kitchenette. It was special: an albino, red-eyed amethystine python. Its scales were so white, they looked like what-you-call-them silver sequins when you got there in the morning and the shop was dark. It was a female. The guy hadn’t bred her himself but got her from a fellow who’d imported her illegally. She refused food for a month till she finally let herself be placated with a living mouse. The snake was just under two meters and could squeeze a person to death in half an hour if she felt like it. In the wild, pythons rarely used to attack people but it had happened. A few years ago he’d read in the paper about a python that coiled itself in through the ventilation system and strangled a five-year-old in Canada.
Sometimes he would stand in the doorway watching as the snake pranced around behind the glass, cunning and alert with red eyes like signal lights in her forehead. He wondered what being squeezed to death felt like. Whether you were paralysed in the grip, like a small animal, or whether you kept on struggling to get free till the end. How long did it actually take to digest a human being?
In the shop itself he kept those reptiles that didn’t require a licence, but could be just as interesting.
Corn snakes, for example.
Once when some small boys who couldn’t keep their hands to themselves tried to pick up a hamster without permission, he approached them calmly and asked:
“Are you just looking? You’re not going to buy anything?”
The kids shook their heads secretively. Without a word he lifted the hamster out of the cage and dropped it down to one of the corn snakes. The boys backed towards the aquarium wall behind them while the hamster screamed loud enough to give you tinnitus. One of the boys started crying.
“You see, this is what happens if you don’t buy anything,” he explained coolly, went to the till and started counting small change.
The next day a woman came in, the mother of one of the kids, of course. She was upset and angry, her chops red as sausage meat, going on about reporting him to the police. He didn’t stop her. When she finished he answered without looking at her:
“I guess they happened to come precisely at feeding hour. That’s how it works in nature, you know. Eat or be eaten. It’s the way of nature. If they can’t bear it I don’t think you should consider having a pet.”
The boys didn’t come back but that was no loss for the shop. He couldn’t stand them running around there. It just made the glass panes sticky.
But now there was this business with the tortoise.
It arrived yesterday, in a tall brown cardboard box from a deceased estate. Apparently it had belonged to an old lady a bit outside town. She had no relatives and it was the executor of the estate himself that with a harried expression flung the door open and put the box on the counter.
He opened the box suspiciously. At the bottom sat a huge tortoise, the biggest he’d ever seen. It was probably a Greek tortoise, but the shell was so thick it seemed more like armour. The eyes were eerily human. The eyelids half closed. It reminded him of the expression of people who’d been through a little too much in life and preferred keeping the world at a distance through narrowed eyes.
He sensed that the tortoise was incredibly old. There were stories about tortoises living more than three hundred years, but there was no way of measuring their age. Not even if you split them in half was it possible to see how old they were. The internal organs didn’t age, it was a trick of nature that kept the biologists busy. As a little boy he’d once read an adventure book based on true events. There was this story in it that got etched in his memory. It was a description of how a few people had landed on the Galapagos in the fifties and found a gigantic tortoise with the year 1769 carved on its shell together with the name Captain Cook. If it wasn’t a prank, which was unlikely since the island was uninhabited, it had to be the old explorer himself who two hundred years earlier had sent a greeting on a tortoise that was still alive! Unbelievable was putting it mildly. The visitors had eaten the tortoise and brought the shell back home with them; there was a black and white photo of it in the book.
The meat apparently tasted a little like chicken.
He bent forwards and looked down at the tortoise. It stood still in the box, probably too experienced to act rashly. At the top of the shell sat a red, circular mark.
“What’s that on his back?” he asked.
The hard-pressed executor knitted his eyebrows. His face was white and shiny, like wax, or the fur of a waltzing mouse.
“It’s nail varnish. The neighbours told me that she painted him to be able to see him in the flat.”
“Well, that’s also a way”, he answered.
“I don’t want any money for it,” the executor added quickly. “To be honest, I just want someone to take it off my hands. Someone who can take care of it, of course. I had it home with me last night and I hardly slept. I’m not used to animals. Maybe you can sell him?”
He nodded slowly. He hadn’t had a tortoise in the shop for a long time. Most people didn’t know how to handle a tortoise and they couldn’t be housetrained.
“Sure,” he answered. “I’ll take care of him.”
The man disappeared through the door and he was alone with the tortoise. He stood still for a while, wondering where he could place it. There was an empty display case in the window. There had been mice in it but they started gnawing one another, so he had to remove them. You couldn’t have one-legged mice with three-quarter long tails running around in the shop window. People might get ideas.
If he placed the tortoise in the case, it might be a real eye-catcher. Maybe even something that would lure new customers to the shop. Up in his room he had an old yucca palm, which he could bring and place in the display case, together with gravel and a lamp with artificial UV light so that people understood that he took good care of the animal.
He bent forwards and scratched with his thumbnail on the red mark. It was completely stuck. He wanted to remove it before he put the tortoise on show. What could work? He didn’t have any nail varnish remover, he was unmarried. Had never really gotten anywhere with that thing, which was just as well. After all, by the look of his customers and other guys in the town, he could see what a bad bargain they had made.
Animals born in captivity didn’t long to get out; he was convinced about that. But having once been free, that was a different matter. Most married men looked miserable, eaten away by nagging. He didn’t envy them the least.
Maybe turpentine would work. He would have to bring some tomorrow.
He lifted the box into the section where he kept the lovebirds, made an empty cage ready with sand, food and water and gently pushed the tortoise out. It hardly moved. Why did the woman keep a tortoise in her flat? It was no pet for an old lady. And hardly for anyone else. But there were plenty of oddballs around, no doubt about that.
He thought it smelt different from his other animals, dusty. A stale smell of food was also noticeable, he thought. Pork? Brown beans? The tortoise turned its head and looked at him. It was as if it knew something, could see through him. He would have to dispose of it as soon as possible. Those eyes drove him barmy. The question was how much he could ask for it. A new tortoise cost around two thousand kronor, but this was an old one. Five hundred would do. Four hundred at a pinch. He waited for it to approach the bowl of pellets and cucumber he had prepared, but it was nailed to the spot. Finally he turned off the light, locked the door and went home for the night.
He lived in a room above the shop. He’d had the room as long as he’d had the shop. The last few years he hadn’t bothered much about switching on the heating, so the room was damp and cold. He used to sleep with his clothes on. From his bedroom window he could see the disused well and the half-moon above the roofs. He went to bed but couldn’t sleep.
Having a tortoise in the shop wasn’t optimal. What would happen if he were stuck with it for a long time? If no one wanted it? He wondered who the woman was who’d owned it and why, and where it came from?
He tossed and turned in his bed and thought about his mum. When he was little they had a dog, a real mongrel. To scare it she used to blow an old flute that she kept in a box next to her bed. The noise terrified the dog, which his mum found funny.
Back then, when he was little, he felt sorry for the dog. Sometimes when he couldn’t sleep and it was extra cold in the flat, he thought he could hear the flute in the wind. When he by chance got to take over the shop which at that time dealt only in fish, he spent lots of time learning how the aquariums worked. Circle pumps. Filters. Air accessories. Water heating. A whole science, really. He’d felt he did the animals a service by taking care of them; they should be damned happy they didn’t have to work, didn’t have to think even, just swim around half asleep in tempered freshwater while getting fed. He could sit and stare at them for hours. He wondered if they could feel where they themselves ended and the water began.
At that time he hadn’t liked selling the animals. Not because he liked them, but there was something satisfying about the whole set-up. Them in the water, he watching them, making decisions. But it wouldn’t do to let your feelings control you like that. That kind of mentality didn’t make you a businessman!
“Don’t spoil the animals,” said his mum. “Or do you just want to keep them for yourself?” And she laughed scornfully, in that soundless way that always gave him the shivers. As the years went by he achieved an unshakable indifference. He felt grateful that he’d found just this way of being. Now his voice gave expression to a chastened experience. He priced the animals with authority, cleaned the floors and the cages methodically. He never raised his voice, rarely laughed, never let anyone know what his thoughts were. Not that he thought much at all, not actively at least.
Below the blind, that always got stuck halfway down, he could see the asphalt yard and the mounds of weed and nettles alongside the dark fronts of the buildings. If he could collect weed for the tortoise he wouldn’t have to shell out for pellets. And surely fresh chlorophyll made them feel better? Lying there, he tried to remember where he’d put the turpentine. Finally he got up and found the bottle under the kitchen sink. He couldn’t sleep anyway, so there was no use trying. Instead he put on his jacket, went out to the yard and squatted in the bushes. The dandelion leaves were easy to recognise, even in almost complete darkness. He picked a handful and stuffed them in his pocket before going around the house to unlock the shop door.
All the animals were sleeping, even the fishes. He could hear the budgerigars emit some questioning cries when he opened the door and the sound of paws on sawdust from the rabbit cages, but he didn’t bother to turn on the lights. The moon shone in through the window.
The tortoise lay in the middle of the cage, in the same place he had left it. The eyes were wide open. It hadn’t touched the food. The two lovebirds in the cage next to it huddled close together as if scared of their new neighbour. He pulled the dandelion leaves out of his pocket, they smelt strongly of soil, and stuffed them into the case.
The tortoise turned its head but showed no interest for the leaves. The sign on his shell glinted when he moved. Maybe there was something in the varnish that got reflected. They probably added glitter and stuff to it. He could use a wad of cotton for the turpentine, but he didn’t have any. Toilet paper would have to do. He went to the till where he had a packet of paper towels; you never knew when they would come in handy.
Furthest down the corridor was a changing table, if you wanted a name for it. He used it when he needed to pick up an animal or when someone bought an animal and wanted to place it in a cage of its own. Slowly he stretched his hands into the box to lift the tortoise. It was hard to get a grip. The shell was thick. It reminded him of his own toenails. The tortoise was heavy, heavier than he had thought. He lifted it over to the table and put it down. Then he moistened one of the paper towels with turpentine. The smell made him dizzy. Pouring turpentine on it wasn’t the best way of handling a tortoise, presumably, but he had to try to remove the mark. Otherwise the customers would wonder if he was the weirdo who had painted its back.
He was about to start rubbing the towel against the nail varnish when he saw that the sign on the shell wasn’t a circle at all. It was a finger!
A finger, painted in red, pointing straight at him. Frightened, he pulled back his hand. Why hadn’t he seen it before? He saw the finger clearly now. A powerful finger, bent like a claw. He took a step back. The tortoise scratched the laminate, claws clicking with a metallic sound. His heart beat hard. The finger glowed in the dark. He threw a glance at the birds. They had woken up and sat quietly on their perches with eyes wide open. Just their white eyelids moved when they looked at him. He could hear chirping further out in the store. The guinea pigs. They were always fidgety, always assuming the worst. He glanced at the tortoise again to see if the finger was gone. It wasn’t. It looked like a hologram, as if the finger continued into the shell, further into the flesh. As if lying there in a hollow, pointing just at him. He swallowed; his mouth had gone dry. Then he screwed the cap on the turpentine, dried his hands on his trousers and moved the tortoise back into the cage.
The morning after he felt tired but more energetic. He started the coffee maker and went through the shop, doing the morning tasks in peace and quiet. It was time to change the sawdust of the guinea pigs. While he did it, he saw that one of the hamsters had got his leg stuck in the wheel where it used to run around. It squeaked and made a fuss.
“Take a number,” he thought grumpily. Here you handle filth all day, clean up after pets that have a memory shorter than it takes to fart, and still it’s not enough. No fucking tortoise was going to frighten him. What kind of stupidity was that? He took his time filling the food bowls of the guinea pigs, and when he finally got to the hamster, it had fallen silent, lying on its side, vanquished. Exactly! He was in charge here. When he got closer to the tortoise, he still felt his pulse go up. It was strange what happened last night. The dark could play tricks on you, but it had felt so real. When he had changed the water and replenished the food for the budgerigars, he approached the cage. His hands were sweaty and his back too.
It was worse than he had thought. There wasn’t just a finger on the shell. Or rather, it was a finger, but it didn’t keep still. It stretched, grasped at him. He swallowed. “You!” it seemed to be saying. “I know what you’ve done!”
Sweat ran in his eyes. The room began warping around him. He had to support himself on the cockatiel cage. Just then the doorbell rang. Shit! He couldn’t receive customers now. Not while that finger remained on the tortoise. The customers would see it and put two and two together.
It was a mother with a little girl by the hand. The girl had already reached the dwarf rabbits when he caught up with her.
“I’m sorry. It’s closed for the day.” He cleared his throat and pushed her gently towards the door.
“But…you’ve just opened, no?” The mother opened her eyes wide and put her hand on her daughter’s shoulder.
Why did people have to answer back? Why couldn’t they just mind their own business?
“A snake just got loose. You’ll have to go now.”
The woman got moving. Her bottom was so wide it bumped into the doorframes as she wound her way out with the child in front. He turned the key in the security lock. He’d never used the security lock, not once during all the years he had run the business.
The first thing he had to do was cover the display windows. There were two large windows facing the street. In one of them stood the empty glass case in which he wanted to put the tortoise. In the other one an aquarium with beginners’ fish that already had become too old. He should have flushed them down the toilet if he’d thought of it before. But things like that had to wait now. He hurried to the storeroom where he kept fodder and detergents and folded up some boxes that had contained dried pigs’ ears. Then he took a roll of packing tape and went to the window.
Covering the windowpane went quickly, just a couple of minutes. It was strange to think that everything he had looked at for thirty years could be hidden at a moment’s notice. Those windows were like two eyes, his eyes. He had always felt he got the whole picture through them, could watch the world out there at a distance. But now the eyes were turned inwards, to him.
The cardboard made the shop grow darker than he thought it would be; a brown, dusty gloom. The cockatoos cried out, attentive to sudden changes as they were. The other animals had the sense to shut it.
He paused and breathed for a while, preparing himself. Now he’d get rid of the finger.
He noticed that his hands had started shaking. When he looked at them, they seemed to be attached to someone else. He balled his fists to feel in control and went over to the tortoise.
Of course. The finger was actually moving! It was an ugly finger, thicker than his own was, with rolls of fat and a short, sturdy nail. A bit like his mother’s. He decided to put on gloves. Tortoises could bite, and then there was the turpentine. The plastic gloves slid easily over the sweat of his hands.
Well well, now the game is over, he mumbled and stretched down for the tortoise.
While unscrewing the bottle and fumbling with the cap, he noticed how the shop had fallen quiet. Maybe the blackout made the animals silent. When he looked around quickly, he noticed how all the usual activity had stopped. The lovebirds watched him with their squinting, empty eyes. Further away he glimpsed the rabbits. They had gathered along the sides of the cages with their feet on the grids while attentively staring in his direction. Their small noses twitched soundlessly. The hamsters likewise. The gecko, who was about as interesting as the insects he used to feed him, had raised its head and fastened its cold reptile eyes on him.
“What are you gawping at?” he asked sourly.
A parrot moved closer, its head rotating to get a better view. He wished he had a blind to pull down in front of it. But then he finally got some turpentine on the paper towel, and gripping the shell firmly he began rubbing the finger on the back of the tortoise.
At first it seemed to go well. The finger slowly disappeared. But when he’d come halfway down the hand, around where it looked like a hollow, he noticed how the first part of the finger reappeared from the shell. He pressed it and saw how it gave way again under pressure.
But as soon as he lifted his own finger, the image came back. It was like putting pressure on a bruise! The image just disappeared randomly. Was it somehow impregnated on the shell? He rubbed for his dear life just to see that the finger returned thirty seconds later. What kind of diabolical idea was this?
The tortoise started swaying its head violently and lunged at his hand, but he was too experienced to fall for the feint. Instead he moved backwards a step. The finger on the shell was more distinct than ever. It showed even better now in the half-light. Appalled, he saw that it moved sideways slowly, as if cursing him and saying, “Forget it! You won’t be rid of me!”
He felt scared. He had no words for it, but his body knew. He was drenched in sweat and had to pee. He lowered the safety gate in front of the changing table and went to the toilet.
The single lightbulb in the ceiling of the loo lit only sporadically. It had been like that for a long time, but now he regretted that he hadn’t changed it. The toilet bowl wasn’t a nice sight. He hadn’t scrubbed the porcelain for a long while. The toilet seat was up most of the time and a strong stench, of pet shop as much as of urine, lay over the room. He wondered how many fishes he had flushed down here. Those who had been attacked by other fish, the sick, the old, the ugly. Now he wondered if they could feel that they’d been flushed down, if there was an instinct in them to try to escape from the pipes? How long did they live after you flushed?
He studied himself in the mirror. He had an unshaven face, swollen, hard to describe. Brown-beige hair, grey-brown beard. Deep-set eyes that you might call speckled. A neck that was white and wrinkled. He hardly remembered how old he was. Fifty-one.
Once he had flushed a mouse, just because its sound annoyed him. Now he regretted it. Damn it. Was he turning soft because of everything? What was really going on here? He decided to go up to his room. He would think through everything till tomorrow, and by then he’d probably come up with something workable, better than turpentine.
It was already afternoon and the street outside was deserted. The town was often empty. Lots of people had moved away, but the municipality pretended that there were growth and quality of life like never before. What words! He fumbled with the security lock. It was terribly hard to open it. Eventually he withdrew the key and looked at it, as if that would help, but it was clearly the right key. He did use it to lock, after all. He put it back in and turned it, but to no avail. The lock didn’t open. He tried repeatedly, even though he already understood what had happened: the door was jammed. He was locked inside the shop.
The display windows couldn’t be opened and there were no other windows, just an aperture in the toilet facing the yard which was too small for him to climb through. Maybe he could call someone, but who? He had never needed to ask the local jacks-of-all-trades a favour, and he didn’t want to start now.
Once he’d needed to contact an electrician who short-circuited the light fittings by mistake and managed to fry some of the hamsters. He was forced to call another person to do something about the error. And the locksmith… no, he could wait. It might go better in an hour, things like that happened. Didn’t they? And it was almost two weeks since the python snake had been fed. It was high time.
It was still quiet in the shop. The animals hadn’t gone back to their activities but remained sitting, attentively peering into the newly established darkness.
“Night night!” he said just to confuse them even more when he shuffled into the shower room.
The terrarium in which he kept the white python was one meter square and had a sliding glass door on one side. He’d had pink-toed tarantulas in it before, which attracted teenage girls. Especially with the description “calm and stable mood, a real friend!”
Actually, the tarantulas were neurotic and unreliable and could live longer than a dog if you were unlucky.
The python was hungry. He could see it from the way it swayed its head.
“You at least haven’t changed,” he thought, relieved. “Not like your other buddies, who seem to have gone strange, all of them.”
He was going to give the snake a mouse for dinner, a live one. Not one of those frozen ones that came in portion packs and looked like fish fingers, apart from being covered in nutrition powder instead of breadcrumbs. He went over to the mice and picked up the fattest one. It fought impatiently, as if the grip around its tail was just an accidental problem that would be solved presently. It would probably think otherwise about that matter when it ended up in the terrarium.
The mouse landed on its feet in the sand. Usually they didn’t even get that far, especially not when the snake was really hungry. The mouse looked surprised as it stared out through the glass of the terrarium. The python had raised the front part of its body and swayed slowly back and forth.
He looked forward to its sinking its teeth in the mouse. It was as if he needed a real wake-up call, something brutal to set straight all the weird things happening in the store. It could be quite an interesting process to watch how the body of the mouse was squeezed like a caviar tube and all the air was pressed out of its rear end before the battle was over for good. But nothing happened. The snake didn’t bite. It kept its head raised, but it wasn’t at the mouse it looked. It was at him. The pupils were pitch black and at the same time empty and expressionless, like pissholes in the snow.
“Come on, get him!” he shouted and pointed angrily at the mouse. “There he is! Don’t just sit and stare!”
But the snake didn’t lunge. The mouse sat at ease in the heated sand, licking his front paw leisurely. It was a pink, little creature. He had always imagined that the snake enjoyed the crunchiness of these creatures, like chicken gristle. But not this time, apparently.
“What the hell,” he muttered while sweat ran down his spine, under the waistband of his jeans. It was hot in here, bloody hot. The amount of money he’d spent on those fittings. And on the UV heat lamp and the gravel and the fodder.
And this was his reward?
He scrambled out into the shop and started rummaging for the phone book under the counter. It was as thin as a weekly. The yellow pages were at the end. He checked the index. LOCKSMITHS. One entry. The firm was called Lock-Kalle. What a silly name. Not much of a job, breaking into other people’s locks, but he couldn’t care less about that now. Nervously he dialled the number on the greasy rotary dial. Four signals went out. Then he got connected to an answering machine.
“Lock-Kalle speaking. The President isn’t available just now, but leave your name and number and tell us what house you want to invade, and we’ll get back to you. Bye.”
He hesitated for a second before hanging up. He couldn’t leave a message, he didn’t even know if he had any voice left. He was afraid of opening his mouth to test it. His hands were shaking. There should be someone else to call, but who? He didn’t have any friends. Old classmates raising their heads in a silent greeting when passing the shop windows, of course, but nothing more than that. Who could he call? The police? No crime had taken place. He’d locked himself in, that’s the long and short of it. If you didn’t count the tortoise and the mouse and all the other strange things going on.
Outside, daylight was almost gone. The gaps around the cardboard on the windows looked the same colour as the cardboard itself. Brown. That evenings were clear or blue or pink wasn’t correct.
They were brown. Beige. Everything else was human imagination, a way of trying to fool yourself. He’d never fallen for it. Animals didn’t fool themselves, and a human being was really an animal. An animal that couldn’t bear its own reality.
His stomach ached. When did he last eat something? Not that he was hungry, exactly; it was more of a mechanical need to fill his tummy. He went to the kitchenette and turned on the lamp. There was a coffee maker, but no fridge there. He’d stopped using milk when he realised that he didn’t need to keep anything else in it than the milk for his coffee. There was no food, not even instant soup. Three lumps of sugar lay on a plate. He stuffed them in his mouth. He needed something more. It didn’t have to look like food, as long as it was filling. He shuffled to the storeroom. Large cardboard troughs of pellets were stacked on the shelves. He grabbed the end of one of them and did something he’d never done before: he read the list of ingredients.
Wholegrain wheat, dried pork protein, gluten, lard, yeast, fish oil.
Wasn’t that in principle what people stuffed themselves with? In just a slightly different shape? He opened the packet and filled a plastic box that stood next to it on the shelf.
You could make it resemble muesli, if it was so bloody important that it look nice. He brought the box to the kitchen, added water from the tap and stirred. Then he took a spoon from the sink and sat down with his meal on the revolving chair behind the till.
Darkness had descended. Only the weak light from the street lamps filtered through behind the cardboard, like diluted searchlights. The revolving chair groaned under him when he turned. The heating generator hummed monotonously from the shower room. He didn’t want to grant the company out there so much as a look, maybe after he’d eaten. The pellets tasted dry, despite the water he had added. Like pulp or sawdust. Determined, he ate up everything and ended his dinner with a loud belch. The animals answered him with silence. Even the cockatoos. A world without animals. It would be dreadful. With surprising lucidity he felt that he would actually prefer a world without humans! Although these animals had in principle exhausted him, at least they’d never lied. They had never dissembled.
Maybe they didn’t lie now either. Maybe the tortoise tried to give him a message? Would the other animals stand behind this message, since they kept quiet? He felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise, despite the heat radiating from the shower room.
He got up and went quietly through the bird corridor. The tortoise remained standing on the same spot. Tortoises were stubborn. Few people knew that they had one of the best memories in nature. The hand on the shell glowed, just as stubbornly.
“What do you remember?” he thought, and bent forwards in the dark. “Do you remember things you weren’t even part of? Do you know me?”
The index finger gleamed affirmatively on the back of the tortoise.
He stretched his back. The finger glowed like ashes in a boy scout’s camp, one he remembered from his childhood. The only campfire he’d ever sat at.
“What do you want from me?”
The finger glowed stronger, a final lump of coal.
He looked around the corridor. The eyes of the parrots shone like gleaming pebbles. Animals couldn’t cry, he knew that. Nothing strange about that. He couldn’t cry himself.
“I deserve this,” he thought, as clearly as you spell out a word for someone deaf. You thought it, plainly and simply, in your head.
He went to the shower room and stood on the threshold. The seams of the red wall covering had loosened a long time ago, but now he saw the seams differently. Not as black gaps but as a worry he could let go of. Maybe an opening, a road. Weren’t roads black? Brown. Beige.
Maybe they looked differently from the other side. The tap was dripping, but it had always done that. He hadn’t bothered changing the gasket. Taps dripped, life ran out, drop by drop. It was the way of nature, and it wasn’t up to him to conceal it. He didn’t want to be like the other boors, the squeamish blocks of meat that wandered past outside the window believing they could tame wild animals, believing they could tame a python. Maybe he himself was more of a boor than the others, but he still didn’t want to be like them.
The heat lamp burned from its socket in the ceiling, like a glowing sun. If you pretended it was a real sun, the heat wasn’t that insane. You could wear sunglasses and lie there roasting yourself.
None of the animals in the shop had seen the real sun, apart from an occasional glimpse through the unpolished windows. How often had he seen the sun himself? Rarely. He’d been sitting in here, guarded by his guarding, in a cage that looked like a house. The sun. It was there in the lamp.
How hot could it be in the terrarium? He squatted beside the sliding door. The terrarium was just slightly shorter than his own bed. The snake raised its head curiously and looked at him. “Here you sit, having a great time,” he mumbled and pressed his finger to the glass. He’d like to feel the sand inside, check if it was warm. The mouse seemed comfortable. It sat on its hind legs in one of the corners, holding a Leca ball that had probably fallen out of one of the jars. The snake had some real cactuses, a plastic cave and a decoration shaped like a human scull he’d received from a fodder supplier. He’d really taken care to make it cosy in there! Pity that he couldn’t enjoy it himself. It struck him as being deeply unfair: that he had to sit out there in the dusty, dark shop, while the snake and the mouse got to lie on the beach. He took off his shirt and slowly slid open the glass door on the side. A dry heat struck him.
Usually he just opened the hatch on top of the terrarium at feeding hours, but now when he slid open the whole of the side it felt like being in a desert. Or in a uterus. Those lamps hadn’t been a waste of money after all. He stood on all fours and gently laid his hand on the sand. It was hot and smelled pungently of something strange: presence.
Slowly, and with all his shapeless body, he climbed into the terrarium. As soon as the glass walls closed around him, nothing could be heard of the world outside. Not even the heating generator. Finally! he thought. How lovely it was, the stillness.
He laid his cheek to the sand and could see, from below, how the python rose and, like a dancer or a tree rotating in a storm, turned its muscular, sequined white back. Then he felt the bite, the teeth curved backwards, sink into his fat, just below his waist. For a second he felt something he couldn’t put into words. Grateful? Flattered? He saw the red of the lamp above, the light beams one by one; determined, indefatigable. Beams that didn’t understand that they were surrounded by other beams, each one focused on its single, reckless task of reaching the ground, the sand, the soil. The body of the snake twisted round him.
He felt how the air was forced out of his lungs, a white flash in his field of vision, the scales maybe? And then, while exhaling for the last time, he yielded completely, surrendered, resigned and wound his arms around the snake. He didn’t know anymore who hugged whom. They were hugging each other, as if their lives depended on it.
*Featured image: Dennis Didinger via Fubiz