Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 28
The Curse of Sally Tincakes
by Brad Torgersen
Blank Faces
by M.K. Hutchins
The Snake King Sells Out
by Rahul Kanakia
Calling the Train
by Jeff Stehman
IGMS Audio
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews

The Snake King Sells Out
    by Rahul Kanakia

The Snake King Sells Out
Artwork by Kevin Wasden

After his abdication ceremony, Norman stayed away from his old kingdom: the dancepits beneath the bridge; the alleys where discarded shells and coils of molted skin hung from streetside stalls; the boiling cauldrons where his people softened their carapaces and anonymously impregnated each other; and, most of all, the huge vacant lot where he'd once held court from atop a tall slab of granite that his subjects had stolen from a construction site.

Instead, he retreated to the backyard of a former admirer. He found the handsaw that the man had said he owned. Perry put down a blue tarp, slithered onto it, and went to work.

The spines running down his back snapped off at their hilts. He collected them in a bucket. The interlocking horns emanating in a tangle from his forehead and scalp had been the largest rack in Oakland's Scaletown, where the money that the scale-dealers would pay for a few inches of horn was often the only thing standing preventing a snake from starving. Perry had become king because he'd refused to make those compromises. But now, he carefully sawed off the rack and swaddled it in a blanket.

When Perry had told his fellow kings what he was planning, the conclave had hissed at him. He was the heaviest and oiliest snake amongst them. His durable carapace had once totaled a Ford Explorer that had tried to run him down. How could someone like that ever go back to being pink, soft, naked? But Perry was firm. He didn't want to spend his life as king of a squat. He knew he was capable of more.

Finally, even his scales were peeled away, packed in paper, and loaded onto the bed of a borrowed truck. Then he carefully sanded down the last few millimeters of scale with a large file and collected the glittering dust in a jar. He checked himself in a hand-mirror. Perry looked like a human again; he looked like the man his parents had expected him to grow up into.

Usually, Perry only came to San Francisco to beg money from tourists who went wide-eyed when they saw him. Today he reveled in blending in with those tourists.

He walked through upscale districts where only yesterday the guards would've hustled him away from storefronts and entrances. He went from shop to shop, carrying his wares on a back that was strong from years of hauling a seventy-pound carapace. Finally he was quoted a price that sang out to him in terms of miles he could travel and meals he could eat . . . he took the money and left a part of himself behind. His horns and scales would go to adorn the bodies and mantels of wealthy women.

"That's the way to do it," he'd said in all the nests. "None of this dealing with Scaletown ripoff artists. Grow big and then cut everything away. Get a high price from city shops that only trade in high-quality scales."

Over the last six months he'd talked about it so often that he'd convinced himself it was what he'd planned all along . . . that his entire journey from tiny scaley to secret king of the twining dances under the evening sun in Tilden Park had merely been a search for one big payoff.

With the registered check in hand, the downtown bank whose Scaletown branch had rejected him with a cold form-letter was all too willing to let him open a checking account. He drove home with the windows down and plastic in his frayed wallet, feeling the wind playing out over his newly bare skin. The air felt strange, like it was flowing down inside his body and through his veins.

Chicago was torture. He'd gone somewhere cold to prove he was no longer restricted by the need to sun himself on a steaming patch of asphalt. But his blood had grown thick inside that carapace, and despite all the layers of clothing he wore, the cold numbed his arms and legs even when he was inside his apartment.

He'd used his scale-money to lease a Hyde Park apartment where he stayed holed up inside for weeks. He paced the bare blue carpet of his unfurnished living area for hours, popping back into consciousness every fifteen minutes to congratulate himself on how fast the time was flowing.

He'd wanted to make a clean break, but he couldn't stop imagining what his former subjects were doing. When he'd left, his fellow king, Arendt, had been fasting in preparation for swallowing a calf, whole, during the solstice festival, so he could hibernate through the winter months with that bulge slowly dissolving inside him. Had he succeeded? Or had his belly split open again, like it did last year? Perry was glad he hadn't told anyone where he was going or how to reach him. At times, a single familiar voice on the phone would have been enough to send him running home.

Instead, he walked those slowly warming street and tried to remember how human beings acted. Once, when a blockbuster movie came out, he lined up on opening day, bought a ticket, and hoped the show would sell out so that someone would be forced to sit next to him. When the film started, there were men on either side of Perry, and he drowsed between them, pretending that he was back in the nest.

He pecked out a resume, struggling to remember the date he should have graduated from college. He told the interviewers he'd spent the past few years studying music composition in Italy - or sometimes Spain - and they all laughed together at how his dreams had fallen away. He blackmailed two snakelovers, humans based in big companies back in San Francisco, into acting as his references. He got a job at an insurance company.

The scale money was invested into the two suits that he wore to work, where he sat behind a desk for nine or more hours a day. His coworkers had no idea that Perry had once commanded hundreds through force of will alone. When he'd hissed, they'd assembled. They'd slithered together at midnight through the shuttered public parks and national forests. They'd made figures in the mud of Sequoia national park, and hunted down mountain lions in the hills of the Sierra Nevadas. Perry had been a king, while the silly, ordinary people he now worked with had been adding and subtracting figures and arranging them in spreadsheets.

But for all his power, he'd always had to hustle to stay alive. He'd never had this . . . all the food he could eat . . . a place where he could shut the door and be alone . . . and the ability to sit in a safe spot and turn off his mind.

And the figures and spreadsheets had their own beauty. Sometimes he could get lost in the actuarial tables. Once, he fell into a reverie at his desk and came up with a new product. Snakes were generally held to be degenerate and dirty, but the tables didn't lie. Their risk of death from the violent incidents so common to youth was quite low, perhaps due to their durable carapaces. Their lives were underpriced. He spent a few days drafting a memo. He rewrote it endlessly, trying to decide what term would avoid betraying his past, before finally hitting upon "persons of altered physiognomy."

He sent the memo to his boss and for a few weeks was CC'ed on emails as it percolated upwards.

One day, Perry looked to the right and saw a scaley peering over the cubicle partition. Instinctively, Perry hissed. The scaley looked shocked. He was an undergrown one, with just the seeds of scales popping up on his face and arms, and the nubs of horns growing on his forehead. Both Perry and this scaley clipped themselves every day, but this one left a little bit of residue behind: enough to be visible.

The scaley said hello. He'd read Perry's memo. He went off, quickly, and Perry was satisfied that he'd even managed to fool another snake . . . Perry hadn't gone about the process of reintegration half-assed, like this fool had. Why bother trying to make it in a man's world without looking like a man? Perry asked around about the other scaley. Turned out he was a diversity hire, and actually senior to Perry.

Perry's memo was garbage-filed somewhere upstairs. He heard that when the other scaley tried to argue for it, he ended up being transferred away from headquarters, to Indianapolis. Perry's boss noticed that he never complained about it, and, after they had a good laugh about the short-sightedness of the guys upstairs, Perry was promoted.

Within a few years, there were scaleys everywhere. Oh, they were still fairly rare, but Perry could see them creeping into the human world. He spotted one bagging his groceries. He saw one shopping for new speaker cables in the electronics store. He saw the full, vibrant, overgrown rack of a snake bobbing up and down as it led visitors on tours of the Field Museum.

And they'd crept into his company too. There were four of them right in his building: one in the research division on the third floor, two policy examiners on the floor below him, and one in the call center just down the hall. The latter had a particularly finely formed and gleaming carapace.

Didn't they know that they were going about things wrong? Perry had an office. He had respect. They didn't have anything. Except for the call center scaley, they all ate together and disdained the human beings. Perry had heard that they thought he was a bigot because he'd buttonholed the researcher in the elevator. Perry had asked the scaley whether he'd ever considered becoming human again. The researcher had murmured something and then looked forward, its infinite contempt radiating fractally off the polished metal surfaces of the elevator.

Perry thought they were lazy. Perry had been a king, and he'd given it up for something better. What had they given up? Now, there were Scaletowns everywhere. One had just arisen in Chicago: a bunch of converted warehouses that was specially insulated and heated. But these new Scaletowns didn't have kings; they had landlords. They didn't have dances in the fields; they had gatherings in living rooms. They didn't have boiling subterranean cauldrons; they had tepid bathtubs.

Perry still filed himself down daily, scraping away the buds of horns and seeds of scales. He didn't sell the pieces anymore; he drove to far-away neighborhoods and left the plastic bags of clippings in foreign garbage cans.

But these scaleys didn't have to do that. If they wanted, they could grow and grow. The call center snake was heavier than many kings Perry had known. But none of them seemed to care about achieving dominance.

That's what Perry had wanted for so long. Even before the crosshatching patterns had begun to rise up out of his teenage skin, he had read salacious exposés about the doings of the snakes in the sewers and thought that they were so free and so much more beautiful than anything his world held. And above them all, the kings, with their eyes glinting from atop the writhing forms. The kings held the kind of power that the rest of the world didn't offer anymore. Kings who ruled by personality, by beauty, by every trick except force, how could anyone not want that? Most people couldn't have it, but if you could, then how could you refuse it?

Perry hadn't refused. He'd ascended the heights of Scaletown and then he'd walked away. He'd won and now he was winning again, but these scaleys had never even tried.

Perry wondered whether his old kingdom had continued on without him or whether it had dwindled away - like Perry had - with the new scaleys staying away, and the old ones moving on, clipping themselves down, or worse, becoming freaks out in the human world.

But in his mind that warren of abandoned buildings, twining sewers, cracked asphalt, and overgrown parks still gave birth to the same hopeless, eternal nests of vipers. Would anyone remember him out there? Was there still a place for him?

One night, Perry woke up from a dream and realized that he wanted to be anywhere but here. His nascent scales reverberated with energy, and he felt light. That morning his hand paused over the large steel file - he'd worn down more than two dozen files since coming out here - and thought about going in to the management meeting with his heritage proudly showing. But his stomach churned at the thought of that confrontation. That's when he knew he'd never again be a king. He filed away at the scale beds. Then he gave his two weeks' notice.

As he drove west, his scale beds turned silver. Outside Sacramento, a gas station attendant locked the door as Perry approached. When he reached Oakland, Perry was both elated and disturbed to see that Scaletown looked the same. At its edges there were new condominiums where snakes came and went from holes in the walls, but in the rotting center, the old overgrown kings still sunned themselves on the corners and held court amongst a swirl of little scaleys.

Perry felt a mix of nostalgia and heartsick desire as he watched one king slowly amble down the block. The king was much larger than Perry had ever been: twenty or thirty feet long, with glossy black scales. It was good that the streets in West Oakland had been built wide to accommodate trucks, because the king was taking up every lane. His long, silver spikes scratched up the pavement and errant sweeps of his tail knocked dents into parked cars.

A gang of human youths gathered at one corner and threw rocks at the king. Perry's heart lurched. The king could kill them all with a snap of his fangs. But the king looked from side to side, warily. His followers had dissolved into their warehouse nests. He was all alone on the street. In the distance, a siren lit up.

The youths pressed their assault. One rock bounced off the king's iron hide and smacked into Perry's car. The other cars waiting with Perry had swerved off into side streets or made hasty U-turns. One police car screeched up, and then another. The king had curled up into a ball, but he poked his head up to look at the police. The youths had thrown themselves to the ground in a tableau of feigned victimhood, and were shouting a chorus of pleas for mercy. The balled-up king rocked back and forth.

Perry blinked twice. The king's worried face contained the briefest outline of someone he'd once known: Arendt. Dozens of police warily approached the king, holding long prods and nets. A few of the cars were equipped with curved rams that slowly jostled at Arendt.

Not knowing what else to do, Perry pulled out his phone, exited his car, and started recording. His heart ached as he slowly approached the police. The first few steps were torture, but the next ones happened automatically.

Police attention was so focused on Arendt that Perry came within a dozen steps before they turned around, looked at him, raised their riot batons and shouted for him to back off.

He stopped, but kept his phone pointed at them.

"They made an unprovoked assault on him," Perry said.

"This isn't your place, little scaley," Arendt said.

Faced with Perry's camera, the police conferred, and slowly lowered their weapons. They dispersed the youths with a few stern warnings, and then settled down to the work of meting out punishments for Arendt.

The lead officer pulled out a pad and began writing tickets and summons and citations for Arendt: jaywalking, blocking traffic, damaging city property; damaging private property; resisting arrest; obstructing justice. By the time he was done, he'd left a tidy pile of paper next to one of Arendt's claws.

After the police left, Arendt said, "Who's your king, boy? He'll be sure to hear about your foolishness. I damned well told you to let me handle it."

"They were about to bring you down."

"Oh, they can't hurt me. And in jail, they have to feed me." Arendt extended himself and tensed his body. For the first time, Perry saw two nubs of flesh poking out from Arendt's shoulders. The nubs twitched rapidly as Arendt stretched. Was he growing wings?

Arendt continued, "You're a funny little thing, aren't you? You've got the coloring of a king - a fine, deep black - but your scales are so soft. You look like a king who's been shrunk down to the size of a little scaley."

Perry's heart palpitated. He mumbled something and looked away, hoping Arendt wouldn't recognize him. When the king got up, the tickets flew off and scattered across the street. Perry ran up and down, collecting them, while the king laughed and stomped away.

Arendt had been given fines of more than five thousand dollars and several summons to appear in court. Perry took the tickets down to the police station to see if anything could be done.

In the station, he was shocked to see a bored-looking scaley wearing a uniform and sitting behind a desk. When Perry presented the tickets to the scaley, the officer said, "You shouldn't get involved with those guys. They're trouble."

"The kings are just trying to live their lives."

"They're selfish," the police scaley said. "They don't think about the costs they're imposing on the taxpayer - the roads that need repaving, the buildings that need reconstructing, the schools that need enlarging - just because there's nowhere that can fit their overgrown asses."

Perry paid off the balance on the tickets, and arranged for a lawyer to show up in court on Arendt's behalf.

With the money saved during his years of work, Perry bought a warehouse in the center of Scaletown. He lined the floor with straw and it didn't take long for a conclave of kings to move in.

The kings looked upon his warehouse as a human thing, and chuckled about the lessons that Perry tried to teach them. Their comprehension of practical matters--rents, mortgages, bank accounts, wages - was frozen at the level of the children they'd been when they'd left the human world.

They trusted Perry, and they relied on his help in dealing with human society. But Perry couldn't penetrate the core of their lives anymore, the winding rituals of information, maladaptation and insemination that took them voyaging far into the woods and then back, bearing new egg forms, and sporting broken scales and horns.

For his part, Perry stopped shaving, but his peak growing years were over. Even though his color was deep and mature, his horns remained short and his scales remained soft.

Over the coming months, Perry found others like himself. The human world had been full of snakes who had managed to pass themselves off as normal men and women. And now, they were returning.

They agglomerated around Perry, filling his home with their plans for collectives and legal aid societies and political action. They'd learned from the human world, and they knew how to maneuver amongst the corporate, judicial, and political bureaucracies that left most snakes flat-footed. They formed an impromptu rescue society for the kings: bailing them out from jail and helping them escape from the streets.

But the kings never stopped treating them like juveniles. To the kings, snakes like Perry were curiosities: little scaleys who'd somehow lost their way. They might accept Perry's help, but they'd never respect him.

For a time, that rankled at Perry. But he grew to accept it. How could he resent the kings? They were almost obsolete. New generations of snakes had no desire to become kings. To them, unlimited growth was selfish, attention-seeking behavior. Young scaleys preferred to live human-like lives at human-like sizes. Perry's generation would be the first, last, and only generation of kings.

But it would also be the last generation of returners. No one thought of shaving himself down completely anymore. The younger generations were quick to claim their serpentine identities. After all - so long as they behaved in a "normal" way - snakes were no longer barred from the human world. The younger generations pitied the returners for the oppression they'd faced, but they also, privately, thought that the returners had been just a little bit cowardly.

Perry knew that future generations would see both his own confused behavior and the kings' excessive growth as psychoses that sprang from societal oppression. But Perry didn't regret his decisions. He'd known, instinctively, that Scaletown was too small to hold a king . . . he just hadn't known the right way to leave.

With Perry's help, the kings were safe, fat, and growing faster than ever. Soon enough, they'd unfurl their wings, lift themselves out of this forgotten ghetto, and darken the sky with their serpentine dances.

And, for one brief generation, no one in the world would be able to ignore those silly, beautiful kings.

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