by Sarah Boudreau
Townies called it the Lizard House, and so did Tori’s family—but behind Grandmother’s back, or else she would snap at them. Tori was to stay there, maybe for the night, maybe for a week, or maybe she would stay until someone asked her to leave. Hopefully that someone would be Grandmother, once she muscled through her stroke.
As she collected her pillow and some clothes at her apartment, she could only think about how wrong Grandmother looked. Her grandmother was always thin as a knife, and she usually looked sharp in her jewel-toned blouses and black slacks, but now, wearing a cavernous hospital gown, with her hair loose and yesterday’s lipstick eroding away, she looked weak, easily bruised. She looked around the hospital room like a dazed hawk. One side of her face tumbled down like a rockslide.
The angles of the roads were as familiar as family, and with the radio turned down, she could let her mind drift into meditative silence. Her jaw finally relaxed. The streetlights on High Street washed everything in orange: the sidewalks, the elm trees, the sleepy, darkened houses.
Out of habit, she squeezed next to Grandmother’s car so she wouldn’t block her in. Tori collected the key from beneath the ornamental concrete toad that sat on the front stoop and threw her hip into the protesting door. It was bright on the inside, and warm, stale air rushed out. The house was quiet for one so full of life. The calendar pinned in the front hall contained lines of neat cursive that betrayed no sign of impairment as it spelled out the schedule of feedings.
Tomorrow, it said, she would have to feed the boa constrictors.
Grandmother’s was a house decorated with shelving: metal garage shelves, wire shelves, bookcases tall and wide. And on those shelves, stacked almost as high as the ceiling, were terrariums. Every room except for the kitchen contained glass boxes outfitted with a lamp, substrate, false greenery, pieces of hollowed-out wood. A complicated network of extension cords flowed from the terrariums and into the surge protectors that sprouted from every outlet. Grandmother turned the lights off at night, but during storms or on cloudy days, when the street was gray, the windows of the Lizard House glowed warm.
Upstairs, the three open bedrooms were also lined with shelves, but their corners contained pen-like enclosures—habitats for the larger reptiles: massive, ancient tortoises, the fat-gutted monitor lizard. One bedroom housed the boulder-like tortoise that became town legend when Tori’s father and uncles put him on a leash and took him to the park. Their picture ended up in the paper, and the ragged, curled clipping was still taped to Grandmother’s refrigerator. Tori flicked the switches on the terrariums’ UV lights, darkening the house room by room. She squeezed past a Chinese water lizard, some salamanders, and an array of anoles in the upstairs hallway. The bed in the spare bedroom was as uncomfortable as she could remember, and she leaned over to turn out the bulb in a tank of chameleons.
At the Lizard House, the summer heat kept her on top of the covers. As she drifted to sleep, she thought that it would have been so much easier if Grandmother had just died.
When anyone remembered to tell Tori, it was a full two hours after Grandmother had been hospitalized. Tori was where she usually was: at work in the basement of Uncle Greg’s funeral home. She was preparing the body of an elderly woman for a viewing, dabbing makeup gently on her face with a sponge as if to blot away the pallor, when her phone buzzed apologetically to alert her.
When Grandmother fell asleep and her mouth cracked open, exposing the soft and vulnerable flesh of her tongue, the family migrated to the parking lot. There they quietly stood in a circle, trying not to make eye contact with one another. Tori’s father put his hand on her shoulder and squeezed.
“You can watch the Lizard House for a while, right? You know how to feed everything? And you know where the spare key is?”
“You can even walk to work, since the funeral home is so close,” her mother added.
“We really appreciate it, kid,” said Uncle Greg.
“I finished with the Larson woman before I left,” she told him.
The next day, Tori would give birth to three mice. They would rest in her arms, slick with blood. They were her children, but they didn’t feel like it. She ached. Their tiny nails drew hair-thin lines of red on her skin.
The Lizard House was an old house, built right after the Civil War. It seemed like it had always been there, like it had always held reptiles and Grandmother and the smell of dust. The walls moaned at night and the bones of the house shifted and creaked at all hours of the day. The yellow wallpaper and the battered floorboards were dull with decades of use. The front door always stuck in the heat, but the interior doors never stayed shut—the old doorknobs were too loose to take. Grandmother wound colored yarn around the doorknobs and tethered them to the shelves to keep certain doors shut: the door to her bedroom and the door to the cellar. In all her visits to Grandmother’s house, Tori did not dare touch the yarn. She had the feeling Grandmother could sense it.
But the house had not always been like this. When Tori’s father and uncles were little, the family had a ball python, a tortoise. When the Bakers moved away, they left their box turtles. When her sons moved out, Grandmother began to move reptiles into their old bedrooms, then into the living room and dining room. Her father told Tori that when Pa died, there was nobody left to stop her, so she filled the hallways. The reptiles came from all over the state—when someone couldn’t take care of their pets, they found Grandmother. Eventually, Grandmother discovered Craigslist and its scores of irresponsible pet owners and began driving around the north shore of Boston, scooping up the cheap and malnourished.
“People get killed that way, Ma,” Uncle Joseph had said.
“You don’t think I’m careful? I do my research.”
The Lizard House was not hoarding—or at least, it wasn’t the type of hoarding that ends with a visit from the town’s animal control officer. Grandmother could do the job properly, without any thanks from their former owners, and certainly no thanks from the reptiles themselves. Each animal got exactly what it needed and was fed exactly what and when it needed to be fed.
The guest bed fit Tori perfectly.
She did not know she was going to give birth. The bar in her arm was supposed to stop that, and it had kept her periods infrequent and surprising. At first, she thought the pain was cramps. She felt hot. She longed for the chill of her own apartment. She cursed the warmth of the UV lamps and cursed the old house that kept everything inside it.
She first stripped down to her underwear, and when that had little effect, she lingered at the cellar door. Cool air leaked from the other side. Tori fingered at the strands of yarn. Grandmother was gone. She unwound the yarn and opened the door.
The staircase had shallow steps and no handrail, just a smooth, concrete wall. It was cooler here. At the bottom of the stairs, the cellar had a rough dirt floor and a single, bare lightbulb. Itwas a maze of boxes, cardboard boxes of Grandmother’s boys’ old things. One wall was decorated with men’s shirts Tori had never seen before, their hangers hung on nails, billowing like ghosts. She wondered why Grandmother would close this place up with yarn.
The guilt of trespassing began to settle like sediment in her mind, and the tightness in her gut increased. She tried to bolt for the bathroom, but she only made it to the stairs before pain fell on her. She lay on the narrow stairs, one digging into her ribs and one into her hip, and she lay there thinking about how it hurt. Her pain was like a vise, like a rag being wrung out, like an anvil dropped on her back, like…
When Tori was a child, she had known that grandmothers were supposed to be plump and inclined to spoil their granddaughters. They were supposed to smile a lot and have a house decorated with cross-stitch. She knew this because of TV, and because she had a fully functional set of grandparents on her mother’s side. Grandmothers weren’t supposed to be like Grandmother.
Her schoolmates found the Lizard House fascinating, but she found Grandmother’s house horribly boring. Grandmother always burned her grilled cheeses, and she only had basic cable, leaving her with only PBS and the things her mother packed to occupy her time: My Little Pony toys, construction paper and crayons, maybe a chapter book.
She stayed in the living room while Grandmother busied herself around the house. Grandmother always said that those shows were for children and she couldn’t stand to watch them. Sometimes, in the evenings, if there was a nature show on, she would sit in the same room and crochet. Tori knew that this was a very grandmotherly activity, to keep one’s hands busy, but most grandmother’s hands were not peppered with scrapes and bites.
One day, during the summer Tori turned eight, she was sitting on the floor with a notebook and an array of crayons, drawing a character from a TV show she got at her parents’ house. She could feel the house shudder as Grandmother moved things around. The creaking of the floorboards betrayed her location as she walked to the door and poked her head into the room.
“Would you help me clean the water bowls?” she said. “If you do, I’ll let you hold one of the pythons.”
Tori said yes—she was curious about the reptiles she was never permitted to touch, and plus, her parents always told her she should help Grandmother around the house. Grandmother set a bucket of soapy water on the floor and armed Tori with an old, browned toothbrush. She told her to wait while she extracted the shallow bowls from the hallway terrariums and handed them to her.
“I will do the reaching,” she warned.
“Are they poisonous?”
“What was that?”
“Is that why I can’t put my hands in the cages? Because snakes and lizards will bite me and I’ll die?”
Grandmother sighed. “Poisonous means that it is poison to eat. Venomous is when an animal bites you and injects venom. Are you going to eat my animals?”
“No.” Tori squirmed.
“Then don’t worry about them being poisonous.”
Tori scrubbed dutifully and didn’t ask any more questions. When she finished, she presented her pile of clean bowls to her beaming grandmother, who lifted one of the pythons from its enclosure and draped it around her like a shawl. The python was heavy, heavier than the dentist's lead apron. Its head rested on Tori’s shoulder, just below the sleeve of her t-shirt, and she could feel the muscles in its skin pull and push against hers. The snake was smooth and cold and dappled with yellow, its pink eyes waxy, like two gummy candies.
“Oh, she’s my favorite,” Grandmother said, beaming. Tori tried to smile back, but the snake was very heavy.
When the python began to slide to the floor, she picked it back up off Tori’s shoulders and put it back in its big glass tank in the guest bedroom. Grandmother was still smiling, and she took her into the bathroom to wash her hands thoroughly.
“Make sure you tell your mother I had you wash your hands,” Grandmother said. “If you get salmonella, it’s not because of me, it’s because she undercooks her eggs. Now, go along.”
The moan of an ambulance grew more desperate as it got closer, starting as whale song, moving into agony, and fading to nothing. More than half asleep, Tori wondered if it was bringing Grandmother home just as it had taken her away. Grandmother would come home and thank her, assure Tori that she would take care of the house now and that all would be back to normal.
Tori had gotten away once, for a few months at least. When she got her acceptance to UConn, her family did not rejoice.
“Oh," they said. Their eyes made pitiful shapes. "We'll miss you."
They didn’t understand why she wanted to leave. After a while, she couldn't remember why either. The sterility of her dorm room walls made her feel choked.
She missed her town: her friends, the ice cream shops, how every house planted tiger lilies by their mailbox. She missed her family, too: Uncle Leon, who taught her how to drive when her father got too frustrated; Aunt Marcia, who baked her cupcakes for every birthday; Grandmother, who trusted her. So she dropped out of college to move back home and commute to mortuary school, the same one Uncle Greg went to. After she got her embalming license, he hired her to work in the cool, sharp-smelling funeral home.
The town was full of people who never managed—or never tried—to get out of it. On weekends, she sometimes grouped up with old high school friends for board games and Riverview Pizza or takeout from Fortune Palace, and she held watch parties for television premieres. The friends who had heard about Grandmother's stroke had texted their sympathy to Tori, told her that they missed her the night before. They were all used to her bailing on plans last-minute; they understood that death is unpredictable, that Tori could get a call from Uncle Greg at any time, summoning her to help him load a body into the grey van.
Someday, she might inherit the business, keeping her rooted in town. This she would not mind; the work was as reliable as death. She did not mind the bodies or the mourning. The clients looked at her with relief. Tori was good at taking care of things.
Grandmother had trusted her with the house several times before—she was known to duck out for weekends at her friend's house in Maine, spend a week in Nova Scotia. Tori was wary of Grandmother's particularities, but she was willing to do the work: cleaning, feeding, watering, inspecting. She mopped the kitchen and took a dust rag to the shelves so that Grandmother could have something nice to return to. When a UV bulb burnt out, she replaced it with one from the neat stack of supplies in the hall closet. She would wipe down the already-clean countertops and turned on the radio, just like Grandmother would have. Grandmother always listened to the baseball game, even though she didn't care for the sport. Her husband did; she kept it on just because it was familiar.
She visited the hospital again. Grandmother drooped in her bed and did not say a word. Tori didn’t know if she couldn’t speak, or if she was too prideful to acknowledge her situation. An aunt appeared, relieving her of her shift, and Tori fled down the hall.
When she returned to the Lizard House, she, sweating, birthed the mice. Later, she would reason that the labor was so short because the mice were so small. They were only feeder mice, designed to be eaten. Three slipped out, one after the other, wriggling, onto the cellar stairs. White mice, just a few inches long, slicked pink with blood.
Dazed, Tori scooped them up in her arms, smearing blood on her forearms. She couldn’t let them escape and infest the house—Grandmother would be furious. She held the mice to her chest, shuddering. The mice sniffed and nibbled affectionately at her face.
Her parents always left her with Grandmother when they went out of town, even when she was thirteen and felt she was adult enough to stay by herself.
“She likes you,” they said. “She offered to have you stay with her whenever you’d like. You think she would give that offer to Marie or Jacob? To Christine?”
Tori had been silently fuming about this, and her poor mood was exacerbated when Grandmother drove straight from mass to the Salem Walmart to meet a man getting rid of a tankful of crested geckos. Tori, holding the glass tank so the geckos wouldn’t get jostled when they hit potholes, couldn’t use her phone. She and Grandmother reached home without speaking, a silence Tori was determined to make tense. She left the geckos on the dining room table and stormed upstairs to the room she was sharing with twenty-seven others.
She flopped down on the bed and thought about the yarn strung on the doorknobs, like she was some sort of child who didn’t understand boundaries.
On angry impulse, she threw herself to her feet and removed the cover of one of the big glass enclosures. She heaved the albino python up and untangled her from her branch. She slung her over her shoulders and she stretched out lazily.
She could hear her grandmother settling the new geckos into their place in the TV room. She was singing a hymn badly, as if she was trying to annoy Tori. The song crawling, slow. “What a bitch,” she said under her breath.
With a rapid strike, the python grabbed her hand in its jaws, needle-like teeth sinking into the fleshy base of her thumb. Her hand stung. She tried not to yell and alert her grandmother, even with the snake’s jaws clamped around her, unyielding. Her heartbeat throbbed beneath the snake’s teeth.
Downstairs, Grandmother was singing, “At His feet the six-winged seraph, cherubim, with sleepless eye…”
When the python finally opened its jaws, pinpricks of blood pooled and dripped. Tori deposited the python back into her container and rushed to the bathroom. Opening up the medicine cabinet, she found a small pharmacy’s worth of ointments and bottles. Every part of her shook. Blood ran in little forking rivers down her arm and began to congeal. She dumped a third of a bottle of rubbing alcohol on her hand. The bite stung louder. She bit the side of her mouth to keep from gasping.
Grandmother’s singing seeped through the walls as she worked: “Let all mortal flesh keep silence and with fear and trembling stand…” Tori’s eyes watered over into tears. She scrubbed off the blood and said nothing to anyone.
The Larson woman had to be rolled out for a wake soon. When Tori showered, she took the mice with her, scrubbing at them with shampoo until they were white and you couldn’t tell they came out of her. Something had to be done with the mice. Uncle Greg needed her to help, the Larson woman’s family needed her to help.
The calendar in the front hall said today was the day to feed the boa constrictors.
Instead of feeding the snakes from the supply of frozen mice stacked in Grandmother’s freezer, it occurred to her that she could simply use the three warm ones in her arms. What other purpose did they serve? The mice would need to be killed before being fed to the snakes; a rodent with a strong sense of self-preservation could desperately scratch at the snake’s face and eyes, creating an infection.
She walked to the spare bedroom and pulled the pillowcase from her pillow. She tossed the mice, tumbling, inside. The pillowcase could be bashed against the cellar wall, one quick, solid crack—painless!—and then she could deposit dinner in the snakes’ containers. She knew, though, that no matter what she did, Grandmother would be furious with her for trespassing in the cellar.
Then, for the first time, it occurred to Tori that Grandmother could die. Tori had seen death, of course, but Grandmother always seemed more stone than human. She could recover, perhaps, after months of rehabilitation and physical therapy, or she could die in the hospital, her appetite gone, her will sapped, fading silently. Tori’s uncles and father would sell the home, erasing the Lizard House. They had no use or patience for it. They would strip it of its life and repaint the walls and empty the cellar. They would have Tori help, too, putting the reptiles on Craigslist, gutting the house of itself. If she fed the mice to the boa constrictors, she could give Grandmother her a gift, a sacrifice, a tribute.
The feeder mice squirmed and scratched the pillowcase. The albino boa constrictor shifted in her terrarium, her yellow stripes kaleidoscoping together as she coiled herself. The pillowcase swung gently in her hand.
She did not want to kill the mice.
Tori could keep them. They could breed and multiply, and she could have a house of mice, towers of glass tanks teeming with squeaking, white feeder mice. She could have a granddaughter one day who would give birth to mouse feed. Grains could fall from her granddaughter’s opened cervix like it was a tap, cascading down so the mice could feast.
Tori could let them go. Not inside the house, of course, but in the backyard, where they could have a life, a life cut short by rat poison or a car or the jaws of a Jack Russell, but a life nonetheless.
The albino boa tapped her nose against the glass. Tori pulled the mice out of the pillowcase and held them to her chest again. She would let them go. For the first time, they would feel the warmth of the true sun. They would take lurching, unbalanced steps on their hind legs, pointing their noses skyward, their whiskers delicate as brushstrokes. They would run under the cover of the tiger lillies, build their nests, find food. They would get rained on. They would separate and find each other again, pressing their little tongues to each other’s faces. And when they died, the bones of the feeder mice would sink into earthen coffins, and all would be dark.