Of all her duties helping her parents manage their small grocery, Alice dreaded picking vegetables the most: the way the grit and dirt that covered the leaves and stems of the bok choy, napa, and watercress stained her hands with the grime of faraway places (PRODUCT OF CHINA, PRODUCT OF THAILAND, PRODUCT OF MALAYSIA) and stuck painfully under her fingernails.
Worse was when the kids at school made fun of her “dirty Chinese hands.”
Dirty Chinese hands! Dirty Chinese hands! Dirty, Dirty Chinese, they sang in their discordant, grade-school voices.
I’m not Chinese! Alice screamed at them. Such a lame comeback. But what else could she say? That her family owned the store downtown that sold the weird, smelly food? That she worked there every day after school? Things were bad enough.
Business, at least, was brisk. Alice’s mother often congratulated herself for her foresight in opening one of the few Asian groceries in the tri-city area, a hot spot for its immigrant enclaves.
“See? Mom is smart! Always do what Mom does,” she often boasted to Alice and her younger siblings, ten-year-old Linda and seven-year-old Bruce.
Yet despite Mrs. Nguyen’s repeated avowals, the family often found themselves tending to customers and stocking shelves while their mother napped in the back office or went on one of her many walks around downtown.
Alice often wondered what was behind her mother’s wearisome behaviour.
Maybe it was loneliness. Her mother walked alone and, once home, barely left the house.
Maybe it was boredom. Their lives revolved around running the store, doing schoolwork, and watching simply copious amounts of TV in their draughty, dimly lit living room.
Maybe it was despair. Knowing that, somehow, things could be better. That they should be.
Whatever the reason (and in the end, did it really matter?), Alice and her siblings had learned to endure their mother’s lassitude, her callousness, and, yes, her outbursts, and made sure to watch their tongues and set their faces around her fast, fast hands.
Alice’s father looked on mutely when it came to her mother’s dealings with the children. Childrearing was certainly no concern of his, and besides, the boy would need a few years yet before he could be made to fulfil more suitable duties. In time, Bruce would, he was sure, become more like his nephew, Don, who had come to this new country from the old one, and who had been old enough to choose his Canadian name but young enough that he picked up the language well, coarse and confusing as it was, and could speak it alongside their mother tongue.
Don was the great hope of the family. The oldest boy, the brightest child, large for his age even at seventeen. He was charming, ambitious, and clever, much like his zodiac sign: the rat, first among all signs and therefore destined to great success. There was very little he couldn’t do. There was very little he wouldn’t.
Alice feared her cousin more than her mother’s inscrutable rages, more than her father’s terrible silences.
• • •
“Why do we have to pick vegetables?” whined Linda.
Alice sighed. Linda always asked the same questions over and over when she got bored. But then, Linda—thoughtless, long-toothed, dark-skinned Linda—had always been the foolish child. Everyone said so.
“Because. If we don’t, people will break off the best stuff for themselves. We have to sort the vegetables in bundles so that doesn’t happen. We can’t lose money,” answered Alice, in perfect recitation of her mother.
Only two crates today. As they finished the first, working steadily to tame an overflowing parcel of yu choy (PRODUCT OF CHINA), Alice got up and retrieved the second, dragging it to the corner where she and Linda picked.
PRODUCT OF VIETNAM, declared the label pasted on the crate. Between its rough wooden slats bloomed the pale, grubby leaves of bok choy.
“Daaad!” Alice called down the aisles of the grocery. Her father appeared and drew out his pliers from his back pocket. He cut the wires knotted at the top of the crate, which sprang open so suddenly he staggered back, alarmed.
“Damn you.” Scowling, he approached the crate again.
He dropped the pliers and swore darkly under his breath.
Settled inside the crate was a tiny, thin-bodied snake.
• • •
It was wound around itself like a coil of placid rope. Its scales shimmered, cut diamonds overlaid on supple, shining skin and smooth, sinuous muscle that tapered to the perfect point of its tail. Its head was similarly exquisite—slender and finely honed, shapely like a woman’s slipper. Two dark, shining eyes peered at Alice as she edged past her father to get a better look inside the crate.
“Snake!” her father shouted, pushing her away.
Mr. Nguyen’s children knew of his hatred of snakes. When the mood struck him just so and the drink hit him just right, it seemed as if he would never stop talking—of the refugee camp in Hong Kong, of his failures at home (why was Bruce so fragile, so small-boned?), living with his wife’s family in safety while his own deteriorated, first in the chaos of The War and then in the turmoil that followed—frightening stories with no end and so many broken beginnings.
As for snakes… Snakes were duplicitous creatures that lulled you into a false comfort (see how beautiful, see how lovely), only to strike without warning. He had been bitten as a boy and would never forget the pain that radiated from his arm like a fireball. Convulsions and fever had wracked his small body, nearly costing him his life.
Why? Because he had been foolish enough to be captivated by a magnificent jade viper he had discovered deep in the forest.
And now? Here was this snake, a brown and beige and rather unimpressive thing to be sure, but a snake nonetheless, staring at him as his children looked on as if to say, You thought it could be otherwise?
You really believed it would be so easy?
• • •
Alice’s father trapped the snake in an old cigar box and left it in the garage, secured under a large rock. After dinner, he took the big cleaver from its hook on the kitchen wall and hefted it in his hand, testing its weight and feel.
“No you don’t! Use one of the old knives in the drawer,” her mother yelled, catching sight of him from the other room. “Don’t be stupid!”
Her father scoffed but put the cleaver back on its hook.
“Keep the children inside!” He stormed out the door, knife in hand.
He came back to the house, fuming.
The snake had escaped.
• • •
Or rather, it had disappeared.
The moment she had peered into the crate and seen it there—such a tiny, helpless thing—Alice could not find it in herself to do nothing. The children were used to their mother’s indiscriminate anger, yes, but their father was another matter. His rage ran deep, was etched in his bones and simmered deep in his marrow. Alice was certain the snake’s death would not be simple, easy, or clean.
While her family had scattered themselves about the house, Alice slipped away, out of the clammy kitchen with its distorted wallpaper and gummy countertops, down the rotting wooden steps of the back porch, past the sharp weeds that riddled the backyard, and through the battered side door of the garage.
The moon gleamed through the hollows of the ancient roof. Alice retrieved the box from a high shelf and placed it on an old workbench. She removed the rock and lifted the lid, careful not to startle the creature inside.
The snake lifted its head from its coils and flicked its tongue.
Hello, Alice, it seemed to say.
“Hello,” Alice softly replied.
Alice gathered the snake in her hands and tucked it inside her sweater, taking care to hold it close, warm and safe next to her body. She flipped the box on its side and dropped the rock, making it look as if the snake had toppled its prison from within. She crept back to the house, entering through the seldom-used front door.
Alice descended the staircase and tiptoed across the rough concrete of the basement floor until she reached the place in the boiler room where a crack in the wall led to secret niches that branched throughout the house. She often heard things scurrying in those walls and had taught herself to mostly ignore it when a mouse or roach skittered past her.
“It’s okay. I won’t tell anyone,” Alice whispered, stroking the snake with her finger. She held it up to the opening. “Promise.”
The little snake slid from her hands and into the house without a sound.
• • •
The house, an imposing Victorian with eroded brick like bad skin, snobbish, high-peaked ceilings, and large, grime-encrusted windows, belonged to Alice’s grandfather. Alice’s parents and siblings, an older aunt, a younger one, and her uncle lived there as well.
Nine people living inside cramped quarters teeming with all manner of bric-a-brac salvaged from the curbside: discarded tables, broken lamps, shattered clocks, and three-legged chairs their grandfather was in one stage or another of repairing.
It required a certain deftness to navigate inside that house, a kind of muscle memory honed through years of co-habitation. Still, it was not always possible to know from one moment to the next just what would be uncovered amongst the ever-mounting debris: some remnant from the old country (a jade pendant, a faded passport), a relic of misspent youth (designer sunglasses, a pack of mealy cigarettes), an artefact from a long-dead relative (a pair of leather shoes, a silver clasp)—all of it screaming for someone in Alice’s family to intercede.
But lost in themselves, they could not, and the house swelled with their secrets.
Her mother’s envy of their father. Her father’s increasing paranoia.
Her uncle’s gambling, the meagre winnings he hoarded and the considerable losses he hopelessly tried to hide.
Her youngest aunt’s marriage, which had caused her to flee to her father, again and again, fearing for her life. The fact that he had faithfully sent her back to her husband until liver cancer had devoured enough of him for her to escape, at last, to the house.
Their grandfather’s mind-consuming grief following the death of their grandmother, a woman whom Alice, try as she might, could not recall from memory.
Don’s unannounced visits to the house, his loitering in the kitchen until Alice’s brother and sister were out in the backyard, the adults were otherwise occupied, and Alice was alone, reading or watching TV.
“Come downstairs with me, Alice,” he said brightly that first time. Alice was thrilled. Cousin Don wanted to spend time with her. Only her! Not Bruce, and certainly not Linda.
She was special.
It never occurred to her to say no.
Downstairs was their grandfather’s workshop. It was a place full of deep shadows and concealed spaces, which gradually became filled with secrets that consumed Alice and only Alice—Don being, as always, immaculate in deed and being.
It never occurred to her that she could say no.
• • •
It was true that the house was bigger and smaller than it seemed. Corridors expanded and shrank. Corners fell heavily at odd, bewildering angles. Rooms clashed against each other, vying for dominance.
It hurt, being in that house; there was nothing its frightening whims left untouched. But it was home. There was no hope beyond it, no future without it, or so it was for Alice and her family.
The days passed, and the snake was forgotten.
Alice’s uncle began racking up an astounding amount of debt, the likes of which inflamed even his deadened sense of risk and propriety.
Her younger aunt dreamt of her dead husband, waking each night with the afterimages of his face seared in her mind.
Alice’s older aunt sent Don more and more of the money she made cutting hair, so that while she went without, he came to the house in new clothes and with cash in his pocket to show off to everyone.
Her mother raged and doddered. Days went by without her once stepping foot in the store. Her father sneered behind their backs and worried at his wrists until they were raw. Her grandfather went on a spree, pillaging garage sales and thrift stores and bringing home things (radios, Crock-Pots, rotary phones) he left in clumsy piles in the fireplace.
The house absorbed all of this, buckled and rocked under the weight of it.
Rooms tilted and swayed.
Furniture was crushed.
Dishes thrown to the floor, where they shattered and were ground to dust.
• • •
Alice caught it sometimes: a glint of something waiting behind the walls, a pulsing under the floorboards, a trembling in the lamplight. She knew that in those moments she had glimpsed the true nature of the house.
It was waiting. And it was hungry.
But what was the point of saying anything? Of speaking out and bringing trouble?
Who would believe her?
• • •
A sound of glass cracking under pressure. Viscous fluid that dripped from the ceiling, leaving dark, leering stains, faces trapped in blistering plaster. Doors that slammed shut, refusing to open unless forced.
Alice’s older aunt began complaining of a paralysing numbness that ran down her legs and shot up her arms. Her father’s torso broke out in vicious hives. Abscesses sprouted inside her uncle’s mouth. Migraines plagued her mother and grandfather.
Her younger aunt began talking of ghosts, malicious entities that lurked in the corners of the house. “We’ll all be stolen away! There’s no stopping it!” she wailed. Deep lines cut her face. Her skin hung off her jawline in large, unwieldy flaps. Alice felt sorry for her.
Surely she had been beautiful once?
There was nothing Alice, Linda, or Bruce could do but watch, learning all they could to keep out of harm’s way as the adults shifted furtively from room to room, lost, afraid. A banging of the shutters, a cold rush of air sent the children scrambling as the adults unravelled around them.
“Alice? What’s happening?” Bruce asked one night from the foot of the mattress they shared. “Alice?”
Alice tore her gaze from the door. Was that a shadow lingering under the frame?
“Everything’s fine, Bruce. It’s nothing, okay?” she answered, trying to sound confident and unafraid. She nudged Linda with her elbow. “Right?”
But Linda, long accustomed to the churning chaos of the house, was already fast asleep.
• • •
Alice told her mother about Don—the bruising could no longer be ignored; her sullen attitude at the store and falling grades at school had finally become worrisome—and she locked the other children upstairs, dragged Alice into the living room, and screamed at her for the truth, gripping her tightly by the shoulders as the adults clustered around them, listening, stricken.
Her grandfather retreated to the backyard and refused to come back inside.
Struggling with her last words, Alice finished what felt—even years later, tucked away in the safety of the big city, far away from the house—like her confession. She felt dirty. She felt responsible (and after all, wasn’t she? She had never said no). The walls groaned and shuddered as she spoke, pressing in on them from all sides. Windowpanes twisted from their frames, casting jagged flakes of discoloured paint onto the carpet like dry, dead skin.
At last, Alice’s younger aunt spoke: “We used to play like that all that time. Boys and girls. Don’t make a big fuss out of nothing.”
“And you hardly a girl anymore!” her uncle snapped. “Stop crying!”
Her older aunt, Don’s mother, said nothing, her mouth a thin, angry line.
Her father worked his jaw. “It’s over now. Don’t ever talk about this again. Especially outside the family.”
For once, her mother agreed with him.
• • •
Alice was forbidden to be alone with Don anymore. As was Linda, but not Bruce.
“Boys should be with boys. Girls with girls,” said her older aunt. “What did you expect?”
Alice’s siblings wondered at the new rules but did not question them.
Her grandfather locked the workshop and hung the key around his neck.
Alice’s mother gave her a week off from working at the store. She was told not to leave the house during that time.
It wasn’t safe out there, among strangers.
• • •
The house grew restless after that, eager, invigorated.
Tiles wrenched themselves from the bathroom wall. The television flickered and froze for days at a time on single images: a woman laughing into the camera, a man waiting for a bus, children falling into a ravine. Cabinets exploded, spilling their contents all over the kitchen—cooking oil soaked the dishrags, fish sauce seeped into the grout, chilli paste arced across the refrigerator like arterial spray.
There came the sounds of voices, silvery trickles of language that drifted through the hallways. There were languid sighs that echoed in the vents. There was laughter.
Alice. Sweet girl.
Alice’s uncle developed chest pains and soon found it difficult to breathe. Her younger aunt no longer slept. Her older aunt stooped so badly it became difficult for her to move. An angry rash flashed scarlet across her grandfather’s throat, constricting his speech.
And then one night, during a screaming match between her parents, the drainage pipe running underneath the house burst, flooding the basement with the stench and foulness of the sewers.
The house would have been condemned had anyone on the outside noticed or cared.
“This is all because of that fucking snake!” her father bellowed.
“You should have killed it as soon as you saw it!” her mother shot back. “Bad omen, bad luck.” She pointed, the pounding in her head nearly drowning out her words. “Stupid, stupid man!”
It was too much. Alice’s younger aunt consulted a priest. Her uncle and her older aunt burned Hell money to the ancestors, seeking to pacify them. Her mother lashed out at the children, Linda most of all, who now spent all of her time locked in the children’s room or hiding in the cupboards, a secret herself. Her grandfather prayed to assorted deities, imploring them to intervene.
They remained, as ever, indifferent to the family’s plight.
• • •
Don found her under the sagging, patched-up attic roof. He had continued his visits to the house under the adults’ watch. But they soon forgot their imposed duties—and then refused to remember them.
Don had, after all, accepted their reprimand and sworn he understood that men needed discipline or else they were nothing. There was no need to say another word on the subject.
Don spoke pleasantly as he strolled around the room, switching back and forth from Vietnamese to his halting English. He asked Alice about her day; talked about his friends, his job at KFC; and told her a few of her favourite jokes: corny ones about oranges and interrupting cows. It was as if nothing had happened.
Perhaps it really was all in her head, or at least it was not as bad as she believed, as the older aunt had begun suggesting when Alice was alone with her.
Don smiled. “I’ve always liked you best, Alice.”
Shadows shifted from the rafters, throwing his face into hideous relief. The room grew cold. Alice realized that she had been sweating and understood in that moment why.
Smoothly, imperceptibly, Don had backed her against a wall, away from the staircase.
“Okay,” Don said, moving closer. The floorboards beneath him groaned, sounding agonies with each step he took. He smiled wider, hungry eyes bulging from his pale face. “Come here, Alice. It’s just us now, remember?”
Terror and a burning, desperate rage seized Alice’s heart. No! It wasn’t fair! He promised!
But what could she do?
He’d promised and it had been a lie and it had been enough for them.
They would not believe her and would only blame her again.
“N-no.” The word was barely audible. Alice bit her lip, drawing blood. Tears threatened to overwhelm her.
Plaster crumbled from above and dusted Don’s massive back. “Alice,” he sang, even as he failed to mask his surprise that she would refuse him.
“N-no! No, no, no!”
Alice trembled. The house shook.
Don laughed, enjoying this new game between them. “Funny girl!”
Alice closed her eyes as his fingers grazed her hair. “Not again,” she whispered. “No!”
A disturbance—the creak and splintering of old wood—behind Don.
“What’s that?” He stepped toward the sound, afraid it might be someone coming up the stairs. “Hello?” he ventured, ready to explain away his presence. “Hello?”
The far wall exploded, hurling splinters and plaster into Don’s face, blinding him. Something struck him in the chest and hauled him into the rafters, where he remained, feet dangling uselessly like those of a cheap marionette.
There had been no time for him to scream.
Alice watched, scarcely breathing, transfixed by a powerful wave of emotions: excitement, revulsion, fear, sorrow, elation. Gratitude.
The snake loomed above her, Don gripped inside the twists of its massive body.
Hello, Alice. Poor, sweet girl.
“Hello,” said Alice.
Alice. Her family. The house was swollen with their secrets, and the snake had fed upon them and grown fat, become glorious.
It squeezed. Don made a wet, strangled noise. Thick veins throbbed on the sides of his head.
The others, hissed the snake. Your family.
Silence roared in her ears. Alice knew what the family would expect her to do: be a good daughter. Beg for their lives, offer hers in their place if need be.
“Will you spare me?” she said instead.
The great serpent swayed, regarding her with its unblinking eyes.
Alice watched its scales flash in the light that pierced the attic’s solitary window. She marvelled at the iridescent bands that spiralled around multitudinous coils, the snake lovely, oh-so-lovely in its cold-blooded brutality. Lovely and so beautiful. She understood the yearning her father had felt all those years ago. The heartbreak.
No, the serpent would not spare her as she had once spared it. No one would be spared, not if they remained in that house. Secrets, after all, were as powerful as promises, as deadly as lies. Secrets consumed you.
Don—once so untouchable, so impervious—made an incoherent sound from within the snake’s coils. Alice thought of how the family always put him first and realized that in her own way, she would be no different.
“Do one thing for me, then.”
Maybe, if they were lucky, Alice’s remaining family members would escape. Snakes, once sated, did not feed again for a good, long while. Maybe she would leave them and take her siblings with her. Maybe someday, if not soon, everything would be all right.
But not today.
And so she watched as the snake squeezed and squeezed, as Don’s face took on gruesome shades of pink, red, and purple. As circulation to his brain cells was cut off and his airways were crushed and his chest collapsed like cheap plywood.
As his eyes glazed over in horror, then dulled.
As the snake unhinged its jaw, unveiling rows of serrated, dagger-like teeth, and swallowed, swallowed, swallowed.