Our relationship is almost a year old when I ask Nal why she is covered in snakes. I thought it might have been rude to ask before, to look too long at the undulating mass of scales that obscures much of her body. Just as a snake slithers away and I glimpse a cheek, an elbow, an eye, another is there in its place as if to spare her the cruelty of being seen. She says her mother put them on her one by one, a serpent for each year Nal survived, but now her mother is gone, and the snakes she has now are the only ones she’ll ever have. The snakes twist across her body, agitated, as if they too know that the mother is no more, that her protection will fade as they age.
I tell her that, in my homeland, parents do not give their children snakes. We celebrate birthdays with sweets and parties.
“But does that last?” Nal asks me. “Will those sweets be there to mourn with you when your parents are gone?”
Nal tries to give her snakes peace by naming them variations on her mother’s name: Lizzie, Beth, Eliza, Liz, Eli, Liza. When she inevitably exhausts the conventional and resorts to Zabeth, I do not critique. Although I have never lost someone, I tell myself that we all have our ways of mourning, ways of existing with the emptiness.
Zabeth is the snake who never calms. Zabeth nests on Nal’s head, is ouroboros around her neck, winds up her arm in memory of Asclepius’ staff, joins another snake on her leg to form a faux caduceus. “Where is Zabeth?” I tease her when she wakes from a nap, when she emerges from a bath, after she has been bent over her work for hours. Sometimes if we spend enough time gently prodding her masses of snakes in search of Zabeth, they’ll tickle her, and she’ll giggle. I miss hearing her laugh.
Our relationship is barely two years old when the first snake dies. Nal rolls over to snooze her alarm, and there’s the still snake, twisted all wrong and belly up, on her pillow. I am scared it is Zabeth. I have never lost someone I cared about before. I don’t know how to lose someone I care about even after watching Nal do it. I don’t know what kind of person I will become if I lose someone I care about. My parents fed me sugar to mark the passage of time, and I do not know bitterness, do not know what it’s like to feel dozens of rough, shedding bodies—all on the cusp of great change—grating against my own. I am afraid of feeling. And so I lie there in the near-dark with my selfish fear, and only when Nal stirs, as if to wake, do I look to see who it is on the pillow.