I proceeded with barely perceptible steps, as though I wasn't quite sure what I was looking for. I'd been there once before but hadn't dared venture farther than the entrance. But there they were for anyone who wanted them. You could buy them, just like that. Anyone could acquire one and do with it as he pleased. Nobody was asked to explain why he was buying one, or what for; was it a spur-of-the-moment decision or had he been thinking about the project for a while already?
Anyone could lie once he reached the desk: Yes, I've already got all the equipment. It'll be coming to a good, loving home, a terrarium three feet by three feet by six feet. I've got everything it needs: a climbing tree, a water bowl, places to hide and plenty of wood chips, everything you can think of, mice too. I've been thinking about this for as long as I can remember.
I could feel their presence in the soles of my feet, which were tense and clenched. There's no mistaking that sensation—the shudder that runs from the base of your spine and down your legs, that winds its way along your neck into the back of your head, the muscles as they tense until they are numb and unresponsive, the hairs on your skin as they stand on end as if to attack.
The woman behind the counter quickly appeared beside me. I was standing by the gerbil enclosure and looked in bewilderment—no, in admiration—at the creatures' complex silhouettes and wondered how they got through life with their stumpy legs and long tails.
"Been thinking about a gerbil, have you?" she asked. "It's a nice, low-maintenance pet, doesn't need much looking after. You'll have it easy."
"No. A snake, actually," I replied. "A large snake." I watched her face and expected a different kind of reaction, surprise or astonishment, but she simply asked me to follow her.
We walked down into the basement, past freezers and shelves of dried food, past cages and specially designed toys, past glass cubes of terrarium animals, cockroaches, locusts, banana flies, and field crickets. The smell of death hung everywhere, hidden beneath the cold-warm aromas of wood and hay and metal.
They were kept in a darkened cellar space because the air was damper and the conditions imitated their natural habitat. The door wasn't opened and closed all that often, and they weren't on display. Many customers might have declined to go down there for fear of stumbling across one of them. Their mere shape was enough to drive many people into a panic.
The snake department was divided into two sections: poisonous snakes and constrictors. There were dozens of them, an entire storage unit full of them, stacked one on top of the other, the bulkiest and strongest on the lower shelves and the smaller ones on top. They came in all different colors: the lime-green tree pythons gleamed like bright neon lights; the thick yellow-striped Jamaican boas appeared before my eyes like the tastiest cake at a banquet; and the small orange corn snakes and brown-striped tiger boas had wrapped themselves into tight knots.
They were in glass terrariums, stripped of their might, wrapped round their climbing trees. Some of them had stretched out along the length of the terrarium, bathing their skin in the water bowl and digesting their food. They all shared a sense of profound melancholy. Their lazy heads turned slowly as though they were bored, almost humbled. It was sad. To think that they had never known anything else.
"These have been imported from a breeder abroad; you can't catch these in the wild," the woman began. "So you can handle them freely, but bear in mind that snakes generally enjoy being left to their own devices."
An image of the place they had come from appeared in my mind, because I'd seen videos on the Internet of the factories in which they were bred. They looked like the back rooms at fast-food joints: full of tall shelving units, stacked tightly with black, lidded boxes where the snakes lived until they grew large enough to be sold. At the bottom of each box was a small layer of dust-free wood chips and a single branch. They had never seen daylight or felt the touch of the earth, and now they were put on display in spaces mimicking natural conditions. Do they ever learn that all lives are not equal?
I ordered one there and then. A boa constrictor.
The terrarium arrived first, and I assembled it myself. Its new resident was delivered to my apartment separately in a temporary box. Where do you want it? Yes, that's what the driver asked. Where do you want it? As if it was of no significance whatsoever, as if the delivery box contained a flat-pack bookcase and not an almost fully grown boa constrictor. I asked him to leave it in the middle of the living room.
For a long time the snake remained silent and still. It hissed faintly and moved cautiously as I prized open the lid, letting in some light, and I caught a glimpse of its lazy, clammy body, the triangular black patterns along its brown skin, its noble movements. As it squeezed against itself, its dry skin rattled like a broken amplifier.
I'd imagined it would be somehow different, stronger, nois-ier, and bigger. But it seemed more afraid of me than I was of it.
I own you now, I said. Eventually I built up the courage to open the lid fully. And when I finally opened it, the snake began writhing so frantically that I couldn't tell where the movement started and where it ended. Its forked tongue jabbed back and forth on both sides of its triangular head and it began to trem-ble as though it had been left out in the frost. Soon it poked its head out of the box, and its small black eyes flickered as though plagued by a relentless twitch.
Once it had slowly lowered its head to the floor, I lifted the box and tilted it, the quicker to get the snake out. It slumped to the floor like a length of play dough and froze on the spot.
It took a moment for the snake to start moving. It glided smoothly forward in calm, even waves. The motion seemed unreal, timid and slow but purposeful and vivacious all at once. It explored the table and sofa legs, raised its head to look at the plants on the windowsill, the wintry landscape opening up behind the window, the snow- covered trees, the brightly col-ored houses, and the undulating gray blanket of cloud across the sky.
Welcome home, I said and smiled at it. That's right, welcome to your new home. When the snake withdrew beneath the table and coiled itself up, as though it was afraid of my voice, I felt almost ashamed of the place into which I had brought it. What if it didn't feel at home here? What if it felt shackled, threatened, sad, and lonely? Would what I could offer it be enough? This pokey apartment, these cold floors, and a few pieces of furniture. It was a living creature for which I was now responsible, a creature that didn't speak a language I could understand. Then I began to approach it. I checked from the reflection in its small dark eyes many times that I was in its line of sight, before slowly sitting down on the sofa in front of it and waiting for it to come to me. Stat_