From the short story: Sideshow
The snake-girl feigns surprise to perfection when she stops in front of Sylvia. Surely she must have noticed her before, but then, perhaps in the dimly lit room the presence of another girl has gone unnoticed by her up until this moment. Sylvia feels the blood rush to her face, unable to tear her gaze from the deep golden eyes that are suddenly inches from her own. The smell of incense is overwhelming, and her head spins so violently that she wonders if she is about to faint. The dancer reaches a hand towards her, brushing the back of her warm, dry fingers down Sylvia’s cheek, lingering on lips, chin, the hollow of her throat, the lapel of Ritchie’s jacket where it sits over the curve of her breast. Sylvia is aware of the noise of her own breath, blood rushing quick in her ears. The dancer is silent, holding her in amber eyes like a butterfly pinned to a board—
And then the snake-girl is laughing, her hands around Richie’s neck, pulling him to his feet, dancing the pair of them up onto the stage. Richie, all red cheeks and grinning white teeth, is looking back over his shoulder, not at Sylvia but at the rest of the noisy, envious crowd. He waves triumphantly to them, and they whoop and curse and cheer and applaud as he is led across the sandy stage – this lucky one, their appointed representative, through the curtain, and away.
The music fades, and the soft lighting of the tent is replaced with a harsh electric glare. The tent’s flap opens, and the boy starts ushering the audience outside, cheerfully wishing them better luck next time. The crowd dissipates into a cloud of lust and frustration, and Sylvia is left standing with her face to the sealed-up canvas door.
Five minutes pass, and then ten. She considers wandering away, but she has nowhere better to be, no one else to be with, and more than that, she wonders what Richie will have to say on his return. The possibility is there that this event might be all that is needed to end things between them, although she is still not entirely sure how exactly she would feign the requisite level of outrage and betrayal. She could tell her parents, but she doubts their reaction would be anything more than an indulgent acceptance of the fact that “boys will be boys”.
The carnival is taking on its nocturnal plumage, and there are no longer children around her; instead, there are clusters of young men and women, courting couples, the occasional older man. Most of the activity seems concentrated around the Ferris wheel, and she watches it lurch into life, music and light streaming down to the ground below. It’s so loud that it takes her a while to notice that the snake-charming music has started again, although the Medusa tent is still pitch black.
She picks her way through the guy ropes round to the back of the tent, noting the skip and scratch of the gramophone needle as she goes. Something is moving in the light behind the tent, shapes dancing on the canvas wall opposite, but the shadow play is formless, without meaning. She can hear quick, grunting breaths, a noise she recognizes as Richie’s. She creeps forward, fascinated, repulsed and suddenly eager to learn what exactly is occurring in the little space behind the tent.
Cast in the light of a single lantern, Richie on the ground. At first it seems he is wrapped in heavy rope and for one wild moment she wonders if she has stumbled upon a kidnapping—and then the rope moves, and she realizes that he is held in the coils of an enormous green-gold serpent, one easily twice the size of the snake the girl had carried in the show. The grunts she had heard are his shallow, desperate attempts to breathe.
The coils shift and tighten, and Richie lets out a breathless, panicky squeal. He jerks his head back, desperately trying to loosen the crushing grip that holds him, and the movement brings her into his line of sight. His face twists with recognition and a surge of obvious relief.
“Sylvia—” he manages. “Help—”