Bourbon Penn 14

The Attack of the Forty-Foot Cobra Women

by George Everet Thompson

They showed up in the city one day, checked into an old, faded downtown hotel — the Inland — and began writing poetry, very long poems written on huge sheets of paper the size of large tarpaulins that float down from their hotel windows and land in the street.

The first news we heard of the Cobra Women’s arrival was reported by the local television station. The segment opened with their anchorman speaking in his best, this-is-serious-stuff tone: “Can it really be true? Are there forty-foot tall women?” There was a slight quiver of anxiety in his voice that indicated he wasn’t sure he wanted to hear the answer.

The station switched to a pleasant-faced brunette who — with her eyes startlingly wide open — said: “Oh yes yes, it’s very, very true.” There was no quiver of anxiety in her voice at all.

My wife, Betty, seemed to really enjoy that.

No other information was given at the time, not even an explanation about who the women might be, where they came from, why they were here or what had happened to make them so tall.

In the days after, there wasn’t much more information other than the Forty-Foot Cobra Women don’t swim, but what that meant wasn’t made clear. It was also not clear where the information came from or if it was reliable. There was a great deal of speculation about the women, but no one was sure of anything except that cobras were involved.

As the news of the forty-foot-tall women spread, it was first met with incredulity, then questions about the story, whether it was a joke or an elaborate hoax. It really seemed preposterous and no one could believe it. Yet we were and are repeatedly and sincerely assured that there are forty-foot-tall women living in our midst, usually by enraptured newswomen standing in front of the Inland Hotel with a microphone in hand.

Currently the news people on the scene at the hotel constantly report the same bits of information over and over and nearly every hour the news stations have brief pieces of interviews with the police or a government official. Basically they’re reporting nothing — or the fact they have nothing new to report. The newspapers published their unrevealing articles at the outset of the story when there was very little to report so they grasped at anything. As a result we know what the man on the street in Cincinnati and Copenhagen thinks as well as various world leaders and even the pope, although in his case it came from one of his assistants.

The Cobra Women won’t be interviewed, there are no sightings of them coming out of a coffee shop, no paparazzi shots of them in pink wigs and sun glasses, and the hotel staff is mum about any personal details as if the Cobra Women didn’t exist. If it weren’t for the poems floating down from the hotel windows on huge sheets of paper, you would have thought it was a strange dream we were all sharing.

Without any photos of the Forty-Foot Cobra Women to show us, we are left with breathless descriptions by the news people who haven’t seen them and by the few people who witnessed the women entering the city and going to the hotel. Among the things they agreed on was the women’s size, about eight times taller and larger than the average woman, and that they had live cobra snakes curled around their necks. The authorities interviewed everyone who saw the women arrive but haven’t released their names or even told us how many witnesses there are. A few have appeared on television, their faces blocked and their voices altered like they were mob informants or whistle-blowers.

Only one of the witnesses has come forward publicly, an elderly man named Malcolm who said the Forty-Foot Cobra Women were naked. Each time he’s interviewed — apparently every news organization on the planet feels the need to interview him — he gets excited when describing their breasts. Reporters have learned to cut him off when he mentions their breasts because he begins gesturing in an embarrassing way and sometimes drools. Now if he even appears momentarily on television most of the male population turns away from the television in embarrassment. He has become a caricature of the male attitude. Men are hardwired to like women’s breasts so it isn’t really our fault, we can’t help ourselves. But we shouldn’t have this guy as an example of men.

The other witnesses denied the Cobra Women were naked. They didn’t agree on what their clothes looked like, only that they were wearing some. No one recalled anything about the Cobra Women’s hair either. They must have hair because someone would have noticed if they were bald, but none of the witnesses could say whether their hair was dark or light, long or short. If someone is eight times taller than you are, perhaps you can’t get a good look at their hair anyway. I’m sure they had short hair, though. Someone surely would have noticed long hair, long and flowing with breezes like gentle fingers sensuously lifting it in the air as the Cobra Women walked along the street. And I can’t imagine women that size who write poetry having long hair, not at all, too old-fashioned.

Shoe size is one of the things I would have thought would be noticeable about a forty-foot-tall woman since one shoe would be as big as a large dump truck. Imagine a couple of large trucks clomping around on the street where you are walking. It would scare the bejesus out of you wouldn’t it? If I had been standing in the street watching forty-foot-tall women walking around, I would have noticed the size of their feet. I would have been terrified they were going to step on me so I certainly would have paid a lot of attention to their feet. If the women had been wearing tall stiletto heels, the kind you only see in night clubs or movies, I’m sure someone would have noticed. But no one mentions anything about shoes and the reporters never ask about it.

On another television channel an anchorman with dark hair slightly grayed at the temples and the demeanor of Moses before the Red Sea announced an update of the Cobra Woman “situation.” The station switched to a petite blonde holding a microphone with the hotel sign in the background. We could just make out a gigantic sheet of paper lying over a car off to one side.

“Was she always a blonde?” my wife Betty asked.

I can never tell one from another. I assume this is on purpose — every newscaster has to be reasonably attractive and not too different from every other one.

“Is this the one who was caught in the tornado that time?” I asked Betty.

“No,” she said, “that was Chelsea. This is Cindy, the one who used to work for the other station, the one we don’t watch anymore.”

• • •

Once it was clear the Forty-Foot Cobra Women weren’t a joke or a hoax, some pundit used the word “attack” and the news media picked it up like wolves on a carcass and repeated it so many times that all the menace has been drained out of it. It sounds like a promotion for a 1950s B-movie. Invade is more technically correct, though it still implies the use of force, a warlike attitude. If this is an invasion, it’s a subtle one, still unbelievable but not too unsettling. We all go about our lives because even though we believe the news stories, we don’t believe in them, they are not connected to us. If a car goes out of control and drives through a storefront we see it on the news and know that it happened, yet it doesn’t become part of our lives. It may as well be fiction since it didn’t happen to us and doesn’t have any real effect on our lives. We go on living.

• • •

Background information about the Inland Hotel has burgeoned into its own story. The hotel was famous once but now it’s in need of remodeling and updating. We’ve learned when it was built, where it fits into the pantheon of architectural history, what famous people once stayed there, the details of the vaguely Art Deco facade that no one looks at. We have heard all about the hotel’s semi-famous architect whose name we must have heard in grade school, the scandal about his mistress and a host of other things that have nothing to do with the Cobra Women.

These tidbits of information were interesting to hear and we pay attention and discuss with each other, but they are unimportant. The truly important things in life we never discuss. Either we don’t know how or we can’t recognize what is important.

One thing we learn is that the Inland Hotel has a very large ballroom on the top floor with a high ceiling, though it’s not forty feet high. The ballroom is ringed by several smaller rooms with huge doors that slide into the walls so the space can be made even larger. Once it was used for gala events like large ostentatious weddings of the very wealthy or large noisy political rallies or high-priced charity events attended by socialites and other people whose names we wouldn’t recognize. There isn’t any mention of any gala events, though, just that the ceiling isn’t as high as the Cobra Women are tall. They must be sitting down up there then, sitting on the floor writing their poetry. Or perhaps they’re standing uncomfortably hunched over with their heads down, experiencing tremendous pain in their necks and backs. Maybe they’re so busy writing they don’t notice any discomfort. Maybe their poetry is more important to them than anything else and the height of the ceiling is unimportant.

The more I think about it the less likely it seems to me that forty-foot-tall women with cobra snakes even exist much less have come to our city to write poetry. But people have seen them and I’ve seen the gigantic sheets of poetry. Perhaps this is a mythological invasion and we’re besieged by real Amazons, not the literary kind. Maybe there were giant people in ancient times. Maybe they were thought of as gods and goddesses. Maybe mythology has returned to reality. Didn’t the ancient Greeks and Roman breathlessly report on the activities of their supposed gods and goddesses? Weren’t they gossip-rumor news fodder of their day like the Cobra women have become for us? Instead of our being fed photos and quasi news stories of someone who’s famous for nothing stopping for coffee like a regular person, we get whatever idle information can be dredged up about giant poetry-writing women only a few people have seen.

It makes me wonder if we humans have screwed something up so terribly that mythic beings have returned and their poetry is a cure for whatever is going wrong. Though I can’t recall any myths involving forty-foot-tall women and cobras.

• • •

Newspaper accounts always refer to the fact that no one has been killed by the falling poems, and the city fathers are forever considering some regulation since the poetry seems to be a “problem.” The city fathers did take sensible precautions and closed the streets around the hotel. The Cobra Women’s technique of writing their poetry on very large sheets of paper and tossing it from their hotel windows caused downtown traffic jams. The large poems would float down, sometimes covering cars and trucks in the street below. Now it has become trendy to stand in the street and be covered by a gigantic falling poem. All kinds of people show up for the mindless thrill of being temporarily buried beneath the poems. They gather below the hotel windows and scurry to get under one of the poems. The poems don’t fall straight down; they slide and scoot through the air as if they were searching for something. You have to get in position as quickly as possible in order to be under one when it lands or else you’ll be pushed aside by other people vying for the opportunity.

Minor celebrities are often shown on the news being buried by a sheet, then crawling out from under it. Some of them are obviously terrified by the experience — the sheets of paper are heavier than you would think — yet they do their best to feign excitement instead. Others come out blinking, pretending it was a cathartic experience that showed them something not readily seen.

I confess my wife Betty and I did it once while coming home slightly drunk from dinner. We stood in the street outside the hotel waiting for a page to slip from the window, then rushed back and forth trying to guess where it would fall. We succeeded both times we tried only because there was no breeze and there wasn’t anyone else on the street at that hour of the night. Exhilarated, we ran home and made love. Afterward we were still so excited we ran out, got under another falling poem then went home and made love again, only more slowly.

What is odd is that the poems themselves aren’t read by anyone. People are more concerned about the sport of chasing giant falling poems than about the quality or meaning of the poetry. Despite having nothing new to report each day about the Cobra Women, the news media doesn’t publish the poems. No one has bothered to study them in detail or write treatises about their literary meaning or value. There are articles and theories galore as to why the Cobra Women distribute their poetry this way and the psychology of people standing in the street waiting to be covered with a blanket of paper.

I think about why no one has studied the poems or written some analysis of them. Surely the fact that they’re Forty-Foot Cobra Women has some effect on the poetry. Doesn’t being forty feet tall give them a different perspective on life? Where are the literary critics and academics thirsting to become household names? Why haven’t they explained the poems in language no one can comprehend except some aging French philosopher?

Perhaps no one talks about the poems because they have read them and were transformed in some inexplicable way that leaves them incapable of talking about them. Poetry can be moving and memorable, but I have never heard of it rendering readers speechless.

• • •

Other cities have called to complain about all this. They send plenipotentiary ambassadors to negotiate for the relocation of the Cobra Women to their city. Other cities want our city fathers to send the Forty-Foot Cobra Women to their city. The other cities don’t want them permanently, just for a loan or a tour: “Appearing One Night Only!” Our city has no control over them; it doesn’t even have communication with them.

No one knows why they picked our city to inhabit. No one has been able to question them about this. I think this would be something every politician, investigative reporter and talk show host would want to get in on, but none of them seem to be able to. Perhaps it isn’t that the Cobra Women don’t give interviews but that everyone is terrified by the prospect of forty-foot women who write poetry. Just being in an enclosed space with the women would be a little frightening. They might accidentally crush you.

The city fathers do pat themselves on the back for making this such a great city that the Cobra Women would come here to write their poetry. I don’t like politicians very much, so I find it hard to give them any credit for what’s taken place. Maybe we do have a nice city for writing poetry, though other poets who live here haven’t indicated that. I suspect that the choice had to do with something else entirely. Maybe we have great ice cream here, or really nice weather, but I can’t imagine how that could be. Maybe our city is the epicenter of some pending doom we are unaware of and the Cobra Women are here to prevent it. Or observe it so they can write poems about it like “Ode to the Late Human Race.” In any case, we can’t get them to go anywhere else, and we don’t want them to. We’re all delighted that they’re here, we’d be foolish not to be delighted to have giant women writing poetry in our fine city.

• • •

When I get home, Betty is peeling potatoes. She does this very well.

“You know,” I say while she puts peeled potatoes in a bowl. “It’s like we’re all swimming in a river, just us in the current. That’s what life is like, we’re swimmers in the river. Sometimes I don’t want to swim, though. I’d rather pull off into a little cul-de-sac in the river, a little back water and sit and listen to the birds and the forest. I hate swimming. Especially in large groups.”

“Why did you want to live in the city then?” Betty asks. “Wouldn’t you rather have lived somewhere quieter? Maybe closer to the woods?”

“I like the city because everything is available here. There are galleries, museums, restaurants and more. Do you know how hard it is to get a book in the woods?”

“Are you trying to tell me something?” Betty asks me. She does sound concerned but I don’t think there’s any reason to be concerned.

“No. I’m trying to tell me something.” It’s a complete surprise to me when I hear myself say it.

Betty turns around from the potatoes and braces herself against the kitchen counter.

“Tell yourself what?”

I have to think about it a moment and then it pops right in and gets comfortable like it’s been here in my head before.

“I’m tired of swimming, Betty. That’s what the problem is. I keep swimming, and I keep falling behind. I’m not a good swimmer.”

“But we’re not really swimming.”

“Whatever it is we are doing, I’m not good at it, and I keep falling behind.”

She goes back to the potatoes while I wait patiently to cook and mash them.

After dinner we sit there and read our newspapers. There’s no mention in the paper today about the Cobra Women’s poetry, only more reports of how many people are throwing themselves beneath the poems.

“It says here in the paper there is an unconfirmed theory that the cobras were subjected to radiation by the Army as a test,” Betty says, “and now their bite makes people huge. One of the problems though is that it only seems to work on women. When men try it they just shrivel up and die.”

“Shrivel up and die?” I think I feel myself shriveling as well. I assume what the army was looking for was huge soldiers and instead they get huge women who write poetry. Why cobras and why irradiate them?

“That’s what it says here. Men rot from inside and shrivel up.” Do I hear some small note of glee in Betty’s voice as she says this?

“Why doesn’t that happen with women?”

“They don’t know, but they think it has something to do with hormones.”

“Lovely,” I say, “now you can be forty feet tall and write poetry while I rot inside and shrivel up.”

“It also says there is unconfirmed rumor they worship the cobras.”

“Now, why would they do that?” I ask Betty.

“No one seems to know.”

“Doesn’t make any sense to me. If the newspapers want to know something about the Cobra Women they should simply ask them. They should ask them why they came to our city, why they worship cobras, assuming they do, and well …”

But the Forty-Foot Cobra Women won’t be interviewed.

• • •

Later, lying in bed listening to Betty softly snore I think about the Cobra Women in the hotel. Even with the large ballroom, how can the Cobra Women live there? It has to be too small for them. Maybe that’s the best there is though. It’s not like they can stay in a regular hotel room. A suite would only have enough room for them to crawl in and lie down with their head in the bedroom and their feet in the hall. Now that I think about it, how did they get into the hotel in the first place, how can they even crawl through a doorway? They must be too big for that. And how would they get to the top floor since they couldn’t fit in an elevator?

I can’t figure out how the hotel has accommodated them. Walls must have been ripped out and all the furniture removed. Even so, how is there enough room for them to write poetry? Do cramped spaces somehow enable them to write poetry? Where do they get the giant sheets of paper from? And how does the hotel staff feed them? It has to be like feeding a wedding party three meals a day, which means a lot of food being prepared all the time. And what do the Cobra Women eat with, what do they use for utensils? There can’t be knives and forks and spoons large enough for them. Do they use shovels to eat with? Maybe they don’t cut up their food since they’re so big. Maybe they just toss it in their mouths, a steak here, a chicken there. I wonder if they eat mashed potatoes? Is the staff of the Inland Hotel under some spell of the Forty-Foot Cobra Women?

Why hasn’t anyone been asking these questions? Then I think about the cobras. I wonder if the women really do worship them or if someone just said that and the news people are now reporting it as a fact. And where are these cobras? Has the army let them loose? Could they be out somewhere biting more women? Why aren’t the health inspectors and animal control people crawling all over this situation?

• • •

The newspapers haven’t mentioned where the Cobra Women originally came from. How did they get here? Didn’t anyone see them traveling here? Now that I think about it, nothing has been said as to who or what these women were originally. Are they military personnel who agreed to some tests? Are they former convicts who agreed to some tests? Are they college girls who were tricked into this? Are they from all walks of life or merely a test group? Who are they? Where did they come from? Do they like their rooms at the hotel? What perfume do they use? What’s their favorite color? Will they appear nude in a men’s magazine for a lot of money? Are the cobras radioactive? Do the women use them as weapons? What is their story?

There are many conspiracy theories as to how this happened, how the bite of a cobra could make women forty feet tall, or whether or not that’s what happened. Government-experiment-gone-wrong seems the most likely answer, but the government professes to know nothing and no one has heard of any government experiments gone awry. That kind of thing happens in the movies all the time, but not in reality. In movies, government scientists lose control of some terrible experiment that starts wiping out the human race. Despite the fact we have created multiple weapons that could kill us all, we haven’t managed to actually do it.

Alien technology is offered as another explanation. There was a television interview with someone — their face covered with black wrappings like a terrorist — who claimed that reptilian space aliens secretly control our lives. He said the Cobra Women were a failed attempt by the aliens to cross breed their species with ours. The obvious question every intelligent person wants to ask is: “What?! Are you nuts?” The interviewer didn’t ask that question. Nor did she ask why reptilian space aliens would want to have anything to do with us much less want to cross breed with us.

If space aliens are controlling our lives, why are things so screwed up all the time? Anyone who can traverse millions of light years of space should be able to fix what’s wrong with our lives. Wouldn’t they want to put a stop to war and famine and disease? It doesn’t make much sense not to, and surely they could. The fact that these things haven’t been fixed is proof there aren’t any space aliens controlling our lives.

And then there are the religious beliefs. Some snake-handling devotees came out in favor of the Cobra Women. They were in the news, handling cobras instead of whatever snakes they usually handled, rattle snakes I think. That didn’t last long since cobras apparently don’t take well to being handled. There were stories about the cobra snake in a basket trick and how it works. A wacky minister from a church no one has heard of teamed up with a quasi-political figure who has never held office and they claimed this is all the work of Satan. Giant women writing poetry and Satanic evil don’t seem to go together though, and he never explained how this was actually evil.

The minister held a news conference outdoors, which was a mistake. He was yelling in a practiced, serious tone waving a bible in one hand. The term “radical feminist plot” came up as though radical feminists had a secret laboratory somewhere that was churning out giant women all financed by Satan.

He was roaring along in his ranting when the sky got dark and it began to rain. There was a moment when he was standing there with the rain coming down and bolts of lightning in the background that made it look almost biblical, like Noah standing on the prow of his ark as the flood began. But the next moment his expensive suit was soaked and he looked like a bedraggled and unhappy rain dog.

• • •

While I fix dinner, Betty reads the in-depth details from the newspaper to me.

“It says here that the women keep the cobras with them because the snake’s bite makes them immortal.”

I’m incredulous. It can’t possibly be true but I go along with it. “A snake bite makes them immortal? But what does it have to do with poetry?”

“What do you mean?” Betty asks.

“Well, all they do is write poetry. Why be immortal if all you’re going to do is write poetry?”

“I think writing poetry all the time would be fun,” she says without looking at me.

“You’re not thinking of becoming immortal, are you? Being bitten by a snake must be traumatic, not to mention unsanitary.”

I try to sound nonchalant when I ask this. Betty laughs lightly, the sort of laugh that says “You can’t be serious,” and “Don’t be foolish” together. The typical “You can’t be serious” laugh is different from a “Don’t be foolish laugh,” and the two combined comes out in a “Silly, silly man laugh.” I keep going over it in my head trying to figure out what it means.

Betty does occasionally want to do some irrational thing as a lark. When we were dating, she decided she was going to become a topless dancer. I don’t know how, but I managed to talk her out of it. Maybe that’s why she was going to do it, to have me talk her out of it. I should have persuaded her to only dance topless for me. I didn’t think of that at the time. I was too upset thinking about her dancing in front of other men in some sleazy, decrepit bar. I imagined the men watching as grotesque ogres.

“No,” Betty says and I have to recall what it was I asked her.

There’s a pause while she reads more, then: “The cobra’s bite also makes them forty feet tall. Of course, being forty feet tall might be fun too.”

Sometimes Betty is so confusing to me, sometimes I feel like I’m slowly losing my mind, that it’s oozing out and evaporating in the air. And she’s making it do that on purpose. Men are afraid, we live our lives in fear — in fear of women, fear about women, fear about women loving us, and the important one: fear of women leaving us. Every time Betty says something like that, my fear leaps up on my chest and begins clawing at me, trying to get at my heart and rip it open.

“If you were forty feet tall I couldn’t make love to you, you know.” I hope to get an affirmative reply to this remark, but Betty doesn’t respond. I can’t tell if she’s ignoring me or thinking it over.

“Wouldn’t you miss all the wonderful sex?” I say. “I know it’s only occasionally wonderful, but it isn’t bad.”

Betty still doesn’t respond.

“I guess you wouldn’t,” I say, trying to sound hurt.

Betty laughs, probably at something in the paper.

“I bet the Cobra Women don’t cook as well as I do.”

Betty laughs again and says: “And they probably don’t drink as much as you do either.”

She doesn’t say it in an accusatory way, but it’s still an accusation.

“I don’t drink that much.”

Maybe I do.

“You drink a little too much. If you would just have one less drink every day it would help. You’d feel better.”

“I know a lot of people who drink more than I do.”

“And they’re all alcoholics,” she says.

A little further down in the newspaper story it mentions that the ballroom space was at one time a swimming pool. There’s some conjecture that perhaps the Cobra Women have converted it back to a swimming pool, except that cobras don’t swim.

• • •

It’s begun to rain when I leave work. Not a big, drenching rain, just the average keep-the-dust-down drizzle. The kind where not everyone has their umbrella open and you feel somewhat foolish with yours open because no matter what you do, open your umbrella or not, you come across people who did the opposite, and they look at you, and you look at them and think they’re thinking how foolish you are for doing whatever you’re doing with your umbrella.

The Inland Hotel where the Cobra Women are staying is on the same street as our apartment building, just a few blocks down, and on the walk home I see the pages of the Cobra Women’s poetry lying wet and soggy on the street, draped over light poles and mail boxes. The poems look pathetic like that, wet and trashed out. Still the Cobra Women keep writing them. High above, another one drifts out the window, coming down slowly at first, swishing back and forth in the air like a fantastic bird, then picks up speed as it gets wet and its flight characteristics begin to fail. I stand my ground, and the poem comes down in front of me, landing with a wet, flapping bang trapping someone under it. I wish the hotel were on another street far away from mine or that the Cobra Women would move into a different hotel, maybe one on the other side of town.

I decide to investigate and go to the hotel. The doorman won’t let me in. He won’t even call up to the Cobra Women and ask them if they’ll see me. He refuses to be moved in this matter. I ask him about the hotel ballroom and about the cobras and the swimming pool, but he won’t answer my questions. I suspect he doesn’t know anything anyway so I leave.

I walk around to the side of the building where there is an entrance for an underground parking lot. It has a steel door and a security entrance with one of those boxes on a bent tube, pointed at the cars coming in. It looks like an alien death ray from a sci-fi movie, down to the slit in the front. The slit is for a magnetic identity card, though I don’t stand in front of the thing just in case it is an alien death ray. It’s completely irrational, but things are getting odd and you never can be sure. I stand next to it trying to decide what to do next when a car comes along, an expensive convertible, dark blue with a khaki-colored top. The driver, an attractive blond who looks expensive, puts her card in the slit. The steel door opens and she drives in. She doesn’t look at me or acknowledge my existence.

So here I am, standing at the open steel door to the hotel parking garage. I walk in. It is dark and dry in the garage and there are no signs or arrows to indicate anything. I don’t know where to go, so I wander around looking at the walls, pillars and odd convolutions all solidified in dull grayish concrete. There aren’t that many cars parked down here and each footstep I take makes more noise than it should, sounding hollow and sad which is how the garage looks.

I finally find a door around a corner in a narrow short corridor. The door is green with peeling paint, revealing a dark red underneath and it doesn’t say anything on it. I open it for a look. There are stairs leading up. I stand there for a moment feeling like a little boy snooping into something he shouldn’t, fearful I’ll get caught and reprimanded. Then I go up the stairs. Up two floors I come to a door marked “Lobby,” and I open it and find the lobby and the elevators. There isn’t anyone around, no one, so I take an elevator to the top floor, the one labeled “Ballroom” on the elevator panel.

The elevator stops, the doors open. I don’t hear or see anyone. The hallway appears normal with nothing to indicate anyone lives there. I call out, not too loudly, but no one responds. Pretending I’m only curious, I start investigating and find there’s nothing much to investigate. I knock on each door on the floor, but don’t get a response. I try the doors, but they’re all locked. The doorways are all normal in size, three feet wide and six-and-a-half feet high. I suppose the Cobra Women could get into their rooms by lying on their sides and slithering through the doorways. But why would they check into this hotel if they were going to have so much trouble? Wouldn’t they be better off in a warehouse or airplane hangar, somewhere with more room for them? Are the Cobra Women a threat to my marriage?

I look all over the floor and don’t find anything out of the ordinary. The floor may as well be unoccupied. Maybe it is. I thought I would be able to speak to one of the Cobra Women, perhaps chat with one so I could get a grasp of what is happening. I had imagined that I could obtain some important piece of information I could communicate to the news media. I’d be invited to morning news shows, interviewed by journalists. My picture would be in magazines. Most importantly I could tell Betty all about it.

• • •

When I get home, Betty isn’t there. I look all over for her but she’s not at home. I don’t know what to do, she hasn’t left a note. Should I start fixing dinner myself? Will she be pleased when she finds me doing that, or will she be distressed because I have interfered with the meal plan she’s made? Should I snack now or will she be home soon? Perhaps she’s gone for take-out food and I shouldn’t snack. These dilemmas arise all the time in marriage. You don’t know what your partner is doing so you don’t know what to do.

I go upstairs to change clothes. The door to Betty’s closet is ajar. We keep separate closets so normally I don’t look in hers as I have no business there. Yet I open the door. Instead of her clothes, there is a great stack of papers, all large sheets of paper neatly folded into a size that will fit in the closet. I recognize these sheets immediately. I don’t have to look at them to know they’re the Cobra Women’s poems.

I tentatively pick up one off the top. I can’t open it in the space and can only read a few words, something about a cobalt blue bag and the doctor’s visit. I am curious. It’s always been possible for me to read the poems of the Cobra Women in the street, but I was always dissuaded from doing so simply because no one else did. I pretended I was waiting for the reviews to come out first, and no reviews ever came out. Maybe everyone is like me, fearful of venturing into new territory without a guide or map in hand. We might discover something we wish we had not. Betty must have, since they’re in her closet.

I pull out one of the sheets and spread it out in the room as best I can. Only the opening lines and the end of the poem are visible, nothing in the middle of it. It begins by talking about the faces of large cats and how they’re like a fire. But it’s the final lines that strike me the most.

“Soon the wheels will turn off center
then the windows, the room itself,
then finally, the engine of the earth.”

• • •

Days later I’m still swimming but I know I’m only treading water. I won’t be allowed to recline quietly in some little backwater, I will be forced to keep moving against the current. My arms are tired even now, my legs feel like stone. I have no prayer to recite at my last moment. Eventually I’ll sink beneath the surface and vanish. In the end, I won’t be able to raise my head and call for help. Not even from the Forty-Foot Cobra Women.

In addition to writing fiction, George Everet Thompson is an artist and font designer. He’s worked as a graphic/product designer and taught typography and design history at Columbia College Chicago for 20+ years. He has published stories in Oyez Review (Roosevelt University), Crab Fat, and Brilliant Flash Fiction, as well as poems in Goodly Co. He has also written articles for the Journal of Communications, the Caxtonian, a publication of the Caxton Club, and the Chicago Artist’s Coalition Newsletter. He holds a BA in Fine Art, and an MA in Design from Purdue University.