Claudia Ann Seaman Award
Cold Spring Harbor, New York, USA
Cold Spring Harbor High School
Birth: Contrary to popular belief, not all snakes lay eggs; some snakes give birth to live young. When the snakelets are born, they are covered with a thin membrane. The snakelet then uses their egg tooth to rip out of the membrane and wriggle free.
In the crevices of white-washed hospital walls, entrenched between slivers of chestnut wood and sweat-soaked mattresses, I am born as a snake. I slide from mama’s slick womb, my scales shiny and hidden underneath layers of fleshy-pink baby skin. Mama cups my wet hair and promises that it’s a good thing that I’m a snake. She breathes hot sour air in my face and whispers that snake-people are smart and mysterious and will be rich one day. The year of the snake is always a good one. My mama is a snake-person, too.
Eating: Snakes do not have the right kind of teeth to chew their food, so they must eat their catch whole. Their jaw is structured in such a way that allows the mouth to open wider than their own body in order to swallow their prey whole.
I slither underneath the city lights, entangling my young body amongst the sea of yellow faces, amongst the flickering lampposts and the paved streets that reek of dead fish. Vendors sell golden candyfloss morphed into dragons, cold flushed watermelons carved into perfect circles. My mama buys me a figure of a mouse from a lady with dried prunes as lips. She presses the carved peach wood into the palm of my hand and gives me a toothy smile. 20 yuan a figurine. Prune lady compliments my red dress and I eat her figurine as a thank you, biting into the hard bitter surface and getting splinters in my teeth as I swallow down every single bit of it, the mouse shifting and splitting my stomach as a reminder.
Dreams: According to a study directed by Gilles Laurent, reptiles experience rapid eye movement when they sleep. This indicates that they may be able to dream.
In my dreams, I’m a dreamer. I lie in white clouds and catch paper cranes drifting on sticky lychee juice puddles and have tea with ladies in silk dresses. The rabbit on the moon gifts me woven baskets with waxy milk sweets ingrained between the straw weaving. I swallow everything, all the tea, cranes, and sweet fox-eyed ladies. In my dreams, I pluck my home city from its roots and empty the skyscrapers, ancient palaces, and the malls that sell kawaii cat ears into the hollowness of my mouth.
In my nightmares, I’m a descender—I fall from the white clouds, past the smog lining the horizon, through the transparent rice paddy children, and back into mama’s cold arms. She smothers me in her cigarette-butt-smelling grip. I am Icarus if Icarus never had wings.
When mama tells me that we can’t stay here anymore, I punch her in the face. We are snake-people, beings meant to be rich and wear pretty dresses and hold rosy cherry-blossom umbrellas underneath dove trees. We are porcelain dolls meant to be locked behind glass cases, so young children can model after us. Porcelain dolls don’t need to pay rent.
Mama doesn’t hit back, instead she tells me to pack my things.
Environment: Snakes are found in forests, deserts, swamps and grasslands. Many call underground burrows or the spaces under rocks home. Snakes rarely change homes.
Mama flies us to a small apartment sandwiched between pastel ice cream parlors that close at 6:00 PM sharp and Brownie Scouts whose mothers wear white Sunday blouses. Our new home smells like ashes and woodchips. Mama crushes her ear to the floor, her eyes dilated and wild as she drags me to the ground, telling me to do the same. She asks me if I can hear the freedom pulsing through the soil, the whisper of the land of dreams guiding us to riches.
I tell her I can only hear the hiss of her snake tongue.
Intelligence: Snakes are very sophisticated and smart creatures and with enough willpower can be trained. Snakes learn very easily and are able to advance by learning trained behaviors.
In the playground, amongst the plastic slides where children eat salty goldfish crackers and drink fruity Capri Suns, I learn more about snake-people. Blonde children with blue faded overalls and red cheerio hairbands tell me that snake-people are hard workers but not good drivers. They tell me their own daddies and mommies cry clear tears at night because they fear that the snake-people are in their own houses, white bellies slithering on the kitchen floor and tails rattling against blue china plates, poised and ready to steal their jobs. America is no place for snake-people they tell me. I listen and take notes with crayolas and computer paper, scribbling sketches of curvy figures and brown snake eyes. I want to learn about my kind, the mysterious snake-people that will become very rich one day.
My mama doesn’t care about this new information. She tears up my notes and breaks my crayons and then drums her fingers on the coffee table, muttering to herself as she cries. Her tears smell like summer rain and salty fish.
That said, it is important to note that not all snakes can be trained.
Later mama tells me that I can tell the white children and all their daddies and mommies to go fuck themselves.
Emotion: While snakes cannot feel love, they do have basic emotions. Snakes can be afraid and display hostile behaviors. Some pet-owners even claim that snakes can feel sad or even lonely.
I hear mama scream one night, her small choked gasps slipping through the cracks of her shut door. I know she is crying because of blonde children and their Lunchable snacks and white parents who look at her because of the way her snake-tongue speaks. I know her body screws into herself as she aches for something she will never gain. She’s hungry and she will always be hungry.
Instead of comforting her, I expose my soft stomach in front of my bedroom mirror and press my hands onto the cool glass. Snake-people do not belong here. Mama does not belong here. I do not ache. I do not crack. I feel nothing.
Adaptation: Snakes are good at adapting to new environments. They become accustomed to a new habitat or diet easily and can adapt by changing their characteristics. Ex. Growing longer, relying more on their sense of smell, changing colors.
One day when mama isn’t home, I dye my hair blonde in front of my bedroom mirror.
It has taken six years, three months, and fourteen days for me to fully morph, to fully blend my colors with the pastel ice cream parlors, Sunday blouses, and the sticky red, white, and blue ice lollies that define this town. My black hair stings, the tainted yellowness soaking into my roots.
The wooden mouse in my stomach finally disintegrates, wet wood decomposes in sour acid and the splinters in my teeth vanish. My snake-body blisters and scabs and flakes in front of the mirror, skin splitting like tangerine peels as I shed off patches of yellow, rinds of golden dried flesh drifting from my bones.
I am reborn that day, sliding out of the dead husk of my previous skin and into the world as a different creature with blonde hair and pale skin. I am finally free in this free land.
Shedding: The molting of the skin that occurs regularly in snakes. This is when old skin is outgrown. Snakes will rub against rough surfaces to shed their skin.
I no longer talk to mama, no longer cling to her and press goodnight kisses to her cheek. Sometimes I still see her, dragging her snake-body through the front door just as the sun kisses the sky. She is not the same. My mama is split, porcelain fractured into two, her mind floating in an eastern city, forever drifting amongst the flickering lights as her body slowly breaks down into hollowness and aches for something she will never gain. Unlike her, I am whole.
I wonder when the time will come for mama to shed her own skin, because she’s a snake-person and all snake-people need to shed their skin eventually. But I wonder if she actually wants to peel and morph, if she actually wants to rub her back raw against the white washed walls of my schoolyard until every bit of her is gone, until her body sheds a corpse of her past life. Because mama’s proud of being a snake-person, proud of her heritage but not proud that she lost it. But I hope mama knows that dead limbs will eventually set in and past flesh will eventually rot and one day they’ll take over her, permanently yellowing her skin and blackening her hair and preventing her from ever becoming America’s favorite.
I don’t know if I pity or envy her.
"Snakeskin.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 11 Jan. 2021, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snakeskin#:~:text=The%20molting%20of%20the%20skin,surfaces%20to%20shed%20their%20skin.
“How Do Snakes Adapt to Their Environment?” Reference, IAC Publishing, www.reference.com/pets-animals/snakes-adapt-environment-b1a3c3f8a8bec448#:~:text=Snakes%20adapt%20to%20their%20environments,move%20through%20their%20natural%20habit.
“Snake.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 26 July 2021, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snake.
Snakes, Feeding Pet, et al. “Feeding Pet Snakes.” vca_corporate, vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/snakes-feeding#:~:text=What%20do%20snakes%20eat%3F,Snakes%20swallow%20their%20food%20whole.
Blending sharp, biting prose and vibrant imagery rich with metaphor and allusion, “Snake-people” pulses with a raw, animalistic quality. The piece immerses the reader in a vivid and nuanced exploration of the immigrant experience: the dichotomy between homeland and new land, a shedding of old heritage in absorbing the stringent, narrow-minded standards of a new one.
Editorial Praise from Crystal Hana Kim, Fiction Judge:
“Snake-people” is a fabulist story told in an electric, poetic voice that astutely explores issues of family lineage, immigration, assimilation and bigotry—all through the lens of myth and metaphor. Interwoven with facts about snakes, the writer teaches us about the ways in which we cope with exile and how, sometimes, we can lose our way. Crystalline images sparkle throughout—hot sour air, golden candyfloss, waxy milksweets, skin splitting like tangerine peels. Evocative of K-Ming Chang’s Bestiary, this is a powerful, stunning story.
Jessica Wang is the founder of the youth literary magazine Ice Lolly Review. Her work has been nationally recognized by Scholastic Art and Writing, NCTE, and Susquehanna University. In her free time she bakes shortbread cookies and writes fan fiction. Her boba tea order is a strawberry milk slush with tapioca pearls. She hopes you have a good day!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR