The Dictator’s Bride
Illustration by Jana Galushkina
It is always 32°C. The reptile house at Edinburgh Zoo maintains this temperature through heat lamps, rinsing us—the snakes, lizards, turtles, and me—in red. The light sweats across each tank, feeding station, the hygrometer device (for measuring humidity) and the collar to my would-be-cream-now-red blouse. I slip the security key into my Burberry jacket and hook the garment beside the door. A corn snake heaves its curls against the palm I offer, turtles straw their necks into corrugated submission, and a chameleon blooms its throat (called a gular) at the morning’s rhythmic disturbance.
Last to be greeted is the crocodile.
All scientists love the dangers under their cultivation. A virologist admires the virus raging his cells to ruin, while a volcanologist sees beauty in the venting magma-ash that binds her lungs to stone. It is closeness to power. A good poison to open a vein, to become poisonous yourself. For this same reason, I adore Gabriel and through adoration I am as dangerous as he is.
We arrived at the zoo two months ago, simultaneously, as though fate had tied our paths. He is a Floridia native. Sightings had been reported for more than a century, each one describing a reptile with a horizontal split down one marble-milk eye. After terrorising the inhabitants along the Myakka River, the half-blind beast was apprehended by the same crew famed for documenting Gustave (a Nile crocodile, reported to have killed three hundred people along the Ruzizi’s muddy banks).
Gabriel’s name means “strong man” and—Oh—he is. He could swallow me whole. Quite neatly, in fact. I see death in his head, terror in his jaw, and charisma lying as duck fat on his tongue. And I see success, a scientific wonder to be discovered in his muscled mass. Indeed, he takes a starring role in my research on post-venomous evolutionary cell structures. As a woman, I need a male subject if I wish to garner praise. Shoulder-pads, heels, and a pantsuit does not quite cut it.
Gabriel’s teeth are sharp and cut through everything.
His tank is parallel to my office. It is large enough to allow him room to move, pace and slink below the water. Through the glass divide, I can see his favourite rock to lounge upon, the brackish reed-whipped corner where he sleeps, and the torso-sized hatch where I feed him. Each time I glance his way, which I do, often, I swear he smiles. One good eye creasing, teeth on show, too many teeth to broach correction.
“Beautiful,” I call him.
His snout comes to meet my palm on the tank’s other side and his muzzle leaves a latticed-skin mark. Although there are other reptiles and amphibians within the hot house, there are none like Gabriel. He is the only one I have not touched, cannot touch. The glass stands between us. I hate it and I think he knows that I hate it. I think he knows more than I give him credit for.
I was not always a herpetologist. Before I studied his kind, I held palaeontological tendencies. A child in a lime green diplodocus tee-shirt eating watercress at the dinner table with a herbivore’s slowness (I had patient parents—academics, naturally). Later, I learned about raptors, took falconry lessons, and wore talon marks upon each wrist as a symbol of commitment. From fossil bones to birds, I soon turned to their living relatives: Crocodylia. Alligators, caimans, gavials and, of course, the crocodile. An evolutionary miracle of streamlined propulsion, brackish-built glands, and a triangular snout pointing—always—to hunger.
Sometimes, to me.
Field Notes, 2nd September 2019, Reptile House, Tank #7.
THE DAILY ROUTINE BEGINS AND ENDS WITH FEEDING, USUALLY CHICKEN, FISH AND OFFAL. HOWEVER, THE ZOO’S USUAL SUPPLIERS HAVE RUN INTO DISTRIBUTION ISSUES AND I SUPPLEMENT GABRIEL’S RATIONS WITH SUPERMARKET MEAT (TESCO’S FINEST).
I give the best cuts to Gabriel. He would know if I didn’t. I am certain of this. We eat breakfast together, he in his tank and I on a chair beside it. Granola for me, herring or perch for him. In the evenings, I prepare chicken for us both. Gabriel takes his time with each meal, though only if I watch him eat it. Alone, he is monstrous. Scythes a whole carcass, blood clouding in a lazy peony below the waterline.
Field Notes, 7th January 2020, Reptile House, Tank #7.
WHEN OBSERVED, HE CAN BE GENTLE.
Today, we have been together six months. I have no assistant for my research and do not want one. This way, it is only Gabriel and me. There is a habit I have developed. At feeding time, I place my whole arm inside the hatch, rather than using the mechanical gripper. It brings me closer to him. Gabriel is tentative when he takes a bite, tame as a dog. Have I domesticated a crocodile? Perhaps, though I would not be the first.
I buy a mattress for the facility. It allows me to watch Gabriel without end, for I can sleep and work and never leave him.
When I change into my night clothes on the first evening, I find scales pressed onto sock soles and freckle-flicked along my arms.
Field Notes: 25th February 2020, Reptile House, Tank #7.
HE WATCHES ME UNDRESS. IT MUST BE THE MOVEMENT THAT TRANSFIXES HIM.
HOW CAN I EXPLAIN CLOTHES TO A CROCODILE?
If ever I cannot sleep, I watch him dream. His back legs twitch when he muses on swimming, while his mouth clicks when he fantasises about eating (he does this often). There are other rhythms I look for.
One night, however, he does not dream.
Field Notes: 26th February 2020, Reptile House, Tank #7.
GABRIEL IS SICK. HE WILL NOT EAT.
I call the specialist vet. He cannot visit until tomorrow. I cannot wait that long. With coaxing—bullying, I suppose—he gives me advice. Tells me how to obtain tranquilizers. Provides the dosage needed to sedate the crocodile. And the one required to kill him, should I need to. Gabriel listens to the last part on speaker and I swear he grins.
I do as instructed and, despite my concerns, there is a thrill. I finally get what I crave. Now, I stand at the volcano’s edge: I touch Gabriel for the first time. He is hemp-rough and cold. Patiently, I lure him into a pen and hide drugs inside a Tesco: Finest chicken. It takes an hour until he is sedate enough. After that, I slide the pen onto a wheeled platform and navigate him to the Reptile House’s main chamber, where there is ample space. Fifty tanks surround us, stacked against the curved walls, their red lights constant and humming encouragement. The pen unfolds around us in a star and Gabriel is its centre, blinking slowly. I carry out tests methodically and quickly. I fear with each passing moment that I did not get his drugs right. Although I am not strong, I manage to take his temperature. His bulk shifts as easily as though he were still in water, as though his barely conscious form knows, somehow, that I endeavour to help him.
We have grown close, Gabriel and I.
Ah, he is big. Plated, cool and shelled in thick armour. No, he is huge, with a muscled back and snap-crack brutality, sleeping. I had forgotten, with the glass between us, how impressive he is. Gabriel lies upon his spine, docile as a lamb. I lean against him to take his temperature, hips over his, straining across a wide, wide stomach. This is power, isn’t it? Straddling a century-old beast who lies within the mercy I grant him.
In goes the probe to his cloaca. It is wired to a unit which reports his temperature in seconds, lest my own mammal warmth affect his cooler blood. Cloaca means ‘sewer’ in Latin. It is the outlet where a reptile’s intestinal, urinary and genital tracts open.
His nostrils quiver.
A breath against my thigh.
All tests come back negative and his illness, if ever there was one, vanishes overnight.
Field Notes: 27th February 2020, Reptile House, Tank #7.
I FOUND TRANQUILISERS, THE PILLS I THOUGHT I’D FED GABRIEL, UNEATEN IN HIS ENCLOSURE THIS MORNING. EACH ONE WAS SPAT OUT BESIDE THE FEEDING HATCH.
Several white pills, marred with tank scum, mock me. As does Gabriel. He winks (I know he cannot wink, though he does) with his one good eye. It dawns on me: during the long hour we spent together as I drew his blood and stroked his tail and palmed the dip between his nostrils and pressed against him—belly to my belly—he was awake.
He could have killed me. He didn’t.
I tell a friend and she mistakes me. Assumes I’m talking about a man and uses the words “narcissistic relationship” and “manipulation tactics” and I do not correct her.
Instead, I wonder if she means me or him.
I cannot sleep and drag my mattress to Gabriel’s tank. We lie there, he in the water and I on the floor. Our bodies are split by a thick translucent barrier. I cannot tell you what we talk about, as we do not talk in words.
with a tail tilted, head tilted, question tilted, asked by him
all in italic.
Field Notes: 1st March 2020, Reptile House, Tank #7.
I UNDRESS FOR HIM.
I deem it unfair to lock Gabriel in a tank. In warmer months, he is moved to a large outdoor enclosure, an open lagoon, where he rolls and writhes and moans his superiority to an audience. Exhibitionist. It is barely beyond winter and he is restless. What else can I do? I open the feeding hatch, angle in a ladder and watch him scale it with a grace I would never have given a crocodile. Then again, he is more than that. Gabriel is not as reptile as a reptile should be. Perhaps it is his age, advanced, which has given him humanlike characteristics.
He roams the Reptile House as I work. Bellies the corridors, easing his frustration along the polished cement floors. If ever I close my office door, he bumps his tail to the frame and lips his nostrils to the keyhole with a sound like breathing sand.
I learn not to close the door.
He rests his head upon my lap during online meetings and warms his throat against my legs. When he is hidden beneath the desk, no one need ever know what we do.
Huff, he says. Sniff, he says.
I find another salmon scale between my thighs and I shut him in his tank after that. It is a betrayal and he hates me for it. Ripples widen our distance as he paces and swims and paces. I do too. I take to marching beside the other tanks, whose occupants are much less interesting than he is. Always, Gabriel’s one good eye watches me as I watch him.
I take two moorhens from the local pond to offer as an apology. I leave them in his feeding hatch and he keeps them alive for days. One evening, while I watch, while he knows I am watching, he eats them. Using his conical teeth, Gabriel leaves feathers in the feeding hatch for me to wear. White ones, the colour of his broken, creamy eye.
It is a peace offering and I take it and I release him.
Field Notes: 28th March 2020, Reptile House, Tank #7.
YOU CAN READ THIS, CAN’T YOU, GABRIEL?
I stave off inspections through frantic emails. Invent a rare disease and isolate us. Alone, in the Reptile House. I avoid calls and texts, decline invitations to eat out: I cannot eat unless he watches. By this time, I think I am amphibious. He is rarely in his tank now, he is always with me. By day, we swim, forming a circle, a tail-eating Ouroboros.
Still, he hungers.
All I have given is not enough.
His tail slaps the door’s frame even when I do not close it.
One night, I hear him. Crawling to the mattress I sleep on, leaving his favourite rock to come to me. He is heavy and his three-lidded eye—the good one—works open and against my own. I pull up my nightdress.
All the mercury he swallowed in Florida waters has turned his tongue to mirror shining. In it, I see myself, naked. His belly is a mosaic against my soap-softened skin, cloaca to cunt. Afterwards, I wear the same netted marks he leaves against the tank.
There are fish scales—hundreds—glittering over me.
It is always 32°C. The reptile house at Edinburgh Zoo maintains this temperature through heat lamps, rinsing us—the snakes, lizards, turtles, and me—in red. The light sweats across each tank, feeding station, the hygrometer device (for measuring humidity) and the collar to the crocodile’s would-be-cream-now-red blouse.
Gabriel slips the security key into my—no, his—Burberry jacket.
When he returns from the outside, a place I cannot recall, he will feed me Tesco’s Finest chicken, stroke my back, fuck me against the dirty glass and call me, “Beautiful.”