Herbert Humphrey the Emerald Boa Constrictor got his new roommate on a muggy Thursday afternoon, during his post-art therapy doze. In his drifting lassitude he reflected on the clay pot he’d completed, feeling alternately pleased by the thinness of its walls and disappointed in its slight lopsidedness. Possibly if it dried without cracking he would use it to hold the collection of tropical print bowties he’d brought along with hopes that they might serve as conversational ice breakers when he met his fellow patients. That had not worked out as planned. But the tiny hula girls on the pink and green one had turned out to be pretty good listeners.
Herbert was under care at the Audubon Asylum for an attachment disorder: he was desperate to connect with other creatures, but in his enthusiasm he clasped them too tightly. The survivors invariably fled for their lives when released, exacerbating Herbert’s anxiety and fear of rejection, which in turn led him to embrace his next acquaintances even more crushingly, etc. The psychioveterinarians at the asylum, who were among the leading lights of their profession, had worked with him extensively on this problem. They gave him relaxation mantras. They delved into his relationships with his parents and the traumas of his formative years. They diagrammed vicious cycles until Herbert himself threatened to get a bit vicious. Still he couldn’t help himself. He knew the other patients called him Death Grip behind his back. No one would even sit next to him at group sessions since that one time he’d gotten over-excited listening to Flaubert open up about his body dysmorphia. He’d just been trying to give Flaubert a supportive squeeze. Flaubert was so big! How was he to know that giraffe legs would fracture that easily?
Eventually Herbert began refusing to leave the reptile ward at all, except to take the waters in the hot springs around which the asylum had originally been built as a European-style spa in 1839. The doctors felt the close heat of the pools would simulate the primordial heldness of the egg and reconstruct his emotional security. Herbert encouraged this theory as he liked the silky, mineral texture of the water and the mild stench of brimstone that hung over it. He lurked in the pools and imagined himself as minor denizen of Hell, waiting to drown the unwary damned. His demonic alter ego enjoyed a lofty yet undemanding position in the infernal hierarchy which involved a lot of debonair basking while the lesser imps slaved away with their pitchforks.
Aside from these bathing excursions he spent his free time sulking on the branch in his quarters, coiled around himself in the only embrace he felt he was ever likely to receive, the nearness of the other reptiles on the ward, a few of them even visible through his windows, adding a bitter sting to his loneliness.
The breakthrough finally came via an intake paperwork mix up. Trina, an Inferalanis Dyeing Poison Dart Frog, had been intended to bunk with the poor paranoid Emperor Scorpions in 716, but the room numbers got switched and in she went with Herbert across the hall, who was so surprised at the intrusion he forgot to panic. Thoughts of clay pots fled his mind as he extended a loop of himself onto her curiously, only to jerk back at the sting of her skin.
Trina blinked at him. Her skin was moist and jewel-bright, shiny cobalt splotched with sulfuric yellow. Her entire body was smaller than Herbert’s head.
“What are you?” he asked, intrigued into rudeness.
“Psychotic.” She blinked. “No hope, it runs in the family.” Her voice was a stoic bass. “But with all the drugs here I’m mostly just…” she drifted off, her eyes unfocusing.
Herbert brushed against her again, and the sting of contact rippled all the way down his tail. “Toxic?” he prompted coquettishly, infatuation blooming in his cold-blooded heart.
That got him a ribbit of laughter. “That’s all natural,” she said.
His coils rippled in a pleasurable frisson. “Darling,” he hissed at her, “tell me more.”
And so a beautiful friendship was born. Herbert thrilled at having company at last, and Trina, by the time her medicated stupor began to wear off as the doctors adjusted her dosage, found herself habituated to Herbert’s odd attentions. Her toxins were sufficiently intense that it was not possible for him to forget himself and squeeze her. He liked to brush against her and feel her nettle sting, despite the ensuing sores. Possibly not despite them. Possibly the ache of them was one of the things he liked most. Possibly they seemed, to him, like tokens of Trina’s affection. The psychioveterinarians debated the situation amongst themselves but decided not to intervene. Herbert was almost beatifically happy. And if it came at a certain cost to his scales, that neurosis could be investigated once his mood was more stable.
The two of them were soon the talk of the Audubon Asylum. Even ZuZu the obsessive compulsive African Wild Dog, who seldom took note of anyone, would veer off her running path when she saw them at the hot springs together, Trina crouched in the shallows while Herbert submerged himself up to the nostrils in the deeper water. ZuZu would pretend to snap at Trina and laugh like a maniac when Herbert flared up out of the pool to warn her away. It was one of the only things that could entice her to put down her chewing stick.
Ezekiel the adolescent Lesser Flamingo (in treatment for depression and consequent self-harm: he plucked out his own feathers, equally appalled by the gray remnants of his childhood plumage and the pink influx of impending adulthood) took a turn for the worse, viewing it as confirmation that even deadly Herbert had more appeal than he did. The company of the other flamingos did nothing to assuage his fears. He knew they were just staring at his bald spots. He knew what all those awkward pauses in the conversation meant. It meant that they were wishing he would just disappear so they never had to deal with his bullshit again. They were wishing they could share their pond with Herbert instead. Just like Trina.
Flaubert, on the other hand, viewed it as a sign of hope. He was constitutionally incapable of holding a grudge, and after the group therapy incident had apologized profusely to Herbert for being so inconsiderately delicate as to cause the snake to injure him. At the sight of Herbert and Trina wandering the grounds together, Flaubert would blink tears away, overwhelmed with happiness for his fellow patient and the thought that perhaps there truly was a partner-soul for everyone, even the deadly or disfigured. He would look at the other giraffes in his habitat – Geraldine, whose neck was so fine and graceful, unlike his gangly one, and Rodney, a fine, muscular figure of a giraffe whose flanks were nothing like Flaubert’s fat, thick abominations, and young Simone, who gamboled so charmingly in her games, while he galumphed with a stuttering gait like a mildly malfunctioning robot – and think that perhaps in time one of them would see past his grotesque exterior and love him for the gentle spirit trapped within his ton and a half of misfortunate meat.
Or if not one of them, perhaps another creature under care at the facility – Lohitha the White Bengal Tiger, whose diminutive attention span kept her from successful stalking, or Gaspard the Gentoo penguin with the water phobia, or even Juan Bautiste the Blue Iguana suffering from the terrible delusion that they were all captives, imprisoned for the viewing pleasure of the humans who were permitted to stroll the grounds to keep the asylum’s patients from feeling isolated from society during their treatment.
But even Flaubert did not imagine that news of Herbert’s new friend would interest the five California Sea Lions, known collectively as Ninu, who circled their tank in patterns rumored to convey coded signals to their brethren waiting above in space ships to which they would ascend when the time was right.
Yet Ninu did know. They knew many things. They knew that the psychioveterinarians secretly replaced ZuZu’s chewing stick twice a week so she would not fall into despair when it was worn down to nothing. They knew that Juan Bautiste had signed himself into the asylum voluntarily. They knew that Ezekiel and Lohitha snuck out at night and met at the bench by the plaque honoring the richest donors and smoked cigarettes they weren’t supposed to have. They knew Flaubert was Simone’s favorite, but she was too shy to tell him.
And they knew that Trina actually believed Herbert was a form of animate freight train who ferried baby gnomes to and from school while she slept.
She loved him none the less for it.