“Here. Eat this,” my sister Stephanie says as she plucks a small green fruit-looking thing from a street vender’s cart.
I look at it for a moment. The middle of the fruit is hollowed out and stuffed with a white paste.
“It’s betel nut. The white stuff is a stimulant. Some say it’s cocaine, but I doubt it. It does give you a good rush, though.” She waits. “Don’t worry. It won’t stain your teeth red, unless you mix it with this green mustard paste.”
I take a breath and pop it into my mouth. At least she hasn’t tried to make me eat the fish eyes or chicken feet for sale in the night markets of Taipei.
I chew on the nut as we walk through the garishly lit streets, searching for Snake Alley. The bitter taste penetrates my sinuses like ammonia. A cold sweat breaks out on my forehead. Gavin and Tim wait for us to catch up to them.
“It’s supposed to be around here somewhere,” Gavin says.
“What is this place, anyway?” I ask. My head and face have become numb. My stomach feels like it’s been scalded. I spit the nut out and wipe my burning lips with the back of my hand.
“They say people come here to buy rhinoceros horn and other illicit things,” Tim says as we walk a bit further. “I don’t really believe it, though.”
His words give me goose flesh. I’ve heard about such places.
Stephanie stops and squints her eyes at a long row of stalls. “I think this is it,” she says, and takes a swig from her bottle of wine.
It looks like the other night markets we’ve been to, only smaller. We turn down the alley. Tinny music blares in the aisles. The bright lights jab into my eyeballs. The alley constricts around us. The betel nut is working on me, and I feel like I am in a sinister cartoon. I press my hand to my sternum and try to slow my breathing down. Stephanie smiles at me; I see excitement under the bleary sheen of her eyes.
At the first stall on the left, a man is chopping the heads off of live turtles.
There is a systemic rhythm to his work. He reaches into the aquarium, lays the turtle on the chopping block, brings the butcher knife down in one swift movement, drains the turtle’s blood into a glass, and then tosses the remains on a pile of writhing carcasses. The fat little legs rotate like windup toys running out of steam.
My stomach lurches. The others grimace and stare at the scene in silence for a moment, and then turn away. Grotesquerie never lacks an audience.
The man puts the glass into a grimy cooler and continues his work. An emaciated orangutan slouches on the counter. He stares at the pavement as if in a trance. He’s wearing a dingy gray shirt and a disposable diaper. My sister and I walk over to pet him. There’s a gash on his forehead and a heavy metal chain around his leg.
“Is this his pet?” I ask. “I can’t picture this guy being affectionate.”
“He’s for tourists,” Stephanie answers. “They think this is what we want to see.”
The orangutan reaches over listlessly and takes the wine bottle from my sister. I take out my camera and snap a photo of him.
The man shrieks, “No taking pictures!” and reaches for my camera.
I jump back before he can grab it. He pounds his fist on a sign that says No Photo in Snake Alley. He scowls and then goes back to his work.
“He doesn’t want evidence of his cruelty getting around,” Tim says. He picks up the chain and tugs on it. “Sorry, little buddy. There’s nothing we can do.”
We all pet the orangutan’s head and walk further down the alley. We weave in and out of the stalls. Most of them sell the same tacky, overpriced trinkets we’ve seen all over the city—jadestone Buddhas, porcelain tea sets, and plastic jewelry. Others advertise their wares by showing photos of the maladies their concoctions are supposed to cure—disfiguring acne and psoriasis, boils, flaccid penises. These stalls have the juice of various amphibians for sale. The air smells like a combination of incense and swamp. The lights seem too bright for all of this.
An earnest crowd gathers around one of the stalls—all Asian men in identical navy blue leisure suits. We stand to the side.
A man with deep scars on his forearms and a pockmarked face reaches bare-handed into a wire cage. Snakes writhe against the sides of the cage and hiss. He wrestles a cobra from the cage. The snake whips around in his hands, tracing ornate swirls on the dirt floor. The crowd recoils. I imagine the pissed-off cobra flinging itself into the crowd. I’m nervous, but I smile. I reach instinctively for my camera, but then let it go. It would suck to get kicked out now.
A metal clip hangs from the corrugated tin ceiling. The man fastens it to the snake’s head and grips the flailing tail with both of his hands. He ties the snake’s tail to a rope that’s tied to a metal ring in the floor. He shortens the rope so that the snake is a taut green ribbon. It shudders in a last attempt to free itself.
The crowd leans forward expectantly. The man slits the cobra open from its head to the tip of its tail in one fluid movement. He drains the blood into a glass without spilling a drop.
“Jesus,” Stephanie says under her breath.
My heart pounds against my ribcage. The world seems to be in fast-forward mode.
The man cuts off the snake’s gall bladder, a tiny blue nugget, and drains the inky fluid into the glass of blood. He holds the glass up with a triumphant smile. Shrill cries erupt from the crowd as the drink is auctioned off. The snake’s carcass gapes at us.
The four of us stand with our mouths open, too stunned for words and yet absorbing every detail. We will tell stories about this for the rest of our lives. I feel a twinge of disappointment that I only have one photo. People might think that I’m lying.
“I imagine it’s yet another so-called cure for impotency,” I manage to say. “You’d think they’d be ashamed of their desperation.”
We stand still and look further down the alley for a moment. No one seems to want to be the one to say they’ve seen enough. Finally, we walk away from the stall, back toward the entrance of the alley. No one says a word. My head aches, and I realize I’ve been gritting my teeth.
“Look!” Stephanie says with a raucous laugh. She points to a sign that has close-up photos of hemorrhoids.
We laugh, and some of the tension dissipates. The stall owner shoos us away.
“It’s probably his sphincter in the photo,” I say, which causes us to laugh harder. My head spins. I hold my arms out to steady myself. Bile stings my throat. I force myself to smile so the others don’t think I’m a sissy.
“I don’t know about you guys, but I need a drink,” Tim says.
As we approach the entrance of Snake Alley I look away from the orangutan. From the corner of my eye, I see his head turn to watch us leave him behind.