Home Stories Where Serpents Shed Their Skins by Jim Latham

Where Serpents Shed Their Skins by Jim Latham


A jaded American language teacher flirts with a Mexican polyglot overlooking the fertile Aztec highlands, in Jim Latham’s flash fiction.

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If you ask me, there’s too much English in the world already, but I’m not so principled I won’t earn money teaching it while traveling indefinitely.

These days I live in Puebla, a central Mexican city of four million dominated by the automobile industry. I help executives, engineers, and logistics experts polish the conversational skills they need to wine and dine decision-makers on business trips to Gringolandia. It pays well and prevents me from having to deal with teenagers and children.

Speaking of wining and dining, Arlet is my last student of the week, and tonight we’re holding class on a rooftop terrace boasting a view of the Great Pyramid of Cholula and drinking a blended white from Baja California’s Valle de Guadalupe.

The wine pairs well with mild cheeses, seafood, and poultry, none of which we’re eating. Food slows the absorption of alcohol, and the 13.7% this wine carries goes well with the sheer fabric of Arlet’s blouse. She’s started dressing up for class, and I’ve been pretending not to notice, pretending I don’t know what that means.

While I refill our glasses, we indulge in our running argument about whether or not it is exceptional that Arlet speaks five languages.

“Five,” she says, “is not so many.” She twirls a finger in her hair and reminds me of her time volunteering in Uganda, where in addition to their own language, everyone she met spoke English and Swahili plus the languages of at least two neighboring tribes.

“Outside of Uganda, how many people do you know that speak five languages?”

Arlet’s glossed lips curl. “Hakuna mtu,” she says. “Nadie. No one… other than UN translators.”

“UN translators.”

Arlet nods.

“How many of those are there in the world?”

“Hundreds, thousands. Who knows? I’m not so special.” She says especial, not special. We’ll work on it another time, when wine hasn’t slowed our tongues.

“But you won a scholarship to study French. Two years, all expenses paid.”

She swirls her glass, her gaze fixed on the wine. “In Quebec City, ma puce, not Paris.”


“Très bien,” Arlet says with a smile. “Estás aprendiendo.”

I raise my glass. “Salud.”


We drink, and Arlet’s phone chimes. She rolls her eyes. “La industria nunca duerme.” French-manicured nails flash as she texts a response. “Perdóname,” she says after a few moments, “this is going to require a call.”

I stand and move to the edge of the terrace, setting my glass on the cast-iron railing running along the edge. A breeze laden with the scents of roasted chilis and grilled pork reminds me that we should order food at some point.

The silhouette of La Malinche, a volcano the Spanish named after Cortez’s translator, looms on the horizon. Closer to me, purple jacaranda trees frame the towers of Angelópolis, a tony district on Puebla’s western edge.

Before the Spanish showed up, the area between the volcano and the skyscrapers was known as Cuetlaxcoapan – Nahuatl for “where serpents shed their skins” – and used for ritual combat between the Mexica, hailing from Tenochtitlan, and the citizens of Tlaxcala, Huejotzingo, and Cholula.

Winners were celebrated as semi-divine heroes. Losers were sacrificed, either by being skinned alive or by having their hearts cut out.

It always strikes me as strange that the warring city-states all spoke Nahautl. Maybe it shouldn’t. Speaking the same language as my two exes provided neither communication nor comprehension. It hasn’t helped me with my kids, either.

Hints of almond and cinnamon from Arlet’s perfume alert me to her presence. She presses her hand gently against the small of my back. I turn. Behind her, bougainvillea blossoms drip from the trellis behind her into the arms of a potted cactus.

“Teacher,” she says, “I have a question.”

I raise my eyebrows. “Let’s hear it.”

“Which is correct, ‘for fuck sake’ or ‘for fuck’s sake’?” Her expression is studiously blank, but her eyes sparkle, and the wine has flushed her cheeks.

“Fuck’s. With the possessive. It’s a profane version of ‘for Pete’s sake.'”

“Who is Pete?”

“Saint Peter. Saying Pete’s sake was considered less sacrilegious than saying ‘for God’s sake.'”

Arlet glances across the street toward the rooftop of the Licorería San Pedrito. She turns back to this terrace, and our eyes meet. She smiles, and I smile back. It’s like middle school, only we’re middle-aged.

Of course I’ve considered it. It would be fun. For a while, anyway. Early days especially are full of sunshine and effortless joy. And then: Routine. Honey-dos. Family events. Compromises… but whatever. Those are worries for another day.

I drain my glass and step toward her. The fabric of her blouse is silky beneath my hands, which find the curve of her hips. She leans toward me and tilts her head back. I can’t help but wonder, as I lean toward her, which of each other’s words we’ll misunderstand first. Then I think of Cuetlaxcoapan, of serpents shedding their skin, of fresh starts. Maybe I’ve been here long enough that things will be different this time.



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