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A Place In The Animal Kingdom
Evangeline Riddiford Graham (Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand)



Tribute’s best
paid as a family,
so in the holidays
we go to call on

She’s living
in the Outback
in a cinderblock.
It’s two days’ drive
from Emerald

or from anywhere.
There’s no fence.
There are no other houses
on the scrubbed-out
red-brown dirt

except a wooden
shed on chicken legs,
standing a little behind
from hers and stinking
not of hens, but mice.

Up high they’re safer, says
Cleopatra. I can hear
the mice keening when
we walk underneath
their leggy coop, it’s a

mouse cathedral really,
the mice massing
in their half-lit language,
while outside
it smells like a shit house.

Cleopatra sniffs—
she knew when she built it
what shit smelled like.
And the mice aren’t here
to decorate.

Through the backdoor of the
lean-to we follow Cleopatra
into a dark room glinting
with plexi-glass cases,
wall to wall.

Now we are caught,
our little peasant family.
I want to run away, to our car
and its backseat. And yet
I have to look.

It’s snakes. Snakes in every case.
Cleopatra picks up two
by the throat and loops them
over my shoulders, places
a tail in my hand.

It’s soft, the snake’s tail.
It’s yellow and black as grass,
as silky and heavy exactly
as those silky and heavy bean baby toys
brought to school by the popular girls.

The snakes love hair.
They slide through mine in single file,
like a one-tooth comb, like I’m the black
and yellow grass. Across my scalp and
down my back they move, silently.

On the other side of the room Cleopatra
is pouring tea for my parents. Australia, she
says. Good pay, good snakes, good desert.
I didn’t want to do late nights anymore,
and I already had the skill set.

Herpetologist, hums my father.
Well, soon to be, on paper, says
Cleopatra. But I prefer just ‘handler’.
She’s going to move
onto venomous soon.

Cleopatra’s place has
that sourdough smell of dusk.
A little grassy, a little musk.
We have to hit the road,
and I don’t want to go.

I ask Cleopatra, Can I stay?
Can I be a herpetologist’s handmaid?
No. Well, no, not yet.

You can be my handmaid,
says Cleopatra, as she tucks me
into the car, smoothes my hair away,
You can come back
and be my handmaid

when you have worked out what
the mice are for.



Evangeline Riddiford Graham is an artist and writer living in Aotearoa New Zealand. This May, she will graduate from the Victoria University of Wellington’s Institute of Modern Letters with an MA in Creative Writing. A Place in the Animal Kingdom was developed as part of her Masters project—a collection of poems centred around the life and afterlife of Cleopatra VII. Recent examples of her work can be found in takahē 88, un magazine 9.2, and at Enjoy Gallery, Wellington until April 22nd.

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