On the Persistent Indulgence of Snakes – T. E. Wood
Do not go into the forest, they said. The forest is a place for monsters.
And oh, I tried. For twenty-five years, I tried.
I wanted to forget its temptation. As a daughter of a daughter of a daughter of a witch, it was my duty to stand sentry over that dark and looming wood, which lay just beyond the village that had called my family its guardians for centuries. They had been given stewardship of that place, and along with their spells and remedies, they had been tasked, the mothers of my line, with bearing the warning to all who might think to enter: do not go into the forest.
This interdiction had been the central aspect of my life since I first learned to toddle from my mother’s arms. It was a mantra deeper than religion, more fundamental than faith. Our cottage had been set at the boundary line, in the shadow of the trees, and from our garden gate, it was but twenty yards to the forest’s edge. I knew that horrors lay within that quelling darkness, where the fragile, dancing leaves seemed to steal the sunlight, and though I knew it for a terrible temptation, I sometimes found myself standing there, just outside the trees’ reach, peering into the wood. As if, by sheer will, I might pierce the darkness and see what truly lay within.
I tried to keep myself from dwelling too closely on it. As I grew, I tried to lose myself in my studies as often as I could. My ancestors had made a lifetime of collecting, and I had at my disposal all the ancient tomes of power a fledgling witch could ever wish. I learned potions and brews, herbs and minerals, incantations, bright and compelling. I learned to bend the elements of the earth and the air to my bidding, and I found toads and insects to practice my spell-work on, for one day I would need them.
I was a good witch. A great witch. And when the time came for my own mother to set aside her runes and crystals and leave the stewardship of the forest into my keeping, I was more than ready to take her place. The villagers had become my villagers, seeking my remedies and my aid, and, like me, never stepping foot inside the shadow of the trees.
Yet, still, a part of me was drawn to it, like a string that bound the worms in my head to the worms of the earth, and beyond. And I wondered.
I had always suspected it was the fault of the snakes.
If guardianship the forest were the duty of our line, then the snakes were our curse. They had afflicted us all, since before memory, and no one had been spared: mothers, daughter, sisters alike. For most, they were a thing to be controlled, and learning their management was as much a part of our education as spellcraft and botany.
It was the only thing that I had failed utterly to learn, for no matter how I tried, they coiled around my brain, squirming, dark as night, and would not be appeased. I learned to recognize them, the black adders and vipers and pythons, and the darkness they held: violence and fear, guilt most of all. I pulled them from my throat and out through my ears, soft as silk, winding them around my fingers or twigs, and I tried.
I deposited them in baskets, dead husks that had withered without nourishment, and I let them pile up, and I tried to forget about them.
This ritual, I repeated daily–no less than twice, often as many as ten times–and by the time I was fifteen, I had learned not to think of it as abnormal. That was the way of witches in that place, at that time. That was the cost of our gift.
And because the forest was not often absent from my thoughts, I could not help but tie my failure to it. I thought them connected, my snakes an insidious extension of its influence, one of its many monsters come forth to plague those of us who lived so close to its embrace.
It was a weakness that I saw in myself, and hated, in a distant sort of way, but my resolve was iron, and I had determined long ago that I would never let myself cave to the forest’s temptation, nor to let any under my protection be led thus astray.
I should have known, perhaps, that Rhaisín would not be one to accommodate my resolution so easily.
From the very first, she had a look in her eyes, one that bled defiance, and though she smiled and thanked me for my warning against the forest’s ills, she insisted that it was the potion she had truly come for. I suppose I believed her, in my way. She gave me no cause for concern, other than that scorching look, which sent me immediately for my basket and my tongs upon her departure, though I could not have said why.
Her manner vexed me almost from the first, and it was this, rather than my warning, which focused my thoughts as I began to pull the snakes out by their tails.
She was inquisitive–almost intrusively so–and her voice had curled over her questions with an implication I could not define. She was not beautiful; pretty, maybe, if one were being generous, in a certain light.
Her mouth was too straight, her eyes just slightly too far apart, and by her third visit, I had identified a certain gesture, which she seemed wholly unconscious of, that was the result of some withheld thought. It was a clicking of the tongue, mild in its presentation, that nevertheless gave one the impression that she had her own snakes slithering around in there, that she was unwilling to let out.
And there was that dismissive look, of course, that would serve her ill as a newcomer if she kept it, for the other villagers did not like to be condescended to, especially by outsiders.
I listed her faults to myself, almost a mantra of my own, but it did nothing to quell the slithering inside my head; my snakes had ever been immune to reason, and she, it seemed, had proved the rule, rather than the exception.
It was the sort of thing to drive a humble witch mad with irritation. But nevertheless, off she went, and the snakes were put to withering with unsettling regularity.
Rhaisín had come to the village with little warning, journeying from far away to care for a sickly relative, and it was clear from the outset that she was understimulated by what we had to offer. Her uncle’s illness took a good portion of her time, but what leisure she had was otherwise empty. Being new, she should, perhaps, have presented an intriguing novelty to the villagers, and ought to have had her share of friendly diversion to occupy her time, but they were a superstitious lot–perhaps a result of living so near the forest itself–and took to outsiders with ill grace.
Thus, perhaps, her attraction to my garden gate.
It was a natural course for her to make a visit to my cottage every few days. Having nothing of a healer in the town, I was often called upon to fill the role. My herbs and potions were an equitable substitute, though healing magic was not my own strength. I rarely expressed actual power in these consultations, as my knowledge of human disease is and was limited to what I had been passed down from my mothers, but a headache or a sour stomach, I could remedy easily enough, if the cause were not severe.
It was for the latter that she visited so often, as her uncle’s illness often caused him flares of indigestion. She claimed that my tonic was the only thing that could dispatch it, and it was an easy custom to which I had no objection.
That she began coming more frequently and lingering over my work longer, I attributed largely to her boredom. There was little for a young woman of no attachment to do in the village, and though I was used to filling my time with my spells and my garden, I knew something of her desire for a more meaningful interaction.
In truth, though I would not have admitted it to her for the world, it was something of a relief to see her there. Twice a week, I came to expect her visits, and the change of pace they brought. Then, as she came more and more, bringing new ailments for me to cure in her wake, I started looking for her nearly every day, and found myself oddly disappointed on those few occasions when she was otherwise occupied.
I suspected, at times, that her reasons for visiting were often no more than excuses, though I could not be sure. The affliction that plagued her uncle was not an uncommon one, and it bore hallmarks of a steady decline, which could have easily rendered more varied complaints. However, there was something of an over-earnestness to her, when she began to expand her requests beyond the stomach tonic, it made me wonder, and the look in her eyes at such times gave me the sense of being the object of some joke or bit of fun that I was not fully aware of.
Still, if I felt any pleasure at her presence, I made no show of it, for that is not the way of witches.
It was inevitable, I think, that she would finally find a way to throw off my warnings. She had been a resident of the little village over the hill for all of a season before the questions came, and though I never answered, she always persisted. And she liked to ask of dangerous things.
Why do you always wear gloves to harvest the moonbane, Sabetha? she would ask as I carefully mixed her tonic, the one which warded off the coughing-fever she had been prone to since childhood (or so she told me).
What need does Mayor Mathers have for such a poultice? she would ask, hovering over me as I knelt in my little garden plot to gather the herbs that would put paid to the affliction that the mayor had most recently brought back from his journey to the city.
What happens if you mix blackmoss with firetooth extract, she would ask, standing at my gate, her eyes transfixed by the volatile ingredients, which lay always a careful distance from one another.
My magic was no answer for her, and she did not accept that some things simply were. She was curious, and once she had sunk her teeth into a question, no amount of shaking would pry them loose.
She regarded me as some sort of authority, though in truth I had fewer answers than she thought. I explained the dangers as best I could–excepting those whose secrets were not mine to tell, for the Mayor would not relish the thought of me revealing the source or the nature of his ill humor. Her curiosity was innocent, and genuine, and yet, beneath the simple words, there lay a sense of gnawing hunger which I was helpless against.
And then, one day, she asked a question that sent my snakes shrieking.
But what of the forest? she asked. Why should it be forbidden?
I tried to explain between the coils of my thoughts. The warning was ancient, the consequences dire. The forest was forbidden, and no good could come of her interest in it.
I knew that too much detail would only stoke her curiosity, for I had ample experience with the way her thoughts turned by then. I knew, too, that if I rebuffed her questions, it would only redouble her interest. I skirted a patient line, giving her what detail I could without giving her reason to question further.
The forest simply was, the dangers ever-present. In truth, I had few details other than my own to satisfy her, and I had always been true to the interdiction and remained well outside the forest’s path. I knew what lay within only because I had been told, not because I had seen, and if I had not feared it so, perhaps my own curiosity would have been piqued by that cruel deficit.
But me, I had snakes to keep my thoughts well corralled, and for once, I had some small appreciation for their presence. I did not want to know what lay within the forest.
I did not.
For once, she seemed satisfied by my answers, paltry though they were, and seeing my discomfort, she casually changed the subject to something more mundane–the presence of oakthorn in my basket, so far out of season, and where I had chanced to come by it so late. I was grateful, and before I could think to stop it, I let slip the mask of witchdom and responded to her with a smile.
That evening, my snakes berated me with force, creating a tempest in my mind. I was overset and wrung out, having struggled with them mightily over the past few months. I had thought, before, that they were beginning to tame, that they might soon settle into the calm serpentine coil that so many witches before me were able to achieve. My mother had rarely been beset my them, having to unwind her thoughts only rarely in order to keep an orderly mind, but no matter how I struggled, I could not seem to tempt them to rest.
I suspected, sadly, that Rhaisín agitated them somehow, for they always seemed restless after her visits. I had hoped that it was otherwise, that it was simply a coincidence of timing that they multiplied in such force of late, but now I could hardly deny her effect on them. Her visits, no matter how short, never failed to set them squirming.
For all that I had hoped that the matter of the forest was settled, I found that she had not dropped the subject so thoroughly as I had thought. She was subtle in her inquiries, referencing it only vaguely and occasionally. Her eyes would stray to the dark shadow of the trees from time to time as she spoke of other things, as if it were not often far from her thoughts, and I could see the edges of her interest in the questions she asked of other things.
I both delighted in and feared her questions, for she had awakened something of a forbidden thrill. I had always avoided the forest as much as I could, letting it grow into a great black void in my mind, and yet, her queries brought it by measures into color and focus. I wanted to resent such intrusion, for I had lived in contentment without wondering, and yet…and yet.
But I could not answer her, not to her satisfaction, and not to mine.
The secrets of the forest were not mine to give, but neither were they mine to keep, and I did not know any way but the old one to tell her what lay within. Do not go in, I had been warned. Do not go in, I warned in return. That was simply the way of things. The forest was dangerous. Monsters dwelt within.
And no one who had entered had ever come out again.
In all this time, my snakes had grown to a torment, writhing about even in daylight, now, and it became so cumbersome that I found myself stopping in my work nearly every hour to clear them away. I had begun anticipating her visits, taking a few moments to draw them out and twirl them onto sticks, releasing those I could into the wild, but disposing of those that did not survive. I had baskets piled up and tucked away in every hidden corner of my small cabin, the dead husks of my tormentors flaking into dust as they desiccated. I could barely keep up with their disposal, and I began to despair of ever gaining control of them again.
One bright fall afternoon, when the leaves had begun to gild and the light slanted with cool relief, I ran late in my work, losing track of the time in my concentration, and she caught me unprepared.
I had debated waiting, when I realized that she would be coming soon, but I no longer trusted myself to go the length of her visit without needing to purge myself of them. They squirmed and they slithered until my head felt to bursting, and if I did not rid myself of what I could, I feared they would come, mid-sentence, pouring from my mouth and my eyes, slithering out my nostrils like a horrible effigy. What would she think then, if she could see me so?
I decided instead to hurry, to dispose of as much as I could, and hope it would be enough.
In my rush, of course, I took little care, and they snapped and hissed as I wrenched them from their warmth. Always, I had feared pulling too hard, too roughly, but in my haste, I had no thought for such fear. I had never allowed one to break in half, though sometimes if I drew with too much force, they would resist my coercion and slither back inside my head.
I had half a basket full, a desperate, coiling mess, and was winding a small garter snake that had wriggled from my throat around a length of thorny ash when she came, knocking early at my door.
I gasped, and gagged, the small serpent lodging in my mouth. I could feel its smooth, scaled length along my sinuses and the back of my throat, and I could not swallow, for all that my instincts screamed at me to do so. I pulled, desperately hoping to dislodge it, but it stuck fast, quailing at my insistent tugs.
I began to panic. She would become impatient, surely, for I had never taken long to respond to her knocks. I could not let the snake go; it was too paralyzed now to move of its own accord.
Neither could I greet her thus, with a reptilian presence lodged obscenely in my throat.
I coughed, reflexively, and my hand tightened around the wand of ash.
Please, please!, I begged the snake, coaxing it forth with little pulls and tugs. It raised its head, regarding me from the end of the wand, where it had begun its winding. Its eyes were cold and yellow, and it seemed almost cognizant of my dilemma as it watched me struggle.
Please, I thought again, begging the snake with my eyes. A long beat passed, both of us frozen in fear. And then, slowly, slowly, the snake began to release its hold, sliding along the roof of my mouth and allowing itself to be wound around the wand.
I was filled with relief, and, strangely, gratitude. The odds of survival for my snakes, once dislodged from my brain, were low, but I was determined to give this one whatever aid I might in thanks. Murmuring another plea to fate, for just a moment’s patience more, I set the snake in the window, where it had a clear path to the tall rushes that grew below, and let it go.
It paused, regarding me again with one slitted eye, and then, I could not be certain, but it seemed to bob its pointed head a little in acknowledgement. Perhaps it was no more than my imagination, but I hoped that it understood. It blinked once and then turned away, sliding out the open window and into the wilds beyond
Turning back, I reached for the door, and when I opened it, I found Rhaisín, her hand raised in preparation to knock again. She smiled when she saw me, her face lighting up greeting, and I felt the tension of a moment before flooding away.
She started forward, words already coming up to fill her mouth, and then she stopped, frozen in—what? Confusion? Curiosity?
I froze in kind, realizing my mistake. While I had let the garter snake go, there was still a basket full of its companions coiled in the middle of the floor, in plain sight of the door, and I had neglected to dispose of it before letting her in.
A hot mixture of embarrassment and fear surged up in me and I moved to block her view. Too late, too late.
She had already seen.
We stared at one another in silence, neither of us knowing quite how to break it. Her eyes held mine, then darted to the basket, then back again, a wordless question mimed out in repetition. I closed my own, hoping the darkness of my eyelids would save me from the mortification of meeting her gaze.
At last, she spoke, but there was none of the condemnation that I had expected in her voice, only curiosity–ever curiosity.
“Why do you have snakes, Sabetha?” she asked. My eyes flew open, and I searched her countenance for any indication that she only veiled her disgust, but I found none.
I took a deep breath, down to my bones. It did not steady me. “They are the curse of my line,” I said, the words spilling out as best I could form them. I had rehearsed this explanation in my head for many audiences, but I had hoped never to have to make it to her. “We witches–at least, those of my blood–are plagued by them, and they want for tending.”
“There are a great many of them,” she observed.
I flushed, knowing she was the cause of that, but unwilling to tell her.
“They are persistent,” I said, simply. “I am sorry you had to see this,” I offered. “I had hoped to be rid of them…”
“I don’t mind them,” she assured me. “Though you seem discomfited by them. Are they so very bothersome?”
I thought of the cool, smooth sensation of the garter snake inching along my throat.
“They can be…unpleasant.”
She had crossed into the cottage by then, her curiosity drawing her forward, as if it magnetized her. She crouched by the basket at a distance she judged out of the reach of the snakes that still curled within it.
“Are they dangerous?”
“They are…safe enough, I think.” I hesitated. They had never struck out at me, but there had always remained a certain doubt within me, and I could not be sure that they would tolerate another hand upon them. “But I would not…”
Too late, for she had already begun to reach for them, my first, unthinking words granting her the only invitation she needed. She held out her hand, like I had seen the village children do to stray dogs to offer their scent, and one of the snakes, a large, black racer lifted its head to watch her, enchanted.
She stretched a little further, emboldened by the snake’s apparent interest, and it slithered smoothly from the pile of its companions, flowing up to wrap around her hand like water. I held my breath, terrified that any small movement or sound might break the spell, but she simply smiled and let the serpent do as it pleased.
After a long, horrifying moment, the snake completed its inspection of her and slid back into its basket, curling sleepily into the nest of its brethren. Rhaisín stepped back, brushing her hands on her skirt to wipe away the last of the sensation. To my utter bemusement, she looked delighted.
“They don’t seem so bad,” she told me. “Why do you call them a curse?”
Because they pour from my mouth and my nose and my eyes against my will, I thought. Because I can’t control them or contain them. Because they dictate where I might go and who I might see, and every moment from dawn til dusk is spent with the heavy sensation of them weighing upon my skull.
“Because they are a nuisance,” I told her. “One I would be quit of, if only I could.”
She peered at me, her brow creasing a little in the middle. “There is no cure for this curse, then?”
I shook my head. “None known to me, or to my mother or my mother’s mother. It is simply a thing to be endured.”
I did not tell her that my mother’s endurance drew purging once a month, when she was lucky, or that mine were so frequent and unpleasant.
“It’s because of your magic? Because you’re a witch?”
“Not…exactly,” I hedged. How to explain? It was an affliction that touched only the witches of my line, true, but it was not our magic that fed them, but rather our control. “They are a test, in a way. One that I ought to have mastered by now. If I had the strength to oppose them…”
“They would come no more?”
“Less often, at least,” I admitted. “I have been attempting to harness them since childhood, but I haven’t the knack for it. I’m rather hopeless, I fear.”
She thought about that for a quiet moment. A shallow furrow developed in the middle of her brow as she frowned.
“How does one combat them?” she asked at last, having sorted through her thoughts. “You say they are a test. What element is being challenged?”
My mouth had gone dry, but I met her eye anyway. “They feed,” I said, “on fear.”
It was two days more before I saw her again, and by mid-afternoon on the second day, I was beginning to worry that my revelation had scared her away for good. She had seemed to accept my affliction so calmly, and yet, a part of me wondered if her serenity had been but an act of politeness. She was secretly horrified, I feared, as she had every cause to be, and she had simply sought a way to be out of my company without encountering my snakes any further.
A deep revulsion had settled into my gut, directed inward, and I knew in my bones that I had made an error that I could not forgive myself for.
I had descended into a true and thorough sulk, hating myself for my weakness, and I was quite prepared to accept her complete and utter loss when, out of the clear, golden day, she appeared once more at my garden gate.
Rather than stricken or revolted, she seemed excited, and she greeted me with a wave and a smile that went beyond even her own extraordinary habit of good cheer. I was confused and, I admit, rather guarded to see it, for I could not imagine what event, outside of her having been struck somehow amnesiac of our previous encounter, could have put such a bright look on her face.
“I know how to tame your snakes, Sabetha,” she said without preamble as she slipped through the gate and shut it smartly behind her. Her words didn’t register, not at first, and I was so relieved at the sight of her that I did not count them at all until I was halfway across the garden, having moved without directing myself to do so.
When her words hit me at last, I froze mid-step, and nearly toppled over into the radishes.
She couldn’t possibly, was my first thought. It was a joke–a cruel one, though she was not given to such–or a simple misunderstanding. She was an optimist, my Rhaisín, and she had not had the lifetime of experience with my curse that I had. It was easy, I knew, to see answers in things, if one knew a problem only on its surface, and it was far easier to assume that those answers were possible if one had not the long history of trying and failing that came with its suffering.
She had reduced it to a thing too simple, I thought, and it made the solution seem obvious. I would have to disillusion her, for which I was sorry, but in my experience of treating the ills of our villagers, I knew how seductive hope and goodwill could be for one of her nature.
“Have you heard,” she asked, when I made no answer, “of the Fruit of Géilleadh?”
I opened my mouth. Closed it.
“It is the next thing to a myth,” I blurted.
The Fruit of Géilleadh was not a fairy tale, true, but it might as well have been. As far as I knew, it grew in one place and one place alone: the forest that was, by every warning given to me since birth, forbidden.
“You’re saying it doesn’t exist?” she asked with a little frown.
“It…” I took a long and heavy breath. “It may as well not,” I explained. I softened my voice and my expression, not wanting her to think I rebuked her. “It is sweet of you to have thought of it, and clever, for I have no idea how you know of it, but the Fruit of Géilleadh is not something I can obtain simply.”
“It grows in the forest.”
Her eyes trailed to the heavy wash of green, which had begun to go golden around the edges. It would never acquire the reds and oranges of a mortal autumn, but even this forest, with its danger and magic, could not ignore the season. Her gaze lingered there, almost hungry, and I shivered to see it.
“The forest is forbidden,” I told her. “And for good reason. Rhaisín, even if the Fruit of Géilleadh grows there, it is beyond retrieving.”
“Have you ever been inside?”
“No, never. Those who enter do not return.”
“You have heard no account, then? No description of its dangers?”
“It is enough to know that it has them,” I said softly. “I thank you for your concern, truly, but please, do not think to pursue this. No good can come of it. My snakes and I…we have a balance, of sorts. I can endure them until I find another way.”
“But they are making you miserable,” she replied, her eyes softening in turn. “I can see that, now. Could always see it, I think, in your silence and your hesitation, in the shields you hold around yourself. I simply didn’t know the cause.”
“No,” she said, shaking her head. “I am not afraid of the forest, Sabetha, no matter how many warnings you were given. If the Fruit of Géilleadh will give you peace, then it seems simple enough to me.”
“It isn’t. You don’t know what you’re asking.”
She smiled. “I’m not asking a thing. I’m offering.” She held out her hands, and I could see then a small pack she had carried, slung over her shoulder. It had not seemed obvious until then, when she moved. “I’m going into the forest. Today, in fact. I’ve wanted to see what’s there since I came to this place, and now…now I have a reason to go.” She hesitated, dropping her gaze, and the toe of her boot made a little pattern in the dirt as she fidgeted. “I…would ask you to go with me, but I understand if you cannot. It’s not an easy thing to forget the warnings of a lifetime.”
“You can’t! You mustn’t!”
She bit her lip. “But I am. Come with me…or don’t. I can recognize the Fruit of Géilleadh on my own, I think, if I need to. There was a picture in my uncle’s book…” She straightened, squaring her shoulders, and a look of such determination passed her features. “But I’m going. Into the forest. I have to.”
Fear gripped my chest, and the snakes began to squirm. She couldn’t, I wouldn’t let her. There were stories, awful stories, of the things that lay within that deep dark, and she was little more than a village girl, with no defenses and no skill of the wild. I had the power of a witch. I could keep her here, safe.
I started to speak the words that would bind her from leaving, knowing all the while that she would hate me for it. I had but uttered the first syllable when I felt a slithering in my throat, and I was choked by my own dark impulses.
She gave me a sad look, and I knew instantly that she recognized what I had tried to do, and the reason for my failure. There was something triumphant in it, though, and after a moment of consideration, she gave a little nod and turned away.
The forest lay only a short distance beyond my gate, and she was nearly at its edge before I found the strength to break free of my paralysis. I ran after her, not quite knowing whether I intended to stop her, or to join her.
She didn’t even break her stride as I caught up to her, a little breathless. She held out her hand, her eyes meeting mine.
I could do nothing but take it.
I should have known, when first I met her, that she would not be content to live beside a forbidden forest and never set foot within. I should have known that she would break even the most sacred prohibition of my life. I should have known that she was the very soul of temptation, and that I was but a humble witch: powerless, in the end.
She stepped beneath the green, green canopy, and I followed her into its shade. Here, under the wide and grasping leaves, it did not seem so dark within.
She moved forward, and I moved after. I didn’t know if we would find the Fruit of Géilleadh–I had not lied when I had said it was the next thing to fable, for even the suggestion that it grew within was little more than supposition–but with her fingers twined in mine, I found it didn’t matter much after all. My snakes were fed on fear and misgiving, on guilt and misery, but they were not the monsters of the forest. I found, instead, that here in the darkness, it was, for once, utterly quiet.