by Byron Bailey
part 1 of 2
Pungency beyond pain saturated the air as mother, her stinger oozing, slithered into my room. Nerve venom. The worms dangling from the burrow’s ceiling writhed. I shut my eyes but they still stung. Mother had found out. There could be no other explanation. The penalty for perversion was death.
I closed my eyes and waited but no stinger impaled me through the topmost vertebra. My eyes slid back open. The worms had stopped writhing. A few had fallen onto the floor, their inert bodies dissolving into mucus.
“Sorrow overflows my sting,” she said. “But we must speak of toxin and despair.”
Even though I knew nothing of toxin and despair, I already hated their sad-drenched vowels. We slithered up towards the entrance to the outside where we could speak without gasping. I never realized before how narrow the tunnels were, the walls squeezing against the venom-cement supports. Shame clung to me as I imagined how it would feel to be a rodent wrapped within my coils. I should recognize constriction when I felt it. I was a constrictor. Only when my venom glands matured and I became a serpent would I be able to eat my victims without first torturing them.
I tried to shake off my constrictor’s shame and suddenly noticed the quiet that had swallowed the burrow. It wasn’t the total quiet of hibernation. My stomach still gurgled from trying to digest the bones of my last meal. However, no matter how much my auditory canals yawned, no squirmlings wheezed as their lungs adjusted to the atmosphere.
“Mother, where is everyone?”
Mother didn’t respond but merely kept ascending the tunnel.
I repeated the question.
Mother twitched as if a blood worm had latched onto her side but otherwise didn’t pause, her scales rasping like sand spat across the floor not that I had ever spat sand across the floor. (Digesting rodents was tough enough without scrimping on the sand no matter how bitter it tasted).
“Mother, where is everyone?” I wrapped myself around the nearest venom-cement support, the flame bulb embedded in its base shrouding me in its blue glow. No way was I going anywhere until I got some answers.
Mother’s jaws parted and her tongue flicked out as if I were I a rodent and she the serpent pondering whether the meal were worth extracting. “Very well, Sweet Venom. You have always been the precocious one. Follow mother and know all there is of toxin and despair.”
Mother turned down into one of the side tunnels. Slippery Coil’s tunnel. Slippery Coil’s tunnel didn’t look different from any of the others. However, the granite chunks jutting from the walls ached for blood. My backside twitched where the scars still stung. And the acoustics were perverse. One could scream, cry, and wail until one’s lungs burned yet no one in the other tunnels would ever hear. If anyone had turned me into a pervert, it was Slippery Coil.
I followed mother into that tunnel I had vowed never again to enter. The wall glistened like the obsidian, feldspar, and quartz vomit that it was. I never asked to be a pervert -- never!
The funny thing about perversion was that none of the adages displayed a real understanding of it. My favorite was, “Perversion takes two.” When I became a pervert, there were five of them in Slippery Coil’s foraging gang. All together that made six of us, not two. So much for the wisdom of the ancient serpents! And what was all this nonsense about the “pleasure” of perversion? I had felt more pleasure after being trampled into unconsciousness by the grass-eaters.
My venom glands began to stir even though I was still too young to produce venom. Perhaps it was one of those diseases where one’s stinger fell off. The adages couldn’t all be false. The ones like, “Perversion at night, spine rot during the day,” did taste of truth. If anything made rot, it had to be perversion.
Mother stopped in front of Slippery Coil’s room. Even from outside, his fetid muskiness forced itself upon me. The vomit rose in the back of my throat. I wasn’t going to vomit, though. I had already lost far too many meals to him.
“Go in and have your first taste of toxin and despair,” mother said. “As for me, I am already full.”
“By myself?” Slippery Coil would have gloated if he could have seen my eyes brim.
“Is there a problem?”
“No.” Mother knew. She had brought me down into these tunnels to die where my cries wouldn’t disturb the rest of her young. I probably wasn’t even the first. Amber Tail, Troubled Slide, and Sky Gaze had all disappeared, too, the supposed victim of the indigenous wildlife. At least no one could say that mother hadn’t put the well-being of her family above all else, stamping out perversion before it could infect the rest of her family. She was a good mother. That was why I loved her.
I inched forward into his den. Slippery Coil lay stretched out, a pallid hue creeping into his maroon scales, just like I thought he would be. Why did he stink so much? Did the stench make finding the corpse easier or was it from a more obvious reason like the dying muscle’s inability to hold back the body’s liquids? Knowing Slippery Coil, he probably just wanted to leave behind a big stink.
Pink foam seeped from the wound at the base of the skull where the stinger had gone in. Even in death, his eyes glinted greenly at me like the grass that threatened to pounce upon the land at the slightest excuse of moisture. I looked into those eyes and shivered. Then I did a bad act. I slid the tip of my stinger into his eyeball. My venom glands clenched. I could almost imagine the venom pumping into him but his eye didn’t blacken like it would with real venom. All I had done was put a tiny hole, as insignificant as any of my screams, into his eyeball. And now my stinger ached.
I left Slippery Coil’s den, the base of my skull tingling. An execution wasn’t supposed to hurt any more than the medical inoculations mother administered. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but fear that final euphoria as venom flooded nerves until neurons disintegrated. No death was supposed to be as pleasant as nerve venom but I didn’t understand how anyone could know for sure. It wasn’t as if anyone had ever returned from a nerve venom death to speak about just how pleasant it had been.
“Have you had your fill of toxin and despair, yet?”
“Slippery Coil is dead.” What else could I say?
“As are all of my young, except for you.”
I looked at the red glint in mother’s eyes and knew that she spoke the truth. Such redness could only be the result of far too many tears and young as I was, I knew that tears could not lie.
“You’re wondering why I had to kill them all,” she said.
I wiggled my tongue in numb agreement even though I already knew the answer. Only perversion could cause the pain and despair I was feeling. My mind flinched at the implications. Slippery Coil had turned all of his siblings into perverts. Wasn’t it bad enough what I had gone through? But to do that to the squirmling with their egg tooth grins -- I couldn’t think about it without vomiting and I was not going to lose any more meals to him!
“You have had your first taste of despair, precocious one. Now follow mother for more.”
I followed mother upwards until we found ourselves upon the surface surrounded by daylight barely warm enough to keep our blood from freezing. Welcome to the planet called Home! Even from my earliest memories, that name seemed wrong for a place where only the green things seemed to thrive and all other life had to fight for every scrap of leaf or flesh they ate.
“It’s a beautiful world,” mother said. “Too bad we came all of this way for nothing.”
“Beautiful?” At least now that I was outside the burrow I could barely smell the nerve venom.
“Yes, beautiful. Let me show you. It’s the least I can do.”
I couldn’t imagine any cascading waterfall or burbling brook that would hold much beauty for me, and even if it did, it would be the horrific beauty that seemed to be the only kind this planet offered: wet and cold with currents clutching for a constrictor to drag her down forever into inky depths. Nevertheless, I followed, the grass scraping against my undersides, leaving them stained and itching. The grass juices of this planet always left me itching.
“Now isn’t that a beautiful sound?” mother said at last.
I listened but all I heard was the buzzing from a hive of flying vermin. I listened a little deeper and heard my hearts beating. That could maybe be considered a beautiful sound, the rare flow of warmth upon this world, but it was a sound I claimed for my own. “I don’t hear anything.”
“Then you’re not listening,” mother said.
I listened deeper. Beneath the beat of my hearts gurgled my digestive system. It certainly wasn’t a beautiful sound. If anything, it was a disconcerting sound informing me that I had eaten too much sand with my last meal. Only eating too much sand was worse than eating too little. “I still don’t hear anything.”
“Then let’s move closer.”
We moved forwards until the buzzing made it impossible to hear the beating of my hearts.
“Do you hear it now?”
“The buzzing?” The vermin began to pour out from their hive in a swarm that rippled the air.
“Yes, the buzzing.”
If I were mother and had to kill all of my young because of perversion, I might go insane too. “Aren’t these vermin dangerous?”
“They’re probably the second most dangerous creature on the planet to us. That’s why I always told you to stay away from them. Now let’s move closer.”
“Don’t worry, precocious one.” Mother suddenly threw herself upon the hive, sending chunks of wax dripping glistening gold through the air. “They can’t hurt you now.”
Whether they could hurt me or not, they were trying. The swarm engulfed me, the buzzing becoming a roar. I backed up, felt the prick of a hundred stingers. Mystery venom pumped into me.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Mother piped.
Copyright © 2007 by Byron Bailey