The Cavern of Serpents
by Janel Brubaker
Table of Contents|
Chapters: 1, 2 3, 4, 5
This tale takes place in a magical world called Avalon. The country is Estera, a land of merchants and seafarers. The story begins in a maritime city known as Petra. Its people are of the sea, worshippers of the god Poseidon.
Phoebe, the curious daughter of a farmer, is the opening narrator. She is a woman who does not fit inside of the social role assigned to her. She disregards the expectations of society and, in doing so, sets herself on a path of suffering.
The second narrator, a woman who calls herself Python, meets Phoebe under the worst of circumstances, but helps to awaken a shared destiny neither of them could have anticipated.
Chapter Three: Phoebe
I smelled the water and the berries before I’d hardly begun to move. My body ached and my head throbbed. Everything hurt; I couldn’t tell how much of the pain stemmed from the emotional trauma and how much came from the physical brutality of losing my eyes. I felt as though I had been beaten with clubs, kicked over and over, and then left to waste away.
I had dreamed of my Serpent throughout that first night in the cave. I felt her eyes on me, her fingers in my hair. I smelled the scent that was distinctively hers, haunted by that tattered carcass left to rot in the heat. I dreamed of Belen, too, and of what my exile meant for him. His image was distant and blurred, but somehow I knew his grief for me was short-lived. As quickly as his image had manifested, it vanished.
I lay awake for what felt like hours, motionless and despondent. I didn’t want to move. I didn’t want to breathe. In a matter of hours my life had been wrecked, demolished and picked apart by those who believed my love an abomination. I had lost my lover, my life, my liberty because I loved differently than others. How was my love any different than Belen’s? Yet he was allowed to choose the bed of another man; he didn’t have to censor his words or actions around other people for fear of retaliation from his community. He was male. He was middle-class. He was free to live his life.
My stomach felt knotted and filled with death. I heard Serpent’s screams in my ears as a resounding echo. My head pulsed with the sounds of the rocks thrown at her body. My hands clenched into fists over and over until they began to cramp. I felt both a sense of injustice that needed to be righted and an incapacity for movement. Did it even matter now? If there were something I could do, I would never make it happen because I couldn’t see; I wouldn’t know how to get out of the cave, let alone back to Petra. Any hope for justice was a waste of energy. I wanted to give up. I wanted to let go. I wanted to stay there on that stone floor until I withered into dust.
But the smell of the berries and the water awakened a hunger and a thirst I couldn’t ignore. I reached out with my hands and found the leaf with the berries and beans. I devoured them without even a thought for where they’d come from. I ate and I drank. It wasn’t enough to quell the pain in my stomach, but it was enough to quiet it.
Only then did I realize the food must have been placed there by someone. I lifted my face and called out, “Who’s there?”
I only heard the echo of my own voice, but I knew that someone must be there. Someone had found me. Someone had taken pity.
“Who’s there?” I demanded a second time, feeling a surge of fear, suddenly aware of my own vulnerability. I could not see to defend myself. And even if I had been able, I had no weapon with which to use as defense. I could not traverse about the cave without risking injury. I would be unable to see a danger even if it were before my face.
I had given up any hope of response when a quiet voice, barely even a whisper, reached my ears. “I’m here,” it said. I could not tell if it belonged to a man or woman, so quiet and nondescript was it.
I let out a deep sigh. “Please,” I said, adjusting myself on the hard stone floor, “tell me where I am. I cannot see.” I didn’t know why I was suddenly curious about my surroundings. Perhaps it was the knowledge that I was not completely alone. Perhaps it was the kindness of the offering of food and water. Regardless, something had changed in those few moments that revealed in me a desire to live, something I never imagined I would feel again.
The voice did not respond. I waited, but heard nothing. “Tell me who you are, then,” I prodded, desperate to know more about this being I imagined as a kind of guardian.
“I am like you,” the whisper replied. “Forsaken and abandoned.”
Another prisoner? Questions filled my mouth; who was this person? How long had they been down here? Was there a way of escape? Where had they gotten the food? Had they been the one to give me the food? Were there others like us down here? I said none of these aloud, kept them locked behind my lips. They could be asked another time. Instead, I held out my hands. I needed to touch this person, needed to feel their skin and smell their presence. I needed to feel a little less alone.
A moment later, something brushed against my leg. I looked down, although I couldn’t see, and held my hand closer to the ground. My skin felt the smooth, slippery scales of a snake as it slithered into my hands and up my arm, rubbing its body along my cheek. Tears fell down my face, though I’m not sure from where they came. It hurt, their warm presence filling the sockets that once contained my eyes. I knew I had cried earlier, but I had been too distracted by the murder of my beloved to tell from where the tears were flowing. The snake coiled itself gently around my neck and brushed its small cheek against my flow of tears.
After a moment, I recalled my manners and introduced myself. “I am called Phoebe,” I said, my voice hoarse.
I could sense the other person’s hesitation. I waited a moment and then a distinctly female voice reached me and said, “Call me Python.”
I was unprepared for the sound of a woman’s voice and all the more affected by the snake-like nature of her name. Something within me cracked, releasing a flood of tears and rage. I tried to control it, tried to hide it, not wanting to reveal more of my weaknesses to this woman who was such a stranger, but the tears and the rage filled me. I fell forward onto my hands and sobbed again. My chest was tight. I tried to take in deep breaths to calm myself, but it felt both as if my lungs were too full to take in more and held none at all. I tried to think of how to explain my outburst, but my body had been overtaken. Somehow, the spirit of my lover had found its way into this cave to comfort me, and I was overwhelmed. It was a simultaneous recognition of the loss of what I could never recover and the relief of feeling as though I had been the one lost and who was now found.
In that moment, my grief transformed into something I had only experienced when they made me watch her execution. Only instead of filling me and then receding, like the tide, it made its home in my chest, burrowed into my body like a parasite. I didn’t even notice the arms that wrapped around me or the fingers that stroked my hair; I knew only the death of who I had been before the cave and this rebirth that carried the promise of purpose.
I don’t know how long I wept, how long I screamed but, after a time, sleep consumed me. I had lost so much to the injustice of Petra, but in those caves I gained a strength that I knew would sustain me. My body would adapt, would learn to create its own energy from what now filled my chest and pumped blood through my veins.
I dreamed again when sleep overtook me, though my Serpent had disappeared. I haven’t dreamed of her since. Instead, that night I saw a series of images I couldn’t explain. I saw the blank stares of death looking up at me from the lifeless bodies of strangers, all of them men. I heard distinct voices that felt familiar somehow, but I couldn’t place to whom they belonged. When I stirred from these dreams, I felt a sense of inevitability, as if they had already happened and would happen in the future. I didn’t understand them. I didn’t know what to do with them.
I awoke covered in snakes. There must have been at least fifty of them, some small, some long. I wondered, how many of these belonged to the other woman? And how had she trained them? I sat up and most of them scattered, but a few stayed in my lap and the one that had coiled loosely around my neck remained there, its cheek to mine.
I remembered once, when Serpent had rescued a snake from my kitchen, she said they were mostly gentle creatures, just misunderstood. I smiled to think of what she would say if she saw me covered in snakes. It was the first of many pleasant memories I would revel in as I grieved for her.
I spent the day with the snakes and Python learning about the cave. While I’d slept, she had carved a walking stick for me so that I could move around the cave without stumbling or running into the many large boulders that littered the cave floor. When I asked Python about the boulders and how large they seemed to be, most of them as tall as a grown man, she said not to worry about them; they had been there for decades. Python told me very little of herself, answering only some of the questions I asked. But she stayed near me all day and helped me find my way to her garden of food.
She was my solace in those first days underground, as I soon learned was where we were in relation to Petra. She asked me so many questions about myself, my life and the woman I loved. The days went by, or at least, I assume they did. I ate and talked and explored the cave, and then I would sleep. I would wake and begin the process over.
The more of the cave I explored, the stronger my body felt. The skin on the bottoms of my feet cut open easily at first, and then as they scabbed over, the skin became harder. Calluses formed. My legs carried me farther and farther each day. I even started practicing some of the fighting skills I’d been taught, learning to use my other four senses to keep myself balanced and aware of my surroundings. And always the snake was on my shoulder. I named her Viper, though I knew she was no such thing.
After a few months, I learned that Python had an unexplainable affinity for snakes. They seemed to find her whether she willed it or not, and no matter what she did, once they found her, they stayed. All of the snakes in the cave obeyed her thoughts and sometimes seemed to be manifestations of her emotions, her desires. She carried many of them on her body every day, hidden away in pockets and beneath her clothes. I believed this to be another manifestation of my Serpent, for snakes had always found ways of getting to her, too.
This resemblance endeared Python to me in a way completely unexpected. I think back and I can see that the snakes sensed this growing connection. Viper and two other snakes I named Boa and Cobra came to be always with me. They hung around my neck, my arms, my hands, my waist. At times it felt like I could almost see through them, so often were they with me, around me, on me. It was a strange sensation, one I kept to myself in case Python protested or thought me out of my mind.
Little by little, I came to view the cave as my home. What was meant to be my prison and, likely, my death, became a haven. I realized that exile from a community that couldn’t accept me for who I was wasn’t exile at all, but rather liberation. I no longer had to conceal myself, no longer had to pretend at something that was a lie. The heaviness of deceit and falsehoods fell away from my body like skin I had outgrown, and in its place I found truth. I confided in Python secrets I had kept hidden from everyone in my previous life. Thus, even in exile, I unearthed a happiness I never anticipated.
Looking back, I can see how quickly our friendship blossomed into something more. And I think for her it was love almost from the moment we met. I can’t even imagine how lonely she must have been before I came to her. But she knew my heart still carried love for my Serpent. She knew I grieved.
I was plagued by nightmares and strange dreams for months after Serpent’s execution, and Python was always there to wake me and provide comfort. Still, at some point the grief dissipated and a new love took its place. It would become the great love of my life.
Copyright © 2018 by Janel Brubaker