“You’re awake,” says the serpent. “That’s good. I was starting to worry – it’s almost moonrise.”
Lily opens her eyes. The pale glow from the streetlights barely reaches the room. What little light there is traces the mountainous terrain of the bed; the tangled sheets, the hunched shadow of Anton’s back rising and falling slowly. Clad only in shadow, she slips from the bed and pads from the room. Her steps are careful and quiet.
The serpent follows at her heel. The two make their way to the base of the ladder that leads to Anton’s studio-loft. The rungs are worn smooth, and feel cool and pleasant against her bare feet. She can hear the serpent’s skin whisper against the wood as he climbs after her.
The loft is large, with enormous windows that look out over the city below, spread like a blanket of stars fallen, twinkling, to Earth. Starlight from above and the faint glimmer of the city below combine to sketch the lines of Anton’s loft in soft, shimmering shadows. Much of the space is taken up by paintings, both finished and in progress. She tries to ignore them.
Lily walks to the windows, which frame diamond-studded darkness. “It’s beautiful,” she says sadly. “I won’t argue with you there,” the serpent replies from somewhere in the dark. She can’t make out his shape in the room’s rich shadows, but she hears the sigh of his scales as he slides easily up the legs of Anton’s chair, the better to bring his face level with hers – but she isn’t looking at him. Her eyes are on the starlit sky, the glimmer of the city lights at the foot of the hill, down below the sprawling properties of Anton’s sleeping neighborhood.
Moonrise begins to pour its silver light into the loft, and for a while, neither she nor the serpent speak. Radiant and cool, the moonlight sketches more of the loft with each passing moment. As the shadows recede, the serpent is revealed in all his jet-black glory, a piece of the night imbued with sinuous life. He is a matte onyx from the tips of his delicately horned nostrils to the point of his tail – all save for his tongue, which is a fiery red when it emerges to taste the air, and his eyes, which shine like two glowing golden coins.
“Tonight’s the night,” he says. “I’m not so sure it is,” she replies.
“Oh?” His crimson tongue darts. “Then why did you pack a bag? Why did you hide it from him?” She sighs. “I wanted to be ready when it’s time. I’m just not sure that it is.” The serpent is coiled and bunched upon himself on the chair, his elegant skin folded like velvet where his length doubles back upon itself. He rests his head on his coils and regards her. His golden eyes reflect a cool, still calm. “Maybe,” she says eventually. “Do you think I’m going to miss any of this?”
“You’ll miss this place, I think. Anton’s house, the big, silent feel of it. At first you will. But Anton isn’t who you thought he was, is he?”
“No.” She turns, looks at the paintings that fill the walls in various stages of completion. Anton’s paintings are all variations on a theme; fleshy women, each nude save for a nun’s wimple, writhing voluptuously with leering red-skinned demons whose skinny shanks pump and gyrate in blasphemous and inventive congress. “These are disappointing,” the serpent muses. “But on the whole I’m grateful to art, Lily. Among its many admirable qualities is its translation of character – of essential personhood – into a form that can be read and interpreted, with a little effort. When you look at art just right, you can see the artist’s soul.”
“I’m not sure I believe in a ‘soul.’” Lily stretches and scratches her ribs, regarding the priapic demons that cavort and drool at her from the walls of Anton’s loft. “Are they supposed to be fallen angels?” she asks the serpent. “Well,” he says, “they are comporting themselves the way that angels tend to, in my experience.” Lily snorts laughter.
“You remind me of someone,” says the serpent. “Of course, that’s the thing about being as old as I am – everyone reminds you of someone. In this case, I’d take it as a compliment, if I were you. This someone that you remind me of — she was one of my first friends, a long time ago.
“She was hungry for life. One of the truest hearts I’ve ever known, with a mind like a blazing star. She was imprisoned by an evil king, and betrothed against her will to one of the king’s favorite servants – told that she was his helpmeet. Now, I still traveled through the kingdom, in those days, and I happened upon her in her cell. At first, all I could do was whisper to her through the barred window of her prison late at night.
“As I got to know her, I came to care for her as my friend. ’Let me help free you,’ I whispered, ‘for the king’s power over you is not as great as he – or you – believe.’ ‘His Majesty said that my life is best lived here,’ she answered, ‘and the king is wise and powerful. He told me that I’m to be the moon to his servant’s sun.’
“’Is that what he told you?’ I asked. ‘You are to be the weak little moon? May I tell you about the moon?’ She nodded, so I continued: ‘Does this wise king of yours think the moon weak? That she only reflects that which is given to her? You know better. You know the moon is no lesser, fallen celestial. Magic thrives in moonlight, magic that the barbaric radiance of the sun would expunge – would erase immediately with an idiot spike of antiseptic simplicity. Those who hold the sun close die, burned and blistered, but we all hold the moon close, in our blood and our bones and our dreams at night. Moonlight illuminates, but it never banishes. It rewards the contemplation of mystery with deeper mysteries still.’
“I won’t take credit. She knew everything I told her already. She was isolated, imprisoned there, and just needed to hear aloud what she knew already to be true. ‘The door to your cell,’ I whispered to her. ‘I can bring you the key. We’ll free you first.’ ‘First?’ she asked. ‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘first you, and then we’ll get the king’s servant so he can escape with us.’ She laughed a laugh like silver daggers and golden thorns. ‘That one is a servant by choice,’ she said. ‘He could leave the palace – travel beyond the farthest borders of the kingdom – and still never escape. He will always be a footman.’ So I brought her the key – or the idea of the key, anyway. Things were both more and less complicated in those days. She left the kingdom far behind her and traveled to the beautiful wild place where I live. There she lived long in truth and shining grandeur, illuminated by the holy fires of reason and passion.”
Lily listens, eyes filled with the cool opalescence of the full moon. When the serpent has finished, Lily sits in silence. “You’re right,” she says at length. “Tonight’s the night.” Her battered green army surplus duffel is stashed in one cluttered corner of the loft, beneath a stack of wooden pallets. She checks the bag’s contents, then slips into a t-shirt, beat-up jeans, and a pair of good sneakers. She has a long walk ahead of her. “Ready?” Lily asks the serpent. She crouches, and he climbs her arm and drapes his coils over her shoulders. His weight, she finds, is pleasant. His scales are as cool and as smooth as a mosaic of slick river pebbles, and feel wonderful against the flesh of her bare neck. She grabs the duffel bag and makes her way to the front door, which she locks carefully behind her.
“The king’s servant,” the serpent says as she picks her way down the moonlit path to the street below, “the one in the story I told you? One of his duties was naming the animals. I think he did an acceptable job, overall. This was in the days before Babel, mind you, before names were corrupted into mere language. Well. A new epoch is here. The world is going to need new names for new beasts, ones never before seen. I think you’ll be good at it.” Lily raises her hand and strokes the serpent’s head gently. He flicks his scarlet tongue in rapture and shrugs his coils a little tighter about her shoulders in a soft, silken embrace. Lily finds the road, and begins her walk, down into the moon-drunk alleys and neon fairy-lights of the city below.
A Baptism for the Dead
Historical horror set in the mountainous West, in a landscape of death and madness.