How The Serpent Got Its Wings

     "Are you sleeping, Cy?" comes his mother's weary voice.

     "No, mother."

     "I've let the candles go out. Forgive me. I'll light them now."

     "It's all right. Sit beside me and tell me a story in the dark, like you used to."

     "A story?" He hears her move to the chair, knowing the placement of every piece of furniture in his room so well that she doesn't need a light. She settles down with a heavy sigh. "Every man remains a boy at heart."

     "Tell how the serpent got its wings," he says, for that has always been his favorite, though he hasn't heard it from his mother's lips since he became a man.

     Moments pass in silence, as if his mother has forgotten the old tale, unspoken for so many turnings. Cy wonders if she's fallen asleep. But at last she clears her throat and begins.

     "Long ago, before the Hierarchate, before the light of Ixion had divided the darkness, everything lived in the depths of an endless night."

     Word by word his mother's voice sheds its weariness and age, becoming young again, as Cy remembers it. She's a voice without a body, a ghost come back not to haunt but to soothe him. Cy closes his eyes. The voice carries him into the shallows of sleep.

     "In that darkness, no one could see who or what they were. Everything crawled along fearfully, hugging the ground. When two things met, they didn't say hello but fought until one died. The winner ate the loser and then continued on. Finally, only two things were left alive. One was the Spinner. The other was Maw.

     "The two of them had eaten up everything else. Many turnings went by before they happened to meet, because the dark was a big place and they were the only ones in it. But sometimes they heard each other. Then they stopped and listened, filled with hope and hunger, careful not to make a sound. Perhaps they hadn't heard anything after all. Perhaps it had been a dream. They moved on. But at last they did meet.

     "They fought and fought, but neither one could kill the other. They were too big, too strong. The two of them were too evenly matched.

     "Then the Spinner spoke to all the things inside Him, the things that He had eaten. 'Brothers and sisters,' He said. 'I see now that it was a mistake to eat you, and I am sorry for it. There is an evil one here who wishes to kill and eat us all. I cannot defeat her alone. If I let you out, will you help me?'"

     Cy hears his mother lift the sponge from the bowl beside the bed and squeeze it out. A cool wetness blooms over his face and forehead. The touch does not break the spell of her voice but deepens it. He feels himself slip from the shallows. Rocked in the ebb and flow of her voice, he can't tell if he's floating on the surface or sinking beneath it.

     "The belly of the Spinner rumbled with the cries of a million eager voices. 'Set us free!' they cried. 'We will help you!'

      "'How do I know you won't turn on me?' asked the Spinner.

     "'We swear! Only you, too, must swear not to eat us up again once the fight is over.'

     "'I swear,' said the Spinner. 'As long as you serve me faithfully, I will not eat you.'

     "'So be it,' his stomach growled.

     "Then the Spinner coughed up the things He'd eaten. Out they tumbled. The funny thing was, because they had been dead for so long, in the belly of the Spinner, they had all turned quite pale. Paler than a frog's belly. So pale they shone with a kind of light, like fireflies. For the first time, they could see. They could see themselves and each other. But Maw they could not see. Nor could they see the Spinner.

     "As each thing came forth, newly reborn, it looked at itself and saw what it was.

     "'Why, I'm a cat!' said one. 'Imagine that!'

     "'And I've been a dog all the time,' said another, wagging its tail. 'After this is finished, I'll chase you!'

      "And so it went, until every creature that walks, crawls, flies or swims stood there in what was no longer darkness and not yet light. Last of all to emerge were a man and a woman.

     "'Now let us fight this evil thing as we promised!' said the man. But, try as they might, no one could find Maw.

     "'I'll sniff her out!' cried the dog, but it could not.

     "'I'll hear her from below,' cried the mole, burrowing into the earth, but it could not.

     "'I'll spy her out from above,' cried the eagle, but it could not.

     "'I'll find her in the seas," cried the fish, but it could not.

     "'There's nothing here,' said the woman at last. 'Let's go. We've kept our part of the bargain. Who knows? Maybe it was all a dream!'

     "Now, Maw was there all the time, of course. It was only that they couldn't sense her. She'd grown too big -- she was everywhere. But big as she was, Maw knew that she couldn't defeat so many enemies at once. She could have coughed up all the million things that she'd eaten just like the Spinner had done, but she was too greedy for that, though there would come a time when she would give birth to monsters. But that was still a long ways off. Now she waited quietly. And when she heard the woman speak, she smiled to herself, knowing that she had found an ally. She turned herself inside out, becoming twice as small as she had been large, and slipped into the woman to hide.

     "The Spinner heard the woman speak too and was filled with a terrible rage. 'Faithless creature!' He thundered. 'Is this how you repay me?'

     "The woman fell to her knees and begged forgiveness. 'Don't eat me again!' she cried. 'Show me this evil creature and I will fight it!'

     "'It is too late,' said the Spinner. 'It is already inside you. Now I must kill you.'

     "But the man objected: 'The woman is of value to me. Without her, I will bring forth no sons to carry on my name. Kill her and you kill me, and I have done you no wrong.'

     "The Spinner thought. What the man said was true. And yet there had to be some punishment, or else who would fear Him? 'Is there any other creature that walks, crawls, swims or flies that would have me spare this woman?' He asked.

     "'Not I,' growled the dog, scratching at a flea.

     "'Not I,' said the flea.

     "'Not I," said the cat, cleaning its fur.

     "'Not I,' said the mole.

     "'Not I,' said the eagle.

     "'Not I,' said the fish.

      "The woman wept. 'Will no one speak for me?'

     "'I will,' came a whispery voice.

     "'Who said that?' asked the Spinner, for there was no one to be seen.

    "'Here,' said the voice. 'Down here.'

     "It was the serpent. An ugly creature with no arms or legs, fat and round and long as a person's arm. Instead of skin it had rough brown scales like the bark of a tree, a rattle at one end and a fat round head at the other. 'I will speak for the woman.'

     "All the creatures moved away from the serpent and its flickering pink tongue. 'I am the lowest of creatures, rightfully despised by all, for I will bite whatever comes near me. I know that the woman is not to be trusted, perhaps no more than I can be trusted, but I will speak for her anyway because she is beautiful.'

     "'Then you must kill the evil thing inside her,' said the Spinner. 'If you can do that, the woman may live.'

     "And so the serpent coiled itself about the woman's ankle and climbed her body, inching its way up her legs and waist and torso. The woman shivered, repulsed by such an embrace, but she held herself still and bore it bravely because no other creature had spoken for her and she did not want to die.

     "At last the serpent reached her mouth. Its pink tongue tickled her lips. Its eyes were yellow and black, glittering with intelligence. The woman knew what she had to do. She closed her eyes and opened her mouth as wide as it would go.

    "The serpent wriggled in. It wriggled into her mouth and down her throat. Its tail rattled against the roof of her mouth as it slithered down. She felt it twisting and turning through her stomach. Her bones vibrated with the noise of the rattle. She fell to the ground.

     "Inside the woman, the serpent could not see a thing. It inched along, probing the darkness with its tongue. 'What an odd maze this is,' the serpent thought. 'How will I ever find the evil one here?'

     "Many times it grew so frustrated in its search that it spread its jaws, ready to strike out with its poisoned fangs, only to remember that it had spoken for this woman and should not bite her. Finally the serpent grew tired. It found a soft, warm, hollow place, like a cave.

     "'I will rest here for a minute,' it thought to itself, closing its eyes. It curled up there and went to sleep.

     "As the serpent slept, the evil one, Maw, Dam of Darkness, appeared in a dream. 'Why do you persecute me?' she asked. 'Are we so different, you and I? We both bite whatever comes near us.'

     "The serpent flinched under the gaze of her billion glittering eyes -- eyes stolen from the things she had eaten. But it rattled its tail to give itself courage and answered: 'Except for this woman. I have not bitten this woman as you have done. And perhaps you are only a dream, but I think that I will bite you now just the same.' And it did.

     "Maw cried out as the serpent's poison spread through her like fire. She squirmed and writhed in agony, and the billion eyes flickered like the flames of a billion candles whipped in a sudden wind. But she also laughed. 'You may have bitten me in the dream, but it is the woman's flesh that your teeth have pierced!' And with that, she turned herself inside out again and was gone from the woman, leaving behind an evil taint, an affinity for darkness that would never completely fade. A terrible scream woke the serpent. It was the woman's scream.

     "'What have I done?' the serpent cried in horror. 'The evil one has tricked me!'

     "The serpent was angry and ashamed. It had spoken for the woman, only to bite her. But perhaps there was a way to save her. The serpent's poison went wherever he told it. 'Go to the heart,' he would whisper as he struck, and the poison would speed there like a shrive's dart. 'Go to the eyes and make them blind.' 'Go the the limbs and make them cold and stiff as stone.'

    "Now the serpent did something it had never done before. It called its poison back. The poison was already in the woman's blood. It did not want to return. But the serpent called again. And again.

    "'Come back to me, my poison!' it cried. 'Leave this woman!'

    "And slowly, heavily, the poison turned and came back, flowing against the current of the blood, pulled by a greater force, dragging the bad blood along with it.

    "The serpent would lead the poisoned blood out of the woman's body. It nosed about the soft, warm, hollow cave, looking for a way out. At last it found an opening. It squeezed inside. Ough! It was a tight squeeze. It felt like the skin was being peeled from its body. But the serpent kept going, wriggling down the passage, determined to save the woman.

    "At last it left the woman's body. It fell to the ground between her legs, exhausted. A moment later the bad blood gushed out, dark and poisonous, steaming. And something else came with it -- the serpent's old, discarded skin.

    "All the other creatures were standing in a circle, watching. 'Where is the serpent?' they asked. 'What is this beautiful bird that has come out of the woman?'

    "And then the serpent saw that it had changed. In place of its rough brown scales were silver feathers so bright that they reflected its own image. In them the serpent saw that its body and head had been flattened in squeezing through the woman. And it saw that it had sprouted wings of silver that jangled like music when spread. The serpent took to the air in a rainfall chiming.

    "'That is your reward,' said the Spinner. 'And the poisoned blood is your punishment,' He added, addressing the woman now, who, ashamed, covered her nakedness with her hands.

    "Thus was the woman saved from Maw, though the evil taint remained, to be passed down to her daughters. Thus do serpents, born scaled and ugly, shed their skins and sprout silver wings. Thus do women purge themselves in painful suffering of the serpent's poison and sloughed-off skin.

    "So it was then, and so it is today. May the Spinner bless the bed in which you lay."

    The voice falls silent. In the darkness there is only the regular wheeze of air through a throat tube. In and out, in and out in a sleepy rhythm.

    Then comes the sound of a chair scraping back. Tired footsteps shuffle across the floor. The door opens and closes. The high-pitched whine of a firefly begins. The noise drones on and on, then stops. A cool green light bathes Cy's face from below then winks out. He coughs in the darkness without waking.