I first thought up SERPIENTE when reminiscing about my childhood. Reptiles were a huge part of my fascination with nature as a kid. Snakes were symbols of beauty to me while others recoiled at the idea of them. This story is a love letter to reptiles veiled through a macabre horror-fantasy.
Mariana never understood why her tongue was shaped the way it was: long, sticky and split ever so slightly down the middle.
‘A birth defect,’ her mother had once told her ‘One you should be proud of, mi hija.’
‘A disease,’ her father would retort. ‘Keep it hidden.’
Mariana had just turned 11, a hugely unpopular girl at school due to her deformity. Her popularity stock had been dropping before anyone even took a glimpse at her mouth. She was known as ‘the weirdo who never blinks,’ which might have been an underhand way of attacking her penchant for reading, but the kids at school meant it literally. It was true. Mariana could stare at a wall for days, uninterrupted, and she wouldn’t blink once.
She was always buried in her books, her fascination with reptiles and amphibians taking precedence during lunch breaks and in between lessons wherever possible. But since school had concluded for the summer, Mariana was now able to spend the majority of her days reading about her favourite creature: the snake. She never understood her natural attraction to the creature, but everything about it left her yearning to learn more. When Mariana, aged 5, first discovered that snakes shed their skin to accommodate their growth, she thought it genius. When she learned of the snake’s inability to hear, and its ability to track movement through vibrations instead, she gasped with joy. They’re so cool!
With the pressures of socialising and studying abandoned for a few weeks, she could return to walking around her father’s farm looking for snakes. The infestation had been slowly mutating over the years. As Mariana grew older, the snakes visited more often.
‘Maldita serpiente,’ Mariana’s father yelled out as he impaled a snake with a sharp-edged stick – his favourite form of coping with the vast influx of creatures swarming his livestock. Rubén only took pleasure from one thing in life: shouting. Despite his face flashing red whenever he shouted, there was a dominant fraction of his heart that got a real kick from raising his voice. And if he got to raise his hand to his wife or daughter, even better. Mariana still carried a minor limp from the week prior when, attempting to stop her father from beating on her mother, she received a whack to the leg with a bamboo stick.
Her mother had received worse. Carmen, a sweet and doting woman, was often the collateral damage of her husband’s obsession with alcohol. Her olive-toned skin was tainted with such heavy bruising that she looked like the type of banana you avoid peeling. Mariana tried to stop fights as frequently as possible, though most of them would happen while she was at school. Upon returning from school, she’d find bloodied tissues in the bin, her mother forcing a smile through her cracked lips and dried tears. It infuriated Mariana; her youthful, though admittedly evolved, mind couldn’t quite comprehend why her father hated them. She resented him most days, pitied him sporadically, but absolutely despised him in the summer.
Not only was she forced to work on the farm all day long, she would also be forced to watch – and be recipient to – her father’s abuse first-hand. At least she could look forward to reading about snakes and identifying their breeds in the garden.
Her favourite serpent was the Anaconda, partly due to its sheer size, but she had a soft spot for the New World coral snakes that tormented her father’s crops. She liked them because they capture the colour-retention of the human retina like no other creature. Red and black in colour, often with rings of yellow or white, they are impossible to miss and gorgeous to stare at. If you’re Rubén, though, they’re the goddamn plague; an inconvenience to his daily routine and his growing of yuca, corn and other vegetation on his small farm.
Mariana watched as her father dug the stick into the snake. She squealed loudly, attempting to run to its aid.
‘Basta, papi. Por favor,’ she screamed.
For this interruption, Ruben shoved his daughter across the chest, the impact knocking her straight to the ground.
‘Cállate, you freak. Why do you care so much about these stupid animals? They’re ruining our farm. Make yourself useful, get up and throw the snake in the trash.’
He reeked of whiskey and cigarettes. Mariana detested it. She’d learned to take the blows, learned to not cry. It only served to frustrate her father more. She simply got up, ignored his question, took heed to his request, and walked toward the shed where she had been washing her father’s tools. He never used the shed – it was purely for his daughter to do the dirty work while he tended to the crops. It’s probably a good thing he never went in there, since Mariana had been hosting a female coral snake and her unhatched eggs for a while. Mariana removed the silky Venezuelan flag she used to hide the snake whenever she wasn’t around.
If Rubén had noticed how she was using the national flag, it might have been worse than finding out his daughter was housing reptiles. Rubén loved two things in his life. The average person would guess that his beautiful wife and daughter would be the prime candidates. And that’s why the average person remains the average person. Rubén loved whiskey and Venezuela. An abusive, alcoholic patriot.
The snake lay atop her eggs, wrapped around the tiny nest Mariana had created from unused corn and hay. Its red coat shone bright enough to light the corner of the otherwise dark shed. Mariana dropped to her knees, pulled the flag back down on the floor and placed the dead snake on it. She stroked its skin gently, caressing each scale intently. When she happened upon it, she winced and apologised to the snake. A hole that went in through one end and came out the other.
She could feel its pain — a burning sensation at the tip of her spine — the same way she could feel the other coral snake’s anxiety about her soon-to-hatch babies. Mariana was connected to the serpents more so than her own kind. She could hear them communicate, though she never dared blurt that out in front of anyone. It’s not like she could decipher what snakes communicate about; if anything, it was a feeling. She just got them. In that moment, while her farming-induced, calloused hands traced the dead snake’s coat, she knew she could do something about this predicament.
She placed both her hands on the snake – one over its wound and the other on its head. Mariana’s tongue poked its way through her pursed lips, rattling back and forth as her fingers began to glow a fluorescent green. She didn’t know what was happening, actively caught in between freaking the fuck out and proceeding with whatever it was that her body was involuntarily doing.
Mariana’s trance was interrupted when she heard her father just outside the door. She jolted to her feet.
‘It’s time for dinner. Clean up and get inside the house. And don’t make me tell you twice.’
‘Ya,’ she responded with enough high tones to convey her anger but enough restraint for it to go undetected.
She didn’t even make eye contact with the snake. She left in a hurry and draped the flag over the mother snake, her eyes freshly wet with tears of confusion and an innate emotion she couldn’t begin to describe.
‘Those snakes are ruining our farm, Carmen,’ Ruben said with a mouth packed to the brim with red kidney beans. He tore at an arepa and managed to lodge a bit of that into his mouth too. Carmen watched him with a smile.
‘Slow down, mi amor. The food’s not going to run away from the plate,’ she joked.
Rubén returned a stare that told her she was one more joke away from getting her second beating of the day.
‘Mariana, close your mouth when you eat,’ Rubén said while washing his food down with a generous gulp of whiskey. ‘It’s bad enough you look like that. We don’t need to see it every fucking night.’ don
Mariana simply did what her mother had always told her: Don’t reply, but make eye contact. He’ll get it.
‘You know your daughter, once again, got emotional over me killing one of the snakes. Haven’t you talked to her about this already? She’s 11 now. Almost a woman. At 11, my sister was helping her abuelo with the farm. She wasn’t crying over stupid creatures. She didn’t even waste her time being a creep and reading stupid books.’
‘And where’s your sister now, Rubén?’ Carmen returned.
‘Don’t you fucking talk about her like that.’ Ruben lifted himself out of his seat and towered over his wife.
‘At least my daughter – our daughter – is intelligent and curious about the world. I’d rather that than her being locked in prison.’
‘Sinvergüenza de mierda,’ Rubén said, unbuckling his belt and sliding it off his dirty, torn jeans.
‘Mariana! Bedroom, now.’
Carmen braced herself; Mariana knew not to get involved. This one was serious. She bolted to her bedroom, shut the door behind her and flung herself into her bed. She could hear the leather thwacking against bare skin – and when she wasn’t hearing that, the belt was either smacking against the wall or her mother’s screaming pleas of forgiveness were drowning out Rubén’s actions.
Unable to help, but also unable to stick around and listen, Mariana marched over to her desk and grabbed a small rucksack and torchlight. She quickly pushed open her window and, within one slick movement, slithered her way out of the house and into the dusk of the Venezuelan night.
Nobody ever took notice when Mariana ran away for a few hours. Her mother, after all, would always be left to recover from her husband’s beatings. Her husband, on the other hand, drowned himself in alcohol until he passed out. At that point, Mariana was the least of either’s worries.
So she went where she always did. Where else could a kid run on a hot, Venezuelan night? Although they lived on the outskirts of the vibrant Caracas, the place was too violent to leave the farm. Mariana settled for her usual safe haven: the shed. Once she got inside and shut the wooden door behind her, she unzipped her bag, thumbed the switch on the torchlight and sat cross-legged on the floor.
The shed looked horrible under the inspection of light. Small cracks on the walls allowed for natural moonlight to get inside, as well as mosquitoes and other flying critters Mariana detested. She loved snakes but that didn’t mean she loved every creature on earth.
The farming equipment was rusted; tins of oil were either knocked over on the floor or half-open on the tattered counter where Mariana would attempt to fix her father’s tools.
In the corner of the shed lay the mother snake with her eggs, the flag no longer covering the entirety of her body. She must have gone for some food, Mariana gathered, before returning to her unhatched babies.
Mariana tried to avoid resting her gaze on the dead snake in the middle of the shed. She still didn’t understand what had happened a few hours prior, the way her hands turned green and her heart focused on the pain. Before she knew it, Mariana had dragged her cross-legged posture toward the snake, sitting a mere couple of inches from its face.
It didn’t take long before her hands were placed on the dead snake once more. The fluorescent green light shone brighter and stronger than it had before; it had now overtaken the torchlight. Mariana’s tongue began to rattle back and forth, slowly, while her eyes fixated on the snake’s – in that moment, in perfect unison, both their eyes shone. It broke Mariana’s trance.
Within seconds, the snake began to wriggle its body: slowly, as if entirely aware of its miraculous resuscitation. Mariana stared at its movement, her mouth wide open in amazement. Her tongue was at its most visible: long, thin and brown. She began to weep, realising her passion for snakes wasn’t random, that her ability to communicate with them wasn’t a sign of her loneliness. She wasn’t lonely anymore, for these snakes were her family.
When she reached out to touch the snake, it licked her finger profusely, gently wrapped itself around her hand, up her arm and eventually rested on her shoulder. It rubbed its silky, peanut-sized head against her chest as if thanking her.
Just as Mariana was about to talk to the snake, a sound engulfed the shed unlike anything she’d ever heard.
The door was broken. The light radiating off Mariana illuminated the wall she was facing which revealed a shadow stood behind her. Before she registered whose body it belonged to, she heard the bellowing voice.
‘Que coño haces, diabla?’
Her father. He had seen it. The mother snake, the one he had killed and his daughter. The green light wouldn’t disappear, even amidst Mariana’s shock and fear; even while he had her hair bunched in his hand. Rubén dragged his daughter out of the shed and across the farm.
‘You fucking freak. Monstruo. What the fuck is going on? Why are you– fuck. You’re green!’
Rubén stammered over his words, struggling to produce a coherent sentence. He arrived at the house, his daughter full of mud and corn, her hair still caught in his fist.
Mariana thought about the snake, what she had been able to do, and felt an immense amount of pride in spite of what was happening around her.
Before Rubén tossed her into her bedroom, Mariana caught a glimpse of her mother. She lay on the couch, unable to move, with bright red hand belt marks laced around her neck.
‘What’s wrong with mama?’ Mariana said.
‘Don’t ask questions, you freak,’ Rubén returned.
He released his daughter’s hair from his hand before shoving her with his foot into the bedroom. He slammed the door shut. What followed was the sound of keys and a lock. Mariana was now stuck.
She made for the window but her father had preemptively locked that too. Her room was now a prison – a reminder of her inability to rescue her mother.
She pulled at the knob, kicked at the door and lobbed books at the window out of frustration. Nothing budged.
She began to sob until she heard a sound she couldn’t ignore. On the other side of the door, her mother’s screams and shouts were now muffled; the sound of choking and interrupted breathing the replaced the aforementioned.
Mariana’s body fell weak. Her knees nestled against the floor, her face flattened against the ground. She was on the verge of passing out until she saw it.
Bright red, underneath her bed, lay a snake. It was no ordinary snake, either. This coral snake had a scar on its skin. When Mariana realised who it was, she rose to her knees and ushered it toward her. The snake slithered at breakneck speed and spiralled up her arm, settling on her shoulder. She stroked its head. The minute her skin met the snake’s, she combusted into green flames.
Her silhouette was the only decipherable component of her being to the human eye. The snake rattled its tongue near her ear. Her sole focus turned to her mother; she was to put an end to her father’s tyranny of abuse.
In an instant, snakes began to appear from the floorboards. At first it was a dozen which quickly rose to hundreds in the space of seconds.
The snakes made for the doorknob, wrapping their bodies tightly against it. By the time they had managed to tear the knob off, there were no more sounds in the house. Mariana knew her father had done it. He’d finally killed the only person who had ever loved him.
Mariana’s flames shone brighter. The snakes entered the frame of the door. Shortly after, a clicking sound echoed around the room. The door had finally budged. Mariana crashed through it, slithering along the ground and toward her father like no human could ever.
Rubén rubbed his eyes, unsure if the alcohol had finally gotten to his head. Before he could take another action, the snakes were wrapping around his ankles and travelling up his leg. He tried to take a step forward, but the sheer weight of them kept him rooted to the ground.
The injured snake leapt from Mariana’s shoulder to Rubén’s throat. It wrapped itself around gently, leaving enough wiggle room for him to speak.
She moved fast, softly, but with purpose.
‘How could you do this? You killed mama!’
‘Mariana? Get these serpientes away from me, monstruo.’
‘I am the serpientes.’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘Basta. You’ve caused us enough pain. You’re so stupid. No one loved you like mama. You never deserved her and you never deserved us. You’re the monstruo. I hope you rot wherever you go.’
Mariana rattled her tongue and let out a screeching sound. The snakes slithered up her father’s legs, chest and neck before entering his throat and nostrils. He gagged but that was the most he could do. His arms were bound by a hundred snakes. His eyes rolled to the back of his head. His face, previously coffee-toned, was now devoid of any colour.
Mariana watched him collapse to the ground and took pleasure from witnessing his final drawing of breath. Her green flames slowly died out.
She rushed over to her mother; all the snakes departed the house through the front door, the floorboards and the windows bar one. It returned atop her shoulder.
She knelt over her mother’s thighs and rested her head there, like she had done so many times throughout her childhood. Tears trickled down her cheeks and soaked her mother’s jeans. The snake rattled its tongue once more near Mariana’s ear. She lifted her head with excitement, aggressively wiping away the tears with her forearm.
‘Please work,’ she whispered.
Her hands lightly hovered above her mother’s neck. Nothing happened. Her frustration forced more tears out of her eyes. They were dropping at a rapid rate, singularly, down her chin.
The snake wrapped its tail on her left wrist and extended its body towards her right. It bound her wrists together, imbuing them with its own power, as she brought her hands closer to her mother’s neck. All of a sudden, the green glow returned.
Mariana’s tears, which had first been born out of sadness were now, finally, tears of jubilation. The green glow sent a ripple through her mother’s body.
Carmen gasped for breath, her eyelids rocking upwards, before she realised what had happened. Her breathing settled; she looked at Mariana.
Her daughter shone beautifully. Her tongue, rattling repeatedly, had never looked so badass, Carmen thought. She smiled, pulled her daughter toward her chest and planted a kiss on her forehead.
‘That power. You’re just like your abuelita.’
Copyright © 2018 by Christopher Aguíar
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