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Authors: Jessica Cornwell

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BOOK: The Serpent Papers
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‘Anna, where have you gone?’ Francesc asks.
Smiling. Always smiling
. I stir the soup on the stove. Pulling me towards him, he kisses my hair, warm hands round my back – I feel the breath of him, the reassuring beat . . .

‘You always worry,’ he says. ‘But not tonight. Please. Don’t think about those things tonight.’

An eerie sound
disturbs my sleep.
Low crackle and steam
. The hiss of a boiling kettle.
Francesc’s broad back rises and falls beside me, mouth close to my shoulder, breath condensing into warm moisture. I sit up. There is a low humming rattle like a mouse drilling.
By the corner of the window.
A hissing, sliding sound, scurrying. Barely present . . . and yet . . . unarguably there
.
Francesc
,
I try to whisper. My blood tingles, the animal in me straining. Beyond our window it is dark. I cannot see the garden, or the field or the forest . . . but I can hear the hissing.
It is a rustling.
The burrowing of a mouse – an intruder?
I imagine the chink of dirt moving.
The sound of air exiting a fissure.
Francesc! Get up!
He stirs and turns over.
Francesc –
I try to call,
but
his name catches on my teeth –
there are two lights shining through the window.
Beams of light floating beyond the glass, and I am afraid. They are rising out of the earth. Two orbs like lanterns streak the window. They shrink and condense into a ripple suspended on the night. Blur and snap.
I squint through the wakening haze. Two great flames, floating on air? The beacon of a stranger? No – they are eyes. Golden luminous eyes.
Looking at me.
The sound coils again, breath hissing.
In and out. In and out
. My mind sharpens. A dark thrust of shadow moves against the pane of glass. A serpentine body unravels itself, birthed from the corner of the window, almost invisible but for the dull ambient sheen of moonlight on scales. A beast watching me as I watch her . . . 
A snake
,
I realize.
A garden snake.
It was her entrance to the room I had heard, as she burrowed through the earthen wall, the growing crack near the corner of our window. I had said to Francesc that creatures would come. It would be a rat or a gecko or a scorpion, but no – it was the snake who entered first – and I had heard her hissing.
Francesc
,
I whisper. Curious now. Intrigued.
There is a snake in our bedroom. She is probably the olive snake I have seen in the hedgerows, with the flat snout and the flecks of black that travel up from her nostrils through her eyes – I have told you to kill her, the one who sleeps by day at the foot of the yucca and eats the sand lizards at night.
But I say nothing as the snake stirs. I watch the shadow move, descending the wall, flat on her belly, winding across the dark tiles to the foot of the bed and for a moment she disappears.
Francesc!
I shake him.
Francesc!
I try to move, to jump to my feet, to leap out of bed and grab the shovel from the garden. I aim to smash her skull with the sharp end of the blade, to sever her throat, to crush her bones on the tiled floor – but too late: the arrival of a foreign body on the sheets terrifies me. Here comes the mounting weight of the snake slithering across the blanket, between our legs. A river of toiling muscle, moving faster and faster, her head swaying.
She watches me
. Gaze steady. I am hypnotized by her undulating wave as she slithers towards my outstretched fingers, her scales greet me cold and she begins to climb up me, sliding her bulk round and over my arm, she rises towards my shoulder and I am still as she coils round my throat. I feel the heavy noose of her form as two cold, golden eyes rise before me. Up, up, she rears, dog-snout level with my own.
Looks into me
. We are frozen in mutual observation. Her tongue flickers.
In and out. In and out.
Tasting the air. She arches back, as if to strike – but I am quicker, grabbing her throat as she held mine, placing my hand around her.
Be calm and still. I am not frightened any more.
The snake winds through my fingers, I hold her head below her cheeks, careful to not constrict her windpipe, and pull her tail with my hand, remembering that snakes are weaker in their lower half, unwrapping her from my throat, keeping her far-distanced from my face, and decide in that moment that we will let each other live.
We’re going out
,
I tell her.
Out where you belong.
I take her to the garden, unlocking the back door by the kitchen before laying her flat on the cold hard dirt.
It is winter, snake,
you should be sleeping, not burrowing through walls.
When I look back to where I left her, I begin to doubt my sanity. The snake is gone. And I do not know where I am.

 

* * *

 

I lie for hours in the dark listening to the sounds of the long-eared owl who lives in our pine tree, curled into the triangle of muscle between Francesc’s shoulder and chest, his arm wrapped around my body, hands protective.

The visions have begun again. The voices. It is a sign that I am close and it frightens me. Gently I move Francesc, and slip out of the sheets. He is a heavy sleeper and does not seem to mind my midnight perambulations. I walk naked to my desk, sitting against the cold wooden chair. In the dark I open the drawer and take out the goatskin box.
Cast away the guilt. He does not need to know.
I stare at the sealed container.
It is better that he doesn’t know.
Checking the office door is closed behind me, I switch on the small lamp beside the laptop. Again the sickness comes, the bile and the nausea, churning in my stomach.
The stench of fear on these papers.
My nostrils burn with the heat of a candle, a sensation of dripping wax. The pages are bound in wood and leather, codified by a spindly hand, long dead, who has written on the outer sheath of the primary collection:
Field Notes of Llewellyn Sitwell of Bath, 1851–1852.
The first sheets of these are markedly original. Sketches not unlike medical drawings. Precise. Astute. Each illustration no larger than a small print in a nineteenth-century journal. Pictures capturing aspects of a female body. The front and rear of a woman. Tattoos drawn into the skin, crosshatched with shadow. I look to the centre of her forehead, onto which an individual has carved the letter
B
in an ornate script.
Mystery.
On each breast, the letters
C
and
D
. Across her rear and kidneys the letters
E
,
F
,
G
,
H
respectively. On her thighs, the final pieces of a code:
I
and
K
. The lack of
J
in the alphabetical sequence
is due to the non-existence of the letter in old Latin. I turn the page, revealing a study of her palms, tattooed in thick black strokes with a coiled serpent and a cross.
Captain Ruthven’s Woman of Akelarres.
Beneath this: an afterthought, erratically drawn. Incomplete. A visual footnote formed by a small passerine bird, round black eye glassy, beak open. Each feather notched into paper, profile flat against the gaze of the draftsman. In the same wavering script:

 

LUSCINIA L. Megarhynchos
.

 

The Latin name of the nightingale.

The phone chafes again, rattling on the bedside table. A hot, urgent ringing. Francesc answers groggily. The colour drains from his face.



,’ he says, ‘

.’ I stand in the door, watching him. He pulls on clothes as he speaks, bending over the mobile phone, stress palpable. ‘We’ll be there as quick as we can.’ I hear the words
incendi
,
forestal
,
foc
,
capella
,
signes
.

Fire
, I realize,
at the chapel site.
My mind goes numb – hiking boots and overcoats, hats and unbrushed hair follow, sleep still thick in our eyes – Francesc rushing –
Faster, be faster, if anything can be salvaged 
– he scrapes ice from the windscreen of our car angrily, a little blue Panda, the engine stalls and stalls again, struggling to ignite. I look at the sky, cumulus clouds against Egyptian blue, night dismounting her throne.

‘Get in!’
Francesc swears and bangs on the steering wheel. We drive in silence, feeling the cold, up through the sleeping village turn towards Deià. Then: ‘
Fotre!
’ Francesc explodes. The car’s tyres crunch on frozen rock and snow as we pull to the side of the mountain pass. Francesc is out the door in a flash, long legs striding into the distance. I am running after him, following the trail. There is a bad symmetry here and it unnerves me. Oak forest looms above us as we streak through olive groves. It is difficult to keep my footing in the half-light. I hear Francesc panting.
Damn it
,
he whistles again as he trips and almost falls.
God fucking damn it . . . 
As we move, the sun begins his fire to the east. Hot pokers pierce the sky as the bristling pines part and we stand looking over the rocky straight of earth that leads to the broken chapel. Flames consume the shattered, ancient beams, a raging inferno licking the dry stone walls and casting blue shadows onto the tumult below. It is almost sublime, I think in a daze; it could be a scene from Hannibal crossing the Alps, in the eye of the approaching storm. Clouds of smoke leer Turneresque above us, what was once a quiet sanctuary taken over by heaving humanity – firemen and farmers and working monks. The storm of yesterday had quenched the lightning, but this second fire burns hungry, loud belly hunting for fuel. Francesc knows as well as I do that any hidden bones will be charred into dust. Whatever other books might have been contained in the rubble reduced into nothing. All gold and signs melted into mud. The excavation site destroyed.
Buckets of water and spray will do no good to the conflagration; they will contain it, let it burn out, burn down to valueless soot.
An act of war.
Francesc’s face darkens. I grip his hand tightly. The moment of decision is now. When I am most certain of the danger. The trees and ground are ice-ridden and damp, they will not catch – unless the fire grows, and the men will work tirelessly to stop this – but fear of fire is not why the monks pray at the forest’s edge, or the firemen quake in their boots, or Francesc’s cheeks turn pale. What disturbs us all is the vision of four limbs forming a quadrant in the earth, each cloven hoof pointing to the sky. A quartered pig planted in the rocky soil.

BOOK: The Serpent Papers
9.09Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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