The First Book of the Painter
I woke to the deep dark of middle night. Around me the other boys’ sleeping breath was a shushing like that of the sea on a pebble beach, and the ashes were long gone cold on the hearth, so there was no sound from there, but I knew that something had woken me. I blinked and stilled my breathing, remaining absolutely motionless for a moment to listen. Had one of the boys cried out in his sleep? I turned my head slightly to get an ear free of the blanket. Something cool, faintly moist, and very narrow trailed across my hand where it lay on my breast and came to rest on the warmed stone floor in the angle of my neck and shoulder. There was a soft, sibilent hiss near my ear.
How I bit off the yell that rose just behind my teeth I do not know, but if I had not, the snake would certainly have struck. As it was, my instinctive flinch away from it had set it to tasting the air with its forked tongue, weaving a little from side to side: I could feel the slight pressure against my neck, then away, then back. I did not dare even swallow the evil taste in the back of my throat and I shut my eyes tightly. Somehow, above all else in those first terrified moments, I did not want the thing to bite me in the eyes.
Sweat had sprung on me and my heart was hammering, and none of that was good; the sweat would make me a nice, warm host for the serpent, and the furious beating of my heart would tell it that potential danger was near. I tried very hard to get back some control. Rational thought began to return. It might be only a garden snake, after all, perfectly harmless, I told myself. But it is surpassing hard to convince yourself of that when you’ve something curled at your chin in the middle of the night. The darker voice, the one we barely listen to in the daylight hours, insisted, But it could be an adder. If it was a garden snake, it was a short one. Very, very cautiously, I swallowed.
I could wait until first light in the morning and find out whether the snake was venomous or not, if I could tolerate the hours ahead. If it was a garden snake, I’d kill the damn thing anyway, and if it was an adder…No good. By first light, someone might come to get us up for the day, or one of the other boys might have to stumble out to the privy, and there I’d be with an earful of adder poison. I could not wait till dawn. I had to do something now.
By this time the serpent had settled itself, apparently sensing no immediate danger and liking the warmth. My thoughts turned another cog, a wheel in a very slow mill. If I could make the damned thing less comfortable, it might move away on its own. Pulling the blanket away–even inching it away–was not worth considering, as I had no way of knowing whether the snake might be curled on a portion of it. This seemed likely, and if I disturbed the blanket, I’d disturb the snake, and if I disturbed the snake… How then to show the serpent it was not welcome?
As sometimes happened with me, I began to think in images. A drowned worm in a puddle… The water bucket was somewhere near me, on my right and a little above my head. Slowly, infinitely slowly, I moved my right hand fractionally toward it. The snake stirred and I stopped immediately, hand held just barely touching the blanket. I held it still there as long as I could, until the muscles in my arm were so tensed I thought they might cramp. That would be as bad as any other movement, so I held my breath and inched my hand off my chest. The serpent hissed its irritation. I froze.
After a while, I dared to move again. I had thought that once I got my hand away from my body and began to lift it in an arc through the air to reach up above my head, the motion would be smoother and would disturb the snake less, but it did not prove to be the case. My bruised ribs caught, and after every slightest move I had to stop and give the thing time to become accustomed to my new position. It took an age of the earth, it took a mountain of time, it took all my life till then, but at last my questing fingers grazed rough wood, and the handle of the bucket made a slight clank.
I opened my eyes, which I had been keeping shut to concentrate all my being upon my right hand. I saw that my mind had not deceived me: it really had taken hours; the first pale light of day had crept into the dormitory through the openings at the eaves under the thatch. I resisted the impulse to turn my head, but I did strain my eyes as far to the left as I could. Nothing. The snake was coiled too low for me to see. I swallowed, walked my fingers up the bucket until I had the handle in my grasp, and then I quickly pulled it over. The icy water spread in a quick gush under my head and neck.
Sheila Gilluly is on a first-name basis with her reciprocating saw and impact driver. As the owner of an elderly house in mid-coast Maine, she has to be. More congenial pastimes include organic gardening, cider making, collecting quilting fabric, and fetching the catnip mouse while her cat, Gracie, looks on. Sheila is the author of the fantasy trilogies The Books of the Painter, and The Greenbriar Queen.