I found the snake one cold night when I was driving back from Korongo Wildlife Preserve.
Korongo is far from my home. I live in Kampala. It is a long drive in my old truck, but the pay and the work are good. The park rangers at Korongo say they will not have anyone else but me to help when there is trouble with the animals. They will only call me, even though there are other veterinarians who live much closer. Always, I am glad to go.
It is a long drive back to Kampala, but I do not mind. Driving is good when the moon is high and the air sweet. The road winds through the bush, empty and wide, only shrubs and bare ground on either side.
That night I found the snake , my truck rattled, and I hummed a driving song with the moonlight on my face. Sometimes I took a drink from my bottle of tea.
When I saw the shape of the dark thing in my headlights, I stopped. There are not many trucks on that road, but even so the animals sometimes are hit, and then they die because no one else comes. I took my bag of medicine and climbed out of the truck.
There was a gerenuk lying in the road. I do not know if you have ever seen one. They are tall antelope with long necks. This one was a female. She was lying down in the dust kicking her long legs and squealing. Her left back leg was not right.
When she saw me with my truck, she rolled her eyes so that the whites showed. Her nostrils were stretched very wide and small drops of blood came out of them when she exhaled. This made me afraid that she was hurt inside. Her muscles, which should have been soft and supple, were hard as wood beneath her liver-colored pelt. With her head and neck she was crying No! No!
I turned off my truck so that the light and the noise of the engine would not frighten her, and then I started to walk up to her very quietly.
I do not know you, she cried.
I did not answer. It is rude to contradict an animal when it says it does not know you.
Instead, I put on the thoughts of a gazelle, which I had taken from a dead gazelle at Lake Mburo. A gerenuk would have been better, but I do not have the thoughts of a gerenuk. I took the thoughts of the gazelle from the back of my mind and put them on top of my thoughts. Once I had put the thoughts on, my words were the words of a gazelle. I stepped lightly, my head high and my steps long. I breathed like a gazelle. I moved easily. The gerenuk relaxed, and she was not so afraid anymore.
I know you, said the gerenuk.
I know you, I answered with my neck muscles. This is not easy to do.
I poured a bowl of water from the water jug in the back of my truck, and to the water I added morphine. I placed the dish before her, near enough that she could drink without twisting her neck, for I did not know what hurts she might have taken.
I knelt beside the bowl, and lowered my face to it. I made drinking sounds so that the gerenuk knew the water was safe, but I did not drink.
Good, I said to the gerenuk. Good water.
Then I moved back.
The gerenuk was very thirsty. She lifted her head and drank deeply of the water. The medicine took hold quickly, and she put her head down and went to sleep in the dust. I took off the gazelle thoughts because it is not good to leave them on too long, for they will grow roots. When these roots grow it becomes difficult to remain a man. This mistake I have made before.
I touched the gerenuk’s side, but she did not stir from her sleep, so I put my hands on her crooked left back leg. The bone was not broken, but the hip was out of joint, and the limb was wrenched and sprained. I guided the bone back into place. Had the gerenuk been awake, the pain would have been too great for her.
She had hurt ribs also, but only one was broken, and she could heal them on her own. Her ventral side was gashed, and I took needle and thread and stitched the wound. Then I lifted the gerenuk in my arms. She was not heavy. I carried her a little way into the scrub then brought the can of petroleum from the back of my truck. When I found a deep hollow beneath the thorn bushes, I laid her down.
The branches would shield her from buzzards until she awoke. I poured the petrol in a circle about her, for the smell is offensive to all animals, and would keep jackals and lions away. Once these things were done, I returned to the road.
Always I have been able to wear the thoughts of the animals. This is why I am a good vet. Many people in Kampala or farmers from the bush bring their hurt animals to me. I must heal them, the crippled and the cancerous and scabied, because their pain harms me. I cannot bear their pain any better than I can bear my own.
The night was cool and had the noises of moving air and living things, and the moonlight was bright across my head. I did not want to drive again for a little while, and my arms still smelled of the gerenuk’s blood. I wiped them with a cloth as I explored the road.
The road is different when you are on foot. When you are in a truck, the road is like a long river that flows from one city to another. When you walk on your own feet, you can feel the shape and nature of the land beneath, rising and falling and itching beneath the dust, like the muscles of an animal’s back beneath the skin.
The road sloped down in this place so that it hid the road ahead, and often animals were hit. Only a few paces away I found a big porcupine, lying on his side in a big patch of dried blood with his quills pointing up. As soon as I saw him I knew that he was dead. He did not inhale or exhale, and the beetles were already in his ears. I touched him to see if I could use his thoughts, but his head was badly smashed.
When I was six years old, my sister’s little cat died of the distemper. The dead cat lay beneath the tree in our rear lot all day long, for Mother and Father were not at home, and my sister and I were afraid to touch it. When at last we drew near to him, my sister poked him with a stick. I was close to her side, and I found I could feel the cat’s thoughts still stirring in his cooling brain.
I stretched out my hand and touched the cat on the back of his head. While he lived, the cat was warm and soft and had no love for me, but in death he lay very stiff and cold, as it were wood and not meat beneath his pelt. I felt the bewilderment and anger of his thoughts inside his ruined body. They wanted somewhere to roost again, so I opened my hands and let them come. His thoughts flowed into me, settling in my mind. I put them on as easily as a skin, and then I saw as the cat saw and felt as the cat felt. Straightaway I climbed the big baobab tree and sat on the branch, and I found a nest of young plover birds. I ate them.
My sister screamed when she saw what I had done, but I wore the thoughts of a cat, and I did not heed her cry. Do cats ever heed such cries?
But here, the porcupine’s head was damaged. There was no dwelling place for his thoughts, so they had spilled into the ground. I turned away to climb into my truck, but in the moonlight I saw something else.
A desert snake, dead perhaps a day. He was a large and handsome snake, striped on both sides, the color of bronze . His back had been broken by the wheel of a car, and he had dragged himself to the edge of the road to die. I knelt down and looked at him.
There was dust on his back, and dust on his snout. He had tried to dig into the dust before he died and I wondered why. His eyes were open still, and his body was untouched by insects. His mouth was open, the bright fangs glinting in the moonlight, his head undamaged. I wondered why he had come to this deathly road, when the land was so empty and good all around him.
The skin of his head had begun to flake off and blow away in the endless sun , exposing the glittering white bone of his skull. His thoughts were still inside his head because the thoughts of reptiles linger a long time after the animal dies. Perhaps it is because their blood is cold, and chills their soul to keep it from decay.
I once found the thoughts of a crocodile, still intact, in a bleached skeleton in a museum. The crocodile’s thoughts were deep and slow, and they echoed. I did not take them. But here lay this snake. I did not need the thoughts of a snake because I have such thoughts already. I have the thoughts of a python, a water snake, a wolf snake, and many other kinds of snakes as well. And yet, there they hung, suspended from his open mouth, like a single drop of water that hangs, shining, from a damp leaf after a rainstorm. Do you know anyone who does not like to catch such drops in his hands? I do not.
So I took the snake’s thoughts into my mind.
The instant that I did so, the earth began to shake fearsomely, and I fell to my knees . After a little while I realized that it was not the earth that shook, it was me. I shook fiercely. The snake cried out, and for a little while I could not stand up.
I climbed into my truck, shaking still, and began to drive, nodding my head to clear it. The snake had crawled to the forefront of my mind, and he was crying out over and over again.
Snakes are difficult to understand. This one was saying something I had never heard before. The first part of it was something like master or king or strong, but snakes do not say such things, for they are unto themselves and do not believe in leaders. The second part was under, and the third part was something more like sleeping, but that was difficult. Animals say the same thing whether they mean sleeping or dead or no smell or gone, and they do not use words as we do. I have to add the words by myself.
When I was a child, this was also the way that I spoke, and it was easy for me. I did not need words. Like an animal, I could understand the meaning in the twitch of a brow or a loud exhalation. In my ninth year, Mother and Father sent me to a school where they taught me to use words like people instead of like animals. Many things became more difficult after that.
I tried to put the snake in the back of my mind, but he would not go. Twice I almost drove away from the road, once I stopped the truck and waited until the snake had quieted somewhat. It was midnight when I reached Kampala at last.
My house is on the outskirts of the city. I bought it when first I went into practice. It is painted yellow, and there is an umbrella tree in the front lot.
The goats were grazing in the yard when I parked the truck. They lifted their heads and said I know you with their ears and front legs, and then they grazed again. I walked up the path to my front door, and they paid me no mind.
My dog was waiting at the door, and she cried I know you! and danced about my knees. I answered I know you and put my bag and coat away. My dog is from the police department. They found her and gave her to me. She has only three legs. Soon she will have a litter.
The mongoose was gone hunting, but I put out a dish of food for him. I fed also the fish and the monkey.
I lay down on my bed. Above me was the spider. She had made a web long ago, and because I like to see it I let her stay. She has grown large now, and she stays in the corner of the ceiling, her striped and crooked legs bent as she steps across her threads dragging a wrapped tsetse fly she has caught. I said I know you to her, but she did not answer. She never does.
I read for a little while, and then I went to sleep.
In my dreams, I crawled beneath great thorn trees in leaf. You have never seen trees like the ones I saw. They hid the very sky above from my eyes. There was a voice calling out to me, but I did not hear it in my ears. It traveled through the ground as stampedes sometimes do, and it rattled my body and moved it and buzzed it like skin of an eardrum. I heard because I was the ear.
The word awakened me. It was an animal’s thought, tense and intimate, as I used to hear when I was a child. It was not as other animal’s thoughts, and it did not speak like any other snake I had ever heard. It was not speaking to me.
In the thought there was something like love. Animals do not love as we love, and snakes do not love at all. To love, my mother has told me, is to care for another thing as you care for your own body. How can a snake do this? It is difficult enough
for me, and my blood is warm. I was born from my mother’s body, but a snake is born from a leathery egg. How, then, can it love?
“Snakes do not have kings,” I said aloud.
Far above me, I saw the spider rock on her web as she does when the wind is blowing.
I know you, I said to her. Peace. No foe.
“There is no king,” I said again, but my own ears did not heed what I was saying. The spider trembled, though I wished to calm her. All night I lay stiff, my eyes wide open, watching her as she shivered. The moonlight fell cold on my face, but I did not dare to dream again.
In the morning, I dressed myself and made my meal, eating it slowly with a fork as they taught me in school. The sun was bright on the windowsill, and the dog lay at my feet. The mongoose had not returned.
Before noon, a man came to me and knocked on my door, an English man with yellow hair. He had a parrot he had bought for his children. She was a fine gray one with bright eyes, but she held her wing as though it pained her.
The man told me he wished his parrot to be cured, and so I took her and carried her into my surgery, with the man behind me.
I spoke to the parrot gently, for she was pained and wishing to bite. I wore the thoughts of a parrot and spoke to her, with my eyes and my shoulders and small cries from my throat. The English man did not understand, but he said nothing.
The parrot was in pain, as I have said, but as I spoke to her she spread her wing so that I could see it.
There was an abscess in the wing, perhaps a scratch that had been infected. It was small but deep, hidden between the two joints of her wing. I told the man so.
He nodded, and then he lit a cigarette and turned his face to the wall. The draining of an abscess is not a clean thing to watch. I am able to do many things that are not clean.
The words stung my mind. The parrot screamed in sudden terror. With her wings and eyes she cried Stop! Foe! Stop! Stop! and she dug her beak into my hand. My hand bled, for the beaks of parrots are sharp, and before I could stop myself I hissed at her.
She began to cry out in Swahili: “Nyoka! Nyoka!” Gray parrots are good mimics.
The English man dropped a towel over the parrot so that she would quiet, and he apologized to me for her behavior, saying that she had never done such a thing before.
I told him not to worry. I told him that I was accustomed to being bitten, and that a hurt animal will do almost anything.
This was a lie. I had not been bitten by anything in almost eight years.
When she was a little calmer I cleaned the abscess, but she would not abide my touch, and the English man had to hold her with the towel. She would not speak to me.
I gave the man a salve for the parrot’s wing, and he paid me, and then he took her and went. She was still crying out, “Nyoka!”
When the man was gone, I dressed and cleaned the bite on my hand, and then I sat down and shook. The English man did not understand Swahili, but I do. “Nyoka” means “snake.”
The King is waiting, said the snake.
Be quiet, I said to the snake.
The snake wriggled in my mind. He would not be still.
I fixed my lunch and ate it, and then I groomed the goats and saw to the monkey. The mongoose was still gone, and his food was untouched. I swept my floor, and as I swept it I tried to put the snake away in the back of my mind. The thoughts of this snake were not like the thoughts of other animals. They did not lie flat like a skin, they throbbed like a headache. I rested in my sunroom, and I dreamed. My dreams were of hot dust and
cold, bloody smells that I tasted in my mouth. They hurt. I did not want them.
In the afternoon, my sister Naomi came to visit me. She knocked on the door, and her knock is loud. I can hear it from anywhere in the house. I was reading in the sunroom, and for a little while I pretended that I could not hear her. But she knocked again, and the dog began to bark. The dog is with child, and it is not good for her to be stirred up. I sighed and stood up, and went to open the door.
Naomi had brought me a yam pudding. When she saw me, she cried “Francis! It’s good to see you,” and embraced me very hard. I do not like to be touched, and almost at once I pulled away and stepped back.
Naomi walked into my house and looked all around, to see if it looked well, and then she looked at me, to see if I looked well. When she saw the bandage on my hand she cried out.
“Francis! What happened to your hand?”
I told her that the parrot had bitten me.
“That looks awful. You ought to have a doctor fix it up.”
I told her that I was a doctor, and I had cleaned it.
She snorted. “An animal doctor. Francis, why haven’t you come to visit?”
I told her that I had been busy.
“Too busy for us? Rebecca misses you. Every day she asks me, when will Uncle Francis come?”
To this, I had no answer. If it were Rebecca alone who waited, I would be glad to go to my sister’s house, perhaps every day. But David would be there. He is Naomi’s husband and he smells frightening. Mother would be there also, and she wants me to live with her because she thinks it is not safe for me to live alone. But I want to live alone. None of this I could explain to Naomi.
“Your house is lovely, Francis. Will you show me around?”
Naomi says this whenever she comes to visit. She wants to look at my house so she can tell mother that I am not living properly, and so have me moved.
I told her that I showed her the house last time. I think she was surprised that I remembered this. “Yes…I suppose you did. Well, if there’s anything you need, just let one of us know. Alright ?”
She touched my shoulder. This angered me, and I drew back.
The KING! He is MIGHTY!
The snake was in my mind, and his thoughts were my thoughts. I hissed, the hiss sliding from my mouth like water, and I drew my neck back to strike. I saw Naomi’s eyes widen.
I remembered her when she was eight years old, poking a dead cat with a stick.
All at once, there was a snarling noise, quite small, the voice of an animal crying out, PREY! PREY!
There was a flash of brown through the dog flap, and then all at once the mongoose was on my leg, his eyes flashing red, his teeth fastened in my skin through the thick cloth of my scrubs.
The sudden pain and noise brought me back from the snake’s thoughts, and I knelt quickly, slipped on my gloves, and put on the thoughts of a mongoose.
“Hold still.” Naomi swung her purse and hit the mongoose on the head, tearing him from my leg, flinging him to the floor. His small legs scrambled, and he reared up again, fur fluffed up in frightened rage, crying Fight! Fight!
“Leave him alone,” I cried angrily to Naomi, and I spoke to the mongoose gently with my head and hands. I know you, I said to him.
His body flattened to spring, eyes narrow, the soft muscles in his back and jaw becoming hard killing things. I do not know you, he said, and then added Snake!
No snake, I answered him. Smell.
His eyes still flashing with suspicion, he scented the air. I saw the muscles in his back relax, and presently he agreed, No snake. I know you.
All this while, Naomi stood above me, her purse still held as if to swing. She turned furious eyes to me. “What is that?”
I told her he was my mongoose. “You hit him,” I added. “His head is sore.”
“He bit you. You’re bleeding.”
I looked and saw that it was true. The cloth of my scrubs was torn, and blood seeped from my skin.
I told her that it was a misunderstanding. This is a word I learned in my school. It is useful when you are in trouble.
“Misunderstanding?” She pointed at me, and her arm shook. “Francis—you live like—with…only these animals for company. What if you get hurt? It isn’t safe. It’s just like mother says.”
I grew angry. I told Naomi that if mother wanted to spy on me she ought to do it herself.
“Oh!” Naomi cried out as though she had been bitten. “How can you say that?”
I looked Naomi in the eyes. This is not easy for me. “Did Mother not tell you to come?”
Her eyes shone with tears. “She told me to come, yes, but that doesn’t mean—Francis Hanssler, I love you, and I hate it when you float away from us like this. Why can’t you understand that?”
I could not think of anything to say to her, so I nodded again. She turned and left, slamming the door so that the dog howled.
I cleaned the bite on my leg. The dog continued to howl. The mongoose crept across the floor and hissed. I felt the parrot’s scream in my head, and my anger was a bitter gum in my stomach. I tried, once again, to peel the snake away, and I could not. It was like trying to pull my own skin off of the top of my head. It hurt.
I slept. That night I dreamed again of great thorn trees, and of an empty plain of cold dust that stretched out on every side. In my dream, the moon was shining, but my body was cold and the earth rolled by very slowly. The moon was bright, and a hook came up from the dust. I could not see the hook, but I knew without seeing what it was. It hooked itself into my eye and pulled. I sank into the earth and the earth filled my lungs and my nostrils. I was pulled into the earth like a stone sinking through water, and there was no light.
The pull was terribly strong, and I could not fight. I did not want to fight. There was no I to fight, only THE KING…
I woke then, and sat up in bed. I did not rise quickly. I rose slowly and I was cold. My body was cold, though the
night was not cold. I touched my tongue with my fingers, and it was cold and stiff.
My room seemed strange to me, and I looked this way and that to see what was wrong. I saw the mongoose.
He was standing on my bed at my feet, and he was standing on his hind legs. With each breath of air he swayed. He made no sound, but his fur was up and his teeth were gleaming. With his ears he said Ready.
I know you, I said, or tried to say.
I know you, answered the mongoose, but the way he said it was a challenge and not a greeting, the way I have seen a hurt boar greet a jackal before they fought. The mongoose wished to tell me that he was not frightened, and did not fear death, and he wished to spill my blood most of all. I have never thought to see an animal greet me this way.
The mongoose jumped when I was not looking. He bit me many times. I said, I know you, but he did not answer. I took his scruff in my hands and pushed him away. He stood on the bed, and there was blood on his teeth.
Snake, said the mongoose, snake, snake, SNAKE!
I know you, I answered, and touched the blood on my face. At first I did not understand, but then I saw my eyes reflected in the mongoose eyes, and then I understood. The snake came upon me quickly.
The KING! Give him HONOR!
I hissed. I picked up the mongoose and put his head in my mouth.
He struggled, fighting for all his life, and I could feel the fear in his body, and also the rage. A mongoose will not die easily. He was biting my tongue, my lips, the roof of my mouth. I set my teeth across his neck.
The voice was clear and cold, as though my own mind spoke. I have never heard an animal speak so clearly. I have never heard a person speak thus, either.
My mind said Bite as it says Breathe. My mongoose once killed a puff adder in my kitchen, but I bit all the same. As I bit my heart cried out, so I did not bite hard.
My teeth sunk a little way into the flesh of his neck. He cried.
I opened my mouth and flung the mongoose away from me. I did not see where I threw him, or if he landed well. I heard him land. He was silent awhile, then I heard his small paws running away.
I spat into my hands—my blood, the mongoose blood. I growled like a lion, and I vomited. Then I lay down on the floor by the dresser and went to sleep again.
I slept longer, then. My mind was silent many hours. But long before morning the voice came again.
The KING is sleeping. When will he awaken?
I awoke, and I cried out with the voice of a snake. My head was hot and wet. Above me, the spider trembled on her web, and my mouth was thick with blood. There was a little trail of blood on the floor, and the mongoose was not in the house.
In the morning, I did not speak to my animals. I flung their food at them from a great distance and ran away. The monkey did not like it, and growled.
I hung the sign on the door that says “I Am Closed.” I did not eat. All day I lay on the sofa in the sunroom with the sun warming me. My head was damp, but I felt very cold. I could not
get enough sun. I heard no voice, but the sound of my heart was loud and it frightened me.
Late in the day, when the sun was red, there was a soft tap like a distant hoofbeat at my door. Rebecca knows I do not like noise.
“Come in,” I said and Rebecca came inside. She walked through the front hallway and petted the dog’s head, then said hello to the monkey before she came to me. She was wearing a yellow dress and carrying a school bag, and her braids were tied with yellow ribbon. Her eyes were wide, and she gave me a look as if to say, I can come?
I smiled at her. It is not easy to do, but when I do it she smiles back, and that is good.
She did smile back. She has dimples, like Naomi.
“Hello, Uncle Francis.”
“Hello, Rebecca.” I nodded at the chair beside my sofa, and there she sat, swinging her feet. She wore pink sandals.
She kept silent for many beats of the heart before she spoke. “Momma says to tell you to come visit.”
She bit her lip. “Are you angry?”
I shook my head. It is not easy, man-speech, and the movement made my head warmer.
Her smile returned. “Will Princess have her babies soon?”
Princess is what Rebecca calls my dog. I do not give names to animals, but I do not mind if Rebecca does.
I nodded. “She will. Her milk is flowing now.”
Rebecca squirmed. “And I can have one?”
I looked at her, struggling to shake the snake from my eyes. “Will you be good to a dog? There is no one to stop you if you are not, and the dog will not speak up for his own defense.”
Rebecca’s brow furrowed. “I think so. You’d have to tell me how to do it.”
I nodded. “I would be glad if you did.”
She squirmed again. “Really?”
The chair creaked with her bouncing. She was like a wild deer when it is young and does not yet know to be afraid of a million hungry creatures.
“We’re doing Egyptians at school,” she told me. “They built pyramids for the pharaohs. Do you know about the pharaohs?”
I shook my head, and it grew warmer.
“Well, they ruled the people, and they had the heads of dogs and cats and snakes, and when they died the people wrapped them up in bandages and buried them down under the ground with all their servants and things, because they thought the pharaohs
would come to life again and rule them. Isn’t that silly, Uncle Francis? Uncle Fran—”
I was shaking, I could not breathe. My body was colder than stone, and all was dark before me.
The KING is DEAD!
Crush, said the snake.
I held my body rigid. I felt the air stir as Rebecca tilted her head, swung her pink sandals. I smelled her in my mouth, the sweet soap in her hair, the dust on her feet, the ink on her fingers, the hot, salty flesh beneath her skin. I did not dare open my eyes.
Rebecca’s voice was hushed, but not afraid. I was glad of that.
“Uncle Francis, are you being an animal in your head?”
I did not look at her. I did not want to look at her; I had serpent-eyes. “What do you know of thissss?” I did not want to sound this way, but I did.
“When you talk to the animals, you act like them. That’s why you’re such a good vet, isn’t it? You can be an animal. Like Momma says. One time she told me about her little cat.”
I moaned. The sun had sunk low, and suddenly I had no strength. My eyes would not open.
I heard Rebecca rise to her feet and pad over to me. Her voice was close to my head.
“Uncle Francis, your face is all torn up. Does it hurt?”
Rigid and unwilling, I parted my teeth. I closed them. I parted them again.
“Don’t worry, Uncle Francis, I don’t mind. I think it’s really great. About the animals, I mean. And I won’t tell anybody. And, now I’ll go home, okay? And I’ll come back when you feel better.”
She laid her hand on my forehead, her small, steady, warm hand, and for a moment I was a man. Then it was gone, and I heard her feet go away, and the door shut behind her.
The King is Dead.
The dog brushed against the sofa. I smelled the meat in her teeth and the milk in her belly. I lifted my hand towards her, for warmth, for silence. She snapped at my hand.
Snake, she growled. She fled from me, her belly dragging. I cried after her because I was very cold.
I went to bed, though it was bloody from my fight with the mongoose. I dreamed again that night, but I will not tell you the dream. I awoke with a sharp pain on my face. When I opened my eyes, dark bristles were in them. The spider had fallen from her web and bitten me between the eyes.
My hand jerked before I could stop it, and my teeth snapped together. The spider was ruined, her delicate legs snapped and
oozing. I felt the moist bitterness of her insides in my mouth. I swallowed. I spat.
I cried out. “I’m sorry.”
NO, I answered.
I heard a story once, of a man who found a snake that was dying of the cold.
Come to the King. Serve the king who is buried.
This man was kind, or perhaps he was only like me. He put the snake to his bosom to warm it.
Come to the desert. You and I.
The snake awoke, there against the man’s chest. It bit him, and the man died. I suppose when his body grew cold, the snake died also.
“No.” But snakes never die.
Come to the thorn trees.
“No.” My own voice was weak. I did not understand why I was saying “no.” I could not remember what “no” meant.
With my soul and with my mouth, I answered…
That was then. This is now .
It was not hard to find the place, and now I am here. The porcupine’s body is gone, but there is a dark stain where he lay. The shovel feels good in my hands, and the dry bush-dirt moves easily.
The King is Dead.
My hands are not mine. Someone has stolen them. Where are my hands?
The King is Dead.
The snake is in my eyes. He is in my hands and back. He will not be silent. My spine writhes, my arms twist and curl as I dig. My spine is a snake’s spine. My bones are snake-bones.
The King is Dead.
When the moon is high, my shovel strikes something hard. On hands and knees, I scrape away dirt, clawing and scrabbling. My fingers bleed. Rebecca.
The King…is here.
The skull is huge, like a coffin, like a crown. I could be lost in one of the great eye sockets. As I scrabble and scrape at the dirt, the teeth appear one by one and gleam like stars. Though his body is buried, I can sense the shape. I will excavate him, resurrect him: the proud neck, the brutal tree-trunk tail, the short, cruel arms like a child’s arms. I will bring him back from his tomb.
I cry, Rebecca, but I do not remember what is meant by the sound.
The king’s head emerges, too large to comprehend. Even the skulls in museums are dwarfed by it. They once ruled the earth, people say. Thunder lizards. A buried king. Rebecca. Rebecca.
The skull looks at me.
I know you, it says.
I do not know if it is me or the snake that screams.