by A. Katherine Black
The fur on Aainah’s legs shifted as Jwartan’s tail wrapped around her ankles, seeking to comfort, or maybe to be comforted. She reached for his hand, unable to pull her gaze from the enormous serpent stretched across the valley below, at the creature that could not be and yet was, and she realized she should be filled with dread. But it was something else entirely that pressed against her ribs and somersaulted under her skin. It was exhilaration.
Large as half the village, the serpent oracle was still as stone, impossibly dark. Dark as all the tales told, rejecting the light of all four moons in the sky, as if this was something one could easily do.
It wasn’t until she and Jwartan broke through the treeline at the crest of the hill and gazed upon the serpent oracle that Aainah realized she’d never believed it was real. She’d expected nothing but a gathering of boulders, maybe an odd line of fallen trees. Because it had to be nothing, didn’t it? Nothing but a tale exaggerated to impossibility, like so many other myths spun by the elders to keep young ones in line. How could such a thing be true?
Just as no Onaphi could live at the river’s bottom, gripping the fins of sharp-toothed beasts and riding the undercurrents to far away oceans, just as no Onaphi could stretch and weave their fur into wings and take to the sky to battle the fiercest of predator birds, surely no Onaphi could step into the body of an enormous serpent and emerge from its eye with a wisdom so rich it could cleanse the most wretched of souls. Who could really believe such a thing, especially, as her mother had said, when no one alive had even seen the serpent with their own eyes? Now facing the vast, motionless creature below, Aainah realized she’d expected, hoped, the journey alone would serve as her healing agent, would fix the wrongness that held fast and stubborn to the dark corners of her mind.
Aromas of unfamiliar territory floated up the hill. Odd grasses, dirt too metallic, unknown diurnal creatures hiding with hoards of wilting fruits. Scents wafted into her nostrils from the right and from the left, leaving a gaping hole in front of them. An odorless void hung in the direction of the serpent oracle, as if her nostrils suddenly clogged with the mucus of sickness whenever she gazed its way.
Craning her ears forward, Aainah heard not even a tiny rustle. Not the slightest sigh of movement ahead. The entire clearing appeared as immobile as its giant inhabitant, as if holding its breath. As if waiting, for her.
If they ran toward it, right then, they might reach the oracle before daylight hit. Before the birds began hunting. There might have been time enough.
Jwartan gripped her shoulders. Shaking her gaze away from the serpent oracle, he asked that she give them one more day together. A final day. One last moment of now, before whatever was to be came to be. Aainah nestled her face in the crook of his neck. It was her favorite place in the world. She breathed in the dust of their long journey that clung now to his pelt. Of course, she said. She wouldn’t have it any other way.
What she didn’t say, despite the silent urging she felt from him, and from the village now many nights’ journey away, even from the impatient rustle of the trees overhead, she didn’t say she was sorry. Sorry for this exhausting journey, sorry for this budding excitement at witnessing the oracle before them. Sorry for being something other than what he wanted her to be. What everyone needed her to be.
Instead she slipped her arms around him and synced her breaths with his heartbeat, holding him close as she looked over his shoulder and through the trees at the Third Moon glistening above. The Third was her favorite for the same reason it was disliked by everyone else. It was the only moon whose face could not be seen, whose face was turned out, away from their world. Toward the stars.
As a young one, Aainah would ask her mother the same question every day before their sleep. What did the Third Moon see? What was it watching? Each time her mother swept the question aside with a small but firm flick of her tail, telling Aainah the Third watched nothing at all, because it had no face. How do you know, Aainah would ask. Because there is nothing else to see, her mother always said. There is nothing outside the villages and the waters, the mountains and the forests. If the third moon indeed had a face, her mother always said, it would be watching them. Aainah had stopped asking such questions around the same time she decided that there was more to life than her mother knew. Or than her mother wanted to know.
Curled together under a meager leaf shelter at the top of the hill, Aainah and Jwartan’s throats rumbled in harmony as they moved in hungry rhythm, until sleep insisted on taking its turn. They woke at dusk, entangled, their dreams slipping away as the suns slipped from the sky. He whispered to her then, of the future they must have. Of the future they deserved.
She stroked his whiskers but held back the words dangling on her tongue. She didn’t tell him that he was her only moonlight, the only beautiful thing in an otherwise bleak existence. Didn’t try to explain the racing heart that screamed as she woke, screamed at the thought of doing the same work, night after night, of listening to the same stories and seeing the same faces, until every night crept agonizingly on toward a dull and hopeless forever. Her future in the village frightened Aainah to no end, more than the prospect of the oracle serpent devouring her alive, and she knew Jwartan would turn his ears against such a truth.
The final steps of their journey together took longer than expected. They arrived at the serpent’s tail just as the first sun peeked over the horizon, spreading an uncomfortable warmth across Aainah’s fur as her eyes darted toward the sky, sure there were as many predator birds in this valley as in any other.
Engulfed in the shadow of the serpent’s tail, a tail that stretched higher than three of Aainah, she cursed the stories again. They never mentioned how to wake this oracle. Tales of the few who made the journey spent most of their words explaining the restlessness gnawing in the Onaphi’s gut, detailing how they didn’t fit in, how they couldn’t fit in with their tribe. How they hid in their huts all night or paced the edges of the village relentlessly. Their tails constantly twitched, even during sleep, and no task offered sufficient reward, no company calmed their minds. These restless ones left the village long ago to journey to the serpent oracle, to beg for relief from the wrongness that infected their thoughts. Some emerged from the eye of the serpent and returned to the village, returned to life a satisfied, changed Onaphi. Others emerged only to abandon the village in favor of solitude in the forests. And there were those hopeless few who never emerged.
Gaining entry to the belly of this oracle might be a test, a trial. Aainah consciously suppressed the anxious tic in her tail, wondering if Jwartan was watching. She didn’t turn to look. Instead she kept her ears craned on the puzzle of the oracle, refusing to add fuel to Jwartan’s hope about her, about them.
The serpent’s lack of motion, its lack of breath, was unsettling. Like the river monsters who lie in wait, still and deep under the surface of a stream, anxious to swallow whatever poor creature wandered too close. Feeling too much like one of those poor creatures, but not knowing what else to do, Aainah reached out and scraped a claw across the serpent’s solid body. Her sharp touch made no sound, left no mark. Pressing a full hand to the serpent’s side, Aainah felt an absence of cold, and an absence of warmth. It was like touching emptiness in solid form.
Sharp pain pierced a finger. Hissing, she jumped back, but could find no blemish on her hand, no spot tender to the touch. Still, something had bitten. Or stung.
She turned to Jwartan, to say something, although she didn’t know what. The serpent’s shadow extended even over him, standing several lengths away, protecting him from the harsh daytime suns. He, at least, deserved relief from the heat. He’d done nothing wrong, only volunteered to accompany Aainah on this journey.
So many years of courtship, so many nights on this exhaustive journey, and yet there he stood, at the end of it all, his back turned on her, just as the rest of their village had done. Just as her own mother had done, when Aainah finally stepped across the threshold into unclaimed territory, bound for the serpent oracle. Jwartan’s hands were on his hips, tail decisively raised. Fur rested on his spine in resignation, his posture said as much as his silence. Said all she needed to know. Come back different, it said, or don’t come back.
Aainah wholeheartedly agreed.
A chirping sound pulled her attention back to the serpent. Three lines of light appeared on its skin, at the level of Aainah’s chest. Like sticks laid in rows, the lines gradually merged together in the direction away from Jwartan.
One last look at Jwartan. Would she see him again? She soaked the sight of him in, his soft grey fur, the lovely bold stripes that zigged across his back. He may have turned on her, as was the custom, but now his ears were slightly, unmistakably tilted in her direction. His plea from their last dusk together, whispered fiercely as they’d curled in shelter against the setting suns, circled in her mind. He’d tell everyone she’d made it through the serpent, if she’d only turn back then. He’d promised. They’d never know.
But she would. And the question would remain. That unnamed question, rooted deep in her gut, consuming her joy before she could even taste it. Sucking the color from her future until it was all but a dry field, bleached in the merciless light of the high suns.
Standing at the tail of the serpent, Aainah was now destined for one thing or the other. To emerge from its Eye a free Onaphi, released from the grip of this restless curse, or to be consumed by the oracle beast. She spoke inwardly to the Third Moon. As the Third endured eternal scorn by the rest of the village, Aainah had always offered it her love, secretly. Quietly. She admired the Third, that it continued to rise night after night, to hold strong its place among its kind, despite the ridicule from her village and likely many others. And now she cast her inner voice out toward the place where the moons hid from the suns. This time, for the first time, she sent a request. She asked for a share of its strength. And its courage.
There was nothing left to do now, but go.
Touching the center line of light on the serpent oracle’s side, Aainah found a surprising absence of heat. The pads of her feet crunched dry gravel as she walked in the direction of the converging lines. Nearing the turn of the tail and the unshaded side of the beast, she prepared to bake under the suns, and to keep one eye on the sky. She wondered if the serpent would have her walk the full length of its body sunside, wondered if those who’d never returned hadn’t died in the serpent, but had simply been plucked from its side by some lucky predator bird who happened to be scouting the area.
At the very tip of the serpent’s enormous tail, only steps from the edge of its shadow, a doorway appeared, suddenly, noiselessly, revealing a darkness deeper even than the serpent’s outer skin. Deeper than anything Aainah had ever seen. She stepped inside.
The floor of the serpent’s belly was slick, yet dry. Nothing was visible beyond the light cast by the doorway, and that light closed in on itself, shrinking quickly to nothing before Aainah could react. She stood for many breaths, blind, considering her options. She might speak a greeting, or she might simply walk forward. With no other ideas springing to mind, she took a step, followed by another.
Her feet made no sound against the belly of the serpent. Neither did her breath. She stopped to breathe deeply, wrapping her arms around herself. In the soundless void, the rise and fall of her chest offered little comfort. She tried to speak. Pressing a hand to her throat, she felt the vibrations of her neck, as her mouth formed words that amounted to nothing. Had the serpent already decided to consume her, beginning with her voice? Her blood pulsed under her coat, running faster and faster around her insides, as if looking for an escape.
A harsh medicinal scent flooded her nostrils, similar to the crushed herbs the village healer smoothed over cuts, but stronger by multitudes. She doubled over in a fit of silent coughing.
Sharp stabs hit her feet, releasing a chorus of pain. She jumped reflexively, and landed at an odd angle, twisting one leg. She curled into a ball, wrapping her tail around quivering limbs. An urge gripped her mind. To run, to search for the doorway and pound on it, to scream for Jwartan.
But then what?
Would he forgive her foolishness, for undertaking a pointless journey? Would he expect her to be different? Could she pretend to be different?
Fierce itching began at her torso and spread quickly, wrapping around her body until every speck of skin under her fur burned. Attempts to scratch caused the burn to build, until it became something barely tolerable. Was this how the serpent ingested the unworthy?
A wind of cold hit just then, providing a slight relief from the itching. But this wasn’t just cold. This was a freeze. Pressing in from all sides, threatening to steal her breath. As if she stood at the highest snow-capped mountain top, all her fur cruelly plucked away. A fleeting wish flashed through her as her mind grew dim. If only she was instead on a mountain top, bird nests be damned, at least she could gaze upon the Third Moon once more, before her body slipped away.
Her thoughts narrowed, iced over along with her body, slipped from her grasp until there was nothing left but quiet. Nothing but darkness. Deep chill coated in heavy silence. Tipping sideways, she curled as tightly as she could, attempting to trap the last of her body’s warmth as cold enveloped her. If this was the end, it had come so soon.
Feeling fell away. Thoughts cracked.
Jwartan’s face floated in the near void of her mind, his eyes relaxed, whiskers slanted in the expression he sent her so often, secretly, from across a crowded room, in the way he let her know he was thinking of her. His fur fell away, then, as did his eyes and whiskers, leaving nothing but a gaping emptiness in his grey face, unreadable. Like the Third Moon. She spoke to the moon, then, and also to Jwartan. If this was the end, it had come too soon.
Dim light seeped through Aainah’s eyelids, although they remained closed. She lay on her side, curled tightly, wondering how many breaths had passed. The cold was gone. Ideas, memories, feelings, all poured back in. A comfortably mild light surrounded her, like that of the Four Moons. Had night arrived? Was she outside? She cracked her eyelids.
She was inside a room, windowless, yet somehow lit by unseen moons, or unseen fire. Floor, walls, and ceiling each curved, one blending into the another, all with the same colorless hue of the serpent’s outer skin.
Standing on shaky legs, Aainah noticed the floor give slightly to her step, like soil would. Yet this floor was not a gathering of countless grains, but one complete piece. Circling, Aainah turned her ears in all directions, listening for any sound as she scanned the surroundings. The serpent might have given her light, but sound was still absent.
Why had none of the stories told of what lay within the belly of the serpent? The answer laughed within her. What if they had? What story could she tell, so far? Color absent of color, darker than dark, colder than cold, a noiseless room lighted by absent moons or unseen fire? Her head lightened with the absurdity of it.
Aainah slowed her pacing to stand, waiting to see what the serpent would do next. As if responding, a doorway opened. She stepped through. It led to another room, about the same width, but longer. A light wind kissed the fur on her tail, and the doorway behind her was gone.
Sound flooded in. She could hear herself breathe again. She chuckled. Her voice sounded strange, different than she remembered it. She jumped at the appearance of a shape, on the wall next to her.
It was the size of a grown Onaphi, of Aainah. Through it, she could see the grounds outside the serpent. It was night. The Fourth Moon was visible, grinning large and friendly in the sky as it surveyed the scene. She stepped closer to the opening, just close enough to glimpse the Third Moon. It was small and blank, as usual, its face looking other places. Reminding Aainah that there were other things to see.
Scanning the grounds through the opening, Jwartan was nowhere to be seen. So that was it. He had already left. How many days and nights had passed while she lay frozen inside the serpent?
Aainah reached a hand out and passed it through the opening. The air outside was coarse, draped in dew. This doorway was real. She could leave. She couldn’t possibly have reached the eye already, yet the serpent was granting her an exit. Why? Was she cured? No, she was sure she wasn’t. She felt like the same Aainah.
It was her mother who’d first recognized Aainah’s need for the serpent’s healing. Aainah may have hid her sorrow and restlessness from the rest of the village, even from Jwartan, but her mother was in the habit of looking deeper than others felt comfortable. The moment she’d shared her idea with Aainah, that she travel to the oracle and address her pain, the words could not be undone, took on a weight and strength only truth could sustain. Aainah stepped beyond the village’s boundary three nights later.
Before turning her back on her daughter, Aainah’s mother had whispered her farewell, the red stripes under her chin barely moving as she spoke in the same hushed tone she’d used to tell stories to Aainah long after dawn had broken, while her siblings curled together in contented slumber. As the rest of the Onaphi lined the edge of the village, their backs already turned on Aainah, her mother looked her in the eyes one last time and told her that she would make it through the serpent. All the way to the Eye. And whatever happened then, Aainah would become her true self. Aainah asked her mother, in a voice too small for her body, “but how do you know?” Her mother’s only response was a purr, soft and steady—a sound Aainah hadn’t heard from her mother in many seasons—as she turned her back on Aainah.
A line of dryness crept across Aainah’s arm as she pulled her hand back into the belly of the serpent. She was not done here. The doorway collapsed at the very moment Aainah’s hand returned. Shadow appeared in the corner of Aainah’s vision. An opening, to another section of the serpent. A familiar tic pulled at Aainah’s tail, but she had no interest in suppressing it this time. The jittery feeling it betrayed wasn’t annoyance, and definitely wasn’t the boredom of village life. It was anticipation. A few quick steps, and she ducked into another room within the belly of the serpent.
As if someone had reached into the sky and covered all moons but the Third, this room was dimmer. The doorway closed behind her.
Like the others, this room was also empty. Or so it seemed, at first. A noise behind her made Aainah jump nearly a full Onaphi length and hit her head against the top of the serpent’s body, bending her neck painfully before she fell to the floor. She stilled, slowed her breathing, and listened. Rustling. Just behind her.
On all fours, tail stiff and ears craned, Aainah turned, and came face-to-face with a child. Small, with a soft pale coat, it crouched against the wall, tail wrapped around its hands and feet. It shivered, although the room did not feel cold to Aainah. She breathed in deeply and found an absence of smell, not only of the child, but also of herself. No whiff of earth caked to her feet, no lingering aroma from the last meal she’d shared with Jwartan.
A black spot decorated the fur around one of the child’s eyes, eyes that seemed too serious to belong to a child. All in the Onaphi village bore stripes on their coats. All but one. The only Onaphi Aainah knew with spotted fur was a strange elder, the Counter, who slept outside the door to the village store room, right in the middle of the blazing sunlight, and spent every night with its back bent, counting and re-counting the village’s supplies.
Fidgeting and prowling the back rows during village gatherings, as young Onaphi do, the youths would whisper, speculate, suspect the Counter had been birthed in another village, far from their own. This idea remained more story than truth, as adults refused to discuss the matter, and the young were afraid to approach the spotted elder, who only spoke in numbers.
Come to think of it, Aainah was sure the old Onaphi had a black spot over one eye, just like this child.
Aainah relaxed her posture and offered from her throat a soft, pacifying rumble, as she approached the child. It was indeed young. The child hadn’t yet grown fangs. How had it survived in the belly of the serpent? Aainah wondered if its language was similar to her own.
“Do you speak, young one?”
In the blink of an eye, the child’s shivering ceased. Its tail loosened from its body and raised a few finger-lengths off the floor. Its ears craned toward her. She spoke again, lessening the rumble in her voice, to provide clarity.
“Need help, young one?”
The child visibly relaxed and emitted a mild rumble from its own throat. It was starting to trust her. She took another step forward, but the child slid away in equal measure. Now wanting not to endanger the fragile bond only just formed, Aainah remained where she was and leaned back on her haunches, to match the child’s posture.
Stories of Onaphi journeying to the oracle were so few, so old, she hadn’t even considered she might find another person within the belly of the serpent, but she supposed it made sense. Other villages must also lay within journeying distance of the serpent oracle. But a child? What sort of village would turn its back on a child? What sort of child would be sent away? It must have been lost. Must have stumbled upon the serpent and hoped for shelter inside, safety from flying predators and baking suns.
The child’s tail raised until the tip was visible over its head, as if being startled by a stranger within the body of an enormous serpent was already entirely forgotten, or was something that happened every night.
“Who you are?” Its voice was odd, words confused as a child might do, yet spoken with a clarity that reminded Aainah of a story-teller, of the Onaphi tellers, who stored the lives of all villagers past and present neatly within their minds and let pieces of those lives tumble from their mouths in clear patient tones, to be snapped up by rapt ears and reborn in slumbering dreams.
“Am I?” Aainah’s throat rumbled in an attempt, she was aware, to reassure herself as much as this child who was not at all childlike. “I am Aainah.”
“Are you, are Aainah, friend?” Its eyes, intent, almost wise, transfixed Aainah. Made the small thing look less and less Onaphi.
Studying the unexpected little one before her, Aainah realized she’d only seen people from other villages a sparse few times in her entire life. She felt her tail raise still and high above her head, as enough questions to fill three store rooms quickly piled up within, waiting at the back of her throat. Controlling her curiosity with some effort, she said, “I am glad to be your friend. If you want.”
Purring as it stood, the child walked the few steps between them and bent to nearly meet with Aainah’s nose where she sat. Its lack of scent was distracting.
“Aainah friend, come with?”
The child giggled as it evaporated into mist.
Tensing, Aainah turned in tight circles, scanning the room. The child was gone, as was the mist. Her head felt heavy and light at once. Her vision lurched. She stumbled, tripped over nothing but her own confusion, wondered if the child had been snatched by something as unseen as the moons in this place, or if the child had been nothing but a creation of her own mind, a mind that must now be far beyond help’s reach.
A breeze tickled the backs of her ears, carrying with it scents. Welcome, familiar aromas. Grounding smells. Of gravel, of weeds and trees. Of Onaphi, one Onaphi in particular. She turned with caution, unsure whether she wanted to lay eyes on the things she sniffed.
He sat in the doorway, posture tentative, wide eyes fixed on her.
“How did you get in here?” She approached the doorway and sat, opposite him.
“I’ve been waiting outside. It’s been two nights.” His whiskers trembled. “You look awful.”
She surveyed herself, saw what Jwartan saw. Clumps of fur were missing, all over her body, the skin underneath scabbed and abnormally colored. Thoughts slipped from her grasp, scrambled too fast around her mind to be caught. She searched his face. He answered a question she didn’t ask.
“A doorway opened. I thought I was imagining it. But then I walked in.”
Despite the scents, despite the voice, she wondered if he was real. Unsure what to do, she began counting her breaths, silently, expecting him to disappear into mist after each exhale.
“Is this part, am I part of the serpent’s test?”
“What has it done to you?” Tears spilled from his eyes.
She reached through the doorway, smoothed the wet fur on his face.
“It’s over, isn’t it?” His throat rumbled. “Come home with me.” He leaned through the doorway and rubbed his cheek against hers, reached for her and pulled her into his embrace. Nuzzling against his neck, she felt everything that was home. Warmth, stories under the light of the Four Moons, savory fish just pulled from the fire, children racing between rooms and wrestling in giggling piles, sparking laughter in even the most serious of elders. Jwartan would always be home to her, all that home could be.
“You’re better now. You’re fixed, aren’t you?”
He was as he always had been, warmth and tradition, just as Aainah realized she was still, she remained, all that she had been.
“It’s not finished.” She withdrew from his embrace. “I’m not ready.”
He stilled. “What’s happened in here?”
Words could not explain. “Not enough.”
His tail bushed, ears tilted away. “I can’t wait forever.”
She’d never seen the value in games like this. Especially now, after the freeze, after watching a child vanish before her eyes. “I understand.”
His shoulders sank. He looked to one side, maybe toward a doorway. His exit.
He stood and began walking, his tail dragging on the floor, as the doorway between them collapsed before her eyes. Tears clouded her vision. She’d been too harsh. He hadn’t deserved that. A new doorway opened a few steps away. She immediately walked through.
Nothing like the other rooms, this one was lined on either side with what looked like glistening trunks of trees with slick, silvery bark, like a river-buffed rock, nearly sparkling. Like ribs. She was nearing the serpent’s head. Nearing its eye.
She walked through the ribs of the serpent.
The shining bones apparently protected no organs, no blood, nothing that she could see. Nothing except her. As she walked, tall windows opened between the ribs. Aainah squinted at the bright midday light that poured into the serpent, almost reaching her feet. Though she could see plant life out there, soaking in the nectar of the suns, no breeze trickled through, no scent of trees or grass.
Sitting beneath a tree was Jwartan, holding out a wide bawn leaf in an attempt to shade his feet. She’d thought he’d be running back to the village, after what he’d said, to join everyone else, everyone who wanted to be there. Yet, despite his hard words, it appeared he was willing to wait, even to sit fully awake, surrounded on all sides by the blaze of high suns. For her.
Aainah watched him as she continued through the serpent’s ribs, as he shifted deeper under the tree’s cover, until his face was no longer visible. She walked until the sight of Jwartan was well behind her, until she’d nearly reached the other end of the serpent’s belly. Until movement outside snagged her attention and pulled her to the window before any thoughts could be formed. Two birds glided toward the tree, toward Jwartan’s meager shelter, until they circled above, their wingspans as wide as half the tree’s height, their beaks easily larger than an Onaphi head.
Only Jwartan’s feet were visible under the bawn leaf, and they didn’t move. Clearly he couldn’t hear the predators. Maybe he’d fallen asleep. Who wouldn’t in the height of day? She screamed his name. Her voice echoed through the belly of the serpent, but clearly didn’t escape the oracle. She pressed her hands against the invisible skin of the serpent, the skin that showed her love nearly snatched, nearly eaten. Hard as stone, it didn’t budge. She kicked and slammed and snarled as the birds glided down, down, until they were nearly above the top of the tree. They would land soon, on either side of Jwartan. He’d have no way out. He’d die, in the most horrible way, all because of her.
“Let me out!”
The unseen skin covering the window disappeared, and Aainah fell through, screaming his name. Jwartan dropped his leaf shade and stood as the birds hollered, their hunt interrupted. They circled tightly and dove toward Aainah, who lay half in and half out of the serpent’s window. It was Jwartan who screamed her name this time, told her to run, as he climbed the tree to dive under thicker leaf cover.
The air hissed as it parted, making way for the two birds diving her way. She scrambled backward, back into the serpent, only a body-length away from death when she made it inside and yelled at the serpent to close the window.
One bird reached her before the other. She heard nothing as its beak cracked and shattered against the serpent’s invisible skin, now apparently back in place. The second bird steeply turned upward as the first collapsed in front of Aainah, its skull misshapen as blood quickly spilled into the ground. She looked to the tree and saw nothing. Jwartan was safe.
Sinking to the floor and wrapping her tail around her shaking limbs, Aainah tried to still her panicked heart, soften the gasps escaping her mouth. It was over. All was okay.
But it might not have been. Look what Jwartan had risked, continued to risk. For the sake of someone who barely knew how to love him back.
All the windows within the serpent’s belly closed at once, forcing her vision to adjust to the milder lighting. A doorway opened at the end of the room. Only a few steps away. Darkness, deep silence, lay through the door, offering no hint of the next trial that awaited.
The promise of something more sparked anew within her breast, quieting her heart. She would continue. Jwartan’s risks would not be for nothing. She walked through the door.
Light raised to a perfect dim. Curiously curved tables scattered around the room and lined its curved walls. The tables were taller than those they built in the villages. They held puzzling shapes, like small tools, attached to their surfaces. Aainah wandered the room, considered whether she should try to touch or move some of the tools. She was examining a table along the far wall when the serpent spoke.
It was the perfection of the voice, ageless, foreign, similar to that of the child but too clear to come from an Onaphi throat, that led Aainah to realize who was speaking. Its words were hard and exact, like a stone smoothed to perfection in a way no Onaphi could never achieve, in a way only a mighty volcano might accomplish.
“You have done well. Your body is healthy and strong. This means you now have one more choice to make.”
Aainah leaped backward when the wall before her sprang to life. It was as if she could see into another serpent’s head, an exact copy of the strange room in which she now stood. As if a window had opened to show Aainah not the grounds outside the serpent oracle’s body, but another time within its body. It showed other Onaphi, one after another, standing within the serpent, nearly where Aainah herself stood. She looked around to confirm she was alone, yet she looked back to the window to see that no, she was not alone. Despite her head swimming at the experience, nothing could keep her eyes from the stories laid out before her.
A brown Onaphi with white stripes stood before a table. Its mouth and throat moved in words Aainah couldn’t hear, and then it walked through a doorway, into a room not much bigger than the Onaphi itself. The eye of the oracle. It leaned against the back wall, its ears in a resting position, as soft and peaceful as those of children in sleep, and the doorway closed. More Onaphi appeared on the screen, one after the other. Some walked into the small room, others left out another doorway, one that led outside. All of them, each Onaphi, when they left, held their tails high and turned their ears forward, intent on their choice. Which of those leaving the serpent had returned to their villages? What happened to those who elected to remain?
The choices of countless Onaphi played out before her. Each chose one of the serpent’s Eyes, either stepping into the small room or leaving the serpent’s body. Just as Aainah grew accustomed to seeing these scenes that were somehow happening and not happening in the very room where she stood alone, she froze. A face emerged that she recognized. She would know that face anywhere.
Aainah left her mother, an elder, back in the village only a handful of nights ago, yet the Onaphi in the scene before Aainah, with her red striped chin, was also undoubtedly her mother, but with a stronger posture, a fuller coat. Brighter eyes. It was she who’d told Aainah to seek the oracle, she who’d told story upon story of the few who’d made the journey and returned, yet Aainah’s mother had never mentioned that she’d walked through the serpent herself.
Aainah held her breath as she watched her mother, so young, speak silently to the serpent. So very familiar was her mother’s face, Aainah thought she could almost make out what she was saying. Almost, but not quite. Of course Aainah knew the choice her mother had made, so long ago. And yet…
Maybe it was because she knew her mother’s movements so well that she saw something in the young Onaphi she’d not noticed in the others who’d just chosen their fate before Aainah’s eyes. The younger version of her mother had made her choice, had walked through the eye that led outside, and while she held her tail high, Aainah noticed the slightest twitch at its tip. Just once.
Maybe it was from watching her mother so closely during all of her growing up years, to see if her mother would reward her for a job well done or punish her for one of many defiances, that Aainah understood so well the position of her mother’s ears. They faced forward, yes, but they weren’t as eager, weren’t as sure. Not craned fully forward with complete contentment and full acceptance. One ear held back. Tilted, ever so slightly, still trying to soak in the sounds of the serpent her mother had left.
Aainah’s mother had always seemed so sure, yet she’d felt regret, back then. Had others been regretful, also? Had those who stepped into the small room felt just as much regret as those who returned to the outside?
“The time is now, Aainah the Onaphi. It is your turn to choose.”
Two doorways opened.
“Return to your life, and be assured your visit is greatly appreciated. Choose the other doorway, and you will leave your home, never to return. You will travel to another place, far beyond the stars in your sky, where other creatures wait, happy to be your friend. Some there are Onaphi, most are not. Most will look different, speak different, think different.
“All will be glad to know you.”
Aainah’s tail fell to the floor. Another place. Not to return.
Jwartan was still outside, waiting. She stepped toward the doorway to see him standing against the tree again, leaning against the trunk. He faced another section of the serpent, his profile strong. His jaw set. The suns cut a sharp angle past the cover of the tree, spilling heat across his back, but he did not move. His devotion was clear. He would endure pain for her, would support her always. She could walk outside, tuck into his embrace, return with him to a shared future within the village. He would accept her, she now realized, exactly as she was. He would never question. But she would.
She was at the end of the serpent oracle’s journey, and she was still the same Aainah.
“It is your turn to choose.”
Her tail lifted as she soaked in the vision of her Jwartan, standing under meager cover, surrounded by the heat of the blazing suns, waiting for her. She said only two words, quietly. His ears perked, tilted in her direction, followed by his head. They faced each other across the barrier of the serpent, across a distance greater than the number of steps it would take to cross. She closed her eyes and dipped her forehead forward, imagining it meeting Jwartan’s.
She left the doorway that led to Jwartan and walked toward the other and through, then leaned against the back wall of the tiny room. The doorway closed in front of her, leaving all but a small section the size of her face, a window. Pressure enveloped her body, holding her still, yet allowing her to breathe. Her tail tried to twitch, but it was held fast, curled around her leg.
Watching through the window, she saw the small room, the eye of the oracle, somehow lifted up, pulled away from the serpent, raised until it was above the serpent’s body, as if the eye had grown wings. The tree that sheltered Jwartan was visible for only a second as the land quickly fell away. She couldn’t hear her own laughter as birds flew across her vision, apparently unaware of the wonder that was happening at that moment.
She considered, as the land drew away, maybe she’d simply lost her mind. Maybe she still laid frozen just inside the serpent’s tail. Another part of her, the part brimming with a joy that swiftly lighted her thoughts, decided it didn’t matter. This journey was worth more than four lives in an Onaphi village, real or imagined.
Mountaintops slipped past, as did the searing light of the suns. An enormous gray rock came into view. Though it loomed larger than she could have dreamed, she recognized it immediately. It was the First Moon. Her gut shifted as she curved around its rough backside before moving on to the Second, purple and oddly fogged over. And then the Third lay before her.
She glimpsed its side. Her tail would have twitched like mad if it could have. She was about to see its face. The thing no one saw. The thing her mother told her didn’t exist. But then her mother hadn’t told her everything. A few breaths passed, and then the face of the Third spread before her. Her heart swarmed, as broken, discordant parts inside of her coalesced, finally, into something that felt whole.
Dark, dimpled, she could see its nose. Its eyes. Facing out. Facing her. Behind the Third was a strange pocked thing, with patches of color and soft clouds drifting over. That must’ve been her home, where children darted in and out of rooms and birds prowled the sky, where her mother remained. Where Jwartan stood. Yet the Third didn’t care about such things. Facing away from the land, away from the mountains, away even from the serpent, the Third only watched the stars.
Aainah now felt pity for her beloved Third Moon, forever stuck in place among its family, unable to accompany her on this indescribable journey. With her inner voice, Aainah thanked the serpent for freeing her, for sending her to a place where she would not be considered wrong.
As the land of the Onaphi and the Third Moon both fell away beneath her feet, she spoke silently. I will go in your stead, but rest assured. A part of you travels with me. She relaxed into the serpent’s embrace, as countless stars passed before her eyes.
* * *
About the Author
A. Katherine Black is an audiologist and a writer. She adores multicolored pens, stories featuring giant spiders, and almost everything at 2am. She lives in a house surrounded by very tall and occasionally judgmental trees, along with her family, their cats, and her overused coffee machines. Find her on flywithpigs.com or on twitter at @akatherineblack.