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The Snake Man
The Snake Man, as she called him in her mind, had piercing pale eyes, strangely luminous on the background of his dark skin; he must have been a blood-mixure of some kind, she thought vaguely. He was looking at her silently as she explained to him her needs via the interpreter. She knew, somehow, that he intented to kill her but felt no fear in her heart.
She could not take her eyes off his figure, looking at it with a mixture of curiousity and enchantment. Every centimeter of his naked body was covered with a tattooed pattern of various shades of brown and white, describing the contorted body of a viper – which was why she thought of from beginning as 'Snake Man'. His body and limbs were long and flexible, his movements slick and smooth, twisting here and there as he talked, like the slithering of a serpent in the grass. As she watched him, she expected him at any minute to pounce at her, suddenly and lethally.
“He is saying," her interpreter's soft voice whispered in her ear, "that the way you want to go is no good – he has mentioned beasts, insects, and ghosts… I am not quite sure what he means, actually…” But the anthropologist knew. She was fluent in some of the tribal dialects, but needed an interpreter as a general guide; this one, however, though quite a good linguist, had a poor understanding of local, countryside cultures, having been brougfht up in the city and got his education at the university rather than in the field.
The Snake Man, she felt, wanted to keep her there, and she was pretty certain that if she stayed, he would eventually kill her. Not out of cruelty. She was sure of that. He was simply curious, just like her. He would kill her as a scientist kills a strange specimen – to learn something or other about it; only she knew that that way was sterile, teaching you nothing. The anthropologist preferred her subjects alive, like this one. The trouble was that in this case, the specimen in front of her did not serve as a subject for her studies; he was instead an amazing phenomenon to marvel at, rather than try to understand it.
She sat there fascinated by him, transfixed, her eyes glued to the picture in front of her. His bare chest presented the ominous head of the viper with its mouth wide open, its white, sharp fangs glittering in the midday sun; the viper's flashing red eyes encircled the man's nipples, glowing like dark rubies. Her lips quivered with the desire to touch their hot bechkoning. Underneath the nipple-eyes, the serpent's body coiled downwards, the tip of its tail pointing at the man's exposed penis, which vibrated in rhythm of his talking. Looking at it, she suddenly ralized that she was not the only one who felt the stir of blood in her veins and the sting in her swallown genitals; the quivering of the elongating member indicated the feeling was mutual.
In her midthirties, with her share of good looks, the anthropologist had had enough experience to understand that.
“Ask him," she said, her voice quivering – although she understood the Snake Man to some extent, she could not trust herself to pronounce properly the words she wanted to say – “ask him the name of this village, his own name, and his function in it. I'd like to know why he is the talker – he does not look to me as a shaman, and he is too young to be chief."
A long discourse followed between the interpreter and the Snake Man, to which she listened very closely and understood about two thirds. It seemed that the village, through which she was not supposed to pass on her way to the anthropologists' new camp (she had been delayed on a personal business and misled by an inadequate guide, it seemed), was called, appropriately enough, 'Halfway'. The Snake Man, neither shaman nor Chief was its best talker, frequently given the job of speaking to strangers.
This village was evidently off beat. It was quite obvious that the villagers, who had stared at her openly, had never seen anyone as strange as she, with her straight blond hair, greenish blue eyes, pale face and hands, and clothes covering almost the whole of her body against the evils of the forest. From the interpreter's explanations she finally found out that the guide he had hired when she was too busy had only known one way out of the small town they had been delayed in, and that was to his own village! She understood, now, that he had brought her there on purpose, although she was not quite sure what that purpose was. Still, as a dedicated person, she had learned that patience was the next necessary quality to curiosity in a scientist; there was nothing for her to do at the moment but stay where she was and make the best of it, in spite of her strong feeling that eventually, she was going to be killed.
The talk, having taken its natural, winding course, ended with nothing. The anthropologist was separated from the interpreter and led to one of the huts standing around the village’s square and left there; the guide had vanished among his poeple since they arrived and she never found out what had happened to him.
Inside, the hut was very dark after the sunshine outside; the light of a small fire burning in one corner of the hut enabled her after a while to see around her. A woman sat by the fire, silently; she did not look young, possibly older than the anthropologist, but still possessed of a conquering beauty. She did not look as spent as older women usually did in that part of the world; her breasts were still full and her bones well covered with flesh, as if she was better fed than the others. The woman was not naked like the rest of the village people but covered from neck to ankles with a trasparent colorful sari-like cloth.
“We shall eat now,” the woman said. She had an impressive, deep, clear voice, and spoke in a surprisingly clear city dialect, which made her very easy to understand. The anthropologist, happily responsive after the hostile atmosphere outside, relaxed at these words, as well as at the deliciously appetizing scent rising from the direction of the fire. She noticed bundles of leaves lying on a structure over it, realizing suddenly how hungry she was – they had not eaten since morning, and it was now late afternoon.
The food inside the leaf wraps was made of grub and roots, to which the anthropologist had already been used, having lived in the bush for a couple of years; she was able to eat anything without twisting her face. The flavor was strong, warming up her whole body and giving her a mysterious sense of wellbeing.
The older woman, pinching at her food, watched her closely. “You fancy him, don’t you,” she said suddenly as they cleaned their fingers with the broad leaves. “They all fancy him, they don’t care what they pay for it. That’s how he is going to be chief, one day.”
“And what about you,” the anthropologist asked bluntly, against her own mild nature; “aren’t you rather old for him?”
“Of course I am old for him,” was the defiant answer, “I am his mother!”
His mother! She never imagined him having a mother – he barely looked human enough for that! The anthropologist looked more closely at the older woman. She was so dark in appearance, with black hair and eyes and a deep shade of brown skin! How could the Snake Man, with those pale eyes, have such a dark mother?
“His father was a white man I worked for in the city,” the woman said darkly. “He raped me – he had no need to, I would have done it freely with him, gladly. But he had to feel his power over me, so he raped me… And so, I cursed him, and came away, back to my village.” She did not sound as if she was happy to be where she was.
They sat for a time in silence, a female bond growing between them.
A shape darkened the opening, and the Snake Man said very quickly to his mother something the anthropologist was unable to follow; he gave the older woman a handful of berries and left, paying no attention to the white woman. Seeing him, she felt her body stirring again, having cooled down in his absence; as he was gone, she calmed down, astonished at the phenomenon. She had never had such an experience before.
The Snake Man’s mother took a clay pot, poured into it some water from a gourd by her side, and put it over the fire. “I’ll make you something very nice to drink, now,” she said.
Time passed. Through the narrow opening of the hut the anthropologist was able to see the last horizontal rays of the setting sun drenching the world for a moment in a golden light; then they vanished, and the short-lived evening softened the jungle atmosphere before night fell.
The aroma of the cooking berries reached her nostrills, wrapping her whole self in an enchanting robe. The woman rose, took the pot in her hands and brought it over to her. “Drink it!” she said, her voice so compelling she had no power to resist.
As she was lifting the cup to her lips, the other woman left the hut. She drank a mouthful. When she raised her eyes, she saw the Snake Man standing before her.
“Drink it!” he said in his mother’s voice, and, compelled, she drank half the pot. Her eyes swam, she saw him as a double, tripple, multishaped snake man, with the snakes jumping from one body to another, surrounding her in a fantastic dance. The man began to dance around her, and when he turned his back to her, she saw a pair of white wings tattooed over his shoulderblades. As he raise his arms, it looked as if he was flying around her, hovering above her head, then crawling at her feet, being all over her. She felt her body burning in desire and she tore away her clothes; then, stretching on her back on the floor, she spread her legs…
The anthropologist woke as the rays of the rising sun hit her face. The fire in the hut had gone out, the air was chilly and stifling. Amazed to see her naked, she gathered her scattered clothes and put them on. Her head felt foggy, a strange sensation filled her mouth. She walked out of the hut and saw the woman she remembered as the Snake Man’s mother sitting not far by a cheerful fire.
“Come and have something to drink,” the older woman invited. At the word ‘drink’ the anthropologist recoiled, some vague memory stirring in her mind. The woman laughed. “Nothing will happen to you; this is coffee I have brought from the city. It’s one thing I could not give up.”
“Do you know what happened to my interpreter?” she asked, as she was sipping the reviving drink.
The woman made a movement with her hand, and the anthropologist knew she had better not mention him again. She would have to find her way out of this place without him. “What is going to happen now?” she asked the mother. She did not dare ask what had already happened in the hut.
“You wait. The people meet. I can translate for you.”
The anthropologist was not sure she could trust the woman to be a faithful translator, but she saw no other way. It would be better to have one ally in this strange place, even if this ally were not completely trustworthy. But there was something in that woman which mysteriously made her credible, even if she could not explain to herself what that was.
“I am surprised I haven’t yet seen the village’s Chief, or the shaman,” she said, making conversation.
“They have both gone on some very important business," the older woman made an insufficient explanation.
‘Leaving it to the mercy of that awful Snake Man,' she thought.
People had started gathering around the fire, which served for a moment as a social center. The sun stood high in the sky, the shade of the trees around the small clearing barely adequate. Some of the girls and women approached the anthropologist, examining her hair, skin, clothes, in a manner she had seen before which had taught her to sit quietly without reacting. But in their talking she heard a hint of hostility toward her and her appearance, which she had not experienced before. When that behavior continued and even strengthened, she was gradually feeling alarmed for the first time.
“Will you ask them to stay away from me," she demanded of Snake Man's mother. The woman readily gave a sharp sound, and the young girls dispersed in a clack; the older women took their time getting away, but they also submitted to the other's chiding.
The anthropologist had barely recovered when a group of men appeared; the old ones sat at some distance but the younger placed themselves close to her, staring unashamedly. Snake Man appeared last, making an entrance, even though the whole performance had been done out in the open. Her heart fluttered for a secomd, as if her mind remembered something, but she was relieved to feel her body stay calm – no stirring of her blood this time, no pinch in her vagina. What had happened? Examining her feeling more closely, she found nothing but pure dread. Why? She had not felt like that the day before, she was sure. What had happened between sundown and sunrise? She did not know for sure, and that disturbed her more than anything else did; because, as a matter of fact, she did not want to know.
Snake Man then started talking. It was a long speech, full of dramatic breaks. “I tried Pale Woman last night,” he was saying, his mother translating shamelessly in the reddening ear of the anthropologist; “Pale Woman no good – berries’ drink no good for Pale Woman. I don’t want her anymore. Anyone wants to try her? Anyone can have Pale Woman. But I suggest we kill her – she is no good for us. If any other man wants her, it’s up to him because I don’t want her. I may only want her to cut open and see what’s inside. It may be interesting; she is so different from us. But if any man want her, he can take her, and then we cut her open. I suggest we don’t eath her, I don’t think she is good to eat. I think there is poison in her body. There. I finished.”
His speech had been going on and on with many repetitions, which his mother did not bother to translate. The anthropologist fell into gloomy reflections, the more she heard the more her heart sank. She had gone through different kinds of danger before; throughout her sojourn in various parts of the world she had met with preying beasts, poisonous insects and wild tribes, but never anything like that. She had also never been on her own before; there had always been some of her colleagues with her. Stirring out of her reflections from time to time, she listened to the woman’s halting translation. The mother was transferring her son’s vicious words very calmly, as if she knew exactly what he was saying, as if she did not care at all one way or the other. Still, the anthropologist was certain the translation had been as acurate as was possible for a nonprofessional.
The palaver lasted the whole day. When Snake Man stopped at last, other men took their turn to talk, expressing their opinions hotly and excitedly. The anthropologist noticed that the tribe’s women behaved as if the whole business did not interest them; as if, because her coloring was different from theirs, she had put herself beyond their caring as they would care for another female of their own species. After a while she began to feel that indeed, she might not have been of their species at all, she did not actually merit their interest.
The whole affair was a very easygoing business; people kept eating and drinking, and, when the sun reached the zenith, they fell into a snooze where they sat. They woke up refreshed and revived as the sun slanted toward evening, returning to the argument with renewed vigor. Snake Man’s mother had stopped her translation when her son fell silent, not bothering with other people’s talk. At one moment the anthropologist asked her what was the discussion all about, but received in answer only a dismissing movement of her hand. After a moment, thought, the older woman told her in her own language, “wait until nightfall.”
When night fell people rose and scattered without having reached any definite decision; it seemed that Snake Man’s words about the anthropologist were enough to make other men keep away from her. They dispersed and vanished into the darkness in couples and small groups, like dark ghosts moving around trees and huts; only flickers of small fires shining in the thicket proved their existence.
“We sleep here tonight, I and Pale Woman,” Snake Man’s mother told her son when only very few people were left in the village’s square. “You take that girl, there, she is dying to sleep with you. I stay with Pale Woman.”
He snarled at her. “See she does not get away,” he told her, turning his back on his mother and walking toward the girl she had pointed out. When they had vanished in the thicket, the rest of the people rose to leave as well, leaving the anthropologist and the Mother by the fire; only one other blurred figure was sitting silently at some distance from them. For a while, they sat together in silence, as if waiting for the noisy events of the day to subside completely before venturing on something else.
The anthropologist was lost for words, and was glad when the older woman talked at last. But she did not talk to her. “Smoke Path,” she said in a low voice, turning toward the vague figure sitting away from the fire.
“Moonshine,” she was answered by a high, clear, man’s voice.
“Will you come and sit by us, Smoke Path,” the Mother invited.
The figure rose and, when he reached the fire’s circle of light, the anthropologist saw a man of about Snake Man’s mother’s age, looking erect and still ful of vigor. He sat down on the older woman’s other side, granting the anthropologist only a flitting glance.
“Smoke Path,” the woman said again when she saw he was settled, “you know all the paths in the forest.”
“Indeed I do,” the man agreed, a smile breaking his face.
“Do you also know where the camp of those pale people who investigate us is?”
“I shall know where it is if you shine on my path, Moonshine,” the man replied, obliquely.
“I shall shine on your path if you take this woman to her people tonight," said Snake Man’s mother.
The man scrutinized the anthropologist. She could not tell what he was seeing in her, but at last he turned to the other woman. “I shall take her. I don’t think she should die. Your son is an evil man, Moonshine.
“I know that, Smoke Path; but there is nothing I can do about it. He is my son, but also the son of that evil pale man. One day, if he goes too far and I can't help his victim, maybe I shall kill him. But tonight it is not necessary because we, you and I, can help her."
In the pale light before sunrise, Smoke Path had led the anthropologist to the outskirts of her colleagues’ camp. As he turned to go back to the village, she continued to follow his back with her eyes until he vanished into the dark forest. Then the guard noticed her, hurried toward her and led her, almost falling to pieces, to the dying fire. For a long time she sat there watching her colleagues waking up, coming to greet her, to express their sympathy and concern, without being able to say a word; days and weeks would pass before she was able to recover from and experience she was never completely certain what it was."
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