Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Aetherine: A Story About Intertwining Lives

Written By: Cherie Muldoon

            Gwen gingerly lifted the lid to the glass-walled snake cage with one hand. It was a behemoth, 30 gallons and more horizontal space than vertical. When her landlord had forbidden her from any pets of the furry variety, she'd found a sort of resentful vindictiveness in spoiling the scaled creature as much as she might. Unfortunately the size of the tank left the lid wide and awkward, especially one-handed.  
            In her other hand, a small white mouse frantically flailed dainty paws from where it dangled by a tapered tail pinched between Gwen's thumb and forefinger. Arthur, the snake, was active today. He was a California King snake, long and slender, easily the length of Gwen's arm from shoulder to fingertip. Also, unknown to Gwen, he was a she.  It was often difficult to determine the gender of snakes for novice owners. Arthur left her hollowed log immediately, slithering over and around the smooth rocks, the warm white-yellow sheen from the heat lamp sending a shimmering glisten over her black-and-white banded scales with each sinuous movement. Gwen wondered if Arthur needed feeding more often.
            Lowering the mouse carefully (no need to cause it more pain than necessary, she reasoned), she let it drop the last inch or two onto the rock and spun away quickly. It was an ugly process she couldn't bear to watch. Her footsteps carried her away, off towards the kitchen. There was a full basket to run through the wash before she left.
            The mouse landed unceremoniously, the click of tiny nails on the hard surface of the sunning rock heralding his entrance. Righting itself, it lifted its head, translucent red eyes staring at the snake in captivation. The snake, in turn, lifted its slender body, hovering her head near the mouse. The harsh light from the heat lamp painted stark highlights on the unmoving gaze, impassive glossy black orbs fixated on the mouse.
            It was a showdown of sorts, to the casual observer, both motionless, both vigilant. What went unseen, visible only to the eyes of this pair, was the exchange. A meaningful greeting. From the snake's viewpoint, the creature before her was a dim, solid blue-white glow in the shape of a mouse. It was solid light, vibrant against the rest of their surroundings. Once it had righted itself upon the rock, the light gave off a pulse of brightness, before  resuming into the subdued glow. For the mouse, the snake was much the same, though of course, the solid light was in the shape of the other creature's lengthy and limbless body.
            The snake lowered her head, dark tongue flickering out, a hair's width from the mouse's small pink nose. The mouse's nose wiggled at a breakneck speed in response.
            "How long has it been?" The snake queried, a silent exchange, a sort of mental probe, slithering its way into the mind of the mouse.
            "I've lost count of the years."
            "You always do," the snake snorted, "How long did she keep you in that box?"
            "Three...four days? She fed me small orange plant matter, I forget the word..."
            "I think she got attached."
            "She does that," the snake drolled with a languid toss of the head.
            "Don't be so aloof." The mouse's whiskers twitched, "You've gotten attached to them before."
            "That was an exception," came the retort, though the snake's demeanor had softened, the head lolling down a bit.
            "She was a good girl," the mouse sighed wistfully.
            "She was. That existence ended before I could know. Did she..."
            "She did. Two, in fact. Boys, both of them. She called them Connor and Liam." The mouse paused in quiet thought. "They had the bright ginger head of hair you bore."
            "That was a pleasant existence." The snake curled its tail gently over its body in idle thought. "Though, do you remember..."
            "Of course." The mouse flicked its delicate tail in agitation. With the rapid exchange of thoughts, there was very little one thought of without the other bringing to mind when in close proximity. "Don't bring it up."
            "There is some dignity in being a horse!" the snake proclaimed.
            "There isn't." The mouse was stern.
            "Don't be so resentful. There is nothing to be gleaned from that mindset. Remember, I was merely a paid sword in that war. What was it called again?" The snake trailed off in thought. "The one where I..."
            "The Battle of Agincourt," the mouse recollected immediately.
            "That whole war was futile," the snake scoffed. "Though, aren't they all? Why is it that their kind is always waging them?"       
            "That is their way," he responded solemnly. "There is good to them too." The mouse paused, raising a tiny hand to smooth at the ruffed white fur of its cheek, as his mind wandered in reminiscence. "I stood vigil three days and two nights over what was your body. Shooing away the carrion feeders with lashes of my tail and nudges from my head. Until you were collected."
            In the mouse's vision, the snake gave off another gentle pulse of light, an exchange of multi-faceted and profound wordless meaning for their kind. To put it into words would be a disservice to the depth of it, but it was rooted in affection.
            "Yesss grandma, I'll be there at 8," Gwen's voice came down the hallway from the kitchen. She half-tripped, half-leaned against the wall, pulling on the slingback shoe that matched the one on her other foot.  A voice squawked from the small phone held against her ear.
            Gwen's grandmother was a relic from a bygone era. "Girls as pretty and clever as you shouldn't be without a husband at twenty-eight," she'd said in one way or another more times than Gwen could count. Gwen had given up on trying to explain to her that she enjoyed her privacy and liked living alone, even if it meant working two jobs.
            Gwen moved through the living room, flipping up a couch cushion to search for her keys, and pulling her purse off the hook by the door. "Look grandma, I'm sorry, I just can't promise anything."
            Whatever was squawked through the phone next was unheard to Gwen, as she paused in her step, motionless, staring at Arthur's tank. There was Arthur, spread into a lazy coil before the flat sun rock. And the mouse, untouched, calm and exposed on the rock. Both of them seemed to ignore her. She blinked a few times in rapid succession, a deer in the headlights, before shaking her head and moving towards the door.  "Sorry, what?  Mm-hmm, yes, I'm listening," she assured into the phone, slamming the apartment door behind her.
            The key turning in the lock was a distant rattle, before her footsteps faded down the apartment building's hallway. The apartment was dim and quiet around the pair. And distantly, there was the sound of life. The rolling of tires on tarmac, the shuffling of feet, the faint whine of a television.
            "How long do you think it will be? Before we may return to the Aether," the mouse sighed, a little wistfully.
            "You know the answer to that. Until this world ends. Before that happens, it is our duty to remain and to observe."
            "So many lifetimes have passed..."
            "They are but a heartbeat, a sigh, in the totality of our time," the snake said, both reprimanding and consoling.
            "No doubt the world will end soon. And we may return."
            "I wouldn't be so sure," the snake said with bemused flicker of the tongue, "they are a clever species. And as you said, there is good to them yet." The snake turned its back on the mouse and slithered towards the hollowed log, one of the only areas of shade in the cage. Elsewhere, the lamp beat down a constant wave of unrelenting heat, their own personal sun in their microcosm of the tank. "Come. That space is too warm for your body."
            The mouse followed off the rock, agile little limbs carrying it into the shade of the hollow space. There, it crept close towards the coils of the snake.
            "Do you think she'll let us remain together?" the mouse said, resting its head against a coil, eyes growing drowsy, the sensation of scale on fur both soft and soothing in the shade.
            "She will," the snake murmured with confidence, gently draping her body around the mouse. 
            "Good to them yet," the mouse said with a yawn.

[This piece comes from the English Department’s creative writing course (ENG238)]


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