The Silencing of Art
The autumn months were beautiful, the girl thought, when the sun illuminated the colors of the leaves and warmed the skin enough to offer a feeling that’s comparable to a mother’s love. The moon, she observed, was no competition.
The girl walked briskly through the forest outside of her home where she last saw her younger sister, Chastity, wander off to. She couldn’t decide what she feared more; the darkness of the forest or what her parents would do to her if she returned home without Chastity. Deciding on the latter, she continued moving forward with her lantern to light her path.
“The game’s over, Chastity!” the girl called, “It’s time to go home!”
Another voice answered her, but it’s tone was far from the sweet voice of Chastity. “Home?” it seemed to ask.
“Is someone here?” the girl called back, “I’m looking for my little sister. Have you seen her? She’s about eleven years old--”
“You mean to tell me that you willingly left your home to come to this forest?” The voice interrupted.
“I’m looking for my sister,” she repeated, slower this time. “Have you seen her?” After hearing no answer, she tried a different question. “Where even are you?”
“Have you tried looking behind you?”
She spun on her heels and did just as she was instructed. What she saw was enough to cause her to lose her balance and fall onto the earth below, but not enough to trigger her to run away. No, it was too lovely for that. It seemed human at first; a male only a few years older than herself, with long brown hair and yellow eyes that suggested something beyond mankind, but only the long, snake-like tail that took the place of the beings legs truly seperated it from someone of her kind. His scales, like his eyes, were the color of the sun.
This odd creature, this serpent, was lounged in the dead branches of what used to be an apple tree. The weather was too cold to support its fruit and the apples themselves were fallen and decaying in the dirt below, but the creature seemed to pay no mind to its state. His tail was entangled in the branches as though it were his throne.
“What are you, monster?” the girl asked, “Are you the one who took my sister?”
She could catch a glimpse of the snake’s fangs as he spoke, “What use is your human education if you can’t even name what I am?” he spat, “I’m a Naga. My kind only strikes the evil and the doomed. Now, unless your younger sister -- Chastity, you said -- has committed some crime that should be brought to my attention, then I did not and will not harm her. Go home, girl.”
“I have a name!”
“Do you?” the snake answered with a grin.
“My name is Eve.”
The Naga paused, analyzing her with those strikingly golden eyes of his, and spoke again, gentler this time. “I, too, am away from home, Eve,” he explained, “and I’d give my life to return. Learn from me and leave this forest.”
“I’ll make a deal with you, snake,” Eve said, twisting her braided hair in her hands nervously, “If you follow me into these woods and do exactly what you told me --that is, biting anything evil along our path-- and help me to bring my little sister home, then I’ll do my best to take you home, too.”
The golden orbs of the snake’s eyes grew wide until Eve swore she was looking not at a living creature but at twin suns, embraced in some celestial dance that she failed to understand. “Home,” he said. The word seemed to hold a lot of weight for him. “Home,” he repeated,
“How do you intend to take me home? You know nothing of my home.”
“Then you’ll just have to teach me about it, snake,” she answered, “And besides, I believe that looking for it all alone would be really sad. I’d rather not think about you doing that. And I thought that snakes liked deals.”
He crossed his arms.
“I only have one more condition,” Eve said, stepping forward and being careful to avoid the rotten fruit on the ground, “I ask that you don’t judge me to be evil, because then you’d strike me. So, do you agree?”
With an exhale, the snake arched his back and began to untangle his long tail from the branches. Eve heard his bones creak and concluded that he must be aching, but it didn’t subtract from his elegance as he slithered his way down the tree. He stood, with his body curved upwards like that of a cobra, until his head was only an inch or so above her own. “I agree,” he stated in a low tone.
“Great!” She said, a bit too enthusiastically, and held out her hand to him in order to seal their deal, but the serpent didn’t seem to understand. He eyed her gesture and dismissed it, turning towards the unpaved path ahead of them.
“Can I have your name?” Eve called as she took a few quickened steps in order to catch up with him. She had to take a small leap over his tail. “Calling you ‘snake’ or ‘serpent’ is a bit, um -- well, I don’t like it.”
“My name is Art.”
Despite his silence, Art proved himself to be a worthy companion. Moving forward while maintaining his upright position seemed a bit taxing and made him move a bit slower than Eve’s normal walking pace, but she was quick to compensate and became quite good at staying his speed. After some time, she also began to find the sound of his tail against the autumn leaves rather soothing and thought that the sound complimented the harsh tap of her boots on the ground very nicely. She started to notice small quirks in his movement, such as how a log in his path would cause his height to grow an inch or two as he slithered above it, and how he would go out of his way to avoid a rock that would be sharp on his underbelly.
It certainly helped that Art was very handsome as well. She didn’t see his beauty at first; she was caught up in how his eyes were too bright and his hair was too long for a boy, but it all seemed to suit him.
Eve began to wonder if he, like his lower body would suggest, was cold-blooded and if the night air chilled him. She’d offer him her coat if that were the case, or maybe her hand if he wanted it, but she was too shy to ask that, so she asked something else instead. “So, tell me about this home of yours. What are we even looking for?”
“My home is a harpy, a half-beast much like myself, but he shares the likeness of a bird instead of a snake. He has dark feathers like an eagle and the sharpest talons in the forest. He took me in when I was just a hatchling.”
“Oh, your home is a living thing? That’s really cute,” Eve said, “So why did a bird take in a baby snake?”
“He found me some winter maybe twenty years ago,” he said. “Most snakes hibernate during the cold seasons because there’s no sun to warm their blood, but I was young and I didn’t pay any mind to my shivering. I didn’t know death, I only knew that the snow was lovely and I wanted to be a part of its beauty.
I struggled when the harpy first took me in his talons and placed me in his nest, but instead of eating me he simply sat beside me and offered me a spot under his wing. He was warm and soft, so what was I to do? I stayed with him. I’m not sure if he’s more of a father or a brother to me and I don’t really care.”
“Well, he seems very kind,” Although Art wasn’t looking at Eve’s face, her smile was evident in her words. “So, what’s his name, then?”
Art remained silent and still didn’t make eye contact.
“Don’t tell me you don’t know it,” Eve tested.
“I don’t know his real name, no,” Art finally answered, “He never told me. I decided to call him by a name in my mother tongue; one that means ‘power.’ Humans shouldn’t speak that language.”
“Power it is, then,” She decided, and since Art had no objections, she stuck with the name.
“Did you take good care of Chastity?” Art asked softly.
“I like to think so. Our parents favor her over me and, just between you and me, she can be a bit needy. Still, I love her with all of my heart and I hate to think that she’s lost in these woods somewhere.”
“Does she look like you?”
“She looks a lot like me, yeah. She’s a bit fairer in the face maybe, but I get a lot more sun than she does when I’m doing yard work. Once she’s old enough to do that too then I think people won’t be able to tell us apart.”
Art nodded and had no other questions.
Through Art’s story about his relationship with Power, Eve could confirm her suspicions that her new companion was cold blooded, and she was tempted to ask him once more if he wanted her coat. Would it be too bold to simply place it over his shoulders? Would it be risky to reach out and grab his hand? She wasn’t sure how much she could love Art or how dangerous he was, but something about his love for Power moved her. Someone who loved so deeply cannot be any less than trustworthy.
Before she could act on any emotions that she might have felt for him, Art slowed his pace to a complete stop without any warning, leaving Eve a few steps ahead of him when she stopped as well and turned to see what he was doing. He had his chin high in the air and seemed very focused.
“Can you smell that?” He asked her.
“No. What is it?”
Art didn’t answer. Eve noticed his chest heaving more quickly than she’d gotten used to during their journey.
She tried a more specific question. “Is it something you recognize? Power, maybe?”
He only said “We need to hurry,” and slithered off of the path.
Eve called out to him to wait. She wasn’t used to looking at the back of her companion; she wanted to be by his side instead, but some newfound strength seemed to propel him far ahead of her.
“What’s going on, Art? Talk to me!”
Just as Eve cried out, she began to see what Art was headed towards. There was some moving mass in the darkness; some dark figure crouched over the earth below. Some predator, it seemed, that was knelt over its prey and reaping its harvest. As she ran closer, Eve’s lantern illuminated dark feathers that adorned the victor
Art slithered into the arms of the predator, pressing himself against the feathered chest. “I thought that the blood was yours,” he said, his voice muffled by the contact.
Eve’s eyes lingered on them for a moment. This was her first glimpse of Power. He was just how she imagined him to be; inhumanly tall, beautiful, untouchable, and with a protective wing around Art.
But, oh, there was so much blood.
Blood dripped from Power’s talons and onto Art’s lean back. Blood pooled around the defeated prey and blood mutated its colors past recognition. Eve struggled to even identify what type of creature it was until she saw small, human feet peeking out from under the gore.
Eve placed her foot on the shoulder of the mass and kicked it onto its back.
“Art,” she said, “this is my sister. This is Chastity.”
There was something in her voice, something that Art never heard in her during their short time together, that forced the air out of his lungs and caused him to grow tense in Power’s arms. He pulled away from the welcoming warmth of his home and looked to his newer companion, who was knelt beside the corpse of her lost Chastity.
Eve pointed at Power with a trembling hand and spoke with a voice to match. “You have to strike him now, don’t you?” she said, “Power is evil, isn’t he?”
Arts’ chest felt tight.
“Please strike him.”
The golden eyes of the snake darted over to the towering shape of the being who raised him, the one he called “power,” and fought back a sob from deep in his throat. Power’s face was unreadable. Perhaps he was emotionless, or perhaps this was the most heartbroken that Art had ever seen him.
Art felt the fire of tears begin to rise, but rather than weeping he showed his fangs; the weapon of his kind and the pride of the righteous.
He plunged those fangs into his own tail.
The muscle underneath Art’s sun-like scales began to twitch and convulse from the toxins that were pumped ruthlessly into the veins underneath. The poison flowed until Art’s shoulders began to quake as well.
“Stop it! Why would you do that to yourself?” Eve cried as she left her spot by Chastity’s side and and sprinted over to Art. The Naga collapsed into her arms as she approached.
She could feel Power’s merciless gaze on her. She failed to understand what she saw behind his eyes. Perhaps he was saying “What have you done?” or, “You fool.” Maybe she saw something closer to sympathy. Maybe she saw nothing at all.
Wordlessly, Power spread his wings and only the wind left in his wake and the carnage he abandoned acted as evidence that he ever stepped in that spot at all.
The forest seemed silent after Power left. The familiar sounds of dry leaves scraping against the earth seemed muffled and distant, and the echoing wind seemed anything but real. No animals sang in the forest as they usually do and no bird overhead frightened Eve with its call. The only thing that sounded real or relevant was the sound of whimpering and forced breath that escaped Art’s pale lips despite his efforts to silence them.
He was cold, Eve thought; colder than even a snake ought to be. He had very little control over his spasms and his eyes lacked the analytical sharpness that she first saw in him.
“You didn’t have to do that,” Eve told him in a voice barely above a whisper, “You’re not evil.”
He wanted to say, “But I couldn’t save Chastity and I couldn’t kill Power.” He wanted to say, “But I couldn’t keep my end of our deal.” He wanted to say, “But I’m the only one who can be.” He wanted to say a lot of things.
But he said nothing, and Eve was left with her eternally lost Chastity and with her self-destructed, self-silenced Art.