The Mind and the Snake
We thanked Captain Smith for his help and stole down the steps into the dark, empty streets of Marysvale. Jane led the way. Staying in the shadows, we hugged the sides of buildings and homes, until we came to a back alley. We darted off and, turning this way and that, we continued to wind our way through the maze.
The town itself intrigued me. Houses and buildings were sandwiched together and were in a decrepit state. Some were patched up the best they could with whatever materials the inhabitants could find: rocks, scraps of wood, even sticks. Other homes looked like any attempts of upkeep and repair had long been abandoned. Vacant structures were gutted for any usable material, leaving a well-scavenged carcass. In its layout and construction, the town looked to have been, at one point, modern and more advanced than most. Over time, however, any attempts of organization had been discarded. Streets ran in every direction and sometimes even appeared to go in circles.
I felt thoroughly lost and my special vision was of little use. Occasionally, I could see people in homes and buildings, but unlike the completely alive and living forest, the town was made up of materials that had no soul to read.
Halfway around a corner, Jane desperately sprung back and pressed herself against the building. She held her arm out to stop us from advancing.
“What is it?” I whispered, while instinctively reaching for weapons that were not there.
I crept up next to her and peeked around the corner of the building. Six soldiers marched our way.
Ducking back, I asked, “Did they see you?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know.”
I took another look.
“Hurry, we can go another way,” offered Hannah urgently.
“They’ve stopped in front of a house,” I stated curiously.
One of the soldiers bellowed at the top of his lungs for the occupants to open up. Not bothering to wait, the other men smashed the door open and stormed in.
By now, Jane and Hannah were peeking around me to see what was going on.
With my eyes on the remaining soldier, I asked, “What are they doing?”
“Anything they want to,” replied Jane somberly.
A moment later, screams and yells echoed from the house as the soldiers emerged, dragging a man out by his arms. He appeared to be in his late thirties and was still dressed in a worn nightshirt.
A baby in the house started to cry.
“What am I being charged with?” demanded the man.
The soldier, who had stood outside, replied maliciously, “You’ll find out soon enough.”
Without warning, he threw a punch into the prisoner’s gut. The man doubled over.
His wife rushed out, clutched the soldier’s coat and begged for leniency on her husband’s behalf. The soldier slapped her across the face, and she fell back.
“Get inside,” he demanded. “Unless you wish to share your miserable husband’s fate.”
The man pleaded for her to go back in; but she remained on her knees, begging the soldiers for sympathy—panic and despair filling her voice, and tears streaming down her cheeks.
Red faced and angry, the lead soldier unfastened his belt, withdrew it, and raised it over his head, ready to whip the woman.
A girl rushed out of the home. “Please sir, spare her.”
She wrapped her arms around her mother and looked up at the soldier, half bracing for his punishment to be administered.
He paused, and lowered his belt. “Only because I’m feeling generous.” He shooed them away with his hand and added, “Remove her before my graciousness tires.”
The girl dragged her still crying mother back into the house.
At the same time, a very young boy ran out and handed a pair of shoes to his father.
His father thanked him and tried to give a reassuring smile to his son.
The leader of the soldiers slapped the shoes out of his hands and then barked an order for chains to be fastened to the man’s wrists. The small group set off into the cold night with the barefoot man wearing only his nightshirt.
The small boy watched his father disappear before retrieving the scattered shoes. He hugged them tightly to his chest and slowly returned to the house.
The door closed.
“What will happen to him?” I asked, both horrified and fuming at what had just transpired. Though I didn’t know for sure, something told me that the man didn’t do anything to deserve that kind of treatment.
Jane somberly replied, “I don’t know. It is extremely rare that one who is taken is ever seen again.”
Barely audible, Hannah said, “I know the girl....Her name is Isabelle. I like her.”
Though it was small consolation, I unslung the pack of food, opened it, and withdrew a large portion of its contents. Wordlessly, I handed them to Hannah, who placed them on their threshold as we passed. She gave the wood a few raps, and we slipped unseen into the night, just as we heard the door creak cautiously open.
Eventually, we came to a narrow road at the south end of the town.
“Here we are,” whispered Jane.
Their small home consisted of two levels. It looked better kept than most, yet still had a rundown appearance. Boards replaced broken windows, and the wood on the outside was weathered and rotting with mildew.
Jane tried the door. It didn’t open.
She knocked softly. No answer.
She tried again. Still, no answer.
It looked like it wouldn’t take much to force the door open, but the third try produced a hushed response. “Who is it?”
“It’s us, Father,” whispered Jane.
After a brief commotion behind the door, it swung open and their father embraced both his girls in a gigantic hug that he held for quite a long time. With tears streaming down his cheeks, he said, “Thank Heaven you’re back safely. I was worried sick.”
He looked up and noticed me for the first time—fear crossed his face.
“It’s all right, Father, you can trust him,” assured Jane. “This is John. He’s with us. Without his help, we wouldn’t be here.”
Mr. Wolfe hesitated and then said, “Well, if Jane trusts you, then so do I.”
He ushered us inside, and then looked up and down the street before closing the door. A moment later, Hannah had a candle lit, illuminating the meager surroundings of their modest home. The front room also doubled as the kitchen, with a small iron stove in one corner. A table, four chairs, and a few sparse shelves adorned the room. Mr. Wolfe invited me to sit down, and I did. Squinting through the dim yellow light, he studied me, while I did the same to him. He looked older than I had expected and had obviously fathered Jane and Hannah later in life. I wondered how old Mrs. Wolfe would be if she were still alive. I realized I had never asked Jane about her mother and wondered if I should have, or if it remained better left alone.
Mr. Wolfe had a thick head of hair. In the dim light, it was difficult to make out the color; but it looked mostly black, with streaks of white. He wore a peppered, white beard and mustache that hid his wrinkles and gaunt features. He looked naturally tall, but now stooped from malnourishment, age, and worry.
“Do I know you?” he asked, breaking my appraisal of him.
I glanced at Jane, asking silent approval to reveal myself.
Ever so subtly, she shook her head.
I was beginning to wonder if all this secrecy was really a good thing. In the end, if they were questioned and didn’t know anything, would they be believed? I reminded myself to talk to Jane about it later. Whatever she decided, I would honor. For now, I simply said, “No, I don’t believe so.”
He continued to look at me, trying to dust the cobwebs from his memory. Eventually, he gave up and observed, “You three must be hungry. I’m sorry, all I have is half a loaf of old bread; but you’re welcome to it.”
Tears welled in Hannah’s eyes. “Father, we told you to eat the whole ration while we were gone. We didn’t want you saving anything for us.”
“As you can see, I survived just fine. Besides, I had to. If you failed, there would be nothing for you when you returned tired and hungry.”
“But we didn’t fail,” replied Hannah. She opened the sack to show him.
He inspected it, closed his eyes, and said a silent prayer of gratitude.
“We’re sorry there isn’t more,” said Jane. “Sarah really did send us with a lot.” She went on to explain how Lord Wright had confiscated their food and about the lost packs I had cut loose in my race to the gate. She also explained the deal made with Captain Smith in exchange for their help, and the man who had been taken from his family.
When finished, he said, “Then let us be thankful you returned safely, and for the food we still have.”
Jane got up and fetched three plates; she returned looking apologetically at me. “Sorry, we only have three.” Then added quickly, “You can have mine; I will eat off the table.”
“No, you won’t,” I retorted. “I’m not that hungry.”
“Nonsense,” said Mr. Wolfe. He pushed his plate to me, got up from the table, retrieved a clean cloth from a small shelf near the stove, and laid it out before him. “This will do,” he noted.
Jane dished up small portions of the food and Hannah offered grace.
After we began eating, Mr. Wolfe inquired, “Tell me about yourself, John. Where do you come from and how did you get here?”
“There really isn’t much to relate,” I said. “My name is John Casey. I got lost trying to join a hunting party from Syre. I was attacked and chased by the Brean, and then ended up at Sarah’s.”
He digested that for a moment, as if savoring the information. “And do you have any family?” he asked.
I shook my head, “No, I don’t.” It wasn’t much of an explanation. I purposefully liked giving short answers. Few people really cared about them anyway. They only asked out of politeness or curiosity, and rarely wanted more information than that.
“No mother or father?”
“No, both are dead.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. And how did they die, if I may ask?” His eyes shifted from his food to me.
The way he asked made me suspicious that he already knew the answer; he wasn’t very good at acting like it was just another question. It is the subtle things that usually give one away. Unlike his other queries that came naturally while he kept on eating, when he asked this one, all his attention shifted to me. He reminded me of a parent asking a child a series of innocent questions, before getting to the important one. The trouble with this trick is that when they do get to this point of their interrogation, they try too hard to make the question look like any other, and their intention is all too obvious.
I wasn’t fooled. Apparently Jane wasn’t either. She sighed and said, “All right Father, out with it. What do you suspect?”
Replying as innocently as possible, he stretched his hands wide and said, “Nothing at all. It’s just that John, here, looks very similar to your young friend of so long ago.”
Hannah’s interest was piqued and she put down the piece of dried meat that she was gnawing on.
“You two have been hiding something from me haven’t you?” she accused. “I knew it in the woods at that old burnt cabin.” Then, remembering something else, she gasped, “Oh, does it have to do with how you can see so far in the dark? John, you promised that you’d tell me. You weren’t lying, were you?”
I looked helplessly at Jane.
“See? See that look he gave you? I can’t believe it, my own sister is keeping secrets from me!”
Jane looked at her father sternly. “Now look at what you’ve done!”
A small grin spread across his old face. “It’s not the end of the world,” he cajoled in a fatherly tone.
Hannah continued, as if no one had been talking, “What have I done to deserve being left out in the cold? I’m beginning to expect it from John, but not my own sister!”
“Hey,” I said defensively. “That’s not fair. If we haven’t told you something, it’s for your own good. And I’m not admitting that we haven’t, mind you.”
“But you don’t deny it!” she exclaimed excitedly.
I said nothing.
She looked at Jane, who also kept quiet.
Hannah folded her arms and said in a huff, “I have a right to know. Don’t you think I should be informed of anything that affects me?”
Jane silently exchanged glances with me and then sighed, “We’ve obviously lost this battle. Say what you think is best, John.”
Satisfied with her victory, Hannah said, “Out with it.”
“Hannah,” I offered patiently. “Sometimes simply knowing information puts you in dangerous positions.”
She looked at her father expectantly, undoubtedly seeking his alliance.
He simply responded, “Listen to him.”
She sighed, and made a little motion with her hand for me to resume.
“It may force you to say or do something you’d rather not, and it can be used against you and those you love.”
“I understand. Still, I think I’m perfectly capable of dealing with it just as well as you are. And I’m tired of people deciding what they think is best for me. I can choose for myself.”
“Yes, but freedom to make your own choices doesn’t make you free from the consequences.”
She rolled her eyes. “Are you going to tell me or just preach me to death?” Then softening, she continued, “You told me to trust you, and I do. Now it’s time you put some trust in me. I want to help if I can, and I won’t betray anything. I promise to do the right thing should the time ever come.”
I smiled at her. “Very well. I wanted to tell you anyway, but I wanted you to be sure. I just recently found out most of it myself.”
With that said, I began my story. For their father’s sake, I started my tale when I first saw the Brean in that moonlit clearing during my flight from Syre. Occasionally, Hannah piped in to finish my thought, claiming I wasn’t telling it properly. I could tell Jane was getting frustrated by the interruptions, but it didn’t bother me. I didn’t really relish telling it. I simply waited until she had finished telling it her way, then picked up where she left off. I told them how Sarah had taught me to use my special sight, explaining how I could use that gift to see in the dark. This unleashed a torrent of questions, with both girls demanding details of how it worked, and what it looked like. Some answers I could give, and some I couldn’t. I shared with them the remaining bits and fragments of my past memories, and I relived my dreams for them. Through it all, Mr. Wolfe sat quietly, patiently listening, only occasionally asking a point of clarification.
It took hours and the candle burned low. Only a stub of wick and a puddle of wax remained when I was finished, and it threatened to go out at any moment.
“Amazing,” said Hannah. “I knew there was something strange about how you were never lost when in the dark; and how you could see the Brean, even through all that fog.”
Her eyes went wide, and then she furrowed her eyebrows. “How often have you read my mind?” she demanded.
I laughed. “Only once in the beginning, when you two seemed so interested in killing me. Besides it’s not like that. I read souls, not thoughts.”
“What’s the difference?” asked Mr. Wolfe.
“The soul is much more than just thoughts—it’s feelings, passions, desires. It’s who you are—what type of person you are. Think of it like a painting: you rarely notice one stroke, you take in all of them combined.”
“But it’s possible though?” asked Hannah.
“Sometimes—but it’s more difficult and not as informative as you might think. Assuming I can push through to another’s thoughts, I can only see the one that is currently on his mind; I can’t just go in and find out anything I want to.”
“Maybe you will someday,” suggested Jane.
“What?” I asked, confused.
She continued, “Perhaps there is a lot you can do, you just haven’t learned how to do it yet. After all, it wasn’t that long ago you learned how to see in the dark and find the Brean.”
I hadn’t thought about that. I’d spent most of my life trying not to develop my gifts. A part of me was fascinated by the untapped possibilities; another part of me was scared. So far, my gifts had brought more pain than joy to my life.
I didn’t say anything.
Hannah approached the subject as if nervous to ask the wrong question. “Is there a way to block you from getting in?”
“Jane is the one to ask. I’ve never had to block myself,” I replied.
Jane looked at me. “May I tell her?”
“When he just glances at your soul, you can’t feel anything. It’s like someone overhearing your conversation; there really isn’t any way for you to know. But, if I remember right,” she said, while looking at me for confirmation, “there isn’t anything too specific at that point that he can see—just an impression of feelings and qualities, like if you’re greedy, deceitful, mean, things like that. Oh, and he can tell if you’re lying.”
She paused and waited for my reply.
“There is a little more to it than that,” I said. “But that’s a good summary.”
My abilities had developed beyond that since we were children, but I didn’t feel like getting into explanations. Her general meaning was close enough. Besides, from her description of my gift to Hannah, I had a sneaky suspicion that she wasn’t divulging all she knew, in an effort to keep me in the dark. She wasn’t lying, just holding a little something back for herself (in fact, not so unlike what I was doing to her). The problem for her was that I already knew what she was trying to hide.
She could feel whenever I attempted to read her soul, no matter how shallow. If Jane didn’t think I knew that, then it could be used against me. For example, if she said something, and I started to read her, she would know that I didn’t believe her. It was probably her little way of keeping some power over me….Oh, if she only knew the great power she already possessed over me!
She continued, “When he starts pushing deep beyond the surface, that’s when you can feel it. I suspect that, unless you’re aware of what he can do, you still wouldn’t know what it is…”
“What does it feel like?” interrupted Hannah.
“I was about to tell you if you will let me finish,” said Jane slightly irritated. She looked up while she tried to think of a description.
“Well?” prodded Hannah.
“You haven’t given me time to reply!” complained Jane.
“It’s just…he might be reading my mind right now, and I can’t stop him!”
Mr. Wolfe laughed, and I grinned, saying, “Got something to hide, do you?”
“No, but it’s disconcerting to think that someone else may be in here,” she said, tapping her finger on her temple.
“That is disconcerting,” I said with a laugh.
“Will you be serious? Do you know what it’s like to be a young woman with all these thoughts floating around?” she said, gesturing with her hands in some cloud-like form about her head.
I had to admit I didn’t.
“I don’t want things to get out; you could tell someone.”
Then turning to her father, Hannah asked, “Don’t you want to know how to block him, Father?”
Mr. Wolfe replied, “It has been some time, but I think I can remember how to do it.”
“You mean I’m the only one who doesn’t know how?” she asked exasperated.
Jane, now extremely annoyed, exclaimed, “Will you calm down and stop interrupting? I’ve been trying to tell you!”
“Oh,” said a more docile Hannah. “Sorry Jane, please continue.”
“As I was saying, when he digs down for specific or more meaningful information, you feel a pressure inside your head. And when he tries for individual thoughts, it’s painful, like a headache, except you can feel it moving through your mind like a snake as he searches.”
I winced at the description. Jane noticed and said, “I’m sorry, John; perhaps snake was too strong a word.”
I shrugged my shoulders. “No matter, I suppose you’d know better than I about what it feels like.”
She smiled. “Yes, since you used to try it on me all the time when we were children.”
“How do you stop him?” asked Hannah, still wearing an expression that showed she was somewhat fascinated and mortified by Jane’s description.
“It’s actually quite easy,” Jane replied. “When you feel the pressure inside your head, you push back.”
“How do you push back with your mind?” asked Hannah a little confused.
“It’s easier to do than it is to explain how it’s done. John, will you try reading Hannah, so she can feel what it’s like and practice how to block you?”
“I’d rather not,” I said dryly.
“Oh please,” begged Hannah.
There is something a little strange about explaining to someone where you’re vulnerable. Hannah took my silence as a concession and said, “Good, but you have to promise that you won’t look at anything that you shouldn’t.”
“Then don’t think of anything you don’t want me to see,” I replied grumpily.
“Don’t be angry. It’s just…what if we become mortal enemies someday—like fire and water? It would be useful to know.”
“So you expect a knight to explain the weakness in his armor?” I asked.
“Well, it’s only in case you go bad. I need to know how to defend myself.”
“Are you sure you want to?”
“Yes, positive. Slither away or whatever it is.”
I thoroughly disliked that visualization, even if it were true.
“In that case,” I said, and without any further warning, I gazed through her eyes and leapt into her soul.
I resisted the urge to rush in as deeply as I could and teach her a lesson. Instead I floated at the surface, trying to give her a chance to detect and get used to the feeling. She was innocent and pure, and fascinated by what I could do, if not a little jealous.
“That doesn’t feel so bad,” she said. “I don’t know what you were complaining about, Jane.”
“Just wait,” warned Jane.
Then Jane beckoned me to press deeper, and I did.
“Oh,” she said.
“Do you feel the pressure?” asked Jane.
“Yes, but it’s still not very noticeable.”
“Try getting him out by pushing back against it.”
She did and things started to get a little blurry and more difficult for me to see.
“That was easy,” she claimed.
I shoved back and descended deeper.
“Ouch,” yelped Hannah.
“Clear your mind and don’t think of anything you don’t want me to know,” I reminded her.
It bothered her to be thought of and treated as the young one. She desired to be seen more as an adult; thus the reason she was so insistent on being part of everything, and to know what we know. She loved her sister, but felt a little jealous of Jane, as she thought she was prettier. I disagreed. Hannah was very pretty, just not as developed.
“Hey, you tricked me! You told me not to think of anything that I didn’t want you to see, knowing that is exactly what I would think of!”
“Then you learned a lesson,” I said. “Even though I can’t dig around for whatever I want, it doesn’t mean that I can’t trick you into thinking about what I want to know. Sometimes it’s as easy as saying something like…Naehume, who is he?”
Her mind floated and drew up the image of Lord Wright, and then it flashed to a few other images of different men.
“Interesting,” I mused. “Who are they?”
Hannah’s jaw clenched, revealing the stringy muscles underneath the skin.
Sensing Hannah’s aggravation, Jane said, “Don’t get frustrated. Anger works in his favor; it makes it difficult for you to control your thoughts. Try to think of something innocent and remember, his tricks work both ways—you can use them against him. Envision something that will throw him off or upset him.”
“Or,” I countered, “something you did that was incredibly embarrassing.”
She rubbed her temples, trying to alleviate the headache. I felt like doing the same—my head was splitting; but I didn’t want them to know how difficult it was to keep inside someone’s head. She was still gently pushing back.
Another image floated to the surface. Jane was sitting next to me. We were in the forest, in front of my childhood home, and we were leaning towards each other, about to kiss…
“You watched!” I blurted.
She giggled. Using the distraction, and with a mental shove, she pushed me out and the images faded. I pressed back, but she was ready for a fight.
With me out, she breathed a sigh of relief. “You were right, Jane. Except it felt more like a snake with its mouth open, waiting to strike at the next passing thought.”
“Will you two be so gracious as to stop with the snake metaphor?”
“Oh, sorry,” said Hannah. “But it’s the closest thing I can think of to describe it.”
Jane, noticing her father wearing an amused look, asked him, “What are you smiling about?”
“A memory from a long time ago—when your mother was alive.”
“What was her name?” I asked curiously.
“Abigail. But I just called her Abby,” he said fondly. “When you were children, you two had an exchange not so unlike this one. For a while, there was a competition between you. You’d figure out a way to stop John, and he would figure out some trick to get back in. You’d get so frustrated that you’d cry.”
Coming to her sister’s defense now, years later, Hannah scowled and spat, “How mean! You had such an unfair advantage!”
“Oh, it wasn’t too unfair,” replied Mr. Wolfe moderately. “It was Abby who suggested that Jane use John’s gifts against him—and she did, frequently. There were times when John was so scared to walk back home that Abby or I would have to accompany him, because Jane had conjured up some sinister looking beast lurking out in the woods, waiting for him. Or she would take something of his and, when he tried to find out where she had hidden it, she would think of some far-off place, and he would go looking there. On one occasion, she even thought of a pile of manure…that only worked on him once.”
Hannah was laughing and beamed with pride at her sister. Jane was blushing and staring at her feet.
My jaw dropped. “You remember, don’t you?”
“I’m sorry,” she gushed. “We were just kids.”
Mr. Wolfe chuckled, “Some things never change.”
After the laughter had died down, Jane turned sober and said solemnly, “Father, some things do change.”
He looked at her quizzically, “What do you mean, my darling?”
“I mean, I believe it is time for us to leave Marysvale. There is nothing for us here.”
He grew serious and shook his head. “There is nowhere to go.”
“There is,” said Hannah eagerly. “We can go to Sarah’s.”
“No, no, I will not impose on her any longer. Sarah has given more than enough, and I will not go begging like a dog.”
“You don’t have to,” replied Jane. “Sarah wants you to come. She even ordered John to do whatever is in his power to bring you there.” Then softly, she added, “Father, do it for us.”
“But it’s not safe living out there in the open. We would be completely unprotected, and there is no one to defend you, my daughters.”
“I don’t care,” retorted Jane. “I would rather live a short life out there and be free, than slowly die here and be safe.”
He tugged at his beard, either in contemplation of giving in, or trying to form another argument.
Hannah, sensing weakness, kept up the pressure. “Does it really matter? Either way we live in fear—fear of the Brean, or fear of violence and starvation. I don’t think we are really that safe here. Look around, people are afraid. Afraid to talk to one another, afraid to do anything our leadership doesn’t approve of.”
He looked at me. “Do you agree with this, John?”
I thought for a moment, and then slowly replied, “That’s something you three must decide. I promised Sarah I’d do whatever I could to convince you to leave, short of force. But it looks like your daughters have done a better job of it than I ever could have. From what I’ve learned about Marysvale, I’m not staying. As soon as I can figure a way to get out with our horses, I’m leaving. I only need to know how many traveling companions to plan for.”
He got up from his chair and paced back and forth. Finally, he turned to his daughters. “There is no truly safe way out of Marysvale; it’s going to be a serious risk. You really want this?”
They both silently nodded.
He turned to me. “Will you do whatever you can to protect them?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Even if you have to sacrifice your own life?”
It was the first time in many years that I had a purpose for living. Someone was truly depending on me, and what’s more, I needed them. I loved Jane; and Hannah had grown to be like a sister to me, albeit a pesky one at times. Even so, she definitely made life more interesting. I had no desire to go back to an empty life of merely surviving; it wasn’t enough. I missed Sarah and would go back regardless, though it wouldn’t be the same without the girls close by. And I didn’t want to disappoint her by returning empty-handed. If it got down to it, sacrificing my life was an easy choice.
With conviction, I stated, “With my own life. I swear it.”
“Very well,” he said with a great sigh; but it wasn’t one of frustration or even one of defeat. It appeared to be a great sigh of…relief.