by Laurel Halbany
Edited by Brian J. White
“Another cigarette?” she asked. He nodded, and she fished one out of the half-empty pack for him. She watched with interest to see if he could get it between his lips and operate the lighter one-handed without dropping either. It was awkward, but he got it lit and took a long draw.
“Want one?” he said. “I think there’ll still be enough to last me.”
She shook her head. “They don’t like smoke,” she said, pointing to the plain, mud-colored scarf that covered her hair, or rather, the snakes that made up what would have been hair on a normal woman. Right now they were quiet, sleeping maybe, so the scarf just looked as if she had a big hairdo underneath. She didn’t need to hide them from him; he guessed it was just a habit, hiding what she was.
In silence, they watched the thin curls of smoke rise in the flickering light of the oil lamps. Her house was built into a cave on a rocky hillside, cool and hidden from the blazing Aegean sun; not to mention from the residents of the other islands in this archipelago. They were few, but some of them might remember the oldest stories about the woman who lived here.
He tried to push himself up from the cushions to reach the ashtray. His left leg was almost entirely stone now, and he had trouble dragging himself sideways. Without a word, she picked up the ashtray and put it closer to the bed. It was an ochre and black clay bowl about the size of half a grapefruit, probably two thousand years old. He wondered what an archaeologist would make of the bowl, if it were ever found: priceless ancient pottery smeared with ash from American cigarettes.
He crushed out the butt. He felt as though he should spend his last moments doing something important or profound, but with the petrifaction slowly creeping over his body like a cold sunset, he didn’t think he would be capable of doing much; and he found himself utterly unable to think up any witty final words. Not that anyone would hear them, other than her, and he doubted she would remember in a few centuries.
“Will you put me in the garden, afterward?” he asked. “With the others.”
She hesitated. “If you like, I can. But those are there as a, a warning? They were not friendly when they came here.” He thought her English was pretty good, considering she knew it only from her hand-cranked shortwave radio. It had been left on her island decades ago by a man who now stood in the olive groves, gathering bird crap.
“All of them?”
He reached across to touch the gray stone of his left hip, where he had been bitten. It felt smooth and cold under his hand, like marble, and he searched in vain for the puncture marks. She leaned in and caught his hand in hers, pulling him away from touching the dead place. Her hands were so small that he could have wrapped his fist entirely around them. But they were warm and alive.
“I’m sorry,” she said again. He nodded. He knew she was sorry, and so was he, but it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t the snakes’ fault, really. They were part of her, but they were still animals, dumb and aggressive when threatened. In the ecstasy of their lovemaking he had forgotten his own strength, pulling her down to him, and he had crushed one of the snakes. Dying, it struck.
“People think it was meeting your eyes. At least, in the way the stories are told now.”
“No. It was the poison, always.”
“How did you get that close to them?” He regretted saying it immediately; afraid she might take it as a suggestion that she routinely slept with and then murdered total strangers.
She pointed toward the antechamber to her cave. “Wine,” she said. “I see their boats coming, I put out wine, and olives and bread, and I hide. They are hot, and tired, and thirsty from the long trip. They sit and eat and get sleepy. They do not hear me come back.”
“But you didn’t do that to me.”
“You were different.”
“How could you possibly have known that?”
She shrugged. “I have seen many people in many years. I knew.”
She had told him, after the first time they made love, that he was the only one who had come here to do something other than cut off her head and hunt for the gold or jewels or other treasure she might have hoarded over the centuries. All he’d wanted was a working vacation to write a travel article, and then he’d gone off-course and found her island. And her.
Even knowing what she was, he still loved her.
The stone had reached the left side of his chest now. He knew he had only a short time before his heart turned gray. He gently removed his hand from hers and reached for the knot of her scarf. Before she could protest, he pulled it off. The snakes stirred, their beautiful green scales glittering in the lamplight.
“Your real jewels,” he slurred. His left lung seemed to have stopped working.
She gave him a last, sweet kiss, her snakes brushing against his skin as though they would miss him too.