“You’re seein’ things.”
Sterling Acton shaded his eyes even though his much-faded hat was already slouched low enough over his eyeballs to tickle his lower lashes. “Is so a house,” he told the orange-banded snake draped around his neck. “Might even be a well out back.”
“Ooh, and maybe you’ll be greeted by a lady with grease stains on her purty lips sayin’ how she’s got a whole roast pig she can’t possibly finish on her own,” said the snake. “And then she’ll give you some boots that actually fit. Wouldn’t that be a novelty?”
“Maybe she’ll have some whiskey,” said Acton pointedly.
The snake groaned and flopped its head against his shoulder. “Don’t tease a body like that.”
Acton tried a grin on for size but his lips were too parched to stretch more than a murmur. He trudged toward the cheapjack house while the snake whimpered softly to itself. Acton would have whimpered as well but his ears were stuffed up like the petticoats under a preacher’s daughter’s dress and he didn’t care for the extra aggravation bellyaching would cause.
The small house was the same yellowish no-color of the rest of the wasted landscape, just as dusty and shriveled and dead. There was no well.
“Ain’t nobody gonna live here,” grumbled the snake.
Acton didn’t bother to answer but knocked on the door.
“That’s a good start,” said the snake. “Go on in. Could be there’s somethin’ nice waitin’ inside.”
The door’s wood was warped, and it took a good amount of shoving at all sides and corners for the door to pop open. Acton stumbled through into a bright kitchen area, made hazy with dust motes reflecting the morning light. He sneezed violently and, still off-balance from his battle with the door, stumbled again.
“What’d you say?”
Acton steadied himself with his hands flat on the thick tabletop and blinked through watery eyes at the source of the unexpected voice. A little old man, shirtless but suspendered, sat across from him eating out of a stone bowl with his fingers.
“Whoooops,” murmured the snake.
Acton immediately brought his hand up to his hat to remove it, but the feel of salt crusted on his brow made him reconsider. He left it on. “I’m terrible sorry, sir,” he said. He felt a powerful need to wipe his nose.
“I said I’m terrible sorry,” Acton repeated loudly. His raised voice made his sinuses ache. “I didn’t think anyone lived here.”
The little old man stuck his fingers in the bowl and played with the contents. “You could have knocked first,” he said peevishly.
“Eat him,” whispered the snake.
Acton hurriedly brought both elbows to his chest and wrapped his hands around the back of his neck, trying to hide the snake. “We were–I was wondering if you had any work that needed doing, in exchange for a meal.”
“Ehhh.” The little old man rubbed his chin. It was bare, but still made a scratchy sound against his hand. He peered at Acton, who knew very well how shabby he looked. He had a knife at his belt and an obsidian-headed ax on his back, but they were the only signs he was anything more than a half-starved transient. And there was the talking snake, but Acton hoped the old man wouldn’t notice it.
“Got a rat in the basement,” the old man said finally. “You could kill it for me.”
“A rat?” Acton said doubtfully. “One rat?”
The old man slapped his thighs. “Them stairs are long and my knees ain’t what they used to be.”
“Why not just use poison?”
A twisted lip and a shake of the head. “Gotten too smart for it.”
“All right, but… are you sure the rat’s still down there? They’s tricky creatures, it might have just run off at any point…”
“Oh, it’s down there,” the old man said, nodding. “I can hear it rustlin’ around the stores.”
“Can’t hear a blessed thing else,” the snake grumbled under Acton’s elbow.
“It just so happens,” he said, one hand drifting off his neck, “that I have here the most intelligent, well-trained rat-hunting snake you ever laid eyes on.” His hand closed around under the snake’s head before it had a chance to so much as squeak.
The old man bundled up his eyebrows. “Weirdest-lookin’ snake I ever saw.” Acton’s smile puckered at the edges. “Pretty big rat for that little thing, too.” The snake let out an indignant thhhhht! “But you’re already here, so you might as well have at it.” The old man slid back his chair and hopped onto the floor. Acton and the snake had time for one quick glance at the other before the old man came around the table and reached up to pat the snake on the head.
“Who’s a good boy,” said the old man.
“Acton,” said the snake warningly, quiet enough that the old man didn’t hear. Acton shrugged with his mouth and the old man gestured them to one of the doors leading from the kitchen.
“Basement’s down there,” he said. He took a key out from his pants’ pocket– pants that were more stained than his own, Acton noted– and unlocked the door. “It goes down a ways, but how else are you supposed to keep yer goods fresh, eh?”
“Eh,” Acton agreed. He unwound the snake from his neck and set it on the ground. “Go on,” he said.
The snake lowered its head flat to the ground, sulking. It grumbled to itself and slithered down the steps into darkness.
As soon as the tip of its tail passed the threshold, the old man closed and locked the door.
“Is that really necessary?” Acton said
The old man shook his head, though not in agreement. “Basement’s caulked up tight,” he said. “Nothin’ gets in or out.” He held out his hand. “Name’s Auger, by the way.”
Acton shook it before realizing it was still gummy from whatever the man had been eating with his fingers. “Auger, eh,” he said, trying to distract himself from the stickiness. “Must be the big boss hereabouts?” His stomach, not caring about the delicacies of hygiene, made a slurpy rumble.
“Hungry boy, ain’t you,” said Auger.
Only the hope of a meal kept Acton from shouting YES and making a dive for the bowl. Instead he shrugged with dignity and said, “I can always eat.”
Auger grunted. “Every Auger says the same thing. There’s reconstitooted gopher in the bowl, if you want some.”
The water in the stone bowl had an oily, off-brown color, but gopher was far more appetizing than some of the things Acton had made himself eat over the years. He sat at the table and fished out a morsel of the stringy meat. “How’d the rat get in?” Acton asked. “With that basement being all closed up.”
“Trapped it,” Auger said with satisfaction. “Had the door open already, so I kicked it down the stairs and locked it up.” Ruefully, he added, “Didn’t really think ahead to gettin’ the durn thing out again.”
“AAACTOOON, GET ME OUT OF HEEERE,” the snake howled.
Auger poked his finger in his ear. “You hear somethin’?”
“Can I borrow your key?” said Acton. Auger shrugged and handed it over. Acton unlocked the basement door, and the snake popped out faster than pus from a pimple. It corkscrewed up Acton’s leg and all up to his neck, screaming the whole while. “GO GO GO GO GO.”
“What about my rat?” Auger said plaintively.
“Uh.” Acton handed him back the key, looked at the most food he’d seen in two days, and reluctantly handed that to Auger as well. “Sorry we couldn’t help you,” he said.
“GO GO GO GO GO,” said the snake.
Bemused, Acton yanked open the front door and went outside.
“CAN YOU NOT GO ANY FASTER,” said the snake.
“Can you be a little quieter?” said Acton. “I might be stuffed up but that shrill li’l voice of yours does pierce the eardrums.”
“AHHHHH,” said the snake.
Once they’d walked far enough that the house was a hazy smear blended into the horizon, Acton said, “Are you done with that hollering yet?”
The snake drew in a breath.
“’Cause I can throw you pretty far,” said Acton.
The snake let it out quietly.
“What in tarnation were you hooting about?” said Acton. “I thought you’d burst a lung.”
“Only one I have, too,” said the snake. “Good thing it’s a doozy.”
Acton gently unwound the snake from his neck and held it so to look it in the eye. “You didn’t find some bad liquor down there, did you?”
“I am the most sober I have ever not wanted to be,” said the snake. “That weren’t no rat down there. That were a person.”
Acton’s upper lip twitched and he finally let out a deep sigh.
“We’re not,” said the snake.
Acton pursed his lips.
“Of course you are,” said the snake. “So I should mention that not only was there a livin’ person down there, but a bunch of bones. Piles of ‘em. Couldn’t crawl for the bones. Wanna guess what kind of bones they was?”
Acton’s whole face puckered.
“But you all go on,” said the snake. “I’m sure he’s jest a harmless old man what wouldn’t hurt a flea. If he knew what a proper flea were, anyway. Seemed a little confused about rats.”
“And snakes,” said Acton. “The way he acted with you, like he thought you were a dog.”
“So whyn’t he look at you and start hollerin’ rat?”
Acton rubbed his head with his free hand. The hat’s fabric crinkled under his palm and he paused. “I knew a horse once,” he said at last. “Wouldn’t let you near it if you were wearing a skirt. Owner said it thought you were a weird giant bird, ‘stead of a person.”
“You think you tricked him with yer hat?” the snake asked flatly.
He shrugged. “Wouldn’t be the first time.”
The snake ignored that. “So how you plannin’ to go in there and rescue the wee thing?”
“‘Wee thing’? Hang it, snake, you didn’t tell me it were some kid in there!”
“Who’d you think was in there, some big burly son of a gun? You was goin’ to blaze in there anyway!”
Acton drew in a deep breath and coughed it out dry. “All right. You’re right. We gotta help him, regardless.”
The snake tried to curl around Acton’s arm. “Yeah, ‘bout that…”
“It might’ve been a boy!” the snake yelled, coiled tight for sweet life as Acton violently wheeled his arm around. “They all sound the same at that age, with them squeaky voices of theirs! Besides, it were dark as midnight in a coyote’s bumhole! How much reconnoitrin’ you expect me to do when there ain’t nothin’ to see?”
Acton let his arm drop and the snake slid gratefully onto the dirt. “You know what tonight is too, don’t you?”
He wiped his runny nose with the sleeve of his shirt and said tiredly, “I’d look up at the sky all pointed-like, but the moon don’t match with the sun when it’s full.”
The snake chewed on that for a minute. “Ohhhhh,” it said, very quietly.
Acton’s stomach chose that moment to snarl again.
The snake twisted itself into a knot. “You sure she wouldn’t be safer in the basement for tonight?”
Acton let his knees turn out and plopped cross-legged onto the ground. “Safer from me, sure. Safer from him? Especially in the morning, if I can’t find anything to eat tonight and have to go after him feeling even more like a cactus without the water in it?” He sighed. “What’d she say, with that squeaky might’ve-been-a-boy’s voice of hers?”
The snake stuck out its tongue. “She said, ‘Eek, a snake!’ Then she threw a bone at me. You still want to go rescue her? Seemed able to take care of herself.”
“You know I don’t want to rescue her. ‘Specially not with my head full of hayweeds and no food in my belly.”
They stared at each other. “But,” said the snake.
Acton rose creakily. “Ain’t no buts,” he said. “Besides, there’s another reason to hurry on and save her. That old Auger… he offered me gopher meat.”
Acton plodded even more slowly back to the humble yellowing house, achingly aware of the sun’s downward spin. They reached the door, which swung slightly ajar. The old man hadn’t bothered to close it properly. Acton, not having the energy to knock hard enough to get Auger’s attention, nudged the door open with his foot.
The scene from earlier was unchanged. Auger still sat at the thick-topped table, poking at the greasy meat in his bowl. “Eh?” he said loudly. “Who’re you?”
Acton opened his mouth to spill his prepared speech, but Auger’s apparent forgetfulness sideswiped him. “I heard you had a rat problem,” he said instead.
“Rats. Yeah.” The old man nodded. “That’s a funny thing, you knowin’. Coulda swore I had someone in here earlier askin’ about that.”
“Well, I happen to be a first-rate varmint-hunter,” said Acton. “Go after werewolves all the time. Loads of them. Never missed a one. So a little thing like a rat in the basement oughtn’t be too much trouble.”
Auger looked duly impressed. “Werewolves, eh! Well, better you’n me.” He hopped up from his chair and walked stiff-legged to the basement door. “Guess this won’t take you too long then, eh?”
“Nosir,” said Acton, with a look out the window at the pinkening sky. “Sure hope not.” He used both hands to unwrap the snake from his shoulders and set it on the floor. “Stay,” he said.
Auger paused from unlocking the door to give the snake a decisive thump on its tail. “Good-lookin’ dog.”
“Woof,” said the snake, sourly.
Acton said, “Now are you sure you really need to lock the door behind me, seeing as how this’ll only take me a quarter of a minute?”
“Ain’t takin’ no chances! Don’t you worry, you just give this door a thumpin’ and I’ll come over an’ open it for you.”
Acton gave the snake a meaningful look. The snake figured out a way to shrug.
The old man opened the door. “Mind the steps,” he said. “It’s plenty dark down there.”
Acton went through and the door shut behind him. There was the click of a key in the lock and he was left in the cool dark of the stairs.
Not just dark, but completely black. He waited a minute to see if his eyes would adjust, but there was nothing aside from the tiny speck of light through the lock for him to use, and five steps down even that disappeared.
He tried to whistle, for company, but his lips and even tongue were too dry, and so he crept down the stairs one by one, waiting for a bone to skitter underfoot.
How far down did Auger dig, anyway?
“Hello?” he called. “Anyone down here who maybe don’t want to be?”
“Hello?” a little voice called back. It sounded a long way away. “Who’s there?”
Acton kept one hand on the moist earthen wall for support and felt for each step with his foot before plunking it down on the semi-shaky plank. “My name’s Acton,” he said into the nothing. “I’m going to get you out of here, all right?”
“Really?” It did sound like a girl’s voice. Hollow clatters marked her movement.
“Really.” Another step down and his foot stuttered on a bone. “What’s your name?”
“Auger,” she said.
“I had a dog like you when I was a boy,” said the old man. He was sitting in his usual chair, bent double to stroke the snake along its scarred back.
“Funny thing? I doubt it,” said the snake.
Auger near jumped out of his seat. “You never told me you could talk!”
“I’m not talkin’,” said the snake. “You jest a lonely ol’ man needin’ to get some weights off yer chest. Prolly I’m just yer subconscious. Bark bark woof.”
Auger clapped his hands and hooted. “I’d no idea I had such a clever psykoology! That durn rat never told me anything like that when it was squeakin’.”
“I’ll bet,” said the snake. “What did it say?”
The old man looked disgusted. “Ahh, you know rats. They’ll say any nonsense comes into their head. Like ‘I’m not a rat!’ when any fool can see that’s what in front of ‘em. Or ‘But I’m yer daughter!’” He shook his head. “Any nonsense.”
“I oughta bite you,” muttered the snake.
Astonishingly, the old man laughed. “I’d bite you back,” he said. “My teeth are stronger’n yers.” And he bared his teeth, and they were short and blunt and yellow and streaked with dirty black cracks. The snake instinctively opened its mouth to strike and a powerful stench of rotting meat hit the roof of its mouth.
The snake fell back, a little woozy. “You could kill an ox with that breath,” it said. “What you bin eatin’, vulture vomit?”
“Whatever’s around,” said Auger. “Cows. Snakes. Rats.”
The snake coiled up. “Pretty big rats, eh.”
“Hoo!” Auger said appreciatively. “Hoo,” he repeated, and looked to the basement door.
“Y’know, I don’t think I caught yer name,” said the snake.
“Ogre,” he said.
Acton froze. “Auger?” he said.
“Close enough,” said the girl. “You got a cold? You sound kind o’ froggy.”
Acton pinched his nose and blew. His eardrums made a sad little pop. He released his nose and sniffed deeply and wetly. “Yeah,” he said slowly. “Little under the weather.” His back was itchy, and he hoped it was just the sweat drying. “You kin to the man upstairs?”
The girl was still moving through the bones. They cracked more than he expected under her weight. “My daddy,” she said matter-of-fact. “He’s gone a bit funny, but I know he don’t mean it. How’d you git down here without his hollerin’? He thinks everyone’s a rat nowadays, or somethin’ crazy.”
He stayed by the stairs and clapped a hand on his hat. “Couldn’t say,” he lied. “Now, I got a thought. Maybe if I go back upstairs and bring down like an apron or its type, and you put it on, then maybe he won’t mistake you for something you ain’t.” His back was distinctly itchy. Maybe it was the moon he knew was rising every moment, maybe it was his head cold, but the little girl’s calm was giving him the heebie-jeebies.
The resettling of bones was coming closer. “You gonna give him a signal when you git to the door? He’s pretty deaf, like. I bin hammerin’ and hammerin’ and he don’t hear it none.”
“Terrible thing, to be stuck down here,” Acton said uselessly as his foot stabbed for the steps behind him.
“You know the worst part?” said girl-Auger.
Acton gulped. “I can guess a couple.”
Closer. “Not gettin’ enough to eat.”
His stomach growled like a living thing.
The bone-sounds paused, and the girl sniffed the air hard. “You bring a dog down here?”
“Ogre,” repeated the snake.
Auger– Ogre– slapped his bare stomach with pride. “Not much to look at now, eh? In my heyday I’d have slurped you up like a bowl of porridge, fur and all.” His eyes grew misty. “Good days, those. Now though, I dunno, you get old, you don’t need to eat so much any more. A good gopher’ll last you a week, easy.”
“Sure,” said the snake. “How many legs did it have?”
Ogre waved his hand as if dismissing the question. “Two,” he said, a little uneasily. He paused. “And bloody big wings.”
“Uh huh,” said the snake. “Ever git the feelin’ that maybe them critters you been eatin’ and them critters you been seein’ haven’t quite matched up? Maybe the flavor jest ain’t the same?”
“No, no,” said Ogre. His lined face grew even more creases, like an accordion squeezing up. “I can’t be wrong about something like that. How could anyone git that wrong?”
The snake curled itself around a table leg. “Out of curiosity, don’t mean nothin’ by it, jest thinkin’ back to what you said beforehand… you got yerself a daughter?”
Ogre rolled his thumbs and fingers together. “No,” he said nervously. “Sure I don’t. Why would you ask it? That’s a mean question to ask a man, accusin’ him of forgettin’ his own kin.”
The snake sighed with a long thhhhht and glided up the blocky leg to the top of the table. It stared at the old man while its tail drooped and dipped off the corner. “How d’you feel ‘bout dogs on the table?” it said.
Ogre didn’t seem to hear, either through deafness or deliberation. “I’d rem’ber a daughter,” he said to himself. “There’d be a mother for her too, eh? Nobody gits that hungry.” His eyes darted from the stained table-top to the basement door.
“Y’all better open it,” the snake said. Ogre didn’t respond, and the snake drew a breath to holler, but at that moment there came a terrible wallop from the other side of the door, so loud that they both startled into the air.
The snake zipped off the table and out the front door and buried itself faster than water. With its adrenals riding high, it felt the thunderous vibrations coming from the wild banging on the basement door. There was a moment of calm and the snake twitched violently when the key turned in the lock.
Even loosely buried under the topsoil, the snake heard Ogre say:
“Now how do you figger a horse got in he—”
The next morning, the snake crawled cautiously through the front door and surveyed the damages.
The table was shoved up against one wall, the crusted remains of yesterday’s winged gopher splattered every which way. Acton lay naked sidewise on the floor, belly distended.
The snake slid up and tickled Acton’s nose hairs with its tongue.
Acton reflexively tossed his head to the side, but couldn’t manage to bring a hand up to swipe at the snake. He kept his eyes squeezed closed as he said, “Gawd… a’mighty…”
“You look like ten pounds of shit bust out of a two-pound bag,” said the snake. “Daintily speakin’.”
Acton’s hand drifted up to his face, where it nearly had the strength to pick the sand out of the corners of his eyes. “I done ate that little girl,” he said.
“You done ate that little Ogre,” said the snake. “And the big Ogre too, I reckon.”
Acton let his hand flop limp. “Say that name again?”
The snake nestled into the warm spot of Acton’s armpit. “Ohhhhh-grrrrr,” it said distinctly. “Like them man-beasts what eat common folk. ‘Long with everything else. But mostly they like them some human.”
“I thought he was saying Auger,” he groaned.
“Sure you did.”
“That little girl—”
“Ogre’s daughter. Leastwise I assume as much. The old bug seemed a bit confused on that score, and maybe I’m makin’ doughnuts out of cow patties, but it sure sounded like one day he jest got confused about what was what. Or whom.”
“I do recall feeling some definite unease with her. Sort of figured that was just the wolf coming on.”
“If it makes you feel better,” said the snake, “I’m pretty sure that gopher meat were vulture.”
Acton stayed quiet.
“Dang lot of big bones down there in the basement, too,” the snake went on. “Mighty hard gettin’ a cow down there. Prolly most of it was transients. Or mothers,” it muttered, very quietly.
“I done ate people,” said Acton.
“They wasn’t people, idjit.”
“They looked pretty people,” Acton said loudly, and then let out a muffled belch.
“They was monsters who ate people.”
“Then what am I?”
The snake bit him in a tender spot. Acton managed a small moan in protest. “You don’t eat people and you ain’t a monster and you was a near-starved wolf in a cage to boot.”
“If she weren’t one of them beasties, though—”
The snake sighed and slid up to Acton’s face. Very deliberately, it bit down on his nose just enough to pinch it shut.
“Damn it, snake,” said Acton, his voice gone nasal and wonky. He batted at the snake, not very strongly. “Dagnabbit, I can feel my snot going into my brain!” The snake relaxed its grip and settled back into Acton’s armpit.
“She were a beastie, though,” said the snake. “I believe it with all my heart, which is much smaller’n yers and therefore condenses said belief into a perfect truth.”
“That old man was gone wrong in the head,” said Acton. “What if he weren’t no ogre?”
“You mean, what if he weren’t no ogre, jest someone who accidental-like locked his daughter in the basement ‘cause he thought she were a rat? I can keep this up all day, by the by, plus I don’t need to blow my nose.”
Acton groaned again. “Any of my clothes survive?”
“I’ll take a look. Must be yer hat’s still a hat, and yer sharpies. Dunno if you can salvage anything else.” The snake couldn’t grin, but it wanted to. “Yer boots might still be okay.”
“Hell,” said Acton. “I ain’t done, you know.”
“I know,” said the snake. “And I ain’t done fixin’ you up, so shush while I find you a sock or somethin’ so’s you can wipe yer sniffer.”
Acton sagged onto his back. “I’ll have to fetch my knife and such,” he said.
“But not yet. You’ll be wantin’ a flame of some kind too, next you go down. Can’t you have sprainin’ an ankle on top of everything else.” The snake crawled over Acton on its way to investigate the rest of the shack.
Acton swallowed and it hurt. His throat ached to say something more, but then from a side room the snake called, “You realize I been without whiskey for ages now? I hope you appreciate me doin’ all this sober,” and the flinch turned into a smile and Acton gave himself the luxury of saying nothing at all.
Laura DeHaan is a healthcare practitioner in Toronto. If you could use more talking snakes and werewolf cowboys in your life (and who among us couldn’t?), check out Stupefying Stories #16 and Andromeda Spaceways In-Flight Magazine #59 for more of their heartwarming hijinks. If you prefer genderbent queered fairy tales (you can, she don’t judge), her novelette Becoming Beast is available on Payhip. She also makes chainmail jewelry, but who doesn’t these days.