with Danny Nelson
(published 2009 in The Fob Bible)
Satan and the snake had watched each other for a long time before either spoke. It was mid-morning—it was always mid-morning—and the breeze was pleasant and warm in the thick tangles of shining dark leaves. The snake, a long purple shadow, was hanging in negligent coils from a branch of the tree hanging with blue-spotted white flowers and dark red fruit. Her large head rested on her casually muscled form and she watched Satan, who was sitting on a rock in a dusty clearing, rubbing his shoulders where his large black wings sprung, grimacing from time to time and keeping a close eye on the snake.
It was Satan who spoke first, after his grimaces and rubbing had finished. “You are very beautiful,” he said.
The snake stirred, blinking. “How can you know what beauty is?” she asked. Her voice was low, and modulated. “Only the gods know that.”
Satan shrugged. “I don’t know how I know, snake. I only know that I know—and you are very beautiful.”
“Are you a god, then?” Her voice was cool and musical, like a brook, and she regarded Satan with cool eyes.
He laughed, leaning back into his wings and grabbing his knees. “Do I look like a god to you?”
“You look like half a bat,” said the snake as she eased down from the tree. “The other half might be monkey, might be man. You have more hair than the other two-legs in this part of the tree-place.”
“Not a god though. That’s a relief,” said Satan. He leaned forward slightly and studied her as she moved from under the shadows of the trees. “You are beautiful—look at you in the sunlight. You’re like a living bruise.”
“What part of creation is a bruise?” asked the snake.
“A very beautiful part.” Satan’s mouth twitched into a smile.
“Only the gods know beauty,” repeated the snake. “When this tree-place was created, the gods called it Beauty, but no creature may know what that means. Beauty is a mystery of the gods.”
“It’s a mystery, I will grant you that,” said Satan. “To be honest, I’m trying to figure it out myself. It’s one of the reasons I dropped down here—I thought it might give me some ideas.”
The snake regarded Satan with deep interest. “Do you know beauty? Can you see it?”
Satan’s smile was long and white. “Everywhere, no-legs. This is a beautiful garden.”
“I see you are playing a game with words, then, because this tree-place is Beauty—and therefore beautiful.” The snake twisted herself back upon her mighty loops to rise to Satan’s seated height. “And I am part of Beauty, and therefore beautiful—this is what you mean?”
Satan laughed. “I did not expect you to coil me in my own words. But here, I’ve given you a compliment and I expect it repaid—do you think I’m beautiful?”
The snake shook her head. “I don’t know beauty. It is a mystery of the gods. I do know you are made well—as the gods made you—and therefore you must be beautiful.”
“A true compliment. Yet I can’t imagine that anything—least of all myself could be more beautiful than you are,” said Satan.
The snake blinked. “This is a new thing you have said.” She thought for a moment. “How can something be more beautiful than something else? Both things are made by the gods.”
Satan shrugged. “Personal preference, I suppose. I’m sure the gods think everything is as beautiful as everything else. I just find you more beautiful than—say, that rock over there.” Satan pointed to a rock jutting from the muddy earth, crumbling and charred-looking as a burned stick. “It looks as if it tumbled from Heaven, doesn’t it?”
“I don’t feel more beautiful than the rock,” said the snake.
“That is because you are a woman,” said Satan, “and—innocent or not—some things breed true.”
The snake blinked at him.
“Don’t worry,” said Satan. “It’s just a joke. And not a very good one, either.”
“You use words I don’t know,” said the snake. “What is a joke?”
“Just—” Satan waved his arms helplessly. “Something that doesn’t mean anything.”
“Why say it then?”
“Well—rather, something that means only the pleasure of saying it.”
The snake thought this over for a moment, sinking back into her coils. “Sometimes I follow a monkey, quietly, as silently as I can. I try to see how close I can come before he notices I am there. Sometimes I think of catching him in my coils. There is no reason for this that I can see, but it is pleasant to me. Is this what you mean by joke?”
“That seems close enough.”
“So, you follow me with words, telling me things that don’t matter, and aren’t really, because it is pleasant to you?”
Satan smiled. “Hopefully, it’s pleasant to you as well.”
“The sun is pleasant,” said the snake. “I don’t know about words.”
Satan laughed again. He had a warm voice, round and full. “Perhaps words don’t know about you either.”
The snake shook her head and tasted the air. “Know of me? Is this another joke?”
Satan stirred. “Beg pardon?”
“‘Perhaps words don’t know about me’? Can words know? Do words know about you?”
Satan scraped his tongue between his teeth. “No. Words do not know me. I only speak them.”
The snake stuck her tongue at him, tasting the air uncertainly. “You say things I cannot understand. You say only what you are not.”
“I am not more things than I am.”
“That may be. I have never considered what I am not.”
“Why should you? You are beautiful, and beauty—at least, for me—is its own argument.”
The snake turned away at this, and for a minute there was silence. Together they watched a mouse run through the snake’s coils, pick up a small seed from the ground beneath her mighty loops, and run off again.
“What are you then?” asked the snake. “Do you spend your days looking for beauty the way that mouse scampers about to find her food? Is beauty like food?”
“It can be.” Satan sighed and gazed at her as he considered a reply. “I’m not much like a mouse, though.” He rubbed a hand through the hair on his neck. “Do you know the lions with their great curved claws, their heavy coats, their sharp teeth?”
“They are creatures of the far-tree place.” The snake tipped her angled head and regarded him.
“Yes. Have you seen them eat? Snapping at the straw, losing most of it because their teeth are too sharp?” He sighed. “That is what I am, I guess—a lion with teeth too sharp to be satisfied with the food I am given.”
“But how could the gods make a creature that isn’t built for itself?” asked the snake. “Surely that is a very large joke.”
“Yes,” said Satan. “Very large.” He sighed again. His face distorted into a grimace and he returned to rubbing his shoulders.
“What is different?” asked the snake, confused at his expression.
“I’ve been flying a long way, and I’m tired and sore.”
“Tired I know,” said the snake. “One time I went from one end of the tree-place to the other, where the lions are. It was marvelously stretching.” She flickered her tongue at him. “This sore, though—that I don’t know.”
“I can show you, if you like,” said Satan, smiling. “But I have to warn you, you won’t like it.”
The snake hissed with laughter. “You’re full of new words! What is like?”
Satan laughed along. “Let me explain, if I can. Is the far end of the tree-place much different from this end?”
The snake nodded. “Yes, far different. The flowers there are blue, and the trees have no fruit for eating, and there are more grasses. The creatures have long legs and great necks and they run in straight lines, in the way birds fly.”
“So, if you were there, you might wish to be here?”
“Why, I suppose,” said the snake. “But if I wished to be here, I would come here.”
“And so you would,” said Satan. “But say you were trapped there and couldn’t come here?”
“That would be vexing,” said the snake. “Like being caught on a rough tree branch, or in a too-small den under the earth, with all your muscles jumping to move forward?”
“Just so,” said Satan. “But it would be the muscles of your inside that would be straining to move.”
“You say things I’ve never thought of before,” said the snake. She coiled at Satan’s feet and rested her chin on a loop of her mighty spine, looking up at him with her black eyes. “There are muscles below muscles, and so a feeling deeper than feeling?”
“I think so,” said Satan. “At least, it is the case with me. It’s how I know I want to stop and see what is in this place and not in that place. My muscles don’t know it—I know it, without my muscles. I simply like it.”
“This is a very new thing,” said the snake. “I’ve never heard it said before, not even among the birds, and I thought they new everything. And so sore is like being trapped on the far end of the tree-place, unable to return where I like?”
“Perhaps,” said Satan. “A bit.”
“I think I should like to know what sore is, even though it sounds disagreeable,” said the snake. “It seems that it would help me understand the far tree-place, where the creatures speak a quicker language I don’t always understand.”
“If you ask me, then,” said Satan, and reached down and gathered the snake into his arms, the great purple coils draping his arms and shoulders. Grabbing at the snake’s wide body, he gave it a vicious twist with his wrists, turning the smooth skin about on the layers of muscle. The snake snarled in a wide hiss and opened her hood at him, and Satan dropped her hastily.
“That’s sore,” said Satan, climbing back up on his rock and looking wary. “I said you wouldn’t like it.”
“I don’t,” said the snake, her hood still half-raised. “How unpleasant! And, quite the strangest thing, I wanted to bite you for showing it to me!” She nuzzled the offended section of her body. “Does sore make creatures forget what is food and what is not?”
“If you bit me, I would have been very sore indeed,” said Satan. He was balanced on the triangular top of the rock, his wings outstretched for flight. “It might have been the last thing I ever felt.”
“If this is how your wings feel, then I—think it should not be,” said the snake, sounding confused. “Did you know your wings would feel this way if you flew here?”
“At about the seventh day, I knew,” said Satan with a half-smile.
“I do not understand you,” said the snake. She unfolded herself with a little shake, her hood falling loose. “Why would any creature want to feel sore?”
“What if you knew that feeling sore would help you understand beauty?” asked Satan.
“Oh, you make another joke.” The wind swelled slightly and the glossy green leaves billowed out among their trees. “Only the gods know about beauty.”
“That may be.” Satan sounded tired. He eased himself back down upon the rock, sat facing the far-off sun. “But the gods made beauty to be enjoyed, surely.”
The snake nodded, but her eyes were uncertain. “Only the gods know Beauty.”
“Yes, but they created the world for you—and all creatures—to enjoy. And the world is beautiful.”
“Yes. Beauty is its name.”
“Precisely. But sore we do not enjoy. We enjoy beauty, but we do not enjoy sore. We do not like sore. We are not meant to like sore.”
The snake tasted Satan on a passing breeze. “I think I understand.”
Satan touched the snake where he had twisted her. She flinched briefly, but the sore feeling had changed. With his other hand, Satan gestured behind her. “The fruit is very red, isn’t it?”
The snake turned her head to look. “That is what tree-fruit is,” said the snake simply. “It is given us to eat.”
“You eat the fruit?” asked Satan, looking surprised.
“Of course. I eat what all snakes eat: fruit, berries, the seeds of the wide trees.”
“How does the fruit taste?”
“The feeling—in your mouth. Is it like? Is it sore?”
The snake pondered, the only sound the slight, wet flick of her tongue. “It is food—” She hesitated. What has it to do with like? It is not sore . . . .”
“What would it take to make it like?”
A shadow passed over the snake and Satan turned his eyes up. As he watched, an eagle flew by again, its black eyes upon them.
“I think,” said the snake. “I think I wouldlike the fruit, if it were warm, like the sun, here, on my scales.”
“Yes,” said Satan. “I think I feel what you feel.”
“And I feel more for you, half-bat. It is as if you are more of a snake, now that I know sore. Perhaps I like you. Is that very strange?”
Satan laughed softly. “No. It is the most natural thing in the world.” Hs stroked the heavy rounded scales between her eyes with a long finger. “Do you understand the far tree-place better, too?”
The snake shook her head. “There are not many snakes there. The creatures have great hooves of stone and we let them roam the flatter lands alone. There is room enough in the trees and in the smaller grasses.”
“Yes. The garden is large. There is a place for almost everyone.” Satan’s gaze lingered on the horizon. “Tell me—if you were to build your own garden, what would be there?”
“Is this a joke?” asked the snake, winding around Satan’s arms so that she could rest on his shoulder and look into his eyes. “No, I see it is not a joke, though you talk about something that may be and yet isn’t. My own snake garden, is that it?”
“If you like. Everything for you.”
“Why would I think of another place when this place has everything there is? But I see your mind likes to see things that are beyond what is really there. Does that come from flying above the earth?”
“That might be,” said Satan. “Sometimes I fly too high, or too far.”
“Then you should be careful not to be too sore,” laughed the snake. “But if I were to make a snake garden, then the snakes would also fly, so they could see the things the birds see.” The snake’s head slid into the hollow of Satan’s throat, lay heavily near his heart.
“Do you want to fly?”
“There is another word, want,” said the snake. “Does want mean a stretching of the inner muscles?”
“Yes. I think so.”
“Then yes, I want it,” said the snake, unwinding herself to loop back and around Satan’s shoulders. “I would like to see the far tree-place and this tree-place all on the same day, and have the eagle’s sharp eyes to see the smallest creatures under the trees. But it cannot be, since I have no wings, so it is a joke and nothing more to think of it.” The snake hissed merrily. “How pleasant, to think of a snake with wings!”
Satan laughed. “It’s strange that the gods did not think of it.”
The snake regarded him, her black eyes sharp. “But the gods thought of everything, they say.”
“And yet—” Satan said with a wink— “they never thought of a snake with wings, for surely they would have wanted to create such a very pleasant thing.”
The snake laughed. “I see now that you’re trying to trap me in my own words, like clever briars. But still, the thought of a snake with wings is a more pleasant thing to me than anything I have ever seen in the real world.” The snake sighed, and felt the edges of Satan’s shoulders beneath her belly. “Is this what is meant by beauty?”
“You would be very beautiful with wings,” said Satan. “Great purple wings, dripping with warm feathers and long, strong pinions to ride the swelling wings with.” His hands ran along the snake’s spine as it wound around his torso and legs. When they passed along the spot he had made sore, she noticed that the feeling was new.
“You say such very pleasant things,” said the snake. “I very much like listening to you. I would rather be here with you than anywhere else in the tree-place.”
Satan smiled. “It has been a long, long time since that was said to me.” Cupping the snake’s head in his hands, he said, “I think I become a little more snake, as well.”
The snake tasted his nose with her tongue. It smelled of something warm and sharp.
“Your smell reminds me of sore, but makes me feel like,” she said. “How is it that you make me feel things as quickly as you give me the words for them?”
Satan shrugged. “Perhaps the feelings were always there, and you just needed the words for them.”
“And you will tell me more words?”
Satan smiled. “I’m afraid I haven’t the time. I was just resting my wings.” He turned his neck to rest his cheek on her scales. “I am going to build my own garden, and I wanted to see what beauty was here first.”
“Your own garden? For half-bats?” asked the snake, rising to look at him, nose to nose.
Satan nodded. “For whatever ones will want to be there.”
“I see now that want is another word for sore,” she said. “You will not be here, and I want you to be here. That makes my inner muscles feel like sore.” She thought for a moment, her tongue flicking in and out. “I do not like this sore. It makes me want to bite you in your inner muscles.”
“I’m sorry you’re sore,” said Satan.
“What is sorry?” The snake untwisted herself from Satan and pooled on the rock beside him, watching him earnestly.
“Another word for sore, I suppose,” said Satan. “My inner muscles are sore because yours are.”
“So much sore! Can there be an end to it?”
“I hope not,” said Satan quietly. Leaning forward, he tasted the snake’s head with his tongue, and blessed her. “Little snake, I must leave you—but I do hope we’ll meet again.”
“What is hope?” asked the snake, but at that moment the wind came up and Satan spread his wings and leapt into it, laughing.
“Hope is marvelously stretching!” he called, and then with a “Goodbye, no-legs!” he sped across the sky, his great, sore wings pulling at the air.
The snake sat on the rock for a long time, watching where Satan had flapped away to his new garden.
It was not until long after that she noticed that another creature had wandered into the clearing—another two-legged one, like the half-bat, though without his great wings, and smelling of female. The snake regarded the creature evenly. The creature stood awkwardly but purposefully, her head to one side, her gaze gently scrutinizing the tree the snake had so recently hung from. With one finger, she stroked a dark red fruit and watched it swing slowly from its branch.
The snake saw something she had never seen before. “You are very beautiful,” she said.
Eve turned to face the snake, startled. “How can you know what beauty is?” she said, ducking her head with a slight blush. “Only the gods know that.”