The vizier’s son was an enigma. He didn’t like to fight up close but he was lethal with a horn-bow. He disdained knives but was an artist with the long blade sword. He designed gardens, and wrote poetry, but was not interested in participating in the lord’s council. In short, he was not rounded. He was, in truth, not balanced – ludicrously skilled in some respects, he abdicated other key tasks.
“What will we do with him?” worried his father. “He’s not suited to service, and he isn’t a conqueror. Poetry is not a way of life.”
“Perhaps an architect?” wondered his mother. “I don’t mean a workman. I mean a master.”
“Does he draw?” asked his father, gloomily.
“’Fraid so,” his mother admitted. “He’s really rather good.”
Her husband glared at her.
“He’s good at lots of things, but that’s no good at all. I need him to be good at what is required of him, to the degree required. No more, no less.”
His wife shrugged sympathetically, and went back to her embroidery.
The boy took to staying out all night, attending long sessions of theatre and dance under the moonlight in the company of expensive women.
“Is he any good at that?” his father snapped.
“Singing? Sings like a bird,” the mother confessed. “The women adore him.”
The boy became a wine connoisseur. The finest foods were prepared for him by the most ambitious chefs, eager for the style-maker to become their patron. He had a palate, but food was not his passion.
“Could he be an orator or a judge?” mused his father.
“They’re rather different functions,” his wife murmured.
“Either. Any. As long as it’s recognised as useful. I can’t have my son spend his life being elegant.”
One day the young man showed up for formal audience with his father.
“I have an announcement,” he said (his name was Caspar). “With all deference due a son to his father, in all humility, I must inform you I have taken a wife.”
“A wife?!” shrilled the vizier. “How dare you? You must realise the son of someone with my prominence is a marketable asset. You don’t dare marry without my permission. You must marry my choice.”
“I’ve married already,” said Caspar, bowing.
“I’ll have her killed!” his father snorted.
“I don’t think so,” Caspar answered, without raising his head.
As he spoke, a young woman slid through the crowd (there was always a crowd for the vizier’s public audiences). She was tall and slim, and wrapped from head to toe in dark green fine fabric.
“I am Serpa,” she said, addressing the vizier. “Caspar has married me.”
The vizier looked her over. His heart was suddenly heavy.
“What are you?” he asked. “Are you a magi? A serpent? A water-dragon?”
“That’s right,” smiled Serpa, her green eyes gleaming through the fine veil.
“That’s right which? All of the above?”
She nodded, and bent to one knee. “All of the above, my lord.”
The vizier stared glumly. Then he motioned to one of his aides to come close. The aide left the room and returned moments later with a good sized gold casket, inlaid with jade.
“Here,” said the vizier. “You see something in him. You’re smarter than I am. Take him as my gift, and take this gift too. See what you can make of him.”
The aide presented the casket to Serpa, who turned her head demurely to the side, a traditional indication of acceptance. The aide raised the casket’s lid.
Inside the golden box was a necklace and earring set. The necklace had multiple strands, the earrings had loops and long dangles. All was green: malachite, jade, emerald, tourmaline. The stones covered every filament of gold.
“Thank you,” said Serpa. “I will treasure your gifts.”
And with that, Caspar and Serpa departed his father’s house.
In a fortress to the east, they set up home in the highest turret. The fortress was home to the snake clan. Here, elegance was a way of life. The snake clan had mastery of long thin blades and poisons, but also poetry, drawing, garden design and calligraphy. They sang epics which lasted nights, sometimes weeks, stories with sinuous plots and exquisite verse structures. The songs of the snake people had multiple voices, some singing harmonies, some singing narrative, some singing wondrous emotional effects. The songs of the snake clan entered the body, infused the bloodstream, pierced the heart.
To experience the song fully, the snake folk nurtured all their senses. Prior to an epic song event, they bathed, for hours, in perfumed waters. They engaged in ceremonial massage. They opened their voices, practising wailing chromatic scales. They performed traditional exercises that lubricated every joint within the body, working sequentially from the toes to the neck. They nibbled at blind-tasting smorgasbords, to tantalise the tongue.
And there were drugs. The snake clan had the most amazing chemistry. They were alchemists who transformed what is outer – what we see, hear, feel, touch and taste out there – into a wealth of inner astonishment. Their drugs created refinements of experience – and elaborations – beyond the imaginings of those who’d never partaken.
“I live life so much more fully now,” sighed Caspar. “My life has expanded.”
One day as Caspar and Serpa walked hand in hand in their garden he looked up into a tree, and saw himself. There he was, a bird sitting on a bough. The bird was red, white and black, with blue eyes. It cocked its head and acknowledged him.
“See that?” said Caspar, speaking as the bird, looking down at his wife in the garden.
His wife Serpa swayed her head slightly, and would have smiled, except that she was a long green snake. Her scales glistened, like cut emerald.
Caspar, back in his human body, was surprised, but not disconcerted. Life with the snake clan was never dull.
From that time, more and more often he looked out at the world through the coloured bird’s eyes. Of course, he was the bird. There was no disjunction. It’s just that it happened so suddenly. One minute he was a young man, the next a flash of red feather on the underside of a wing. More and more often, Serpa elongated and extended, sliding through their quarters as a glorious green snake.
“Are we suited?” he asked her.
“Of course, my love. Bird and snake. We were made for each other.” He had to laugh.
Then she started playing her game. It was fun at first. He’d be in the tree, she’d be kneeling underneath. She would sway and sing, and he’d sing with her. As he sang he’d get drowsy. Eventually he’d slip off his bough, and as he flapped his wings to regain height (that flurry of red as the wings beat upwards), her long neck would strike towards him. Her green eyes would snap and then there she’d be, his Serpa, his beautiful wife, smiling coyly, smiling seductively, her green gems winking in the light.
It happened too often. The thrill was intense, but that moment when snake lashed out at bird had a definite edge. It scared him.
“What kind of child would we have?” he asked Serpa.
“A poet. A singer. A storyteller,” she told him. “Not someone you could trust.”
Caspar remembered how he’d betrayed his father and his blood ran cold. Cold like a snake.
“My father is an administrator,” he said. “Perhaps our child might be a genetic throw-back.”
“Not with the drugs,” Serpa drawled. “The drugs change everything.”
“Drugs are not a way of life,” Caspar frowned.
“No?” said Serpa.
Caspar began to think.
In the fortress of the snake clan, there was little room to move. He and Serpa lived in the highest turret. His way was blocked on every side. There was no way out, if he wanted out. Except above. As a bird, he could fly. Did he want to fly?
“My love,” said Serpa, “You do understand? You are our nourishment. I need you to bring forth what comes next. You are the father of something great, but you won’t survive fatherhood. It’s always that way.”
“Always?” asked Caspar. He wished now he had studied logic.
“Always. For a new story to come forth, we need nutrition. You’re it. You are spectacular, my darling. You are your father’s gift, and you will not be wasted.”
“What will become of me?” Caspar whispered.
“I’ll eat you,” she answered. “Don’t worry, you won’t feel much. It’ll be an adventure. Then I’ll send our offspring back to your father in the gold casket. It will be a boy, and he will spawn countless generations of Storytellers. Your people won’t trust them, but they’ll be fascinated. They’ll pay gold and precious jewels, they’ll stay spell-bound for hours and days, and they’ll make celebrities of our descendents. But you won’t know, my darling, because you’ll be gone.”
As she said “gone”, she licked a few red feathers off her jaw. There was no sign of a bird, no sign of Caspar.
Serpa slid across to a pile of silk cushions and lay on their cool surface. She admired her reflection in the gold casket’s lid. Wide face, narrow chin. Green eyes. Soon she’d send a gift to her father-in-law.
“We have drugs,” says Roberto, brightly.
Chapin reaches into his belt, where the medical hygiene bag is wedged. He pulls it out, unseals it, and passes the bag to Roman. Roman takes a pinch of white powder between thumb and forefinger, and snorts it. Roberto follows. Then Chapin. I look at Chapin and I see Caspar, a red, white and black bird with blue eyes, his head cocked to one side. I do as he did.
“Now,” says Chapin. “Not hungry any more. But let’s find food for later.”