Storytime: Roots.

July 21st, 2010

The sound of scales on dirt was soft, gentle, and smooth, a strange thing to associate with its bearer’s actions, if not itself.  The snake itself was the picture of elegance, sleek and perfect, a shapely, near-liquid line of muscles clothed in a surface that seemed to near-glitter even here, beneath the earth. 
The mouse saw this, appreciated this, but most of its small and furry mind was taken up with terror.  Helped a great deal by what the snake had just done, and a great deal more by the way the noise was growing closer. 
Shuffle, shuffle, slither, slip, stop. 
The mouse saw the darker shadow of the snake’s head at the very entrance to its chamber, and it tried to freeze even deeper that it already was. 
“Little mouse,” said the snake.  Her voice was as supple as her body.  “I can feel your heartbeat, little mouse.”
The mouse tried to stop its heart.  It nearly succeeded. 
The snake’s laugh was quiet and composed.  “I can smell you, little mouse, on the very tip of your tongue.  I can hear your fur moving in the air.  I can see the tip of your tail, lying flat against the earth.  You are no secret to me.  I know you with every sense but one, and that won’t be far away.”
The mouse did not move. 
“Will you persist, little mouse?  There is no reason to wait.  Deliver yourself to me, and it will be fast.  My fangs first, before the swallow.  I can stop that small heartbeat forever, before I feed.  The choice is yours, little mouse.”
“Why?” spoke the mouse.
“Why what, little mouse?” replied the snake.  Her tone remained amiable, soft, with no hint of surprise. 
“Why don’t you come in and get me yourself?  You can’t be scared of me.”
“No, no I can’t be, little mouse,” said the snake. 
“You can’t be full.  Not even after…you can’t be.  You would have left.”
“Fair truth indeed, little mouse,” answered the snake. 
“So then,” said the mouse, fighting back panic at every mouthful of dry air, which was beginning to taste distinctly of reptile, “you must not be able to come in.  I think that you are too big to come and get me, and you are hoping that you can trick me into leaving and being eaten.”
There was only the sound of shifting scales for a moment.  The snake was coiling herself into a neat knot.  “So it is,” it said.  Even her amusement was soft and tidy.  “And what of it?  I can wait for far longer than you can, little mouse.  My blood, my body, they aren’t as hasty as yours.  I can sleep here for days, still-waking.  You will starve before I do, little mouse.  You will starve before my stomach has even had time to grow empty.”
“I can dig my way out.”
“From there, little mouse?  You know as well as I the only reason that this burrow is so narrow is because of the yew-roots surrounding it, and the hard rocks.  You did not dig it deeper or wider because there is nowhere to dig.  There will be no tunnel escape for you.”
“I would rather starve than let you eat me.”
“A proud, spiteful sentiment, little mouse.  If you must die, why deprive me of a meal?”
“You ate my family.”
“Hunger is a necessity,” said the snake mildly.
“You even ate the young.”
“Rather than leave them to die exposed?  Yes.”
“You caused their deaths either way.”
“Better the fast way and the full belly then.  Will you spite me now, little mouse?  It would be pointless.  I have eggs to lay soon, and the trip will be long.  One more meal would be all I would need, for the sake of my young.  You don’t care if you live now, do you?”
Silence again.  The snake rested, content. 
“No,” said the mouse.  “But I have something to do first.”
“Yes?” said the snake. 
“I want to tell you a story.  And then I want you to tell me what you are thinking.  And when we are through, I promise that I will come out and you will have me.”
“Then speak, little mouse,” said the snake.  “And I promise, I will listen very carefully.”

“A long time ago,” said the mouse, “there was a farmer.”
“You mice and your farmers,” sighed the snake. 
“He was a good man, a hard-working man, but a poor one.  Not only did he have to feed himself on barren land, but also his three young children, and all by himself, for his wife had passed away in childbirth.”
“Times grew hard, and the weather grew cold, with a harsh, bitter wind.  The crops failed that year, and the farmer’s food stores ran low.  He harvested all he could, but what wasn’t withered was weeds.  He would’ve asked his neighbours for food, but they were nearly as poor as he, and every path and trail he could’ve taken was buried deep under cold drifts.  He took out his father’s half-warped and nigh-broken old yew bow and searched for game, but all the woods were quiet and still as could be, as all waited for the chill to leave the air.”
“Best to slumber low and silent, and stay warm,” agreed the snake. 
“So the farmer put away his bow, and he thought and thought as his children grew ever-thinner, as did he.  Spring was coming, but too slowly.  His children would starve before the life returned to the world, and he had nothing to feed them with.  His hands were empty.  But he still had hands.”
“And so the farmer took out his wife’s old carving knife and made it sharp, as sharp as it could be with his old whetstone.  He took his axe, his wood-chopping axe, and he sharpened that keener yet.  He took his strongest rope and tied it tight, and he took his left leg.  It hurt, but not as much as watching his children starve.”
“The farmer didn’t tell them where the meat came from.  He said that he’d slipped cutting firewood, since his axe was so heavy and he was so tired and weak.  They could barely hear him over their eating, they were so hungry.  As for himself, he abstained from the meal.”
“Spring came late that year.  The farmer had another accident, and he lost his left arm.  This time he was caught by the children as he staggered to the firepot.  His excuses were few and mumbled, and they were silent.  All three of them hugged him, and then helped him cook.  Once again, the farmer did not eat.”
“Spring came, but by then the farmer was bedridden, without a leg to his name.  His children were well-fed, but he himself was on the last of his strength.  ‘Go,’ he told them, and ‘north-north-east,’ and other directions as well, and whatever thoughts on edible plants that hadn’t slipped his mind between the fevers and shakes.  They left, and I believe they made their way to safety at his wife’s brother’s home.  Perhaps they were even welcomed, as young hands to do work.  That is my tale for you.”

“A grim story for an eater of seeds and stems,” commented the snake.  “And a sad one, as well.” 
“Tell me,” said the mouse.
“The farmer gambled greatly – that his flesh would be sufficient to pave the way to spring and softer weather, that he would not fail in the cutting and die, that the children would find their way and reach a new home.  It was unsure, risky.  It would have been better had he stayed alive himself.  As long as he lived, so would the chance for more children.  If he died too soon, none would live, then or ever.  Upend the shrub, and it will regrow.  Tear out the roots, and it will die.”
There was a lull in the air, emptier without sound to fill it.
“I have another story,” said the mouse.
“Yes?” inquired the snake.  “Speak it then.  And I will listen.”

“Of the three children of the farmer, the eldest was the most roving.  His younger brother and sister adjusted quickly to their new home, stayed on the farm longer, married and settled down within miles.  But he was older and had the greater memories of that terrible old time than they, and decided the farming life was not for him.  He remembered his father going missing and coming back with that old warped bow, and he would have none of it.  To hunt was to be his game, and he would spend hours carefully practicing it while his siblings harvested.  The sling was his first weapon, and every rabbit and bird he hit he brought home to be cooked.  No sport, only food.  But he yearned for bigger game, and he ached to think of his grandfather’s old bent bow.”
“Years came and went, and he was a young man wandering deep in the woods.  A deer was startled by him, and as it fled he cursed for want of a bow.”
“’Please, do not speak harshly,’ said a voice at his ear, ‘and tell me, what troubles you so?’”
“The young man turned to the speaker and saw that it was a yew tree, watching him with a most careful eye.  ‘Pardon me,’ he said, ‘I didn’t know you could talk.  As for my troubles, I wish I had a bow.’”
“’You have a sling,’ pointed out the yew.’”
“’It is not enough,’ said the young man.’  ‘I can’t hunt mice and songbirds ‘till the end of my days.  There is bigger prey, and I must find it.  But I cannot find a bow.’”
“The yew pondered before it replied.  ‘I have a bargain for you, young hunter, a bargain I offered your grandfather.  I ask you; take a bow from my heartwood.  Use it well and it will shoot as surely as you wish.  But before twenty years have passed, you must take that bow and plant it in soft, clean soil, so that I can sprout anew.  If you do not, it will mean the end of your life.’”
“’I can find another bow in that time,’ declared the eldest son.  ‘Your bargain is fair, and I promise that I will plant you within twenty years.’  And as he spoke those words, the yew tree split apart and its heartwood lay bare.  He plucked it up and took it away, where he shaped it by trial and error, though it was most responsive to his carving.  Soon after that, he left home, and never saw his siblings or relatives again.  I believe they had good enough lives.”
“For years on end he wandered.  Food never lacked, for his aim and the bow’s strength were unbeatable.  He earned his meals where he found them, waiting silently in the bushes.  He shot deer, and wolves, and boar, and as the time went by and his skill grew greater he killed more than he could eat, honing his skills rather than filling his belly.  Pride began to slip its way into his heart and run through his veins, and more than a hint of cruelty.  His kills were now limited only by his arrows, which he made anew every evening as he set up his campsite.  As the years passed on and his hands grew sure he fashioned more and more each evening, and so more creatures died each day, great and small.  Woods were quiet in his wake and grew full of fear at the sound of his steps”
“At last, near twenty years from the yew tree’s offer had passed, but now the hunter regretted it.  He was sure no bow could match his own, and balked at the thought of reducing his power.  Besides, how could the yew object?  He was far, far away from its mouldering remains, and the wood was dead in his grasp.  Its offer must have been a mistaken hope, a desperate lie, he assured himself.”
“On the third-last day of the twentieth year since his bow had been given to him, it began to shudder and shake in his hand as he shot.  It surprised him, and he missed his shot, the first in twelve years.  He swore and shook it in anger, but by the day’s end had grown used to it and thought of it no more, so skilled was his aim.”
“On the second-last day of the twentieth year since his bow had been given to him, it groaned softly as he aimed, startling his prey.  Again the hunter swore, again he missed his shot.  But his second aimed true, and by the day’s end no thing escaped him, as it was before.”
“On the very last day of the twentieth year since his bow had been given to him, it was still and silent all morning, and the hunter was glad.  The tests of the last two days had added the last sheen of perfection to his aim, and he killed more that day than any other, songbirds, squirrels, deer, grouse.  A fish leapt from a river and was skewered before it hit the water again.  A butterfly was pinned to a tree.  The hunter laughed and laughed, silent and pleased.”
“Evening came, and the hunter set up camp.  He began to make his arrows.  So many arrows.  Tomorrow’s harvest, he hoped, would be even greater.”
“’I am not planted,’” said a voice as he fletched the final shaft.  Before he even looked, the hunter knew who spoke. 
“’No, you are not,’ he told the bow.  ‘Your tricks have failed.  You are the perfect bow, and I am the perfect hunter, and promises pale besides that.  No target is too small for me, no prey too difficult.  Nothing lives that I cannot target.’”
“’False,’ said the bow.”
“’I dare you, name me one thing I cannot target, bow, and I will shoot it.  A bet this time, not a deal.  If I miss, I will plant you.  If I strike it, you are mine as long as I live.  Three chances, even!’” 
“‘Your bargain is more than fair,’ said the yew, ‘and I will make my first dare: strike the queen of the ant colony yonder with a single arrow.’”
“The hunter scoffed.  ‘A simple shot!  I shall not waste an arrow on it, no.  This twig will do.’  With that, he seized a cast-aside twig – too slim for fletching – drew it to his bow, and shot it.  It fell deep into the anthill’s heart, and when the hunter removed it the queen was there, wriggling in vain on its tip.  He dashed it to the ground and laughed at the bow.  ‘Simple,” he mocked.  ‘I could have done that eighteen years ago.’
“’Impressive,’ said the bow.  ‘My second bequest: strike the four-leaf clover on that faraway hill with five arrows.’”
“The hunter nocked all five at once, and let fly in a single blur, hands faster than anything.  They spun out, one shaft to each leaf, and the fifth to neatly clip it loose from its stem.  It lay on the grass in puzzlement as the hunter’s raucous laughter filled the silent forest once more.  ‘A pittance!’ he cried.  ‘An insult to my skills!  Will you not challenge me, oh bow?  A last, best effort, a shot from miles at a target small?  I warn you, I will make it.  Or think you me as feeble a huntsman as my father?’”
“‘Skillful,’ said the bow.  ‘My final challenge is made, then: you must shoot the tallest leaf on the tallest tree of this forest.’”
“The hunter laughed loudest of all then, because he always slept under the biggest tree he could find, so he would have the most wood available to craft arrows.  In less than a twinkling the hunter snatched up the bow to prove it wrong, nocked an arrow, and shot straight to the sky.  It raced up to the very heights of the tree’s canopy and plucked the tallest leaf.  As it fell, it bounced off many branches, and on the last bounce from the last branch it plunged through a weak patch of bark and into the heart of an old, old grandfather of a beehive, one that filled near the entire rotten core of the tree.  It boiled over in rage and before the hunter had even finished laughing at the bow he was set upon by the bees in their thousands, a million tiny stings that would take all the arrows he could fletch in a lifetime to silence.  He ran and screamed for nearly a mile in blinded pain before he plunged over a cliff on rocky ground, and he and the bow broke apart on the hard, stony soil beneath.”
“The ground was not soft.  It was no longer exceptionally clean.  But in its way, the yew had been planted, and that is what grows above us.”

“Less depressing than the first, little mouse,” said the snake, “but just as morbid.  Do you often dwell on death like this, or is it merely your present mood?”
“Tell me what you think, not what I think.”
“Very well.”  The snake’s tail tip-tapped idly as it spoke.  “An interesting accounting of the tree above your head, if fanciful.  At root, was not the hunter merely hungry?  Pride a cover for fear, fear of starving, fear of ending up like his father, unable to provide?  His actions I can excuse, little mouse, at least as far as they are motivated by perfection – save for his breaking of the promise.  That is the moment where he leaves me behind.”
“Have you any further tales for me, little mouse?  I have listened carefully, I have spoken my thoughts.  Will you keep your promise then?”

The mouse’s fur made a very different sound on the dirt than scales, less smooth, more ruffled, softer.  It moved stiffly, weakly, toddering forwards, out and into the relatively open space of the main burrow. 
The snake was much larger than its quiet voice had made it seem, eye-to-eye.  They looked at one another.
The bite was over so fast that the mouse barely had time to blink.  Before it knew it, it was seized and cold was spreading from its toes inwards, cold so deep it could barely feel the snake’s mouth closing around it.
“Thank you, little mouse,” said the snake, voice surprisingly clear through the vibrations of its lower jaw against the mouse’s spine.  “For the stories.”
The mouse’s body was fading from itself, but its mind was still sharp enough to reply.  “They were questions.”
“What sort of questions, little mouse?”
“What kind of mother you would be.  How far you will rationalize cruelty.  What you think of promises.”  The mouse might have been all the way inside the snake’s mouth now, but it couldn’t tell.  Its vision had fuzzed over some time ago, and now its thoughts were growing dim. 
“And to what point was this?”
“Family gone, for you,” whispered the mouse, voice dropping away.  “You weren’t worthy of it.  Not food.  Roots.”
“Not worthy of what, little mouse? And what roots?”
There was no answer.  The snake felt cold, despite her warm belly, and when she poked the tip of her nose into that tight little chamber the mouse had spoken from, she smelt the sharp sting of sap oozing.
“Oh,” she said, and chuckled, the long slow full chuckle of a contented reptile, interrupted only a little by the first muscle tremors.  “Yew roots.  No, you aren’t food anymore, are you, little mouse?  You’re poison.”
“Ah, well.  Your promise was kept.  If most judgementally.  Good-night, little mouse.  Perhaps we will meet again, in a stranger place.”
She coiled up again, as neatly as she could manage as the spasm grew worse, and waited patiently.  It wouldn’t take too long. 


“Roots” copyright 2010, Jamie Proctor. 

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