The Serpent and the Horse

David Major


From Air for Fire.

In Lake Tritonis there are two islands. They are Phla and Mene, and they are set like a pair of jewels on the water, exquisite and many-faceted on the pale skirt of the great wide surface of the lake. They are jewels, in a field of blue and green.

Phla is the home of daemons and forces, and the energies that lie behind things, so that everything on Phla is to do with the depths of the lake. Phla is dark and blinding, a wild, unruly place, and we are not going to deal with it here. It is too big. We are here for other reasons.

As for the island of Mene, though, we can begin to understand it. At the time of the events which combine to make our narrative, it was covered almost entirely with the city of Tritonis. Its countless buildings were spread around a thousand grand squares and a thousand wonderful gardens, or they were arranged along countless boulevards and avenues, each intersecting others constantly, so that a map of the city looked just like a grand mathematical diagram of some complex, geometric place. A kind of sacred geometry, instilled into a place.

Everything in Tritonis, every building, every bedpost and desk and silver ring, was finely worked, with wonderful craftsmanship and attention to detail, so that in its placing every object was exquisite and finely ordered, and the entire phenomenon was set like a priceless, many-faceted jewel on the gown of a finely dressed woman, and she was the lake, and the shore, and the land, and it had all gone on forever, like a mountain does, sitting on the world like a great slab of time.

The city of Tritonis was enclosed by a great wall, and it was as old as the island itself, and it was as thick as the city’s forum was wide, and as high as one of the minarets in the city. All that meant that it was very high indeed, and so the wall had never been breached, nor had the moat before it been crossed, by anyone, ever.

Now, there was just a single piece of the island of Mene which was not covered with buildings, and this was on account of it being outside the city wall. It was a rolling field of grass and trees under a great blue dome of sky, and it was bounded on one side by the city wall, and on the other by the shore upon which the waters of the lake rose and fell, all pushed and pulled by the moon (and the moon is not to be trusted, but we shall not go into that here).

This field was the home of many creatures. There were some that stayed, some that came and went, that flew, or burrowed, or crawled or hopped, and among them all, there was a horse, and the field was her home as well.

The horse was small, with delicate hooves and a long black mane that she would throw and swish in the air, and how the air liked that; and the horse wore silver and feathers because silver and feathers liked to be worn by her, and she set them off well, so that they were never so beautiful as when she wore them.

The horse spent her days roaming freely, galloping in the sunlight across the hills and among the trees, enjoying everything that came to her, and going wherever her spirit led her, into dark places and into light places. And there were creatures that circled in the sky above, riding the invisible currents on great wings, and they talked to her, and the paths that they made and the tilt of their wings created a kind of sculpture in space, as though there was a great spirit there in the sky above her.

But because there was so much, every day, there were times when it all felt like a kind of maze — the island and the depths of the lake, the untrustworthy moon, and the city, and the wall and the field, and everything — until it was a wonderful maze, and it was huge, in that way which scares some creatures, and makes them afraid, but for the horse it was just the wonderful nature of everything, and not something to be scared of at all. For there were many things in the field, and each one was its own thing; the way it sat in the light, and each thing also had its own sound which was inside it, and so really, the light of a thing and its song were just the same thing.

And there were days that the horse could see what she could hear, and hear what she could see. On those days, the silver and the feathers were happy indeed, because then everything was in just the right place.

But then sometimes, on other days, it was different, and then the weather would close in, and the idea of the maze would become something different altogether. It would become oppressive, and heavy. And then the wind and the rain and the sleet would come down, and it would bring a kind of darkness with it, and when these things came, the horse would shy, and she would tremble in the weather, and turn away from the darkness that had come down, and she would refuse to look.

And then her eyes, which were mostly so bright and clear, and had a sparkle of life in them, would grow downcast and hard, and she would paw at the ground, and be dissatisfied. She would be dissatisfied with everything, then.

One day, and then another. One after the other. Free and open, then downcast and hard.

*

There was only one entrance to Tritonis. It was a large gate, set into the wall which surrounded the city.

So tall was the gate that it was five times higher than the tallest horse on the island; taller even than the shadow made when the guardsman whose mount it was sat high on the great beast in his ceremonial armour with its feathers and fur all flying up around him and across his blue skin, so that he would look like a sunset — even this guardsman and his mighty horse were dwarfed in their height by the city gate.

No one in the city could remember a time, or had even heard of a time, when the gate had been closed, and the drawbridge across the moat drawn up. The moat had never been breached. This is no surprise, because it was so full of dark fears; things that crawled and slithered and stung, or things that were the dark shadows of themselves — but about these things and the moat and its awful depths we are not going to concern ourselves, because they are another story altogether, and one much more difficult than this.

In Tritonis lived many wonderful creatures, and other things besides. The city was large and sprawling, with many fantastic wonders, the dark things in the moat seemed an entire world away, and not just out of sight. It was not just the creatures who had lives, of course, but everything — because everything has habits, and everything with a habit is alive, of course.

So the buildings and the streets of Tritonis and all the things in them had lives, because a life is precisely energy which comes in patterns and forms. But I hardly need to tell you that, of course.

*

In the city, among all the other habits and things, there lived a creature that looked like nothing so much as it looked like a serpent. In truth, even a casual glance could discern that it was not the typical type of snake that might steal your eggs or poultry, or digest a mouse in the sun, or have a water jug thrown at it as it escapes down a hole in the side of a stone water trough on a hot Sicilian day, or even slither away into the undergrowth at the approach of your footsteps. No, it wasn’t that type of serpent at all, even though any of those are impressive enough in the way that they take hold of your attention and refuse to let it go. No, this serpent was the opposite; there was something about it that was hard to keep hold of, in your attention; so that it was inevitable that the city would see it, and then forget it, instantly, as though it had never existed at all, as though it was always a shadow, a set of circumstances that could change at any minute, or mean two things at once.

The serpent was a concomitant, an inevitable result, of the daily and ongoing life of the city. I know that I need to explain that. I will be brief.

No one or no thing deliberately created the serpent (the same could be said of everything, of course). But when you have a city the size of Tritonis, things are being created and uncreated all the time. And there can be remnants as things are formed, and there can be remnants as they fall apart, and since it is in the nature of things to aggregate in new ways even as they segregate from their old forms, and the overwhelming tendency of habits is to continue in some way, so it follows that from the remnants and pieces of things and habits new creatures arise, and so it was with the serpent. It was a serpent of pieces. A beast, full of serpentine habits, and made from many different things.

Its belly was covered with leather offcuts from the workshops of tailors and upholsterers, and its flanks and back were covered with the wall hangings that had been thrown out of the palace when the Empress had wanted a new colour scheme. For scales, the creature had pieces of armour cut from the blue bodies of slain soldiers, and to give some relief from the coldness of that, they were inlaid with patterns of dragons sporting in a sunset, created with shards of coloured glass taken from church windows and the kaleidoscopes of children long grown up.

The serpent’s skeleton was made of the bones of every type of animal, of course, because to use anything else would just be fanciful…

For eyes, the serpent had two diamonds. Whether or not they were the real thing, I leave for you to decide, but if they were once the earrings of a railway workers’ wife, you could hardly tell, so well were they cut. The serpent’s fangs were the talons of a great kingfisher that had been caught and killed by an angry woman, and the venom that flowed through them was the bile of a creature that had been caught in a trap but never allowed to die, that had been made to suffer endlessly… such was the serpent, or at least its parts.

The buildings of the city among which the serpent would glide made and remade themselves continuously. In a way, they did this just like the trees and the creatures of the field where the horse ran and played; but there was something of a difference, and it was this: in the field outside the city, everything grew from within, so that its energy came from within it, even though the information still came from somewhere else; and in this way a tree or a beast seemed to grow from itself, even though there was so much going on around it.

But in Tritonis, nothing grew from inside itself. Not just the information, but also the energy, came from outside, from an act of energetic will from outside the creature or the thing. And this, really, was the difference between the city and the field, and it was a profound difference, that never ceased.

And the wall between the city and the field had therefore to be something profound in itself, for it had to keep the two apart, and that was why it was very high, and very thick, it was so as to keep the two apart. The wall was a special thing indeed, in the way it could glow like the sun, and leap with flame and light like the surface of the sun. It was as though to keep the city and the field separate was an act somehow like the sun itself.

The wall was a marvellous thing, because it allowed the city to forget that the moat was there. It could pretend that the moat was far, far away.

So, that should tell you everything you need to know about the wall and the gate, and the drawbridge, and the moat full of dark things. Which is passing strange, because those things are such an important part of this tale, and yet I am offering to tell you almost nothing about them. But you do have all the information you need, because the gate and the drawbridge were the way through the wall, and the way between the field and the city, and the way across the moat.

*

So the serpent lived in the depths of the city, among the houses and the public buildings and their shadows. At night it would slide along the roads, or down into the basements, or into the front doors and along the hallways and up the stairs and into the attics, and it would live there, in secret, keeping awake with all its coiling and uncoiling anyone foolhardy enough to try to sleep in the rooms below.

One day, it happened that the serpent had been asleep for five years in a particular room, the owners of which were long gone and forgotten. The serpent had spent all this time asleep on a pile of folded sheets and blankets that had never been used and were still in the monogrammed bags in which they had been brought home from the market on an autumn day, when it had seemed that it was getting colder and that some new warm blankets might be just the thing.

Nearby a table overflowed with diagrams and plans relating to a problem of mechanics and stars that in the end had become too complicated, and had been left unsolved by the owner. He had taken his family and gone off to a faraway country, where he took up painting and his wife took up music, the children taking up philosophy, architecture and medicine respectively, because all of those seemed, on the face of them, to be simpler.

And so the serpent had been asleep in this house for five years, undisturbed. And then one day, it was woken by a noise, a sound that could have been close, or far away, there was no telling. It seemed to be everywhere.

Further, it was impossible to tell if it was something opening or closing, or a kind of rolling thunder, or even, really, whether the sound involved movement at all. Such was the moment of confusion that the serpent experienced when it woke, hearing this sound.

And then there were footsteps, and the house was surely not used to that. To the house as well as the serpent they seemed especially unusual and peculiar, and the house felt its attention being held fast, and the serpent shared the feeling. And the serpent roused itself, and raised its head and looked, but there was nothing there to see in the gloom. Just the sound of hooves on the street outside.

Once it had begun, it happened every day.

Sometimes it felt as though a cool mist had come down on a day on which the sun was too fierce for comfort and the wind so hot that it burned; and the sound of the horse (for you know it was the horse, don’t you…) moving in the streets of the city was the cool, relieving mist.

The day came that the serpent was out in the street, keeping to the walls and the shadows, as this had always been its habit, and the horse was there too, and finally the paths of the serpent and the horse crossed.

The serpent was for some reason heading out to the field, to help in some serpentine way in the construction of something, and the horse was for some equine reason heading into the city, for she had decided that to live always in the fields was simultaneously not enough and too much, and so the horse had decided that a house in the city was the thing, until the field felt like just the right thing. Because it was, of course, very important that everything feel like just the right thing.

And so somehow it was in a strange matter of housing that their paths crossed, and once it began one evening, they were straight away altogether crossed, and not just in their paths. Among the strings and feathers and wood and wire suddenly they knew the smell and the touch and the movement of each other, it was not just in their paths.

In the worlds of the horse and the serpent, everything became now very different. And the field and the city seemed to have somehow merged, as though the city walls were no longer there, and had somehow disappeared into the air.

Now, it is something universal that the first feeling anyone has when a wall disappears is a kind of elation, and an intoxication of freedom, and there is space, and a certainty that this is how things are meant to be, because the sense of space reaches into your blood, and it feels as though this is the first time that your blood is really flowing, as if it is moving across the space where the wall once was. It is like this for everyone. And this is how it was for both the horse and the serpent.

They became friends, and it was good for them both when they were together, even though they were so different, in shape and in everything. For what comparison, really, can there normally be between a serpent and a horse? Perhaps in very certain circumstances, between certain individuals, there might be a comparison. And so this must have been one of those circumstances. Somewhere, there was some basis for comparison.

And the serpent grew soon to feel somehow the same as the horse, and the serpent grew to love being near the horse, and soon there was a thing in each of them that was captivated by the other. The sounds that the serpent made would take the horse and hold her; and the way that the horse would move, and her voice, would take the serpent, and hold it, deep in its stillness, so that then it became like a rock, a small mountain made of rock.

For a time (and really, it was not a long time at all), the days went by in this fashion, and everything was fine. The serpent enjoyed to his rock-like, reptilian depths the captivating musk scent of the horse, and the horse, for her part, enjoyed the sounds that the serpent made as it slid and clanked from one street or one building or one chord of shadow to another, she enjoyed it all, in herself.

And they both enjoyed the touch of each other, the feeling of each other, and that touch, and the feeling of it, was at the core of them, at the core of the thing that they created between them.

It may have been strange, for a serpent and a horse, but it was a thing that was between them.

*

Time passed, and the weather became variable. It varied more and more, from day to day. There might be sunshine among the trees one day, then dry, violent crackling clouds among the higher reaches of the buildings along the streets of the city the next, followed by a spell of dark mist rolling off the moat, off its still, deep blackness. And then there might be a day or two of rain, which would wash everything clean and wash away the weather, so that everything could start again — but it was always only so that there could be more weather, and it could start all over again.

One day there was a crack of lightning and a great, heavy, peal of thunder came falling down out of the sky like something liquid and heavy. Together the lightning, like an angry youth, and the thunder, like a great winged horse with rolling hooves, disturbed everything, and together showed a tusked, hard face to everything.

What had been just the weather of the day now became the weather of everything. And then it became the world itself; and when it was dark, or light, or warm, or cold in the sky above the city and across the field, it was dark or light or warm or cold even in the hearts of the serpent and the horse, as though the weather had somehow come from outside them and into them. They had made themselves open to it, and now it was inside them.

And then an ice would form over their hearts, and something in them was lost. And sometimes it would eventually thaw from inside itself, or other times the sun would beat down on them, so that even as the ice was thawing, they would feel themselves turning to dust, drying up inside because of the heat of the sun. The weather had ceased altogether to be their friend, and had become something else.

The ice grew thicker and stronger between them, forcing them apart. And as the distance between them grew, and the things that had seemed good to them began to evaporate and disappear almost as if they had been only phantoms all along — as this happened, they actually felt more truly in the picture. More truly, as though they were in the real world now, and no longer in the one on which they had spent so much effort, on trying to keep everything from unravelling.

It was as if all that had been somehow unreal, and now they were clearly in the picture. Their falling apart had become inevitable, as inevitable as the day and the night. This was the real picture.

But they each still had their own views. Increasingly, the serpent found that it could do nothing right. When there was somehow any noise, it was sure to be wrong somehow, and the horse would rear, and become ill-tempered. Her temper was becoming short — nothing was good enough, or short enough, or long enough, or high enough, or went on for long enough. Nothing was enough.

And sometimes the serpent would be stirred by this, and the feeling was new to it, for in truth many feelings were new to it, constructed as it was, and when something went wrong the serpent would stir and raise its head to strike, as if there was an instinct in its venom. But it would not strike, for it was afraid of something in the ice that it could feel gathering between them. The uncoiling, the unravelling that it could feel between them.

The horse grew more and more unhappy, and soon refused to have anything to do with the serpent. The serpent would reach to touch the horse, and the horse would shudder in some anger, and move away, and refuse to look or talk. Sometimes the horse would look down at the ground with dark, angry eyes, and she would retreat to the field, to wander alone among the trees, and then it would seem to the horse that nothing had changed at all.

And the drawbridge across the moat would be raised. At first the other creatures of the city thought that this was unusual, but it happened more and more often; the drawbridge would be raised, so that nothing could pass, and the serpent would be left alone under the shadows of the raised bridge, unable to lower it, and at this the serpent became confused, for it could do nothing. The mechanism of the drawbridge was an inviolable mystery, sealed as if there was no way on earth to influence it or understand it.

And each time the drawbridge raised, and removed the field and the city from each other, it would stay raised for longer than the time before. Always longer, and this was a mystery too. And the little horse would walk among the trees of the field and she would look at them with her dark, angry eyes, and sometimes she would imagine everything black, and dead, and gone.

And there was something else there along with that blackness and the hard emptiness that the horse felt behind her dark eyes. It was something heavy, and black, and it was conscious, and it would laugh in a hard kind of way when it was seeing through her eyes. A hard kind of strength, sure of its victory. And it reached out in its blackness and its strength, and it began to strangle the serpent. The serpent could not breath. It writhed, trying to free itself, but the grip around its throat was like bands of steel, and the strength of it was unstoppable.

The thing that was dark and conscious laughed at the weakness of the serpent, and how it struggled to no avail, how it flailed and writhed to no avail. And when it could see that the serpent had given up, and ceased in its struggling, and was waiting to die, it released its grip and laughed and taunted and was gone, and the serpent gasped, and breathed as if the breath were its first, after an eternity.

And now all of the world to the horse seemed to be full of nothing but hateful, petty creatures, and although she feared the outcome, to the horse it seemed as though the serpent had become one of those; a hateful, petty creature, who, the shadow inside her said, deserved really nothing more than to be hated, but at a safe distance, because hate is so contagious.

And to the serpent, the world had become full of vengeful, irascible creatures that could only judge, and most harshly, and so it seemed that they in turn must be judged just as harshly. And soon the horse came in the serpent’s eyes to be one of these harsh, irascible creatures, and to deserve, at any distance, the same treatment, to be judged for its judgement.

So soon, everything was hateful, and harsh, and judged. And so everything began to separate, and to close down, and soon there was nothing.

And now the drawbridge was raised and did not come down. Everything was separate. In the moat the things that lived there stirred, as if the water was filled with blood, and there was something big, that was like the shadow of the serpent and also like the shadow of the horse, that heaved in chaos and rode the bottom of the moat, down into the earth, darkly.

And the horse and the serpent could not talk any more, because of a weight pressing down on their hearts. They would try, and they tried and tried, but it was always as though there was nothing that could be done.

Everything defeated them now.

Everything was raw, and bloody, but now the horse and the serpent realised that what they had really wanted, all along, was something different. What they had been seeking was not in their small hearts. All along it had been in the heart that does not change, that never tires under the weight of any load that it bears. The bigger heart, that is strong and tireless.

And now it was clear, how they had come together, and then come apart, as they travelled across the curved surface of the torus of everything, each in their spiral paths, across the surface of the torus. Their paths had brought them together for a while, and they had moved in a kind of dance for a while, in a proximity to each other, both wanting to unite, but not between them being capable of it. Their paths had not really united, ever, and so they had to grow apart, and in this they had no choice, because movement is movement, and a torus is a torus.

As they moved along their paths, across the expanding surface of the torus, near the apogee of its possibilities, they had moved apart, and they kept moving apart, and it was not easy, for the connection between the spirit of the horse and the spirit of the serpent had become deep, even though it was now shot through with a bitterness. And so they moved apart, in a long, drawn-out dance of distance and estrangement.

And there was a sadness everywhere and an emptiness, and in it, what joy there had been for them floated away like smoke. The torus had moved on, and was supporting other things; it was not supporting them any more.

*

Eventually the land was destroyed. It became waste, and barren, because when they fought, the land and the water and the air all retreated in horror, and it was hard to breathe; everything seemed to gasp for breath. And finally nothing could live there any more, not even the horse and the serpent, for they could not breathe any more; they had to gasp for air, and even the water turned to bile in their blood now.

*

But the universe is not cruel, nor is it heartless. It saw how hard the horse and the serpent were trying; and how hopeless and caught up they were, caught up in things and each other, so that nothing worked, and the harder they tried, the harder everything became, all caught up, and not working.

And so the universe sent the spirit of the kingfisher, and it flew across the land where the horse and the serpent now fought ceaselessly. As the kingfisher flew, three feathers from its tail fell to the ground.

The first feather fell down and was weighed against the land, and the idea of the land was heavier than the feather, and so the feather was happy to become the fields and the plains and the mountains; and so it became the land.

The second feather fell down and was weighed against the water, and the water was heavier than the feather, and so the feather was content to become part of the rivers and the streams and lakes and the rain that fell down from the sky; and so the second feather became the water.

And the third feather was weighed against the sky, but even the air was heavier than the feather, and the feather was overcome in joy by a large cumulus, and it disappeared, and so the feather became part of the wind and the clouds and the air, and all the things that move in the air.

And because all three feathers were weighed against a thing that was heavier than themselves, the land and water and air all came to exist in a new way. This was the gift of the kingfisher in this, and it was a necessary gift, because the land and everything on it had become poisonous, and waste.

And so everything that been held in place for any reason at all now fell away, and everything broke apart.

*

And in this way the horse soon regained her freedom, and one day woke to find that she had gained a pair of wings, which she could use to fly above the storms, so that they no longer frightened her, and soon she had control of the skies and the storms, and the sound of her hooves across the sky was a welcome sign.

And as for the serpent, it slowly gained wisdom, which is no mean feat, even for a serpent.

And neither of them were afterwards ever the same again, the horse who could fly wherever she chose, and the serpent who had learned much, and neither of them saw things in the same way ever again.

From that time onwards, horses and serpents did not have anything to do with each other; they lived in different worlds, and it was better that way. Above the storms, and above not knowing, respectively.

*

Thousands of lifetimes passed, and many ages later, the bones of a horse and a serpent were unearthed.

On one end of the island of Mene, where there had once been the great city of Tritonis, the workers found the bones and teeth and scales of a serpent. At the other end of the island, where there had once been a great field of trees and open spaces, they found the bones of a horse, and the horse, it turned out, was not so little after all. These were the remains of great creatures, not small or slight ones.

But now here is the thing, and it was really at the core of the report that the workers made to the investigators who were sent. You see, the heart of the horse was not there, it was never found; and the heart of the serpent was not there, and so it was never found either. Where the hearts had gone was a great mystery to the investigators, who fidgeted with their hats, and were confused and went home.

And it was only then, after the investigators had left, that the workers found in the earth the remains of the great drawbridge which had been the gateway into Tritonis. And beside the remains they found, perfectly preserved, the body of a kingfisher, .

The last time anyone had seen it, the last time it had been mentioned in the history, the drawbridge had been raised, and nailed shut with spikes as long as the stings that had tormented Io as she wandered. But now the drawbridge was collapsing and disintegrating, and the earth was reclaiming it, and it was impossible to tell any more whether it was raised or lowered, or somewhere in between.

The workers wondered at this, and then they wondered at how a kingfisher could have come to be here, but they didn’t wonder for long, and soon they gave up, and went home.

The field of trees was gone, and nowhere to be seen, and the city was gone, and nowhere to be seen, and that was neither right nor wrong. And somewhere beyond that, there was another field of green grass, and the world was too full to talk about.

* *

From Air for Fire

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