Volume 20, Number 3

The Thorns Where Snakes Once Grew

John Lovik

A woman lived thirty years in her village and bore it three sons.

The father went unnamed.

In a village that knew each other by the sound of their sandals on the packed desert floor, nobody knew more than hearing their patron walking to her hut each night.

When the children grew into the image of their leader’s shame, the wives had finally ignored enough and had the mother stoned to death for her seductions. Her sons were bound to the land and made tenant slaves in the fields east of the village. There they pulled the plows in the heat of the afternoon when the horses had tired, and were left at night to guard the land they worked. The spent their childhood thus cultivating the bitter shrubs that were harvested for the town’s liquor. Left to their own devices outside of their toil in the eastern fields the brothers, searching for guidance in their punishment, named themselves biblically: the oldest, Aaron; David; and the youngest, Samuel.

When Samuel turned sixteen and no longer needed the hands of his brothers to help him break the stony soil, these beasts of the village bared their teeth and growled.

The farmers left them on the fields and went back to their homes to rest with their families. As the sun sank behind the huddled mud homes, and the air was humming with dreaming snores, the brothers walked to the edge of their fields. Here, where their hands had not bled for their mother’s adultery, the flora were gnarled and twisted thick; liquor crops bleached and tangled in hideous snarls at their abandonment. They thrust to the edge of the cultivated land in an explosive confusion and, falling short, thrust themselves up towards the sun. These exhumed veins were dried from a long summer and sat, as did their tamed cousins, ready for the harvest.

Aaron waited for David to light his torch, and as soon as it was ripe he knelt, bringing it down to the wild brush.

Samuel stopped his arm.

“This won’t change them. They won’t even remember.”

David took Samuel’s shoulders and pulled him back from their brother.

“It’s not supposed to.”

Aaron, still kneeling, reminded him:

“It’s about being locked in a room your father threw you in with just your reflections and nothing else for company.”

Aaron lit the bush.

The fire swarmed up the branches, burning away bark and leaving scales on every inch the heat caressed. The bushes dissolved in a whispering hiss that grew as the branches became snakes and fell to the ground. As the fire spread, jumping from the wild growth to the carefully tended crops, the hissing grew stronger and constant as the bushes turned to swarming poison.

The poison went west towards the village that harvested it.

The snakes slid from the amber sparks as the wildfire grew, moving in hypnotic curves to the thatched huts and campfires. The slithering breaths of wildfire grew louder as the liquor bushes caught and changed with Aaron’s wandering spark. As the mob grew, the serpents’ march echoed through the huts like spring rain. The sleeping village smiled and curled around their pillows at the fragile and pleasant whisper. Samuel vomited, listening and knowing.

“Don’t worry,” David told his retching brother, resting his hand on his stooped form, “it’s not sin.”

The snakes slid under doors and went seeking warmth. When the warmth screamed it was bitten. The men and women survived these bites, waking at the sharp pain with a passing nausea, but the children had none of this luck. They writher and rolled like the rasping shadows that bit them, calling for their parents and then falling silent.

Many fell beside their children, being bitten over and over as they cradled their lifeless forms.

Others went quickly for water.

The village made a line from the river into the center of the village and with buckets they carried the water, pint by pint, away from its home and onto the snakes. With each that was doused a writhing fit of steam rose up as the fire burrowed its tail into the dirt and went back to its life as liquor.

The village men, torn with grief, marched east into the charred fields to find those unfaithful, those brother martyrs, those dogs in the name of the vacant eyes of the children they’d left to lie in the huts.

Aaron and David, watching their tormentors, stood tall against the horizon so that they might be more readily found. Samuel fled east, the sounds of the village echoing after him.

The village held the brothers captive until the huts could be moved to make room for the displaced crops. They buried their children, tended their land and then hanged the brothers by the neck from a wooden scaffold erected in the center of the village, their swaying corpses a grim smirk for the mothers, a tortured snarl for the fathers.

They left them there to rot.

The brothers hung and watched the villagers move, glancing carefully over their shoulder at the hiss of the wind through the crops, tearfully fondling some straw doll now misplaced in their aged hands, or spitting angrily at the floating bodies. Their violence-made violence, made fear. Their sacrifice of the precious black intoxications.

The brothers hung and watched as one night their young brother Samuel crept into town to take their bodies back with him. They saw in his twisting brow and shaking hands his own death, years removed, in the grip of insane redemption.

Their violence-made violence, made death. Their sacrifice for precious black intoxications.