Facing the titan serpent is not as terrifying as watching it bite you first; there is a reason the stories name it Oloh’masj, the poisoned god.
Its scales glitter like rainbow-hued daggers in the harsh morning as one of the heads strikes. The enormous jaw thunders around your torso and back, delivering the legendary paralytic of the left head directly into your spine and belly.
You’re stronger than I am; your eyes never leave mine. I don’t want to watch, but I do as your pupils dilate, your breathing shallows; even the sweat on your upper lip stills as your limbs go slack. It doesn’t take long before you crumple gently to the ground before the massive cave, your breath quick and light, gaze lost among the dense jungle canopy.
The right head of the titan serpent swerves into my view, its eyes mesmerizing me, dragonfly-bright and narrow as a blade; it’s attempting to lure me into calm, as it would any other prey.
But it doesn’t work. The nearby waterfall roars in my ears. Sweet mothers, I want to run.
I take a step backward on instinct, only to find a stone blade there, halting my cowardice. The deep voice of the Serpent Guardian, who walked with us from home, rumbles to life behind me.
“Remember your oaths,” he says. “Stand firm. You are a vessel for Oloh’masj. Run? Flee? Not only will you be cast out of Cottamara, but your twin will die where he now lies. You would let your fear taint his soul? It will be bad enough that he shares your coward’s face for eternity, but to do such a thing would deny him a life in the Pools of Unra, his spirit forever apart from paradise, shame weighing him down like a twice-tied shroud.”
He’s right. If I leave, you die and stay dead, forever outside holy reward.
So I stay. I stand. I sweat and begin to weep and shake, but gods damn me, I stand. Let me do this one thing right. If I can do it for anyone, I can do it for you.
Before me, the right head slowly opens its jaw, fangs extending; they catch the jungle light like a hangman’s axe before the inevitable fall.
Is it jealousy I hear, in the Guardian’s voice? “Now, you will know euphoria.”
The right head strikes, and I have no time to scream as its jaw that is my world darts forward, its fangs piercing me, flooding my veins full of the hallucinogen it uses to dazzle prey into submission, the other legendary poison of the titan serpent.
Is there pain? Yes. Yes, so much pain. But it’s too enormous to comprehend. I cannot contain it or hope to understand it. It is the scythe threshing corn, the stalks crying out together “Why do we fall?” It is the forceful moment a crocodile crunches a man whole, silencing all he ever was in a moment.
If I do make a sound, it is the stuttering, gasping cry a fish makes on dry land: I do not belong here. Existence has become a horror. I cannot breathe this world. I am drowning in life. Help.
The hallucinogenic strikes faster than the serpent. As my body quickly absorbs the poison, I see how my people in the early days of our civilization beheld this creature as a god. In the throes of its strike, with its toxin flooding my veins, the titan serpent’s shape shines like an iridescent sun, my heart roaring within me like a red ocean, all other sound gone. I want to submit to it, as much as I wish to run.
I can imagine this is how faith is formed; that even in the face of scientific evidence, even after centuries of study, knowledge bows and breaks under the crushing weight of awe and might.
A thread of sound, warped in my delirium. The Guardian is dripping, his stoic figure melting and reforming, turned liquid by the god-drug in me. His voice tastes like corrupted honey. It resonates through me like salt kelp, slapping and sticking to me with green, cold fingers.
“Take up your brother,” he says. “Hold him in your divine embrace, for you have become vessel both, holding the twin virtues and poisons that are the titan of Cotamarra: pleasure and pain, euphoria and despair, one of you locked away in ice and the other imprisoned in dreaming. Bring your brother home so you may bring yourself home, so you may bring our god home, for all the people of the Cotamarra to know Them and partake of those virtues, those poisons.”
He stamps his stone spear on the ground, once, and it vibrates through me, making my teeth ache. “Now, go.”
Right. The Guardian remains here, to soothe the titan serpent back to its home, keep it from following us.
Distantly, I remember you. You are on the ground. I look at you, brother, and your limp form is a riot of colors. You shine like a cosmic bruise, and if I am afraid of touching you, it is only because in lifting you, I think I may hurt you. Break you to star dust in my fingers of stone.
But I do it. I pick you up, and you are in my care, cradled against my numb body. The buzzing of the jungle around us is solid, a wall of sound that we must... I must walk through.
But it was not supposed to be this way.
You were to carry me, Rohi.
That’s why I rigged the ritual. Replaced your token with mine. The voice of the city reveals which twin shall carry the other home each year and... I couldn’t bear the weight. Knew I would fail if it were me. So I did what had to be done...
Yet here we are: my plans betrayed somehow and you, as intended, curled in my arms, dead eyes unblinking into the sky. Aware, feeling every caress of wind and sun on you, and yet unable to do, say, be anything.
We are where the god has put us.
I am trembling. I am a coward. I am loathsome, small, unimportant.
Yet what am I to do but what I am intended? Even if I will fail, as I know I will.
I begin to walk us home.
Time stretches thin as torn sugar, becoming wispy, almost non-existent in its breaking. I can’t find the sun above me, above us, but I know it is there. The sky has become blinding, as though someone has taken a hammer to the light, flattening it and marbling it like melted butter across clouds.
Looking up does no good. And looking down is worse, because you’re all I see, brother. You, who have no control, locked in your body; all you can do is look up into the molten sky, the paralytic trapping you within yourself. Your eyes are huge; they loll back and forth. Your mouth just ajar, gasping breath as though it is precious, careful not to take too much. I can see your heartbeat through your skin, pumping away like Rabbit hiding from Coyote, driven by adrenaline and fear.
When I watch you for too long, my feet stop moving, and I feel so crushed inside I could cry until I die. How will I ever bring you home when I am weak, weaker than you?
I determine to look ahead then, away from the sun and away from shame. And yet the jungle that has been our home is transformed by the holy poison burning within me; the trees, the jungle floor, the shadows between leaves all writhe like things alive, and even though it is a path I have walked a thousand times, it is no longer familiar but something strange, haunting.
I walk slowly, feeling you rigid as a tree limb in my arms. My thoughts congeal, sticking to each other. Only a few can slide down my brain, into my heart, but they are jumbled.
Memory, sensation, thought. They bleed and tumble into each other as my own heart desperately works to flush the poison from me.
“And what makes you think that your heart is strong enough to outrun the titan serpent’s gift?”
On my right walks Father. Already, I wilt away from his harsh gaze. Dark eyes set in a dark face, sun-beaten brown skin and strong, elder, and statesmanlike in his royal purple; even in my mind, he looks down on me.
“Nothing,” I say, my voice trembling. Even here, I can’t see him as anything other than jaws and myself, meat. “I am not worthy of the gift.”
“And yet, you were chosen to bear it.” The disappointment in his voice is heavy. “The god of the vast green has a sense of irony. And yet,” he says, starshine hand moving down to caress your brow, “it would not be a divine challenge if the stronger of you were to bear the brunt of the bite.”
I keep my sight locked on the swimming jungle floor, away from the horrible whirlpool eyes of father. “Please, banya, let me carry Rohi home in peace.”
“You ask for peace? When all you’ve ever wanted is someone to wage war on you?” His face is shrouded in shadow now, and the shadow quivers like ripples in a pond. “You feed on the loathing that you ask of your betters. You never ask for help. You are addicted to self-hate. Your fuel will undo you, son. Unless you find something better to burn. That, or remain lost. Let the jungle swallow my two sons, and let me have the mystery of your disappearance rather than the knowledge of your failure. At least then I can pretend you tried.”
How to ignore the storm that is his voice? I’ve never been good at keeping dry in the weather of his temper.
“Or worse, do you retreat back to the Guardian and admit failure? Let your brother die and you never return? Do you dare live up to the abysmal hope you have for yourself?”
Do I leave him behind? No. I simply pick up speed. I can hear him walking behind me though, his steps shadowing my own as I—we—move deeper into the jungle.
At least within the poison’s thrall, our father speaks to me. More than can be said of him outside the unreality of the bite.
His voice fades as I wander further with you in my arms, the remnants of his derision lingering like smoke.
Ah. The sun is gone. Slipped away when I wasn’t looking. I hate that time has become fluid, swimming away from me even as I try to drown myself in its currents. Time was the one thing helping me stay sane in this distorted land, and now it is nowhere to be found.
But the moon! Ah, she is a coin, shining silver and mad, bathing me in the dappled horror of night. In my delirious vision, she’s a masked rullisa dancer, her craterous face hewn with black opals, pockmarked in a rictus smile. She shines a platinum fire.
I look away, panting. My fever hasn’t broken, won’t break for some time; staring at the mad moon won’t help. I’m sweating at the onset of the frigid night.
Even though my vision is a cursed thing I cannot trust, my body still feels. Maybe in that feeling, there can be some trust of the world around me.
I try. The night air is damp and heavy. Lapping at my feet suddenly, cold water. In my arms, the heaviness of you. And yes, I almost drop you in the stream I’ve walked into. Almost. But at the last moment, I ease your body down to the edge of the water, to rest you on pebbles and gritty sand.
By the twin-headed god, you are terrible to look upon, Rohi. In the corner of my eye, your dead-eyed stare is holy and wrong. It is amazing how you can bear to look at the moon, whose eye is a pressure on the back of my neck like a blade’s edge. I don’t understand. I know why you look so calm, but how can you look so calm when I’m going to let you down?
In the water, Mother stares back, her face placid even as the water’s ripples cause her to waver. Frown becomes smile becomes frown once more, as the water reshapes her.
I dread her smile; she only smiles when something bad is coming, as if her joy could ease the sting of sorrow.
“Will you kill him here?” her reflection asks, the words burbling and far away, as though she truly speaks from under the water. “Or will you pretend at success, and let Rohi die for your own pride?”
I splash cold water on my face. Is it my hallucination, that it steams on contact and drifts away like butterflies of smoke? There is no clarity to be found in the cold. “I will not let him die,” I say, my voice wavering. Even I do not believe my words, and I’ve always been good at lying to myself.
“You won’t on purpose,” says Mother, voice liquid and sad. “But you knew you would kill him if you were the one to carry. You knew you’d fail, and so you tried to take the easy way out, as always. Switch the chits. Pretend dismay, even as your body was sent to a land of ice, frozen by the paralytic and smug, knowing you had gotten out of proving yourself to the twin-headed god.”
“Yes,” I say through a clenched, dripping jaw. “Of course I’d fail. That’s why I had to switch it. If it was me...”
“Then you’d both die,” she finishes, reflection frowning in the calm stream water. “There is not a person in Cotamarra who doesn’t know your cowardice, Pano. I love you as a mother will always love her children, but I have never known you to be the braver son. Rohi, bless him, stood for you, so you wouldn’t have to. Took your punishments and injuries, so you could live unscathed. Absorbed your peers’ scorn and gave you only love. In his own way, he is to blame, too.”
“Don’t blame him! He did nothing wrong!” I dash her reflection with my hand, and in the air the splash of water rises, transformed to obsidian fireflies, who infuse the night with a dark glow.
“If he did nothing wrong, then why will you punish him by letting him die?” asks Mother, her reflection reforming. “Better to take that knife at your hip and end it for you both. The poison already on its way to his heart will be agony. You would come home a coward, same as you left, but at least people would see the honor you chose to give your brother. At least they could say, ‘Pano, the coward, could not endure the serpent’s trial, but at least he gave his brother a dignified death.’ At least you would bring the twin-god’s psycotropic home for our medicine, even if you don’t bring home the paralytic in Rohi. That is, if you don’t plunge that knife into your own chest after.”
If I dig into my temples hard enough, could my skull be clay? Could I tear myself in two; rearrange the part of me that is loathsome and make it heroic? Or would I just shatter myself in the trying? “Please stop...” I moan, loud enough to drown the wall of sound that is the jungle’s noise.
“As you wish, vono, my beloved son. I do love you, you know that. Even though I am only your mind made manifest, child, you are the one in control. The drug of the poisoned god makes the world what you want of it. If you wish to be brave, then be brave. But you will never make it home if you cannot rise above your own cowardice. If you cannot craft a better world. A better you.”
A dangerous thought occurs. I grow very still. “Did I switch my own chit back? Did I doom my brother?”
The stream takes mother’s face away bit by bit, her voice lost in the rising burble. “Does it matter? If you think yourself damned, you are damned.”
Her voice fades as the lunar lady continues to kick and twirl overhead. I see you on the edge of the stream staring glassy-eyed and smiling moonward, as if she dances only for you.
Before us, the jungle waits. Miles and miles more of danger, any misstep surely meaning our death.
To stay is to die. Your heart will seize. My mind will break.
To move forward is not certain death but near enough. Success has always been made of glass, a slim and fragile thing.
Well... if there is any chance I’m a better man than I know I am, that too will be a slim and fragile thing.
“Come, brother.” I bend over and pick up your soaking body, cooled from the stream. You weigh nothing, and for a moment in my delirium, I believe we will fly, through canopy and cloud, and drift toward home.
But after a moment, earthbound, I turn and head back into the jungle, in the direction where I taste home.
And now the moon has ended her act, sweating and panting, taken her bows and given an encore, and yes, held a rose between her craterous teeth in a crescent smile for all those who came to watch her perform. It is time for her to rest.
But as we look for the sun, you and I, it does not rise. Even as the shadows grow hot around us and the sawing sound of insects lift like the opening strings of an orchestra stretched thin and soft... there is no light.
“Well, brother,” I say out-loud, and I can almost see myself saying it, as though I am not me but a person walking behind me, observing a failure carrying the only good thing about his life in his exhausted, shaking arms, “if we had hoped the sun would see us home, we should have brought a candle instead!”
I—I’m not... I’m not making sense. I can hear myself; my words are slurring together. My fever has broken, I think, but whatever moisture is still on my skin has turned to cold ocean water, my nose stinging with salt and the stink of the sea.
I’m scared. You’ve started shaking, and I don’t know what to do.
My delirium is turning sour, the wash of color and sound molting into bruises and empty spaces. I walk and do not feel the ground beneath me. I breathe and cannot feel my chest rising. It’s as though my body has become some automaton, my mind trapped within.
And even as I suffer in the cage of my skin, you shiver in my arms. The veins on your brown skin are turning black, and the only thing I can truly feel is the lump in my throat at the sight of poisoned you.
We have wandered under canopies of dark trees, who drop spinning little leaves. We’ve waded through waist-deep water, cool and sharp like a tide of knives. We’ve made our way down and back up a steep ravine, where serpents made of memory lie in wait, digging into my ankles the venom of a lifetime of hurt and pain.
Jeers, shouts, slaps, screams... the sound of my childhood before, always; the sound of your sandals on stone, arriving with the cry of “Leave him alone! What’s wrong with you?” You turning back to me, worry in your eyes at the sight of my miserable face, sometimes blood on my teeth, sometimes a bruise already crystallizing.
Then, that sun-bright smile and, “Ah, Pano, it doesn’t look so bad. Let’s head home.”
Those memories are in every step I take, trudging up the steep stone slope, nearly collapsing at the top.
We are lost.
We must be. Nothing looks the same, and in every direction, I taste doom. I’m scared, brother.
I guess it’s here that I’ll do what I know best: stumble, crash to a halt, and fail. Yes, now my knee buckles, and your head plunges to the ground, even as my other knee trembles, and now, yes, there it goes, too. You hit the ground, hard. I do, too.
Looking around, all I see are the shadows that boil and bubble like water over a fire; there is no glow of Cotamarra. There is no smell of earth and air. There is no sound beyond your breath, faster than before, as though you’re underwater breathing through a hollow reed and have realized that the little air you gain cannot sustain you.
My tears sear my skin, dripping down my cheeks like flame scarring flesh. My sorrow thrashes within me. Is this what it’s like to die under the serpent’s trial? My mind having wandered so far into the world of dreams that I will become undone; turned inside-out?
It’s what I deserve, I know. We’re far from home. For all I know, we’ve wandered in a circle, round and round, the serpent tracking us with dripping jaws, the Guardian waiting for us to die.
The weight at my hip becomes heavy. An ominous sign, this, for my knife to take on a will of its own, reminding me it’s there.
And knives have only so many purposes that don’t call for blood.
It’s ceremonial. Made of stone, embedded with lopsided jade studs, a spiral carved in the hilt to symbolize... something. My head has holes in it, my thoughts turned to birds that carry themselves to distant nests where I cannot reach them, only hear them squawking.
I draw it.
The knife is heavy. But what weapon is light? What blade is meant to be so easily forgotten? Violence should be heavy. To do such a thing should leave a mark, a remembrance.
I’m staring at you, your eyes sunken in and distant, your body shaking even as your mouth chatters, the sound of teeth on teeth a twisted castanet rhythm.
Is this knife so heavy a coward cannot lift it?
No, no. It is heavy, but violence is not so heavy that no one can do it. Most are capable of it, and that I may do this one thing and become accustomed to it... I can’t tell you which is more frightening. The act? Or that the act may be easier again and again?
Because I think I’m going to kill you, brother. I think we are lost and there is no way out, and I’d rather be the one to do it than watch the god’s poison squeeze your heart until it bursts.
Would you forgive me? I don’t think I’d forgive myself. But don’t worry, Rohi. For I am a coward, and so in your death, I will run. I will run away. Don’t you fret, brother, I will live on to grieve you. To grieve who I could’ve been.
Ah, I am holding the knife above you, Rohi. I blink away boiling tears. Gods, I hope I can do it in one strike. I don’t know if I have the stomach to try again...
“Ah, Pano... not how I imagined going, but if it’s what has to happen...”
I look up, blinking away tears, for surely, this is another trick of my mind. How can you be drugged, dying, pale and cold, but also sitting in the dense roots of the tree before me? Lounging almost, arm draped over your wooden throne, as calm as a saint, your dark hair long and clean; you look at me with that smile to cut the night to pieces.
“What? Not here? Now, at this moment when your mind has blossomed open like the first crocus of spring to the truth of the world? You conjured father and his stern ways. You brought mother forth from the water. How is it then that bringing me from the darkness is the one impossible thing about all this?”
“B—but you are just...” Gods, this knife is heavy. It must come down; inevitable. “A piece of me, convincing myself it is someone else.”
You shrug and cross your legs with that smile I wish I could summon to my own face instead of all these ghosts. “Well, then be done with it. Plunge it, straight and true. Come now. Don’t be shy. Weren’t you just sketching up the horrible future you’d live? After you murder me. Please, don’t let me keep you from that bright tomorrow.”
My cheeks grow warm. Even as a phantom, you know how to get under my skin and lurk there, needling me with ease “It’s not murder! It’s... it’s an honorable death. Better than poison!”
“Oh, is that what Mother told you? So interesting, Pano, all the easy ways out you could take, as long as you get to suffer from them.”
“What does that mean?” I toss the knife aside, hear a dull crack as it hits a stone and falls into the underbrush. You’ve challenged me, and oh, I’d rather beat your challenge than kill you; it’ll feel more satisfying.
You uncross your legs and lean forward, grinning. “Every scenario you see, every future you glimpse, you take the easy way out. We are lost and both die. You kill me and live with the consequences. You somehow return to the Guardian and we live in shame and exile. And yet, not one single future has us getting home. Surviving. Living! And in every future, you don’t need the help of a single person in Cotamarra to do what you already do to yourself. You already grind yourself into the mud, brother. You lie down for folks to walk all over you. And not just that! You welcome it. You welcome it! You’d rather give them exactly what they think of you, than to surprise them by standing up for yourself.”
I can’t help it. You say these things, and I begin to tear up all over again, for aren’t you right? Isn’t this what always happens? “I... I...” It’s hard to defend oneself from the truth, especially when spoken by someone who is loved and trusted.
“This here?” you say, pointing at your frozen, drugged, dying body, “This is an opportunity, Pano. One that I think you can rise to. One I think you’re going to surprise everyone with.”
“Oh, because I was going to kill you and never return?” I can’t help the acid in my words, though it is reserved for myself. “I’m loathsome, brother. I wish I wasn’t, but it’s the truth. I was going to kill you and run, and just... let Cotamarra tell the tale of Pano the coward.”
A warm hand under my chin. You’ve approached and lifted my head so I’m staring into your brilliant copper eyes. “Yes, brother. But you didn’t kill me, just now. When it mattered most, you listened to me, the part that is inside you that knows you can succeed. In the voice of the brother that loves you, I say this: you are worthy, Pano. You are enough. When given the chance to give your all, you did so, for the life of your brother. And here you are, on the brink, and I say to you, you will succeed.”
If I’ve never believed it before, please forgive me; it’s just that no one has ever said it. But I know I am saying this to myself, and if I can believe it, maybe it’s true that others believe it, too.
What is the harm in trying? What does it hurt to, just once, believe in myself?
I put an arm under Rohi’s locked legs and help his knees relax.
“Do you know now? Did you figure it out?” His voice is all-encompassing but quiet, as we sit together in the eye of this storm.
I get another arm under his head, supporting his neck like a child; like a child’s neck, I’m afraid it will snap, but it doesn’t.
“The trick with the chits?” Rohi’s voice that is my voice that is his voice is growing softer, shushing away like wind across long grass.
With a shout into the dark, hot jungle, I rise. You are in my arms, and for a moment, as trapped as you are in the land of ice, I think I spy the slightest smile on your face, enough to halt the night.
Your voice in my mind is as soothing and soft as medicine. “I figured out your little gambit, brother. And when you weren’t looking, I switched our chits back. I trusted you to see us home. I’ve always trusted you to rise again and again. And even if you would be too scared to save yourself, you would never let me down, brother. And, Pano? You haven’t. Not ever, brother.”
Time has lost all meaning. My heartbeat is slow, an occasional reminder that I am alive. I cannot feel yours anymore, but I sense your breathing.
My soul feels light, even as you grow heavier and heavier. It is almost time, isn’t it? It must be. Even if time has stopped existing, we move in the way of glaciers and storms, inevitable things that will have their way, for good or for ill.
I am many things. Pain, exhaustion, fear, anger, sorrow. All of them mean nothing, knowing that you trusted me to see you home. These things that weigh me down fade before my duty to you; if I can do nothing else, I can do this.
My vision narrows, and I am thirsty; when I look down, I can barely see the life within you, Rohi.
But ahead of us, something breaks the jungle dark.
Golden motes of light, distant and unhurried. Faint wisps of sound that could be music or crying or the gentle trill of birdsong. The smell of metal and bread and clay and coin, the building blocks of life.
Is it home? Or just those final images the brain creates as it dies, recreating the familiar as comfort before the cold of death?
I couldn’t tell you, Pano, not with my mind obliterated so. I don’t know if you could tell me either, both of our minds locked away in lands of ice and dreaming by the god poisons.
But I walk us toward those sounds and smells with a smile on my face. I feel you in my arms, so close and tender, in a way we haven’t been since we were born.
Together, as then, we approach the lights and sounds of a distant, unknown world, wondering what we will find when we emerge.
Let us go home, brother.