Serpents

Nathan Lambes

        “Why build such a thing?” she asks me, eyes brimming with shades of old innocence.

        The question is a good one, and I have no honest answer.  It looms above us like the skeleton of some great serpent, killed in the act of coiling around a prey animal almost as large as itself.  My father would have known.  Or his father, who was alive before.

        I can’t tell her such a thing of course, but I have no idea what the eternally writhing shapes on the horizon could be.  I’m surprised that she even knew that they were man-made.

        She looks at me with a hint of suspicion in her grey eyes and I know that I have been quiet for too long.

        “Monuments,” I say with conviction, almost sure of its truth now that the word is past my lips.  “A memorial to a great war of gods.”

        She looks back at the skeletal snake, her eyes glazing over.  She is, no doubt, thinking of the wars she has seen fought for the glory of lesser gods.

        “Things were larger before.  Except the earth was smaller.  Big gods, small earth.”  I gesture to the structure.  “I have seen larger houses of mere men.  Men from before.  This is nothing but a trinket they would have kept in a box at the foot of their beds.”

        It is hyperbole, of course.  Truthfully, it one of the biggest and most ominous things I’ve ever seen.  My feet are itching to put some distance between us and it.  She, on the other hand, seems to be glued in place by some unseen force.  I let her stare until I’m unsettled enough to place a hand on her shoulder.

        “Come on.  I don’t feel safe here,” I say as gently as possible.  I don’t want to tell her what’s really going through my mind.  That it’s not a statue.  That it still has disciples.  That it’s hungry.  I wouldn’t be doing her a favor by voicing these fears.  She’s seen enough to know that such things are possible.

        She shakes her head, dirty blonde hair falling into her eyes as she does.  She doesn’t bother to sweep it away.  Finally, she looks up at me with those impossibly bright grey eyes. A familiar hollowness has again replaced the curiosity.  She has regained the hardness that will allow her to run, to survive, to not scream.

        I try to smile, to reassure her, but there’s no feeling in the expression and she knows it.

        I pat her back, shift the satchel back between my shoulders, and begin to drag my feet further down the worn asphalt toward the west.

        It isn’t long before I see a road sign in the distance.  I narrow my eyes, trying to see through the haze rising from the road.  Letters, not numbers.  I grimace.  My reading is a little rusty, but I can eventually make sense of the words.

        Sandusky, Ohio.

        My breath catches in my throat.

We’re coming upon a town.

I quickly glance to the south, trying to determine if cutting through the tall grass and brush is going to be worth it.

        Towns are hard to gauge, if you’ve never been to one before.  They could be (mostly) friendly places filled with the kind of folk who take in passing strangers.  They could be militaristic; pragmatic but wary.  They could be religious... which was... hard... to predict.  Or they could be raider camps, with snipers in the windows and sinewy old women waiting to pluck your corpse.

        We avoid them, for the most part.

        “We’re leaving the road,” I say, firmly.

        She doesn’t question me.  Being off the road is harder on us, our gear, our clothing, and you always run the risk of getting lost.  But it’s better than being dead.

        After about three miles and two thorns lodged into the meat of my forearm we stumble upon another road.  Ahead I can see the distinctive shape of a road sign, but the numbers are too faded to see from this distance.  I look north, toward the town we passed and, seeing no one, step back onto the pavement.

        When we come upon the road sign, my heart leaps, just a little.

        250.

        We’re on Route 250.

        I look at her and smile, this time for real.  “We’re on the right road.”

        She doesn’t say anything.  She doesn’t need to.  Her eyes say it all, set in a face that can only be described as ecstatic.  She doesn’t yell though, or jump, or do a little dance.  She’s too smart for that.

I appreciate her self control.  We’re not safe yet, not by a long shot.

We walk further, neither saying anything, but our feet feel lighter.  After a couple miles, when we feel safer, she breaks the silence.

“What does that say?”

        She’s pointing to a large sign, mostly faded.  The thing that startles me though is not the words, but the image.  It’s a section of the serpent.  Harnessed to it’s back are people whose faces are too faded to read.  I look at the words and read them slowly, forming the shape of them in my mind, making sure that they’re right before letting them leave my mouth.

        “Cedar Point.  Amusement Park.”

        There are other letters, but they’re too small and too faded to read.

        “Amusement...” she echoes, staring at the people harnessed to the serpent.  “They had a funny way of amusing themselves, didn’t they?”

        I nod my head slowly, feeling the unease from before slowly creep through my spine.  “Yeah...  Yes.  Yes they did.”