Kviv glanced around frantically for the hawk. He could barely see it through the thick leaves of the intertwining branches above. He saw an opening up ahead and sprinted for it. When he emerged into the unhidden sunlight of the grotto he looked up squinting for the bird. He saw a flock of birds rising in the distance, but there was no sign of the hawk.
Kviv licked his lips, feeling how dry they were. He needed to find some source of water soon. He had seen hawks like that one and knew that at some point it would find a lake or a river and dive for fish. Kviv’s shoulders sagged and he breathed deeply. He wondered if he should follow the birds flying above him or just pick a direction and follow it.
He chose the third option and climbed the nearest tree. By the time he reached the top his hands were badly scratched by the thick bark, but he had gotten used the feeling. He stretched, pumping his chest forward so his head was lifted just barely above the canopy of leaves.
Kviv was immediately blinded by the golden shimmer of the sun shining off of a lake. He started to lower himself when something caught his eye. He stretched as high as he could and saw a tree, taller than any he had ever seen before, whose roots spread out, creating a clearing for itself in the midst of the forest. Wrapped around the trunk and every branch of the tree was what looked like a giant purple worm. Kviv leaned forward and lost his footing. He began to fall, and watched as the ground raced up to meet him. Instinctively, he reached forward and felt his forearms slam into a branch. Grimacing, he eased himself back toward the trunk and continued his descent, albeit at a much slower pace.
That can’t have been real. I must be delirious. The thirst is driving me mad. I can’t even hold my footing anymore!
This wasn’t the first time Kviv’s senses had been deceived in his unending march across the world. Monsters and aberrations had a way of forming in the corners of one’s eyes and at the edges of the horizon. Those two boundaries of reality formed the breeding grounds for a thousand voiceless phantoms, whose form changed every time one tried to remember them.
Kviv tried to shrug off the image of the tree and the worm as he started toward the lake. As he did he stumbled upon a series of rolling, rocky cliffs, and found himself veering away from them and the lake, toward the tree. For some reason the image didn’t change its form, but remained fixed in his mind. Each obstacle he came upon brought him closer to the tree.
Kviv finally reached the tree, his exhausted legs nearly giving out as he reached the clearing. Panting, he looked up and had just enough strength with him to jump back in fear. Up close, he could distinguish that the ‘worm’ was a giant purple snake, with scales that looked as if they had been stretched far too thinly, giving it an eerily fluid body.
Every tree-limb was choked by its long form. Near the base of the tree’s center was the snake’s massive head. Its mouth grasped the sides of the tree, its jaws sunk deep into its heart. A stream of solidified golden sap trailed down the tree’s side like a giant still waterfall; Kviv deduced that the snake must have been drinking the tree’s sap for months, maybe years for it to have made such a strange aberration. Kviv looked at the tree, realizing that it was at the point of death; its green leaves were so thin that they were translucent, something that would be almost beautiful if it were not so haunting. All that remained of the tree were a few dozen large orange fruits hanging from its branches.
Kviv had never seen such a strange sight. He wondered how a snake could grow to such immense size, and why it drank tree sap. More than anything he wanted to see its face, as all he could see of it was the back of its head and the edges of its long jaws, which were coated to the gums in sap, appearing like shining yellow stalactites within the mouth of the massive creature.
Kviv picked up a nearby rock, ran back behind a stretch of bushes, and threw the rock past the snake. The snake pulled itself from the tree, sending bark splintering as he did. He looked toward the direction of the sound. Upon seeing nothing, it immediately turned around, its giant green eyes fixed on Kviv. Kviv held still, too afraid to move. He panicked, wondering if he had ever seen a snake that could think as this one did. He felt the urge to run but instinct kept him rooted in place. Many times before he had heard the blood-curling hiss of a snake, so distinctive and threatening that no other sound could be heard once it announced itself. In that moment he knew to freeze and slowly back away showing it that he hadn’t meant any harm. Kviv was hoping the monster in front of him would act the same way.
Instead, it drew its face closer to Kviv. It opened its mouth to show its giant fangs which dripped with sap, leaving golden dew upon the grass. “Leave!” it screamed. In a flash of purple it swung its head around and plunged its fangs back into the crevasses of the tree.
Kviv was shaking violently. He let himself collapse allowing himself the reprieve while telling himself he was just getting cover behind the bush. The world had become stranger, more foreign, in the past few hours than it had been for the rest of his life. As he lay on his back looking up at the endless blue he tasted his own dire thirst. The briefest thought of the lake he had passed appeared in his mind. That was the last time Kviv thought of water. The same madness that brought him to the tree drove the thoughts of thirst from his mind. He lifted himself to his feet thinking, what snake eats tree sap? I don’t know, but it cannot eat flesh and blood creatures as well.
Kviv took a hesitant step toward the snake, then another. Each successive step got smaller until he barely shuffled toward the snake. The snake’s neck muscles rolled as it pushed the sap backward, down its throat. Each spasm from the snake made Kviv shake. Kviv opened his mouth to speak but had no words. He opened and closed his mouth, like a fish pulled out of water, gasping for breath. He told himself to say something, but the words became objects just as strange as the snake. He knew the meaning of each individual word but the meaning of them all together was something that even he could not comprehend. His vision began to blur. Stars began to appear before his eyes.
“How can you speak?”
The snake’s throat stopped pulsing. For a long time it didn’t move at all. Then, calmly, the snake wheeled its head around and eyed Kviv. Kviv stared into its green eyes and saw his scared figure reflected in them, somehow filling him with more terror. He imagined the monster lunging at him, as he stood frozen, watching those eyes, watching himself being swallowed whole by the monster.
“I told you to leave.”
“Is it the tree?” For the first time, Kviv’s eyes moved past the haunting visage of the snake. He gazed in awe at the deep crevices in the trunk which were so large he could crawl into them. As he did, he saw the rapid flash of purple as the snake was uncoiling itself from the tree.
Kviv leapt back just as the snake launched himself at him. The snake’s golden jaws snapped just out of reach. Kviv fell, stumbling back, and felt himself back up into a tree. He thought it was going to be his end, but the snake was still uncoiling the rest of its long body itself from the tree. Kviv stumbled backward and frantically sprinted into the forest without looking back. He ran until he came upon a stream. He dived into it, drinking in the cold, refreshing water as he did. When he resurfaced he finally looked back. There was no sign of the snake. Kviv realized that he had no idea when the snake had stopped following him, if he had chased him at all. Just to be safe, Kviv swam to the other side of the river and collapsed.
Kviv woke in a start, seeing the monster’s giant maw flash before him. When he opened his eyes there were only stars and the gentle lull of the creek beside him. He rose to his feet. For a moment he thought of running as fast as he could as far as he could. If there were giant talking snakes, who knew what else might live in this forest!
But he knew that the snake was the only monster. It was just the tree that had made it what it was. There couldn’t be any other monsters, so long as the tree was guarded by such a beast. Kviv walked down to the creek and began to lap up the water. When he had finally quenched his thirst he let his head sink under the surface and began to swim toward the other side.
He emerged from the other side running.
The gargantuan tree loomed naked before him. Stripped of the snake, Kviv could see how close to death it had become. The tree was oddly striped and Kviv realized that it must have been from the years that the snake had coiled itself around the tree. Everywhere the snake had constricted, the bark was bleached white and was so sickly it looked like it would crumble at the slightest touch. Dark as a shadow, the snake lay wrapped around the tree’s base. After uncoiling itself to chase after Kviv, it had not undergone the arduous task of re-engulfing the tree.
Kviv stepped forward cautiously, until finally he stood so close to the snake that he could count its thin, elongated scales. He looked up above him. Barely visible in the darkness, and scattered about at random were the orange fruits. For every twenty branches there was one small fruit, a last reminder of what this tree had been.
Kviv looked down and saw that there were small patches of grass between the various loops of the snake’s body. Kviv thought that the snake had apparently spent so much time wrapped around the tree it hardly remembered how to coil into a perfect circle. Kviv looked up at the tree again and studied the bark. Near where the snake’s head had been the bark was ghostly white, so thin that he could see the sap inside the tree, like the veins on his wrist. The farther out, the stripes were darker. The snake must have grown in size while drinking the sap, never leaving the tree. As such, it probably didn’t realize how large it had become.
Kviv stepped between two giant coils, expecting them to snap closed and crush his leg. When nothing happened, he took another step between another giant loop. He passed a dozen rings before he reached the base of the tree. He was glad that the head wasn’t anywhere nearby as he knew he would have fainted if he saw it, only to wake as he was being crushed slowly and painfully by its dull, coated fangs.
Kviv sidestepped the thick roots, which clawed through the ground gasping for more food in a vain attempt to finally satisfy the snake. He reached the trunk and began to climb. He avoided the white parts of the tree as best he could, afraid of their flimsiness. He lifted himself onto the lowest hanging branch, and inched closer towards a small fruit. As he did, he looked back at the gashes in the tree. They looked like open, infected wounds. The sides of the gashes glimmered with hardened sap, like molten gold.
Kviv turned from the dying tree and reached for the fruit. He froze at the noise of the stem splintering. The snake below didn’t move. After a few seconds, Kviv raised the fruit to his mouth and bit into it.
Kviv fell to his knees. Realization crashed into him like a cascade as he felt each layer of who he was flying away without even a memory of what he once called ‘himself’ left to him. The world became clear, each animal, each life, each breath, and each action. Thoughts such as he had never had before, purpose, rights, good, evil, power, emerged in his mind. He could only begin to think them but had almost no idea what any of them meant, as if he stood upon the side of a cliff, looking down without being able to fathom its infinite depth.
Possessed, he frantically searched through the darkness for the next piece of fruit. When he saw it, he raced up the tree and dashed for it. The next bite quenched his mad need, only to fill him with a thirst worse than he had ever felt. He felt himself falling to his stomach, peering deeper into the chasm, seeing as he had never seen before mysteries which he did not even know existed.
Deprived of any thought but the maddening flashes of new reality, Kviv leapt from branch to branch, eating all the remaining pieces of fruit. He felt himself diving into that chasm and each second that he fell he saw millions of years, lives, deaths, struggles and cries of agony pass before him; now each of them was comprehensible, reducible, no longer a force but a fact.
Panic overcame him, sweat cascaded down his face, into his eyes, blinding him. His bleary eyes darted back and forth, to the hundreds of branches. Had he eaten them all? Rage rose in him as he looked at the greedy snake, and he cursed it. He stood up and was about to launch himself down upon it when he saw that there was one fruit left; a perfect, giant, round orange fruit, hanging delicately from a stem as thin as spider-silk. He raced towards it, but his head pounded and the world spun around him.
Kviv fell in the middle of one of the snake’s giant coils. Gasping in pain and rolling from the miasma of thoughts that had become him, he could only watch as the giant coils moved above him. Then the face appeared, staring down at him. It lowered itself until it was just above him, its green eyes gazing deep into Kviv’s own. It opened its mouth, and Kviv felt droplets of gold fall on his chest.
“You have become like me.”
A talking snake? I must be hallucinating. The dull pain was replaced by a stinging. Kviv’s senses were sharpened and he laughed at how he could have possibly forgotten that the snake could talk. He knew he must have looked mad to the creature, laughing in the face of his own unavoidable death.
The giant head whirled and saw the discarded remains of the fruit. “If only I had been born like you, I could have gained this being in minutes, as you have. Instead, it took me hundreds of years. Hundreds of years, since I was no longer than your arm, dying of thirst, I came upon a trail of sap and drank from it.”
The world started to right itself. Kviv began to raise himself up. As he got to his feet he regained enough of his senses to know he should be terrified. His head spun frantically as he sought a way to escape the snake, but he was surrounded by its long body. Even as he thought that the coils opened up into the forest.
“Go, if you must. You will return.”
Kviv looked up at the ancient creature. “What is this?” he said dumbly. For the first time he was conscious of his own reason, and knew how stupid his own words sounded.
“Power? An illusion? A dream? I have never known. All I have known is that now I know.”
Kviv looked off into the forest. He could hear the river trickling in the distance, or was that just his imagination?
“You said I would return.”
“The cost of the gift. You will feel it soon; a sense of loneliness. As you realize that you are one of only two beings like you; that you are severed from the rest of all that is for you alone can understand.”
Kviv nodded, and instantly wondered if a snake could understand what that gesture meant. He now understood the concept of being alone but he didn’t understand why loneliness would feel wrong. Whenever he was alone he was always safest; nothing was trying to kill him. How could a snake, and one of his size, know what loneliness might mean to him! Whatever loneliness was, he imagined it would feel different to such a beast.
Kviv didn’t feel loneliness; all that he felt was the need, still burning within him. He still felt as he did when he tasted his first fruit. “I need more.”
The snake nodded in return, confirming Kviv’s suspicion. “It is fortunate that you have come then. You can do what I, without hands, never could.” The snake looked at the last fruit. “You can take it and grow a new tree. You can eat the fruit, while I drain the sap.”
Kviv looked up at the snake coldly. “You will kill it.”
“We can grow others,” Kviv thought the snake began to take on a tone of excitement at the thought. “We can fill the world with trees like these. We can make all of creation like us. Then we would never be alone again.”
Kviv eyed the snake. Anger rose up in him. He felt the right to the last fruit; only he could handle it, and eat it, why should the snake profit from his fortune? The same snake that had tried to kill him for this gift? Kviv fixated on the thought, it became his entire being.
“Leave,” Kviv said.
Silence hung thick in the air.
“What are you saying?”
“You nearly killed the greatest treasure on our planet, snake, I will not let you spoil another, and another.”
The snake bared its crystalized fangs. Kviv jumped away from them, onto the snake’s body. He leapt again and ran toward the tree. The snake chased after him, but it moved slowly, its ancient body unaccustomed to moving. Kviv climbed the tree, this time he veered toward the most badly decayed branches. He slammed his fists on the closest one as hard as he could. The giant branch began to snap. The snake tried to get out of the way, but it was too slow and its body was too long. The titanic branch collapsed onto the snake’s body. Dark-purple scales littered the clearing.
Without wasting a second, Kviv jumped onto another branch and sent it crashing down on the snake, then another. The snake began to veer towards the forest as more branches fell upon it. As it did Kviv saw its bleeding insides from where the branches had ripped off the scales. His insides were completely golden. As the snake retreated into the darkness it left a shimmering trail of gold behind it.
Kviv did not sleep for days. He tried to think of some field or clearing large enough to put the last fruit but this land was foreign to him and he didn’t know of any open place to put it. At the same time, he was afraid to go off into the forest and leave the fruit alone. The last fruit became the object of his obsession and he never took his eyes off of it, save for those times that he looked at the gash in the tree’s trunk and felt the last bit of life that the tree had going into that one piece of fruit.
Sleep took him on a sudden. When he awoke he saw a golden circle all around the tree. Kviv’s heart raced. He knew the snake watched him from a distance, afraid to face him under the dying tree, but needing him to plant a new tree.
Kviv rested with his back against the tree. Thirst and hunger were killing him when suddenly a new burden that he had never known nearly broke him: the loneliness. Aside from the snake, he was the one creature in all of existence that knew that it was, and he was about to die in agony from it. For the first time he regretted the gift, and wondered where he would be had he never found this place, had he remained ignorant of what could be and simply was what he had once been.
Kviv forced himself to his feet. He walked over to the golden trail that the snake had left behind and coated his arms with it. He then walked over to one of the fallen branches. It had decayed since falling from the tree, into nothing more than snow-white dust. He began to fashion two creatures like him. They began to breath, and move, but when Kviv saw their eyes the feeling of loneliness returned. They moved but could not determine their paths, they lived but only because that was their design, not their continuing conscious will. Kviv could only create them as he had once been. He was downcast, and lonelier than he had ever been, until the pain of his loneliness drained him of life, like the tree.
“Watch for the snake,” he commanded them. “He is old and has no strength. Even his teeth are nothing to fear. Whatever you do, do not let him touch the fruit. I will return.”
Kviv wandered off into the woods. He tried to keep focused on his mission but his hunger and thirst began to consume his every thought. On a sudden he climbed the nearest apple tree and consumed every last fruit. They were the sweetest apples he had ever tasted. He kept eating until his belly swelled and he felt he would vomit. Pained and dying of thirst, he felt himself wander to the stream he had escaped to when first finding the snake. He gulped up the water, quenching his thirst, and leaving only the loneliness.
Kviv wandered for hours, searching for a place to put the fruit. He decided to resort to his old habit and climbed a tree, laughing as he was forced to act out his old self. He raised himself to the heights of the tree and saw a clearing just behind his own ancient tree. As he did, he looked back to his own tree and panicked. The snake rested in the clearing, eyeing his two creations.
Kviv tore through the woods, racing toward the tree. When he arrived the snake was gone. Only his two children remained holding the core of the last piece of the fruit in their hands. Kviv’s roar shook through the forest. He slammed his fists down on the ground. The ancient tree began to quiver. When he looked up his two children had fled.
Kviv sat in the shadow of the dead tree, defeated, when the familiar rustle of a billion scales shuffling across the earth greeted him.
“This was your doing,” he said.
“Yes,” the snake said gleefully. “Now you will feel it as I have. The loneliness, the profound, unending loneliness. You could have created a new world with me, or with your own creations, but you have separated yourself from all thinking beings. Now, you will be surrounded by thinking beings, but you have damned yourself to be forever separated from them.”
“And what of you?” Kviv spat, hoping that some torment would be leveled the snake’s way. “Are you not alone like me?”
“Never,” said the snake. “I will always have you. You may not see me, but I will never leave you. Every world you create, every marvel you mold, every miracle you fashion, I will be there to spoil.”
At that the snake left, fading into the darkness of the woods. Kviv began to wish that it would return, but he knew that that there was no need for it to return for it had not left him, and never would.
Author’s bio: Gary Girod has previously been published in Golden Visions Magazine and Silver Blade. A recent graduate of Chapman University, Gary now works in the south of France where he teaches primary school children English.