THE SERPENT’S SHADOW – AN EXCERPT

Written in best conscience by Ursula Binder, born Ursula Lehmann, in the 1666th year of our Lord, in the waning days of my old age and penury, on the events of my life, especially those of my childhood and youth.

I remember, I always loved to watch the fire.

If I try to recall the earliest years of my life, the image that most often flickers before my inner eye is of how, as a two or three year-old girl, I crawled on the stones of the kitchen floor, pulling a broken jug or some other simple plaything behind me by the string looped through its handle, while the firelight wriggling beneath the iron plate of the stove held captive my gaze. For hours I would stare as it shimmered and flared, cowering back or rearing at the whim of the gusts rushing through the chimney while the flames stretched upwards towards the underside of the soot-black cauldron. Enrapt I would watch the dimly glimmering patches of light as they faithfully followed the fire’s every twitch, flashing and fading on the tin platters and ladles dangling from the wall, and I was breathless with excitement when I saw, as I clamored underfoot in the early mornings, the yellow light tumbling like some poorly fastened tress across the kitchen floor as mother opened the oven door and lifted the freshly baked bread with the peel. I dimly felt that fire hailed from some netherworld, a being of great power that merely feigned subservience, and though it perhaps deigned to serve us for a time, boil our soups and bake our bread, it might at any moment rethink itself and reveal its true temperament. From my hideaway under the table I often heard the women speak, as they busied themselves in the kitchen, of how another one of the houses of the city had burned down or how a stable had been set aflame by lightening, or how yet again the Turks or the Hungarians had set ablaze one of the surrounding farmsteads, and so 1 looked on the fire in our hearth as if it were a wild animal fallen into captivity, merely lying in wait for the opportunity to shake off its shackles and devour everything that fell in its path. I remember, I wondered whether it was only fire that had this double nature or everything I saw, the pewter plates, the ladles, the trestled kitchen table, whether everything had a hidden face, and how these things might appear were they to show themselves in their true form.

Indeed once the yellow beast did show the glint of its snarl before my very eyes I no longer remember whether I was awoken by the sound of crackling or whether I simply started with alarm from some bad dream, as frequently happened in my girlhood. I only recall that for a short while I sat staring, dazed and uncomprehending, thinking that I must still be dreaming, for I could not imagine what the wavering yellow glimmer spilling through the window possibly could be, and I looked with confusion at my mother when she tore open the door, grabbed me from the bed, and, still in her nightgown and covered only by a shawl, ran bareheaded outside. I must have cried out in protest as young children do when woken from their dreams, but my mother did not even try to calm me, and I soon forgot my querulousness and stared spellbound at the source of the strange brilliance, the flames seething across the roof of the rear shack and the gushes of sparks that burst from time to time from among them, as if someone were releasing handfuls of glittering wasps into the dark night sky.

Whether the fire had been started by lightening or by someone’s carelessness I no longer recall, only that it spread from the rear shack forward, towards the front of the house, which my father and the men of the vicinity were dousing with water, lest it too take flame. In the meantime someone had let the hens out of the roost and they were struggling to escape, jostling one another and cackling with terror, and as they were scurrying in the opposite direction of the men bearing the buckets of water, it looked as if the men were tramping through a screeching flood of feathers. Sparks showered down on the hapless animals, and occasionally a smoldering knot of thatch would alight among them and the flames would snap at their feathers, but most of them probably still would have escaped the reach of the fire had they not, in their crazed, blind scrambling, swept along with them those already aflame, but thus at the touch of each gust of wind the fire lurched further among them like a fast-spreading plague. Some of the hens whose plumes were already alight ran on for a moment in flames, then collapsed, blackened and singed. The fortunate ones, having escaped the danger, scurried on farther, squawking wildly in their panic. I remember looking up at the sky as I clutched my mother’s neck, because everyone around me was praying and wailing for rain, and I saw with wonderment how dark remained the firmament above us, where reached neither the ebbing yellow shimmer nor the din of the turmoil below, and not a single tatter of cloud cloaked the stern glitter of the stars.

Along with the hens our splendidly plumed rooster perished as well. This chanticleer had been an old enemy of mine. Why, I’m not sure, perhaps because the crown of my head was barely higher than his proud crest, but he considered me an intruder every time I lingered in the yard, his domain, longing for some playmate, and several times he chased me along the side of the long courtyard al the way to the lath fence separating the hennery from the little courtyard leading to the arched gateway at the front of the house. He never followed me beyond the fence, but rather would turn around brusquely and with a haughty gait retire triumphant, obviously satisfied with himself that he had put his enemy to flight. Sometimes he caught up with me before I reached the fence and clawed at my shanks with his sizeable spurs. I felt a kind of wonder for this rooster, a mixture of fear and anger, and I tried for a time to pacify him, crumbling snippets from my bread and tossing them towards him from a respectful distance. He would disdainfully accept my offering, picking at the crumbs with his beak, but with his haughty, yellow rimmed eyes he continued to measure me as contemptuously as had I never tried to win his favor. Perhaps he considers me cowardly, I thought, and so he looks on me with scorn, and from then on the anger in me rose to the fore. On several occasions I tried to convince Susanna, our old maidservant who long ago had nursed my mother at her breast, to cook the rooster for our Sunday soup, and in the evenings before falling asleep I envisioned what I would do were I to get him in my clutches, bound with twine, and be able to deal with him as my fancy saw fit. I imagined how he would submit to my summons, for I was convinced he understood human speech, simply in his arrogance he didn’t care to heed it. On the evening the rear shack burned down this rooster also scrambled along in the flood of hens, and I watched as he took flame at the touch of a smoldering swad of straw. His beak gaped open, but instead of a squawk or a crow, smoke burst forth from it, and before he toppled to the ground he seemed to fix his dark, yellow-rimmed eyes on me one last time, and I thought, as I shuddered with guilt, that somehow he must have known how I would have delighted to have captured and tortured him, and perhaps he believed it was I who in some manner or another was the cause of his agony. Months after the fire I often started with a shriek from my dreams, and I confessed to Susanna that it was not the fire that I feared, but rather the vengeful spirit of the rooster. Susanna looked at me with incomprehension, as she could not have, known of the gruesome torments I had devised for him, so, taking my words for typical childish nonsense, she tried to calm me by telling me that animals do not have souls. Susanna was learned in the customs and deeds of spirits and witches, at least so she claimed, and I considered her someone of incontestable authority in any question concerning the ways of malevolent beings, but I could not bring myself to believe that animals do not have souls, even less so, as I had once heard from Susanna herself a long tale about the ghost of a black dog that, with its howling, had called the attention of the villagers to the hideout of the thieves who had killed its master.

True, I vaguely sensed that even if animals did have souls they could not be quite the same as ours, but also not quite as we humans perhaps tended to imagine them. Often I observed as our black cat, every muscle taut, watched a bird perched on the branch of a tree. Sometimes his teeth snapped together, as if he were already crunching the slender spine of his catch. “Have you no shame, cat!” I would scold him, but it was plain that nothing lay further from the black tom than any sense of shame. He showed not the slightest abashment, upon returning home from his nightly roamings, as he supplely leapt in through the kitchen window, fixed his yellow eyes on me, and mewed clamorously if he found his plate empty. And as I gathered with horror from the conversations between Susanna and the other maidservants, the mottled white cat that had whelped on our rooftop had dragged her young in her mouth to the roof of the next house, for had he come across them their father, our tom, would have mercilessly choked the purblind litter. One time I asked my godmother, who was as acquainted with the ways of the Lord and the Heavens as Susanna was with the ways of the spirits, whether the Lord would punish our black cat for his wicked deeds, but she answered no, because the Lord had not endowed animals with the ability to know good from evil, as he had us, and he had not given them immortal souls. I continued to quibble, pressing her as to how they were nevertheless capable of moving and making sounds if they didn’t have souls, and how they could understanding one another and even bits and pieces of what we said, for I had once seen how at the hunters’ command the sinewy, spotted dogs would scamper off to fetch the wounded prey from the dried leaves or the bog and carefully lay it at their masters’ feet. Animals merely have a sort of animal soul, my godmother explained patiently, which cannot be brought to punishment for its sins, but which also cannot become worthy of salvation either, for they are not blessed with the gift of free will, like us, and they merely follow the impulses of their animal natures.

I did not doubt my godmother’s explanation, but I could find little comfort in it concerning the fate of our cat. In those days, when my soul was as yet unburdened by anything heavier than the usual childish misdeeds, it seemed to me that the annihilation that awaited him was far worse than the judgment of the Lord or even perdition itself. I often tried to imagine, especially when I saw Susanna snap the neck of a chicken with a single tug or heard, as I walked with my mother in the forest, the squeal of a rabbit in the claws of a fox, how this soul, a moment before still alive, sentient, and filled with dread, was suddenly no more, like a flame flickered out or foam dispersing on the water, and I gave thanks to the Lord that he had spared me this fate. Now, in my decrepitude, if I rouse the memories of the sins I have committed over the course of my life, sins that presumably will remain forever hidden from the arbiters of justice in this world, if I reflect on how I have wronged others, particularly my good husband, on whose head I have brought nothing but grief and misfortune as others brought it on mine, it would be a great relief to me could I but believe that I will not have to stand — quite soon at that — before the Almighty, but rather that at a single stroke my soul would be no more, like the flame extinguished, and together with it would vanish all memory of my sins.

(Translated from the Hungarian by Thomas Cooper)

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