The air pressed down on a still day in August, hot and humid. Rex Dagobert puffed at a pipe carved with bulbous toads as he watched the horizon above the leafy elms and cottonwoods. Heavy gray clouds hovered in every direction. They had been building all day, seeming to close in on this location. Possibly a passing trick of the weather, possibly something more sinister in the area.
"Are you keeping something foul in your basement, Grandma?" Rex asked, indicating the storms with a wave of his briar wood pipe. A soft Southern accent laced his voice like smooth honey.
Behind him, Grandma Dagobert sat in her rickety rocking chair, shelling peas. She was a crotchety old woman, wrinkled as a walnut and made up of sinew and bad temper. Word had it that even the local alligators steered clear of her home. But word also had it that she had charmed said alligators into hanging around to keep everyone else away. Rex had to laugh at this. Even with her magic, Grandma Dagobert had about as much charm as buzzard food.
"Don't be an idiot," Grandma Dagobert snapped.
Because plains people in Kansas had basements, but not swamp folks. Their houses were built upon stilts, just like this one, which rose two stories into the air to support a one story shack. It consisted of splinters and the scent of damp wood, moss and fungus, and memories both good and bad. Rex sat at the top of a set of stairs of questionable structural integrity that led to the ground many yards below. He had his peg leg stretched out before him and he rested the arm holding his pipe on his other drawn up knee.
"I ain't got nothin' to do with the weather," Grandma Dagobert continued. Her gnarled fingers broke another pea shell with a sharp crack. "It's you sayin' stupid things like this that get me thinkin' you ain't up to takin' it with ya."
"Everything I say makes you think so, Grandma," Rex said with a smile. He drew another thoughtful puff of his pipe. If she said the weather was nothing, it was likely nothing.
Grandma Dagobert harrumphed. "That just goes to show you ain't ready!"
"Oh, come off it," said Rex. "I'm forty-seven years old and I've been a bokor since I was a whippersnapper. I'll die of old age afore you think I'm ready."
The old woman took up her walking stick from where it rested against her chair. She leaned forward and smacked him on the shoulder with it. "Just leave, ya useless, good fer nothin' pup!" she screeched thinly.
Rex scooted over on the step until he was out of her reach. Unperturbed, he knocked some ash from his pipe and re-lit it.
"I already told you, I can't leave without it. Until then," he smiled a canny, sideways smile at her, "you'll just have to deal with my presence."
Grandma Dagobert's leathery face purpled. She looked ready to vent her famous temper on him in all its sound and fury. But a noise from down the path below caught both of their attention.
"Grandma Dagobert!" a young voice cried out distantly. It came from around the tall sedge and creeper that bordered a curve in the trail. The call was followed by a boy running full tilt across the flattened grass and damp earth up toward the shanty.
As the boy approached, Rex eyed him, wondering if he was a relative. The child looked child-aged, maybe somewhere between ten and thirteen. He was skinny and mud-toned, with dirty hair of any shade sticking up at odd angles. Rex noted as the boy climbed the stairs that he had bright eyes the color of a dead oak leaf—somewhere between brown and burgundy—and an earnest face.
Rex didn't recognize him. He knew everyone around called his great grandmother 'Grandma Dagobert,' though, so the kid might not be related after all.
Just as he made it to the top of the stairs, the boy caught sight of Rex sitting comfortably at the top. He pulled up short and eyed the old gentleman warily. Rex knew he must look a sight to others: shirtless, bushy gray hair and mustache, peg leg, too many beaded necklaces to count, scars everywhere.
The boy said, "Who the hell're you?"
Rex made a general noise of a disappointment. "Watch your language around your elders, boy." He extended his hand not holding the pipe. "You may call me Papa Moonshine."
A snort of derision came from the direction of Grandma Dagobert. Rex ignored her.
"What might I call you?" Rex said as the boy shook his proffered hand.
"Abe Gleason," said the boy.
"Well then, Mistuh Gleason," Rex said as he clasped his hands over his stomach. "What seems to be the trouble?"
Abe didn't move up the steps past Rex, but he looked over his head at Grandma Dagobert sitting deep in the shadows of the porch overhang.
"I was out fishin'," Abe began, "a couple miles yonder, an' the longest snake I ever did see stretched down from the trees above me. All the way down to my boat, with its tail still up in the branches way up high. Pure white. It tried to bite at my face—" he made a striking motion with his own arm and hand— "an' then it turned into smoke and disappeared before my very eyes!"
Both Rex and Grandma Dagobert watched Abe intently.
"An'… an' that's it," Abe finished, somewhat sheepishly at their non-reactions. "That's kinda like the things you do, Grandma Dagobert. Can you get rid of it? I don't need no smoke snake bitin' me while I'm tryin' t' catch me dinner."
Grandma Dagobert snapped another pea. Rex said, "The snake didn't bite you?"
"No, it—" Abe frowned— "missed. Almost on purpose, like."
"Hmm," said Rex, puffing at his pipe. Peculiar indeed.
"That ain't natural, is it? That's strange, right?" Abe gazed at Grandma Dagobert. It almost seemed like he needed her to say it was. When odd things happened, the supernatural could be the most comforting explanation.
Rex also watched the old woman. She glared down at the bowl in her lap, her mouth puckered in concentration. Her demeanor suggested she hadn't heard the boy, but Rex knew she had. As the atmosphere charged one silent second at a time, Abe glanced back and forth between the two of them.
Rex understood. This was a test.
"That does sound a bit odd," he said to Abe in an unconcerned tone. "Why don't we go take a look?"
For someone who had needed a supernatural explanation for what he'd seen, Abe appeared less than thrilled by this proposal. The boy didn't protest, though, so Rex hauled himself up onto his peg leg. He took a moment to snag a lantern hanging from a hook next to the door. It was carved from a human skull and its empty eyes sockets peered at him incredulously. He also took up his long coat from where it lay next to him. After shaking it to rid it of any splinters, he donned it over his bare shoulders. The fabric shifted the myriad wood and bone beads strung around his neck, causing them to rattle like chattering teeth. With a glance up at the rapidly darkening sky, he also slipped on a floppy, wide-brimmed hat.
By this time, Abe was already at the bottom of the warped stairs. He shifted impatiently from foot to foot as Rex clattered down one step at a time, his peg leg ringing against the wood. Rex didn't say a word of farewell to Grandma Dagobert, and she did not look up from her peas to wish him luck.
Abe had pulled his wooden flat boat far enough onto the swamp shore that it wouldn't immediately float away. The water spread out from their feet, flat gray under the dark cypresses. A listless breeze ruffled the surface for a moment, bringing the stink of rot and damp with it before it died away to stillness again. A growl of thunder rumbled overhead as they shoved the boat into the water and climbed in.
Wordlessly, Abe took up the pole and navigated the flat boat deeper into the swamp. Rex lit the wick in the skull lantern's mouth and set it at the prow. It glowed with a cobalt blue flame, casting light several feet ahead of them. Rex's eyes shifted back and forth, taking in everything around from his position on point. The air tasted like sweat.
The deeper into the swamp they traveled, the more the vegetation closed in around them. Abe had been fishing in the wilder parts of the marsh. The two spoke not a word to each other until after almost two miles of travel, when Abe said, "Nearly there."
Rex only grunted in response. The clouds felt weighty overhead and a sense of dread had begun to unfurl in the pit of his stomach. He only took note of the feeling enough to sharpen his lookout, which was how he noticed a snake.
He had seen no signs of other animals for the last half mile, which was unsettling at best. So the motion of a black snake flipping over to reveal itself as another white snake underneath caught his attention.
"Hold up, if you would, please," said Rex.
Abe slowed the boat to a standstill. "We're not there yet."
"So it wasn't that snake you saw?" Rex inquired, pointing. The serpent in question was wrapped around a whippy willow branch, in plain sight. Upon closer look, Rex noted it had eyes on the white side of its head as well as on the black side.
"What snake?" said Abe, peering through the leaves. The creature was right in front of the boy, shining like the moon on a dark night.
"You don't see that white snake just there?" Rex tried again.
The snake lifted its head, looked straight at Rex, and winked. Rex let his pointing hand drop.
"There's no snake," Abe said, giving Rex a flat look. "Besides, this isn't where I saw it."
Rex hesitated, considering this development. Abe and the serpent waited for him to make a decision.
"Very well, then," Rex said at length. "Let us carry on."
The snake gazed smugly at them as they passed.
A quarter mile onward found them turning off the main tributary into a stagnant side pool. When they breached the tangle of cattails and hanging moss around the edges, they arrived in a dead-end inlet, about two hundred meters in diameter. Black elms and cottonwoods grew along its circumference, their branches stretching far overhead. One had fallen across the right hand edge, its branches and roots tangled into other trees keeping it above the water. Moss grew everywhere and a thick scum of bright green algae blanketed the water's surface. Dark foliage above blocked out what little afternoon light pierced the storm clouds, plunging the place into gloom.
Abe had stopped poling them forward near the pond's edge. "I was out there, in the middle," he said. But he didn't move them any closer.
In Rex's vision, the pool warned them away. The sense of dread that had started in him earlier had since grown to a heavy stone. An almost physical manifestation of the feeling curled upward in smoky tendrils from below the water, like misty shades of the long dead.
It's a wonder, he thought, that the boy made it out of here alive.
"I don't see anything here, though," the boy said, peering upward into the foliage. Thunder growled from close by.
"I do," said Rex. "Something is hidden here. I'm going to need you to get out."
Rex deposited Abe onto the fallen tree trunk and poled himself out into the very center of the inlet. The blue lantern cast light almost to the edges. The boat seemed to float in a dark void. He settled himself on one of the seats and drew a flask and a tiny glass from an inner pocket of his long coat. The scent of whiskey cut sharply through the stink of the algae as he unscrewed the cap. The tinkling splash of the liquid pouring into the cup barely broke the stillness.
"Show yourself," Rex said to the water and the empty air, "and I might just pour some of this for you."
His offer was met with silence as he drained the glass. With a sigh, Rex set it upside down into the bottom of the boat. Then he pulled a necklace knotted with tiny bird skulls over his head and laid it around the glass. Finally, he spat into his palm and then held his clenched fist over the ring.
He murmured, "By my will, I bind this circle to this circle."
When he opened his fist, a large black beetle fell out. His other hand shot out and he pinned it to the wood with a pen knife. Its legs wriggled helplessly.
"I offer this life to make my request."
He flipped the glass upright and poured another splash of whiskey into the bottom of it. Then he got to his feet in one motion and stowed the flask back into his pocket. Around him, nothing moved. His breath was the only sound. Even the thunder had ceased.
Rex lifted his hand to his mouth and bit down on the pad of his thumb. The pop of his teeth breaking skin echoed off the trees and the taste of copper filled his mouth. He held his hand out and allowed a single crimson drop to fall into the glass, where it mixed with the whiskey.
"By my blood on crossroads bidden—"
He rotated his arm outward until it hung out over the blue-tinged water. His reflection looked back at him keenly.
"—I call thee forth, thou creature hidden."
Another drop of blood briefly reflected the lantern light. It broke a tiny ring through the mossy surface and disappeared.
For one heartbeat, nothing happened. Rex stood in a flat boat in the middle of a swamp with a pile of rubbish at his feet, and all was still.
Then the lantern fire turned to sickly yellow-green.
So did all the water of the inlet.
"Well, that wasn't supposed to happen," Rex said with a grin. Now the fun would begin.
Ma ître Carrefour, are you with me?
A mirror bright consciousness, the essence of his loa master, stirred in the back of Rex's mind. I am.
From close by, Abe shouted, "Moonshine! Watch out!"
The water teemed with snakes. They rose from below the surface—wriggling clumps of them. Writhing masses of them. They slid over and under and around each other, shining black one second and flipping over to become white the next. Their numbers swelled and swelled until they tipped over the flat boat.
Rex discovered the water was deep enough to close over his head. Snakes brushed and slid against him in the brackish liquid. They would bite him any second. He hit the swamp bottom and he pushed off, cold mud squishing into his boot and around his peg leg, seeking to drag him back down.
By the time Rex broke the surface, rain had begun to pour. He found himself next to the fallen tree. Abe crouched above him, holding out his hand.
"This is all very uncivil," Rex commented as he caught hold.
Abe hauled the soaked bokor up onto the log, rain roaring down on their heads. Rex had lost his hat in the plunge.
As Rex steadied himself on the log, Abe pointed back toward the overturned flat boat. "That's it! That's the snake!"
There could be no doubt. By the green light coming from below the water, they could see a moon white specimen hanging down from the tree canopy high overhead. The length of its body reached nearly to the hull of the boat and the piles of snakes churning the water. It had its enormous pale head cocked toward them and its eyes glowed red, like fire-lit rubies.
A low chuckle rumbled through the swamp. After, Rex wasn't quite sure the sound hadn't just been thunder.
"So you came back to my pond, little frog." The deep voice emanated from the serpent, but it did not open its mouth. "I let you live once," it continued, "and you thank me by bringing this poisonous bokor back with you?"
"Well, pardon me," Rex said. "But it's impolite to talk about someone in his presence."
Dark, filthy laughter filled the clearing. Before them, the snake's body shimmered dully for a second.
Then Abe said, "Where'd it go?"
In the same moment Rex realized the boy could no longer see the serpent, it struck. With a bunching of muscles, it coiled and hurled itself over the water toward them, toward Abe, mouth open and fangs bared.
Rex shoved Abe aside with one hand, stepping into his place. His other hand shot up and caught the creature just behind the jaw. His fingers closed like a vise as the serpent's mouth snapped, snapped, snapped inches from his face.
A frightened little noise came from the direction of Abe. Rex gripped the beast's throat with both hands now, tight enough to suffocate, tight enough to kill. At last, the snake ceased its useless snapping and stared balefully at Rex with its beady red eyes. It flicked its tongue at him impudently.
"Are you ready to act civil?" Rex said conversationally, relaxing his grip a bit.
That deep voice echoed off the trees, sounding a bit strained. "Now, is this any way to treat someone you just met?"
"I could say the same of you," Rex replied, voice wry.
Out in the middle of the inlet, the rest of the snake's length dropped from the canopy with a great splash. Its body began to contract, shrinking and dragging the tail toward them until the entire thing morphed into the shape of a man. One with Rex's hands wrapped around his neck.
The snake-man was Rex's height and broad-shouldered, wearing a tattered floppy hat, a dark cotton shirt open at the neck, threadbare trousers, and no shoes. Not a single hair grew on his face and his skin glittered white as sugar. His irises glowed red like sullen stars.
The man leaned close against Rex's grip, eyes a bit wild. His breath smelled as fetid as swamp water.
He said, "You must be Moonshine."
Rex started, just a little.
The serpent-man gave a low chuckle. "Oh, don't look so surprised. You're nothing special, I just heard the little frog call out your name. Although," he sniffed deeply, "you do have the scent of a Dagobert about you."
"I'm afraid you have me at a disadvantage," Rex said. "You know my name but I don't know yours."
"They call me Antiloch," said the serpent-man.
"Ah, one of the nine eater-magique," Rex surmised. His tone was flippant, but sweat dripped down his spine. This was very bad. He needed the amethyst-set bone needle from his pocket right now, but he couldn't risk letting go of a magic-eater. "I never knew of one shaped like a snake."
Antiloch laughed. "Very good, little bokor," he said. "But there's a lot you don't know. I had meant to lure that Grandma Dagobert here." He smiled ecstatically, displaying neat rows of white teeth. "I can smell her magic from here! But instead I got you, and I think you'll do."
From the neck up, Antiloch morphed back into the white serpent and Rex suddenly no longer had him behind the jaws. Antiloch now had a good two feet of slack at his disposal, plenty enough to reach Rex's face. He opened his mouth wider and wider, fangs springing forward. Rex let go and dodged back along the log, digging frantically in his pocket. Rex remembered that the eater-magique's bite wasn't venomous, but it was instantly paralytic. It would take only one solid hit and Rex was done.
Backing away slowly, Rex said, "You want Grandma Dagobert? I can help you there. She has something I need and I can't take it from her while she's alive."
Antiloch paused in his advance, listening. He was a terrifying sight, part man and part serpent. Rex's searching fingers brushed the cool metal of his flintlock pistol. Useless. His dip into the swamp would have ruined the powder.
"I'll make you a deal," Rex continued. "I'll help you take down Grandma Dagobert and you let me take what I need from her possessions."
Antiloch cocked his triangular head at Rex. "You would betray her?"
Rex's smile was all malice. "It's not betrayal if there was no love to begin with. Right now, she's in my way."
The snake's dark tongue flicked out several times as Antiloch considered. At last, he said, "Very well, I—"
"Nooo!" Abe yelled from the other side of Antiloch. The boy brought an enormous branch swinging down, clubbing the serpent-man on the head. "I won't let you near her!"
The creature barely flinched before it whirled and sank its fangs into the boy's shoulder. It reared back and Rex didn't even have time to curse before it struck again.
Abe's knees hit the mossy log with a hollow thunk and he slumped forward, face down at the snake-man's bare feet. The branch he'd used as a weapon slipped from his grasp and crashed into the water below. Above him, Antiloch strained forward, the effort of trying to move forcing a frustrated hiss from his wide-open throat. Hundreds of tiny threads of mirror bright light, thin and sharp as piano wires, stretched from Antiloch to Rex's clenched fist. Blood dripped from the heel of his palm where he had stabbed himself with the bone needle he'd been searching for. He gritted his teeth at the power of Maître Carrefour coursing through him and down the light threads to battle Antiloch's will. Rain hissed on the swamp's surface and where it touched the hot threads.
Rex walked unhurried up to the immobile form of Antiloch, the strands retracting in painful loops around his fingers. Without a word for the snake, he jabbed the long needle irritably into the back of Antiloch's neck, just at the base of the creature's skull. Angry red light filled the chunk of amethyst set into the top of the needle. It flared bright as the green light from the swamp water faded away.
The bokor felt the moment that the magic-eater died in the slackening of the threads around his hand. Antiloch's human body vanished in a thick cloud of smoke, leaving behind only too feet of snake suspended in midair. Even that unraveled into a glittering pile of snowy scales, leaving behind only the snake's gleaming white skull, which dropped onto the top of the pile.
Rex blew out a sigh of relief through his mustache. He crouched to examine Abe's prone form and found the kid was indeed paralyzed, but still breathing.
"Idiot boy," Rex grumbled as he tied a somewhat clean handkerchief over the huge bite marks in Abe's shoulder. "She doesn't need your help."
With the kid tended to, Rex turned his attention to more magical matters. He dropped the soul-filled needle back into its glass vial and stowed it away. He would be keeping that for himself. Then he pulled out another, grimier handkerchief and used it to cautiously pick up the snake skull, taking care to avoid its half-protracted fangs.
A prize for our favorite? an over-bright voice asked in Rex's mind.
Of course, Rex replied as he tied off the kerchief.
With a sense of satisfaction, the mirror bright presence faded from Rex's consciousness.
"Until next time," he murmured.
By the time he had righted the flat boat, maneuvered Abe's limp form onto it, and poled his way through the unslackening storm back to Grandma Dagobert's home, Rex felt he had had enough for one day. Night had fallen when he arrived and the downpour continued, but a blue lantern set out under the shack's overhang guided him back to her porch. Grandma Dagobert still sat in her rocker, only now she smoked a long pipe and had a blue shawl wrapped around her bony shoulders.
When she caught sight of the boy slumped in Rex's arms as he climbed the last of the stairs, Grandma Dagobert said, "Dead or poisoned?"
Rex shook his head as he shoved the front door open with his shoulder. "Just paralyzed. Nothing one of your brews won't fix."
Water dripped from Rex's soaked coat and left a wet trail on the wood floor behind him. He stripped off most of Abe's wet clothes and his boots and tossed the lot of them onto the stones by the fireplace to dry. He tucked Abe into Grandma Dagobert's bed to warm up. The old woman came in behind him and banged the door shut, muffling some of the noise of the storm outside. The absence was a relief to Rex's ears.
"How'd 'e do?" Grandma Dagobert asked as she opened a cupboard. Rex caught a glimpse of its contents, crammed full with dried herbs, flowers, jars of animal entrails, candles, crystals, and crackers.
Rex made a noise of irritation in response to Grandma Dagobert's question. "He couldn't even see through the glamour. Where did you pick him up, anyhow?"
The sound of crumbling herbs filled the single room as Grandma Dagobert ground them down with a mortar and pestle. "He's a distant cousin o' yers," she said. "Seemed like 'e might have potential."
Rex spied a wooden box sitting on the small, rough table. When he stepped closer to examine it, he found it carved all over with intricate lizards and turtles, dragons and frogs, all in the process of consuming one another at once. A small smile touched his mouth. She had expected him to pass her test.
"He showed heart, though," Rex said distractedly.
"Doesn't matter, if 'e don't have the Sight," Grandma Dagobert grumbled as she tossed the crushed plants into a pot of hot water. A foul smell instantly rose up from it. "I'll have to toss 'im back and look for another 'un."
Behind her, the noise of the storm rushed in and Grandma Dagobert turned around just in time to witness the door smacking shut behind her great grandson. On the table, the carved box she had set out was gone, replaced by a snake skull the size of her head. Water dribbled from the dubious handkerchief beneath it.
The serpent skull smiled toothily at her. Grandma Dagobert smiled back.