by Samantha Henderson
Sometimes it happens. You
gamble and you lose, even if you’re one of luck’s children.
I was always lucky. Always
heard the Grumbies snarking in the shallow water before they
could wrap their clammy fingers around an unsuspecting ankle.
Always knew where the Snake-folk were likely to dance on moonlit
nights, and gave those places a wide berth. Always knew where
the best clusters of wineberries were hanging.
It was good to be lucky in the
autumn, after the Snake-folk roused themselves from their summer
languor and before winter cast them into their seasonal sleep.
There was a bite in the air that threw them into their dances,
and in the daylight I would find flat patches on the small grassy
knolls that serve as islands in the swamp, and broken fragments
of scale opal-bright in the shafts of sunlight. Sometimes,
if I sat silent in my punt, I'd see a tail flick between the cypress roots
and crouch low, goose pimples shivering up my back.
Many days in autumn I would come home
to the smell of hot iron, the polished black skillet hung over
the flame. It permeated the house: the smell of blood caught in
abeyance, and the Snakefolk couldn't abide it. Sally-pher
didn’t like it either, and said it caught in the back of her
throat like smoke that couldn’t be coughed loose.
Mama frowned when she looked
at Sally-pher. Rising six years, she’d lost the last of her
baby fat and her timorous ways and was starting to venture
outside on her lonesome. And my darling Sally-pher, precious
sister, was clumsier than a child of the Swamplands ought to be.
I loved her always, but tell the truth and shame the devil. She
couldn't track noiseless through the chokeweed. She couldn’t
catch dragonflies at the edge of the water. When I took
her in the punt she was distracted by the dapple of new leaves. I
drew her attention to the swirl of catfish beneath the prow, and
she frowned and her little brow creased as she tried, she tried,
but a green flicker went by and she was entranced again.
She had none of my focus, or silence, or speed. She had
none of my luck.
We'd make sure she was within
eyeshot and call, or safe with other Swampdwellers. The
children tolerated her mayfly ways, binding her safe in their
circle games. They'd leave her behind when they'd venture into
the streamlet mazes, and she'd wait at our doorway, plaiting
grasses into tiny baskets, waiting for them to come back to her.
Some whispered it was improper for
a girl my age to venture in a punt so far from where our houses
clustered. I said Mama had no man or son to do it. I
was better at
fishing than weaving or spawning crayfish or herblore or other
One day when a surge of dying
summer heat roiled through the waterways, spoiling my fishing, I
punted home to find Mama running down the grassy swell towards my
docking-place. Hope died in her face when she saw my punt
empty and I knew then what had happened. In the doorway where
Sally-pher sat was a round of flattened grass, and a
half-finished basket small as a thimble. Caught between the
posts, a shimmer of scale. Squinting down the knoll I thought I
saw a thick serpentine path of crushed green where he has
passed. Oh yes. I knew who stole my darling.
As I spy
them through the trees,
keeping my distance and a finger on my knife-handle, I often
feel him spying on me. Copperhead, I dub him in my
silent rumination, because the sun that strikes through the
cypress and keeps them at bay wakes red swirls in his flowing
hair, streaked with honey-gold. He’s big, his tail a
muscular smear of blue and green, and I can hear him in the
undergrowth on the shore as I shoot over swift-flowing water,
paralleling the boat, almost companionable. Sometimes when
I idle in the middle of the stream, my morning lines cast out
and fastened, I feel his bright gaze on me and pretend
ignorance, cleaning my nails with my knife, my very skin aware.
I make sure never to be
within reach. I’m lucky, but it’s foolish to depend on
luck all of the time.
I pulled the scale from the
post. Blue-green, and there, a copper strand. I felt the skin
tighten across my face and pushed past Mama into the house,
seeking my extra knife. It was too long for everyday work, but I
wanted two blades that day.
Mama knew where I was going and
knew better than to stop me. “I’ll call out the
Riversides, and Crack-John,” she called, and I nod, never looking
back. The trail led down to the water, past where I docked
the punt, earth dented under the weight of his strong tail.
I should have waited for the others,
but time was of the essence. Nobody knew what happened to
those the Snake-folk took. We never even found their bones.
I felt the muddy bottom pull at
my pole as I traveled swift up the passage where I’d heard him
wind. Past the pool where I invited, taunted his gaze.
I should have known he’d be
waiting for me.
In a cluster of adder-lilies,
he coiled, waiting, not trying to hide. I took a steady, wide
stance in the boat and drew my short knife, touching the long
blade at my thigh. He blinked at me lazily, his red-gold head
“She’s on the hunt,” he said,
his voice a mellow, gentle taunt. “Bigger game than catfish
“My sister,” I snarled. “Give
“But she’s playing in a daisy
patch,” he said, and despite myself, I shivered as his voice dipped
from tenor to bass and back again. “She promised me a
necklace. She’s clever with her hands, that one. If
I stared at him in silence while
I listened, hard, for any stir in the undergrowth. She
a graceful child. Where she was, she made noise.
Only a rub of leaf and flicker
And so. I knew she must be dead.
“I’ll catch you one day,
Copperhead,” I told him, the hot tears already starting. I
blinked so they wouldn't blur my vision. “And when I do, I will
skin you and tan your hide as a present for my mother.”
His eyes widened, mocking. “I’ll
give her back, if you feel that strongly,” he said. “But you
must play my game.”
That didn’t mean she lived,
but I allowed myself hope. I was lucky, after all. “What game?”
He smiled with a little fang
thrown in and raised his hands as if in supplication. In each
palm was one of Sally-pher’s acorn-sized baskets, the ones she
wove tight enough to hold liquid. Something dark gleamed
in each one.
“Choose,” he said, starting to
uncoil from the waist down. “Choose, and drink.”
I let the punt drift closer.
“What is it?”
“One of them will do you no
harm at all.”
I didn’t ask what the other would
A woodpecker started
rat-tatting half a mile off; I counted fifty blows of its beak, in sets of five,
before I answered.
He studied my face while his
tail undulated deep beneath him.
“Say that I’m weary of tracking
you by the waterways, and I wish to play a little game. Will
“No,” I said, drifting closer.
When I was close enough, I reached
out with my left hand to take Sally-pher’s cup from his right.
I didn’t let go of the knife. He stared into my eyes but
made no move.
When my fingers touched his hand
I felt a scatter of scales that reached past his wrist, and the
soft skin of his palm.
Waiting until the boat drifted
away, I drank the liquid, keeping it imprisoned in my mouth.
It was warm and rich, like wineberry juice. Still he watched me,
watching my throat.
Sweet as it was, it left my
He laughed, short and sharp, and
tossed away the other cup. The contents steamed as they hit the
So, I thought. I’m lucky
With a whip of his tail that
scattered droplets across my face, he wound into the heart of the
grove behind him. I stifled the impulse to leap after him
Something shoved roughly
through the chokeweed. She saw me and ran, half-tripping,
knee-deep in the water before I could get to her. Sally-pher,
It was not until the middle of the
night before I realized I'd lost Copperhead’s game.
After I voided from both ends I
lay in a fever, shaking with the ache of it while Mama put cool
cloths on my head. I couldn't keep her remedies down, so she
soaked rags with hot poultices and lay them on me to draw out
the poisons. For a while I slept, and then the itching begin,
hot and painful, like red ants crawling up to my waist, and the
insides of my arms. I would have scratched my skin off in great bloody
welts if Mama hadn't tied down my hands.
After a day the itching stopped and
Mama took off the poultices. She kept her face rigid as she
wiped me clean. Later I heard her praying in the kitchen.
Sally-pher came to sit beside me and wiped my forehead.
When she fell asleep against
my shoulder I heard him through the window, calling me.
“Go away,” I say.
“What lies ahead for you?” he
whispered. “Soon you’ll be a woman full, and they’ll marry you
off to one of those with the rich river houses and you’ll sit
inside with your sewing all day.”
I tried to move my chapped lips.
“Or a Dockman, and he’ll keep
you from the waterways and give you fifteen children and a clout
across the ear when it looks like you’re dreaming of the punt.”
“Never,” I croaked.
“Or if you put them off, one of
the Grumbies will get you one of these days, quick as you are.
Or one of my kin.”
I closed my eyes and opened them.
It made no difference.
He didn’t say anything else,
but I heard his breathing all night.
Someone sponged my forehead
clumsily, and I opened my eyes. Blinding light: I could see again.
“Oh, May,” said Sally-pher,
somewhere in the light. “May, your eyes are all strange and
Unsteadily I coiled my tail and
drew myself upright. When the dizziness stopped I look down
From the waist down, row upon
row of shiny scales, black as beetles. Here and there a
fleck of green.
It took me a little practice
to get used to the push-pull necessary for movement. Sally-pher
stood against the wall and watched. She followed me to the
Mama was standing at the sink,
stripping leaves. She didn't turn to look at me. Over the
fire hung the iron skillet. The smell made me want to retch.
“Go,” she said. “Go before I
have to call Crack-John to come and kill you.”
Sally-pher started to cry. I
kissed her once and slithered out of the house, past the wards which
made my skin prickle, down the slope, away from the smell of hot
iron. He was waiting by the water’s edge, Sally-pher’s daisy
chain around his neck, the petals starting to fade.
I went past him without a word,
into the water, away.
I still won’t let him come near
me. Last time he tried I snapped at him with the end of my
tail and welted him across the hip. But he’s still out
there, past the ring of cypresses that border my island, coiled in
his nest of adder-lilies.
I enjoy the feeling of grass
and mud against my scales. I can hear the catfish where
Last week I left a pile of them at Mama’s back door. I think it
was last week. I’m losing my sense of time, and only the moon
in its waxing means anything anymore. Autumn bites, incites me.
Soon the moon will be full. I think
I’ll go to the secret islands then, deep in the back rivers, and
dance. Perhaps, next time he comes near, I won’t lash at
him. I’ll let him stay, across the clearing, and the next
night, a little closer.
My scales are beautiful in the
moonlight. I can smell the crawfish sleeping in the mud.
Perhaps I’m still lucky, after all.
About the Author:
Samantha Henderson lives in Southern California
with mysteriously increasing numbers of corgis and rabbits. Her work can be seen
online at Strange Horizons, The Fortean Bureau, Ideomancer,
Abyss and Apex, Neverary, Would That It Were,
Bloodlust-UK, and the archives of Lone Star Stories. You can
learn more of Samantha by visiting her
Story © 2005 Samantha Henderson.