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 women’s work.

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 gleaming.

“She’s on the hunt,” he said, his voice a mellow, gentle taunt.  “Bigger game than catfish this time?”

“My sister,” I snarled.  “Give her over.”

“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 clumsy.”

I stared at him in silence while I listened, hard, for any stir in the undergrowth.  She wasn’t a graceful child.  Where she was, she made noise.

Only a rub of leaf and flicker of dragonfly.

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 do.

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 that suffice?”

“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.

I swallowed.

Sweet as it was, it left my tongue bitter.

He laughed, short and sharp, and tossed away the other cup.  The contents steamed as they hit the water.

So, I thought.  I’m lucky again.

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 and waited.

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, safe.

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 slitted.”

Unsteadily I coiled my tail and drew myself upright.  When the dizziness stopped I look down at myself.

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 kitchen.

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 they hide.  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 website.

Story © 2005 Samantha Henderson.