“I can pick it up?” Marcella asked, gazing down at the little statue standing directly on the clean bench top.
Leo smiled and straightened his back. “Go ahead.” As his sister gently picked up the stone-carved statue of a snake wrapped around and resting in the thick leaves of a succulent, he explained. “This is one of the flawed replicas, so Doctor Valdez talked someone into letting us have it—or at least borrow it. They probably won’t use it in the exhibit.”
Marcella held the statue up and peered into the snake’s glassy blue eyes. She slowly turned it one way and then the other, studying the shapes and details of the painted leaves. She no doubt was wondering what species of snake it was, and what variety of succulent. One of the leaves still had thorns and little bulb-like protrusions along the edge. But most of those delicate details had fallen off the original carvings.
Leo was curious about those things too, but they were part of a larger story that the artifact had to tell. And they were not the part that he was studying.
There were other similar carvings in the set that Leo had been given to research. None were the original artifacts, but part a new initiative launched by a partnership between his university and the local museum that housed the original artifacts. They were designing a traveling show that would only display high-quality replicas of the original artifacts, replicas created by local artists, and only with permission from local authorities in the areas where the artifacts were found. The initiative’s aim was to educate by sharing the artifacts without removing them from their native environment.
Marcella gently set the statue down. She turned to Leo and grinned. “Think they’ll let you have it?”
Leo smirked. “Why? Is that what you’re hoping I’ll get you for our birthday?”
She shrugged, but then glanced at the statue once more before shifting her attention to the rest of the bench top, Leo’s own assigned space.
“What part of the research are they letting you do?” Marcella asked, pointing down to the open notebook on the bench top. She raised her brows.
Leo nodded his permission for her to read his notebook. “I’ve been assigned to help look into the myths and folklore surrounding the pieces in this subset.”
“So…the boring stuff?” She glanced down at the notebook and didn’t see her brother’s frown.
Leo sighed and crossed his arms. He’d already been telling her bits and pieces about the material analysis of the original artifacts—at least whatever raw documents he had been granted access to by his advisor. He wanted to tell her about the stories he’d already found in the library research.
“What’s this about?” She leaned over the notebook. “‘A demon in the skin of a snake.’ What are you getting into here, bro?” She turned her head to him with a mock frown of concern.
“You sure you want me to tell you? It’s about the myth and folklore surrounding the artifact.”
Marcella uttered an uncertain groan.
She changed the subject. “Hasn’t your advisor and her team been studying this stuff for a few years already? What new stuff could there to discover at this point?”
“Not new stuff. Old stuff.”
Leo felt his eyes open wider. He took in a breath. “Imagine if you have to keep learning the same thing over and over again, because you keep forgetting what you learned.”
“I have forgotten most of what I learned in school.”
Leo shook his head. “I’m not talking about holding all that knowledge in your mind yourself—though that would be amazing, and I’d get in line if someone figured out how to do that. No, I’m talking about our collective knowledge. What have we already invented and figured out? And then it got lost and destroyed, and we have to struggle through inventing or figuring it out all over again. For me, archaeology is about uncovering that kind of knowledge.”
“But you’re studying myths. Stories about stuff that isn’t real. Unicorns and fairies.”
“How do you know unicorns and fairies aren’t real?”
He frowned. “That’s not how science works.”
Marcella pressed her lips together as if she were suppressing a smile. Leo couldn’t quite tell if she was teasing him or testing him. Probably both.
“So what does science say about unicorns and fairies?” she asked.
“Science doesn’t say anything. Science is not a person.”
“But, and, archaeology is not really a science.”
Leo’s frown vanished. His expression went blank. “I will kick you out of here, permanently.”
Marcella let herself smile. “Do you have the authority to do that?”
She chuckled and nodded. She pointed to the replica she’d been coveting moments earlier. “What lost knowledge is that artifact going to uncover? It’s not even the real thing.”
“It doesn’t have to be for what I’m doing. And I’ve got some preliminary scans of the original artifact. And the summaries of any analysis that’s been allowed on the originals. I’m looking into the myths to see if we can identify this particular snake and this particular plant.”
“The local experts don’t know?”
“They don’t have a lot to go on. But they strongly believe both the snake and plant are now extinct. There’s a catalogue of current species, but even that’s incomplete.”
“What do you know about snakes and plants?”
“About as much as you do. So I’m trying to find clues in the stories.”
“Which are translated from the original language, right? So what if they miss some detail?”
Leo exhaled slowly, and sniffed. “You’re right. It’s a longshot that some lowly student will come up with something that the real experts haven’t seen. But then again, fresh and inexperienced eyes sometimes see things that the expert eyes pass over.”
Marcella was silent for a moment. She looked between the replica statue, the notebook, and Leo.
“Thanks for letting me be here,” she said, “and letting me be a butt.”
He chuckled. “Wow, keeping the language mild. And you’re welcome, as long as you don’t really disrespect what goes on here.” He gave her a pointed look.
Her answer to that look surprised him.
“I’m proud of you,” she said.
At lunch, it seemed his mythology-averse sister had finally braced herself enough to bear his exciting discovery, fortified as she was with a second slice of pizza.
“Alright,” she said. “Let’s hear it. You’ve been dying to tell me all morning. So I’m listening. I’m paying attention. No groaning. No moaning. No rolling my eyes.”
“How do I know you haven’t mastered the art of sleeping with your eyes open?”
“You don’t. But that would be disrespectful, and that’s not what I’m here to do today.”
Leo sat up and leaned over the table. They were sitting outside, a tree casting dappled sunlight onto the metal mesh table that held the remnants of their lunch.
“Okay, it’s pretty short actually,” he said. “I’m still reviewing materials. So, a lot of cultures have what are called ‘household gods.’ I’m pretty sure I’ve told you about them before. This culture is no different. These household gods grant protections to the people in the household based on their roles, and even the rooms or areas of the house that they inhabit. The threshold guardian protects a doorway or window. The watcher of the waters protects wells, or in modern times, the kitchen and bathroom facilities.”
“Sometimes these household gods will punish people too, right?” Marcella asked. “If they don’t keep the house nice and tidy. Stuff like that?”
Marcella grinned. “See? I’ve been paying attention.”
“The snake in the statue was—is—a household god. The story I found is actually an origin story, I think, for all the venomous snakes in this part of the world. They’re all the descendants of one of these household gods. So back in the day, the snakes knew magic. They learned it from the household gods who took the forms of serpents. They didn’t need fangs or venom. And they didn’t need to squeeze their prey or their enemies.”
Marcella sipped her soda. “I sense danger coming.”
Leo nodded. “A demon. I can’t find any details about what the serpent god protected within the household, specifically. But keeping demons out was part of their general duties. This one snake was only able to keep the demon out by sacrificing her magic. Either that or the demon somehow stole that magic during their struggle. The demon fled. But the snake knew he’d be back, especially if he learned how to use what he’d stolen.
“The house the snake protected and snake herself were defenseless,” he continued. “She knew she needed help, but she was desperate and scared that the demon would return at any time. So she went out, but not too far, and called to the nearby plants and animals to teach her some defense or attack she could use against the demon. The first to answer her call was a succulent who lent the snake her long sharp spines. While the snake was gone, the demon returned. The demon had not only learned how to use the snake’s magic, but had used it to transform himself into the snake’s form. So he didn’t have to force his way into the house. He was welcomed in, even though he couldn’t transform completely. His head still looked like a demon, like the head of a man but with red and gold eyes.”
Marcella drew down her brows. “The ‘demon in the skin of a snake.’”
“Yeah, and when the real household god returned, she didn’t hesitate. She struck him and bit him with her fangs over and over. She managed to chase him away. But his wounds were not fatal. She knew he’d be back. So the snake went out again, calling for help. This time, she found a monkey, who told her to squeeze the demon until she pressed all the breath out of him, and he fell dead. By the time the snake returned home again, she found the demon approaching again too. She didn’t have arms like the monkey, so she tried to wrap herself around the demon. But when the demon realized what she was doing, he tried to do the same. They fought, but neither of them gained the advantage. The snake was getting tired, but she knew she couldn’t let the demon into the house. When they fought, she saw that the demon had stolen her trick with the long sharp spines. But he had added something. He’d coated the spines with his own poison blood. He was going to poison the family that lived in the house. The other household gods couldn’t stop him. There was no time to search for more help. So the serpent household god did the only thing she could think to do. She unhinged her jaw and she swallowed the demon whole.”
Marcella sat back, and blew out a breath.
Leo continued. “Inside her stomach, the demon struggled. But the snake had clamped her mouth shut. He couldn’t escape. He couldn’t breathe. He bit her insides with his poisoned spines. The poison weakened the snake, but not enough for her to let go. The demon died, but when he did, all his foul blood seeped out and poisoned the snake. With the last of her strength, she took herself outside of the house. She went to the succulent who had given her spines, and asked the succulent to tell her children to use that same trick to defend the house, but only from outside now, because those spines might harm the inhabitants. The snake had many children. Some of them were household gods. And some of them were ordinary snakes. The succulent promised to honor the snake’s last request. She also told the snake that she could bear the demon’s poison, if the snake wanted to rest within her leaves. So the snake curled up around her leaves and rested her head on the leaves, and then she died.”
Marcella’s forearms were on the table, hands curled into fists. “Why can’t demons leave us all alone?”
“The succulent, who turned out to be a real ride-or-die friend, absorbed the blood of both the snake and the demon, and came to be known as the ‘demon’s bane’ and the ‘serpent’s boon.’”
Marcella peered at him. “Every time I think you’ve gotten to the end of the story, I’m wrong.”
Leo inhaled slowly and nodded seriously. “The demon passed on knowledge too, the knowledge of how to steal magic and use it to transform. The demons never did learn how to transform their heads. So the transformation become useless to them. But the household gods who took the form of serpents had to stay out of the house. Without magic, they had to have fangs, and some of those fangs carried venom, in place of the magic and the sense that was stolen from them.”
“Okay, you made me care about the snake and the succulent. Love them. But I still don’t get the appeal of mythology.”
Leo laughed and threw up his head. “Stolen magic. Lost knowledge. This is what I live for.”
Marcella propped her elbow on the table, raised her hand to her face, and rested her cheek in her palm. “You’re a little too excited about this story.”
“There is something else.” Leo looked down at his plate and shook his head. “It might be nothing, so I wasn’t going to show you today, but…I don’t know.”
“What is it?”
“It’s not done yet.”
“Okay, I’ll show you. But don’t blame me if it bores you.”
After lunch, they returned to the laboratory. But then Leo led his sister over to another section where the lights were dim. He stopped at a door and peered into the window.
“One of the technicians is helping me with the scans,” he said, opening the door.
He led her down a row of laboratory benches to the far side of the room, where large pieces of equipment sat in dim light, all of them blinking with various indicator lights of their own. He didn’t yet know how half of them worked.
“Remember how you pointed out that Doctor Valdez and her team had been studying all these artifacts for years?” Leo said. “They expanded the team because there were so many little, tiny artifacts. The replica statue I showed you is one of the biggest ones. A lot of them are only as big as two of our fingers. You can close your hand around them. I thought there were dozens, but there might be close to a hundred. Someone looked at the statues that I’m studying a couple of years ago. But after tagging and cataloguing them, they put them away. I’m the first person to look at them since them. Someone noticed the scratches and made note of them. So it’s not like I was the one who uncovered anything. My contribution was just trying to be thorough.”
“You’re babbling a little, bro. I need some context here.”
“Oh, sorry.” Leo stopped at one of the machines. Beside it was a computer monitor of moderate size. “It’s rendering the images, whatever that means, right?” He turned and smiled at his sister, who still looked confused.
Leo had grabbed his tablet on their way to the scanning laboratory. He pulled up an image of the serpent and succulent statue, magnified it, and swiped up to show her the base. “Somebody made particular note of these scratches at the base. I don’t know that I would have noticed anything particular about them. There’s all kinds of wear and tear on all these artifacts. They’re stone, so there are chips and cracks and scratches.”
Marcella nodded. “Makes sense.”
“But all these artifacts that I’ve been looking at have the same scratches at the base, even ones found in all kinds of different locations. I checked with Doctor Valdez and with Ava—the grad student I report to directly. They gave me permission to request detailed scans and overlays to see if I can find any meaningful patterns.”
Leo felt a sudden slap on his shoulder.
“Now, you’re talking!” Marcella said. “Do you think those marks were made on purpose?”
Leo shrugged. “I guess we’ll see.”
Leo had invited Marcella to come to the laboratory on the day the initial set of scans and overlays were finished. The scanning technician had taught Leo some minimal manipulations of the software so he could try a few things on his own, like laying the scans of all the hundred statues over each other, or asking the computer to do some simple pattern recognition of the scratches. He also planned to use his eyes and see if his own brain recognized any patterns.
But it was a weekday, so even if she hadn’t been sent out of town to attend a conference that her boss didn’t want to attend, Marcella would have been at work.
They settled for messaging each other. Leo juggled messaging his grad student advisor as well, and one of his friends who just loved snakes and reptiles and was excited by that aspect of his research project.
He couldn’t concentrate on the administrative tasks he’d given himself to do all morning. He kept wandering by the scanning lab and checking to see if his task had moved up in the computer’s queue.
The scans weren’t finished until after lunch.
He wanted to swipe through the preliminary images on the monitor right then and there, but a few other people were waiting behind him. So he saved copies of all the files and data and took them to his own station.
He spent the rest of his time that day reviewing all the scans, zooming in and out, setting scans next to each other and over each other, noticing the slight and subtle differences in each statue. These were scans of the replica statues. They’d been made to be as faithful as possible to the originals. But they wouldn’t be perfect copies. He didn’t know if and when the original artifacts could be scanned. If he found something significant, they might be. The thought made him anxious. So he swept it away and just looked at the images, even after Marcella sent a few “are you still staring at the snakes?” messages.
That night, Leo dreamt of a serpent, curled up in sleep on the ground, its head tucked away in the coils so he couldn’t see, couldn’t confirm that it really was the head of a snake. In the dream that made him nervous enough to want to move away from what could be a protector or an enemy.
He woke up repeating a phrase, something that his waking mind turned into a nonsensical rhyme. He wrote it down.
The snake is asleep. It’s somebody’s pet. I can’t see the head. I’m turning the bed.
He scribbled the rhyme in his notes during class that day. At first, he imagined that Marcella would tell him he had “snakes on the brain” from staring at pictures of snakes and succulents for hours on end. But then he started trying to make sense of it. He felt there was something there, some message maybe, or something he was on the verge of knowing when he woke up. Or maybe something he’d known in the dream and forgotten when he woke up.
He had a friend in high school who had a pet snake. That might explain that sentence. A pet was a domesticated animal. Maybe his mind was trying to say “household,” as in “household god.”
Leo spent his lunch in the scanning lab, so he could use the computer to do some of those simple manipulations he’d been taught. He told the computer to align the heads on all the statues.
“Could it be that simple?” he whispered to himself.
When the computer showed him the final image based on his requested parameters, Leo gaped.
Within twenty-four hours, he was standing beside the same chair, occupied by Doctor Valdez now, who peered at the composite images.
Leo let his grad student advisor speak for him.
“What do you think, Val?” she said. All the grad students called Doctor Valdez “Val,” but Leo couldn’t bring himself to be that informal. “Could it be?”
“If it is, it’s not any language I recognize.”
“They could be numbers. But they’re too complex to be just counting marks, no?”
Doctor Valdez didn’t answer Ava’s second question. She turned to Leo instead. “Came to you in a dream, huh?”
Leo felt his face flush. “Ava thought that maybe my mind was processing all that info while I slept?”
“Maybe. I received some complaints about your excessive use of the scanning lab. You went a little overboard with the pre-approved volume.” She held up a hand just as Leo gulped. “But these replica scans reveal some details that could help us identify the snake and plant, if nothing else. So don’t worry about it, but no more scanning for a bit, okay?”
Leo nodded. He tried to speak, but his throat had gone dry.
“Tell her about the dream you had last night,” Ava said.
Leo licked his lips. “I can just write it up…for you later.”
Doctor Valdez rose from the chair. She gestured for him to follow her out of the scan lab. “Do that too, but tell me now. I’ve got some time before my next meeting.”
“I woke up feeling as if I knew what the writing said. Like I could read it. But of course I can’t. But before that I dreamt about the myth, the one about the serpent household god, the demon, and the succulent? And I remembered some details that are wrong—or, they’re not in the accounts we know about. I think it may just be my mind trying to make sense of all the stuff—I mean data, or information—I’ve been looking at the past few days.”
“And the past few months,” Ava added.
“What are these details?” Doctor Valdez asked.
“In the story, all these different kinds of beings and creatures can communicate with each other. So they have a common language. In my dream, the snake’s scales were covered in the scratch language. And the way the demon stole the snake’s magic was learning that language, making the marks on himself, and erasing them from the snake.”
Doctor Valdez hummed thoughtfully. “Are you sure that detail is not in any of the accounts you’ve reviewed so far? Maybe you read it and forgot, and your mind brought it up again now that there’s some context with the artifact you’re studying.”
Leo nodded. “That is possible.”
Doctor Valdez smiled and tapped her hand on his upper arm a few times. “Good work, so far, Leo. But let’s not rush it. Give your eyes and your mind a break. We’re all fairly new to this particular set of artifacts. No one in this group is going to steal credit if you’ve discover something big—or even medium, or small.”
“Oh…” Leo blinked. The thought had not occurred to him.
In the days to come, Doctor Valdez would assign other members of her team to review Leo’s scans, and dig deeper into the myth and folklore of the serpent household god.
They found corroborating evidence for the new details that Leo dreamt about, or thought he dreamt about. He still could not be sure that his unconscious mind wasn’t dredging up knowledge he had already gained, and thereby doing what his conscious mind was doing in his waking study of the artifact.
A few days later, when next he had lunch with his sister at the university commons, she was surprised to find him sobered.
“I thought you’d be jumping up and down and bouncing off the walls when I got here,” Marcella said. He’d been continually reporting on the recent developments—what Marcella insisted on calling his “breakthrough.”
“I keep having dreams,” he said. “Almost every night and morning. And in one of them, I learned that language just by looking at it. It was designed that way, an early attempt at a universal language, one that seemed to work, but then was lost. When I went to the lab that day, my heart was pounding. I thought, what if I go in and look at the artifact and I can read that language? But what if no one else can read it? What if no one else even recognizes it as a language?”
Marcella frowned in confusion. “Why would that happen if it was meant to be a universal language?”
Leo sighed and shook his head. They were sitting at their favorite table, under that tree, and he watched the shadows flicker across the table in patterns his mind could not predict or fathom. “I love knowing things. But knowing something that no one else knows…it’s…”
“Because you don’t know if what you know is real?”
“So…what happened when you got to the lab?”
Leo looked at her and twisted his mouth in a crooked smile. “I saw only scratches.”
“So where do you go from here? Are you planning on going back to your boring research of myths?”
Leo wadded a napkin and threw it at her face. Marcella failed to bat the napkin away before it left greasy streaks on her glasses.
“Since you mention it, I plan on making sure I don’t do what that demon did, and steal knowledge. And don’t do what the snake did and swallow more than I can handle.”
“So you’re the succulent in the story.” Marcella nodded her head from side to side. “That checks out. You do get thorny sometimes. Just don’t suck up any demon blood.”
“Noted. And I won’t do that part.” Leo wadded up another napkin. “I plan on receiving the knowledge that’s revealed to me, making sure I understand it as best I can, and then passing it on.”
He waited for his sister to proclaim his plan to be “boring.”
But Marcella didn’t say anything. She smiled in that way she’d done before she told him she was proud of him.
Before she could speak—if she planned on speaking—Leo pulled his lips into what he hoped was a mischievous grin, and said, “You know, I’ve uncovered some more fascinating details about the myth of the snake and succulent…”
Copyright © 2023 Nila L. Patel