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Story 3

Kyle E. Miller

It isn't often that a fantasy tale provides its own musical accompaniment, but The Dance of Dr. Snake-Doctor is no ordinary tale. Spanning time and species, it both captivates and entertains. If your imagination and vocabulary are stretched along the way, so much the better.

Kyle E. Miller currently lives in, writes about, and wanders across Michigan's bountiful lakes and forests. His fiction has previously appeared in Betwixt Magazine, See the Elephant, and Thoreau on Mackinac. He has plans to become a hermit soon and finish a novel in the mountains.

Set in a world of endless summer, in which reincarnation is a natural law, this story follows the life and adventures of one of the most enduring souls ever to be born into the cosmos: Dr. Snake-Doctor. Follow the legendary healer and singer from infancy to adulthood, picking up clues along the way to his true identity, the key to which may be in the past or the future.

-- Kyle E. Miller
 

 

 

The Dance of Dr. Snake-Doctor

by Kyle E. Miller

 

I - Scoop

     There's only one thing more perfect than a dragonfly, and that's a dragonfly dancing. They sing too, though you can't hear their voices like those of the parrots and monkeys calling and howling in the green mists of the jungle. Dragonflies sing in another scale. They fling their ballads into the sky and from there they spiral endlessly upward, to be caught in uncertain snatches by some abandoned antennae far away. All the songs they ever sang still exist.

     You haven't heard them, but I know you've seen them.

     A bar of neon pink and a blur of wings; a striped candy-colored cross lifting into the sky; a golden nib on a bronze shaft with wings like ink-stained papers; a storm of orange lightning bolts rising through the green world of the fern-and-horsetail jungles of summer; and, in the case of the Doctor, a scepter of viridian and green-gold with alexandrite eyes and chiaroscuro wings.

     It was as if the King of Summer had scooped up a piece of the jungle floor in his burning hands and given it wings. He put it in the care of a woman's womb, and only he will ever know why, but is there really any safer place? The Doctor began as blood, muscle, and bone, but he came out flying. He was given a name, a melody in the dragonfly labrum, and it was put into words so his mother could call him.

     "Scoop-of-the-forest-floor!" she called.

     But he never came.

     His first flight was a thrilling in the wings, a dip, a dart, an arc, and then he was gone, homeless and free.

     Scoop sang songs he would later sing on stage about the time before he was born. The womb. A warm, liquid world full of the pulse of blood and darkness. A teeming pink globe in which he could feel his mother's every thought. But the other dragonflies sang about something else. Their eggs, tight pale worlds of comfort and quiet sequester. Hovering above the canopy -- green expanse interrupted by a flash of lurid foliage as a bird takes flight -- Scoop watched them dance and sing with such sweet remembrance of a golden season he had never known.

     Panic gripped him like the pincers of a peacock scorpion, his wings about to pull away between long particolored claws, and then it would retreat just as suddenly as it had arrived, as if frightened away by the hooded macaws that make meals of scorpions and wood beetles. Something in the canopy below caught his compound eye, and he darted away. He had everything he could ever desire: humid jungle air, six hundred species of flying insect food, and the endless arc between the green below and the blue above.

     One day Scoop sang a song, danced a dance, and fell. He fell through fronds and fog, clouds of gnats, dozing snakes, a monkey's nest, tree limbs, mosquitos, leaves and lianas -- one really the mossy outstretched arm of a sloth -- ferns and stems, and finally onto the soft soil and creepers of the jungle floor where life seethed around him. He looked up at the sky, choked with foliage. Furry faces peered down. One laughed, its eyes outlined in bright peach fuzz, its teeth like little yellowed tusks.

     Scoop cried and cried and called for his mother because he was alone and, having never seen the jungle from the bottom before, had no idea where he was. And when he looked down at himself he saw pink fleshy parts and four limbs instead of six, and he wept and screamed and dried his tears with his wings -- oh thank Mother Summer, he still had his wings! -- attached to his back as always, now enormous and wilted, but he wrapped himself up in them anyway like a pair of giant leaves and cried himself to sleep.

     He was seven seasons old, which was old for a dragonfly, but very young for a boy.

###

     The peach fuzz macaque taught him how to laugh, and the green-titted loris taught him how to dance again.

     But when Scoop tried to sing the only way he knew how -- the dragonfly way -- no song came out, though his wings extended and fluttered, as if he might one day fly again. He had hope.

     That summer Scoop took his days in the bright, warm groves and his nights under the fronds of the homeworld tree. Its leaves kept the warm, blue rain from falling in his eyes, and its fruit fell when the sun's scorching rays struck the rinds and made them unfold and drop dark-blue arils of sweet, tart juice onto his lazy, outstretched limbs.

     Raining arils woke him. It was time for breakfast.

     "Well what do we have here?"

     "It's just a boy."

     "Is it though?"

     A dozen figures approached. Scoop laughed.

     One of the strangers, his head hairless and tattooed with the paths of the stars, kneeled and held out his hands. "Hey there. Hey, baby. It's okay."

     They were a troupe of fever gatherers, hoping to pull the sickness from those who had wandered too far into the jungle and to guide them back home. Traveling with them was the Saint of Spring Healing, who carried a waterskin made from the bladder of his late lover, one of the giant tapirs that wandered the jungle wilds. Inside the bladder capered wild and contagious fevers.

     "What's your name?" The stars on his head twinkled with sweat.

     Scoop didn't know how to speak or sing his name.

     "All right, little dragonfly," the saint said. Wise and wizened, he recognized those wings. "All right, little dragonfly, little snake-doctor."

     Scoop's wings spread, and in the place where his hindwings and forewings overlapped words were revealed -- for a moment -- and no one, not even the saint, noticed. If they had, who knows what might have been?

     "Come," the saint said. "We'll take you home, and if you don't have one, we'll make one for you."

     "What is it?" one of the others said, a woman wrapped in a dusty cloak of ash. There was something wrong with her eyes, wide and wandering.

     Twins said: "A boy." "With wings." They shared a python across their shoulders, its tongue sampling the jungle air.

     "Would you like to follow?" the saint said, but Scoop stayed put.

     "Pick him up," someone suggested. She was one of the black, broad-shouldered Superior people, fleeing her winter home for summer.

     "He has to come of his own will."

     "Don't touch his wings," the cloaked woman said.

     "Come on, winged one, come with us."

     But it wasn't until a lean, bearded boy named Greengrass hopped over fallen limbs and juggled pink mushrooms -- trying to make the little one laugh or smile -- that Scoop stood, shook his wings, and followed the strangers through the ferns and giant horsetail.

     "Boy oh boy oh boy, you're cute," Greengrass said, and Scoop laughed.

     When the troupe heard him laugh, they knew he could be taught to speak, and they taught him.

     And when he could talk, he could sing again. So he did:

 

Look what happened while the King of Winter was asleep.

Snowthings squalling.

Mountaintops are meadows and rivers, currents.

How could you remember coral, if you never watched it grow?

Bats fall, fill the caves.

Waters rise, flood the caves.

Do you remember the rhinoceros?

What season,

What season is this?

     You might recognize that one from the stage. The first song the Doctor sang as a human, and the one that made him famous in every season. Those words became a blessing. Those words were a prayer for peace. They were an enchantment for love and good health and merriment. Where Scoop had learned those forgotten words is just another unanswerable question, which gathered around him like wandering boys around the trunk of a homeworld tree.

###

     The season sprites fought for control of the weather wheel.

     The summerlings had controlled it for so many seasons that they became content and complacent, their dreamy heads reclining on the rim, their tentacles wrapped around the spokes. The springwings saw a chance to take control of the resting wheel. They didn't need to turn it far, after all, to suit their temper, and so they rushed at it wisp-quick and nearly invisible. But so did the wintersaurs, those frigid, liquid reptiles! And the autumnals, eternal pranksters, couldn't let the others have all the fun, so they oinked along and tried to seize the wheel with brute hog strength.

     It was a storm.

     Summer won in the end of course, but there was a blustery summery gale and squall before the summerlings flung the last of the others from the spokes and settled down again to dream.

     Seven days and six nights later, Scoop was battered, his wings sore and his mouth agape at the power of a summer storm. The troupe huddled close under the waxy leaves of a homeworld tree as night gripped the jungle.

     The woman drew her cloak of ash about her, and Scoop reached out to touch it. She snarled.

     "Don't touch."

     "Blink's cloak is her moth," Greengrass said. He was combing his green beard with his hands, wringing out droplets, picking out winged insects marooned there during the storm. "Her guide. She's blind. If you touch a moth's wings, you can hurt it."

     "I didn't know. You can touch my wings. I used to be a dragonfly."

     Greengrass was the first to touch those wings -- so tenderly -- and Scoop was lost in bliss.

     Blink touched them too.

     "The moth sees for her," Greengrass said. "In return, it feeds on her hair."

     Scoop's eyes widened.

     Greengrass laughed. "Don't worry. It doesn't eat much."

     "And I don't need to cut it," Blink said.

     Scoop felt the wingbeats of a beetle on his cheek. "I used to be a dragonfly," he said. "One day I fell because my wings couldn't hold me anymore. Because I was made of meat."

     Greengrass smiled and kissed Scoop on the forehead. "Darling."

     "And I was lost, but the monkeys helped feed me. What's that?" Two sapphire-tipped wands appeared behind and above Blink's head.

     "Antennas. He's looking for something."

     "Food. We're all starving. We can't eat fever dreams, Saint Malvern."

     "But I've heard that the people of winter eat stories when the larder's empty," the saint said. He was adjusting the thongs and amulets hanging from his neck. Some had shrunk in the rain. He looked at Scoop. "Does my little mule-killer want a story?"

     Someone groaned, and a big man -- the biggest of the troupe, who carried a long mace wreathed in what looked like feathers -- left the group, taking his mace with him. As he swung it about, the feathers shot out and returned, sped away and returned.

     "I went through a stage," Saint Malvern began, "when I was a boy, of thinking I was born as a snake. I would slither on the ground, through the grass, and once I got bitten because I tried to kiss a cobra. Now, no, let me finish. I'm not saying you were playing make believe as I was. Just listen.

     "When I was in bed recovering from the snakebite, my grandfather told me a story. He said that souls are like rings, all different kinds of rings. And that some of them get stuck together until you give them a shake because of some ornament or other, a little jewel or a hawk's head welded to the circle. And some are forged together, one right through the other so that, no matter how hard you shake, they won't come undone." Here Scoop noticed that the saint had put his hand on the waterskin.

     "And others are broken, one end not quite reaching the other, so that there's a space in the middle. And who knows what might get caught in the space?"

     Scoop waited for the saint to go on, but he only smiled and stroked his waterskin. "That's it?"

     "That's it. Well, he also said that he once knew a girl like this, and that an antelope -- that's a sort of deer -- got stuck in her ring, so that you could see her change back and forth if she ever ran from trouble." He smiled. "And she outran it every time."

     Scoop tried to find the sky in all the ferns and fronds and -- Mother Summer! -- there it was, just behind the towering horsetail: a rag of blue and cloud white.

     "Now, come, little snake-doctor. It's time to eat."

     The big man had returned, hairy fruits skewered on the feathers of his mace, all gathered at the tip once again, as if sleeping.

###

     "Why is your hair green?" Scoop asked.

     "Why is the grass green?"

     "I don't know."

     "Chlorophyll."

     "Hush, boys." Saint Malvern made the sign of the cycle and halted.

     Corkindrill corkindrill...

     "What's that?" Scoop started to run ahead, but Greengrass caught his arm.

     "Shh."

     "He sings in his fever," the moth woman said. "It must be a sweet sleep."

     "Fever dreams are never sweet." The saint was moving ahead, slowly.

     Tucked into the grooves of a broad tree bright with the song of birds, a man lay quiet and still, drool seeping from chapped and cracked lips. A mushroom grew from the top of his head, its roots wrapped up in his straw-colored hair. It was round and fat and peeling at the edges like old paper, revealing an inky purple underneath. The air smelled like overripe tomatoes. Scoop was about to run up and see if he was alive when the man mumbled, and some of the words even made some little sort of sense.

     "Corkindrill corkindrill come out to play. I'll sit in your belly and you'll laugh all day."

     Scoop started to laugh, but -- seeing that he was the only one -- caught it in his throat. He burped.

     "He has a fever," said Saint Malvern. "Get back, little dragonfly. Some of them are violent."

     Scoop stood by Greengrass and watched the saint kneel at the fevered man's side. Saint Malvern popped the cap on his waterskin and held it to the tip of the man's chin.

     "Quiet, everyone."

     And they obeyed. Greengrass grinned and stroked his beard. Blink brought her moth a little closer, and the big man looked over his shoulder. The twins stroked their python and smiled.

     Saint Malvern hummed, not a melody or a tune, but a single note that resounded through the ancient jungle boles, and Scoop knew they could feel it in their roots as he could feel it in the bottoms of his teeth.

     The mushroom split, and a tiny glistening fiber wormed down the man's forehead, across his cheek, and down his chin, right into the waterskin.

     The saint capped it and said, "Now we wait and lead him home again should he not know how to return."

     Later, after the man had awakened -- laughing and hugging the whole troupe, even little Scoop, though he had nothing to do with it -- and left, Scoop found Saint Malvern sucking a dimpled ebony rind, squinting at the tartness of the fruit.

     "Why," Scoop said. "Uh. When that thing was on that man's head. Um."

     Saint Malvern tossed the rind to the ground. "Remember how I told you that our souls are like rings?"

     "Yes."

     "And that some of them have a gap and became tangled and some were made bound together? Well, what else could happen to a ring, do you think?"

     "I don't know. It could get put on a finger?"

     The saint chuckled. "I suppose, but there are no fingers in the vault of the seasons, are there? No, little dragonfly. A ring can get lost."

     "Why would the King let that happen?"

     "Oh, it's beyond his reach. Beyond any of the kings' and queens' reach. They too are children of the vault, even if they have some part to play in its making." He adjusted his mandala and picked at a scratch on his neck where the leather thong, in all its brushing back and forth, disturbed the healing.

     "But a ring can be lost. You've never had any rings to lose, but it happens all the time, trust me. They go bouncing off tables and roll into a corner, and they belong to the dust bunnies then.

     "When a soul is lost, it can come out in a place it isn't supposed to be or come out in the wrong way. That's how you get ghosts and figments and all sorts of partial beings."

     "And fevers."

     "Yes. They appear in the wrong season. In autumn, the fevers belong, and they attach themselves to the eggs of rocs -- those are a sort of large bird, bigger than the ones you see here -- and they feed on the shell and help them hatch when the time comes."

     Scoop wasn't thinking about the eggs, but the rocs and how he might fly again, even if it were on one of their backs, which were surely large enough to carry him (and maybe Greengrass too).

     "There are other unseasonable creatures out there causing trouble too, but, well, we do what we can."

     "What happens to them? You don't kill them, do you?"

     "No. But you have to be careful. You can take them back to their own season, that's what most do. Or you can put them back in the vault if you happen to know where a well is."

     "A well?"

     But the saint didn't have time to answer. A tempest shook the trees around them and the camp turned upside down in excitement, and the saint was drawn away to help draw up the tents so they wouldn't blow away. Scoop hoped that one might really be caught in the wind and -- by the Sister of Spring Winds! -- whirl him away into the sky. He held onto the corner of a tent until Greengrass found him and handed him a sack to carry.

     There was a cave nearby, and they spent the night there, singing and dancing in the quiet light of millipedes, and their thousand thousand tiny feet marched to the beat of the big man's drum.

###

     They spent a whole season in the jungle so that when they were finally headed home, Scoop had already seen nearly nine summers.

     The troupe tried to ford the unfordable Giving River -- caimans yawning, sapphire turtles basking in the sun -- and turned back. Scoop knew he had flown over it once because the curly ferns that grew on the other side reminded him, with their beckoning furry fingers, of his mother, somehow. No one asked him why he was crying as they followed the riverbank, their feet occasionally plunging into damp pits hidden by moss and shadow. They left the banks of the Giving River at the orange obelisk that could be seen glowing green at night long after they had left it behind. And many days later -- days filled with fruit and fevers and the caterwauling of monkeys (nights filled with dancing, singing, and the silly stories of the big man with the mace) -- they came to the edge of the jungle.

     Scoop was singing a song now forgotten, skipping along, pulling weeds from the ground and swinging them in the air, little clods of dirt scattering across the sky. He sang so sweetly.

     "Watch it, mule-killer," the big man set, swatting aside a clump of soil, a worm nestled inside, its round red head sticking out and watching the world fly by.

     "What's a mule?"

     Something fell or appeared in their path. Later, Scoop wouldn't know which, and there would be no one to ask.

     It was a flash, all wrong, like the sun coming out at night.

     "What?"

     "What is it?"

     "A vegetable? Where did it come from?"

     They looked up and around, but there were only blue fruits and small berries growing there. "Not here."

     "Autumn."
     "Get back."

     "What?"

     "It's a pumpkin," Blink said. "It's orange, it's beautiful orange. I can see."

     "Huh? Blink?"

     "Run!" Saint Malvern shouted. He knew the tricks of that fey season. He knew that death hid behind autumn, though winter was always being blamed for it.

     "Snake-doctor, get back!"

     The fruit flew to pieces and scorched the troupe and the jungle. Scoop was flung from his feet and he could feel the heat and the fire, as if the Summer King himself had suddenly opened his eye and was looking right at him. He cried, screamed, called for his mother, for Saint Malvern, for Greengrass. No one answered.

     When the fire had burned itself out among the jungle fungus, Scoop stood and looked around and he was, once again, alone.

     Who had thrown the pumpkin in their path? And why? Why would anyone want to hurt anyone else? How could they forget that, in the infinite cycle of seasons, everyone had once been everyone else: your mother, your lover, your friend?

     But instead of hardening Scoop's heart, the fire only softened it, as he looked at the saint's body, his soul already gone, another form attached to the silver ring of his soul. A monkey, perhaps, a macaw, or even a dragonfly. The twins, holding hands. The big man and his mace, its feathers just little black twigs now. Blink, her moth clinging to her still. And Greengrass, his little beard singed black now -- oh Queen of Summer, King of Winter! Why? Why couldn't just one have been saved? Sweet Greengrass.

     "Mother of Summer," Scoop sang, "cradle him in your sunflower arms forever, forever."

     And what Scoop felt then was the loss of his first love, though he was too young to know it then, and it scorched his soul as the fire had scorched the forest floor. But he picked himself up, dried his tears, and, yes, he had to smile just a little, because hadn't they brought him somewhere after all? Hadn't they given him a home as the saint had promised long ago? That was a city on the horizon.

     Little Snake-Doctor followed the only road there was.

###

II - Snake-Doctor

     "My mother used to sing me a song," the little girl said. She sat on the edge of the stage, vine shadows shifting on her tiny bronze helmet of hair. "About where I was born."

     Snake-Doctor swiped a tear from his eye before it could fall. "And where was that, darling?"

     "Autumn."

     "But you like summer better?"

     She nodded. "It doesn't remind me of anything."

     "It will, one day." Snake-Doctor stood, shook his wings, and gathered his rainbow shawl around his shoulders. He drew a wand from his pocket and drew lights in the air. And he sang:

 

They said death touched her;

A mouse crawling through snow

A snake with no burrow.

I told them she was nearer to

Hidden blossom

Ancient earthworks

The parting of bark from its tree.

I told them she would

See.

Autumnborn

Neither here nor there.

Autumn

The sounds you hear when falling asleep.

     By then, the girl was standing and dancing in the vines that fell from the arbor overhead and the stripes of sun between. "That's it," she said, "that's it! I knew you'd know it, you know everything!"

     "Not quite, baby. I don't know your name."

     "Glaive."

     "Gorgeous Glaive, I have a home for you," Snake-Doctor said, and he found her one, as if he knew all along where one was in that city by the jungles of his youth, the city of tiny houses. The city slept under summer's interminable spell. It slumbered, and Snake-Doctor slept under trellis and tree and bathed in the wending river all the children called Citadel Serpent, named after the legendary dragon mentioned in the duodecim anni tempora, the book of many seasons. Snake-Doctor sang and danced daily, in gazebos wreathed with swarms of lightning bugs; nightly on stages or streets or on the rooftop garden where berries grew so thick on the shrubs that they fell and painted the roof blue, black, and purple. You could follow the steps of Snake-Doctor's dance in the juice he made beneath his boots. That's how he taught you how to dance.

###

     The spring acolytes ran a house of healing in the city of tiny houses. The House of the Hydra wasn't so tiny though, with its labyrinth of hallways and chambers carved out of the earth beneath the reception rooms. And that's where Snake-Doctor went when he had nowhere else to be, when he wasn't singing or dancing or reading in the library that was the center of so much communion and celebration.

     He would wander the lamp-lit corridors, peering into one room or another, watching the acolytes bending over a patient -- their pale pastel colored mandalas swinging like pendulums above the bed sheets -- to administer ointments, tinctures, drinks, libations, poems, blessings, and, occasionally (here, Snake-Doctor would linger at the doorway and, if he felt the melody, hum) little songs. He came to know some of the ill men and women and creatures that lived there, and some passed into health and left while others fell into greater sickness and died. The acolytes blubbered and huddled together in a weepy heap to console one another and whisper prayers and blessings and hopes of never seeing that soul again in the house of healing.

     Snake-Doctor never found what he wanted in those corridors: the thrower of the fruit, who may have only been a phantom, angry for being born in the wrong season, and what would Snake-Doctor have done with him anyway? Instead, he found what he needed.

     "And what did a sweet thing like you do to get here?" Snake-Doctor stood in the doorway to the new patient's room. The boy was on the bed. What Snake-Doctor first thought was unsightly -- scruffiness in all the wrong places, a bent nose, a tired pair of eyes -- was really beauty, unrecognizable because he had never seen beauty like that before.

     "I loved a tree too hard," the boy said. He had probably seen as many seasons as Snake-Doctor -- eighteen, maybe -- though he looked as if he had spent some of them elsewhere. Winter, perhaps, or autumn, which gave his face a shadow and a shifting quality. It never looked the same twice.

     "Nothing wrong with loving a tree."

     "They thought I was hurting it."

     Snake-Doctor didn't understand.

     "I was sanding it down. Whittling it a little, one of the branches that had broken off. But it was going to live, I wasn't hurting it. It's the musclewood, it's sap is greasy, not really sticky-" and, seeing the baffled look on Snake-Doctor's face, said: "I was trying to fuck a tree, okay?"

     And Snake-Doctor howled as the monkeys had taught him, and the boy leaped up, shouted, threw Snake-Doctor against the wall, and the acolytes all came running.

     "It's okay," Snake-Doctor said between laughs. "It's okay, he's okay. Let him go. There's been a mistake, though I'm not sure who made it. What's your name, baby?"

     "Sheath."

     "Sheath, come. Are you from summer? I'll give you a tour. A singing tour." By then, the acolytes were smiling, some even giggling, and they watched the two leave, Snake-Doctor's arm hooked through the boy's.

     The tour ended in Citadel Serpent. Snake-Doctor left his clothes and leaped in naked.

     "Don't look so surprised. They're just wings." He shook them, and drops of water made rainbows in the sun. "What are you waiting for?"

     In the end, Snake-Doctor had to unwrap him, and when he turned him around, he found two little growths between Sheath's shoulder blades.

     "Don't. No, don't look."

     The boy had cut them off himself, as best he could, leaving ragged scraps behind and a scar where the knife had slipped.

     "You too."

     "I'm sorry."

     "What were you? What have you been?"

     Sheath sobbed and pushed his fists into his eyes. "I don't know. I can't remember. I'm sorry."

     "Hush," Snake-Doctor said. "Hush, and let me tell you a story."

     He sang one instead.

     And when night fell -- the moon rising above the white arcades -- Snake-Doctor said, "It's time."

     "For what?"

     "Life." He drew a cloak of feathers from the earth, a cabinet where he kept his costumes, and ran ahead into the night. Sheath followed, and really what choice did he have?

     He had the voice of the Prince of Summer, not the King's scorching basso, but the Prince's liquid baritone, sherry for the ears, mead for the mind: sweet and syrupy and as heady as the summer sun. One searing taste of song and you were drunk and wandering in a wonderland where it was and is always your favorite moment of the day, which would have to be evening, when the sun lays its rays just so against the earth and makes you feel as if you were never so youthful as you are then.

     And the band played water organ, goosehorns, gobbles, clarinets, drums, and guitars. And Snake-Doctor sang:

 

I was in a womb

While you were in an egg

I was busy being born

While you were hatching

Do you remember when the wind stirred more than your hair?

From where came these wings? These eyes, these legs?

Do you remember when you were water and blood?

I'm forgetting

I could fly,

But it returns and returns

And returns:

We are drawn onward.

 

     Those last two words were a whisper that might still be echoing in some lonely corner of the world even now, ricocheting back and forth across the walls and floor, forth and back.

     Snake-Doctor was a wonder, a gift of the vault, the warbling soul of summer. In later seasons, the people from the village of paper houses would come, the Superior people would come, people would come by train and underground by blindman. They adored him.

     But in the moment after leaving the stage, he would sometimes feel doom mounting on the horizon of his being, as if the ring of his soul were about to roll away and be lost. He would pause on the steps -- the audience still out there, intoxicated by incense and the glow of his voice, a blur of shouts and cheer -- and he would lose his breath. It was coming, but just what it was he could never tell, would never know, because it never came, only loomed on the edge of his being and made his existence unbearable, if only for a moment. But a lot can happen in a moment.

     He carried that pain like all the other pains and losses and abandonments he saw and felt: with grace befitting the season in which he was born. His heart swelled and moved closer to summer than winter. He would later travel through spring, summer, autumn, winter, and yet he carried the season of his birth with him wherever he went. You could feel the heat from afar.

     When the panic was past, he walked into the crowd and taught them how to dance, as the monkeys had once taught him. And sometimes someone would walk away from the crowd with a little more clarity or a little more peace. A heartbroken boy from town, just fifteen summers young, learned to love again. An autumn acolyte from the northeast had lost an arm and found -- trust me, to his surprise more than anyone else's -- that he was clapping.

     Tales were told.

     I'll tell about the frozen lake and the bean-sidhe, two of the Doctor's earliest acts, both formative to who he became. These are in the ballads, but I tell them better.

###

III - Dr. Snake

     "You don't eat enough for a bug," Sheath said.

     Snake-Doctor bit the end off a banana, and that was enough. "Shush. I eat music, boy. I lick the notes from the sky." He stuck out his tongue.

     By then, they lived with lost children until Snake-Doctor found them homes. And when they needed privacy, Snake-Doctor took Sheath down to Citadel Serpent and hid in the roots of the willows, laid bare by ripples and waves. Sheath learned to love flesh, though he felt better having some branch, limb, or leaf to grab hold of in the moment of elation. His seed would float for a moment and then sink. Silver fish eyed it suspiciously. Some dared taste it.

     They were eating breakfast in the portico at the height of summer's humidity. Snake-Doctor offered the rest of the banana to the parrots that nested in the roof, repeating their raucous whip-whip-garoo which they also repeated through the night. Snake-Doctor had learned to like it.

     "How do you do it?" Sheath asked.

     "Do what?"

     "Help them."

     "Where'd this come from?"

     "I dunno."

     Snake-Doctor fanned himself with a leaf from a homeworld tree. "They help themselves."

     "Come on."

     "Where are we going?"

     Sheath tossed a grape.

     "All you really need to be able to do is find the moment you're in. Seize it, honey, and maybe that means singing or dancing, but it might mean sitting under a tree and watching ants march out of the ground and all around. Hold it in your hand, the globe of the moment, and peer inside: it's all there."

     Whip-whip-garoo.

     Maybe Sheath didn't understand it then, but he listened and tried, and that was all Snake-Doctor asked.

     "Snake?" Sheath said.

     "Yeah?"

     "I love you."

     "I love you too, summerling," and when Snake-Doctor said it, he meant it. If you talk to someone he said it to, they tell you it was like he wasn't just talking to you -- though he surely meant you, the one in front of him -- but he was also talking to all souls big and small.

     "Hel...lo?"

     A girl walked into the portico and fell into Snake-Doctor's arms. Her hands were gloved in black. There was the dust of the road on her carmine summer tunic.

     "Sing me a song of sorrow," Snake-Doctor said, and he was already tearing up. "Oh. Oh, baby."

     Sheath made the sign of the cycle. "Snake-Doctor, she needs help."

     "Who am I to help?"

     "Please," she said. "I came for the doctor."

     "I'm not a doctor," Snake-Doctor said, and he looked at Sheath. There was some desperate, urging glint in Sheath's eyes, and Snake-Doctor grinned.

     "I'm not a doctor, but the King doesn't give a shit and neither do I. What happened, baby girl? Tell me everything."

     She was faint, from travel or the darkness on her hands. "Winter," she said. "Winter. The lake. Winter came to summer."

     Snake-Doctor gave Sheath a soft look over the girl's shoulder and nodded. "What's your name, sweets?"

     "Toona."

     "Show me winter, Toona."

###

     A dark, frozen arm grew out of the ice and, beyond that, like sticks poking through a fresh sheet of snow, were other limbs, heads, and even a bare buttocks, its owner caught in a dive. Everyone was chipping away with mattocks and shovels, spears and daggers. They wore extra clothes however they could: around their waists, as hoods for their heads, two pairs of shoes pulled over cold feet, or rags wrapped round hands, like gloves. Two women broke through the ice and hauled a man from the lake, his body already darkening from the venomous bite of the Winter King.

     Snake-Doctor was warm until he came to the shore. He could feel a cold breeze blowing off the ice, dueling with the heat of the sun above. He shivered. He saw scorpions under the ice.

     "What am I doing here?"

     "Snake?" Sheath was by his side, holding his arm, and then his whole body as he leaned into him, as if about to fall. "Hey. Hey, come on now."

     "I know they're already onto the next, but they still leave holes behind when they go." His tears became little ice crystals as they fell to the ground and tinkled on the pebbly beach. "And who am I try to fill them?"

     And that doubt may have harried him through the seasons had Sheath not been there, his pillar, his unshakable mountain, his tree, who seemed to grow from Oubliette to the Vault, where he finally spread his fruit and flowered branches. A fruit, heavy with its own ripeness, dropped from its stem and fell through spring summer autumn winter, spring again, and finally summer, where it landed in the hands of the one who needed it most.

     "We are drawn onward," Sheath said. "I'm with you, baby."

     And Snake-Doctor stood tall and ground his crystal tears under a peacock-colored boot.

     "Okay. All right, Father Winter. You've come where you were never meant to be. But it ain't really you, is it? Just one of your children. Lost and alone. I'm right, aren't I?"

     Some saw a twinkle in his eyes.

     The villagers were still chipping away at the ice and dragging dead or dying men and women from the lake. Sobs choked the air. The children helped where they could.

     "Sheath, I need you to drag one of these boats out to the middle and sit in it."

     "Do you know what you're doing?"

     Snake-Doctor laughed. "We'll see."

     As Sheath began to move the boat, others helped, and they lifted it off the ground so the ice couldn't scrape a hole in the bottom. Seen from shore, Sheath was a little bump sitting on a crescent until he lifted the sail, and then he was invisible.

     "Everyone clear off, now, and keep your eyes on that boat!"

     Snake-Doctor pulled something from his bag. A smooth, convex disc of glass. He held it in one hand, and lifted the other to the sun. He sang, he spun, and he hurled the discus into the sky and -- the villagers pausing a moment in awe -- smiled as the glass caught the sunbeams, still summer-hot up there, and opened a window to another season. The sun burned holes in the ice, one after another, until there was only water again, and the people's breath no longer painted the air before their lips. The people shouted, cheered, wept as their loved ones were pushed to the shore by waves or lost beneath them.

     Sheath's boat began moving shoreward with the wind in its sail. The people watched.

     "Any moment now," Snake-Doctor said.

     The people waited.

     "Right. About. Now?"

     He was a moment off. In the next, a fish leaped from the lake, arced over the boat, and struck the sail with its tail, a ribbed fin of glacier green.

     "Come on in, baby, hurry! Give me that wind, bless me," Snake-Doctor whispered, and the boat came ashore, Sheath falling out and into his arms. He was shivering.

     "You're shaking like a leaf," Snake-Doctor said. "You scared or cold?"

     "Both. Who was that?"

     "Oh, he's just in the wrong place." He was already giving directions to the villagers: move that there, find this, warm those toes. "But we have to hurry, baby."

     Already, a tiny patch of ice had appeared in the lake and was growing.

###

     Though the villagers only ate the vegetables that grew in the lake and the pods that bloomed on top of it, they knew how to catch a fish. They did so for fun and to pass long summer evenings, always releasing the fish back into the wilderness of the lake bottom, and to scrape algae from the fins of turtlebane bass, which they used for soap, sunburn, and calluses. So it was a challenge to catch the winter fish only because of its size and the pedestals of ice that appeared wherever it skimmed the surface of the lake.

     But when it was finally caught -- all involved sheathed in gloves and as many clothes as they could gather, for its scales were as cold as the King of Winter's armor -- Snake-Doctor put it on a wagon to the north. He didn't know if there was a well nearby, or if the saint all those years ago had perhaps given him a little half-truth to make him feel better. When he thought of it, he wasn't even sure he would recognize a well that led to the vault if he were to find one. Either way the fish would end up back in the great sea of seasons on the other side of the world, and all would be as well as he could make it.

     Toona hugged his legs and the people of the lake gave him gifts: copper bars of homemade incense, fishbone bracelets, aquatic vegetables, and the history of their village, written on leaves of lake lettuce bound between fish scale plates. This last was his favorite because it was their secret that at the bottom of the lake was buried something from the time before the King came to power, and every season it sent up bubbles you could hold and carry and inside them the people found everything they needed to survive.

     "Thank you Doctor Snake!" Toona said.

     "Hey, you're backwards, it's-" Sheath started to say, but Snake-Doctor cut him off.

     "Shush." He turned to the girl. "You're welcome, Toona. And for being the bravest, for taking the trip to our city, all the way over the lavender fields and between the twin white domes, I dedicate this song to you.

     "Now come, Sheath, and dance with Dr. Snake."

     His wings broke the sunlight into pieces, and the children tried to catch them in their palms, and all the rest sang along, Summer nights and summer lords, summer horses and shores and on and on into the purple summer night.

###

IV - Dr. Snake-Doctor

     By then, children loved him most of all.

     When he sashayed down the streets of that summer city a parade of children followed behind. Toe-headed boys and dusty girls, the boy with the bird on his shoulder, girls riding dogs and horny lizards, and some that hadn't yet decided if they wanted to wear gowns and crowns or pants and shirt and so wore both. They came to hear the Doctor sing and watch him dance, a little leap as he turned a corner, a Frog-Hops-Lily here and a Queen's Silly Step there. He left gumdrops in his wake and, yes, sometimes you would hear of a little boy or girl coming away from one of his songs with hair where they thought none would ever grow or fine ivory teeth where there was only rot before.

     But it wasn't that Dr. Snake's songs made them well. It was as if he blew a bubble that stretched all around him, left right up down, and all within it were more receptive to what was already there. And the bubble reached up in the sky and down into the earth so that a bird flying by might come away with its broken talon mended or a worm rent in two by a gardener's trowel might twist and see its tail again.

     "Dr. Snake?"

     By then, the Doctor knew that beauty could take all forms, and when he saw the auburn-haired boy in the doorway to his portico, he knew he would be another like Sheath, whose soul he would wear on his finger for a time until one day -- by accident, perhaps -- it slipped off and tumbled away.

     "Come out of the sun, darling." He stood so the boy could sit, and he did. He even smiled, his teeth a little crooked. "Call me Snake-Doctor."

     "Snake-Doctor. Can you help me?"

     "What wouldn't I do for you? Here, eat, I'm not hungry."

     The boy frowned and rubbed his stubble, as if it itched because it was newly grown. How far had he come?

     "There's a wild keening killing our people down by the mudflats. It took my sister. She was moon blessed."

     The Doctor smiled, and Sheath came in then and the Doctor called him over and tousled his hair. "I can't bring her back, baby."

     "But you can stop it. She's still there. She comes by day or by night, whether it's raining or cloudless. There's nothing we can do. She comes, we hear her, and she leaves one of us dead and bleeding from our ears and-" He was starting to sob, perhaps remembering a little sister's face, trickles of blood leaking from all the wrong places.

     "All right, baby. Hush baby." He wrapped arms and wings around him. "Sheath, we'll need to plan for a few days. I know the place."

     And so the Doctor and Sheath and the boy named Redbottle left for the village by the mudflats. A mountain -- a tower on top -- covered the village in shadow, but the mudflats were baking in the sun. A great plain of cracked and desiccated mud, covered by water in another season. Snake-Doctor could see a line of silver shining on the horizon, which was the water, driven so far away by the warm wind. Magenta gulls rode the wind and called keel-keel.

     "When the water is away, we find so much in the mud." Redbottle smiled, remembering, perhaps, the discovery of a token half buried in the sand: a shell or a bracelet or a bit of frosted glass like the one he was named after. "And when the seapeanuts dry out, we eat them."

     "What about when the water returns?" Sheath asked. "Do you go hungry?"

     "It's only there for a few days. And the crabs come. The Festival of the Crab Tide. We dress up like them and, well, it's pretty silly." Redbottle blushed, chuckled.

     "Send a letter," Snake-Doctor said. "We're coming to the next one." He moved his arms like a crab. "The first flying crab the world's ever seen will crab-walk this beach."

     The Doctor settled into the boy's house, taking the loft for his own, where Redbottle kept his hooded crows, Kuu and Kull. Sheath slept beside him and murmured and jerked his legs, as if he knew there was something wrong with the night.

     And there was.

     That was the night the bean-sidhe came down from the tower on the mountain.

     Snake-Doctor first heard her as a faraway siren, the call of some forlorn bard pulling a single sullen note from his dusty horn. But as he put on his emerald cloak and his peacock-colored boots and went outside, her keening grew louder, and he could see the villagers shutting their doors and barring their windows and the old stoatherd bringing his flock into the barn.

     The Doctor could almost see the bean-sidhe as a black wrinkle in the air, and she swept over the village and made wild arcs and arabesques through the air. He followed her, alone, bidding Sheath to stay behind.

     "This isn't for you," he said, and laughed. "Honey, it might not even be for me."

     Sheath held him for a long time before he let him go.

     The bean-sidhe went down a chimney, and Snake-Doctor threw his bulk through the door -- the beautiful panel splintering -- and he all but screamed a song: one long note that lifted and fell and lifted again until he was breathless and the keening was broken, the air unwrinkled. His voice had vibrated the bent and ragged wire into some other, silent shape.

     He saw the man cowering beneath a table, its contents scattered on the ground, little pots shattered, a bar of incense turned to crumbs. There was a chasm in the floor, and dust lifted from the basement to dance in the light of the fire.

     "Look what a damn mess she made," Snake-Doctor said, and smiled. He found it hard to breathe. "I'll help rebuild. Tomorrow." He took a breath. "Goodnight, honey. Sweet dreams."

     But they were too busy celebrating to repair the hole in the floor. Snake-Doctor sang them a song, and they lit red and green fires on poles they swung through the air, leaving lingering shapes of colored smoke. And some brought out their whisper wheels, the words of the duodecim anni tempora coiled around their copper, silver, gold shafts. They read, spun the wheel with the tip of a finger, and read some more. Or else they spun them so fast they rattled and rang like little bells and shouted the hymns from memory.

     The following morning, Sheath was ready to leave, but Snake-Doctor only shook his head. "She wasn't alone. There will be others."

     He was right, and a second came another day, and though the Snake-Doctor silenced that bean-sidhe too (she went for a pot-bellied donkey), he knew one would come again as sure as a wheel spins.

     "They come from the tower on the mountain," Redbottle said, and pointed: a donkey path led up the cliff at the top of which stood a ruined tower like a decaying tooth, dark against the light of the sun setting behind it.

     "Anybody ever go up there?"

     Redbottle shook his head. "It's from the time before the Summer King."

     "Well so are we," Snake-Doctor said, and he strapped his bag to his shoulder and tightened his belt.

     "Don't go," Sheath said.

     Snake-Doctor smiled and drew Sheath into the warmth of his body. "I love you, little wood borer. You know that's what you are, don't you? What you once were? You burrowed into bark and had wings like the leaves of the homeworld tree. You couldn't get into the tree anymore, so you tried to get the tree into you."

     Sheath chuckled over his tears. "Oh shut up, just shut up."

     "You'll always be my little beetle."

     "Please don't go."

     "How will I live with myself if I know there will never be another Festival of the Crab Tide? If I return next season and all this is gone? The stoatherd won't be laughing with his critters, the gulls won't be chatting in the sky, and all these beautiful children won't play court in the shadow of the mountain. The sun will rise on empty houses, and, well, maybe I'm just a dewy-eyed weepy old jellyfish, but that won't do at all, baby."

     So Snake-Doctor mounted a donkey and rode it up the mountain.

     The trail bit at the donkey's feet with stones and pale yellow thorns. Snake-Doctor dismounted and took him by the lead line. Their feet were bleeding when they reached the plateau. The tower, made from stone that was not stone, was ruinous. Its door hung from its hinges, strange words inscribed on the lintel. Snake-Doctor tied the donkey to a tree. "Be still, little one." And he went inside.

     He passed through webs and wires and a veil of thick and sticky fabric that seeped out of a long casket mounted on the ceiling above the stairs, two gummy wheels on either end. Snake-Doctor coughed through it and, when it became almost too dark to see on the stairs, he hummed an old dragonfly song, and it was a golden needle that pokes a hole in dark fabric, and he could see just enough to reach the top.

     The mother of the bean-sidhe was a broken box with a cone like the end of a musical horn, its shell spiraling ever inward and into darkness. She was ragged and rusted, with murky red tape coiled inside, seen through the space where a panel was meant to be screwed in place. But there were still reels spinning inside. Spools turned endlessly.

     The Doctor reached in and pulled out fistfuls of red tape, more and more until it nearly filled the chamber, and by then he was laughing, but there was suddenly a dark whining from the horn.

     He reached into the horn -- his hand going too far, too far -- and he grabbed hold of a small something and pulled, and the whole horn came off with it and attached to that was a ribbed cable or bundle of cables and the great mother of the bean-sidhe whined, whistled, and died.

     The Doctor rode into the village holding the hideous horn high over his head, his wings peeking out of his emerald cloak. The villagers cheered, and they were already breaking open casks and casks of sweet liqueurs and mixing them with oranges, peach slices, and sprigs of lavender.

     The Doctor tossed the red shell into the street, its tail stretched out behind, and he swayed from the donkey to the drinks.

     All they wanted to know was how.

     "I took out her tongue. Who can sing without one?" And he stuck his out, stained purple by a splash of lavender liqueur.

     Redbottle threw his arms around the Doctor, being careful not to touch his wings, and that was, of course, when the Doctor really fell in love. What sweet caution! What tenderness!

     "Thank you, Dr. Snake-Doctor."

     Not even Sheath bothered correcting him.

###

     Dr. Snake-Doctor's summers passed as seasons are wont to do, and he never tired of the delights and wonders of that bold and blazing season. There were puppet shows in the shadows of the marmoreal arcades and games on the endless fields where the grass grew and the wild horses grazed, chomping the blades nearly to the soil, a bit of stubble on the King's chin. There were long incensed evenings during which they would think of nothing but their backs resting on the earth, the scritch-scritch of a wood-boring beetle, the arrows of birdsong shot through the clouds. They parted the river with their breasts and hands and baked in the sun like cookies in an oven: they seemed to rise, rise, rise above the beach and expand and burst until their skin cracked and gave life to something bigger. Summer, Dr. Snake-Doctor found, got larger the farther he went into it.

     There was a crowd in the city of tiny houses one day, and Dr. Snake-Doctor and Sheath joined it, adding their sun-bleached heads to the sea of hair, each wave a different color and yet another color as it caught the sun. They bobbed or bent as they whispered to loved ones or sucked on coconut creamsicles given away by the hoary-headed man who made them.

     "...it extended without a break across her nose, unplucked and thick," a man was reading in the center of the crowd.

     "Now here's a spell," Dr. Snake-Doctor said.

     "Huh?"

     "...gulped water from a goblet beside him," the man intoned, "cleared his throat, and tried to march on..."

     "A long one. I'd say near 700 pages. Let's wait and see what it does."

     The man read from the book and rubbed his thumb on the pages that had already gone by, petting them as he might a small animal. The covers were mottled with damp, but among the blooms of mold, Snake-Doctor could see (with his dragonfly eyes) the tiny head of a curly-haired man, his cheeks like a red pair of cherries.

     "Want to stay?"

     But Sheath wasn't listening. Something had alighted on his hand, and he was rapt, and were those tears? "Why are there so many lonely people, Snakey?"

     "Maybe this is a spell for sentimentality." He smiled. "It's not loneliness, baby."

     "What is it then?"

     "It's just. Well. Ho, baby, you're asking everything with that one little question." He laughed and drew Sheath away from the crowd. "We all have some presentiment of what we used to be. We hold on, just a little bit, to what came before. We can sense our last life, you know, and we feel a little abandoned by it. Bereaved."

     "But why? When there's so much all around us? And in front?"

     "Because it's a part of us and we think it's gone forever. But nothing ever is. It all comes around again." He stroked Sheath's head right down to the lobe of his ear, where there were tiny hairs too thin to be touched by the wind. "It just goes round and round and round."

     "I love you."

     "Come here. You're ready." Dr. Snake-Doctor swept him away and sat on a bench under the blue shade of a beech tree.

     "Mhmm, you're ready."

     Dr. Snake-Doctor smiled, and maybe he read it in a book or saw it scrawled on the wall of the mountain tower in the secret language of the ivy. Maybe he knew it all along, or it had only come to him then: Sheath wasn't ready; Dr. Snake-Doctor was ready. And although he knew it would be some kind of end, he also knew it would be a beginning.

     He taught Sheath the song that would let him fly again.

     "Wouldn't it be terrible if there's no music there?" Sheath said.

     Dr. Snake-Doctor threw back his head and laughed.

     "All right, all right. I'm an idiot, I know."

     "C'mon, baby. We're ready."

     And when the man with the book finished weaving his incantation into the sweet summer air, a door opened where none had been before, and he tossed the book inside. He drew his arm in a loop and cried: "Come on in, everybody! There's room enough for all!" and he had a long bottle of liqueur in his hand the color of the inside of a strawberry and there were orange leaves blowing through from the other side of the door and everyone who had been listening walked or ran or danced through the door, as if invited to a party, which, though Dr. Snake-Doctor would never know because he alone stayed behind, was exactly what it turned out to be.

     He would miss Sheath, but he knew there would be others, passing through, perhaps returning for a season, perhaps not. And it seemed, to those who knew the Doctor, that he had other reasons to be at peace, though no one knows what they might have been. Even in his final seasons, Dr. Snake-Doctor -- grey and wrinkled and cavorting with an emerald cane -- harbored secrets from those he loved, which happened to be everyone.

###

     Not even I know what those secrets may have been. One day he disappeared. Some say he made it back to the sky, and they saw a viridian scepter heading east, or a shadow of one crossed their path and when they looked up: nothing. Though it could be that he simply fell back in his rocking chair one day and slowly came to rest, his foot no longer tapping to keep the chair moving back and forth. Others claim to have seen him toward the end, green-gold cracks of light appearing in his skin, wandering the streets of the city of tiny houses singing over and over, "What a sorry end, this end that is not an end at all."

     But of all the things they whisper about Dr. Snake-Doctor, the ones whispered most are these: Who was he? Who is he now? Who will he be? Who has he been? Who has been him?

     Some say he was the golden man written of in the duodecim anni tempora, the one who gave his life to a stone woman so she could become the Queen of Spring. But even if this were true, it tells us so little, because who was the golden man, really?

     There are clues in the ballads, they say. The magicians, with a grin and a wink, say it's all there. Perhaps there are even some clues in this version, unbeknownst to me. I asked the magicians I have come across in my time -- two of the twelve: he of High Summer and she of the Pink Moon -- and neither knew the truth. They seemed quite content with that. Knowing all the secrets of the universe, they said, would be like having a library full of books you've already read.

     Perhaps they are as wise as the world says they are, and it's simply more fun to wonder.

     Maybe not even the King knows what secrets dance behind the eyes of a dragonfly.

End

 

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