Snake could swim yet the river always blocked his path.
Even now he paused on the bank, scales twitching with the nearness of the water, torn between hunger and hopelessness. Across the torrent, delicious eggs. His testing tongue tickled with the promise of sunlight and a cool breeze off heavy sods.
No hiding in the underbrush for Snake, waiting for the chance of prey. The only thing greater than his hunger, by just a smidgen, was his vanity. Everyone in the forest recognized his lovely purple scales shot through with a luscious gold stripe along his fine, sway spine which glistened and rippled just so in the dappled forest light, and avoided his poisonous glare.
He hissed out a sigh, contemplating having to find a less satisfying meal in his own neck of the woods. His pride and alleged fear–anyone who dared utter it met an untimely, painful demise on the end of his fangs–meant the other riverbank may have well been a world away, not just a few heartbeats.
“Are you hungry, poor Snake?” A light voice, hinting of dust devils and cyclones, sunlight and cool breeze, trickled out of the shadows.
He twisted, all the better to show off his flexibility and swiftness. Above him stood a statue of wood, hair a thick rope of twisting vines that trailed back into the forest. With all the flowers and leaves snarled into the locks, Snake could not tell where the hair ended and the real flora began.
“Why hello there, Mistress Forest.” The words oozed out between the forks of Snake’s tongue. “What brings you to my side of the river?”
“All sides are mine,” The Woman replied, shading her already dark eyes with a gnarled branch of a hand and twisted twig fingers, looking across the way. Snake pondered whether she too competed for the eggs, a fortifying feast for one as mighty as him and brittle as she. But only enough for one.
Snake shook off her cryptic words. “I seem to be in a bit of a bind,” he said, testing the waters with his tongue. “I can’t swim. I don’t suppose someone of your size would know of any means of getting across to the other side of the river?”
“What is your business on the other side?” The Woman queried, voice feather light. Snake was careful not to bare his fangs with his grin. There’s one grown every minute.
“Oh, but to carry on my journey, of course,” Snake replied, the bifurcation of his tongue stretching wider. “My ten children and python of a wife await me some distance away, and they require my cool skin and comfort so.”
The Woman stepped into the mud at the river’s edge, and its shoals swirled and swallowed her ankles like roots of the mangrove tree. “I too have a reason to get across this river,” she replied, and Snake slithered closer to her side. “Perhaps you could ride on my hair.”
“Your hair?” Snake replied, poison stinging his mouth. “But it is so big and heavy and long and dirty. What possible use could your hair be?”
“Ah, but my dear Snake,” she said, her berry juice lips creaking upwards in the bark encrusted face. “It has borne the weight of many. It floats.”
And so it did. The Woman stepped further into the river, and the dank vines did indeed weave a raft-like path back to land.
Hunger making his low belly creep closer to his spine, Snake slithered aboard despite his scales shriveling just a little.
“Halt.” The light voice tinged rich and warm by loam. “Before we proceed, what will you do for me in return for this favour?”
Snake considered his assets. No arms, no legs, and some time away from shedding his fine skin. When he found his reply, the tips of his fangs glinted coolly. “I promise not to bite you.”
The Woman stared at Snake for a long moment, affixing a white hibiscus just above her right ear. A sloths smile cracked her face, and the shimmer of leaf-cut sun danced in her eyes.
“That is agreeable enough,” she acquiesced, allowing Snake to entwine and mimic the tangles of her hair. Not too close, not too far back, just within reach.
Not an ounce of water touched Snake’s beautiful scales, which pleased him greatly. A strong swimmer, despite the bulk of her hair and the weight of her trunk, The Woman barely created a ripple or slipped downstream as she performed a smooth breast stroke. She seemed capable enough of protecting Snake from the rapids.
Snake twisted to look back once when they were more than three-quarters across at the knotty rope bridge of hair, surprised to see how it floated, still attached to land, a path of fecund soil and flowers.
When they reached the opposite bank The Woman calmly stepped from the water, allowing Snake to slide from her tresses before she wrung it free of water and fish, returning the latter with gentle hands to their home.
“Thank you, dear lady.”
Snake’s words ebbed away with the water. All tongue for his awaiting meal, he missed the wind-crack of branches. Thorny fingers closed around his upper body, making his eyes bulge and his tongue extrude.
“And just where do you think you’re going?” The peat-lush voice asked.
“Ack!” cried the Snake, his throat squeezed tight.
“You were going to eat those eggs, weren’t you poor Snake.” The Woman, eyes now with a hint of rain, did not snarl nor sob, though she softened her ironwood grip just enough to allow him to speak.
“I promised I wouldn’t bite you!” His choked words could barely be construed as a threat.
“That you did,” she replied, cool as the water she had just risen from. “But those eggs are of my children, and I made no such promise that I wouldn’t bite you.”
The Woman exposed her stone teeth and set them near Snake’s throat. Snake gurgled a lament, believing it to be his last.
But The Woman pulled back, the great teeth snapping shut, becoming hidden behind bellicose lips. She tilted her head as if in deep thought, her neck a bough creak.
“But I am not like you, poor Snake.” Snake had to strain to hear the susurrus of her voice over the pounding in his head. His eyes bulged as he squirmed in the dirt, seeking escape from his terror and pain. “Do not come near my children and me again.”
The warning stood plain in the gentle threat and the way her gnarled fingers let him go one digit at a time. She then turned her back, closed her night-filled eyes, sunk her fingers and toes into the cool mud, and said no more.
His scales fair rattling, Snake turned his tongue towards the wind redolent with death, and painfully, slowly, began his long journey towards the unknown desert, not looking back once.