This is the very first story I sat down and completed after quitting my job. While it didn't get published, it did receive an Honorable Mention in L. Ron Hubbard's Writers of the Future Contest!
“There are snakes in the walls, Mama.” Desdemona traced her fingertips along the turned-up edges of the pale pink wallpaper, smoothing them flat only to have them promptly curl back up. She pressed an ear against the wall and closed her eyes, her lips moving silently as though mouthing words to herself. After a few moments, she whispered, “I can hear them hissing.”
“It’s reading time, Desdemona.” Mama spoke from the armchair across the room, where she read and rested, if you could call it that. Her arms and legs were crossed so tightly that it was hard to imagine she was getting any rest at all. Her face did not appear from behind her book as she ordered her daughter to read once more.
Desdemona stepped back from the wall and set her dark eyes on Mama. “I want to go outside. For just five minutes.” Her hair, dark as her eyes, brushed along the tops of the overall straps that rested on her shoulders. She had a widow’s peak that shaped her face into a heart and cheekbones that sat high and made her look thinner than she really was.
“Outside activities aren’t scheduled until two o’clock today.” Mama lowered her book and flipped a page but did not look up. She had the same dark eyes and dark hair as her daughter, but her hairline wrapped around her forehead in a clean, straight line.
Desdemona knew better than to appeal to her mother a second time. Instead she scaled the spiral staircase that led up to the library’s landing. She walked straight passed the biographies, the romances, the children’s books and faerie tales, until she finally stopped in front of a shelf that held no more than ten books. The one she picked up was as old as it was large, its title barely visible upon the faded green cover and its heaviness slipping from her hands and landing with a loud thunk onto the floor. She glanced over the railing and down at her mother, but she hadn’t moved.
Heaving the book into her arms once more, she walked over to a tall window in the corner. Its sill was wide enough to fit both Desdemona and her equally large book, and she imagined the view would have been a beautiful one were it not for the boards that covered it up. In fact, all the windows of Mavros Manor were boarded, just like they always had been, and if Desdemona ever asked why, Mama would simply remark that it was more efficient than curtains. Still, it was Desdemona’s favorite place to read, and sometimes she could even envision the boards away, the manor’s vast green fields spread out before her as she read the day away.
A couple years ago, she tried to remove one of the boards. It was storming outside, and she wanted so desperately to watch it rain. She ended up slicing her hand open on a nail, and her mother had been so furious that she grounded Desdemona for a month before even attending to her wound.
She opened the book up to page 664. Although it was crinkled and torn with use, the pictures on the page were bold, printed in ink so dark they appeared at first to be hand-painted. Lines that first outlined the face of a woman suddenly curved downward to form the body of something else, scales erupting from her torso until they overtook her, and the tail that grew where legs should be wound down the length of the page and bent around the edges. Large, black letters came together above the monster to read The Myth of Echidna. “She-Viper,” Desdemona breathed.
Myths weren’t true by their very definition, and Desdemona knew this. But she also knew with absolute certainty that Echidna haunted the halls and grounds of Mavros Manor. She believed the half-woman, half-snake was the reason she wasn’t allowed outside and that so many of the rooms remained forbidden to her. This Mother of Monsters lived behind the locked doors of the manor with its serpent children, and Desdemona could hear them lurking and hissing behind them.
The rest of the morning was spent scouring the pages of the old book, the images reflected in Desdemona’s eyes as they rested inches from the text, as though wishing to consume it. At lunchtime, Eugenia served carrot soup and salmon sandwiches, and Desdemona even managed to persuade the maid to sneak her some lemon tea cookies, which she ate speedily as it turned two o’clock and she scrambled out the back door.
Every afternoon, Desdemona would run up the hillside that overlooked the whole estate. She thought her mother might be impressed by how quickly she could reach the top but always looked back to see Mama hadn’t been looking. Once there, she laid down in the soft grass, smelling the sweet and spicy scent of nearby lilacs, and marveled at the grandiosity of the manor. It puzzled her. It looked much bigger from the outside than it really was. She always spent extra time inspecting the tall doors at the front of it, their purple paneling curving upward into a dome and their golden doorknobs sparkling in the sunlight. Although she’d lived in Mavros Manor for all seven years of her life, she had never seen what was behind those doors. She was never allowed to go through them and had never found them from the inside either. She and Mama entered and exited through the back, always. Mama said it was because she didn’t like the color purple.
The doors looked thick and heavy, and she imagined having to use her whole weight to push them open. In her vision, they swung wide to reveal a large grand staircase, like those of castles. A royal red carpet lined the pathway from the entrance to the staircase, climbing the steps and halting just below the biggest chandelier she’d ever seen, glinting green and gold. Yet as she stood in the doorway captivated by the lavish display of bright colors, the scene quickly darkened. It was as though all the color had abruptly drained from the room as red and purple turned gray and green and gold dissolved into ash. A grotesque creature appeared from around the corner and slithered its way down the stairs, staining the carpet with its trail of sludge. The monster opened its mouth in a fanged smile, and just as it was about to swallow her whole, she was pulled from her nightmare. She was back on top of the hill, and there was no monster in sight, only the distant scream that echoed in her head.
Desdemona walked back down the hillside and over to the large stone well that sat at the bottom and yellowed with age. She never had any coins to give, instead tossing in dead bugs or snakeskins she found in the garden. She thought perhaps that was the reason her wish never came true. Although the old well provided neither wishes nor water, she found other uses for it. When she was four and frightened of the jack-in-the-box her uncle brought her, she discovered it was a great way to get rid of something unwanted. One day, she snuck the toy outside and dropped it down, listening to it hit the sides as it fell, and after several long seconds heard the satisfying plop of its final impact. It had not bothered her since.
When Mama came out of her bedroom, Desdemona was blowing on a spoonful of hot soup. She closed the door behind her and locked it, as she always did. She would disappear there every night, only reappearing in the morning, and she never allowed her daughter in, not even when Desdemona was a young child awakened by a nightmare.
“There’s been a change of plans,” she said.
Desdemona’s spoon clattered against her bowl. She stared at her mother. Rarely was there a change of plans.
“I must go into Thiseio after dinner. Eugenia has the night off so you will be alone for several hours. Do you think you can handle that?”
A hundred different explanations sprang into Desdemona’s mind as to where her mother was going and why, but she knew better than to ask. Instead she said, “Yes, Mama.”
“You aren’t to leave your room, and you will do extra reading. Understood?”
When she stopped by Desdemona’s room on her way out, Mama was wearing a long, green dress with silver embroidery, a pearl necklace, and a crystal headband. It was the same outfit she wore when the men and women would visit for the important meetings. These meetings were far too important for Desdemona to be allowed to listen in on, and if she ever got close, faces would turn and voices would hush.
Tonight Mama was stunning, and Desdemona liked to imagine she was off to a fancy banquet where she’d drink fine wine and dance with rich men. Mama told her once more not to leave her room and closed the door behind her.
Desdemona didn’t know how much time had passed when she heard it. She was reading in bed on her stomach, elbows propped up on a pillow and palms cradling her face when it broke her concentration and she sat upright, her book cast to the side.
The shuffling came from behind her walls and moved across the room, a low hissing following behind. Or was it whispering? She jumped from the bed and pressed her ear against the wall, but the noises were already exiting the room. Her mother’s voice in the back of her mind, she hesitated but opened the door and stepped out.
Desdemona followed the sounds of the snake as it slithered its way down the hallway. She clung to the wall as she moved, hands and cheek sliding along the wood, feeling for the warm breath and cold blood of a She-Viper close by.
The hallway opened up into a room with two doors. The first she knew would lead through to the kitchen, but the second had always been locked and closed off to her. That’s the one she saw the shadow move beneath.
She dropped to the ground, expecting to see the scaly underside of the large beast sliding across the floor, but it was too narrow and dark to make anything out. The hissing faded as the snake moved farther away, and then it was gone. When she stood back up, her jaw clenched and her eyes locked in a dead stare on the door. She was going to find out what was living on the other side of Mavros Manor.
Whatever mystery the manor held, the answers started in Mama’s bedroom, and Desdemona knew Mama would have hidden a spare key somewhere. Without really knowing why, she found herself headed towards the library.
There was something surreal about the large room’s silence that night. As she checked inside desk drawers and under chairs and rugs, she felt almost as though she was in a dream. She picked up picture frames and overturned lamps, but there was nothing. Pausing, she turned in a circle and scanned the room.
Mama would know to hide it in a place she herself could remember, yet Desdemona would not stumble across. Her eyes fell upon the spiral staircase she’d scaled earlier that day. She climbed up to the landing, but instead of breezing passed the biographies, she stopped in front of them. Her finger traced along the author labels until it was pointing to the name “Keys.” She flipped through the book until author Timothy Keys smiled out at her from the back cover. Tossing it onto the floor, she moved on to romances, repeating her process and pulling out Death Departs Us by Silvia Key. As she did, the book fell open to reveal a silver key sticking out from a carved-out section of the back cover. Its tooth curved out like one long, jagged fang.
Ripping the cover as she pulled it out, Desdemona slipped the key into the pocket of her overalls. She walked into the kitchen and grabbed a steak knife from the block, sliding it into her other pocket. Echidna was immortal, but the knife should provide her with some level of protection. Then she walked to the bedroom, inserted the key into the lock, and for the first time ever, swung open the door to her mother’s room.
It looked ordinary, though much larger than Desdemona’s room, complete with its own sofa and bed canopy. A mirror sat upon the dresser opposite the door she’d entered, and she could see her black eyes staring back at her and the hilt of the knife poking out from her pocket. A cigar rested in the ashtray atop the dresser and men’s clothing was laid out on the bed. She frowned. Mama didn’t smoke, and she certainly didn’t wear suits.
Above the bed hung a large oil painting of a man and a woman. She recognized the woman right away, with hair and eyes like Desdemona’s, wearing the same crystal headband she’d left the manor in earlier that day. But beside Mama was a man unknown to her. He had a brown beard, thin nose, and golden crown sitting upon his head.
Next to the dresser was another door. Desdemona watched her reflection in the mirror as its fingers slowly reached for the bolt and clicked it unlocked. The door creaked open and she peered down the hallway that stretched out before her. Hissing poured from it and flooded her ears. She moved forward, expecting to see a sign of Echidna at any moment—a nest of eggs, sheds of skin, or even the snake woman herself, crouched in a corner and waiting.
With each step forward, the hissing became louder and clearer, as though trying to form words. She found herself standing below ceilings taller than she had ever seen, the hissing echoing off of them, twisting into a melody, and filling the room.
Mary Mary quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
Giant doors overlooked the room, spanning up half the length of the wall with that distinct purple paneling that curved into a dome and the golden doorknobs shimmering beneath. Across from the doors was a grand staircase with marble steps leading up to the next floor. A banister ran along the side and as Desdemona’s gaze followed it up, there stood the snake at the top, singing and twirling its dress.
With silver bells and cockleshells
And pretty maids all in a row.
The snake froze at the sight of Desdemona, the lyrics drying up on its lips. It did not look like a snake at all. In fact, she found herself looking into dark eyes just like hers. It was a girl of the same height, the same age, with the same long black hair that fell to its shoulders, high cheekbones, and a heart-shaped face. The only difference between them seemed to be the pink nightgown that hung from the snake’s body. She knew this was one of Echidna’s tricks.
“You look like me.” Desdemona’s voice cracked as she spoke, and she felt blood rush to her face. She took one step forward as the snake took one back. “You won’t fool me, snake.” As she drew closer, the rotting scent of the monster struck her.
“I’m no snake,” it said softly. “My name’s Daphne. Who are you?” Its voice was sweet and if Desdemona didn’t know any better, she might have thought it was human, but she did know better. It was that same hissing she had heard all those times through the walls.
“You are a snake!” A whining began to fill Desdemona’s ears. She wanted to move, to run, but found her legs too heavy to lift, as if they were weighted to the ground. “You are Echidna, the Mother of Monsters, and I want you gone from my house!” Black shapes appeared along the edges of her sight. She tried to blink them away, but they grew larger until she could only see through small specks in the center.
Then the snake began to crack. Sheets of flesh shriveled and curled, and as Desdemona stood frozen, the creature reached out its claws to peel off its flaking skin, scales erupting on its face and both legs fusing into one long monstrous tail. It opened its mouth to reveal its venom-filled fangs as its forked tongue flicked the air to smell its prey.
Desdemona seemed to float out of her body. She drifted up and up until she was touching the ceiling, her body still on the ground below. Through her narrowed vision, she watched it move, but she was no longer in it. She was just a ghostly observer hovering overhead like a chandelier, feeling light and dreamy and calm. There were flashes of color—pink and silver and red and yellow—and as they danced below her, she began to laugh. A sweet and spicy smell tickled her nose and a cold air brushed through her.
And then she was falling, back to the ground, back to her body, and she closed her eyes as she slammed into herself.
When she opened them again, she was standing in the kitchen. Mama was there.
“Desdemona, why aren’t you in bed?” Mama asked. She was still in her gown, her coat thrown over the back of a chair. She opened the cabinet and set a mug out on the counter, then poured from the kettle of tea that already sat warm on the stove.
“I saw the snake, Mama.”
“What are you talking about?”
“The snake who lives in the house. I saw it.”
Mama walked passed her daughter. “Bed,” she ordered, her long gown trailing along the floor as she moved. “We’ll talk about your punishment for leaving your room in the morning.” Turning the corner, she froze. Her bedroom door stood open, and she could see all the way through the room, out the other door, and down the hallway on the other side of Mavros Manor. “What is this? Did you...?”
“I went to the other side,” Desdemona said. “I saw the snake.”
Mama was silent for several moments. She closed her eyes and rubbed her temples, and when she finally spoke, her voice was quiet. “Desdemona, how dare you disobey my orders? You don’t know what you’ve done.”
“Why did the snake look like me, Mama?”
“She’s not a snake!” Mama shouted. “For goodness’ sake, Desdemona, there has never been a snake. The girl you saw was your sister.”
Desdemona looked up at Mama blankly. “I don’t have a sister.”
Mama turned away from her daughter, choosing instead to speak to the wall. “You do. And a father.”
“My father is dead.”
“No, your father is alive and well. He and your sister live in the manor with us. They always have.”
The dark shapes were creeping back into Desdemona’s sight. “I have a father?”
Mama exhaled deeply, placing one hand on the wall in front of her as if to steady herself. “We wanted to wait until you were older, but I suppose there’s no hiding it much longer. Our family is royal. Your father and I are King and Queen of Thiseio.”
“Royal...” Desdemona repeated the word slowly, as if trying to determine how it tasted upon her lips. She looked at the back of Mama’s gown, the golden jewels sparkling against the low light of the hallway.
“When you and your sister were born, we kept you apart,” Mama continued. “You see, only one of you can be heir to the throne. Your father and I decided it was best to raise you separately. We did not want you growing up with the competition, the resentment. Instead, we would give you each individualized attention and, from there, determine who would make the better heir.”
Desdemona stared at the ground. She thought of Mavros Manor, its giant rooms and expensive chandeliers, its boarded windows and locked doors, the whispering in the walls. Then she smiled.
“I’m the heir, Mama.”
“Not yet, Desdemona. That will be determined when you’re older. It will go to whoever is the best suited to take on the throne.”
“No. I’m the heir. The snake is gone.”
Her mother paused. “For the last time, there is no sn—” She turned around and finally looked at her daughter. The mug fell from her hands and shattered into pieces on the floor, tea splashing onto the hem of her gown and a clash echoing through the room. “De-Desdemona!” she screamed.
Desdemona was covered in red. Streaks of dark ran down her arms, her hands, her shirt. The right side of her overalls was torn from her shoulder, hanging off and dangling just above her bare feet.
“Are you hurt?” Mama spoke quickly, her words running together, but made no movement toward her daughter.
“What’s all over you?”
A cry ripped through the room. It traveled through the manor and out the bedroom door, spilling into the hallway where they stood. Mama flew towards the horrible noise, glass bits embedding into her gown as it swept over the floor. Desdemona followed behind her, and together they entered the front hall.
Blood stained the room, dripping down the stairs and pooling onto the floor below. Dark splatter coated the banister, and a knife lay abandoned on the very last step. Desdemona’s gaze, however, was fixed on the man standing before the open purple doors at the front of the room. His mouth hung open, the ghost of his cry lingering on his lips. He didn’t look much like a king. He wasn’t beautiful like Mama was. His brown beard had wisps of gray, and his nose, though thin, was rather large. His shocked expression drew lines across his face, and his bulging eyes gave an uncollected air about him, which Desdemona thought quite unbecoming for a king. His face, outlined by a widow’s peak, was shaped like a heart.
Words fell clumsily out of his mouth when he saw Desdemona and Mama. “Blood? Blood? Dionne, what has happened?”
Mama looked from the blood on the ground to the blood on Desdemona’s skin and clothes. “Desdemona, what have you done? Where is Daphne? What did you do to Daphne?”
“Half-lady, half-snake..." Desdemona smiled. “She’s immortal, but you can trap her underground.” She extended her arm out in front of her. She pointed first at the puddle in the center of the hall, then slowly moved her finger along the trail of red as it led across the room, out the doors, and all the way down the field toward the well. “Down, down, down, until you hear the plop.”
The King made an odd gagging noise and sprinted out the doors and toward the field. But Mama was looking at Desdemona. Her eyes were round and stuck, fixated on her daughter. “I’m a princess, Mama.” Desdemona pushed her hair out of her face and looked up at her mother, smearing blood across her cheek as she did. “I’m the heir. Aren’t you proud of me, Mama?”