The Killing of a Sacred Snake
She woke up again, having barely slept the night before. In her dreams, Maria was haunted by a voice beckoning her from her childhood, her father, her mother, brother, the river. She needed to talk, opened her door and smelled coffee, pão de queijo, and walked on down the hall.
The word echoed down the walls. As she got closer to the kitchen, Cuca’s humming got more pronounced. She liked when the housekeeper hummed; she felt warmth in the way her songs filled the rooms of the house.
“Do you want some fruit?”
“How did you know I was here?”
“I see everything.”
“Where’s my father?”
“He went outside with your mother.”
“I don’t know.”
“I thought you knew everything.”
“Only what I see.”
Lately, she’d been waking up early, like she did as a child, and slipping out back to the stables to watch the stablehands groom the horses. Showers were particularly beautiful moments, she thought. One time at a museum she saw a movie where scenes of a brown racehorse being bathed were interwoven with scenes of men in blue kimonos fighting jiu-jitsu. The aggression, she thought it meditative. Like the bathing horse, one of the men always seemed more passive, but because he decided to, measuring his moments; the fighter, gave away immediate control of his stance in order to entrap his opponent into a fatal move; the horse, ceded his image to man, so that in the track, in that split second of freedom, he would be allowed to run like he never could. She wondered the reason the horses kept their eyes open as the soapy water ran down their faces. Were they worried about closing them?
This morning Maria stayed inside. Disney-Bragança’s Moby Dick was playing black&white in the living room. She looked out from the kitchen window eating a banana, her parents stood by the stables, talking. Her father looked especially strong—a dark mustache, blue polo shirt tucked in his culotte made his chest look wider—and her mother small by his side. While she couldn’t hear what they were saying, her mother was gesturing a lot, and the father’s indifference, fixing his belt made her look frantic.
“I wish she’d grow out of this tomboy phase, Chico.”
“She likes riding horses, what’s wrong with that?”
“She should be playing with her sister!”
“Your son only cares about the wind, it’s good to have someone who’ll ride with me”
“I don’t know why I still buy her dresses when all she wears now are jeans.”
“At least she’s interested in the farm, Maria.”
“Fine. I don’t care. Just be careful.”
As the mother Maria moved to the house, the daughter Maria sneaked out the kitchen, back to her room.
“Was she just here, Cuca?”
“No, ma’m. I think she’s still asleep.”
“I saw her in the window. Why are you covering for her?”
“I didn’t see her, ma’m.”
Mounted on her horse, firmly now, she rode behind her father towards a place unknown. As often as they rode, Maria would forgo knowledge of direction, she felt like she could enjoy it more that way as if she were still young.
They passed the horses leaving the house in the pasture very quietly, as to not wake them up. “Wild horses sleep upright,” her father said. “These ones are lazy.”
The brightness across the valley began to change. The naked crops, stretching as far as the feet of the hills, began to light up with the few sun-rays breaking over the peaks. In the daytime, the essence of dirt starkly contrasts the green hue smoldering from the mountains; in the darkness, or at that beginning of morning they were witnessing, the two colors meshed around the same shades of blue. At one point, Maria thought, the dirt wouldn’t have stuck out as much. She recalled there being great flocks of trees filling the valley, moving in their own ways before her father built the farm. She would always mention it to her friends growing up until her mother told her they had bought the farm from somebody else, that that place couldn’t have been as green as she remembered.
In a few months, the crops would come back though—sparks of color lightly weaving their way through the dirt—they’d rise together within their season and their only competitor was time. The farmer worries about his yield, but the fruits are unaware of competition, of a game whose rules hadn’t been made manifest to them. So, too, suffered the ‘lazy’ horses, who had been long conditioned in their roles in that game—instinct, for them, had been lost many generations ago when they renewed their vows with men.
“Do horses dream?”
“No, horses are animals. Only humans dream.”
“So what happens when they’re sleeping?”
“They rest, so they can be ready for the next day.”
“And they have no dreams?”
“No, they need to stay alert in case a predator shows up.”
“Even the ones sleeping on the ground?”
“It’s the way it is, Maria.”
She enjoyed how final he could be sometimes. She knew he didn’t know certain things, but it had been so long he’d been saying them, now it’d become wisdom. It would fail him later though, when the first Disney-Bragança factory was built some miles off his farm, in Iriqui. For a year afterwards, they let out lead in the air out their long black chimneys, and killed all the horses in the farm.
“I had a weird dream last night. It was about the past, my past. I woke up feeling like all my life had happened only in my dreams, and I’d just woken up in the present, the person I was in the dreams, always had been, but not in real life.”
“You dreamt of your childhood?”
“Not the whole thing. Just this one morning when I was little. Back when we used to ride out more often. I was looking for you. I walked down the hall and it felt interminable. Room after room, the doors were all closed. When I finally got to the kitchen, one of our housekeepers was there.”
“I don’t know, she didn’t actually have a face.” He gave her a puzzled look. “Yeah, I don’t know, her face was just… skin, with no bounds or ends. She said you weren’t home, that you had left for one of your hunting trips, so I went outside to see if I could catch a glimpse of your red truck driving away, but it was all very still, very quiet, very blue. I went back inside and mother sent me to my room. I tried to talk to her, but she wouldn’t let me. And then I woke up.”
They rode on as the sun crowned over the peaks far ahead. The clouds from the night’s rain still infested the sky, few open spots where warm light could probe. The morning tint was almost foggy, and the valley’s liveliness, the cows, the workers, the birds, didn’t seem to have come out that day. But what was good, ended soon and o que era bom, se acabou. The wind shifted in a single waft, and the clouds grew dark. Lightning struck the land many miles ahead, a tree caught on fire, and drop by drop the clouds doled out their essence.
“Let’s ride West now.”
“That way?,” she pointed.
“Yeah, we’re gonna need shelter!”
Summer rain happens in a split second and ends just as quickly. But for the few thunderous minutes it pours, a dark glow encompasses nature, its smell is heavy, the first sniff almost drowns the nose. As the air pushes deep enough, the lungs absorb the humidity, and a revitalizing breath echoes through the body—a contradiction of grace and friction. Maria pressured her foot into her horse’s belly to get him galloping. Steering a horse at great speeds is harder, it requires a mastery of deceit: as the horse accelerates, the rider has to make him believe he’s gaining back control, and slowly, independence, but do it too much and the horse self-sabotages, slowing himself down. One yields control, until the final move.
Father and daughter sprinted across the land, water and air blurred their sight, and the tears that flowed down their faces did so involuntarily. With the rain in their eyes, the horses cried too. Maria bowed her head, brought down her cowboy hat to avoid the wet wind, and took notice of the colors changing quickly under her horse’s hooves—stark brown fading into darker shades of green. They were approaching the forest at the end of the farm
Unmounted now, they pulled their rides under the canopy. Thick foliage welcomed them kindly, opening clearings for them, a path further in, where the sounds of rain strum more gently. Maria hoped to see animals peeping out of their hiding spots, testing the air, but the animals that had chirped in these woods were sheltered.
Soon, the rain faded into silence and an echo of running water.
They felt the air change around them, it turned warm again, and the river up ahead appeared like a mirage calling to them, offering respite from all that strain. As they got there, however, the river looked dry, and the horses began to jerk frightfully away.
By the bank before them, Boiúna stretched herself, a dark-bodied snake, quietly rolling in the wet dirt. If it hadn’t been for the horses, they might have walked into the snake.
Maria gave her reins over to her father and walked closer to the snake. Though she looked worn out, the girl found her strangely hypnotic—crackled shades of blue offered texture on the reptile’s skin, interminable mountain ranges, twisting and crumbling onto themselves—and Maria failed to realize the grotesque ritual at play. Boiúna was swallowing a frog, too fat for her size.
She grabbed a fallen branch from the ground and walked up to the snake.
Boiúna felt the approaching warmth and slithered closer to the girl, stared at her with the frog halfway down her throat.
The girl stared back, frozen.
Perhaps the other animals were hiding from the snake. Maria thought of them in that moment, the lives they must lead, and didn’t notice herself lifting the branch over her head, threateningly.
“Don’t kill the snake,” the Devil whispered in her ear.
Boiúna dropped the hapless prey at once, bent up her neck to face the girl. The frog fell before her, heavy liquid oozing out of his skin, eyeballs spinning hysterically out of their socket. Green-red-purple dots spots sprung on his skin, a kaleidoscope that put Maria to sleep. Boiúna took her chance and backed off towards the river, dipped her tail in the water, and contorted herself into a ball. The water crawled out the river and ran on the snake’s body, through all the valleys in between the hills on her skin, rivers leading up to her head. Dark blue faded into ceramic, black eyes the only contrast, shining like cold yellow flames, emanating brightness that far exceeded the light in the clearing. Boiúna’s face began to crack, and as the river held tightly to her tail, through the gaped mouth, her head slid out anew, darker, more viscous, this younger snake slithered towards the girl, still drenched in afterbirth; Boiúna, reborn, shed her graft.
But Maria stood there entranced, transfixed by the color game before her eyes. It was the trees who noticed the danger and shuffled for help. Leaves scraped themselves, shuffling the winds at their command, a bright buzzing sound called out deep in the woods, and the urutau awoke, the voice of the apocalypse. His cry burst from afar through the foliage, reverberating in the trunks, encircling the girl in echo, as the snake inched closer until a word finally broke through
broke through and Maria shook herself awake. The frog blew up in her face. The snake’s royal darkness slithering towards her through the settling smoke. Boiúna felt the enlivened gaze of the girl and her body went rigid, raising herself, splaying her chest, like a monkey before his females, dancing in a slow rhythm, aiming for the legs.
Maria drew the wood, the snake, the fangs, but the moment she acted couldn’t be heard.
Below the wood, a snake bathed in crimson. Maria stood over it, solemn, waiting for the final spasms to fade away, for the death march to end.
Silence, so heavy, Maria could feel it weighing down her ears. The urutau sang again, and beatings of wings could be felt all around her. A cry reverberated in the forest, increasing steadily in volume. And from nothing to everything, Maria had to press her hands against her ears to drown out the sickening sound: a word echoing again in the forest.
An older Maria wakes up startled by the stream. It is warm and sunny, the water glistens in the light, the voice in her dreams fades through memory. She is wearing a white dress, grownup, it hides the curves of a woman, and the bump of a younger Maria. She sits up, and follows the stream up the hill in between the trees with her eyes. A man stands tall over the spring up ahead, Chico, her husband. Blue polo shirt, cowboy boots, spurs, brown cowboy hat; a mustache she could just make out. Her husband, in the land they’d bought to raise their children, their horses, and live the life they’d always dreamed. Maria stayed there for a while, sitting in the sun, daydreaming, drinking from the water beside her, a fountain of life, growing in the middle of their land—a good omen, she thought, as Chico trash-bagged live cats and threw them down the stream.
Fran Attié is a writer born in São Paulo. His writings about culture, soccer and fiction have been published in Berlin, London and New York. His poetry in Brazil, Portugal, Cape Verde and Angola. Graduate of NYU, his thesis was about colonial trauma and foundational literature in Brazil. Digs movies and music. Follow him on Instagram at @fran_attie