A deep puddle bisected the road, gutters overflowing and filling the man-made basin faster than it could escape. Its width forced pedestrians to stick to the edges, clinging to the shop fronts for fear of getting their feet wet. People bumped into each other and mumbled apologies or swore at the inconvenience. Drivers abandoned drowning cars, leaving them to float unattended while they waded through chest-high water under the judgemental stare of shopkeepers and office workers.
That’s what Tay was, an observer. She was watching everyone and everything with an eye able to perceive every crack, every pore upon the skin, and every drop of rain as it fell from the heavens. She understood the music that it played upon her head, the tingling of bells, ringing a change not just in the world but deep within her.
Something had shifted, her soul's tether snapped and not just the self-delusion of the addict, the momentary insight that bore no bearing to the sober world. This was a truer experience than any she had ever had. She was closing in on understanding the meaning of life, she could feel the passage of time and feel the weight of history bearing down on her, cursing her with a knowledge that would leave her timeless. An outcast, forced to be reborn or else be an observer for eternity.
She stared at faces, head snapping around, hands pushing at umbrellas, frightening people but she had to see them, she wanted to see their snakes. The first had scared Tay, looking up from her delirium to find an adder rearing up to strike at her face, the unbelievably fast action as it bit her arm, fangs sinking deep and then retreating to its perch upon the businesswoman’s neat shoulders. The venom pumped through Tay’s bloodstream, adding to the toxic soup already circulating within her, pushing her heart to breaking point. More snakes struck but then they stopped, her screams of pain silencing them. She died and they no longer saw her as a threat.
They all had them, snakes of assorted colours and sizes, more than she could have imagined, more than the five that the temple claimed existed. Some coiled around necks, while others emerged from clothing to strike at strangers or to whisper secrets into the ears of their humans. Lovers huddled under umbrellas, diamond snakes entwining, burrowing into each other’s homes. An angry man shouted at a shopkeeper, his black snake rearing its head ready to strike. A baby shared a pram with a coiled viper, while a toddler played in an open doorway, a snake writhing at his feet.
Tay could see all the snakes, even the one that lived within her. She could see its reflection in the shop window as it looped around her neck, its tail hanging down like the lost end of a scarf. A yellow viper, long and thin, with an arrow-shaped head that studied her in return, tongue flicking out, touching her nose, tasting the air before approaching her eye. Tay tilted her head back, but the viper rose in unison, enchanted by her, mesmerising her in turn with its hypnotic gaze. The heartbeat slowed, breathing shallow, thoughts receding to be replaced with a sharpness of intent and a single desire; to understand the voices.
“You can’t be real,” Tay said as the snake stretched its furrowed mouth lazily, exposing fangs with a curve that spoke of a perfect design. “You’re beautiful, whatever you are.”
The viper turned its attention to a puddle that stretched the length of the alleyway. The depths were obscured by a layer of soggy cardboard and shredded paper, but a black body broke the surface and Tay flinched as the snake tensed up, rearing its head ready to strike in her defence.
“What is it?” Tay whispered but if the snake could talk it didn’t answer.
They both stared at the gently churning water as more of the eels broke the surface, dozens of them emerging from drains, their sleek bodies combining to create a mass that slithered towards her.
The viper hissed as it struck at the eels, falling far short and collapsing against Tay’s chest, it pulled itself up, tugging as it resettled once more around her neck. The eels made a sound as they rubbed against each other, like voices murmuring in another room, talking in a tongue that Tay couldn’t understand, but pleading with her to listen, to come down to their level and let them speak with her.
The snake struck again, spitting venom that spattered on the black bodies where it hissed and smoked, but the eels kept coming, hundreds of them now filling the alleyway, all crying out her name.
“I don’t know what you want. Leave me alone!” Tay screamed and ran away, her own snake, tightening its grip around her neck and hissing over her shoulder. A car braked hard as she ran out into the road. Wet laces slapping on the pavement, and she was gone.