The following is from A.L. Kennedy's novel, The Little Snake. A young girl named Mary befriends a shining golden snake named Lanmo. Lanmo visits Mary over the years and sees her life and surroundings change, knowing all the while that his destiny will eventually break them apart. A.L. Kennedy has twice been selected as one of Granta's Best Young British Novelists and has won several literary awards, including Costa Book of the Year. She teaches at the University of Warwick.
Some time ago, perhaps before you were even born, a young girl was walking in her garden. She may have been called Mary—that’s what most of the stories about her say.
Mary was a little bit taller than the other girls her age and had brownish crinkly hair. She was quite thin, because she didn’t always have exactly enough to eat. She liked honey and whistling and the colour blue and finding out.
She lived in a city filled with very many different kinds of people. Its very many different kinds of people made it a very wonderful place, full of interesting songs and stories, foods and clothes and conversations. Nevertheless, the people in charge of the city were not overly fond of people and so the apartments in which the very many different kinds of people lived were often dry where they should have been wet, or wet where they should have been dry, or just cold and dark and supplied with especially listless electricity. In order to enjoy the sky, which was free to them and large as large, the people in the wet and dry houses would fly kites from their roofs. Some looked like birds of paradise, some looked like fish and some looked like wonderful serpents.
Other apartments—like the ones owned by the people who ran the city—were luxurious and built into great towers that stretched through the sky much higher than the kites. These apartments contained beautiful pools to swim in, or to keep fish, or perhaps vast tanks containing large reptiles like crocodiles, or blue iguanas. And they had larders as big as living rooms and living rooms as big as meadows and probably meadows in their basements that were as big as small counties with jewelled rollercoasters and golf courses made of cake.
The young girl knew about all this. She knew about all kinds of things and was very clever. Standing in her garden—which was on a roof top and a bit bigger than a big tablecloth—she could look one way and see the very many sad, tiny houses of the squashed-in people. If she looked the other way, she could see the tall, sparkling buildings full of crocodiles and meadows. The building where she lived was only a little bit squashed. And its pipes only leaked on Mondays and Wednesdays and at weekends. When they did her mother would put metal basins under the drips and the metal would ring like small bells—or maybe more exactly like small, wet bells—when the water hit them.
The girl’s apartment was just the right size for her mother and her father and herself—which was all there was. Sometimes she wanted a little brother or sister to play with, but then she would remember that a little sister might get jealous of her cleverness, or be interested in ballet dancing which would be noisy, or wood carving which would be messy. The girl was sleeping in a bedroom that was supposed to be a store cupboard and if she had to share it with a sister then it would seem crowded. And maybe her new sister would snore, or have very long and pokey feet. A little brother might eventually grow up and stop lying in his baby crib and just wriggling his fingers and might want to run about—and their garden was too small for running about.
Standing in her garden—which was on a roof top and a bit bigger than a big tablecloth—she could look one way and see the very many sad, tiny houses of the squashed-in people. If she looked the other way, she could see the tall, sparkling buildings full of crocodiles and meadows.
The people who were in charge of the city and who didn’t very much like people hadn’t made many parks for children to play in, or for adults to sit down in and eat ice cream and tell each other how wonderful their children were, or how terrible their children were, depending. So running about was difficult anywhere. The girl thought the people who governed the city probably weren’t interested in parks, because they could enjoy their own waterfalls and perhaps swimming with their own crocodiles and making tree houses and swings in the thick, rooftop forests which she could see if she stared very hard all the way from her garden up to the shining towers.
People who came to visit the city would talk about it in the way that adults do in front of children, saying just what came in to their heads and imagining that someone as small as Mary would not be able to understand them, or pay attention. They would say, “This city is very interesting, but there are no flowers to smell here and that makes us tired.” Or they would say, “Things here are very expensive and we cannot afford to buy tickets so that we can hear people sing, or listen to music and dance. We are surprised by the price of large sandwiches.” Or else they would say things like, “This city seems to want birds and not people. It is covered in edges and ledges and nooks and crooks for birds to enjoy and full of food scraps that are small enough for beaks. It was built by people, but it would prefer birds.” And this is often true of cities. They need people to build them, but they prefer birds. This can make them sad places.
The girl thought that the visitors should come and have dinner with her parents and sniff in the nice smell of soup—or maybe go and stand in her little garden and smell the roses in it. Or they could talk to the lady in the bread shop—who whistled and hummed while she fed the birds with breadcrumbs and also fed the people with bread because she liked both birds and people. Or they could watch the beautiful dancing of the kites. Or they could listen to the gentleman who sang almost all day on Sundays and who lived across Mary’s street and who wore a vest instead of his shirt in summer. Any sensible and observant visitor would see that they were in a friendly city filled with good things and happiness.
The girl liked the city and her garden. She could walk across the garden in exactly six large paces and walk from its top to its bottom in ten large paces. On some afternoons she would take very tiny paces and this would allow the garden to seem twice the size and much more beautiful. The grown ups she explained this to became confused.
They would tell her, “The garden is the same size, no matter how many paces you squeeze into it.”
She would tell them, “Not at all. The longer I take to cross the garden, the larger and more extremely wonderful it becomes in the same way that ice cream becomes much more magnificent when you eat it very slowly with a little spoon.” As I said, the girl was very clever.
“Then your ice cream will melt.” said the grown ups.
And Mary, the little girl we are talking about, would shake her head and start to skip and hum a tune to herself, because grown ups expect children to do such things and it pleases them much more than questions they can’t answer. She did not mention that if she stood perfectly still in her garden then it went on forever, because she could never reach its end. That would have made the grown ups frown.
This—as it happened—made the grown ups the exact opposite of the little girl.
Anyway, as I said at the beginning if you remember, this little girl called Mary was one day walking in her garden. She believed it was hers because she loved it. She believed that loving something should make it a part of you, in the way that your feet are a part of you. (And you would, of course, be very foolish not to love your feet—should you have any—because they can be quite useful.)
“This city seems to want birds and not people. It is covered in edges and ledges and nooks and crooks for birds to enjoy and full of food scraps that are small enough for beaks. It was built by people, but it would prefer birds.”
On this particular day, which was a wintery Sunday, the girl was taking extra-tiny steps so that her garden stretched for miles, almost into other countries. This made the four rose bushes into four giant rose trees and the three flowerbeds into vast prairies and the tiny pond into an inland sea of impressive dimensions.
The little girl put her hands in her pockets to keep them warm because she preferred this to wearing gloves. This was definitely not because she had lost her gloves, as her mother had suggested earlier. The girl also watched her breath appearing in ascending, steamy clouds, as if her body were somehow burning the dead leaves from autumn, or perhaps washing a large number of sheets and producing steam like a laundry. She was perfectly absorbed by what she was doing and so it took a while for her to notice that one of her ankles was feeling slightly unlike the other.
When she looked down to her left she saw that, snugly fitted around her neatly darned woollen stocking, a golden bangle had appeared. There were two jewels in the bangle, which glittered, and from time to time the bangle itself seemed to shimmer, almost as if it were moving.
It was immensely handsome.
She knew this because it told her so. Because she was very sensible, the little girl had not yet acquired the silly habit of talking only to people and would happily address objects and animals that seemed to be in need of conversation, or company. “Good heavens,” she said to the bangle. And then, “Where did you come from?” And after that, “Hello.”
“Hello,” replied the bangle. “I am immensely handsome.”
“Oh.” said the girl. “Hello Mr Handsome. I’m Mary.”
You see—I told you she was called Mary.
The bangle rippled round her ankle and glistened and its two jewels gleamed like very dark rubies. “No, no. I am not called Immensely Handsome—that is just one of my many qualities. I am handsome, wise and agile. I also have a beautiful speaking voice. And I am extremely fast.”
At this point Mary thought that the bangle was also rather boastful and she interrupted it, even though it did have a very lovely speaking voice.
“What is your name, then? And you don’t seem that fast to me.”
“Oh, don’t I. . .?” And at once the bangle disappeared.
It moved so quickly that Mary was still listening to its delightful voice, chuckling to itself and left behind, while its body had gone somewhere further away. She had to search about before she saw the bangle hanging from one of the rose bush’s branches. “Maybe you shouldn’t do that—the rose might not like it.”
“Oh, the rose won’t mind me,” said the bangle, swaying slightly in a complaisant manner. “Mary, I am the fastest thing you will ever meet.” The bangle confided, once again right there on her ankle and not even slightly out of breath.
“That is impressive,” admitted Mary.
“But what is your name?”
“Maybe I will tell you in a while. You should always be careful about giving your name to anyone and not do it just at once.”
“Well, if you won’t tell me your name, what kind of bracelet are you?” Mary sat down, very carefully, under one of the rose bushes to look more closely at her talkative new friend.
“I’m not.” The bangle unfastened itself and—quickly, but not so quickly that Mary couldn’t watch—it shifted its golden shape along until it was mainly wound around her wrist a few times, quite like a bracelet and almost entirely not.
“Ah.” Mary said. “I see.”
The bangle slid and wriggled and tickled until she was cupping most of it, neatly coiled in her palm, and the two flecks of colour which she had thought of as jewels were looking at her from a slender, gilded head.
The red jewels blinked like clever, tiny eyes. This was because they were clever, tiny eyes.
“Yes.” said the snake. “I am a snake.” And it smiled for an instant as much as someone can with no lips and flickered out an elegant bright red tongue that was forked at the end and licked the air around it. “You taste of sweets and soap and being good.”
Mary stuck out her own tongue, but couldn’t taste anything about the snake.
“I taste of nothing,” the snake told her. “Aren’t you afraid? People usually are afraid of snakes. When they see me they frequently run up and down and wave their arms about and scream.”
“Would you like me to do that?”
“Not especially,” purred the snake. “But shouldn’t you be terribly afraid?”
“Why? Are you terribly frightening?”
The snake waggled its tongue and sampled the air again, “Well, I could be. . . Snakes can be incredibly dangerous. Some of us crush large animals in our muscular convolutions and slowly swallow whole crocodiles, or maybe canoes, or canoes with people in them.”
“But you’re only small.”
“I can get bigger.”
Mary thought this might be a lie, but she didn’t want to hurt the snake’s feelings.
The snake stretched up its little spine and raised its small head so that it could look straight at her. It swayed its neck back and forth as if it were listening to music and stared into her brown eyes with its dark red eyes and its strange narrow pupils which were blacker than the back of any raven and which seemed to go on forever if you concentrated on them and paid attention. “Some snakes can bite you once and fill you with enough poison to kill 20 men, 50 men, maybe 100 men.”
“I’m not a man,” said Mary. “I am a little girl.”
The snake blinked, “You are being difficult. A snake could poison you even faster than a man because the poison would have less far to travel.”
Mary nodded, “I know. Although I think even a very huge and ferocious snake might not kill 100 men.”
“Definitely at least 20.” The snake sounded slightly cross.
“But I have learned all the poisonous snakes and their stripes and their habits in case I travel to far away lands and have adventures when I am older. Your kind of snake is not in any of my books about snakes. And I have read a lot.”
This was true—Mary had read a great many books about snakes. She had borrowed them from the library and taken notes.
“Some snakes have feathers and drink the blood of warriors and some live in the Underworld in Egypt. And others darken the sun when they fly and crack their tails like thunder.” boasted the snake.
“That sounds like stories about snakes, not real snakes at all. And the last one seems more like a dragon than a snake. Dragons are in the books of things that don’t exist,” said Mary sternly.
“I’m not a man,” said Mary. “I am a little girl.” The snake blinked, “You are being difficult. A snake could poison you even faster than a man because the poison would have less far to travel.”
The snake sighed and lowered himself to lounge in her hand, suddenly seeming as soft as a piece of silky rope, “Oh, well. . . Perhaps I seem less impressive than usual because I am hungry. Would you happen to have a mouse that I could eat?” The snake’s head lolled off her palm as if he was almost faint with hunger, but his eyes always watched her carefully and glowed.
“If I did have a mouse, it would be my pet mouse and I wouldn’t ever give it to anyone so they could eat it.”
“But I suppose that you eat fried fishes and grilled cutlets of lambs and stews of cow pieces and goose’s legs. . . ” He lolled again, wheezing as if he was famished.
“Well, but I had never met the lambs and cows and geese.” Explained Mary. “It would be rude to eat somebody I had met. And mostly we eat stews with vegetables and beans and things which don’t cost as much as meat. And we’re very far away from the sea here, so we don’t eat very many fishes. Do you live in a jungle?”
“I would love to know what a jungle is really like.”
“Your mind is wandering. I am very hungry.”
“Tomorrow—which is Monday—we have sewing lessons at school. Mrs Kohlhoffer who teaches sewing always says my mind wanders. She doesn’t understand that I already know enough about sewing for the rest of my life. I am not going to embroider little covers for the backs of chairs ever again. I shall not embellish slippers again, or sew another bag to keep my sewing things in. I am not even going to be a surgeon—which would mean I had to sew my patients back together once I had sliced them open. No surgeon would be very popular if she embroidered flowers on her patient’s operation scars. I am going to explore the world and maybe a lion will bite off my leg, or an arm, or something, or I will need to sew up a wound caused by a machete—but I already know the right stitches for wounds, or for making tidy stumps after amputations.”
The snake was sitting up again—if we can describe a snake as sitting—because he was interested in Mary and had forgotten that he was pretending to be hungry. “Please, little girl,” he said in his wonderful voice. “Please be very careful when you explore.”
This seemed a kind thing to say and so Mary gave her name to the snake, “I’m Mary.”
“Thank you, Mary. Mary. . . ” Said the snake in a voice that sounded as if he was thinking of something sweet and sad. “Well, Mary, I have been in the jungle at times and I know that when you are there you must always keep your machete very sharp so that it cuts easily and smoothly and safely. And put it back tidily in its sheath when you aren’t using it and never annoy a lion so much that it wants to bite you. In fact, avoid lions and all large cats. And also bears.”
“I thought you were weak with hunger.”
“I am worried about you. And also full of remarkable wisdom—you should write down the things I tell you so that you won’t forget.” The snake blinked. “But, yes, I am very hungry, too. Do you have, at least, some cheese? I might be able to survive on cheese. A little Gruyere, perhaps. . . ”
Mary leaned in very close and kissed the snake on its nose. (Although, of course, it didn’t quite have a nose.)
“You are very forward.” The snake mumbled. But it also—like poured gold—slipped itself around and around her arm in a pleased way that sparkled his scales delightfully. Then he came to rest in her hand again. “You maybe could call me Camatayon, or Bas, or Lanmo, or. . . ”
Because the snake seemed to have a great many names and because Mary liked the sound of that one she told him, “Lanmo. I will call you Lanmo.”
“Yes, that will be good.” The snake nodded.
“Thank you for your name.” Mary realised she was a little bit hungry herself. “Shall we go indoors and I can toast some cheese on bread. I know how to toast cheese.”
The snake angled his head as if he were thinking, “I think I would have to have cold cheese with no bread—because of my teeth. Toasted cheese would be too sticky.” He opened his dark mouth carefully and slowly so that Mary really could see his teeth, which were as white as bones and pointed. To the left and to the right of his front teeth he had a longer fang that was most especially pointed.
“I eeth ill oh ur oooh.” said Lanmo the snake.
“I beg your pardon?” Mary had been taught to be polite.
Lanmo closed his mouth and his needly teeth fitted together very perfectly for an instant, before he tried again to speak, “My teeth will not hurt you.”
“And what kind of snake are you?”
“The kind that is never in books.” And he nuzzled his head against the back of her hand and flickered his tongue.
From The Little Snake. Used with permission of Canongate Books. Copyright © 2018 by A.L. Kennedy.