Published in Issue 8 of Visionary Tongue, Lammas (Aug) 1997.
Ivy was her name, and apparently it suited her; everyone said she was poisonous. Bitch, they sneered at her. Whore, they called out, long before she had any idea what a whore was.
She was, in truth, nothing other than the daughter of a shopkeeper in the village. There was nothing about Ivy to mark her as different; she was pretty enough, with hazel eyes and golden-brown hair, but she was also unremarkable. Despite this, she was the victim of uninhibited spite.
She knew better than to ask her father for help; economics drove him; money motivated him. Her mother was a silent wreck who had not spoken for many years. Ivy thought she could remember her mother speaking to her once, reaching out a hand, smiling gently, as early autumn sunshine spilled gently through the window, fractured by the leaves of the tree in the garden. She thought she could remember a brief touch. But it was a faded, mottled memory; there were holes in it, and she couldn’t even be sure it had occurred, or if wishful thinking had made the recollection for her.
‘You poisoned your mother’, Ivy’s father had told her once, when she was ten. This was apparently what the villagers thought as well. For almost four years now, the chants of ‘Poison Ivy, Poison Ivy’ had rung out in the school-yard, and the adults spat out their own insults elsewhere. Ivy had never understood what her father had meant, and he had never chosen to explain. Neither had anyone else. Perhaps her mother would have explained; but the silent, unresponsive woman in the stale bedroom high up in the house had no words inside her.
A week before her fourteenth birthday, Ivy’s parents disappeared. She was returning from a walk in the nearby woodland, the only place where she felt happy. Few people ventured there, which at least meant she could wander in peace. She opened the door to find the house silent and some things missing.
Ivy had never been loved, and in turn she had found herself unable to love, so although their vanishing mystified her and left her feeling a little colder and more empty than before, it failed to distress her. She decided they had simply had enough of her, and left for the city; there were distant relatives there. Ivy sat for a while, refusing to cry, then shrugged; she had often imagined herself as having a small, black little heart of iron; now it simply hardened, tightened and blackened a little further.
‘I don’t need you!’ she shouted at the empty living-room. She searched the house, and found even her mother’s room unoccupied. She knew deep down that they would never return. When she sat in the garden for a while, a local man wandered past and grinned at her. ‘Your father’s shop is being taken over’, was all he said. Ivy said nothing. As the sun plummeted, the air became colder; shivering, she went upstairs to bed, and for a week afterwards, wandered around in the woods, avoiding school, avoiding humanity.
Ivy was returning to her house- she supposed it was hers now- a week later, on the fourteenth anniversary of the day she had been pushed out into the world- when she was dragged into the Seventh Star Tavern, a beautiful thatched place, by Harad of the Village Militia and his friends. Harad raped her. If anyone had any misgivings about watching in excitement and urging Harad to thrust himself through virgin territory, they hid their conscience under a bushel, and allowed the gleeful heat of the moment to carry them. The young men laughed loud and long that night, after Ivy, fighting back tears and trembling violently, made her way out of the tavern and back to her silent house.
That night she lay on her bed, crying softly for hours. She’d known for years about the things that men did; she remembered, at the age of ten, watching through the keyhole, mesmerised and strangely terrified, without knowing why, as her father did much the same thing to her blank-eyed and unresponsive mother.
Life rolled placidly on in the village. Ivy avoided everyone as best she could; after only a few months, she became sure she was pregnant. Ivy was used to feeling dull realisation where others might have felt despair. Not wishing to let anyone – least of all Harad – know of her condition, she collected together her few belongings and left the village one hot summer evening.
She wandered into the woodland, knowing of nowhere else to go; the archways and tunnels formed by overhead branches and twisting trunks of ancient trees lay, as ever, empty of travellers. As she made her way down path after path, the leaves whispered to each other in the breeze; the routes she followed headed downwards, in a curving, spiralling fashion, to the very heart of the forest, most of which lay in a cool hollow.
Down in this secluded place, all the light seemed green, filtered from far above and brought softly to earth. The centre of the woodland was always cool, but never chill; respite from baking summer heat and harsh winter frost could both be found here, whatever the season.
Ivy pushed back a few overhanging branches and made her way into a clearing where the combination of grass and sunlight appeared like a green fire, and from there, down a narrow path she had walked before; it led down to a lake, whose waters, as she reached them and rested at the shore, lay calm and silvery in the late evening sunlight.
She could hear birdsong, and the scufflings of small creatures in the undergrowth; they were peaceful sounds, and as ever, she enjoyed listening to them. But underneath it all was the silence with which she had become familiar; the absolute and watchful silence of the forest.
Then she noticed, slithering towards her along the shore, a black, snakelike figure, long and lithe; longer than a snake could be.
A serpent, Ivy thought, paralysed by disbelief more than fear. It can’t be. It can’t be a serpent. They don’t exist.
For something that couldn’t be, it proved remarkably real; fear surged into her, about to lend movement, when the serpent slithered onto a nearby rock and then rose up as if about to bite; beady dark eyes stared unblinkingly at her.
And then it spoke. Ah, it said, without opening that crack of a mouth. A child of misfortune.
Ivy had heard stories of beings that spoke to travellers in the woodland, frightening tales of creatures uttering curses and chasing after unwary wanderers. One story spoke of a mouldering, yellow-eyed beast that never died, whose strength waxed and waned with the cycle of the seasons. But she had never been sure whether or not to believe any of these tales.
Eventually she spoke, and her own words – flippant, bitter words that they were, without a trace of confusion – surprised her as much as the serpent had. ‘Which of us do you mean? Me or the baby?’
She could have sworn it shrugged in response, shoulders or no shoulders. Either. Both.
Ivy stared across the calm waters, feeling tears rise and then roll down her cheeks. ‘Why does everyone hate me? Why do good things never happen to me?’ she sobbed.
I have no answers, the serpent confessed. Then it added, Do you want to give birth?
‘No!’ Panic rose. ‘I hate it! I hate this thing inside me!’
The serpent slithered a little way up her arm; the touch was warm and slimy- totally unlike how she had thought it would be; she knew snakes weren’t supposed to feel like that- but not entirely unpleasant. I can kill the child for you, it told her. It was whispering now, as if afraid of someone overhearing, though there were only birds and scurrying creatures anywhere near. It wouldn’t hurt. Did you ever want the child?
‘No… no, I didn’t’.
Were you raped?
Ivy had never heard the word before. ‘I was…. taken’, she said eventually.
The serpent rested its head on her shoulder and stared intently at her. There would have to be a repetition of that. It wouldn’t hurt though. I never hurt.
Ivy stared out across the silvery expanse of the lake and marvelled at her own calmness. Yes, she was weeping, for all the hurt that had ever been hers. Yes, she was engaged in a bizarre conversation with a talking serpent. But nothing shocked her.
‘Everyone always said I was I was evil’, she murmured. ‘If I had the baby killed…. it would just prove them right’.
So what? What difference would it make?
‘None’, she admitted. ‘None at all’.
Then you’ll allow me to help you?
‘I suppose so’. Soft evening sunlight fell in patches at the shore of the lake, and Ivy marvelled at the beauty of everything around her- serpent included- as she removed her clothes and stared at her reflection in the calm surface of the water. Everything glittered in the light; coins of mellow light danced on the back of her strange companion.
Then she lay down on the shore, and the serpent slithered around until it was between her legs. At the first touch of its head against her sex, Ivy gave an almost frightened start, and as it began, slowly, to push itself into her, a desperate voice cried out from inside her: What are you doing?
She paid it no heed, and it became spiteful. This is why you’re evil, it sneered. You let snakes do this to you.
Ivy didn’t care. ‘I just want to be myself again’, she whispered, without knowing exactly what she meant. By now she could hardly feel the serpent at all, knowing only that it had gone deeper still. The voice at the back of her mind continued to sob at her that it was all wrong, that she had no right to do this, but she refused to listen.
She hardly felt the serpent slip out of her a while later, its job done. There were no farewells. She was dimly aware of it slithering away into the foliage, but nothing more. Naked and smiling – she had no idea why she was smiling – she gazed rapturously up at the emerging stars.
Moonlight painted the lake when at last she rose and gazed across the waters, her feet just touching the edge. Ivy then began to realise what she had done, or had allowed to have done. In her confusion she began to weep; crying out, demanding the past to erase itself. Nothing but silence answered.
Then, she was no longer alone. The serpent had returned.
‘You killed my baby!’ she screamed at it. The serpent’s reply was quiet and reasonable. It’s what you wanted.
‘I wasn’t thinking properly!’ she sobbed. ‘Please….’
The serpent stared at her with expressionless eyes. You know, I thought you might reconsider.
‘So why did you…. why did you kill it anyway? Why….’
I didn’t. I could have. I coiled myself around the babe as it lay prone in your darkness. But I knew you’d regret it.
Ivy sobbed tears of relief. ‘Oh, thank you! Thank you….’ Sudden fear crossed her face. ‘You could be lying….’
I could be. But I’m not. You’ll see.
With those words it left her again. Ivy got up, dressed, collected some fruit and nuts to eat, and sat by the lake, occasionally stroking her stomach. The serpent’s words proved to be correct. Months passed by, during which Ivy became more and more certain that her baby was alive. When it finally moved inside her, she cried with joy.
On occasion the serpent would return to spend time with her: Ivy was glad of the company. As she grew heavier and heavier with her child, she became happier. The forest protects its own, the serpent told her one day. Both you and your child will be safe here.
Marrowby, a thin, hard stick of a man who preached like a man possessed, gazed up from his half-prepared sermon as Harad knocked and then entered the church anteroom. ‘I was hoping you’d call’, he murmured.
‘Oh, yes?’ Harad sauntered over. ‘What’s this, another one of your speeches?’
Marrowby waved the question aside. ‘I’ve had a word with Letitia’s parents…’
‘Letitia?’ For a moment Harad seemed confused.
‘You should remember’, the preacher said coldly. ‘You were the one who pointed her out. The one with long blonde hair. Big blue eyes’.
Harad nodded. ‘I remember. What’s the news?’
‘They said she could receive extra religious tuition – here at the church. I said that you might help out as well’.
Harad’s lips curled upwards, almost in a smile. ‘After school?’
The preacher never smiled. ‘After school. All evening’.
The two men gazed knowingly at each other, and Marrowby was once again unsettled – though he never showed it – by Harad’s stare. Alien, mesmeric.
Reptilian, he thought, shuddering, as Harad turned and left the room.