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Dialogue With Snakes
short fiction

jen frankel, dialogue with snakes, illustrations


by
Jen Frankel

"Dialogue With Snakes" was one of my first published pieces of short fiction, but I still love its moody darkness, and the image of a woman who must, to move ahead, leave everything behind.

Some of the impressions I tried to build in the opening text were drawn from my own childhood experience of visiting Gettysburg, the first time I really felt transported into a palpable but utterly alien past.




from an article in The Traveller's Companion, "Endless Mystery Haunts Canadian Attraction," reprinted with the Author's Permission:

"Picture this: it's like an amusement park – no, maybe more like an old battle site. People arrive by the busload and fill tiny hotels fronted by huge neon signs that line the one street that serves as a town here. You come, not really knowing why. A bath, a quick change from travel clothes into walking clothes and you're off for a bite with the rest of your companions, eager but apprehensive.

"You don't know what to expect from the site, really. No one has ever captured on film that essence – the reason people flock here – or especially why every person who attempts to follow the path through what has become known as the ‘Endless Forest' either turns back, often only a dozen meters in, completely unable to continue, or exits the way they came, swearing they walked for hours or miles when neither could be possible according to outside observers.

"Is it the overwhelming sense of awe the site instills in the most well-adjusted mind? The anticipation, the knowledge that no living human has ever succeeded at what you are trying? No one who has been into the site has really wanted to talk about it afterwards, except to say that the site plays with the mind, with the emotions, in some way that is unbearable. "There is a palpable sense of mystery in the air – equal parts excitement and fear. The Endless Forest – the best kept secret everyone knows about, the mystery the experts won't touch – psychic phenomena? a complicated scientific tangle? what?

"There is an inevitability to your presence; you always knew you'd end up here some day, from the moment you heard it mentioned on the news or in a magazine. You arrive with the memory in your mind's eye of what they showed you in the photos, a long avenue of trees covered to the dusty ground in Spanish moss like whores in feather dresses and the fence posts in such an advanced state of decay lining both sides of the path with bent sentinel arms (and they would seem like arms after a little time on the path) and of course that most haunting of your memories, filling your eyes, filling your sight from side to extremity to infinity – the gravestones and crypts.

"The posts separate you from the graves, but you sense that this may not always be the case, that somewhere farther down the path, the distinction will become blurred and you will overstep – into what?

"What happens when the boundaries cease to exist and you are forced to pass into that area you've been kept out of? And who, just who is buried there?

"The site's dimensions are known, of course, set in a valley along a section of the Atrauk River. Physically, the distance from one end to the other is less that five miles, but no one knows of course the amount the path wanders, and its length has been estimated at anything from one to a hundred miles.

"And yet, everyone who has travelled the path swears that it runs almost ruler straight to infinity, through the dubious middle to the undiscovered end. Some say it is a gateway to another dimension, others that the weather of the Atrauk region plays havoc with the senses, others yet that it is the source of a vast concentration of supernatural energy, a psychic black hole.

"Whatever it is, you have come, and with you the daily quota of thrill-seekers, tourists, amateur photographers, and occultists, all knowing just as little as you. And you scan the faces of your comrades in adventure, wondering which will even dare the path, and which will return home merely having been here. And you wonder (as everyone wonders) will I be the first? Will I be the first ever to emerge from the Endless Forest, at the far end of the path? And – what will I find on that strange and marvellous road?"

dialogue with snakes, jen frankel, illustration

A bit over dramatic, thought Kit, and closed the book as a long end of red hair strayed into her eyes in the breeze from the bus's air conditioner. She grimaced and once more fetched the annoying strand back into the thin bunch at the back of her neck.

Al had been playing with her ponytail an hour before and left her hair in this slight disorder. She hesitated to fix it properly. It was nice to have some sort of reminder he had actually been there, sitting with her, talking casually while his hand, hidden under her shawl, stroked her leg.

Outside the window, it was still raining, and dark, and she absently traced a stream of water down the double plate before returning to the collection of essays in her lap.

It was about, of course, the Forest, one of a huge number of works written on it since its discovery by the world at large ten years before. And just as uninformative as the rest. The anticipation in the tour bus was almost palpable. She had thought sometimes in the last few days that she hardly knew the people she travelled with any more, like she had never known them, and they too spoke to her and to each other listlessly, like strangers.

It was dusk now, the rain masking the disappearing sun. Most of the company slept; her light was one of two still on in the entire bus.

Kit rubbed her sore shoulder, wishing she could ask Al to come and massage it for her, but there was no one she could talk to, especially him. She checked her wrist for the time, but no, she had cast aside her watch the first day of the holiday, and with it, any way of determining how much longer they were likely to be on the bus before Atrauk.

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