The Serpent in the Basket
Short story by Marley Korzen
It was a wide, sea green river from which the basket came. The water spun the tall green basket, woven so delicately, into the arms of one of the many hands that were drawing water from within.
The hands were beautiful and were quite worn with work. The maiden drew the basket out of the water and sat it on the ground next to the rest of the basins of water. Her name was Jeeteshi. She was an elegantly lean feminine figure with square shoulders and a slight swell in her abdomen, the prideful place where she held her unborn child. Hair long and black, and dressed in her work dress of her red sari, she continued the procedure of heaving and filling the large water basins full of the river water.
She filled the last of the three basins and stacked them onto of her head, returning them all to the house. She was a quiet, modest wife, who took care of her two children and kept the house tactful during the day as her husband, Raquil was at work. She came into the small house and laid the water basins on the floor. The smallest of her two children, her son Bali, no more than three years old, stole to her feet, tugging on her sari. “Mama,” he asked for her to nurse him.
She hushed his cries and went quickly back outside for the rest of the basins. She picked up the last two and put them on top her head. She saw the basket and remembered how she plucked it out of the river. Thinking it may be a sturdy bean basket for the supper, she propped it on top of her head, along with the other two basins. She swiftly balanced them atop her head and guided herself back into the house where she set them down on the floor beside the rest. Little Bali liked to play beside the water basins and she let him. He got so dirty during the day, a little water never hurt him. She took to the cupboards and pulled coconuts from under the stove, turning to the small bed in the corner where little Kala slept, her hands were up by her face which always meant she was dreaming.
Water splashed and she turned to see Bali playing with the water and a ladle, scooping it out and tossing it around, believing he was watering the plants, like how his father did. She turned to him and said the prayer that she said to each of her children every day, the same one that her mother had said to her and her brother:
be a good man
like your father,
be solid and able
do what your father does
and be a strong man
be a strong man
and to little Kala, she sang softly to her;
be a good woman like your mother,
be obedient and kind
do what your mother
does and be a tame woman
be a tame woman
He wriggled with joy as he tossed the water around with his ladle, having no conception of what his mother was telling him. She went back to making dinner. Outside, she could hear the soft voices of the other women dipping their basins in the river and singing as they swayed with the water on their heads.
All was quiet as she stopped what she was doing and listened. Then she realized even Bali had stopped. She turned and saw that he was lifting the lid off the green basket. Internally, she felt what would happen before she began to see a grand, scaly cobra colored a bright violet with yellow eyes, arose out of the basket just inches from her son. Fear curled up inside her throat like a hot dragon, passing and dropping to her stomach. In one quick stride, she took to the basket and pulled her squealing son out of its reach, knocking the basket over in turn. The serpent moved and hissed like a ballad it professed, and slithered with the movement of a tired Bengal dancer as it swept out of its basket, closing towards her and her son.
“Jeeteshi, Goddess of victory…” the snake spoke in a celestial voice. It knew her name.
“Get out of my house! Begone!” she ordered.
The Serpent ignored her and went on, “You who bow to the hands of supremacy, I guide you to be free.”
“I am free, I need not your guidance.” She felt alarmed. After all, it was a snake that was speaking to her.
“If you are free…then why do you live with half your heart? Why do you coil at my presence?”
“Because you could endanger my home…you are not welcome!”
“But you brought me inside…” it said stealthily. This wasn’t exactly true, but she was too scared to make any further arguments.
“Enough of this!” she took her broom and ushered it inside the basket and tossed it out the door. All was quiet again, hearing nothing but the stream and the voices on the river. It was a hot night, the smell of cooking spices heated the air in a daze. The Serpent stirred in the basket, and slowly uncoiled, slithering out onto the grass.
It danced over to the river to a young maiden who was foraging mushrooms. It took a small sip from the river, its long ribboned tongue flicking the hot air as it tasted the lingering spices, then it slithered right into the mushroom basket.
After selecting a few idle mushrooms, the maiden placed them in the basket and carried it back into the village. She passed through the marketplace, glancing through the merchants to see if she needed anything. She looked through the fruit and some very lovely looking boards for cutting bread but did not think she needed any of them.
But then, on her way home she did see something that captivated her heart and drew her eye. Laying out on a worn tapestry where an old peddler was selling his wares was a bracelet woven into the shape of a long serpent with beautiful emerald beads. Her heart chimed when she pulled it on her wrist and saw how well it looked on her. The Serpent in the basket lifted its tongue, ready to lash out, but waited for the right moment. After taking a long, good look at it on her wrist, she let the greatness of its beauty overflow her with joy, for how she felt was an imperilment of contentment. She then placed it back on the table and continued on her way home.
As she walked towards her home she noticed an old woman peddler on the street with missing teeth and gnarled fingernails, her eyes slightly crossed. She was sitting on the ground in the marketplace, and it seemed she had been watching her gaze admiringly at the bracelet for a while before she spoke quite devilishly at the maiden.
“Yes, go ahead and buy a bracelet while some of us haven’t any bread or food for supper!” The old woman barked, her mean and despondent manner stirring the maiden out of her sorts making her want to flee on the spot from her unpleasantness. Instead, she took her basket and set it down beside her.
“Dear woman, please, take these mushrooms and have them for your supper.” The peddler woman looked taken aback at this rare sign of kindness. She took the basket but murmured unkind words under her breath as she watched the young maiden disappear with a faint regality to her home for supper.
The old peddler woman went about the rest of the late afternoon, waiting for the market to end so that she could count the change she had been given by the passing customers. Once the market was over and every merchant was packing up their things, she rolled open her small knapsack and counted out her rupees. She had very little so she decided to save it for the morning.
Her sallow figure carried her things and the basket into the jungle where she would make her campfire for the night. Such great weight for only but a few mushrooms, she thought. She opened the basket top to have the great surprise of the Serpent gliding out and encircling her. She threw the basket down, jumping away scared. She hit her bare toe on a rock and cursed profusely.
“Murderous! What a treacherous woman to fool me so!” she chided.
The Serpent wavered and slithered through the mushrooms, gliding out onto the warm ground towards her.
“Aishwarya, Goddess of prosperity, you who bow to the hands of supremacy…your light…your light within your soul, woman, your light within is suffering so you have dimmed it, dimmed the candle of kindness onto the bitterness of lack and loss. Losing love, losing safety, losing all possessions you still call dear.”
“If there be any light it has been dimmed by all I have endured, not I!”
The Serpent hissed and shook its head ruefully. “Yessssssss…but that is what makes this life so challenging for you…”
“Go away! And never come back!” She kicked the Serpent and its basket far away and it skidded over into the humble yard of the Monastery.
It was growing dark. The Serpent untwined its self from its coils and bathed in a warm puddle under the mango trees. It then slithered into the roses and ate a mouse as it waited.
A few moments later, a tall, ominous nun by the name of Sister Saachi, went to fetch the laundry she had hung out to dry. She had a long sloped nose and rimless eyes. Mindlessly, she tossed the garments into the basket with the Serpent inside and brought it into the Monastery’s kitchen before setting it on the counter. After a moment of folding the laundry, Sister Sayantika case. She was washing a pot so she could boil cauliflower for dinner.
“Sister, do you bring with you more fruit from the garden? I hear another storm is heading for us.”
“I bring not, Sister, but a few stray clothes I have left out for drying and have forgotten to fetch.” She took the garments from the basket one by one.
“Here, let me help you.” Sister Sayantika joined her and the both of them fell to the floor from fright when the Serpent rose swiftly out of the basket to greet them.
“Sssaachi… goddessssss… of truth. Ssssayantika… godddesssss of arissssing. You who now bow to the hands of sssssupremacy you sssseek light outside when you have forgotten you hold it within.”
Sister Saachi cowered at the sight of the Serpent, but Sayantika boldly stood before the snake and hushed her so as not to thwart the words it was saying.
“Holy Serpent, are you a messenger from God?”
The Serpent spat with its forked tongue, sensing the stillness in the air “Perhapsssssssssssss…” it chimed.
“What is it you wish for us to do?”
“Yesssssssssssssssinnnggg the true meaning of life…sssssssinnnnggg and hearts will fall open.”
“Foolishness!” the nun shook her head. “Sister, take this demon and let it out in the gardens! Get it away from the temple!”
And so Sister Saachi took the Serpent in the basket and tossed it back out into the gardens.
The Serpent, dazed and shaken up by the throw, collected itself and proceeded to slither along the walls of the monastery, until it made its way to the road where it napped, collecting the last drops of the suns warmth before it disappeared below the horizon. It rested its tired head and felt the hot air with its tongue in its soothing way it did. All too soon it was tossed into new hands again. This time they were a child’s. A small boy held the Serpent’s long, rough scales in his hands, in awe of its miraculous body.
“Baap re baap,” the boy said under his breath and the serpent smiled at him with its tongue. “Maya, come and look what I got!”
“What is it? What do you have?”
“Come and see.”
“Is it something I can write on?”
“Is it something I can wear?”
“Is it something I can show to the other little boys and girls to show what a great thing I have and they don’t?”
“Then what is it?”
“Its a serpent!”
Little Maya looked down at his hands holding the serpent with its tongue softly flicking on his skin. “Ewww!” She crinkled her nose. “What’s it doing?”
“Feeling the air.”
“Pretty thing! I want to hold it!”
“You cant, you’re too clumsy. You’ll scare it. And, besides, you’re a girl! Why do you want to?”
“I think its beautiful. It reminds me of mother.”
“It’s nothing like mother! Mother doesn’t have scales like these.” He pet its scales, his eyes curiously close to it. The Serpent lunged at his face and he quickly pulled back. He furrowed his brow determinedly.
“I’ll keep it here in my pocket that way it won’t get too close to me.”
“But I want to hold it!” Maya wailed.
“Children!” a stern voice came from their father nearby them, the two children were hushed and went with him as they walked through the village together.
They came to a very small hospital and were brought into a sallow room with yellow walls and little windows, making it very hard to breathe in such a small place for how hot it was that night.
“Jujubee, my son!” Under the window, laying on a bed was a beautiful face with eyes that could have been lighter had if there weren’t dark circles under them, hair a wild spurn of thick black curls, the same as Jujubees. Something about her hands made them seem thinner than they used to be, but the gentleness and gallantry of her loving manner never frayed, but only increased during still hours such as these.
“You two stay here, I’ll go get you some water,” their father said flatly. He left, leaving the two children to curl up against their mother.
“What did you two do today?” she asked, petting their hands.
“We played in the river,” said Maya
“We miss you,” said Jujubee with a bitter frown.
“Is there something the matter Jujubee?” she asked, petting his downfallen face with the back of her palm. The serpent uncoiled out of the boys pocket, slithered stealthily onto the bed, curled its sleek tail around her toes, and sunk its two fangs into her ankle. She let out a writhing cry. Jujubee and his sister leapt off the hospital bed, horrified.
“I have killed her! I have killed her!” the boy cried, seeing the serpent slither onto the ground. Too weak to fight, she surrendered to the venom that spread from her skin into her veins. She gasped once more, her eyes rolling back as she lost consciousness.
“She is gone! She has gone!” her daughter cried, but Jujubee could see that her chest was still pumping softly. Hearing the noise, their father ran back into the room to see what was the matter. He yelled to Jujubee for the doctor, but before the doctor could be summoned, strangeness overtook the room. The turning venom that seeped from the bite into the stream of her veins began singing.
The singing, a hallow wavering song, shook the hospital room, vibrating, growing so vociferous and piercing that it tore over the hospital walls and traveled through the windows out into the deep bloodstained sky. It hurled over the mountains, it traveled into the Monastery where Sister Sayantika kneeled and prayed on the grounds of the damp temple floor. Head rising, she listened to the strange and unlikely sound. She sat for a poised moment in her prayer and listened intently as the warm feeling of the sound caressed the walls and wavered over her, feeling unearthed by something that wasn’t a voice. It wasn’t really a sound or a song, yet it broke and ignited the depths in her heart that felt like they hadn’t been warm for a very long time.
Suddenly, a thought poured in, though it might be too fantastic to even call a thought, for it was more like a revelation that pronounced itself real. So real that she could almost see it before her eyes like a moth that was dancing around her head. She stood up and she knew she must run. She did not know exactly where she was going, but her feet knew she must go. Her blood was singing and she ran through the monastery into the village to the home of the man who she had passed every day of her long-spent life growing up in the Monastery. She knocked on the door, her heart beating out of her chest and all senses, all the good ones, brought up so strong that her nostrils took it as a smell as wild and forceful as saffron. The door opened, revealing the man’s humble face, eyes squinting in confusion, mouth turned in a beautiful, sweet smile.
Sister Sayantika took his face and caressed it with her hands.
She bathed it in the gentle smiles of kisses from her lips. Her blood sang and the song foretook the village, swaying across the jungle down the vast river where the old peddler Aishwarya slept on the damp ground with a dying fire at her side and the meal of mushrooms in her stomach. She awoke when she heard the song. It came to her just as unpleasantly as the serpent had. She opened her mouth to shout out curses to whatever became of this sanskaar, but her throat shut its gate when her back, which usually felt tired with aches and pains, felt straight and erect. With less than the normal energy of a cricket, she rose and with her baskets. Drifting lightly as if dancing, she went to the village and returned with such joy all the things she thieved, her blood singing as the song traveled through the village surrounding the river permeating every home.
The song reached back to Jeeteshi, the mother of the two small children and carrying another. The beautiful maiden slept beside her husband when she heard it. One eye opened slowly, then the other, and then her whole body awoke from her sleep so wide and alert as if she had been struck by lightning. Rising from her bed, without thinking, she silently bowed her humble face to the shores of her daughter’s forehead. She sang sweetly into her ear;
be a good woman like moon and earth,
be the contentment of your soul
do what your hearts says
and be a just woman
be a just woman,
And to her handsome son, Bali, and his tranquil face as he slept on the bed next to her. With sweetness and joy she sang into his small ear;
be a good man
like the sun,
be generous and kind
with unconditional love
do what your heart says and
be a true man
be a true man
Marley Korzen has been writing her entire life. Her work was featured in the literary journals: The Claremont Review and Brown University’s Journal: The Round. She is the author of her poetry book, Heartlines which is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. She lives in Santa Barbara, CA.