This is the last part of the loose trilogy which started with “Serpentine” in December and continued with “Left Behind” last month. As I explained in the latter preface, they are not connected by characters, events or setting, but by shared motifs. Some of those motifs are closer to the surface in this offering, while others are hidden much more deeply; one of those is the erotic undertone, which most of you probably wouldn’t even have noticed had I not said something. If the meaning of the title is unfamiliar, you may wish to consult the first paragraph of “Veneralia“; it may also help you to locate that erotic undertone I mentioned.
Guthrie, Oklahoma Territory
February 12th, 1895
For almost thirty-five years you have been wonderfully patient with me, dear sister; you have respected my wish not to talk about the events of that fateful trip of my youth in which my first husband met his maker. For all that time I have allowed both you and the authorities to believe that hostile Indians were to blame, and that the nervous shock was so great I was unable to discuss the details. Now, I don’t give a damn if the law continues to abide in ignorance about it, but a decent respect for my own kin and for the kindness you showed me after my return, going far beyond what I had any right to expect from you, demands that I take this opportunity to break my silence at last and tell you the truth about what happened, why it happened and why I have never said anything about it. I leave it to your discretion as to how much (if any) you wish to share with Richard and Janice; perhaps it would be better for you to invent something instead. You always were the imaginative one; I could never come up with tales like you could, which is why I never even tried to make up some fib to cover up the truth. I ask you to remember that when reading this; I tell it exactly as it happened, and you well know that I could never have dreamed anything like this up. As to my children…well, Richard is a good, simple man like his father was, and would certainly conclude that his mother was mad and had run off into the hinterlands in some kind of fit. But Janice is my daughter for sure, and may eventually need to know (as you will see).
I don’t recall the exact date when we left Shreveport, but it was sometime in the spring of 1860; I want to say April, but it’s so warm down in Louisiana it may have actually been earlier. We sailed up the Red River until we reached the western part of what was then called the Indian Territory, and is now known as Oklahoma; after we disembarked we were taken by a guide back into the hills. As you may recall, George was in search of evidence to support his theories about the spread of myth-motifs, and he had received reports that the Indians who had inhabited this area prior to the mass relocations of the thirties had worshipped a goddess similar to the Aztec Cihuacoatl (that means “Snake Woman”). For two years he had sent letters back and forth to academics, naturalists, explorers, military officers, government officials and anyone else he thought might have some information on the area, and by the autumn of ’59 he had enough to convince his dean to grant him a sabbatical for field research. The amount of money Miskatonic granted him, however, was not enough to both pay for the trip and hire an assistant; he therefore hit upon the practical solution of marrying a Mount Holyoke graduate who had planned to become a missionary to the Indians anyway, and not bothering to tell her that his mission to the Southwest was to study the heathens rather than converting them. Don’t think too badly of him, dear sister; though it is true he married a young and naïve girl to gain an unpaid servant and secretary, it is equally true that I married a middle-aged professor to gain financial support and social status. Does that shock you? It shouldn’t; after all, in those days even pursuing an education was a rather unconventional choice for a woman.
I won’t bore you with all the details of the time we spent following fruitless leads, interviewing old Indians with the help of translators, investigating sites that were said to have been sacred to now-extinct tribes, and otherwise chasing wild geese. George grew increasingly desperate (and increasingly irritable) as summer turned to autumn without our having discovered even enough to base an article on. He began to follow ever-weaker clues to ever-more-distant destinations, and as the money ran low he eschewed the use of guides entirely; it is therefore unsurprising that late in October we found ourselves quite lost in a desolate region that showed no signs of recent habitation by either white men or red, taking shelter from a torrential downpour in a low cave which we had discovered only that very morning. After we had been there several hours and eaten the last of the provisions we had brought from the nearest trading post several days earlier, George began to fret terribly; had there been room enough I’m sure he would have paced, but in the circumstances he lacked even that meager outlet for his nervous energy. But as he became ever more agitated, I became correspondingly calmer; somehow I knew we would be all right, because we were being watched over by an angel. Finally I told George as much, and…well, I can’t repeat the things he shouted at me. Stung by his mistreatment I retreated more deeply into the cave, where I discovered a heretofore-unnoticed bend that, after a short tunnel that had to be traversed on hands and knees, opened up into a large, high-ceilinged cavern dimly illuminated through some fissure above by what little daylight there was. And in that space I saw the unmistakable signs of intelligent habitation.
Returning to the front I called my husband, and though he at first ignored my entreaties his curiosity eventually got the better of him. When he entered the room he visibly brightened a little, then became more excited about the artifacts I had found, which he said resembled none he had seen yet that year. He also remarked that everything seemed extremely worn, as though it had been used regularly for a very, very long time. And while he investigated further, handling object after object, I became aware of the distinct feeling of being watched. George did not seem to notice, and dismissed my impressions until we both heard the soft scraping sound of something heavy being dragged across the bare stone floor. We then whirled together, and were confronted with the occupant of this hidden abode.
She was a being who had seemingly come forth out of the realm of legend; from the waist up she was a beautiful, ageless woman with a huge mane of thick, somewhat stiff hair, but below the waist she was a gigantic serpent whose skin bore a complex pattern. I’m sure you think this apparition must have been utterly horrifying, but I assure you she was quite the opposite; in fact, she was absolutely the most magnificent creature I have ever seen, and I felt as safe in her presence as I would have in our mother’s arms. Do not be afraid, she seemed to say to me, though her mouth never moved; my kind are friends and benefactors to humanity, and have long watched over you. I know that you and your mate are lost, and I will draw you a map so that you may find your way back to human places tomorrow morning.
But as I listened, I slowly became aware of another sound, that of George’s raised voice. And I suddenly realized he was pointing a shotgun at our hostess; he probably would have already fired had I not been so close to her. “For God’s sake, Tillie, step back!” he shouted; “This monster has mesmerized you, like a snake fascinates a bird!”
“What nonsense, George!” I said matter-of-factly; “Don’t you know who this is? It’s the very goddess you have been looking for all these months! This is Cihuacoatl, the Snake Woman, and she and her kind have watched over humanity since we were driven out of Eden!”
“Listen to yourself!” he screamed in near-terror; “Is this any way for a seminary graduate to talk? It’s a devil who has bewitched your mind!”
“A devil?” I asked, confused. “She is as beautiful as an angel!”
“Why do you keep calling this monster ‘she’? Tillie, please come away before it strikes!”
But it was too late. George had turned his attention to me, and away from the Lady; I have never seen any living thing move so quickly. In an instant she was upon him; the gun was hurled against the far wall, and in only a few more seconds he was surrounded by her coils. He struggled for a while, then grew still, and as he expired in her embrace she wept – not soft crocodile tears, but great racking sobs of true anguish. By contrast, I merely stood mutely and watched him die, nor did I feel any but the smallest twinge when she released his lifeless form to collapse on the floor. I am truly sorry, my daughter.
“I don’t understand why he reacted so; it was as though he couldn’t see or hear you as I do.”
He couldn’t. Her exquisite shoulders slumped, and she sighed audibly. It has ever been so. Though we have guided and protected your race since before you had the power of speech, a certain fraction of your people are deaf to the means by which we communicate…and they invariably react to the sight of us with terror. We talked long into the night, as though the corpse of my husband was not lying in the next room; she explained that hers was an ancient race from a day when the Earth was warmer and wetter; they were extremely long-lived but neither numerous nor fertile, and had long ago adopted humanity as their heirs. They appeared in the myths of many countries as the nagas of India, the dragons of China, the feathered serpent of Mexico, and other benevolent creatures; but because of those who were blind to their beauty they also inspired legends of fearsome creatures like the lamia of European legend and the serpent of Genesis. Perhaps you may agree that she was a demon, and that she made me one by association; perhaps you feel as though she could have stopped George without killing him. But you have neither seen her nor heard her voice, and George was ready and able to murder an ancient, benevolent creature, perhaps the last of her kind, for no reason other than his own animal fear; had she released him, he would have organized a monster hunt within hours.
The next day I followed her directions and returned to the trading post alone; my serenity and lack of concern were interpreted as symptoms of shock, and the traders were so ready to believe that George had been killed by hostile Comanches that I didn’t even have to make up a lie. I was still quiet and contemplative when I returned to Massachusetts, and everyone (including you) made the same assumption as the traders had. Eventually I remarried and had children, so everyone assumed I had “recovered”. But I was never the same; for all these years and across half a continent I have never been out of contact with My Lady, and many a time I have sat in my house in the still of night, hearing her whisper to me across many hundreds of miles. She has given me advice, comfort and solace as needed, and because of her I have never felt alone. But now my husband is dead and my children are grown, and I am no longer needed here; and the Great Mother is old and in sore need of my company and assistance, though she will yet survive me by centuries. So I must go to her, to faithfully serve her as she has served our whole race. And know this, dear sister: though you and others may think me mad, I have never been saner or happier.
With All My Love,
I Remain Very Truly Yours,
(With grateful acknowledgement to the work of H.P. Lovecraft and A. Merritt).