You have opened the box, so we’ll have to assume that your mother is dead. We would like to offer our sincerest condolences. It’s not going to help, drinking vast quantities of rum out of Holiday Inn Dixie cups, but we agree it dulls the edges. We do think you should stop drinking, however, and focus on these instructions.
All mother-daughter relationships are complex, but yours was particularly so. You are distressed and mystified by her sudden passing. You are angry too, and feel you’ve been robbed of resolution. That’s life, I’m afraid.
We are sorry for the pain, but it grows less acute in time, as the saying goes. For now, pain is necessary. You’ll need it to survive.
Note: If your mother is not dead, you will stop reading, fold up these instructions and carefully place them back inside the box.
Strange words will come, along with some unusual gestures. Go with it. Sometimes the box calls to you before the proper time; it’s only natural that you should have found it at some point. You will stow it in some secure place and forget its existence until your mother is truly dead.
These instructions are specific to you, at this time, on this day. We know you, Susanna. Don’t bother looking for tiny hidden cameras behind the hotel mirrors and cooling vents. You haven’t gone crazy. No one is spying on you.
The ink that appears on these pages can only be read by you. In a way, you have written this letter; that’s how specific it is. If you were a different person, the instructions would be different.
You are your mother’s only child, a female. You are always female. The instructions dictated in your mother’s last will and testament state to open the box inside the innermost of three chalk circles, drawn in a quiet, private place. The green, industrial hotel carpet will work fine, though reinforcing the circles, leaving no possibility of breaks or feathering would be a good idea. Bring the chalk and box inside the innermost circle with you.
We understand that you are doubtful about this process; you are both willful and stubborn. We will explain what is happening right now. You are experiencing a dreadful nausea, which can be timed in waves occurring exactly thirty-three seconds apart. Feel free to time them on the watch the will advised that you bring.
The nausea has come as a result of a schizoid event. It will only worsen until you accept what is happening, accept that there are inexplicables beyond your understanding. A persistent disbelief in all that is spiritual or magical will not be a boon for you now.
Children are taught to believe if there are two apples and the apples are taken away, nothing is left. This is wrong-thinking. After the apples are gone space remains, and possibility. There is always something. Empty space cries out to be filled. Matter, ideals and ideas are drawn to it. The whole of human wants and needs are drawn to it.
You are full of empty space.
The words you utter are from the ancient dead, a potent language that can’t be found in any book or upon any scroll. Don’t try to stop them from coming. These words can only be spoken from the blood, by the blood;. They stretch flexibly into the air like elastic thread, each one attached to the next, slowing time until it thickens and congeals around you. Heated sinews wisp and weave about the room, wrap around your arms and thighs and plunge into your hair.
Call out for us now. We need you to wake us.
One of our number stood on the heaving deck of a mighty galleon and heard the siren’s enticing song. She watched the ship’s crew plunge into the deep and drown themselves for love and desire. She went to the island and loved the sirens, and silenced their longing call. She is here with us, and so we all watch the men drown. We all mourn.
One of us wove ornaments for her hair with pinfeathers she stole from a Pegasus colt. That is what glows in the box. Remember when your mother wore it, how beautiful she was? It is yours now. Soon you will understand the meaning behind the trinkets of our eclectic collection. This is our bounty and we give it freely. We have loved the most powerful beings, men and women of the worlds, along with the lowest of vermin. We pass this on to you.
Do not scratch at your scalp, Susanna; it only exacerbates the pain, and it is dangerous business. Pay attention now.
From the outer circle inward, pour the powder from the vial in an undulating line, ending at your feet. Take care to keep inside the circle while completing this step. Trust us on this. Repeat, until the circle contains thirty-two spokes.
Now you may take the leather pouch from the box, the one you’re drawn to but are afraid to pick up. Pinch one of the
pale pins from the pouch; these are the Bone pins. Each Bone pin bears bears a carved sigil. Some are yellowed with age, some white and new. Do not wonder over them too long though they are unusual and strange, for they easily squirm from your grip.
The naga shriek in your mind now. Do you know what they are? They have slept in petite, hard eggs, located in your scalp, just beneath your follicles. These eggs have been dormant since your birth. Soon they must hatch. Initially their voices are a torment, and for that we are sorry.
For so long you have been an island, locked into yourself, and the naga invade that quiet. Believe us when we tell you it would be a far more terrible fate to remain an island.
Loneliness is not a natural state for you. You long to be joined with, to combine with others. Daniel was only the latest of countless futile attempts. As he lay beside you, sleeping, you traced the young age lines on his face, hoping your fingers would intuit what your heart and mind could not. You couldn’t know what he felt, deep in dreams, any more than you could when he sat across from you at the breakfast table.
He didn’t stir as you packed your things, though you willed him to wake and stop you from leaving. You didn’t have much to take. From your transient years, moving from tenement, to house, to pup tent, to refugee camp, never too long in one place—you know how to disappear without leaving footprints. Your mother taught you this.
You abandoned the photographs and keepsakes of the relationship, along with Daniel’s idea of what you were (an ideal proven errant the moment you fled). Humans deal with this kind of estrangement each day; they ache and hurt, and eventually find some way to explain the stories of their lives to themselves. It’s almost enough.
It’s important to be strong now, stronger than you thought you could be. A century ago, one of us stepped outside the circles at this point, an open conduit, a beacon to this world, to the underworld and the overworld. We were not in place yet, so we could not help her. When she fell back inside the circles, she raved and tore at her face, scarring herself, inundated with demons and angels that ate her alive, from the inside. She was a mad thing. We were able to save her, barely, but she lived a haunted half-life to the end. She is with us now; hold to her voice as a warning to keep inside the circles.
You must bear this, as we once did. Heed the itching behind your eyes. These are our memories. We hold them tight, for to release them all at once would madden you. So we speak in a whisper instead of shouting.
You were born out of love; did you know that? You could not have been conceived without it. Bastard-children will always feel abandoned and unwanted. They forever question their own worth.
Your mother loved your father. She tried to prolong the affair long after it had run its course, for you she tried, but it tainted him to stay, and so she let him go. Beginnings came easily to your mother. Endings she had to learn.
So many lovers swished through the brocade curtain that led to her bedroom. You still try to push away the sounds of desire and anguish, the sounds of tormented lovemaking that came from behind the curtain. None of her ministrations were base, despite what you believed.
Sometimes she merely listened to her lovers speak as she stroked their quaking hands and their tear-stained faces. Sometimes she braided their hair, or let them dress and undress her, and feed her, as if she were an infant. Sometimes they could not be saved, and we, the naga, fed and gorged, absorbing them.
When you grew old enough to think you understood what she was, you despised her. Your words were a venom. You tried to disfigure her with those words: Prostitute, tramp, slut. Whore.
You still can remember the lost ones who stayed longer than the rest. Mirsad, in Bosnia—his shirts smelled of Sarajevsko cigarettes. You dreaded finding him sprawled on the couch, caught in the throttle of sleep, his brown eyes wide open. The anguish in his night eyes terrified you. When he left at last, his eyes were calm and untroubled. When he left, he smiled at you, and the smile reached his eyes. Your mother loved him.
You remember the white house of concrete in Argentina, and how Estephani used to croon to you at bedtime in an alto vibrato, singing Coya Chiquitito. How often she hunched into herself, sobbing into embroidered handkerchiefs. You reminded her of the daughter she lost in the automobile wreck. Your mother loved her.
She loved them all. In time each one departed, as your father did before your birth. No matter if you adored, loathed, or felt ambiguous towards them, they would leave.
Listen to the traffic flow outside the hotel window and smell the tang of rum still haunting your breath. Focus on your breathing; soothe yourself. Please, darling, don’t claw your head or tear your hair out; it won’t do a damn bit of good and might damage the hatchlings that even now slither from their shells, slick with birthing jelly. They can be a burden, but a sacred burden, and they are so fragile. Soon they must take root or they will die. Now is not the time for hesitance. They need sustenance soon, else they will burrow down and tunnel inside you to feed. They do not know where to emerge yet.
There is nowhere to go but forward.
You must calm the palsied tremors that quake through you; this is exacting work. While the naga remain as tiny as infant worms, take the bone pin, pinch it firmly. It will tell you where to place it. You mustn’t hesitate—drive the point down, push it in, deep into your scalp with a single sharp movement.
Calm yourself now, else you’ll miss feeling the tug on the other end of the pin. The naga has curled herself around it. Yes, hear her. Name her: Phoebe, yes, that is Phoebe. Now steel yourself; tug the pin out a little, just enough to bringing the infant serpent’s head out into the world.
She coils up to the flat end of the pin and flares open her stunning hood. That deep convulsion of power sweeping through you is only the beginning of the love and protection the naga bring. Gaze into the golden hand mirror in the box and admire her beauty. Her jeweled scales catch and manipulate the light with her movements. She is mesmerizing; how could anyone resist her?
Now that the head has emerged, you must push the bone pin back in, flush with your scalp. Phoebe is anchored. She is rooted.
The next one is always easier. This one you know before plunging the pin into your scalp: Augusta. As her head emerges, the world opens, cracking open like an egg. Augusta is ancient and wise, robust with power. Do not fret about the warm crimson that paints and tickles down your neck—this is a baptism. Blood will bathe your body before this is done. It runs down your jaw and neck and gathers along the clavicles, down the valley between your breasts. Shaylin. Mortheia. Daniella. Anne. It comes faster, as it must; hurry now.
Do not try to stop the words from coming; the naga understand them—you are naming us, each one, and we are welcomed. It’s all right to scream, darling, but don’t stop uttering the words.
It’s all right to cry. Take a few moments. Breathe.
Your mother wanted to tell you this would happen. She often began to speak, but her words shriveled and turned to dust before they left her mouth. She realized her words would be not for your benefit, but for hers, and so she remained silent. She let you think ugly thoughts and assume the worst.
If she seemed to hold you too tightly and watch your movements more than you were comfortable with, understand that she knew more than you. She bruised easily. She bled tears at the slightest provocation. Your mother was the soul of empathy. Her love could not be contained; it spilled out of her. She loved each individual she encountered, because she knew them, from their lowest grasping depths to their highest, most selfless potential. You envied her that connection.
Crowned with bone thorns and blood as you are now, she considered tearing us from her scalp and eviscerating us. She thought of slashing her throat when she held the last bone pin in her hand, just as you do now. We tell you this not to save ourselves, but to offer hope. Once she jettisoned her fear, she discovered the tide of our voices didn’t smother her own distinct voice. We didn’t drown her, but sang through her. We sang with her. She became full and strong.
Listen to us. You are no longer an island, Susanna. You are not alone, because we reside within you now. How long we have waited for you.
Even now we feed on your fear; it helps us gain the strength to hold fast to the bone pins and encourages our growth. Lift the mirror; don’t be afraid. The naga children are beautiful, scales gleaming of emerald, aquamarine, ruby, topaz. We sway and flare our hoods. Our eyes rivet, the same startling molten gold as your own. Your eyes will see differently now.
You have heard of snake-headed women before, heard of the great beauty who was unjustly punished for her own rape in Athena’s temple, cursed to be a monster; cursed to die without love. Do not fear. Your gaze will not transform people into granite.
You are not the Medusa. Your gaze is empathy, and without you, all worlds would be lost.
Yes, listen to your instincts. Grasp the last pin, the one you’ve avoided until now. Bring it to your right heel, where that spur of bone has troubled each step taken since birth. This pin cuts easily. Drag it over your heel in a half-circle and feel for the spur that has worked loose. You’ll find it, ivory white, near the surface. This is your Bone pin. It belongs in the drawstring bag. You will place it inside the box, to be retrieved by your own daughter some day. She will be the great love of your life.
The tears you couldn’t find at your mother’s funeral come easily now, let them come. Grief gushes, and longing for your mother swells and chokes down your throat until breathing nearly becomes impossible. Drink in the despair. We drink of it too.
Drive in the last pin, though it is excruciating. The base is wider than the others, for it will accommodate the newest of the naga, and she is always larger than the rest.
You know her name. You have loved her more than any other, and you have spat her name and cursed her. She calls to you even now, do you hear? Her name is Mother.
Soon, a man in a threadbare suit that displays his bony wrists will rap on an apartment door in Brooklyn. He’ll be cupping a laminated spiel card in his hand and practicing his English under his breath. When you open the door, he’ll forget about the magazine subscription he desperately needed to sell you. He’ll love you on sight, and when he leaves he will have forgotten his plan to kill himself.
Soon, on a 757 heading for Ghana, you’ll sit next to an impeccably attired woman with platinum highlights and a five-caret, yellow diamond engagement ring on her finger. When she looks into your eyes, you’ll know her pain and her folly. You’ll find love somewhere in her deadened, empty eyes, a fine, invisible strand you’ll follow inside.
They reek with the stench of fear and loss; their pain and suffering will roll over your tongue like nectar. Their disillusionment will punch holes through that dam of emotion you’ve kept pent up all your life. Your eyes will glow, molten gold, and wherever you invite this man, this woman, they will come.
Lead them behind the brocade curtain. Lead them to your bed. Satiate your hunger and the great desire that coalesces, love them, and we too will sink our fangs into your lover’s pain and drink.
It is time, daughter, granddaughter. You can feel it, can’t you? Someone knocks emphatically on your hotel room door, even now. The windows and mirror rattle, and our hearts race in time with yours.
Go now. Answer the door.