By Meara Sharma
Marbella woke with the redbirds and walked, as she did every morning, spear in one hand and bucket in the other, from her stilt house at the edge of the sawgrass prairie down to the mangroves, where the water was salty and slow. She punctured a snook and a small triple tail and tossed them into her bucket. Her daily kill had become effortless; this pleased her. The air curled, moist, around everything; the sun flashed in circles on the water. Marbella undressed and dove in, swimming fast and far; the day thrummed with something she could not name.
When she returned to shore, she realized she was not alone. Coiled around her bucket was a mass of green and black, glinting. The creature raised its head and looked at Marbella. She felt her insides tighten, though she could not look away; its eyes were like storm clouds, furled with colors she had never before seen. Inside them was a vast, unexplored realm of peaks and valleys, jagged rocks vaulting toward the sky.
Marbella tried to speak; instead, her body melted and fell backward into the water. For a moment, her senses vanished; she couldn’t see what was in front of her, couldn’t feel the edges of her body. She seemed to be nothing but liquid matter, amorphous and full of heat, newly connected to the universe, to all the life forms there were and ever had been.
When she eventually rose, solidified, the creature was gone, and she was alone again, in the grassy, waterlogged landscape that she knew so well.
That night, a foreign wind spun through the glades. In her creaking shelter, Marbella dreamed she was trapped on a rock in the middle of the sea; each time she tried to swim to shore, an enormous fin would rise from the water and fling her back out.
In the morning, when she stepped out of her house, spear in one hand and bucket in the other, she found a thick spiral in front of her door, gazing up at her with stormcloud eyes. Again, Marbella felt her edges begin to dissolve, though this time, she swiftly willed herself into form.
Who are you? asked Marbella.
I’m Ricky. Ricky the python.
Oh. I’m Marbella. Marbella the girl.
I brought you some fish, said Ricky.
Thank you, said Marbella. I fish for myself every day, though.
I know. And you’re very skilled at it. But I thought I would save you the trouble. Plus, I wanted to see you.
A little girl like you living all by yourself—you must be very lonely.
I’m not little.
Of course you’re not.
Little girls don’t take care of themselves, said Marbella. I’ve been taking care of myself for as long as I can remember.
Of course you have, said Ricky.
Ricky uncurled himself and skimmed Marbella’s feet. Marbella trembled, suddenly remembering how her dream from the night before had concluded. After several failed attempts to swim back to shore, she pleaded with the giant fin for a ride; he agreed, but took her instead to his jeweled cave at the bottom of the sea, where they remained forevermore.
Can I come inside? asked Ricky.
Marbella felt dizzy, as though she had stayed underwater too long. She had never spoken to a python before; she had heard they were not to be trusted. Still, she found herself unable to stop looking at Ricky—his murky eyes; his glittering body which moved like a river. She knew that if she sent him away she would long for him.
I don’t have visitors very often, said Marbella.
Well, I am a very good visitor, said Ricky. Also, it’s going to storm soon. Please, won’t you let me in?
Marbella opened her mouth, but no sound came out.
Ricky cocked his oblong head, gave Marbella a long blink, and slid into the house.
Inside, Ricky darted around, surveying the scene; the floor was littered with fish heads and sticks and old bones; in the corner, Marbella’s bed was fraying like a wrecked birds-nest.
This place is a mess! bellowed Ricky. How can you live like this? Here, I’ll clean it up for you, he said.
Ricky widened his mouth and began to sweep it across the floor, ingesting the detritus as he slid up and down the room. He cleaned the corners and surfaces of the shelter with his forked tongue, and then leapt outside, returning a few moments later with a large pile of waxy green leaves and fresh grass, which he used to rebuild Marbella’s sleeping area.
Outside, the sky was filling with clouds, but a clean shaft of light came through the doorway and set the room aglow. Marbella was stunned.
I didn’t know it could look so beautiful in here, she said.
It’s my pleasure, said Ricky. A girl like you deserves to relax. Why don’t you go try out your new bed?
Marbella lay back onto the bed and sighed, overtaken by its plushness. It held her, she thought, better than an embrace.
It’s magical, she said.
Ricky curled up at the bottom of the bed and tickled Marbella’s toes with his tongue. She couldn’t stop herself from giggling.
Your feet! Ricky cried. They’re covered in dirt; the bottoms are as hard as stone. You’re too young to look like an old lady, he said, taking Marbella’s feet into his mouth.
What are you doing? asked Marbella.
Shhh. Don’t worry. I’ll just fix you up a little bit.
Marbella began to protest, though the feeling of Ricky’s teeth scraping her soles and slicing off her callouses, Ricky’s tongue wriggling between her toes and polishing her nails, was too much to bear. She closed her eyes and sensed a new awareness of her body, which was taking shape in the presence of this interloper; in the darkness she felt as though she was rising above the glades, flying over the verdant topography, its plumes of blue and green like the feathers of a peacock.
Ricky twisted his body tightly around Marbella’s legs. The storm is just above us, she heard him whisper. I’ll stay with you until it’s over.
Marbella knew hurricane season well; she had endured it more times than she could count; but now, as the sky rumbled and cracked, a new fear coursed through her. She pressed her hands over her eyes; her cheeks were wet; her limbs were full of hot oil.
Somehow it had become night; a blanket of sleep was swaddling her.
Here comes the rain, said Ricky, and under the bursting clouds the house began to quake.
By day, Ricky roamed the glades like they were his; he took pride in knowing every watering hole and sand dune, every gator den and beaver dam, every fish cave and knot of trees; he had conquered, it seemed to him, every fact about this place. Still, though, on nights like this, when the sky was black and the wind spun the wet air in circles, Ricky remembered somewhere else, somewhere far away, a land he had not seen but that resided, subterranean, within him.
Ricky saw himself there, in a fractal cave overlooking a valley of emerald hills, where he was a new entrant to this world, alongside dozens of others like him, skinny and expectant, emerging from a quaking mound of eggs, setting off into a forest of clawed cats and trees whose roots touched the sky and giant orange flowers that smelled like rotting flesh. When Ricky visited this realm, which he knew he belonged to but also knew he would never experience, he felt a brief sense of wholeness that made his languid body shiver with longing.
Marbella, too, visited another world on nights like this, when the air was thick and the birds screeched with the storm, a world she could not name but that resided, subterranean, within her. This was a place so strange and cold that Marbella could barely believe it existed, though she knew, somehow, that it did; in this world, silver pillars rose from the ground, which was as rigid as stone; everywhere, gleaming boxes roamed and lurked like crocodiles. There was no green here, no rivers or swamps, though there were children of all kinds, including children so small they could not walk; instead, they nested, little soft eggs, in the arms of women with golden hair and lips painted crimson. Sometimes in this world the sky and the ground turned blazing white, at which point children the size of Marbella swam in the whiteness, threw fistfuls of it into the air, threw laughter in the air like the siren of a loon.
When they woke, it was quiet. Half of Marbella’s body was inside of Ricky. His jaw was stretched from her toes to her waist. She tried to writhe free, but her legs were numb. She flailed her arms and threw her head back.
What are you doing? she cried. I can’t move!
Ricky peered up at her with glassy, bulging eyes.
You were shivering in the night, he said, his voice a muffled drone. I just wanted to keep you warm.
Well, you can let go now, said Marbella. Look, the sun is shining again.
We’re fine, said Ricky. Isn’t this nice? He drew circles on Marbella’s stomach with his tongue until her body slackened; she laughed, although she wasn’t sure why; she felt as though rain was battering the inside of her head. Abruptly, she sat up.
I have work to do, Ricky. I have to dry the fish. I have to harvest the beans before they’re eaten by the rainbugs. I have to fix the roof—look, it’s leaking, she said, pointing to a puddle in the opposite corner.
Oh, Marbella, don’t you worry about any of that, said Ricky. It’ll get done. I’ll take care of it for you. But first—let’s have fun!
Ricky hoisted Marbella off the bed and held her up as he skated around the room. Stretch your arms out! Ricky yelled. He spun her like a pinwheel, faster, faster, faster, until they both collapsed onto the floor, breathless and tangled together.
After a while, Ricky perked up. Have you ever been to the cliffs? he asked. Marbella shook her head.
We must go! It’s a long way away, but it’s worth it. From the cliffs you can see in all directions; there is a strange gray world that sparkles at night like the stars, and a lake so big it never ends. If we’re lucky, we might even see the giant roaring birds that spit lines across the sky.
Something about Ricky’s description struck Marbella as familiar, though she couldn’t name what it was; she searched her mind for it hopelessly.
The cliffs sound exciting, she said. I don’t know, though; I’ve never left the glades before.
Well then, you’re in luck. I know this land like the back of my tongue. Anyway, it’s too dangerous a journey for a little girl like yourself to undertake on your own; I’m the perfect guide. Ricky the python, at your service! he belted.
What if we get lost? asked Marbella.
We’ll survive, said Ricky, winking. We’ll have each other, won’t we?
The python sprang from the floor and bounded out the door, the girl clamped firmly between his jaws. Soon, the two were off, across the grassy expanse, toward the tall outlines of gray and brown that on this clear day were just barely visible in the distance.
Ricky held Marbella aloft as they cut through the glades, leaving behind the lagoons and meadows, the dark tangled swamps and groves of hanging succulents. As they traveled, Ricky spoke of all kinds of things, things that were new to Marbella, that she did not fully understand.
He spoke about how the alligators in the glades used to be a thousand times bigger; they could walk on land and tear trees down with one gnash of their teeth.
He spoke about the sound that rose from the glades in the mornings, a high, steady squeal that only some creatures noticed, which, he said, was the sound of the molten core at the center of the land they lived on, a land that was round like a pufferfish and so big it would take ten winters to circumnavigate.
He spoke about how, if hummingbirds flapped their wings fast enough, they could set fire to places they would never see, no matter how high they flew.
He spoke about how most children did not know how to gather berries or catch fish, and did not live alone in shelters made of swamp cypress and thatched straw, but rather lived with other children in strong, warm castles, where adults took care of them.
Marbella thought some of the things Ricky spoke about were too strange to even imagine, let alone believe, although it didn’t quite matter; she liked hearing Ricky talk; his voice was like fresh rain; it cleansed and soothed her. She was always learning things herself, without the help of anyone else; she liked, for a change, to be told things, to be taught.
Eventually, the forest opened onto a sloping expanse of blue-black rocks that spiked from the ground. Ricky paused and surveyed the scene.
This section is tricky, he said.
Marbella felt a tug at her feet and registered a low, whirring sound, which she realized was her own body descending downward, deeper into Ricky’s body. Soon, her arms had been absorbed into him too; she was neck-deep. She tried to scream, but her lungs were constricted; she could barely make a sound.
You’re swallowing me! she whimpered.
Nonsense, said Ricky. I just don’t want you to get bruised and battered as we climb the rocks. Your skin is soft and fragile; mine is tough and scaly, made for treacherous situations.
Believe me, you’ll be safer this way, he purred.
I want to go home, said Marbella.
Ricky stared sadly at Marbella; their faces were very close together, because Ricky’s jaw was clasped around Marbella’s neck.
I’m happy to let you out here if that’s what you really want, he said. But you’ll have to find your own way back. We’ve come this far, so I’m going to go to the cliffs tonight, with or without you.
Marbella felt weak; she didn’t know where they were, and she couldn’t move as fast as Ricky. If she was released now, she might be wandering for days; she might never find her way back.
I do want to see the cliffs, she whispered.
That’s my girl, said Ricky. I knew you’d agree to stay. Onward!
Marbella stopped clenching her body, let it go slack, and Ricky carried on with new energy, his appendage increasingly less unwieldy. He maneuvered nimbly through the rocks, sometimes slinking over them, sometimes squeezing through the holes and crevices between them.
As they climbed, steeper and steeper, the sky began to darken; the sun had fallen over the other side of the mountain. Marbella felt the beat of her heart collapse into Ricky’s, felt her breath synchronize with his; her body seemed to be disintegrating; all that remained was cool wind on her face.
Once, when Ricky was small, he said to his father: I know I look like a python, but a python is not who I am; I am not, and do not want to be, a python. At that, Ricky’s father chuckled—when he chuckled his mouth stretched large enough to swallow an egret—and fell back into his bed of waxen leaves. Dejected, Ricky retreated to the meadow nearby, where a family of deer often grazed in the setting sun; he curled onto a rock and watched them, as he often did, particularly the smallest among them, who he found unbearably captivating—its buoyant, welcoming ears; its soft coat, shimmering and white-flecked. Ricky loved how the small deer bounced through the yellow grass as if about to take flight; as he watched the deer float and dance, he hated his own body, how it dragged and heaved like a mudslide. Only once the sky had turned completely dark did Ricky return to his lair, where he found his father waiting for him, head reared, eyes shining. Father said to son: You are a python and you always will be; from tonight you will never forget that, never dare think otherwise, and he slinked off, returning after some time with a bundle of skinny limbs and tawny fur flecked with white. I have spared you the trouble of killing this deer, said Ricky’s father, but now, you must swallow it whole. Ricky screamed, wailed, tried to escape, but his father was too strong and too big; he swaddled Ricky with his body and clenched, tighter and tighter, until Ricky protested no more. Finally, as the moon rose over the glades, Ricky widened his mouth and wrapped it around the small deer’s head, stretching over its ears, its supple neck, its ribs. Ricky felt a warmth spread up from his tail to his tongue; it consumed him; he thought to himself, and then whispered, and then yelled—I am a python! I am a python!—and his father whooped and twirled, and Ricky opened himself wider, let the deer’s limp body pass through his own, down, down, down, until his beloved creature was a treasure inside of him, beautiful and forever his.
Once, when Marbella was small, her father took her for a walk, past the meadows of yellow powder and the skinny trees whose leaves cast twirling shadows and the older trees with strong, warm arms; the pair walked and walked until the ground became a swamp and the trees shrank into gnarled vines, thick and light-blotting. They stopped at the deepest part of the swamp; it was time for a swim, said Marbella’s father, and he picked her up and threw her into the water, far. Marbella did not yet know how to swim; she had only just learned to walk, and so she wailed and thrashed while her father watched from the edge, the tips of his toes in the black slime. After some time, a warm heaviness began to spread up Marbella’s limbs and subdue her, like a swaddling blanket; soon, she was in her father’s arms, on the shore. He gazed at her from above, his eyes shining with the look of love. Though we are child and father, he said, there is nothing tangible about our bond; our bond is a rope made of fairy dust; a fantasy. From that day on, Marbella slept in her own creaking shelter; for a few years she would walk across the prairie to her father’s cabin to collect a bowl of beans or a bit of dried meat, but eventually she taught herself what plants to eat, what fish to spear, and although her father remained for some time, there was no semblance of the rope between them anymore; the fake rope had been cut with a real knife.
As they approached the top of the cliffs, the rocks leveled into blue-black slabs and the wind hissed. Ricky pressed across the summit and leaned over, extending Marbella’s head beyond the edge; beneath her, the mountain fell away like a sheet of water. The valley glowed with the last traces of sun; Marbella saw herself as the seed of a flower, riding a gale into the sky. She could not comprehend what was before her: this impossible expanse, its texture, its vastness.
We’re here, said Ricky. We’re on top of the world.
He shimmied back and forth, dancing with the air, and then lofted his body upward. In the distance, Marbella saw a cluster of gray pillars, sharp and tall like dead trees; as she gazed at them, they began to blink with light; further still, she saw a bowl of blue with no end.
This is the happiest we will ever be, said Ricky.
Marbella felt a wet thickness surround her mouth and pull her down as it crept upward, covering her nose, her ears; quieting everything; darkening everything.
The problem with happiness, said Ricky, is that when you find it, you just want more of it. You want it until it fills up all the empty spots; until all the things that used to matter stop mattering. Until there’s nothing left to give or take, because happiness is all there is.
Marbella felt her eyes swell; she had never given much thought to happiness before; she understood it to be something like waking up with the robin’s song, or finding a trove of chanterelles, though maybe she had been wrong; maybe happiness was something she had never experienced; not until now.
Let’s stay here, said Ricky. It’s too late to go back.
Marbella tried to call out—to someone, to herself—but she couldn’t remember how. There was nothing to remember. The world was going soft and blurry, and she was sinking again, though this time, she knew not to thrash or wail; she knew where she was going. She was going into a cave. The cave absorbed all light, and its depths were unknown, but it was warm. It sang to her. She was walking through it. She had to keep walking.
Look! said Ricky, and before her head went under, Marbella saw a green flash of light snake across the black sky.
Meara Sharma is a writer and artist. Her work has appeared in Guernica, Low Theory, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Vice, and elsewhere. Raised in Massachusetts, she currently lives in London.