by Michael White
Beth closed the black-painted cottage door and hurried up the lane. Perhaps a blow in the sunshine would help. She had often walked up on the moor with Mike. On a clear day you could see Newcastle, thirty miles to the South, and the peaks of the Lake District, fifty miles West. Today the wind had combed high clouds into plumes and tendrils against a blue sky. She climbed the ladder stile and went on up the path through sheep pastures. When the path steepened through heather and bilberry bushes, she unfastened her jacket.
A steep scramble between huge red-brown boulders led to the top. She sat on an overhanging rock to get her breath back, dangling her legs in space. To South and West it was dark: rain before nightfall. Beth zipped up her jacket and thrust her hands into the pockets. A hand closed on a wad of paper: Mike’s letter. The world contracted as she tugged it out, cold fingers hooked round the crumpled envelope. She made to throw it away, but it remained in her palm. She straightened it and pulled out the single sheet. Mike typed everything: he could never bring himself to write neatly. But even the typescript was illegible to Beth’s stinging eyes. She crammed it back in the pocket and patted it flat. It wasn’t as if she didn’t remember what it said; she’d read it enough times. Tangled hair blew across her face. The broken rocks thirty feet below were uninviting. She’d better go back to the empty cottage.
As she stumbled along the edge of a wood she met him, sunning himself in the shelter of the bracken. His skin gleamed with rich colours, iridescent brown, blue, and green reflected from tiny scales. Along his back lay the broad black zigzag stripe that told her what he was. The plump coiled body would fit prettily in the palm of her hand, she thought. She stopped and bent forward, with the courage of those who have nothing to lose.
He gave a surprisingly loud hiss for such a small creature. Their eyes met. He was beautiful, venomous but beautiful. It would almost be a privilege… His eyes were like the jet you could still buy in the seaside towns. What was going on behind those shiny jewels? Perhaps he was as frightened as she was. As she relaxed he threatened to strike, tightening a loop, the tense curl sliding quietly over its neighbours.
‘Sh, my dear, softly now,’ she murmured. ‘No one wants to hurt a handsome fellow like you. Just let me past and I’ll be on my way.’ The snake’s eyes shifted, measuring the distance. If she came any closer… Beth stepped past him, then stopped and looked back. ‘There, now. That didn’t hurt, did it?’ He lowered his head fractionally.
Beth walked on, now peering cautiously under bushes as she went. And so she found it. It looked like a crumpled wisp of dry grass and another time she’d probably have disregarded it. The snake’s cast-off skin. She crouched and carefully disentangled it from the bracken stalks. Lying in her hand it weighed no more than a scrap of silk. His gift. A reward for leaving him in peace. Beth took the envelope out of her pocket and carefully poked the dry skin between the leaves of the letter.
‘Thank you, little one,’ she called. ‘I won’t forget.’ She strode on. The song of a skylark as he fluttered upwards was suddenly very loud.
During her descent the sky clouded over and when she returned to the empty cottage it was dark and cold. As she stepped into the low-ceilinged living room, she felt a movement behind her. Mike! She spun round to welcome him. But it was only the denim shirt swinging gently to and fro behind the door. The stiff material retained his shape, as if he’d just slipped out of it, and might slip back, any minute. It smelt slightly of sweat; his sweat. She wondered why he’d not taken it with him. He’d taken everything else. Maybe he was leaving it as a foothold, a portal back into her life. Perhaps he might, after all, slip back. She let it swing once more.
The fire in the grate had been laid a fortnight ago but it had not been cold enough to light it until now. It caught slowly, reluctantly. As she watched it, she slid her hands into her pockets. The letter was bulky with the crumpled snakeskin. Beth took it out, put the letter back in its pocket and sat at the table.
The skin was a delicate pale net, with small diamond-shaped windows on the back and broad curved panels across the belly. At the head, the fragile membrane was wrinkled and turned back on itself, evidence of the snake’s struggle to shed it. She sat at the table and smoothed it out carefully, frowning where it was torn, taking her time. There was no sign of the snake’s rich colour, merely a faint zigzag pattern. If only people could renew themselves, she thought, replace worn-out, constricting lives, the way a snake casts his skin. She held her breath as her fingernails stroked and teased out the white folds under the chin and the darker skin over the head. It was complete. Even the windows of his eyes were intact.
The telephone started to ring. Beth arranged the snakeskin on a piece of fir-green pastel paper, twisting it left, then right, to fit the frame Michael’s picture had been in. She hung the frame on a pin pressed into the rough plaster. She sat down and looked up at the snakeskin. She smiled and nodded, remembering that glossy body, the alert eyes. Then she picked up the telephone.
‘Beth? Where have you been?’ her mother’s voice was cross in the wake of anxiety. ‘Why didn’t you answer the phone? Are you all right?’
‘I’m fine,’ murmured Beth as she’d done before.
‘Has… He been in touch?
‘No,’ she replied. ‘Why should he?’ The frame wasn’t quite straight. Or was it the wall?
‘And you’re sure you’re all right?’
‘Yes, Mother, of course. I’ve just been for a walk. On the moor.’
‘Yes, right. Of course. Good.’
‘Mother, I’m fine.’ The snake’s offering formed the number 2: a second chance; perhaps a new beginning. A snake has to shed his skin in order to grow. ‘I think I’ll stay on here a bit longer, maybe catch up with my painting.’ She thought of the skylark. ‘I saw some really interesting clouds today. On my walk.’
‘Good.’ Beth’s mother sounded calmer. ‘Just so long as you’re all right…’
‘I’m fine, Mother. Really I am.’
The fire was burning brightly now. Beth removed Mike’s shirt from the back of the door and hung her jacket there instead. The denim of the shirt was dry; the buttons cold and shiny, like snake’s eyes. No, not like a snake’s. With a grimace, she wrapped it round Mike’s letter and dropped it on the fire. It smouldered for a few seconds then caught light.