I can tell you nothing about my mother’s death. Not because I didn’t see it, but because I did. I sometimes say, when people ask, that she died of the sickness. But that is a lie and I don’t want to lie to you. What I will tell you is that just before she died she told me to be brave and in my childish way I decided that she meant I shouldn’t cry. I didn’t. Not then, nor in all the years that have passed since her death. Not once have I cried. I no longer know how.
As for my father’s death, I can only tell you the little I know. Which is that a terrible disease was brought to our desert town by a trader from the north. One of our servants took sick and the others refused to care for her – all over our town the ill were treated this way, left to die. Maybe it was better to be cruel – you lived, sometimes. My mother tried to nurse the girl. But all she could do was ease the girl’s passing into darkness. When my father fell ill, my parents agreed that I should not see him. To protect me, I think, from the disease and from seeing him as he died. I did not get sick, but such were the servants’ tales that I saw every detail of his death in my dreams. And when I woke, over the stillness of the night I could hear his cries. I still do sometimes.
So let us just say that on my tenth birthday I was a happy child, but before I came to my eleventh I had lost everything. Apart from Eva of course. Eva, that was her name then, the name she began with. We’ve both changed our names several times since. We’ve shed identities like snakes do their skin, or perhaps, more accurately, like a lizard loses its tail. But for the beginning of my story at least, she was still Eva. And I was Anya and I was nothing.
“Say it, Anya. I am not letting you out until you do.”
It was hot and dark in the cupboard, where I was crouched among the mops and brooms. I had always been scared of the dark and of closed-in spaces. My aunt knew that. And that was why locking me in there was one of her favourite punishments.
“Say it, Anya.”
She must have spoken close to the gap at the top of the door, her voice was loud. I looked up. Yes there was a shadow where there had been a sliver of light.
“Aunt, please. Let me out, I will be good.”
“That is not what I want to hear.”
I heard her steps on the stone flags walking towards the kitchen corridor.
She did not listen.
Into my head came the words she had wanted and I could not bring myself to say: “I am Anya and I am nothing.”
Something ran across my feet, a beetle or cockroach perhaps. In the darkness I flinched. The stink of stale water mixed with my fear and I felt sick. I hugged myself for comfort.
“ One day it won’t be an insect. One day a collared viper will bite me and then I will die and then you will be sorry,” I thought. But I knew I was lying to myself. Not about the snake, that was a real danger, but about my aunt. I was nothing to her. I was worse than that. She would not be sorry.
I had first seen a collared viper when I was maybe five years old.
“See that?” said the old gardener.
At first I saw nothing, but then the little snake unwound its earth-brown coils to reveal an emerald green collar.
“Ooh, it’s pretty!”
“No, don’t you touch it! She’s pretty all right, pretty deadly, like all women. She slides into your house and hides. She likes dry, dark places and the holes in walls are just right for her. Good for getting rid of rats, I’ll say that for her. But not good if you catch her unawares. You leave her be, young Anya. She’s no pet.”
“And once you’re bitten, that’s it. No help for you. Just lie down and pray that death comes quickly, that’s all you can do.”
I looked again at the little snake hiding where the plaster had fallen away from the wall. The collar flashed in the sunlight, her side moved gently as she breathed.
“It’s a shame, such a beautiful thing,” continued the gardener taking his spade and slicing her in two. “One less, but there will be more. Even in your house, Anya, there will be more. So careful how you play hide and seek, perhaps you’ll have company in your hiding place.”
Now in the dark cupboard all I could think about was snakes. Even the trickle of sweat down my neck sent me into a panic. My heart thundered in my ears. I was breathing so hard that my head reeled.
I am a British author and poet. I spend half my time at home in the Cotswolds and half in South Bohemia in the Czech Republic. I studied history at Oxford University, which I find tremendously useful even though I don’t write history books as such. I was a successful published poet in my teens and twenties, (featuring in the Grandchildren of Albion anthology). But then my son arrived and I was juggling motherhood and career and somehow there wasn’t time for the writing. In 2010 I started writing again, only this time I was writing novels. Girl in the Glass was the first to be published, followed shortly by Mother of Wolves, a novel about another remarkable woman, and by Fool’s Paradise a long poem for voices. I am currently finishing off Love of Shadows the second book about Anya.
My facebook page is http://www.facebook.com/ZoeBrooksAuthor
And my twitter handle is @ZoeBrooks2