Death did not come as a surprise to me. What surprised me was my appearance in death.
Gone were my wings and beloved serpents. Instead, my soul had a maiden form with useless, limp, unthinking hair.
Hermes appeared to escort me to the Underworld. He was achingly beautiful with the confidence of one who knew that he would never be condemned for his beauty.
My mouth had no venom, but my words carried the threat. “Where are my snakes?”
“Your hideous form is gone in death.”
“Where are my snakes?”
He shrugged. “I do not know.”
I was used to cruelty, but not indifference. It caused a different type of pain, though all pain was familiar in some regards. I would not have put myself through this, but although my body lay unburied, my head was taken. Without my head I was unsure of what had happened to my serpents.
I could accept them being alive or dead, but I would not allow them to simply be gone as if they were nothing but a curse to be lifted.
“Are you frightened to leave because of what awaits you next?” Hermes asked. “I assure you; it will be better than staying here. Do not worry about those creatures and come with me.”
How could I not worry?
In truth, at first, I had despised my snakes. But it wasn’t their fault that they were suddenly attached to me. I learned about them. They learned about me. When gods hated me and men hunted me, they gently rubbed their necks against mine as their tongues tickled my cheeks.
I asked for a third time, “Where are my snakes?”
“You are a pitiful creature, aren’t you? Though I do praise your loyalty. For that, I will look into your snakes. Now will you come with me?”
“I will wait here until you return with the answer.”
Hermes left and I was alone for the first time in years. When I was alive, my snakes were with me every moment since I had been cursed. It was terrible to be without.
I had long suspected that my soul would not include my companions. Despite how they grew out of my scalp, I never once thought of them as myself since each serpent had a distinct personality and emotions. Galen would curl around my forearm, lazily basking in my warmth, while Eirene was always curious, often tugging at me to investigate any usual smells. But I thought that even if they weren’t attached to my soul in death, at least their shades would be nearby.
Hermes reappeared. “What would you do with this knowledge?”
“If they are alive or dead, I will accept my fate and go with you to the Underworld.”
“And if they are neither?”
“I will have to think of how to be cursed anew.”
Hermes eyes darkened. “Have you learned nothing from your punishment?”
I did not answer. He only wanted to hear what he thought was right. If I explained that cruelty taught no lesson, he may condemn me. He may condemn my serpents too.
Hermes asked, “What would you give to collect your snakes and go to the Underworld together?”
“What price would you have me pay?”
“For you to search without rest until you find them all.”
“If they exist and can be found, then I agree to your terms.”
Hermes led my soul away from my headless corpse and brought me to an enormous cavern filled with millions and millions of serpents, as if every snake in the world had been deposited here.
“Find all of them. Only then shall I return.”
He blinked with surprise when I smiled, unable to contain my joy at his words. Without waiting to hear more, I turned and began my search.
I knew the gods meant this as another curse. Probably for arrogance or simply for not saying what they wanted me to say. They had assumed that it would take me centuries to find my darlings. Instead, we were reunited in three weeks.
Hermes arrived when I picked up my last snake, tenderly placing her on my neck with her siblings who lay curled around my waist, arms, legs, and head.
“How did you finish so quickly?” Hermes asked. “Did you use some type of trick?”
“There was no trick. All I would do was wade into the midst of the snakes and ignore those who were threatened by me. After spending every moment together, my friends know I would never hurt them. As others bit or left, they would embrace me.”
“Very well. I will be true to my word and escort all of you to the Underworld.”
Eirene leaned forward, curious to find out what was next, falling into my arms since she had once more forgotten that she wasn’t anchored to me. I hugged her before placing her back on my head, as if she was a crown.
The powerful had always shaped my destiny, from my curse to my death. They thought they could break me if I could never be near humans, but I was never alone. My snakes and I continued on. Together.