The Snake and the Raccoon
He woke to the sound of a conversation going on next to him. He was too drowsy to sit up, so he listened while his heavy eyelids closed back again. “Oh, hello, Lilly. What brings you out here this early?”
“It’s not early. It’s going on past noon.” Answered a young woman’s voice, bemusedly yet sadly. “I’d ask you if you were doing alright, but seeing that you’re out camping while you should be planning for your wedding, it’s apparent that you’ve run into some problems.”
“I’m not running away, Lilly. I just… need time to gather myself before I go back there.” Alder did not sound as burden free as he had yesterday.
“She’s going to want to see you. She’ll find it worrisome that you proposed to her and then just disappeared off the face of the earth.”
“Did she say anything?”
“Not yet, but I wouldn’t push my luck if I were you.” Alder chuckled. “I’m glad that you care about us, Lilly. If she asks, I’ll be back home in a week or so.”
“Who’s this?” Whilo felt something wet touch his nose. His eyes snapped open to find a raccoon pressing its snout against his face. He quickly sat up and looked around. Alder and Lilly were sitting on a log together taking notice of Alder’s new companion.
“Don’t mind Patch. He doesn’t have a concept of personal space, and he gets excited when he meets new people.” Said Lilly. She had long auburn hair that went down past her shoulders and green eyes that twinkled with amusement. Patch scurried away from Whilo and climbed onto the log next to her. “This is my new friend, Whilo. He just showed up at my boathouse yesterday, and I took him camping with me.” Alder explained. “Hi…I’m Whilo.” Whilo quickly pulled his blanket to his neck, realizing his shirt was lying next to him. Lilly smirked. “Is it like you to just hop in a stranger’s boat and let him take you anywhere he wants to?”
“Apparently so. To be frank, I don’t know if I wouldn’t do it again, the next time I meet a stranger.” Whilo answered as he slid further underneath his blanket. She got up and walked over to him. “I’m Lilly, nice to meet you.” Whilo reached out and pulled his shirt under the blanket with him. “I’m Whilo…”
“I know you are. It’s sweet that you’re trying to be decent, but you’re blanket has been down to your waist for the past ten minutes.”
“So it has.” Whilo threw the blanket off of himself while his shirt was still draped over his neck and struggled to pull the sleeves over his arms. “Alder’s getting married? He failed to mention that to me.”
“He probably had no intention to.” She motioned to Alder. “I did say that I came out here to take my mind off of things.” He said weakly. “But Alder,” Whilo finally managed to pull the shirt over him. “Aren’t you happy about this?”
“It’s not like that.”
“I get it.” Lilly put a caring hand on his shoulder. “I know you feel overwhelmed, but so does Bree. Think about it. The man she had known all these years one day kneels to her in front of her friends and family and asks her to marry him. You don’t think that changed everything for her too? You both are feeling the same excitement, sharing the same fear and uncertainty. You two should be there to reassure each other.”
“And we will be. I’m not running away.”
Whilo was humored by this. “Did you come all the way out here to bring Alder back home?” Lilly shook her head. “No, it’s his choice what he decides to do. I didn’t even know you two were out here. By the way, I’ve never seen you before. Are you from the Eastern Village?”
“Shane. I don’t know if you…”
“I’ve heard of it. It’s West isn’t it? I hear it’s a lot fancier than our home.”
“Wait, how do you know about it?” Alder asked with a raised eyebrow.
“I’ve…been around more than you.” Lilly shrugged. The raccoon climbed up on her shoulders and wrapped his paws around her forehead while chattering. “Alright, alright…” she stood up. “Patch says he wants to keep going. You two can come along if you want, if Alder still feels like running away from his future, that is.”
“You know, I think a big part of why you’re so domineering over other people’s relationships is that you’re trying to live through them. Perhaps if you find a man of your own, it won’t look so bad to you that I deal with this in my own way.”
“Perhaps.” Lilly lifted up her chin and crossed her arms. There was an awkward silence, and then Alder sighed. “I’m sorry Lilly. That wasn’t really fair.”
“No, it wasn’t.”
“Hey Whilo, you want to come?”
Lilly glanced over at Whilo and smiled at him. He stretched and cracked his neck a couple of times. “Where are we going?”
“Patch and I were out here a couple of days ago, and we found this huge cave a little over a mile away, but it was growing dark out, so we headed home. We decided to come back out here again and see what’s inside.” Alder began rolling up his equipment and loading it into the boat. “We have to get our stuff ready first. I promised Whilo I’d get him back home today, and I want to make sure he has time to spare.”
“What do you do that’s so important?” Lilly asked him. For the first time, Whilo took time to think about it. He was not a busy man. His parents had been wealthy, and they left him with enough money to live comfortably for the rest of his life. He spent time furnishing his house and tending to his garden, but he had no obligations. To be honest, he was not sure if he really had anything to live for. “I’m sort of an architect.” It wasn’t a lie. He’d built a number of extensions to his house, and his neighbors were often impressed with his work. “I wish I did things like that.” Said Lilly. “Where we’re from, there isn’t much going on, so if you’re looking for something to do, you have to get creative. That’s why I come out here into the woods, because things actually happen.”
“So I take it there really is a Goblin King and a hermit that’s over a hundred years old?”
“Shane must be completely cut off from the east if you don’t know anything about the Goblin King or the thousand-year-old sage.” Lilly raised an eyebrow. Whilo shrugged. “Where I’m from, they tell us not to come down here. No one really knows or seems to care what goes on in the east; they just say it’s a lot of trouble that’s not worth getting into.”
“It’s funny. That’s exactly what they tell us about the West.” Said Alder as he finished loading the boat. He had with him some rations for the hike for which Patch reached out his paws from on top of Lilly’s shoulders. “Which again begs to question, why do you know about Shane, and I don’t?”
“Someone that you don’t know told me about it. Anyway, if Whilo has to be home soon, then we should get moving.” Alder gave up on his inquiry, and the newly found trio made their way for the cave.
“So tell me about Shane, Whilo. Is it all it’s cracked out to be?” Lilly walked alongside him as they went on. “How is it cracked out to be? I wasn’t aware that we had a reputation.” He remarked. She grinned and tilted her head to the side as though expecting him not to take her answer seriously. “They say it’s as close to happiness as a man from the east can hope for.” “Is your home that bad?” Whilo had no idea people thought that way about his town.
“We have a whole slew of problems.” Lilly answered. “Our lives are about survival and making it to the next season. Things aren’t as bad as they were decades ago. But men go out hunting, and rarely come back. With infrequent game, we typically resort to home-grown vegetables, but lately they haven’t been turning out very well.” “But if that’s the case, how is it that you and Alder fare so well out here?”
“The few that survive out here are the ones that know their way around. Alder and I have been breaking the rules since we were very little. We would go out and explore the woods and come back home to our parents who had been crying over our disappearances and rounding up search parties for us. We did this frequently and against their commands, but seeing that we managed to find our way back without anyone’s help each time around, they eventually gave up. Alder’s parents even built that boathouse where you met him, so that he had a safe place to retreat to when he came out here. It eventually became the place where our family would get together and enjoy each other’s company on our holidays, but that hasn’t been the case for a while now.”
“Then I guess Shane is all it’s cracked out to be.” Whilo nodded. “I lost my parents a while back, but we never fought to survive in Shane. Everything we need, we have, and then some more.”
“You lost your parents?” Lilly looked up at him with sympathy in her eyes. Whilo nodded somberly. He did not know why he bothered to bring it up a second time, but he seemed to be needing to mention it at every opportunity. Almost as if it were tired of being unspoken for the past ten years. “Since they got sick and passed away, I took up work and continued in it excessively, and I was always looking for something new to do. One day I decided that none of it was enough, so I went down the road that took me here, and so far I like what I’ve found. I feel like this is leading me somewhere, and I’ll be complete when I get there.” Lilly brushed her hair back and looked thoughtfully at him. “It’s funny if you were to hear it from someone else, and you did not experience it yourself. But this wilderness, where people venture into and fail to return from alive, is a good place. It’s not safe by any means, however it brings you to a place of rest that not even the safety of home can bring.”
“It is funny.” Said Whilo, “I never expected to feel this way about a place that I’ve been told my whole life would be the end of me if I set foot in. I still can’t quite explain it.” Lilly’s smile was radiant. “You belong here, Whilo.”
They had been hiking for over a half hour before they arrived at the cave. It was off to their left and was obscured by a cluster of evergreens. On their right the hillside steepened into a ravine which dropped off a few stories. They peered into the mouth and inspected the inside before stepping in. The entrance was well lit, and there was plenty of walking space before it grew pitch black. They walked along as far as they could see, but something stopped them. Whilo’s foot pressed down on something soft, and it burst, soaking his ankle. “Patch, did you know the whole time that this was a snake’s den?” Lilly scolded the raccoon as he leapt down from her shoulder and began lapping up the yolk from under Whilo’s feet. “He smelled the eggs, of course,” said Alder as he stepped backward. “We need to get out of here,” Whilo piped up. “I don’t want to know the size of the thing that laid these.”
“Well…we’re too late for that.” Alder had his hands stretched out, signaling the others not to move. Two yellow lights appeared directly in front of them. They moved up and down in unison, starting as low as the cave floor and reaching as high as the ceiling. Wherever the beams were pointed, a large, scaly mass was revealed. The serpent’s coiled body filled the entire cave. A low hiss filled the air, and the snake’s fangs were caught in the light of its eyes. Its top half was lifted off the ground, poised to strike.
“Get down!” Lilly pulled the men down just as the serpent lounged for them. Its long body soared over head as it missed them. It quickly whipped back around to face them, but on her mark, they leaped forward underneath its head and scrambled out of the cave. It chased them out into the open, and the drop off lay directly ahead of them. “Jump and catch the roots, it’s our only chance!” Lilly yelled. There was no time to object. They leapt off of the edge of the ravine and grabbed onto the roots that hung over the side and just barely caught themselves from falling.
Meanwhile, the snake peered over the edge and glared down at them. Whilo could feel his heart pounding in his chest, and his palms started to sweat, causing his grip on the roots to loosen. The serpent maintained its gaze and did not leave the edge. He struggled to find footing beneath him, but as he moved his feet around, he discovered a large cleft that was directly under them. He mustered the will to let one of his hands go to motion to Alder and Lilly to climb down into it. They obliged, and once they were inside, they helped pull him in with them. Patch had been wrapped around Lilly’s torso the entire time.
“Careful, there isn’t a lot of wiggle room.” Alder grunted as they hugged their backs against the wall. Pebbles were crumbling and toppling down beneath their feet. He looked up to see if the snake was still there. “It’s looking back and forth… almost as if we confused it. Maybe it’ll think we fell and just give up.” “If it leaves, then we need to sidle further away from the cave before we climb back up,” said Lilly. “We don’t want it to just be sitting there waiting for us when we reach the top.” Whilo was trembling and struggling to catch his breath. “Friend,” said Alder reassuringly. “We’re getting out of this. I promised that I would get you home today, and I intend to hold up to it. We just have to keep our heads clear.”
“Alder, look up again.” Lilly told him. He glanced back up to see if there was any change. He sighed heavily and nodded. “He’s turning around. I think we have our chance.”
“No, we have to wait. We have to be sure. If it hears us climbing back up before it goes back inside, then we’re done.” Whilo was staring down into the gulley with his eyes glazed over. “This one’s…going in my scrapbook…right next to the one where the brown recluse bit my thumb…” Lilly squeezed his arm and held him back against the wall. “Whilo, I’m sorry. It’s my fault for bringing you out here. Just let me get you out of here and we’ll call it even, alright?”
“Or maybe it will go better with the time I fell off the roof and broke my ribs…yeah…because in that one I fell…hah, hah…”
“No, Whilo. It won’t go in any of those, because we’re going to get you home, and you’ll forget all about this,” Lilly was fighting to hold Whilo back now. He was clearly going into shock. “Alder, we have to wait for him to come to his senses. We’re going to be here for a while.” They didn’t know exactly how much time they spent hiding in the cleft, but the shadows had changed, and it was slightly chillier where they were. Whilo had stopped rambling, and there was a consistent absence of the giant snake. The only thing that would break the silence was a hawk circling above the forest beneath them.
“Alright,” started Alder. “I think it’s time we try our ascent.” Lilly looked over at Whilo and nodded in order to see if he had come through. He did not say anything, but he grabbed onto a root and helped her up. They made their way a good distance to the left before they climbed back up, out of the desire to steer clear of the serpent’s lair as much as possible.
When they pulled themselves up over the edge, they found nothing. Behind them, they could see the cluster of trees which hid the cave, but the beast had apparently retreated back inside. Having taken deep breaths and brushed the dust and rubble off from themselves they made their way back to their campsite.
“Alder, Lilly,” Whilo said as they drew near the river bank. His voice was heavy with remorse, and his head was lowered. “I’m sorry for holding us back like that. I didn’t know it was that easy for me to crack, and we all could have died.” The sound of the rushing water, and the sight of boat gently bobbing in the river helped him feel more grounded as they sat down on the log together. “Are you kidding me?” Alder slapped him on the back reassuringly. Lilly put her hand on his shoulder and squeezed it. “We certainly could have died, and that was all thanks to that lousy raccoon, but Whilo, if you hadn’t found that little spot for us we might still be hanging by those roots with the beast looming over our heads. You are the hero here!” Whilo looked at him, unsure of himself. “You mean that?” Lilly beamed and put her arm around him. “This memory won’t fit in your scrapbook of horrors, because you never faced anything like it. We can’t accept your apology for cracking up because there’s nothing to forgive.” At that, Whilo blushed. “It was as if I were floating outside of my body…and I were listening to myself say all of that without having any control over it and watching myself lean forward ready to fall off from the edge…” Alder shook his head. “We have you back now, and that’s all that matters.” The three of them sat there on the log for a while, enjoying each other’s company.
In spite of their grim misadventure, it seemed to Whilo that the woods had become friendly again. A monarch butterfly circled over the river, and the dragonfly from yesterday flew over to greet her. The two fluttered around happily for a few full minutes, but they eventually parted ways, each to their own business. It was now just the silence and the rushing of the water.
Finally Whilo stirred. “I should go home now. I don’t want to, but I should.”
“Oh…but we we’re having so much fun…” Lilly sighed and slowly replaced her arm at her side. Alder nodded sadly, “I have everything ready to go. When we get back to the boathouse, I’ll send you off with some dinner.”
“I should probably get going too.” Lilly got up and lifted Patch out from under the log where he had been cowering away from the others. “I know you’re sorry, Patch. It’s okay. You just need to be more aware of whose nest you’re pillaging next time.” Alder climbed into the boat and got ready to untie it. Whilo nodded to Lilly and began to turn away for the boat as well. “Goodbye, I guess.” She said. Whilo turned around and she was still standing there with her hands behind her back. He crossed his arms and walked back over to her. “Until next time, of course,” he added. Lilly brightened a little. “You mean you want to come back… after everything that’s happened?”
“Why wouldn’t I? That was the most excitement I’ve had in years, and I have you and Alder to thank for that. I’ll be glad to see you again.” Lilly laughed softly and nodded. “Just be sure to feel bored sometime soon, alright?”
“Sure thing,” he answered, and extended his hand. She took it readily and shook it, then added, “And remind Alder that he needs to go see Bree before too long. I don’t know how it is in Shane, but where we’re from what he’s doing is bad ethics.”
“I’ll see what I can do.” Whilo began to step away again, and this time he did not turn back again.