Black On Black II: Changes

Like pleasure and a little pain
The sacred and profane
Ice and fire counteract
Like black on black

Heart, “Black On Black II”

I’ve been a writer for a very long time. I can remember crafting stories all the way back to the age of four. I had few friends – I’ve always had few friends. That’s just me – and I would come up with stories about the action figures or Matchbox cars I played with because most of the time I was playing alone. Those stories changed into written tales in elementary school, then to full-fledged fiction pieces by junior high.

By the time I reached college and was taking creative writing courses, I’d already completed four or five novellas and my AP English final project was the first third of a comedy/mystery novel that had taken hold of my mind and wouldn’t let go.

After college, I began to take myself more seriously as a writer and began cranking out fantasy pieces quite often. It was during this period, when I first attended grad school, that I submitted stories for publication, got soundly rejected, and ended up publishing them myself online. Those heady days when Netscape Navigator and dial-up internet were the majority of the landscape. When I taught myself HTML and CSS to make my publications look…well, if not good then at least cool enough that I wasn’t embarrassed of them.

It was during this time that I created the character of Chthonia. I’ll let you in on a little secret of mine: I’m terrible with naming characters or coming up with titles for my works. At that time, my go-to was the Dictionary Of Mythology. I would need a name, decide on a starting letter, then open up the Dictionary and scan until something jumped out at me. Most of the time, they were proper names of mythological creatures or characters. Sometimes, however, they were words that appeared in the Dictionary that I twisted a little to make them sound like a name. Such a one was Chthonia.

I borrowed the word ‘chthonic’ from Greek literature; it means ‘of or relating to the underworld.’ With a twist, it became ‘Chthonia,’ and she entered my stories as your basic sword-swinging, carbon copy Fighter-class person right out of a first edition AD&D campaign. She wasn’t very complex or interesting. At least, that’s what the magazines I submitted her stories to told me. After about a dozen stories and attempts at publication, she shuffled off into the realm of ‘things that didn’t work out the way I’d hoped.’

Fast forward to 2018 and my lunch break habits.

Really, there’s a connection here, I swear. As a matter of fact, I’m probably repeating myself somewhat. Bear with me.

The library I work in is located in a municpal park that has a lovely little creek flowing through its southwestern edge and I’d taken to bringing my lunch down there when the weather was nice and relaxing on a stone in the middle of the creek, just downstream from a small waterfall. I’d been doing this for a while, going so far as to occasionally nap there or lay back using my lunch box as a pillow and just watch the sky or read something. But one day, as I sat there on my rock (my rock. Spike my sacred space at your peril. Heh), I reached behind me for my lunch box and heard something rustle. I looked behind to see a large, brown snake rising up from a nearby pile of leaves. Very nearby. Within easy reach of my lunchbox, but just out of reach for me.

Its beady little black eyes stared at me, tongue flicking, tasting the air. I just stared back, frozen.

I really don’t like snakes. I’ve long had nightmares about walking through waist-high grass in bare feet and having snake heads popping up all over to where I have to run and pray I don’t land on the fangs of one.

So now here’s this snake very close to me and obviously interested in the ham sandwich I had been removing from my lunch box.

In what I’ve always thought was a brave move on my part, I told the snake, “Make you a deal: you don’t try to eat my lunch and I won’t try to step on you.”

I could have sworn the animal understood me. It settled back down and watched me eat. By the end of my meal, it backed away, then down among the rocks.

The snake and I met on several other occasions at my rock. It was apparently her rock, too. She’d be sunning herself on nearby rocks or piles of leaves. Remembering the definition of ‘chthonic’ and having listened to some podcasts about Greek mythology and archaeology, I brought Chthonia back from the rubbish heap of my dead stories and gave the name to the snake.

I know the Chthonia was a female because I once saw her with a trio of little snakes, teaching them to fish for the minnows that tried to jump up the waterfall. I found two or three of her molted skins. We kept our bargain, she and I.

Thanks to a couple-year stint at another library, I didn’t see my serpentine acquaintance for a long time. When I returned to the creek, it was to find that one of her little ones held the nest she had previously occupied. My friend was gone. But I made the same deal with her progeny. Despite the obvious difference in the snakes’ genders and the fact that the one I’d spoken to was gone, I still called the snake ‘Chthonia.’

I wrote her into stories, twinning her with another animal I’d met, Grandfather Rook. His story is for another time. Chthonia had returned to my fiction.

Unfortunately, I had to leave off sitting down there on my lunch breaks last year, thanks to the cancer treatments. It’s difficult to sit on an uneven slab of rock when you’re daily dealing with debilitating pain. So it was with a bit of joy that I went to the creek today to try to reconnect a little.

Lo and behold, there was a serpent’s tail sliding off a rock and plopping into the water when I arrived. I walked over to see my friend…only to discover that it wasn’t any of the brown snakes I had known before. Those had been large, mostly without markings, and were much more cautious. This one was small, thin, swam well…and had the distinctive head and patterns of a water moccasin.

The jumpy, skittish, and very quick water moccasin hopped between pools, trying to keep me from watching it. I, on the other hand, wanted to know where its nest was, so I could avoid it and not accidentally get bitten by this venomous creature I so obviously spooked.

Chthonia and her family now only exist in my fiction. She, the guardian of the underworld and the knowledge one receives from that part of the Hero’s Journey appears in a number of stories I’m in process on. And, yet again, I’m brought to tears by the passing of an animal with whom I’ve only had a passing acquaintance.

I think that’s the real awful part of dealing with death: the change. “Nature abhors a vacuum,” said Spock once and that seems to be the case here. I just can’t help thinking the neighborhood has declined in the change. I’m not going to be making any deals with a toxic serpent. The atmosphere at my sacred space is a little less safe, a little wilder.

The king is dead, long live the king.

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