The Dance of Dr. Snake-Doctor
by Kyle E. Miller
I - Scoop
There's only one thing more perfect than a
dragonfly, and that's a dragonfly dancing. They sing
too, though you can't hear their voices like those of
the parrots and monkeys calling and howling in the
green mists of the jungle. Dragonflies sing in another
scale. They fling their ballads into the sky and from
there they spiral endlessly upward, to be caught in
uncertain snatches by some abandoned antennae far
away. All the songs they ever sang still exist.
You haven't heard them, but I know you've seen
A bar of neon pink and a blur of wings; a striped
candy-colored cross lifting into the sky; a golden nib
on a bronze shaft with wings like ink-stained papers;
a storm of orange lightning bolts rising through the
green world of the fern-and-horsetail jungles of
summer; and, in the case of the Doctor, a scepter of
viridian and green-gold with alexandrite eyes and
It was as if the King of Summer had scooped up a
piece of the jungle floor in his burning hands and
given it wings. He put it in the care of a woman's
womb, and only he will ever know why, but is there
really any safer place? The Doctor began as blood,
muscle, and bone, but he came out flying. He was given
a name, a melody in the dragonfly labrum, and it was
put into words so his mother could call him.
"Scoop-of-the-forest-floor!" she called.
But he never came.
His first flight was a thrilling in the wings, a
dip, a dart, an arc, and then he was gone, homeless
Scoop sang songs he would later sing on stage
about the time before he was born. The womb. A warm,
liquid world full of the pulse of blood and darkness.
A teeming pink globe in which he could feel his
mother's every thought. But the other dragonflies sang
about something else. Their eggs, tight pale worlds of
comfort and quiet sequester. Hovering above the canopy
-- green expanse interrupted by a flash of lurid
foliage as a bird takes flight -- Scoop watched them
dance and sing with such sweet remembrance of a golden
season he had never known.
Panic gripped him like the pincers of a peacock
scorpion, his wings about to pull away between long
particolored claws, and then it would retreat just as
suddenly as it had arrived, as if frightened away by
the hooded macaws that make meals of scorpions and
wood beetles. Something in the canopy below caught his
compound eye, and he darted away. He had everything he
could ever desire: humid jungle air, six hundred
species of flying insect food, and the endless arc
between the green below and the blue above.
One day Scoop sang a song, danced a dance, and
fell. He fell through fronds and fog, clouds of gnats,
dozing snakes, a monkey's nest, tree limbs, mosquitos,
leaves and lianas -- one really the mossy outstretched
arm of a sloth -- ferns and stems, and finally onto
the soft soil and creepers of the jungle floor where
life seethed around him. He looked up at the sky,
choked with foliage. Furry faces peered down. One
laughed, its eyes outlined in bright peach fuzz, its
teeth like little yellowed tusks.
Scoop cried and cried and called for his mother
because he was alone and, having never seen the jungle
from the bottom before, had no idea where he was. And
when he looked down at himself he saw pink fleshy
parts and four limbs instead of six, and he wept and
screamed and dried his tears with his wings -- oh
thank Mother Summer, he still had his wings! --
attached to his back as always, now enormous and
wilted, but he wrapped himself up in them anyway like
a pair of giant leaves and cried himself to sleep.
He was seven seasons old, which was old for a
dragonfly, but very young for a boy.
The peach fuzz macaque taught him how to laugh,
and the green-titted loris taught him how to dance
But when Scoop tried to sing the only way he knew
how -- the dragonfly way -- no song came out, though
his wings extended and fluttered, as if he might one
day fly again. He had hope.
That summer Scoop took his days in the bright,
warm groves and his nights under the fronds of the homeworld tree. Its leaves kept the warm, blue rain
from falling in his eyes, and its fruit fell when the
sun's scorching rays struck the rinds and made them
unfold and drop dark-blue arils of sweet, tart juice
onto his lazy, outstretched limbs.
Raining arils woke him. It was time for
"Well what do we have here?"
"It's just a boy."
"Is it though?"
A dozen figures approached. Scoop laughed.
One of the strangers, his head hairless and
tattooed with the paths of the stars, kneeled and held
out his hands. "Hey there. Hey, baby. It's okay."
They were a troupe of fever gatherers, hoping to
pull the sickness from those who had wandered too far
into the jungle and to guide them back home. Traveling
with them was the Saint of Spring Healing, who carried
a waterskin made from the bladder of his late lover,
one of the giant tapirs that wandered the jungle
wilds. Inside the bladder capered wild and contagious
"What's your name?" The stars on his head
twinkled with sweat.
Scoop didn't know how to speak or sing his name.
"All right, little dragonfly," the saint said.
Wise and wizened, he recognized those wings. "All
right, little dragonfly, little snake-doctor."
Scoop's wings spread, and in the place where his
hindwings and forewings overlapped words were revealed
-- for a moment -- and no one, not even the saint,
noticed. If they had, who knows what might have been?
"Come," the saint said. "We'll take you home, and
if you don't have one, we'll make one for you."
"What is it?" one of the others said, a woman
wrapped in a dusty cloak of ash. There was something
wrong with her eyes, wide and wandering.
Twins said: "A boy." "With wings." They shared a
python across their shoulders, its tongue sampling the
"Would you like to follow?" the saint said, but
Scoop stayed put.
"Pick him up," someone suggested. She was one of
the black, broad-shouldered Superior people, fleeing
her winter home for summer.
"He has to come of his own will."
"Don't touch his wings," the cloaked woman said.
"Come on, winged one, come with us."
But it wasn't until a lean, bearded boy named
Greengrass hopped over fallen limbs and juggled pink
mushrooms -- trying to make the little one laugh or
smile -- that Scoop stood, shook his wings, and
followed the strangers through the ferns and giant
"Boy oh boy oh boy, you're cute," Greengrass
said, and Scoop laughed.
When the troupe heard him laugh, they knew he
could be taught to speak, and they taught him.
And when he could talk, he could sing again. So
Look what happened while
the King of Winter was asleep.
Mountaintops are meadows
and rivers, currents.
How could you remember
coral, if you never watched it grow?
Bats fall, fill the caves.
Waters rise, flood the
Do you remember the
What season is this?
You might recognize that one from the stage. The
first song the Doctor sang as a human, and the one
that made him famous in every season. Those words
became a blessing. Those words were a prayer for
peace. They were an enchantment for love and good
health and merriment. Where Scoop had learned those
forgotten words is just another unanswerable question,
which gathered around him like wandering boys around
the trunk of a homeworld tree.
The season sprites fought for control of the
The summerlings had controlled it for so many
seasons that they became content and complacent, their
dreamy heads reclining on the rim, their tentacles
wrapped around the spokes. The springwings saw a
chance to take control of the resting wheel. They
didn't need to turn it far, after all, to suit their
temper, and so they rushed at it wisp-quick and nearly
invisible. But so did the wintersaurs, those frigid,
liquid reptiles! And the autumnals, eternal
pranksters, couldn't let the others have all the fun,
so they oinked along and tried to seize the wheel with
brute hog strength.
It was a storm.
Summer won in the end of course, but there was a
blustery summery gale and squall before the
summerlings flung the last of the others from the
spokes and settled down again to dream.
Seven days and six nights later, Scoop was
battered, his wings sore and his mouth agape at the
power of a summer storm. The troupe huddled close
under the waxy leaves of a homeworld tree as night
gripped the jungle.
The woman drew her cloak of ash about her, and
Scoop reached out to touch it. She snarled.
"Blink's cloak is her moth," Greengrass said. He
was combing his green beard with his hands, wringing
out droplets, picking out winged insects marooned
there during the storm. "Her guide. She's blind. If
you touch a moth's wings, you can hurt it."
"I didn't know. You can touch my wings. I used to
be a dragonfly."
Greengrass was the first to touch those wings --
so tenderly -- and Scoop was lost in bliss.
Blink touched them too.
"The moth sees for her," Greengrass said. "In
return, it feeds on her hair."
Scoop's eyes widened.
Greengrass laughed. "Don't worry. It doesn't eat
"And I don't need to cut it," Blink said.
Scoop felt the wingbeats of a beetle on his
cheek. "I used to be a dragonfly," he said. "One day I
fell because my wings couldn't hold me anymore.
Because I was made of meat."
Greengrass smiled and kissed Scoop on the
"And I was lost, but the monkeys helped feed me.
What's that?" Two sapphire-tipped wands appeared
behind and above Blink's head.
"Antennas. He's looking for something."
"Food. We're all starving. We can't eat fever
dreams, Saint Malvern."
"But I've heard that the people of winter eat
stories when the larder's empty," the saint said. He
was adjusting the thongs and amulets hanging from his
neck. Some had shrunk in the rain. He looked at Scoop.
"Does my little mule-killer want a story?"
Someone groaned, and a big man -- the biggest of
the troupe, who carried a long mace wreathed in what
looked like feathers -- left the group, taking his
mace with him. As he swung it about, the feathers shot
out and returned, sped away and returned.
"I went through a stage," Saint Malvern began,
"when I was a boy, of thinking I was born as a snake.
I would slither on the ground, through the grass, and
once I got bitten because I tried to kiss a cobra.
Now, no, let me finish. I'm not saying you were
playing make believe as I was. Just listen.
"When I was in bed recovering from the snakebite,
my grandfather told me a story. He said that souls are
like rings, all different kinds of rings. And that
some of them get stuck together until you give them a
shake because of some ornament or other, a little
jewel or a hawk's head welded to the circle. And some
are forged together, one right through the other so
that, no matter how hard you shake, they won't come
undone." Here Scoop noticed that the saint had put his
hand on the waterskin.
"And others are broken, one end not quite
reaching the other, so that there's a space in the
middle. And who knows what might get caught in the
Scoop waited for the saint to go on, but he only
smiled and stroked his waterskin. "That's it?"
"That's it. Well, he also said that he once knew
a girl like this, and that an antelope -- that's a
sort of deer -- got stuck in her ring, so that you
could see her change back and forth if she ever ran
from trouble." He smiled. "And she outran it every
Scoop tried to find the sky in all the ferns and
fronds and -- Mother Summer! -- there it was, just
behind the towering horsetail: a rag of blue and cloud
"Now, come, little snake-doctor. It's time to
The big man had returned, hairy fruits skewered
on the feathers of his mace, all gathered at the tip
once again, as if sleeping.
"Why is your hair green?" Scoop asked.
"Why is the grass green?"
"I don't know."
"Hush, boys." Saint Malvern made the sign of the
cycle and halted.
"What's that?" Scoop started to run ahead, but
Greengrass caught his arm.
"He sings in his fever," the moth woman said. "It
must be a sweet sleep."
"Fever dreams are never sweet." The saint was
moving ahead, slowly.
Tucked into the grooves of a broad tree bright
with the song of birds, a man lay quiet and still,
drool seeping from chapped and cracked lips. A
mushroom grew from the top of his head, its roots
wrapped up in his straw-colored hair. It was round and
fat and peeling at the edges like old paper, revealing
an inky purple underneath. The air smelled like
overripe tomatoes. Scoop was about to run up and see
if he was alive when the man mumbled, and some of the
words even made some little sort of sense.
"Corkindrill corkindrill come out to play. I'll
sit in your belly and you'll laugh all day."
Scoop started to laugh, but -- seeing that he was
the only one -- caught it in his throat. He burped.
"He has a fever," said Saint Malvern. "Get back,
little dragonfly. Some of them are violent."
Scoop stood by Greengrass and watched the saint
kneel at the fevered man's side. Saint Malvern popped
the cap on his waterskin and held it to the tip of the
And they obeyed. Greengrass grinned and stroked
his beard. Blink brought her moth a little closer, and
the big man looked over his shoulder. The twins
stroked their python and smiled.
Saint Malvern hummed, not a melody or a tune, but
a single note that resounded through the ancient
jungle boles, and Scoop knew they could feel it in
their roots as he could feel it in the bottoms of his
The mushroom split, and a tiny glistening fiber
wormed down the man's forehead, across his cheek, and
down his chin, right into the waterskin.
The saint capped it and said, "Now we wait and
lead him home again should he not know how to return."
Later, after the man had awakened -- laughing and
hugging the whole troupe, even little Scoop, though he
had nothing to do with it -- and left, Scoop found
Saint Malvern sucking a dimpled ebony rind, squinting
at the tartness of the fruit.
"Why," Scoop said. "Uh. When that thing was on
that man's head. Um."
Saint Malvern tossed the rind to the ground.
"Remember how I told you that our souls are like
"And that some of them have a gap and became
tangled and some were made bound together? Well, what
else could happen to a ring, do you think?"
"I don't know. It could get put on a finger?"
The saint chuckled. "I suppose, but there are no
fingers in the vault of the seasons, are there? No,
little dragonfly. A ring can get lost."
"Why would the King let that happen?"
"Oh, it's beyond his reach. Beyond any of the
kings' and queens' reach. They too are children of the
vault, even if they have some part to play in its
making." He adjusted his mandala and picked at a
scratch on his neck where the leather thong, in all
its brushing back and forth, disturbed the healing.
"But a ring can be lost. You've never had any
rings to lose, but it happens all the time, trust me.
They go bouncing off tables and roll into a corner,
and they belong to the dust bunnies then.
"When a soul is lost, it can come out in a place
it isn't supposed to be or come out in the wrong way.
That's how you get ghosts and figments and all sorts
of partial beings."
"Yes. They appear in the wrong season. In autumn,
the fevers belong, and they attach themselves to the
eggs of rocs -- those are a sort of large bird, bigger
than the ones you see here -- and they feed on the
shell and help them hatch when the time comes."
Scoop wasn't thinking about the eggs, but the
rocs and how he might fly again, even if it were on
one of their backs, which were surely large enough to
carry him (and maybe Greengrass too).
"There are other unseasonable creatures out there
causing trouble too, but, well, we do what we can."
"What happens to them? You don't kill them, do
"No. But you have to be careful. You can take
them back to their own season, that's what most do. Or
you can put them back in the vault if you happen to
know where a well is."
But the saint didn't have time to answer. A
tempest shook the trees around them and the camp
turned upside down in excitement, and the saint was
drawn away to help draw up the tents so they wouldn't
blow away. Scoop hoped that one might really be caught
in the wind and -- by the Sister of Spring Winds! --
whirl him away into the sky. He held onto the corner
of a tent until Greengrass found him and handed him a
sack to carry.
There was a cave nearby, and they spent the night
there, singing and dancing in the quiet light of
millipedes, and their thousand thousand tiny feet
marched to the beat of the big man's drum.
They spent a whole season in the jungle so that
when they were finally headed home, Scoop had already
seen nearly nine summers.
The troupe tried to ford the unfordable Giving
River -- caimans yawning, sapphire turtles basking in
the sun -- and turned back. Scoop knew he had flown
over it once because the curly ferns that grew on the
other side reminded him, with their beckoning furry
fingers, of his mother, somehow. No one asked him why
he was crying as they followed the riverbank, their
feet occasionally plunging into damp pits hidden by
moss and shadow. They left the banks of the Giving
River at the orange obelisk that could be seen glowing
green at night long after they had left it behind. And
many days later -- days filled with fruit and fevers
and the caterwauling of monkeys (nights filled with
dancing, singing, and the silly stories of the big man
with the mace) -- they came to the edge of the jungle.
Scoop was singing a song now forgotten, skipping
along, pulling weeds from the ground and swinging them
in the air, little clods of dirt scattering across the
sky. He sang so sweetly.
"Watch it, mule-killer," the big man set,
swatting aside a clump of soil, a worm nestled inside,
its round red head sticking out and watching the world
"What's a mule?"
Something fell or appeared in their path. Later,
Scoop wouldn't know which, and there would be no one
It was a flash, all wrong, like the sun coming
out at night.
"What is it?"
"A vegetable? Where did it come from?"
They looked up and around, but there were only
blue fruits and small berries growing there. "Not
"It's a pumpkin," Blink said. "It's orange, it's
beautiful orange. I can see."
"Run!" Saint Malvern shouted. He knew the tricks
of that fey season. He knew that death hid behind
autumn, though winter was always being blamed for it.
"Snake-doctor, get back!"
The fruit flew to pieces and scorched the troupe
and the jungle. Scoop was flung from his feet and he
could feel the heat and the fire, as if the Summer
King himself had suddenly opened his eye and was
looking right at him. He cried, screamed, called for
his mother, for Saint Malvern, for Greengrass. No one
When the fire had burned itself out among the
jungle fungus, Scoop stood and looked around and he
was, once again, alone.
Who had thrown the pumpkin in their path? And
why? Why would anyone want to hurt anyone else? How
could they forget that, in the infinite cycle of
seasons, everyone had once been everyone else: your
mother, your lover, your friend?
But instead of hardening Scoop's heart, the fire
only softened it, as he looked at the saint's body,
his soul already gone, another form attached to the
silver ring of his soul. A monkey, perhaps, a macaw,
or even a dragonfly. The twins, holding hands. The big
man and his mace, its feathers just little black twigs
now. Blink, her moth clinging to her still. And
Greengrass, his little beard singed black now -- oh
Queen of Summer, King of Winter! Why? Why couldn't
just one have been saved? Sweet Greengrass.
"Mother of Summer," Scoop sang, "cradle him in
your sunflower arms forever, forever."
And what Scoop felt then was the loss of his
first love, though he was too young to know it then,
and it scorched his soul as the fire had scorched the
forest floor. But he picked himself up, dried his
tears, and, yes, he had to smile just a little,
because hadn't they brought him somewhere after all?
Hadn't they given him a home as the saint had promised
long ago? That was a city on the horizon.
Little Snake-Doctor followed the only road there
II - Snake-Doctor
"My mother used to sing me a song," the little girl
said. She sat on the edge of the stage, vine shadows
shifting on her tiny bronze helmet of hair. "About
where I was born."
Snake-Doctor swiped a tear from his eye before it
could fall. "And where was that, darling?"
"But you like summer better?"
She nodded. "It doesn't remind me of anything."
"It will, one day." Snake-Doctor stood, shook his
wings, and gathered his rainbow shawl around his
shoulders. He drew a wand from his pocket and drew
lights in the air. And he sang:
They said death touched
A mouse crawling through
A snake with no burrow.
I told them she was nearer
The parting of bark from
I told them she would
Neither here nor there.
The sounds you hear when
By then, the girl was standing and dancing in the
vines that fell from the arbor overhead and the
stripes of sun between. "That's it," she said, "that's
it! I knew you'd know it, you know everything!"
"Not quite, baby. I don't know your name."
"Gorgeous Glaive, I have a home for you,"
Snake-Doctor said, and he found her one, as if he knew
all along where one was in that city by the jungles of
his youth, the city of tiny houses. The city slept
under summer's interminable spell. It slumbered, and
Snake-Doctor slept under trellis and tree and bathed
in the wending river all the children called Citadel
Serpent, named after the legendary dragon mentioned in
the duodecim anni tempora, the book of many
seasons. Snake-Doctor sang and danced daily, in
gazebos wreathed with swarms of lightning bugs;
nightly on stages or streets or on the rooftop garden
where berries grew so thick on the shrubs that they
fell and painted the roof blue, black, and purple. You
could follow the steps of Snake-Doctor's dance in the
juice he made beneath his boots. That's how he taught
you how to dance.
The spring acolytes ran a house of healing in the
city of tiny houses. The House of the Hydra wasn't so
tiny though, with its labyrinth of hallways and
chambers carved out of the earth beneath the reception
rooms. And that's where Snake-Doctor went when he had
nowhere else to be, when he wasn't singing or dancing
or reading in the library that was the center of so
much communion and celebration.
He would wander the lamp-lit corridors, peering
into one room or another, watching the acolytes
bending over a patient -- their pale pastel colored
mandalas swinging like pendulums above the bed sheets
-- to administer ointments, tinctures, drinks,
libations, poems, blessings, and, occasionally (here,
Snake-Doctor would linger at the doorway and, if he
felt the melody, hum) little songs. He came to know
some of the ill men and women and creatures that lived
there, and some passed into health and left while
others fell into greater sickness and died. The
acolytes blubbered and huddled together in a weepy
heap to console one another and whisper prayers and
blessings and hopes of never seeing that soul again in
the house of healing.
Snake-Doctor never found what he wanted in those
corridors: the thrower of the fruit, who may have only
been a phantom, angry for being born in the wrong
season, and what would Snake-Doctor have done with him
anyway? Instead, he found what he needed.
"And what did a sweet thing like you do to get
here?" Snake-Doctor stood in the doorway to the new
patient's room. The boy was on the bed. What
Snake-Doctor first thought was unsightly --
scruffiness in all the wrong places, a bent nose, a
tired pair of eyes -- was really beauty,
unrecognizable because he had never seen beauty like
"I loved a tree too hard," the boy said. He had
probably seen as many seasons as Snake-Doctor --
eighteen, maybe -- though he looked as if he had spent
some of them elsewhere. Winter, perhaps, or autumn,
which gave his face a shadow and a shifting quality.
It never looked the same twice.
"Nothing wrong with loving a tree."
"They thought I was hurting it."
Snake-Doctor didn't understand.
"I was sanding it down. Whittling it a little,
one of the branches that had broken off. But it was
going to live, I wasn't hurting it. It's the
musclewood, it's sap is greasy, not really sticky-"
and, seeing the baffled look on Snake-Doctor's face,
said: "I was trying to fuck a tree, okay?"
And Snake-Doctor howled as the monkeys had taught
him, and the boy leaped up, shouted, threw
Snake-Doctor against the wall, and the acolytes all
"It's okay," Snake-Doctor said between laughs.
"It's okay, he's okay. Let him go. There's been a
mistake, though I'm not sure who made it. What's your
"Sheath, come. Are you from summer? I'll give you
a tour. A singing tour." By then, the acolytes were
smiling, some even giggling, and they watched the two
leave, Snake-Doctor's arm hooked through the boy's.
The tour ended in Citadel Serpent. Snake-Doctor
left his clothes and leaped in naked.
"Don't look so surprised. They're just wings." He
shook them, and drops of water made rainbows in the
sun. "What are you waiting for?"
In the end, Snake-Doctor had to unwrap him, and
when he turned him around, he found two little growths
between Sheath's shoulder blades.
"Don't. No, don't look."
The boy had cut them off himself, as best he
could, leaving ragged scraps behind and a scar where
the knife had slipped.
"What were you? What have you been?"
Sheath sobbed and pushed his fists into his eyes.
"I don't know. I can't remember. I'm sorry."
"Hush," Snake-Doctor said. "Hush, and let me tell
you a story."
He sang one instead.
And when night fell -- the moon rising above the
white arcades -- Snake-Doctor said, "It's time."
"Life." He drew a cloak of feathers from the
earth, a cabinet where he kept his costumes, and ran
ahead into the night. Sheath followed, and really what
choice did he have?
He had the voice of the Prince of Summer, not the
King's scorching basso, but the Prince's liquid
baritone, sherry for the ears, mead for the mind:
sweet and syrupy and as heady as the summer sun. One
searing taste of song and you were drunk and wandering
in a wonderland where it was and is always your
favorite moment of the day, which would have to be
evening, when the sun lays its rays just so against
the earth and makes you feel as if you were never so
youthful as you are then.
And the band played water organ, goosehorns,
gobbles, clarinets, drums, and guitars. And
I was in a womb
While you were in an egg
I was busy being born
While you were hatching
Do you remember when the
wind stirred more than your hair?
From where came these
wings? These eyes, these legs?
Do you remember when you
were water and blood?
I could fly,
But it returns and returns
We are drawn onward.
Those last two words were a whisper that might
still be echoing in some lonely corner of the world
even now, ricocheting back and forth across the walls
and floor, forth and back.
Snake-Doctor was a wonder, a gift of the vault,
the warbling soul of summer. In later seasons, the
people from the village of paper houses would come,
the Superior people would come, people would come by
train and underground by blindman. They adored him.
But in the moment after leaving the stage, he
would sometimes feel doom mounting on the horizon of
his being, as if the ring of his soul were about to
roll away and be lost. He would pause on the steps --
the audience still out there, intoxicated by incense
and the glow of his voice, a blur of shouts and cheer
-- and he would lose his breath. It was coming, but
just what it was he could never tell, would never
know, because it never came, only loomed on the edge
of his being and made his existence unbearable, if
only for a moment. But a lot can happen in a moment.
He carried that pain like all the other pains and
losses and abandonments he saw and felt: with grace
befitting the season in which he was born. His heart
swelled and moved closer to summer than winter. He
would later travel through spring, summer, autumn,
winter, and yet he carried the season of his birth
with him wherever he went. You could feel the heat
When the panic was past, he walked into the crowd
and taught them how to dance, as the monkeys had once
taught him. And sometimes someone would walk away from
the crowd with a little more clarity or a little more
peace. A heartbroken boy from town, just fifteen
summers young, learned to love again. An autumn
acolyte from the northeast had lost an arm and found
-- trust me, to his surprise more than anyone else's
-- that he was clapping.
Tales were told.
I'll tell about the frozen lake and the bean-sidhe,
two of the Doctor's earliest acts, both formative to
who he became. These are in the ballads, but I tell
III - Dr. Snake
"You don't eat enough for a bug," Sheath said.
Snake-Doctor bit the end off a banana, and that
was enough. "Shush. I eat music, boy. I lick the notes
from the sky." He stuck out his tongue.
By then, they lived with lost children until
Snake-Doctor found them homes. And when they needed
privacy, Snake-Doctor took Sheath down to Citadel
Serpent and hid in the roots of the willows, laid bare
by ripples and waves. Sheath learned to love flesh,
though he felt better having some branch, limb, or
leaf to grab hold of in the moment of elation. His
seed would float for a moment and then sink. Silver
fish eyed it suspiciously. Some dared taste it.
They were eating breakfast in the portico at the
height of summer's humidity. Snake-Doctor offered the
rest of the banana to the parrots that nested in the
roof, repeating their raucous whip-whip-garoo
which they also repeated through the night.
Snake-Doctor had learned to like it.
"How do you do it?" Sheath asked.
"Where'd this come from?"
Snake-Doctor fanned himself with a leaf from a
homeworld tree. "They help themselves."
"Where are we going?"
Sheath tossed a grape.
"All you really need to be able to do is find the
moment you're in. Seize it, honey, and maybe that
means singing or dancing, but it might mean sitting
under a tree and watching ants march out of the ground
and all around. Hold it in your hand, the globe of the
moment, and peer inside: it's all there."
Maybe Sheath didn't understand it then, but he
listened and tried, and that was all Snake-Doctor
"Snake?" Sheath said.
"I love you."
"I love you too, summerling," and when
Snake-Doctor said it, he meant it. If you talk to
someone he said it to, they tell you it was like he
wasn't just talking to you -- though he surely meant
you, the one in front of him -- but he was also
talking to all souls big and small.
A girl walked into the portico and fell into
Snake-Doctor's arms. Her hands were gloved in black.
There was the dust of the road on her carmine summer
"Sing me a song of sorrow," Snake-Doctor said,
and he was already tearing up. "Oh. Oh, baby."
Sheath made the sign of the cycle. "Snake-Doctor,
she needs help."
"Who am I to help?"
"Please," she said. "I came for the doctor."
"I'm not a doctor," Snake-Doctor said, and he
looked at Sheath. There was some desperate, urging
glint in Sheath's eyes, and Snake-Doctor grinned.
"I'm not a doctor, but the King doesn't give a
shit and neither do I. What happened, baby girl? Tell
She was faint, from travel or the darkness on her
hands. "Winter," she said. "Winter. The lake. Winter
came to summer."
Snake-Doctor gave Sheath a soft look over the
girl's shoulder and nodded. "What's your name,
"Show me winter, Toona."
A dark, frozen arm grew out of the ice and,
beyond that, like sticks poking through a fresh sheet
of snow, were other limbs, heads, and even a bare
buttocks, its owner caught in a dive. Everyone was
chipping away with mattocks and shovels, spears and
daggers. They wore extra clothes however they could:
around their waists, as hoods for their heads, two
pairs of shoes pulled over cold feet, or rags wrapped
round hands, like gloves. Two women broke through the
ice and hauled a man from the lake, his body already
darkening from the venomous bite of the Winter King.
Snake-Doctor was warm until he came to the shore.
He could feel a cold breeze blowing off the ice,
dueling with the heat of the sun above. He shivered.
He saw scorpions under the ice.
"What am I doing here?"
"Snake?" Sheath was by his side, holding his arm,
and then his whole body as he leaned into him, as if
about to fall. "Hey. Hey, come on now."
"I know they're already onto the next, but they
still leave holes behind when they go." His tears
became little ice crystals as they fell to the ground
and tinkled on the pebbly beach. "And who am I try to
And that doubt may have harried him through the
seasons had Sheath not been there, his pillar, his
unshakable mountain, his tree, who seemed to grow from
Oubliette to the Vault, where he finally spread his
fruit and flowered branches. A fruit, heavy with its
own ripeness, dropped from its stem and fell through
spring summer autumn winter, spring again, and finally
summer, where it landed in the hands of the one who
needed it most.
"We are drawn onward," Sheath said. "I'm with
And Snake-Doctor stood tall and ground his
crystal tears under a peacock-colored boot.
"Okay. All right, Father Winter. You've come
where you were never meant to be. But it ain't really
you, is it? Just one of your children. Lost and alone.
I'm right, aren't I?"
Some saw a twinkle in his eyes.
The villagers were still chipping away at the ice
and dragging dead or dying men and women from the
lake. Sobs choked the air. The children helped where
"Sheath, I need you to drag one of these boats
out to the middle and sit in it."
"Do you know what you're doing?"
Snake-Doctor laughed. "We'll see."
As Sheath began to move the boat, others helped,
and they lifted it off the ground so the ice couldn't
scrape a hole in the bottom. Seen from shore, Sheath
was a little bump sitting on a crescent until he
lifted the sail, and then he was invisible.
"Everyone clear off, now, and keep your eyes on
Snake-Doctor pulled something from his bag. A
smooth, convex disc of glass. He held it in one hand,
and lifted the other to the sun. He sang, he spun, and
he hurled the discus into the sky and -- the villagers
pausing a moment in awe -- smiled as the glass caught
the sunbeams, still summer-hot up there, and opened a
window to another season. The sun burned holes in the
ice, one after another, until there was only water
again, and the people's breath no longer painted the
air before their lips. The people shouted, cheered,
wept as their loved ones were pushed to the shore by
waves or lost beneath them.
Sheath's boat began moving shoreward with the
wind in its sail. The people watched.
"Any moment now," Snake-Doctor said.
The people waited.
"Right. About. Now?"
He was a moment off. In the next, a fish leaped
from the lake, arced over the boat, and struck the
sail with its tail, a ribbed fin of glacier green.
"Come on in, baby, hurry! Give me that wind,
bless me," Snake-Doctor whispered, and the boat came
ashore, Sheath falling out and into his arms. He was
"You're shaking like a leaf," Snake-Doctor said.
"You scared or cold?"
"Both. Who was that?"
"Oh, he's just in the wrong place." He was
already giving directions to the villagers: move that
there, find this, warm those toes. "But we have to
Already, a tiny patch of ice had appeared in the
lake and was growing.
Though the villagers only ate the vegetables that
grew in the lake and the pods that bloomed on top of
it, they knew how to catch a fish. They did so for fun
and to pass long summer evenings, always releasing the
fish back into the wilderness of the lake bottom, and
to scrape algae from the fins of turtlebane bass,
which they used for soap, sunburn, and calluses. So it
was a challenge to catch the winter fish only because
of its size and the pedestals of ice that appeared
wherever it skimmed the surface of the lake.
But when it was finally caught -- all involved
sheathed in gloves and as many clothes as they could
gather, for its scales were as cold as the King of
Winter's armor -- Snake-Doctor put it on a wagon to
the north. He didn't know if there was a well nearby,
or if the saint all those years ago had perhaps given
him a little half-truth to make him feel better. When
he thought of it, he wasn't even sure he would
recognize a well that led to the vault if he were to
find one. Either way the fish would end up back in the
great sea of seasons on the other side of the world,
and all would be as well as he could make it.
Toona hugged his legs and the people of the lake
gave him gifts: copper bars of homemade incense,
fishbone bracelets, aquatic vegetables, and the
history of their village, written on leaves of lake
lettuce bound between fish scale plates. This last was
his favorite because it was their secret that at the
bottom of the lake was buried something from the time
before the King came to power, and every season it
sent up bubbles you could hold and carry and inside
them the people found everything they needed to
"Thank you Doctor Snake!" Toona said.
"Hey, you're backwards, it's-" Sheath started to
say, but Snake-Doctor cut him off.
"Shush." He turned to the girl. "You're welcome,
Toona. And for being the bravest, for taking the trip
to our city, all the way over the lavender fields and
between the twin white domes, I dedicate this song to
"Now come, Sheath, and dance with Dr. Snake."
His wings broke the sunlight into pieces, and the
children tried to catch them in their palms, and all
the rest sang along, Summer nights and summer
lords, summer horses and shores and on and on into
the purple summer night.
IV - Dr. Snake-Doctor
By then, children loved him most of all.
When he sashayed down the streets of that summer
city a parade of children followed behind. Toe-headed
boys and dusty girls, the boy with the bird on his
shoulder, girls riding dogs and horny lizards, and
some that hadn't yet decided if they wanted to wear
gowns and crowns or pants and shirt and so wore both.
They came to hear the Doctor sing and watch him dance,
a little leap as he turned a corner, a Frog-Hops-Lily
here and a Queen's Silly Step there. He left gumdrops
in his wake and, yes, sometimes you would hear of a
little boy or girl coming away from one of his songs
with hair where they thought none would ever grow or
fine ivory teeth where there was only rot before.
But it wasn't that Dr. Snake's songs made them
well. It was as if he blew a bubble that stretched all
around him, left right up down, and all within it were
more receptive to what was already there. And the
bubble reached up in the sky and down into the earth
so that a bird flying by might come away with its
broken talon mended or a worm rent in two by a
gardener's trowel might twist and see its tail again.
By then, the Doctor knew that beauty could take
all forms, and when he saw the auburn-haired boy in
the doorway to his portico, he knew he would be
another like Sheath, whose soul he would wear on his
finger for a time until one day -- by accident,
perhaps -- it slipped off and tumbled away.
"Come out of the sun, darling." He stood so the
boy could sit, and he did. He even smiled, his teeth a
little crooked. "Call me Snake-Doctor."
"Snake-Doctor. Can you help me?"
"What wouldn't I do for you? Here, eat, I'm not
The boy frowned and rubbed his stubble, as if it
itched because it was newly grown. How far had he
"There's a wild keening killing our people down
by the mudflats. It took my sister. She was moon
The Doctor smiled, and Sheath came in then and
the Doctor called him over and tousled his hair. "I
can't bring her back, baby."
"But you can stop it. She's still there. She
comes by day or by night, whether it's raining or
cloudless. There's nothing we can do. She comes, we
hear her, and she leaves one of us dead and bleeding
from our ears and-" He was starting to sob, perhaps
remembering a little sister's face, trickles of blood
leaking from all the wrong places.
"All right, baby. Hush baby." He wrapped arms and
wings around him. "Sheath, we'll need to plan for a
few days. I know the place."
And so the Doctor and Sheath and the boy named
Redbottle left for the village by the mudflats. A
mountain -- a tower on top -- covered the village in
shadow, but the mudflats were baking in the sun. A
great plain of cracked and desiccated mud, covered by
water in another season. Snake-Doctor could see a line
of silver shining on the horizon, which was the water,
driven so far away by the warm wind. Magenta gulls
rode the wind and called keel-keel.
"When the water is away, we find so much in the
mud." Redbottle smiled, remembering, perhaps, the
discovery of a token half buried in the sand: a shell
or a bracelet or a bit of frosted glass like the one
he was named after. "And when the seapeanuts dry out,
we eat them."
"What about when the water returns?" Sheath
asked. "Do you go hungry?"
"It's only there for a few days. And the crabs
come. The Festival of the Crab Tide. We dress up like
them and, well, it's pretty silly." Redbottle blushed,
"Send a letter," Snake-Doctor said. "We're coming
to the next one." He moved his arms like a crab. "The
first flying crab the world's ever seen will crab-walk
The Doctor settled into the boy's house, taking
the loft for his own, where Redbottle kept his hooded
crows, Kuu and Kull. Sheath slept beside him and
murmured and jerked his legs, as if he knew there was
something wrong with the night.
And there was.
That was the night the bean-sidhe came down from
the tower on the mountain.
Snake-Doctor first heard her as a faraway siren,
the call of some forlorn bard pulling a single sullen
note from his dusty horn. But as he put on his emerald
cloak and his peacock-colored boots and went outside,
her keening grew louder, and he could see the
villagers shutting their doors and barring their
windows and the old stoatherd bringing his flock into
The Doctor could almost see the bean-sidhe as a
black wrinkle in the air, and she swept over the
village and made wild arcs and arabesques through the
air. He followed her, alone, bidding Sheath to stay
"This isn't for you," he said, and laughed.
"Honey, it might not even be for me."
Sheath held him for a long time before he let him
The bean-sidhe went down a chimney, and
Snake-Doctor threw his bulk through the door -- the
beautiful panel splintering -- and he all but screamed
a song: one long note that lifted and fell and lifted
again until he was breathless and the keening was
broken, the air unwrinkled. His voice had vibrated the
bent and ragged wire into some other, silent shape.
He saw the man cowering beneath a table, its
contents scattered on the ground, little pots
shattered, a bar of incense turned to crumbs. There
was a chasm in the floor, and dust lifted from the
basement to dance in the light of the fire.
"Look what a damn mess she made," Snake-Doctor
said, and smiled. He found it hard to breathe. "I'll
help rebuild. Tomorrow." He took a breath. "Goodnight,
honey. Sweet dreams."
But they were too busy celebrating to repair the
hole in the floor. Snake-Doctor sang them a song, and
they lit red and green fires on poles they swung
through the air, leaving lingering shapes of colored
smoke. And some brought out their whisper wheels, the
words of the duodecim anni tempora coiled
around their copper, silver, gold shafts. They read,
spun the wheel with the tip of a finger, and read some
more. Or else they spun them so fast they rattled and
rang like little bells and shouted the hymns from
The following morning, Sheath was ready to leave,
but Snake-Doctor only shook his head. "She wasn't
alone. There will be others."
He was right, and a second came another day, and
though the Snake-Doctor silenced that bean-sidhe too
(she went for a pot-bellied donkey), he knew one would
come again as sure as a wheel spins.
"They come from the tower on the mountain,"
Redbottle said, and pointed: a donkey path led up the
cliff at the top of which stood a ruined tower like a
decaying tooth, dark against the light of the sun
setting behind it.
"Anybody ever go up there?"
Redbottle shook his head. "It's from the time
before the Summer King."
"Well so are we," Snake-Doctor said, and he
strapped his bag to his shoulder and tightened his
"Don't go," Sheath said.
Snake-Doctor smiled and drew Sheath into the
warmth of his body. "I love you, little wood borer.
You know that's what you are, don't you? What you once
were? You burrowed into bark and had wings like the
leaves of the homeworld tree. You couldn't get into
the tree anymore, so you tried to get the tree into
Sheath chuckled over his tears. "Oh shut up, just
"You'll always be my little beetle."
"Please don't go."
"How will I live with myself if I know there will
never be another Festival of the Crab Tide? If I
return next season and all this is gone? The stoatherd
won't be laughing with his critters, the gulls won't
be chatting in the sky, and all these beautiful
children won't play court in the shadow of the
mountain. The sun will rise on empty houses, and,
well, maybe I'm just a dewy-eyed weepy old jellyfish,
but that won't do at all, baby."
So Snake-Doctor mounted a donkey and rode it up
The trail bit at the donkey's feet with stones
and pale yellow thorns. Snake-Doctor dismounted and
took him by the lead line. Their feet were bleeding
when they reached the plateau. The tower, made from
stone that was not stone, was ruinous. Its door hung
from its hinges, strange words inscribed on the
lintel. Snake-Doctor tied the donkey to a tree. "Be
still, little one." And he went inside.
He passed through webs and wires and a veil of
thick and sticky fabric that seeped out of a long
casket mounted on the ceiling above the stairs, two
gummy wheels on either end. Snake-Doctor coughed
through it and, when it became almost too dark to see
on the stairs, he hummed an old dragonfly song, and it
was a golden needle that pokes a hole in dark fabric,
and he could see just enough to reach the top.
The mother of the bean-sidhe was a broken box
with a cone like the end of a musical horn, its shell
spiraling ever inward and into darkness. She was
ragged and rusted, with murky red tape coiled inside,
seen through the space where a panel was meant to be
screwed in place. But there were still reels spinning
inside. Spools turned endlessly.
The Doctor reached in and pulled out fistfuls of
red tape, more and more until it nearly filled the
chamber, and by then he was laughing, but there was
suddenly a dark whining from the horn.
He reached into the horn -- his hand going too
far, too far -- and he grabbed hold of a small
something and pulled, and the whole horn came off with
it and attached to that was a ribbed cable or bundle
of cables and the great mother of the bean-sidhe
whined, whistled, and died.
The Doctor rode into the village holding the
hideous horn high over his head, his wings peeking out
of his emerald cloak. The villagers cheered, and they
were already breaking open casks and casks of sweet
liqueurs and mixing them with oranges, peach slices,
and sprigs of lavender.
The Doctor tossed the red shell into the street,
its tail stretched out behind, and he swayed from the
donkey to the drinks.
All they wanted to know was how.
"I took out her tongue. Who can sing without
one?" And he stuck his out, stained purple by a splash
of lavender liqueur.
Redbottle threw his arms around the Doctor, being
careful not to touch his wings, and that was, of
course, when the Doctor really fell in love. What
sweet caution! What tenderness!
"Thank you, Dr. Snake-Doctor."
Not even Sheath bothered correcting him.
Dr. Snake-Doctor's summers passed as seasons are
wont to do, and he never tired of the delights and
wonders of that bold and blazing season. There were
puppet shows in the shadows of the marmoreal arcades
and games on the endless fields where the grass grew
and the wild horses grazed, chomping the blades nearly
to the soil, a bit of stubble on the King's chin.
There were long incensed evenings during which they
would think of nothing but their backs resting on the
earth, the scritch-scritch of a wood-boring beetle,
the arrows of birdsong shot through the clouds. They
parted the river with their breasts and hands and
baked in the sun like cookies in an oven: they seemed
to rise, rise, rise above the beach and expand and
burst until their skin cracked and gave life to
something bigger. Summer, Dr. Snake-Doctor found, got
larger the farther he went into it.
There was a crowd in the city of tiny houses one
day, and Dr. Snake-Doctor and Sheath joined it, adding
their sun-bleached heads to the sea of hair, each wave
a different color and yet another color as it caught
the sun. They bobbed or bent as they whispered to
loved ones or sucked on coconut creamsicles given away
by the hoary-headed man who made them.
"...it extended without a break across her nose,
unplucked and thick," a man was reading in the center
of the crowd.
"Now here's a spell," Dr. Snake-Doctor said.
"...gulped water from a goblet beside him," the
man intoned, "cleared his throat, and tried to march
"A long one. I'd say near 700 pages. Let's wait
and see what it does."
The man read from the book and rubbed his thumb
on the pages that had already gone by, petting them as
he might a small animal. The covers were mottled with
damp, but among the blooms of mold, Snake-Doctor could
see (with his dragonfly eyes) the tiny head of a
curly-haired man, his cheeks like a red pair of
"Want to stay?"
But Sheath wasn't listening. Something had
alighted on his hand, and he was rapt, and were those
tears? "Why are there so many lonely people, Snakey?"
"Maybe this is a spell for sentimentality." He
smiled. "It's not loneliness, baby."
"What is it then?"
"It's just. Well. Ho, baby, you're asking
everything with that one little question." He laughed
and drew Sheath away from the crowd. "We all have some
presentiment of what we used to be. We hold on, just a
little bit, to what came before. We can sense our last
life, you know, and we feel a little abandoned by it.
"But why? When there's so much all around us? And
"Because it's a part of us and we think it's gone
forever. But nothing ever is. It all comes around
again." He stroked Sheath's head right down to the
lobe of his ear, where there were tiny hairs too thin
to be touched by the wind. "It just goes round and
round and round."
"I love you."
"Come here. You're ready." Dr. Snake-Doctor swept
him away and sat on a bench under the blue shade of a
"Mhmm, you're ready."
Dr. Snake-Doctor smiled, and maybe he read it in
a book or saw it scrawled on the wall of the mountain
tower in the secret language of the ivy. Maybe he knew
it all along, or it had only come to him then: Sheath
wasn't ready; Dr. Snake-Doctor was ready. And although
he knew it would be some kind of end, he also knew it
would be a beginning.
He taught Sheath the song that would let him fly
"Wouldn't it be terrible if there's no music
there?" Sheath said.
Dr. Snake-Doctor threw back his head and laughed.
"All right, all right. I'm an idiot, I know."
"C'mon, baby. We're ready."
And when the man with the book finished weaving
his incantation into the sweet summer air, a door
opened where none had been before, and he tossed the
book inside. He drew his arm in a loop and cried:
"Come on in, everybody! There's room enough for all!"
and he had a long bottle of liqueur in his hand the
color of the inside of a strawberry and there were
orange leaves blowing through from the other side of
the door and everyone who had been listening walked or
ran or danced through the door, as if invited to a
party, which, though Dr. Snake-Doctor would never know
because he alone stayed behind, was exactly what it
turned out to be.
He would miss Sheath, but he knew there would be
others, passing through, perhaps returning for a
season, perhaps not. And it seemed, to those who knew
the Doctor, that he had other reasons to be at peace,
though no one knows what they might have been. Even in
his final seasons, Dr. Snake-Doctor -- grey and
wrinkled and cavorting with an emerald cane --
harbored secrets from those he loved, which happened
to be everyone.
Not even I know what those secrets may have been.
One day he disappeared. Some say he made it back to
the sky, and they saw a viridian scepter heading east,
or a shadow of one crossed their path and when they
looked up: nothing. Though it could be that he simply
fell back in his rocking chair one day and slowly came
to rest, his foot no longer tapping to keep the chair
moving back and forth. Others claim to have seen him
toward the end, green-gold cracks of light appearing
in his skin, wandering the streets of the city of tiny
houses singing over and over, "What a sorry end, this
end that is not an end at all."
But of all the things they whisper about Dr.
Snake-Doctor, the ones whispered most are these: Who
was he? Who is he now? Who will he be? Who has he
been? Who has been him?
Some say he was the golden man written of in the
duodecim anni tempora, the one who gave his
life to a stone woman so she could become the Queen of
Spring. But even if this were true, it tells us so
little, because who was the golden man, really?
There are clues in the ballads, they say. The
magicians, with a grin and a wink, say it's all there.
Perhaps there are even some clues in this version,
unbeknownst to me. I asked the magicians I have come
across in my time -- two of the twelve: he of High
Summer and she of the Pink Moon -- and neither knew
the truth. They seemed quite content with that.
Knowing all the secrets of the universe, they said,
would be like having a library full of books you've
Perhaps they are as wise as the world says they
are, and it's simply more fun to wonder.
Maybe not even the King knows what secrets dance
behind the eyes of a dragonfly.