I am Ranire, the serpent woman who lives in the rubbles of Al-Hammar Palace. Yes, you heard right—the accursed and legendary half woman and half snake that wanders in the desert land of Ukh-Tarar. The poisonous, golden serpent that coils herself around the stones of the desert during daytime and transforms into a beautiful woman at night-- the fabled serpent woman. Alas, alas! That is Ranire indeed. So many men died for me in the last six hundred years! That too, since our story became known. We have been walking the earth for about a thousand years now.... They came to capture me; after all I am the most enchanting creature any mortal ever set his eyes on. Ah beauty! And the legend of the lost treasure of the last King of Ukh-Tarar! You are asking me if all of it is true! Well, what do I know of treasure? What good is gold to me? I am merely a serpent that has been wandering in sands for centuries.
No, I cannot tell you anything about the lost treasure. But if you want to listen to my story, I can tell you that. I can tell you about my father, Nimer, the great lord of the desert, who married Leila, the witch-queen of the western islands. I can tell you of my two brothers who haunt the deserts with me. I still recall the piercing cry of Leila who turned her own child into a monster in her pursuit of power. How long ago was it? She turned us into snakes and along with it bestowed the gift of immortality. Follow me, stranger. Dusk is approaching, and I will soon turn into the glorious beauty you are seeking. But mind, you cannot hold me in your arms. Any man that tries to hold me dies, because my blood is poison, as is my saliva. I am also the poison-woman.
Come, sit on that stone. Yes, I speak the language of human beings, of course. Tarry a little and you will see my human form. So, what was I saying? Oh yes, my story… The first thing I remember about my childhood is my horse Rabab. Even though I was a girl, my father made sure that I learnt horse-riding, swimming, and fencing along with my brother Rion. Rion was just a year younger than I was and we did everything together. He often dressed like a girl to accompany me to the sacred shrine of the goddess Ishtar. The amazing childhood that we had, and the fun and laughter. Our mother had died when we were mere toddlers and our father did not get married until he met Leila. But that would happen years later. Our childhood was pure, unsullied and free. Father was a good king and a devoted father. He made sure that we had everything we needed. I had three hand-maidens to assist me. At the same time, he was also careful so that we did not become arrogant and useless. I remember riding with Rabab under the clear blue sky of the desert. Our spirits were made of the same element I believe. We rode—girl and horse—in the same spirit of freedom and dare.
Our palace was made of sandstone and mortar. The spiraled towers were visible from a distance. Father often went away on expeditions, to battle the distant islanders. He was a fierce warrior and he wanted Rion to be like him. But Rion was poetic and philosophic and he enjoyed roaming in the deserts. He composed music and those tunes echoed the winds howling in the sand dunes. He had watery blue eyes, eyes that reflected the desert sky. He was a quiet child and grew up to be a young man of poetic disposition.
Leila entered our life when I was thirteen years old. I had bled for the first time while father had been away. The wise woman Keira had explained everything, but I was uncomfortable. It was a wintry month of the year; the desert sky was grey and an icy wind blew. The riders announced from the North Tower that father’s army had been sighted. Rion was busy in his room working on a flute when I knocked on his door. We dressed up and waited at the front hall eagerly. Father came and with him was a hooded figure; we could see that it was a woman. A little behind them walked a boy about our age.
“Ranire, Rion, meet your new mother,” our father introduced his bride like the fathers in fairytales do when they bring in their new wives. He gestured to the boy, “And this is your brother, Linden.”
I could sense Rion’s hand trembling in mine. Did Rion sense what lay in the future? I cannot quite remember now how I felt about Leila back then. But honestly, I did not feel any fear. Actually, there was no reason to fear Leila. She was not like any of those evil step-mothers.
Leila was a witch and hence the people of our country were not very welcoming toward her. She was very beautiful in a foreign sort of way with her pale white skin and blond hair. She dyed her hair with henna to look more like us. The result was startling as the dark hair contrasted strangely with her icy white skin. I must admit that she was strange in many ways. When I played my Tobowa (a violin-like instrument of your time) in the garden, she would lurk behind the pillars. Once she said that there was so much pain, nostalgia and languidness in my music that almost paralysed her. She laughed as she added, “You’re too young to play that kind of music.” I could often detect a sadness in her eyes that I did not understand. Now I think that was the sorrow of time. She was a witch after all, and much later I learnt that she was a hundred and fifty years old when she married our father. It must be sad to live on when all your brothers and sisters are already dead, right? I should have understood that in spite of her apparent indifference to Linden, she loved him much. After all, he was all she had.
I often sat beside her and compared my honey-warm hands against her pale ones. No, I never felt even a tinge of jealousy. In those early days, she was more like an elder sister I never had. Rion and I were great friends with Linden, her son from a previous marriage. As it turned out, Linden and Rion were of the same age. Since he did not have any sibling, he took to us. He was very different in his looks though. He was not golden like us, not was he white like his mother. He had a swarthy complexion which Leila attributed to his father’s side. Who was Linden’s father, you ask me? That was one question she always evaded.
In the last thousand years I have often wondered when exactly Leila turned against us. Rion was my father’s heir and there was no chance of Linden ever ascending the throne of Ukh-Tarar. In case of Rion’s death, I or my husband would have been the heir. And if we perished without heirs, the throne would pass on to one of our seventeen sturdy cousins scattered all across the kingdom. Even if Leila had them all killed, she could not become the ruler. You see, a foreigner could never become the King or Queen of Ukh-Tarar. Our people would never allow a stranger to take over the land. They would plough the land with salt before letting a stranger become the ruler.
And yet, Leila aspired. As days passed she grew silent. She watched us with those glassy blue eyes of hers and I saw a steely gleam in them. Strangely enough, Linden was the first one to start avoiding her. His dark eyes turned stormy whenever he looked at his mother. He spent most of his time with us. I still remember when he suddenly burst into my room one evening. He was tall for his sixteen years. He was breathing heavily as he said, “Promise me one thing, Re.” He had shortened my name and called me ‘Re.’ I just gaped at him.
“You will never,” he bit out each word as he spoke. “You must promise you will never go with my mother anywhere alone. You must always take me with you.”
I laughed. “Why, Linden, what’s wrong? What has come over you?”
“No questions. Just remember what I told you.” Linden would say no more.
But I could see him watching over us. He slept in a cot in Rion’s room. He would go with us wherever we went. And Leila grew restless. Nevertheless, as it turned out she had devised a plan to work around Linden.
In the seventh month of that year, our father went away on a tour. He usually took about a month travelling across his country to oversee the people of his kingdom. He did not suspect anything while Rion and I only felt a lingering uneasiness.
Leila had arranged for a celebration at the temple of Ishtar. That is when I learnt that she was a high-priestess of the darker aspects of Ishtar. And she had Rion and me trapped in a pool cleared of water. Her devoted priestesses had us drugged and chained. When I woke up, I found myself tied to a pillar. And Rion was bound to another one close by. Initially, I had thought that she planned to kill us. I whispered to my brother in a steady voice, “It’s only death, Rion. Don’t be afraid. She is an evil witch and a coward.”
Rion turned at me, his face white as sheet. “You have no idea. She plans to turn us into snakes.”
“What? What are you talking about? How can she turn us into snakes?”
Rion whispered, “Linden told me everything—how she killed her three former husbands for dark powers. She wants to be the Queen of Ukh-Tarar. We will become terrifying monsters—immortal, deadly and powerful and we will be the guardian of this land enslaved to her….”
“You’re right there, young prince,” came the sibilant, almost unrecognizable voice of Leila. “I’ll have to eliminate your father too. It’s a pity that I’m having to hurt my son so much. The fool loves you. But he’ll forget in time, especially when he realizes how much power I’ve gained and at my death it’ll all pass on to him.” She paused and added, “And you’ll be with him—only different in forms. You’ll be his defenders.”
“But why, Leila? Did we ever harm you?” I asked falteringly. Such a prospect seemed utterly terrifying and grotesque at the same time. “We love Linden too.”
Leila bent down to look at us and then shook her head. “No, it’s not like that. This kingdom of yours is very special. When I become its queen, I will gain more power than ever. Power is the most important thing, you know.”
She got up and stood on the higher ground and I could see myriads of lights above our heads, and thin lines of a web. There was a strange music somewhere. Her hands were raised above her head and she was chanting in a high-pitched voice. We looked on, mesmerized. We had no power to move. I felt a strange sensation in my body, but it was not painful. It’s at this moment when we heard a crash and howl in the distance.
Then things got blurred and we heard a lot of noise, shouts and above all came a soul killing cry, “Noooooooooo, nooooooo. Lin-deeee-n. Nooooooo…..”
Leila tried to reverse her magic as Linden jumped into our pool of magic web. However, such dark magic can only be reversed at a very high cost. Leila was an extremely powerful witch, and yet she only had one life to offer. She had to die in the process and still we remained snakes. She was able to grant us the gift of half human life. When night comes, we, the three siblings, turn into humans. We sit at some part of the desert, sometime in the old palace ruins, we laugh and chat and then morning light turns us into snakes again- Rion and I are golden in colour, Linden is copper. I can still recall the grey pallor on the Great Lord Nimer’s face when he saw us in our snake forms. He dropped on his knees and hid his face in his hands. The horror of his dear children’s life killed our father within a year. Strong that he was, he loved us more than anything else. Then we, Rion, Linden and I, Ranire, became the serpent legend of Ukh-Tarar.
Why do you tremble, stranger? Ah, you’re nervous, I see. You were not afraid of the golden serpent, but you’re terrified of a woman? Look, my brothers are approaching. The one striding confidently is Linden. Rion is the one with long hair and laughing eyes. Aren’t they handsome? Don’t you think it’s sad that none of us can ever love and lead a happy, normal life? We can never have children. Our blood is poisonous… Can you tell why people hanker after power so much? Every civilization meets its ruin because of some power-hungry monster. And yet, we are the ones called monsters. Poor Leila! She was so powerful and still she could not save the one she loved most. Leila’s spirit haunts this desert too, you know! Can you hear the moaning wind blowing across the western side of that big boulder? That’s Leila… But, go now. It’s not safe to be with the accursed beings of the desert for long. Besides, Linden has a fiery temper. Here-- take this ruby. I don’t know about the lost treasure, but this one is mine to give—for listening to my story.
Sohana Manzoor is Associate Professor, Department of English & Humanities, ULAB. She is also the Literary Editor of The Daily Star.