From the time she was a small child, Clytemnestra harbored an intense fear of snakes. It all stemmed from a day she had been playing in the garden of the courtyard of her parents’ magnificent palace. She kept to herself for the most part, preferring instead to sit among the flowers and call them names, bestowing each pansy with its own history, inventing grand tales of their heroics, narrating romances between the rose and gardenia. Being the child of a king and queen, she would never, of course, be left alone. Rather, her nurse would stand back a few paces and keep quiet watch.
But one day her nurse fell ill, and, begging Clytie’s pardon (for Clytie was her nickname), she ran off to the servant’s quarters a moment to find another nurse to relieve her, and it was then that tragedy struck.
A small garter snake no longer than Clytie’s arm slithered out from under the thicket of honeysuckle vines from which she was making a wreathed crown, and it sat there, inquisitively staring at the young girl. Clytie had never seen a snake before, and she was entranced with how delicate the little creature was, how her tiny tongue flicked in and out ever so deftly, how it stared unmoving for so long that Clytie felt the little oddity could see straight into her mind.
And so Clytie did what any curious child would do: she put out her hand to touch the little snake, and the snake leaned forward ever so slowly, then changed course and rapidly slithered around her wrist, twining itself as if it were a bracelet. At first, Clytie laughed aloud at this funny little creature for whom she had no name, and she turned her wrist this way and that, and the little patterns on the snake’s body glittered in the noonday sun.
But without warning, she heard a scream—not her own, mind you, but the scream of the nurse who had come to replace the other. For you see this woman had a deadly fear of snakes, herself having been bitten by a venomous variety when SHE was a child. All she had to do was see a snake of any variety thenceforth, and she would remember: the days of the fever, the swelling of her leg, which grew to twice its size, the feeling that she would never recover, the worry on her mother’s face that never seemed to end. And so the moment she saw the glittering garter on Clytie’s wrist, she screamed so loudly that it seemed as if the earth shook, and Clytie turned round to look at her, startled and shocked.
“Little Lady, it’s a…it’s a…it’s a SNAKE! It’s going to STRIKE!”
And Clytie said, “It’s a what? It will what? It’s my friend. Look how she made herself into a bracelet for me!” Clytie was torn between feeling affection at the dear innocent creature and fear at the look on her nurse’s face.
The nurse said “Little Lady it could KILL you! We must remove it AT ONCE!”
And Clytie lifted her arm and said, “This? Could KILL me?” And with the nurse’s frantic nod, Clytie grew very, very scared. She held her arm as far away from her body as possible and said “DO something, PLEASE!”
So the nurse, frantic, picked up a sturdy branch and coaxed the snake onto it, and eventually, the little garter moved onto the branch and away from Clytie’s wrist, but the nurse lost her composure and she shoved the branch away, which startled the snake, so it fell onto the ground in a writhing mass before it righted itself and slithered under a bush, and the commotion so frightened Clytie that now, SHE screamed, and she ran to her nurse, grabbing hold of her round her waist, tears springing from her eyes.
As the nurse calmed her and walked her away from that part of the garden, Clytie started to rub her wrist, and the more she rubbed it, the redder it got, so that by the time she was back in her room, it was sore and raw. From that day on, she never went back to the courtyard again, being afraid she might run into the creature, and she memorized the name of it, saying it again and again while she rubbed her wrist. She associated the pain of her wrist with the fear on her nurse’s face, and from thenceforth, like the nurse, she harbored an intense fear of all snakes, hoping that she would never have cause to cross one’s path again.
Many years passed and Clytie grew into her name. She was again known as the great Clytemnestra, an intelligent and beautiful woman who traveled the land with her knights in search of kingdoms with which she could form alliances. After her encounter with the snake, when she stopped playing in the courtyard, she had devoted her life to reading, and between her own study and her family’s assistance, she had become highly skilled in the art of diplomacy, and she was especially successful at bringing harmony between warring factions. Her negotiations had always gone well, until she inadvertently mixed politics with love. She was attempting to form an alliance with a nation her own had long been fighting, and in the midst of the discussion with the war council, her eyes landed on a man who was dark and mysterious, and from thenceforth, she was lost.
Not long after she retired to her chambers following a day of tense arguments, she was disturbed by a quiet knock at her door. She asked her servant to open the door and the lamplight fell on the dark stranger. He begged to speak to her, saying it was of the utmost importance. She asked that he be let in and asked her servant to wait in the hall adjoining her chamber.
The man told her that the men of his kingdom were planning to double cross her. He told her that even though the negotiations had been going poorly, that the next day, the head of the war council would offer her terms that would seem too good to be true. And of course, he was there now to say they WERE too good to be true, because the terms would be a sham. They were going to try to get her to sign an agreement on false pretenses, then use her signature against her to gain the support of several nations that were on her side. This would set up the conditions for a coup.
Clytemnestra asked the stranger, “Why would you come to me and tell me this? These are YOUR kinsmen. Why would you betray them?” And the stranger replied, “I had every intention of going along with their plot, until I saw you, Milady, and then my resolve vanished.”
And so there it was, the stranger used a weapon on her that she never confronted: flirtation. Clytemnestra had been so focused in her years thus far on creating harmony between nations that she had never found time for dalliances with the opposite sex. And so, being completely unskilled in the art of seduction, it never occurred to her that this man might be using such a tactic with her.
So as they talked into the night, and as the two uttered romantic words back and forth, they mixed politics with love, and as a result, the stranger got Clytemnestra to stand before the council the next day and disrupt the negotiations with a set of absurd demands.
The war council, of course, had constructed the entire ruse. They had placed this man on the council in hopes she would notice him and had told him exactly what to do to woo her, so they were behind the betrayal plot. It was his job to get her to trust him enough to do what he asked. If she would do what he asked, they would have grounds to revolt, which would start a great war. In no time at all, they would be able to gain support from kingdoms who felt betrayed by her, and they would be victorious. They would dismantle her realm.
And that is precisely what happened. Clytemnestra changed course, the war council argued back, and a great battle ensued.
Since Clytemnestra had changed her tactics, many of the nations that had come to support her felt abandoned by her. The felt her rhetoric in the past had not revealed who she really was, and so they turned on her kingdom.
In the end, her vast kingdom was cut into many pieces. The alliances were broken. And she returned to her palace with only one of her knights remaining, as the rest had been killed. Her once-magnificent palace blackened and crumbling. The courtyard in disarray, trees and flowers and bushes all burned to the ground. The halls empty of all their treasures. Scarce anything remained, her family and servants all killed or fled for their safety.
As she walked into the cavernous entrance, the drawbridge unable to close anymore as the mechanism had been destroyed, she reached up and felt along the wall for support. She yearned to feel something familiar. But her fingers instead ran across a carved metal ornament that she did not recall having been there before, and she stopped to look at it closely. Holding her torch up to it in the darkness, she shivered when she saw that it was a carving of a figure with snakes wound all around it. She pulled her hand back quickly and wondered how it got there and what it meant.
Her knight saw her shiver in the darkness and he said, “Milady? What’s wrong?”
She said, “Oh nothing. I was just surprised that they didn’t take everything when they ransacked my family home.” But she did not tell him what she had touched.
He sighed and looked around the seemingly empty room in the dim light and said, “It is a terrible tragedy, what they did. I am still stunned by the war. I guess it’s true, what people say.”
“What?” she asked.
“That when the wheel turns, all that was gained can be lost in a heartbeat,” he said.
Clytemnestra was too sad to speak, and could only nod in assent.
Days turned into weeks which turned into months, as Clytemnestra tried to rebuild her home. She sent her knight to the neighboring village to see if he could find anyone to tell them it was safe to return, but other than a few servants, he found none of her family or friends. They all tried to put the palace back as it had been, but it proved to be impossible, so they lived with what they had, and they got to work rebuilding the garden first. Though Clytemnestra had avoided the courtyard for years after her childhood scare, she went to work alongside the others, clearing the brush and tilling the soil so they could grow their own food. The work was hard, and the day was long.
To pass the time, Clytemnestra told stories of her alliances made to the servants and her knight. But the story of the last failed negotiation and the betrayal by the dark stranger she never told. She was too ashamed to reveal to anyone that she had been taken in and her alliances and kingdom destroyed because she fell for the ploy of the man who told her she was beautiful. A man who told her he loved her at first sight.
So as she spun her stories, and they toiled, the garden grew.
In due time, the remaining inhabitants of the palace had good food to eat. The courtyard that had once been filled to the brim with beautiful, fragrant flowers was now filled to the brim with fruit trees, vegetables, and grains. The knight went out once a day with bow and arrow and brought down small game, and every night in the empty halls of the palace, Clytemnestra, her knight, and her servants sat down on the floor to a banquet made from their own hands. Clytemnestra thought the food tasted better than she ever remembered.
Clytemnestra had tried not to think of the dark stranger who betrayed her, but one thing nagged at her mind. It was that he had vowed he would return to rescue her. When she made her demands, and the war council declared its will to fight back, she had looked across the great hall at the dark stranger in shock (for this was not the way things were supposed to go, according to him), and she screamed “Help Me!” to him. He had yelled back to her, “I shall rescue you, Milady!” but of course, he never had.
This led to her later realization that his entire speech to her was a ruse, and from this she felt his declaration of affection for her to be a lie. When everything fell apart, this only confirmed her feelings about his actions.
Yet a small part of her still wondered, was this all part of some larger plan, and would he return?
And so on the day she looked out of her bedroom and saw a horse and rider coming from the distance at great speed, she knew it was him.
She ran down the spiral stairs two at a time until she reached the cavernous door to the palace, and as she waited, her hand went instinctively up to the ornament to the left of the opening and her fingers ran lightly over the figure surrounded by snakes. Her right arm tingled a bit as she remembered the way she rubbed it raw after her nurse had pushed the snake away.
As the dark stranger rode up, she wished suddenly for her knight to be there for protection, but she realized by the position of the sun that he must be out already, hunting for their dinner.
The dark stranger jumped down from his horse and gave her a mysterious half-smile as he approached. And then suddenly, he stopped short and looked down at Clytemnestra’s feet.
“Milady, there is…don’t move…by your feet…a…” he stopped, frightened.
“A what?” she asked, lightly.
“A snake,” he said.
Clytemnestra didn’t move. A snake? After all this time, a snake? What did a snake matter anymore? She had been to the abyss and back. She had seen her courtyard in ruins and brought it back to life. She had lost her allied kingdoms and almost everything for the sake of a stranger’s attention and false affection, and yet she had survived. What difference was one little snake going to make?
So she stood her ground and didn’t flinch as the snake moved silently past her feet and out towards the stranger who stood there, pointing.
The snake moved up to the man and made a loose circle around his feet.
He stood there, rooted. “Milady, there are…there are…MORE!”
Clytemnestra turned and looked behind her to the bright sun streaming into the dark palace from the opening to the great courtyard. She saw the riot of colors in the fruit trees and vegetable garden, the wind lightly moving the wheat and barley. And then she saw them. At least 100 snakes, all coming from the courtyard, all towards her.
NOW she felt frightened. She could handle one little garter snake. She handled one in the past just fine; it was her nurse who didn’t, who had scared her with her own fears of snakes. But 100 of them? She turned back to the dark stranger, who pleaded, “Milady, I’ve come to rescue you. I told you I would come. I’m here. For you. Just call your pet away, so I can come in and get you.”
Clytemnestra looked at the man and back at the slowly approaching snakes. Her wrist tingled. She looked at the ornament on the wall. She had a revelation.
“What if you are here not to rescue me, but to take me prisoner? What if this was your plan all along? What if you never cared for me nor thought I was lovely, but filled my head with romantic notions, all so you could wrest from me my alliances and kingdoms? What if the last piece of your sick and twisted puzzle is to come here and take me away, to put me into a cell forever while you rule?”
The dark stranger laughed and said, “My, but your imagination is as active as you are beautiful. Of course I am only here to save you, to take you to my land and call you my queen.”
Clytemnestra looked at her feet. The hundred snakes all stood around her, their necks and heads uplifted, as if waiting for her command. She decided to ask for their guidance.
“Oh snakes, you have emerged from the mold and decay of the courtyard and come to live among the fruits of our labor. I value your wisdom. Tell me true, is this man false?”
The snakes all looked up at her as she spoke, then in unison, in response to her question, they began to move forward. They approached the stranger and, like the garter that had circled his feet, they formed a circle around him. He stood there trying not to shake.
Clytemnestra repeated, “Tell me true, oh snakes, is this man false? If you believe he is here to rescue me and make me his queen, unwind yourselves from his feet and return to my courtyard. But if you believe he is false, let your wisdom be known.”
And the first garter snake slowly began to slither up around his body, climbing up his legs and up to his neck, where it wound itself as if it were a choker. And after the first snake moved, another followed, and then another, and another, and another, until the man was standing there with snakes encircling his entire body.
The dark stranger shook, and he cried, “Milady! Call off your snakes!”
And Clytemnestra smiled and said, “Snakes, as you will, let it be done.”
And the snakes began to tighten around the dark stranger.
Not a single snake was venomous. Not a single snake opened its mouth to bite. Not a single snake had the power to suffocate.
But 101 snakes DID. And so they pulled and twisted and tightened around the dark stranger, cutting off his circulation. He fell to the ground next to his horse, his feet kicking, his hands paddling the air, trying to make an escape. But he could not. The more he moved, the more the snakes tightened their collective grip.
His face grew redder, his breath convulsed, and with cries growing more and more faint, he stopped breathing, and he died.
Clytemnestra stood very still. A single tear ran down her face, for a part of her had wished the stranger’s lies to have been true.
At that moment the knight returned, his bow and arrow in his right hand, his day’s catch slung over his shoulder in a bag. He noticed the figure lying on the ground encased in snakes, and he ran past him up to Clytemnestra.
“Milady! Are you alright? I am so sorry I was not here to defend you. Who is this man?”
“I am alright, dear knight. The snakes were here. They defended me. They defended our palace.”
“You mean YOUR palace, Milady,” he said.
“No, dear knight, OUR palace. It belongs to all of us now. The people remaining…and the snakes.”
“Ah the prophecy is true, then,” he said.
“Prophecy?” Clytemnestra asked.
“The prophecy carved in the ornament by the palace door,” he said.
“You know of the ornament?” she asked.
“Know of it, Milady? Of course I know of it. I hung it there myself.”
Stunned, Clytemnestra asked, “When did you hang it?”
“I hung it many years ago. My father carved it. He was a metalworker. He said it was a talisman of luck and protection. I hung it there for your family who had always been so good to mine. Your parents cared for my mother when she was bitten as a child, you see. She would have died were it not for their help.”
“Your mother?” she asked. “Was she a nurse to me?”
“She might have been,” the knight replied. “You had many nurses when you were a child. I remember. When I went to my training every morning I saw you in the courtyard playing. You used to play there a lot. Then one day you stopped coming. I never knew why.”
“It was the snake,” she replied. “A snake crawled around my wrist. I didn’t know what it was, but my nurse had grown sick, and she called another to take her place, and this nurse screamed at me when she saw the snake round my wrist. She told me about how she had been bitten as a child and from that day on, I was afraid of snakes. I wouldn’t play in the garden anymore. That’s when I turned to books, to learning about military strategy. I missed the garden, but I learned so much that I became a great negotiator for the kingdom. Until I met him, that is,” her gaze wandered to the man lying dead.
“Then all my knowledge turned to dust with the turn of the wheel…as you said, we can lose everything we have gained so abruptly. This man came to me after the war council meeting and told me a story that I believed. I believed it because he flattered me. He told me he was in love with me. He got me to believe the lie so that I would act contrary to myself. When I did, the negotiations fell apart, and the other kingdoms went to war against ours. We lost everything because of that man, but also, because of me.”
She wiped away tears.
The knight walked closer to her and said, “No, Milady, you see, the wheel has turned again. Everything happened because it should have happened that way.”
“I don’t understand,” she said.
“Milady, the nurse you speak of was my mother. She had been bitten and nearly died when she was young. She became so afraid of snakes, even harmless ones. When you were growing up, you were not afraid, but she upset you so much that you became afraid. She came home one night to tell us that she had seen a snake in the courtyard garden and became afraid again as she was when she was a child, but my father assured her that snakes are emblems of protection. And the next day he made that ornament in his shop. I carried the ornament into the palace and when no one was about, I hung it at the door. I know that my mother would not have lived from the bite had your family not helped her, and I also know that a snake bites only if provoked. What happened to my mother was unfortunate, but she survived because she was helped. It is the same with you, Milady.”
“I lost everything, but I was helped, and I survived,” Clytemnestra said.
“Yes, tis true, Milady. You lost everything when you believed in this man. And when you returned here, you entered the palace that was guarded by the snake emblem made by my father. From thenceforth, you were under its protection. In fact, it was the very destruction of the palace that might have called forth the snake brethren to come to your aid.”
“How so?” she asked.
“Snakes live in many environments and adapt to change. Your courtyard was all but destroyed, but the seeds of life lay dormant, and the snakes thrived in the piles of leaves and brush, finding many places to build up their numbers while you were gone. As you and I and the others brought your courtyard back to life, they were there, waiting to protect you in case anyone should come to harm you.”
“I asked them to show me if he was true or false. They showed me he was false, and they took his life,” she said.
“I see, Milady. And now that your foe is vanquished, they will return to your garden to rest until called again,” he said. And as if on cue, the snakes slowly relaxed their hold on the dark stranger and slithered past Clytemnestra and her knight back to the courtyard.
Clytemnestra walked over to the carved ornament on the wall and ran her hand over it. The sun, breaking through a cloud, pierced through a hole in the roof, illuminating the carved surface. Now she could finally see the detail wrought in the metalwork, and she gasped.
“Milady? What causes your surprise?”
“The figure…I could not see it before. It is not a man that the snakes encircle. It is a woman.”
“Of course,” the knight replied. “The snakes are emblems of protection for YOU, Milady. They are also symbols of fertility and fecundity. They are here because you have brought life to their home, the garden, and to your palace once again.”
“And so the wheel turns ever more…” she began.
“And what has been lost can thenceforth be regained,” the knight finished, with a smile.
And from that day forward, with every meal she helped lay before her knight, her servants, and the family and friends who made their way back to the palace, Clytemnestra made sure to save a place for the snakes. Sometimes one or more came to share her table, but mostly they preferred to sun themselves on the bricks. But regardless of where they chose to eat or rest, they were thenceforth the guardians of the palace as well as reminders that the wheel of life never stopped spinning. What is gained may be lost; what is lost may be found.
And every morning and every eve, Clytemnestra and her faithful knight walked round her courtyard, and she never feared snakes again, but revered them, to the end of her days.
(Notes: The idea of a snake tightening around a betrayer’s body was inspired by Laura Gonzenbach’s tale “The Snake Who Bore Witness for a Maiden”. All other elements of the tale are inspired by the discovery that I have several snakes living around (and I think inside) the front steps of my house (as well as in the rest of my yard). The number of snakes, 101, comes from my cousin Sharyn telling me that garter snakes may give birth to anywhere from 5 to 101 snakes. I am not very comfortable with snakes, and they do scare me, but I admit that when I asked why they were here, they told me that it was so I could write this story. My hope is that I am less scared by them now 🙂