The snake coiled around Melissa’s wrist and forearm, wrapped over and under and back upon himself like the Mobius strip Snake had once cut from cloth and used in a lesson on mathematics.
Melissa remembered how surprised she’d been at just how much math was involved in being a healer. She’d thought it was as simple as choosing the correct snake to bite the patient and inject its healing venom. And then, when she’d learned just a tiny bit more, she’d thought it was as simple as selecting the right medicine to feed to the animal which was fed to the snake. But no. The dose still had to be calculated for the weight and age of the patient, for the severity of the illness, even for the weight and type of the animal that carried the dose.
Melissa was an indifferent mathematician at best. Luckily, those calculations were not complex. Even more luckily, she had proved to have other talents.
The snake’s lithe body flexed and pulsed against her muscles. She loved the feeling of snakes, their cool smooth skin, their flexible strength. Twenty years since she’d first touched a snake, and all the wonder of it was still with her, undimmed by time.
Even more now. This was her snake. He was one of many, but all were hers. And he was the first. This long, slim, silver-sheened snake was the culmination of ten stubborn, painstaking years of work, of stillbirths and malformations and of perfectly good snakes that simply didn’t have the qualities Melissa was looking for. But once she created this snake, she knew that she had the right pattern. The rest came easily.
There were hundreds of them now, kept safe with the healers, breeding true. Soon there would be thousands. One day there would be enough to give to every healer in the world, one to keep for themselves, and one to give to the leader of every town or tribe or family. One day, everyone in the world would have the same neat double scar that Melissa wore with pride, the mark of her snake’s protective bite.
She lifted her arm, raising the snake’s head level with her own. His forked tongue flicked out, delicately tasting the air. The pupils of his golden eyes contracted, and he hissed softly.
“Yes,” Melissa said. “Yes, we’re in the right place.”
She stood in a plain pocked with craters like pitted scars. They were the remains of nuclear blasts, still deadly hundreds or even thousands of years later. Early in Melissa’s apprenticeship, Snake had warned her of them, and told the story of Jesse, who had been lied to so often and about so much that Jesse had believed that their danger was no more than a myth. Jesse, who had died hard, with Snake unable to even ease the pain. It was the first time Melissa had seen Snake cry, but it hadn’t been the last.
Melissa too had wept when she’d realized that she wasn’t meant to be like Snake. She’d so longed to follow in Snake’s footsteps. But she didn’t enjoy cleaning wounds or dosing ill people, no matter how much she wanted to want to. Her love and gifts lay elsewhere. But she was a healer too, after all. She’d never tend the sick. But she would heal the world.
Melissa touched the scar of her own snake’s bite, clearly marked against the smooth skin of her forearm. She had other scars, so many scars, but this scar was the one she loved. She’d deliberately placed it where it wouldn’t be lost against the still-shiny burn tissue, or against the tiny, faded bites of dreamsnakes.
The snake rubbed his head against her fingers. His oddly metallic scales glittered in the sun.
“Silver,” Melissa said. “Your name is Silver.”
She had never before named any of her snakes. It had always seemed too potentially heartbreaking. So many of them died of her mistakes, of miscalculation or overambition or for reasons she could never pinpoint. And the survivors, while they were healthy snakes that the healers would feed and tend for all their lives, had no use in themselves.
Melissa walked to the edge of the crater, with Silver coiled around her wrist. Despite all her experiments, despite her absolute knowledge that Silver’s bite conferred protection against radiation, she felt a lurch of fear in her heart. The experiments had all been on animals. She believed, but couldn’t know, that Silver’s venom protected humans.
Someone had to be the first to test that. And who better than Silver’s creator?
Older healers had volunteered, men and women nearing the end of their lives. No one had wanted Melissa to be the first. Snake had practically demanded to go in Melissa's stead, though the arthritis in her knees was so bad now that such a long trip would be painful or even impossible.
Finally, Melissa had simply taken Silver and left. And here she was.
She had chosen this crater for its sloping edge. If she broke her leg climbing, she’d die as easily as from exposure as from radiation.
Her heart beat faster as she stepped on to that deadly slope. But it steadied as she walked down, and by the time she stood at the bottom of the crater, she felt completely calm. She would sleep in the crater with Silver to keep her company, and then she would return to the healers with her own healthy body as proof of her work. And soon after that, no one would ever again die as Jesse had died.
"You saved me, Snake," Melissa said, though only Silver could hear her. "You didn't save Jesse, but Jesse created Silver just as much as I did. And now Silver will save everyone."
Melissa lay down on her back on that poisoned land. The stars shone bright and clean overhead. Silver uncoiled himself and slithered inside Melissa's shirt, seeking the heat of her body. Melissa settled comfortably into the sand. With Silver's lithe body curled up atop her belly, she fell peacefully asleep.