The Snake Eaters

Tara Isabella Burton

We had not died. We had made it deep into Khevsureti without tumbling off the pass or being shot by itinerant Chechens; the van had rolled precariously down the mountain until we thought to secure it with a stray log, and Misha, beleaguered but well-paid, had escorted us to the summit of a nearby cliff and pointed out the crypts with one of the three remaining fingers on his right hand.


He returned to the van to finish his cigarette. The cliffs curved and protruded outwards like the spines of dragons; the air smelled like rain.

Felix leaped upon the tombs and traipsed from one to the other with all the reverence of a mountain goat, clicking his camera at the skeletons.

“Don’t do that,” Leah placed her hands against the tomb and closed her eyes. “There are spirits here.” She began to hum softly and drag her skirts into the mud. “Do you know what they used to do?” She did not wait for my reply. “If they had cholera, back in the old days. Or the plague. They’d just come out here to die.” She peered into the crypt and blew the dust off the bones. “Just wait. So as not to infect the others. I think that’s beautiful. To come here to die.”

“If I did have to die,” I said. “I suspect this is the place I’d do it.” The waterfall had grown black with shale and the air vibrated with mosquitoes.

“If you look long enough,” said Leah, “the green becomes black.” She put her hand on my shoulders and I shivered but said nothing. “We should say a prayer or something?” she said. “Which gods do the Khevsurs worship? That’s the sort of thing you’d know, isn’t it?”

I did.

Leah had declared herself a pagan over breakfast. She had squeezed my hand and told me that she felt the power of wood-nymphs and sky-goddesses wherever she went, and that the fresh rams’ skulls she’d spotted dotted all along the mountain path had brought her far closer to the brink of illumination than the perfunctory services she’d attended in Tbilisi.

“My friend gave me a copy of your book,” she said. “I thought about reading it. But I’m not very academic. I don’t normally read anything with footnotes—I’m not clever enough.” She smiled at me. “And maybe it’s better not to know. I like to make up my own gods.”

It was a methodical study of pagan syncreticism in the Southern Caucasus; it was the only interesting thing I’d ever done.

We looked out over the ravine. “How long was it, do you think?” she asked me. “Until people found them.”

Felix was tottering on the edge of the crypt, and the American girls had started shrieking and begging him to come down.

“I’m not going to fall, you know,” said Felix. “Can’t.”

“How do you know?”

Spirits.” He grinned at Leah and hopped down to a lower ridge.


“When I was in Djibouti. Met a witch-woman. This fucking nutter—sorry, ma’am” (he turned to me) “who offered to tell my fortune. She told me I was going to die at sea. Be thrown overboard—a proper ship’s funeral.” He kicked out his feet against the roof of the crypt. “So you see, I shan’t die here. No matter what the danger.”

Of course he was lying. The story had come to him the moment Leah had closed her eyes and gone into ecstasies at the sheer pagan possibility of the place. I knew it as soon as he had spoken, and when Leah had gone round the bend to pay her respect to the dust and the dead he shot me a sprightly and conspiratorial wink.

“That’s beautiful,” Leah considered, knotting the ferns.

“What is?” He bounded past her and leaned neatly against the crypt until she looked up at him.

“To have a prophecy. I’ve never had anything like that.” Leah had tangled pink hair and wide unblinking eyes and narrow sparrow shoulders when she hunched forward, her face set against the wind and the oncoming darkness. “Do you avoid ships, then?”

Felix laughed. “God, no. I take ships all the time. Sailed from Istanbul to Batumi to get here. Stopped at Trabzon. There was this terrible tornado, came awfully close to biting it…”

The rest vanished on the wind. He strode out to the brook and Leah, entranced, followed close after him. They left me behind.

I was used to this. It happened to me often when I was traveling. For a few hours, for the duration of a train-journey or a marshrutka ride, hours I cherished and folded away under my pillow, I could be trusted. My must-curtained skirts and uncombed hair gave off the impression of respectability.

On the drive up, Leah had confessed to me that at the age of sixteen she had once, unable to resist the morbidity of her curiosity and the cigarette-tinted terror of one enormous and empty New York night, stood on a chair and attempted to hang herself off the pipes in her bedroom. At the last moment she’d gotten stuck, and so she’d smashed a porcelain Virgin Mary she kept on her dress-top altar, and used the shards to cut herself down.

Even today, she said, she kept them in her pocket, in a velvet pouch she’d picked up in Marrakesh. They kept her safe.

I told myself her story on the drive up the pass. She was twenty-five and had dyed her hair pink and ran slipshod over continents and never slept in the same bed for more than a month at a time. She carried an altar with her wherever she went—a bag that smelled of patchouli, full of candles and incense and icons she’d picked up on her travels. Her nightly ablutions on the grimy floor of the hostel bore little resemblance to any authentic pagan practice; I could not stand to correct her.

She was beautiful and she was vital and the vast cavernous expanse of her promise yawned out at her feet and threatened at every moment to swallow her up.

She had squeezed my hand and blushed when she spoke and pressed into my hand a part of her that would linger with me when she had gone.

It had happened before; it would happen again. The smell of patchouli lingered on my shawl and Felix had convinced her to traipse with him on the rooftops of tombs. Misha emitted an imperious grunt and we re-embarked and continued the journey to Shatili.

The American girls passed around the camera to show off their pictures; one of the Russians attempted an untranslatable boast; the Czech girl kept eating cucumbers out of her backpack, for Misha had thwarted all of our attempts at procuring dinner.

I sat at the end of the table with my book, eating biscuits out of a paper bag, and knew that I had traveled as far as I would ever go with her. She was flirting with Felix, now, and I no longer mattered. Her ears were pink and my face was flushed and she did not look at me.

As we pulled up beneath the black and abandoned fortress at Shatili, the sun burnt out overhead and the first stars appeared motionless in the firmament. I returned to Legends and Histories of the Greater Caucasus and tried to make notes in the margins.

We got off the bus.

“Tower,” said Misha.

Leah looked up at it and rushed forth, her skirts trailing in the mud. “So we’re here,” she called out, and in infinitesimal ecstasy leaned her head against a patch of wildflowers and gaze out to where green had eclipsed the path. “Are we really staying here?

Felix had decided to jog along the mountainside and leap onto the rooftops; Misha had long since stopped trying to keep him alive.

Leah closed her eyes. “At last.” I stepped toward her, but she had already gone, following Felix’s headlong pursuit of a firefly, scrambling after him and skinning her ankle when she fell.

Misha had uprooted a fern from the earth. “Special.”

“Special?” One of the American girls snapped a photograph.


This caught Felix’s attention. “A magic flower?” He jumped down from the tower and began to interfere. “You mean like salvia or something?” He plucked a bit and chortled and pretended to chew a stalk. “Go on, then—let’s see what it does.”

“The fern-flower.” I knew something he did not; I made no effort to hide my satisfaction. “It’s a popular legend in a number of former-USSR countries. Slavic, initially. You crush them and put them in someone’s drink and they fall in desperate, violent, all-consuming love for the course of several hours. It’s at the root of several of the happiest marriages. Not, of course, that I would know.”

Leah smiled slightly; the others looked uncomfortable and said nothing, as people often did when faced with the fact of my spinsterhood. Only Felix laughed, spluttering into nonsense.

“Yes, well, when you’re busy, you know—no time for proper dating, anything like that. Got to speed up the process somehow?” He made a clumsy attempt to nudge me in the ribs.

I told him I had no such idea.

Leah reached down and plucked one of the flowers. “Of course there would be a love-potion,” she said. “Out here.”

“What do you mean, out here?” Felix was absent-mindedly scratching himself behind the ear.

“Well, there’s nothing else out here, is there?” Leah knotted the flowers into a daisy-chain. “We’re so far from home—so far from everything. Why shouldn’t there be love-potions out here? There’s no phone signal.”

“Why not, indeed?” I smiled my inscrutable maiden-aunt smile and did not elaborate further.

It was why I had come, after all; it was why we had all come, putting our lives into Misha’s mutilated hands to spend the night in the writhing, empty Caucasus, where serpents bred and rams wandered and altars stained with blood and moonshine still dotted the mountainside.

“Yes,” Leah decided. “It’s beautiful—they must work. It’s the only way.” She looked at me half-apologetically. “Do they frighten you, Dr. Volk? Or do those things not work on you?”

I had asked her to call me Rebecca. “Does what not work?”

“Don’t you get bored of that sort of thing? If you’re scurried up in a library somewhere writing down spells on index cards. Doesn’t it ruin the mystique, a bit?”

“Doubt it!” Felix interjected swiftly. “I bet she knows every spell and potion by heart. I bet she could hex all of us, if she wanted to.”

“I’m an academic. We don’t hex people. Even if we’d very much like to.”

They did not frighten me. Love-potions and rams’ heads and empty chrismatic vodka-bottles were for those who needed them, for those who lived life soaked through by its storms. Leah’s spirits and wood-nymphs and buzzing dryads did not touch me; I had catalogued them all. I knew their secrets.

Felix cocked his head at Leah. “So you’re a pagan?” He took her in. “That’s terribly interesting. Do you have naked bacchanals in the woods, things like that?”

She laughed; she could not know he was mocking her. “No—not at all. I only light candles…”

“Food.” Misha appeared in the doorway, beckoning us inside.

They left me alone in the starlight, knee-deep in the grass. The cliffs were black now, blacker than the towers, and the only sign of life against that vast emptiness was the clouding and unclouding of the moon. The river ran and the ferns rustled and I belonged to none of it, and so I stood and stared. Here I could stare out into the ravine until it became an abyss, and down the waterfalls to where they penetrated into the broken-down battlements of the earth, and when mountains had become valleys and the streams flowed into the sky, there would be little else to separate the living and the dead.

I pressed the fern-flowers between my fingertips until they turned black; I closed my eyes and felt the naked light of stars. I thought of her—of the way she touched my hand and of the way she did not look at me, of the way she smiled when looking in any direction but mine, and of the things that made her smile, and of the old gods she carried in her rucksack, and of the familiar emptiness that would bring me to my knees when she was gone

But tonight, with my hands black and the petals wedged beneath my fingertips, with the touch of her fingers still seared into my palm, I was no longer divided from the kingdom of all living things, from the rocks that breathed out lizards and the grass that buzzed and hummed and the water that sang as it poured down.

I thought of Leah’s mouth, breaking open into a smile when Felix teased her, when he offered her his arm, and thought of it as I crushed the petals between my palms. I thought of Felix’s sweat and the smell of moonshine on his breath and his hand pushing at her neck and his fingers twining in her hair.

In the distance Misha had brought out the panduri and had begun to play a strange and atonal melody; the night air slanted with sound.

I poured out Misha’s cheap wine into two plastic cups. I crushed the flower into them both and then set them before me on a stone.

I imagined gorging myself, gulping and vomiting up love. I saw myself delirious, stained, pink-haired and overwhelmed and knotted to my own flesh. I saw myself, silvery in moonshine, biting the stains of my palms, licking the pulp from underneath my fingernails, spilling the wine onto my breasts and perfuming my hair. I could tear up my notes; I could devour her trust; I could light candles with her and roll, moss-shrouded, under the light of the moon.

But of course, those things didn’t work on me.

I returned to the tower; I poured out the wine for the table and gave a toast in impeccable Khevsur dialect in honor of new friends and fellow travelers. I placed them down before Felix and Leah and waited.

I watched as her face flushed; I watched as his insouciant grin lost its despicable edge and became foolish and dogged and despairing. I watched as she leaned in and breathed in his words with the night air and parted her lips and rejoiced, dizzy and disquieted, that for the first time in her life she had at last been understood. He touched her hand and I felt it; she let her ankle rest against his and the sensation shivered up my spine. She whispered something in his ear and I heard it. I was there, between them. I was at her side and in the wine they drank. She was dizzy and he was reeling and the light from the fire filled the air with mist.

“I want to make a toast!” Leah was barely standing; she had no breath left. She leaned against the table and it threatened to buckle under her. “No—it’s my turn! It is!”

One of the American girls tried to steady her; Leah pushed her away. “It’s a toast—it’s a love toast. To towers…to the middle of nowhere—it’s so beautiful.” She turned to Felix. “It is—you understand, don’t you? About this? About everything? Yes—you said it yourself, about the prophecy…”

He took her into his arms and kissed her; I burned with them. He pressed her against the stone walls and let his hands wander down her long skirts; he threaded his fingers into her hair and inhaled the breath from her lips.

The others made half-hearted cluckings about propriety; it did not stop them. Her fingers were unbuttoning his shirt; his hands squeezed bruises into her shoulders. The fire was crackling and the air smelled like wine and she had lost herself in him and in her ecstasy she made small mewing sounds of earthly joy.

One of the American girls turned to me. “Shouldn’t you stop them?”

“It’s nothing to do with me,” I said.

They had by now fallen onto the divan. His legs were tangled in her skirts; her hair had wound its way around his neck. The American girls tried to separate them. Leah pushed them away and Felix screamed various curses in languages he did not know. Misha was clutching at his bayonet and banging his misshapen fist upon the table.

They did not hear him. They were foolish and they were glorious; their lips were dark with black wine and their faces flushed with desire and I felt their joy course through me.

“At least wait until we’re gone,” I said, with infinite respectability.

The rest of us filed upstairs in defeat. I stood upon the landing and listened—first to her joy and his murmurs and then the pulsing of her breath and the beginning of his groans.

They were drunk and shook through by love. Felix had stripped to the waist and pulled her chemise over her head; he kissed her breasts and whispered secrets into the side of her wrists. They did not notice me where I remained, silent upon the stair, party and privy and feeling with them the first thrust and the second bite and the final, shivering scream.

She lay in his arms, afterward, kissing his chest and staring out the window at the stars.

“I feel safe here,” she whispered. “I don’t feel safe many places, but here…”

“I’ve been waiting for this,” he said. “Been all over, you know. Been to Djibouti. I was looking for something. But this is what I needed…”

“Why did you come here?” She wrapped his arms more tightly around her breasts.

“Been everywhere else,” he said. “Things stop seeming new.”

“But this is new?”

“It’s different.”

“Different how?” She rolled over and looked at him, propped up upon her elbows, her eyes taking in the fine pale hair on his forearms, the victorious blush on his cheeks.

“I’m not bored,” he said. It meant something.

“It’s different for me too, you know.” Her voice was hasty and breathless. “I’ve never done this before.”

“In a tower?”

She swallowed. “I’ve been waiting for something.”

“Something like what?”

“Your story about the ships…that’s when I knew. That it had to be like this. Out here. With the stars and the wine and the panduri and the mountains all around us. Something like that.”

“I’ve never done it in a tower…” He was staring out the window, conscious only of the moon. “On a ship. I’ve done that. And in a temple, once. And in an opera-house…” He laughed quietly to himself. “But never in a tower. You’re wonderful.”

I listened to them make love a second time. I learned that she wept and that he cried out and that when the astronomical enormity of the moment overwhelmed her she clung to him with drowning desperation and buried her head in his neck. Dawn crept through the holes in the tower and they spoke again:

“We should go to the Black Sea,” she said. “On horseback. With falcons.”

He stirred.

She whispered as she kissed his chest. “I’ll take you to the Black Sea—I’ve always wanted to go. I have it written down in my diary, you know, from when I was little. Not little—but young. That I wanted to fall in love and run off to the Black Sea.” She pressed his fingers to her lips.

I closed my eyes and listened to the sound of her voice mingling with the echoes of the streams.

“But you’re here now,” she continued. “I want to give you something.” She turned and reached into the folds of her skirts and in the exhilarating flush of dawn I could see the naked curve of her breasts.

She pressed something into his hand.

“What are you doing?”

“It’s for good luck,” she said. “I’ve kept it with me my whole life—since I was sixteen. It’s a talisman. But don’t take them out of the pouch—the edges are sharp.”

He sat up. His hair fell from his eyes and the sheet fell from his chest and in the morning light I saw that his lips were pale and that he no longer loved her.

“I can’t take this,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

“Of course you can—I’m giving it to you…” Her mouth was black and parted; her eyes were wide and still glittered with tears.

“No—I mean, I can’t accept it. You’re wonderful—I mean, you really are wonderful, and this has been wonderful…” He fumbled through a litany of excuses and could not settle on any one. “I mean—Georgian wine, awfully strong, you know. Not used to it. Had to go off alcohol for a bit—antibiotics…something I picked up in Senegal.”

She remained naked and unblinking before him.

“I don’t want you to get the impression…”

She waited motionlessly for him to finish.

“I don’t regret a lot of things,” he said. “But I do regret this.”

He could no longer remember what he had whispered, nor the feeling of her hair twined about his fingers, nor the overwhelming taste of that wine. I remembered everything.

He passed me on the stair.

She was naked and curled up before the fire. Her hair covered her breasts and she did not move but only rocked on her heels, her eyes still staring out to where there were no longer stars. Beneath the curve of her emaciated shoulders lay aches and bruises on the flesh which I had not touched, but which I had tasted; my arms ached and stung where they had not been bitten. For a night I had stood upon the stair and known all things; now I stood beside her, and wept with her, and felt the curious ecstasy that came upon me when I knew that my heart had been broken, and that there was no more to feel.

I put a blanket over her shoulders and asked if she was all right.

“You wouldn’t understand,” she said. She dressed swiftly and did not look at me.

I told her I did not.

“I’ve had an adventure,” she said, as she fastened her belt. Her voice was tin-hollow. “I’m going to go out for a while. Don’t wake the others.”

I gathered the velvet pouch from the floor and slipped it into my skirt-pocket. By the time I reached the threshold she was already at the bottom of the hill, running into the bosom of the mountain that embraced her, her skirts lost against the chromatic onslaught of that impossible, ever-darkening green.

We heated our breakfast on the fire, bleary-eyed, and the American girls gossiped when they were sure that Felix was not listening. By nightfall she had not returned.

When the storm first broke above us I dreamed that I saw her come to a breathless stop before the crypts. I saw her furiously uprooting flowers from the earth and praying to old stone gods and ram’s heads. I saw her throwing out her arms against the thunder that shook the bones in their dwelling-places and the lightning bolts that forked down into the river like the tongues of snakes. I saw her, shaking as the mountain shook, wrapping her arms about her knees, curling into the stone, to wait.

It took them three days to find her.

Academic theologian by day, experimental theatre director by night, TARA ISABELLA BURTON lives between Oxford, England, where she’s working on a doctorate in theology and 19th century French literature, and Tbilisi, Georgia, where she haggles for antique swords. Her work has previously appeared in The Spectator, Literary Traveler, Gigantic Sequins, and more. She is the winner of the 2012 Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing. Her website is

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