The Serpent atop the Mountain
–completely insane, I mean you can’t tell me you actually believe those superstitions.
–Matters very little what I believe, in the last analysis. Mattered very little what the individual villagers on the island believed, either.
–Now what do you mean by that?
–I mean most of them were just as skeptical as you or I would be. Not publicly, of course. In public they all spoke in the same hushed tones, venerating the Serpent at the top of the mountain. Recited the same general formulae to show their respect to the local God.
–Oh, the basic things you have to say in public to keep a society functioning. It was only a little village of a few hundred people, maybe a thousand at most. But it was an old village, and that means its traditions can’t have been wholly stupid.
–You’re dodging the question.
–Only because it seems so silly here. It didn’t seem silly there, is the point I’m trying to make.
–So what did they believe?
–They said they believed, “The Serpent atop the mountain gives life to all men.” Or, “The Serpent atop the mountain makes our crops grow full and plentiful in the fullness of the season.” Or, “The Serpent atop the mountain makes the hilltop to smoke and belch fire when the manners of the people become corrupt.”
–A cruel God. I don’t think I could believe in a God like that.
–Well, neither could I, thank God we live in a civilized age. And the sun never sets on Queen Victoria’s empire.
–Long may she reign!
–Long live the Queen. Anyway, they all said these things in public, and some of them took it seriously even in private. But you know how it goes, the best people were all a little cynical about it. The priests, the scribes, the village elders. I never met one of them who didn’t privately tell me they were pretty sure there was no Serpent atop the mountain.
–Priestcraft, in other words. Scare the farmers into the fields with promises of punishment.
–Exactly. Although only very rarely would one of the village elders come out and say that. And even then it was usually because he was drunk or otherwise uninhibited–which was forbidden by the decree of the Serpent atop the mountain, by the way. Drunkenness was forbidden.
–So they didn’t even follow their own good advice, these best people. Pass me the bottle, if you please, my wineglass is empty.
–With pleasure. Anyway, I say it mattered very little what they believed in private.
–You did say that. Explain.
–Because no matter what they believed in private, they had to publicly pay their respects to the Serpent atop the mountain. Which meant that, publicly at least, everything they did was judged according to the official narrative and standards of judgment. So of course rumors spread about a great Corruption among the people.
–So everyone was denouncing the corruption in public while practicing it in private, is that it?
–Right. Which made for a cynical mood among the people. Everyone expects the thieves and prostitutes to be liars, but now the farmers and the priests began to think, “Well, why not us?” Food was plentiful in those days and no one in living memory had seen so much as a wisp of smoke rising from the mountaintop. So why work so hard? Why observe the fasts and rituals? Why not engage in the crime against nature and… other things?
–Mr Wilde would fit right in!
–Indeed, indeed. But the years went on and the whispers grew. Some of the sons of the better families began proposing–privately, of course, not in public at first–an expedition to the mountaintop to see if they could find any trace of the Serpent.
–They wanted concrete evidence, in other words.
–Yes. But as I was saying, the whispers grew. It wasn’t something the people, even the best people, were eager to talk about. But a mood descended on the village. Just a mood at first. They began to feel anxious. Edgy. Uncertain. Like when you take a wrong turn along the road and secretly worry every step takes you further away from your destination… but you keep going. You may even begin to laugh and make merry, just because you’re in good spirits, you’ll say. But it’s really–
–It’s really because you’re getting more and more worried you’ve made a mistake.
–And you can’t allow yourself to face that terrible possibility. So the people worried, and so they became bolder. Before long it wasn’t uncommon for them to suggest in the light of day that there really wasn’t such a creature as the Serpent atop the mountain. Even the best people! The village elders, or at least their sons and daughters.
–Sounds to me like they were just freeing themselves from a lot of old-fashioned superstitions.
–That’s what they said, naturally. “Who are you to tell me what I can and can’t do in my own house?” and that kind of thing. “See, I’m not harming anybody!” they said, and looked around to make sure somebody agreed with them.
–Progress, in other words. Freedom from the specters of the past.
–Generally I agree with you. But as I’ve said, the whole village became permeated with a creeping anxiety. A feeling as if they’d strayed too far and were tempting the divine wrath. But of course it was only a feeling, and an individual feeling at that.
–Well, yes and no. Anxiety is only ever your own anxiety, even if the whole village is overrun with the feeling of a coming catastrophe. No one admitted to it publicly, at any rate. So they could easily pretend nothing was wrong.
–But nothing was wrong! At least nothing you’ve told me.
–Could be, could be. But around that time the eldest son of the eldest village elder gathered up an expedition to climb the mountain. Had to disprove all this scaremongering about the Serpent atop the mountain once and for all.
–But even then, some of the more devout villagers said, “Stop this madness! You’ll bring down the fire from the sky upon us.” The whole village assembled there on the day the expedition meant to set out. And the more superstitious ones said their piece, and we all listened, but the real decision had already been made. We left the village that afternoon and began our ascent–
–We did? You mean you went with the expedition.
–Yes, well, I had to do something while I waited for the next ship to take me back to civilization. And they seemed to think of me as a kind of good luck charm–world traveler and the only white man on the island. They called me The God Killer and said I had an inborn racial gift for dragging mountains into the sea. They expressed it quaintly, mind you, none of them had read Mr. Darwin, but quite rightly for all that.
–And so you began your ascent.
–We did. The entire island, naturally, was part of the mountain rising out of the sea. Steep country, especially once you leave behind the plains where the village proper was located. And after the plains you have the thick jungle, “Which no man has ever penetrated,” or so says the local folklore. The truth is that criminals and men looking for a peaceful escape from their wives visited the jungle all the time.
–Their native version of traveling to the Pacific, ha, ha!
–I haven’t the faintest idea what you mean by that, I love my wife tremendously. Anyway, by the end of the first day we’d reached the edge of the jungle. On the second day we sacrificed a virgin to the Serpent god–to propitiate him and induce him to bless the expedition with great success.
–Even though you were trying to–
–Yes, I pointed out the contradictions of performing a sacrifice to the Serpent god as part of an expedition to prove the nonexistence of said Serpent god. Personally, my impression is just that they wanted to perform a virgin sacrifice, although again if you want to get technical she wasn’t a virgin anymore by the time the sacrifice was performed.
–Marvelous cooks, though, plus it gave us a supply of fresh meat for the trip through the jungle. Anyway, on the third day we stepped into the jungle and were soon in the thick of it. On the fourth day the canopy overhead grew so thick we couldn’t tell if it was day or night. On the fifth day we emerged from the jungle only to find we’d emerged back where we’d started from.
–Walking in circles!
–Yes, and worse: we saw smoke rising from the top of the mountain. Thick, black, filling half the sky like a thundercloud from the belly of the earth. One of the men dropped stone dead from fright as soon as he’d seen it.
–What a shock!
–Yes, but it renewed our supply of fresh meat for the second attempt at the jungle. Take the good with the bad.
–So you made another attempt?
–Starting on the sixth day, yes. Nearly half the expedition left us, though, saying the attempt was cursed. The cowards went back to the village. We threw rocks at them and they said they would impregnate our women while we were gone.
–Most unseemly. So by the seventh day there were only six of us–not including me–and the black cloud from the mountain covered the whole sky, so even without walking into the thick jungle we couldn’t tell day from night.
–Did you ever make it through?
–It took nearly a month, but on the twenty-ninth day we emerged on the far side of the jungle. Then we began our ascent in earnest, my two companions and me being all that remained of our company. And after the jungle, strange to say, we made pretty easy progress. Wide trails cut in the rock, almost like the ruins of an ancient road–
–Or the worn trail of a Serpent god?
–Or that, yes. And the shadows grew black overhead, and the Earth shook now and then, and ash fell like snow from the mountainside. Which perturbed the religious sensibilities of my comrades, I’ll admit, but I explained to them these were perfectly normal natural phenomena preceding the eruption of a volcano. And that didn’t reassure them much, but we were dead men anyway. Might as well make merry.
–And so you continued even though you knew you were heading into almost certain death?
–Nothing better to do. Besides, the trail to the mountaintop was so easy and so convenient, as if carved by human hands. Would have been rude not to follow it to the end. Which we came to, of course, after another two days. The end, that is.
–And what did you find there?
–Great craftsmanship! We stood at the top of the mountain, where you can look down on the whole island in all directions. And twisted around the height of the peak, forged from gold with emerald eyes, an enormous Serpent glared down upon the village below. Too beautiful, too terrifying, really, to have been the product of human hands. Or savage hands, at least, I mean our sculptors could easily have surpassed it.
–Naturally. But what about your companions?
–Oh, they went insane. Started prostrating themselves and shouting, “We have blasphemed the natural order and allowed The God Killer to seduce us to his evil ways! Oh forgive us, great Serpent atop the mountain!” Most embarrassing. They ended by killing each other. Which was fortunate, really, because my meat stock had grown low by then.
–Divine providence, perhaps.
–Perhaps. Anyway, there was an earthquake and for a while I was pretty sure I was about to die. Thought the mountain would explode and send me straight to the depths of Satan’s domain. But instead I was spared. All that happened was that I watched the whole village on the plain get swallowed into the sea. Awful business.
–So with my meat supply in hand I made my return journey. And by the time I reached the place where the village of a thousand people had once been I found there were no survivors. Fortunately, a ship back to civilization arrived the very next day. I returned with only the two emeralds I’d taken, formerly the eyes of the Serpent atop the mountain.
–What a strange, superstitious people!
–Truly. I can’t fathom what they were all so anxious about.