The Culebre of San Moreno
Leaning on her cane as she hiked up the foothills, Berta recalled Tata Duende’s earlier wisdom. “Nothing human-made can pierce a Culebre’s diamond-hard skin,” the Grandfather Imp had said.
The words had given her a plan, but the closer she drew to the cavern, the tighter she gripped her satchel’s strap.
In the years since the Old Empire’s departure from Delacinco, the people of San Moreno and the Culebre had an arrangement. For one life, every month, the creature agreed to leave the pueblo be. With its armored hide, great teeth, and unmatchable strength, even if the people could muster the courage, killing the Culebre by force was futile—especially for one as aged as her.
Berta volunteered to be this month’s sacrifice, but there’d been resistance. Nobody in the pueblo wanted to lose the beloved old baker; abuela de todos, they’d long called her. Though her decision hadn’t been rash, a chance of her plan not working remained. If it didn’t, at least a young one wouldn’t pay the price.
When she reached the cavern’s mouth, Berta paused to stare out across the valley. The evening lamplight of San Moreno glowed bright below, like a swarm of fireflies. She hoped she’d see it again. She lit her lantern, took a deep breath, and stepped inside.
A putrid smell and the crunching of dried bones with her every step filled the cavern. Then, a voice like a deep hiss said, “Who’s there?”
Berta swallowed. “My name is…Berta Hernandez. I’ve come from San Moreno to appease you.”
“Have you?” A chuckle tinged the words like a spice.
Something coiled around Berta’s ankles, circled her calves, rounded her knees, and coursed up to her stomach, stopping just beneath her bosoms. Hand shaking, she raised her lantern.
A set of lidless yellow eyes glared down at her. Green and brown scales, shining like polished steel, glistened, along with the fangs of a toothy mouth. A great tongue flickered in and out, and a set of large, bat-like wings fanned out behind the Culebre.
“You’re not as lovely as some of my past offerings,” the creature said, flicking its forked tongue, “but I suppose you’ll do.”
It opened its massive jaws, its sharp teeth, curved down its throat like scythe-blades, glistening yellowish-white. The Culebre didn’t chew, but its teeth made sure whatever it swallowed stayed swallowed.
As it was about to enclosed her in its jaws, Berta raised her other hand, her cane dangling by her thumb, and pinched her eyes shut. “Wait a moment, great one, before you consume me, might I offer you something to…whet your appetite?”
The bite didn’t come, so Berta opened one eye. The Culebre glared down at her, mouth closed. “What could you possibly offer me, vieja?”
She met the creature’s unblinking gaze. “Something so delectable the people of San Moreno begged me not to come.”
The Culebre lacked eyebrows, making its serpentine face unreadable. In its silence, it uncoiled its tail from around Berta and cocked its head to one side. “Very well. Show me.”
Berta nodded. She set her lantern down, opened the flap of her satchel, and drew out a roll shaped like a shell, with a crunchy white streusel topping.
“What is it?” The Culebre said.
“Pan Dulce. Sweet Bread,” said Berta.
The creature eyed the roll for several moments, flicking its tongue to taste the air. Perhaps a bit more persuasion was in order.
“This will be your only chance to try this, great one.” Berta’s voice shook. “I alone can make this delight. And, it’s the best in the world.”
Berta nodded, drawing out a knife from her satchel. “And once you consume me…” She cut off a piece from the roll and chewed it zestfully. “There’ll be no more.”
Silence lulled between them. Then, the Culebre said, “I shall judge it myself.” It lowered its head and opened its mouth, and Berta tossed in the white-topped roll. The Culebre tilted its head back and swallowed. “Mmm…very good. Yes, very good. But one is hardly filling.”
Berta lifted her satchel. “I have more.”
Like a dog eager for table scraps, the Culebre lowered its head and opened its jaws again. Berta began pitching one roll in after another, the creature devouring them, commenting on the different sweet fillings Berta had baked in each roll’s center.
“Strange after-taste, but good,” the Culebre said, swallowing the last roll. “Yes, quite—”
The creature made a noise, as if it were trying to clear its throat. It shook its head, making the same noise repeatedly.
Berta picked up her lantern and took a step back.
The Culebre coughed and gasped, its head writhing back and forth, like a blade of grass in the wind. It flapped its wings, sending up a cloud of dust. Berta covered her mouth and narrowed her eyes to guard against the gale. Flailing more aggressively, the Culebre lifted off the ground completely and shot out of the cave, passing inches over Berta’s head. She followed it from the cavern back out into the night.
She scanned the sky until she spotted it, a great dark spiral climbing higher and higher towards the clouds, towards the faint moonlight above. Then, its wings stopped flapping, and it began to fall. Berta ambled back into the cavern before it hit. A tremor coursed up her legs, rattling her old knees.
Dust filled the outside air. Berta covered her mouth and nose as she ambled forwards, stopping only when its light found the Culebre’s glassy eye. Threads of blood trickled between its teeth, and bubbling foam gathered at the corners of its gaping mouth. Its wings were tatters, and its body an emerald sack of motionless shattered bones.
“Nothing human-made can pierce a Culebre’s diamond-hard skin,” Tata Duende had said. But if one could trick it into swallowing something deadly, would that destroy it from the inside out? Berta had hoped so when she’d laced all but one roll with poison.
About the author:
Born in Tegucigalpa, Francisco Morazán, Honduras, Ian Martínez Cassmeyer’s short fiction has appeared in the anthologies The Librarian Reshelved from Air and Nothingness Press, The Little Cozy Book from Young Needles Press, and the forthcoming indie anthology Nature Fights Back. Tor.com has also published several of his articles on SFF authors and related topics. He earned his BA in English from the University of Missouri – St. Louis, attended the James Gunn Center of the Study of Science Fiction Short Fiction Writing Workshop at the University of Kansas – Lawrence, and is an Associate Member of the SFWA. He lives and works in St. Louis, Missouri.
Follow Ian on the Ex-Bird App @Ian_SMC, IG & Threads @ian_s.m.c, and on his blog, Two Cents, ianstwocents.blogspot.com