“Well, yes, I suppose it’s like that,” I said. “Anyway, the snakes should be right up ahead! That’s why we need honey cakes. You have some, you said?”
“Excellent!” I forged on.
As I’d suspected, the tunnel widened into a large chamber. A lake covered the entire area, perhaps sixty feet in diameter, except for a small island of rock in the center. Above us, the domed ceiling bristled with stalactites like black chandeliers. Covering the island and the surface of the water was a writhing sheet of serpents, like spaghetti left too long in boiling water. Water moccasins. Lovely creatures. Thousands of them.
“Ta-da!” I exclaimed.
Meg did not seem to share my enthusiasm. She edged back into the tunnel. “Apollo…you’d need a zillion honey cakes for that many snakes.”
“Oh, but you see, we need to get to that little island in the center. That’s where we’ll receive our prophecy.”
“But if we go into that water, won’t the snakes kill us?”
“Probably!” I grinned. “Let’s find out!”
I jumped into the lake.
Meg takes a solo
Scares away her audience
Good job, McCaffrey
“APOLLO, SING!” MEG YELLED.
No words could have stopped me more effectively. I loved being asked to sing!
I was halfway across the lake, up to my waist in reptilian noodle soup, but I turned and looked back at the girl standing at the mouth of the tunnel. I must have agitated the snakes in my wake. They swished back and forth, their cute little heads gliding just above the surface, their white mouths open. (Oh, I get it! That’s why they were called cottonmouths!)
Many of the snakes swarmed toward Meg, nosing around her shoes as if deciding whether to join her on the ledge. Meg tiptoed from foot to foot as if she wasn’t crazy about this idea.
“Did you say sing?” I asked.
“Yes!” Her voice squeaked. “Charm the snakes! Make them go away!”
I didn’t understand what she meant. When I sang, my audiences always came closer. Who was this girl Meg, anyway? She had apparently confused me with Saint Patrick. (Nice guy, by the way; terrible singing voice. The legends don’t normally mention that he drove the snakes out of Ireland with his hideous version of “Te Deum.”)
“Sing that song you did in the ants’ nest!” she pleaded.
The Ants’ Nest? I remembered singing with the Rat Pack and A Flock of Seagulls, but the Ants’ Nest? I didn’t recall ever being part of such a group.
However, it did occur to me why Megan/Peg/Meg might be nervous. Water moccasins are poisonous. Much like yales, they can be aggressive when their territory is invaded. But Meg stood at the mouth of the tunnel, not really in the snakes’ territory. Why was she nervous?
I looked down. Hundreds of vipers swirled around me, displaying their cute little mouths with their sharp little fangs. They moved sluggishly in the frigid water, or perhaps they were just awestruck to be in my presence—cheerful, charismatic, charming old Whatever-my-name-was!—but they did seem to be hissing a lot.
“Oh!” I laughed as the realization struck me. “You’re worried about me! I’m about to die!”
I had a vague impulse to do something. Run? Dance? What was it Meg had suggested?
Before I could decide, Meg began to sing.
Her voice was weak and off-key, but I recognized the melody. I was pretty sure I had composed it.
Whenever someone bursts into song in public, there is a moment of hesitation. Passersby stop to listen, trying to discern what they are hearing and why a random person in their midst has decided to serenade them. As Meg’s uneven voice echoed through the cavern, the snakes sensed the vibrations. More thumb-size viper heads popped to the surface. More white mouths opened, as if they were trying to taste the song. Around my waist, the swirling storm of water moccasins lost its cohesion as the snakes turned their attention to Meg.
She sang of loss and regret. Yes…I vaguely recalled singing this song. I’d been walking through the tunnels of a myrmekes’ nest, pouring out my sadness, baring my heart as I searched for Meg. In the song, I had taken responsibility for the deaths of my greatest loves, Daphne and Hyacinthus. Their names came back to me as sharp as broken window shards.
Meg repeated my performance, but with different words. She was making up her own verses. As the vipers gathered at her feet, her voice grew stronger, more self-assured. She was still off-key, but she sang with heartbreaking conviction—her song every bit as sad and genuine as mine had been.
“It’s my fault,” she sang. “Your blood on my hands. The crushed rose I couldn’t save.”
I was stunned she had such poetry in her. Clearly, the snakes were too. They bobbed around her feet in a thick mass, just like the crowd at the Pink Floyd floating concert in Venice in 1989—which, for some reason, I remembered perfectly.
A bit late, I realized it was a miracle I had not yet been bitten to death by water moccasins. What was I doing in the middle of this lake? Only Meg’s music was keeping me alive—her discordant voice somehow beautiful and enchanting, holding the attention of thousands of rapt vipers.
Like them, I wanted to stay where I was and listen. But a sense of unease was building up inside me. This cave…the Oracle of Trophonius. Something told me this cave was not the right place to bare one’s soul.
“Meg,” I whispered. “Stop.”
She apparently couldn’t hear me.
The entire cavern seemed fixated on her voice now. The rock walls glistened. Shadows swayed as if dancing. The glittering stalactites strained toward Meg like compass needles.
She sang of betraying me, of returning to Nero’s household, of succumbing to her fear of the Beast….
“No,” I said, a little louder. “No, Meg!”
Too late. The cavern’s magic caught her song, magnifying her voice a hundredfold. The chamber filled with the sound of pure pain. The lake boiled as panicked serpents submerged and fled, pushing past my legs in a strong riptide.
Perhaps they escaped down some hidden waterway. Perhaps they dissolved. All I knew: the little rock island in the center of the cave was suddenly empty, and I was the only living thing left in the lake.
Still Meg sang. Her voice now sounded forced out of her—as if some giant invisible fist were squeezing her like a squeaky toy. Lights and shadows flickered over the cavern walls, forming ghostly images to illustrate her lyrics.
In one scene, a middle-aged man crouched down and smiled as if looking at a child. He had dark curly hair like mine (I mean Lester’s), a broad freckled nose, and soft, kind eyes. He held out a single red rose.
“From your mother,” he whispered, a chorus to Meg’s song. “This rose will never fade, sweetheart. You will never have to worry about thorns.”
The pudgy hand of a child appeared in the vision, reaching for the flower. I suspected this was one of Meg’s earliest memories—something just on the edge of consciousness. She took the rose, and the petals unfolded into brilliant full bloom. The stem curled lovingly around Meg’s wrist. She squealed with delight.
A different vision: the emperor Nero in his purple three-piece suit, kneeling to look Meg in the eye. He smiled in a way that might have been mistaken for kindly if you didn’t know Nero. His double chin puffed out under his helmet-strap beard. His bejeweled rings glittered on his fat fingers.