You didn’t know me the second time you said “Hello.” You couldn’t have known we’d met before, because people don’t believe in spirits in this modern day. Everything is decided, neatly parceled into little bits of what is considered possible and what is not. I am just a myth. But when I look at you, gazing back at me from your seat beside my hospital bed, I know what is real. We are real, what we share is real, and I am dying.
You try to comfort me, fluff my pillow, and ask if you can get me something to drink, and I can’t help but feel touched by your compassion. You have always been a gentle man. That was what drew me to you the first time we met. You couldn’t have known what your actions had meant to a little white snake.
If you still have that gentleness in you, listen to me now. Please. I know you don’t want to believe, but you have to accept.
I was not born in this country of yours, but of a rushing stream in a land its people call the Middle Kingdom. My kind minds the ways of our common cousins and no man can tell the difference if he does not know us well. Most of the spiritfolk remained in the old country, but being a small and curious thing I sailed east across the ocean with the emigrants and landed here, on the land of your people.
At heart, people here are not so different from people there. You grow fields of wheat instead of fields of rice. That doesn’t matter. You still eat. But you do not have the history of believing in us. The people of the Middle Kingdom know us, in the form of superstition if nothing else. Your people have never heard of us at all. But I didn’t mind. I was only a snake.
You remember the day we met, don’t you? It’s only a childhood memory to you, if that at all. Some boys thought to make sport of the strange creature they found in the fields. White, but not albino, it didn’t look like anything they had seen before. Of course they were curious. Of course they wanted to catch it. Even back in the old country boys did such things, but I did not expect to be caught.
Then you came. You were only a child yourself and you drove them back, yelled for them to leave. They scowled and pouted, but they scattered, and you turned to look at me.
“Hello,” you said. “You can go now.”
You could not have understood the thanks in my voice. To your ears my gratitude was nothing but a hiss, but I basked in your compassion as readily as I would have the sun. Seldom does a spirit find itself indebted to a man, but never does one forget to repay what it owes.
I watched you as you grew from boy to man, and I made good on my debt. When you stayed up nights to study I was the one who gathered your things for you so they’d be ready in the morning. That day you wanted lunch but found yourself a quarter short—I placed that coin on the sidewalk where you would find it. A snake could not do very much, even one a bit brighter than the rest, but I tried.
The problem was I wanted more.
You see, I came to know you, your strengths and your faults, and I wanted to be able to be with you without having to hide in the cracks and shadows. I wanted to see you smile at me and know me for who I am.
So I shed my scales, coated my head with hair, and grew limbs from my body in order to resemble a human being. I thought you might not have liked me because I could only look like the people who come from my country, but you didn’t care that my eyes were brown instead of blue, or that my hair was black instead of straw. You were as kind to the woman as you were to the snake.
Though they seem brief now, I do not regret the twenty years spent with you. You cannot know the price my kind pays to maintain a human shape. We can never stay long, as if our lives must be further shorn beyond the longevity we have already lost. Disease has wracked my body in a way that would have been impossible twenty years ago. But I would not change my mind.
My only wish is that you would understand me. We shared so much; life, love, and children, and yet you will never know the whole of me. You don’t believe in spirits and think my stories flights of fancy. You, who have been kind to me in so many ways, are the source of the only cruelty I cannot overcome.
But love forgives, love forgets, and I have long accepted you for what you are. Soon, now, you will have to accept me for what I am.
I tried to tell you that I wasn’t an ordinary girl.
What will you say when I pass on and you see not the body of a woman, but a coiled little serpent with shining marble scales?
Laurie Tom is a third generation Chinese American. She’s been entranced by science fiction and fantasy since childhood and has never been able to stop visiting other worlds. Her work has also appeared in venues such as Strange Horizons, Galaxy’s Edge, and the Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk. This story was previously published in Penumbra.