|Next of Kin|
The old man longed for children. But he and his young wife had none, so he invited his nephew to live with them. This infuriated his wife, who had a vile temper. When her husband welcomed the young man with great affection, she turned pale with jealousy. Her eyes narrowed and her head flattened. And when she licked her lips, her nephew saw that her tongue was forked. From that day on, the young man spent as much time as possible with his uncle and tried to avoid his aunt. But she seemed to enjoy startling him, suddenly appearing when he least expected her.
One evening, the nephew returned to the house quite late. He lit a candle and started up the stairs. Halfway up, he tripped on what seemed to be a coiled rope. Imagine his horror when that rope uncoiled and slithered up the steps in front of him! Then he saw it glide across the hall and under the door of his uncle's bedroom. "Wake up! Wake up" the young man shouted, and he knocked on the door until his knuckles hurt. But when his sleepy uncle finally let him in the bedroom, there was no snake in sight. His aunt seemed to be sleeping, so the young man whispered in his uncle's ear. "I saw a snake." But his uncle was too groggy to respond, and he slid back under the covers. The young man searched the room quietly, looking into drawers and cupboards and corners. He peered under the bed and behind chairs. He was beginning to think he was going mad when he suddenly his aunt sat up in bed, narrowed her eyes, and gave him an evil look that made his flesh creep.
"I'm sorry to bother you," he cried, racing to his bedroom and firmly shutting the door. When he awoke the next morning, he noticed that the bottom of his bedroom door was arched up in the center, leaving just enough space for a snake to slither through. He bolted out of bed trembling. When he went downstairs, he was shocked to see that every door in the house had a snake-sized arch beneath it. His aunt was sitting at the table, eating. "Your uncle left for the day," she said, licking her lips with her forked tongue. The young man was too terrified to speak, but his silence only made matters worse.
"I don't like the way you treat me," she said and grabbed his arm. Then she pressed her fingernails so deeply into his skin that he felt as if he were being bitten. He rushed outdoors and saw the his arm was swelling. His hand and fingers were biginning to throb. He knew he must seek help, so he ran into the forest to find the wise old hermit who lived there. The old man examined him carefully and handed him some leaves. "These are best for snakebite," he said "Bind them around your arm and keep them wet."
"But I wasn't bitten by a snake," said the young man. "Those marks were made by my aunt's fingernails."
The old hermit shook his head in despair. "The touch of a snake-woman is even worse," he said, "but try these leaves. They should help."
The young man was appalled. "Is my aunt really a snake- woman?" he asked.
"If you want to find out," the hermit replied, "stay awake tonight, and if a snake enters you room, cut off the tip of its tail."
The young man wasn't sure how this would help, but he thanked the hermit for his advice and returned to his uncle's house. By afternoon, he was happy to see that the wet leaves had reduced the swelling.
He watched his aunt closely that evening, but he didn't notice anything strange until she tasted her soup. She said it needed more "ssssseasoning" and lingered on the "s" as if she were hissing. Her nephew felt gooseflesh rise from the tips of his toes to the top of his head. He excused himself from the table and went up to his bedroom. But not to sleep. He planned to watch for the snake all night long.
There was just enough moonlight for him to see the bottom of his door, so he blew out his candle and unsheated his sword. Then he stood waiting. He watched for hours wondering what the snake might do. What if it slithered through the window instead, crept up behind him, and struck him with it's venomous fangs? What if it slithered to the top of the wardrobe and dropped down from above? He was thinking of fleeing for his life, when he finally saw the snake glide under the door-first its head, then its body, then its tail. Slash! He swung the sword so quickly that the snake had no warning. And the tip of its tail began writhing, all by itself, there on the floor. The snake raised its head as if to strike, but then it hissed viciously and slithered out of the room. And when he looked down the hall, he saw it disappear under his uncle's door. The young man couldn't stand looking at that quivering tail, so he scooped it up with his sword and flung it in a drawer. He hardly slept all that night, and when he did snakes chased him through his dreams.
The next morning, he opened the drawer a crack to look at the snake's tail and was amazed to see that it had turned into human toes. He raced back to the forest to tell the hermit what had happened.
"And now my aunt is staying in bed, but do you know what my uncle said? She told him she hurt her foot while sleepwalking!"
"Either she will fear you now," said the old man. "Or she will try to get rid of you. Listen carefully. If you think you are in danger, you must search her bedroom for her snakeskin, and when you find it, burn it."
The young man thanked the hermit, but he was concerned. What would happen if he burned the snakeskin? He decided to give his aunt one last chance.
While she was recovering, she caused no trouble, but as soon as her wound healed, she resumed her nightly slithering about the house. Sometimes, when the young man was lying in bed, he saw the snake slip in and out of his empty boots or up the sleeve of a coat he had worn. One dreadful night, he felt the snake wiggling under his pillow, and he jumped out of bed in a cold sweat.
His dreams grew worse. He had a terrifying nightmare in which his aunt was trying to choke him. He awoke gasping for breath and realized that something was coiled tightly around his neck. It was the snake.
He pulled it off and threw it across the room. And after he caught his breath, he knew he had to follow the hermit's advice. The next day his aunt said her back was sore, but this didn't keep her from going for a walk with his uncle.
As soon as they left the house, the young man slipped into >their bedroom to look for the snakeskin, but he couldn't find it. He was about to give up when he noticed dusty footprints on a chair. He stepped up on the seat and looked on top of the wardrobe, and there neatly coiled, lay the shiny snakeskin. But just as he picked it up, he heard the door open downstairs, and he knew that his aunt and uncle were home. He rolled up the snakeskin tightly and hid it in his fist before he raced back to his room. And that's when he heard hideous sounds coming from the lower hall.
His aunt ws shrieking, "Something is crushing me!" When her nephew heard her cries, he almost lost his resolve. But then he remembered how he felt when the snake wrapped itself around his neck and tried to choke him.
He threw the snakeskin into the fire and watched it burn. By the time he went downstairs, he was startled to see his aunt lying dead on the floor. He thought he was getting rid of the snake, but now his aunt was gone too.
"I'm sorry," he said to his uncle.
But the old man seemed relieved. "It'ssss only the poisonousssss onessssss who are dangerousssssss," he said, and he licked his lips.