Deep in the black pit a snake sat waiting. The pit was concealed in the town’s temple and, once a year, the temple opened its doors to the townsfolk and the priests lowered volunteers down into the pit. Their great hope was to attain the knowledge of the snake, a black creature that had teeth resembling polished jade. The priests lowered the hopeful man—girls were not permitted at this rite—in a small bucket. If the initiate stroked the snake’s skin he would be granted wisdom. It had been over a century since anyone had succeeded, and the bottom of the pit was littered with the bones of those who would have snatched wisdom from the snake.
“We live in the evening of our culture,” said the chief priest to a young novice. “This is why nobody can touch the snake.” The chief priest gestured to the sunset outside the window. “As you grow old, you will see that everything has its time. Now is the time of decrease. We are waiting to go to sleep.” The novice nodded and agreed with the chief priest, but in his heart he wanted the dawn. The evening was a disappointment. He wanted the knowledge of the snake.
With the help of a confederate, the young novice stole into the chamber where the snake’s pit lay. It was the darkest hour of the night, and the temple echoed their movements back to them. The novice hopped into the bucket and began his descent. The novice could just about see the outline of the creature below him. He reached out a hand and stroked the skin. The snake slept. The young novice, holding his breath, gestured for his accomplice to raise the bucket.
The next morning, the dawn was more brilliant than usual. The Sun had a strange countenance, being a bloody red. The young novice went about his work with a superior smile; his fellow novices noted his changed attitude, and some gossiped that perhaps he had broken his vows and slept with a girl in the village. As the month went on, miraculous events began to take place about the town. A wasteland that had long been abandoned sprung into flower, and the old town wall that had long fallen into disrepair was found covered in polished marble. The chief priest noted the signs and consulted with his ancient books. At the end of the month, with sunflowers growing up the wall of the temple under November sunlight, he gathered the temple staff together.
“Evening has turned to morning,” he said, “and I know why. The serpent has been touched.” The assembled company, having already guessed this, gave a murmur of faux surprise. “But it cannot last,” said the chief priest. He told of the laws contained in the old books and described what would befall those who touched the serpent on the wrong day. “It is easy to touch the serpent on the wrong day,” said the chief priest. “Now we will enjoy an Indian summer, but the winter will be harsh this year.” With that, he ordered the temple confined to quarters and dismissed the assembly.
The young novice, locked in his cell, was unnerved by what the chief priest had said; and he resolved to confess the next day—perhaps all could be undone and forgiven. That night, a great snowstorm blew up and buried the town up to its rooftops; many babies and old women died in the days that followed, and the town remained buried until the following March. During that night the young novice awoke, certain there was a man standing over his bed. His fingers, suddenly weak, felt for the lamp and, as he turned the valve for the gas, its dim light revealed that each finger had turned into a small black viper. When the chief priest examined the cell the next morning and saw the novice’s empty cloak he gave a curt nod and ordered the room sealed.