Lovely people, I imagine you’ve popped over here from the fourth of the Gobbelino London books, A Melee of Mages. If not, and you’ve unexpectedly stumbled across this page while in the wilds of the internet, you may be wondering about the significance of the naming of snakes.
I mean, even if you have come over from A Melee of Mages, you may still be wondering that, and it’s a fair question. After all, Green Snake seems like a perfectly reasonable name for a small reptile of the snaky green persuasion, especially for one who started life as nothing more than a side effect of some unfortunate reality issues. (If you’re wondering about the links between small snakes and tears in reality, then you might want to pick up Gobbelino’s first book, A Scourge of Pleasantries.) And Green Snake was intended to be merely a passing character, who would go the way of the sink kraken and ceiling monster when reality righted itself.
But small snakes are nothing if not determined, and Green Snake resolved to make himself at home. It seemed rather fitting that Callum and Gobbelino would have a snake living in their desk drawers (and often Callum’s pockets), so I left him to get on with his snaky life. He might, I thought, turn into some sort of running (slithering?) gag.
Apparently he did not agree. Early on in the writing of A Melee of Mages, Green Snake decided to make his presence felt. And because names matter, both those we call ourselves and those others call us by, I felt that he deserved something a little better than Green Snake. But, as I wasn’t entirely sure what name seemed to work for him, I turned to my lovely newsletter readers for ideas.
They responded with a selection of entirely delightful names, many of which I thought fitted him admirably (including Rerek, which Callum tries out before Gobs points out the problems of using the names of gods). Unfortunately none of my characters seem inclined to stop calling him Green Snake, so we may have run into a small snag there.
Look, I just write the stories. My control over the whims of snakes and cats and scruffy PIs is tenuous at best.
But it did occur to me that small green snakes probably prefer to handle their own naming, no matter what other characters might think. And I was very certain of what name he’d choose – one suggested by a the lovely Carolyn and Geoff, and entirely fitting for small green snakes.
Read on, lovely people!
PS: If you’re a newsletter subscriber, you may have already read this short story, and so know the truth of Green Snake’s name. If you’re not a subscriber – well, these are the things you’re missing out on. Stories about snake names and gratuitous cat photos.
On the Naming of Small Snakes
One might ask how a very small snake comes to be named.
Of course, one would only ask this if one wasn’t acquainted with very small snakes. The small green snake currently stalking in a slithery manner across the forest floor did not ask such questions, as he understood that he was a perfectly formed small green snake with no need for a word to call himself by. He was himself.
And, even if he had considered the issue of names, he was currently more concerned with trying to catch a rodent that was even smaller than himself. He flattened his belly into the leaf mulch of the forest floor, green eyes fixed on the rodent’s movements.
If he had taken a moment to ponder the naming of creatures, he might have wondered if the rodent had a name, but he didn’t. It’s never advisable to think too deeply on the naming of one’s meals if one wishes to avoid indigestion. Dinner would suffice.
Dinner was nibbling delicately on a veritable feast of mushrooms that were flourishing in the damp, fragrant nooks of the tree roots that crowded the forest floor, its large ears twitching warily. Birds called in the canopy above, and soft winds twisted around the trees, setting up a music of whispering leaves and the soft tap of twigs on bigger branches. Somewhere a larger beast cackled, and the rodent froze for a moment, rising on its hind legs to check its surroundings. The snake willed himself to become nothing more than a stray vine, a twisting, fallen branch, a harmless collection of leaves among so many others.
There was a pause while Dinner and the forest held its collective breath, then the rodent went back to its mushrooms, little snout twitching anxiously. The snake flicked his tongue in relief and slipped forward, eyes never moving from his target. He was hungry. He hadn’t eaten for three days, and the rodent was plump and warm and delightfully full of life. He lifted his head to judge the distance and tightened the coils of his body, trying not to make too much noise among the leaves, and the rodent rose up on its hind legs again. The snake froze, his tongue half out of his mouth, aware that he looked distinctly undignified, but willing to put up with it for the sake of a decent meal.
The rodent met his eyes and screamed. It was a ridiculously high and piercing sound, and the snake flinched, then flung himself forward. The creature was already bolting, tiny feet fast and sure on the cluttered ground, and the snake’s fangs snapped shut just short of its tail. He launched himself into pursuit, swift and sure, and as fast as the creature zig-zagged he was faster. He reared up over it, ignoring its scream, already anticipating the sweet warm taste of it, and fell forward into nothing.
The snake gave a scream of his own. It wasn’t loud – no one has ever heard a snake scream – but it echoed more than loudly enough in his own head as he plunged into an endless, rattling space that couldn’t be a void because he could hear his own shrieks of protest, and yet didn’t seem to have any reference point, no up or down or any other dimension he understood. He flailed wildly, his body snapping though the emptiness uncontrollably, and wondered if this was what came from feasting on small rodents. Perhaps he should have stuck to eggs, but the panicking parents made him unaccountably sad.
And then, as unexpectedly as he had fallen out of the forest, he arrived in a small, enclosed space that smelled vaguely of mints and dust. He didn’t crash into it, and he wasn’t swooped up by it. He was just there, and he squawked a protest as he found himself rolling over something that prickled and glowed, as if small fiery breaths were puffing against his scales. He recovered himself and slithered into the furthest corner of the space, tucking himself well away from the prickling thing in the centre. He flicked his tongue out a couple of times, tasting the air, but it was all tainted with whatever was seeping from the thing that was in here with him, and he could tell very little about his surroundings. He peered around, and spotted light coming from above. Maybe he’d fallen into a hole of sorts, a den belonging to the prickling thing. How unpleasant.
The snake checked his surroundings as well as he could, to make sure nothing was about to eat him. Nothing was, but the entire enclosure appeared to be moving, which rather put paid to the idea of being in a hole. Maybe he’d fallen into a particularly solid net – he’d seen creatures trapped in those before, although usually the nets in the forest were more mesh-like, and easy for small snakes to escape. This one offered no such freedoms. He lifted his nose to the light, and investigated the walls of his prison. They were soft and pliable, and had enough texture to climb, so he wriggled his way up toward what he supposed to be the mouth of the enclosure.
The snake emerged into a different world. For a while he just hung there, his head sticking out into a cold, grey expanse, where everything was made of hard angles and straight lines, and instead of a nice warm sun the light came from bare trees that carried yellow bulbs as their only decoration. The air was heavy and dull and grey as the land, tasting of soot and dead things, and he was being carried along in a bag-type thing by a human in a heavy coat, who had just come to a stop and was arguing with another, taller human.
The snake ignored the arguing humans, staring around in bewilderment. He’d seen humans before, of course – not even many small snakes can avoid them entirely – and seen them take creatures away in their nets, or tromp about the place shouting to each other while the birds hid and the forest turned a blank face to their crashing feet and careless hands. He’d even slipped around the edges of a house once, smelling the damp wood and human scents mingling with the forest night. Humans spread, and crushed everything before them, but always the forest survived, as the snake was sure forests would always do. They reasserted themselves, smoothed over the harsh edges of the humans and smothered their treads. But here … here was nothing. No protective trees, no sweet mulch, no damp rich earth or whispering birds or scuttling rodents. It was all dead. All of it.
He drew back, wanting to retreat and look for a way home, then the taller human grabbed hold of the bag, trying to tug it away. The smaller human clutched it tighter, almost crushing the snake, and he hissed in alarm. The bag was jerked back and forth, and he flopped with it, almost tumbling out to the unfriendly ground below. In panic, he bit the nearest biteable thing.
The tall human yowled and pulled back, the snake dangling from his hand. The snake held on tighter. He wasn’t letting go. No one was pulling him out of his forest and not paying for it with at least a well-chewed palm. He hadn’t asked for this. All he’d wanted was Dinner.
Time passed, as time always does. The snake discovered that the tall human had comfortable pockets, which were warm and safe, if a little smoky. The tall human shared a room with a cat, who had large sharp teeth like most cats, but talked a lot and had so far shown no inclination to eat the snake. The cat also had a very comfortable bed, but never wanted to share, which the snake felt was a little unfair. He was a cold-blooded creature, after all, and the house where the man and the cat lived was cold most of the time. Everywhere was cold, and sometimes he missed the warmth of the forest. On the other hand, no one was trying to eat him here, even if the cat flashed his teeth about the place. He didn’t seem to mean anything by it, and the snake thought it might just be his personality. Some creatures were like that.
The man and the cat argued a lot. At first the arguing had made no sense to the snake. It was just the noise that humans made, shouty and jagged, and they didn’t use a language he was familiar with. But slowly, as if it seeped into his scales along with the strange smells and feels of this damp new world, they started to make sense. He discovered that the man and the cat used words to refer to each other – the man was Callum, and the cat was Gobs. He tried using the names, but neither the cat nor the man seemed to understand him. He’d hiss the words, and Gobs would hiss back wordlessly, which the snake supposed meant the cat was trying to speak his own reptile language. It was nice of the cat.
Callum didn’t hiss, but he always offered the snake food when the snake hissed at him. The snake felt that this was a very acceptable method of communication, and soon decided that he liked tea and sardines, but did not like cigarettes (which he wasn’t offered, but nibbled on when Callum wasn’t looking) or toast. And it was all much easier than stalking rodents.
The snake also discovered that both man and cat referred to him as Green Snake, and at first he thought it was a rather grand name. But as he began to understand them better, he realised it was no different than when he had called them tall man and cat. They were just words, not names, and it seemed that names were important. He wasn’t sure why, but everyone else had them, so it was clear that he would have to find one for himself, if they weren’t going to give him one.
At first he was at a loss as to how one found a name. Everyone just seemed to have one, and Gobs would only hiss when he asked, and Callum would only give him more sardines, which was pleasant but unhelpful. He was starting to suspect that he wasn’t communicating as well as he thought.
“Excuse me,” he said one night, when Callum was seated in the creaking old desk chair reading a book, and Gobs was cleaning one leg. “How does one go about getting a name?” He enunciated as clearly as he could, but Gobs ignored him, and Callum just turned another page.
“I should like a name,” he insisted. “It seems bad form not to have one.”
Gobs sat up, looking at the snake with eyes that were almost as green as the snake’s own scales, then said, “You can’t be hungry. You had half my dinner.”
“That’s an outrage,” the snake said. “I barely had a mouthful.”
“He’s hissing at me again,” Gobs said to Callum. “Why is he still here, anyway?”
“He seems happy,” Callum said, not looking up from his book. He fumbled for his tea and took a mouthful.
“I’m not happy,” Gobs said. “He keeps sneaking into my bed.”
“I get cold,” the snake protested.
“See? He’s hissing. Callum. Callum. Callum.”
“Jesus, Gobs.” Callum lowered his book finally and looked at the snake.
“Ah,” the snake said. “Now that I have your attention— hey!” Because Callum had picked him up carefully and deposited him on a folded, multicoloured bundle of wool that the woman with the bag – that was Mrs Smith, as even she had a name – had made. The snake understood that it was a gift, and Callum put it on his neck whenever he saw Mrs Smith, but otherwise it was a cosy place for small snakes. Now Callum stacked some books between the snake and Gobs.
“There,” he said. “Will you let me read now?”
“I was just asking,” the snake said. “It seems unfair. Everyone else has a name. Why don’t I have a name?”
“Good,” Callum said, and picked up his tea again.
The snake sighed, and snuggled himself into the folds of the wool. It shouldn’t be this difficult. He hadn’t even needed a name before, but now it felt positively wrong to be without one, as if names anchored people to the world and each other, and he was adrift without one. He examined the books stacked around him. Even books had names. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Master of the Game. Wounded. Although, they weren’t far off Green Snake. But the real names were there too, next to the descriptions, two names for each book, so books had both names and words.
“And I just want one name,” he said, to no one in particular, and lay there looking at the books while Callum drank tea and Gobs started talking about custard. The snake listened with half an ear, just in case custard was forthcoming. He liked custard.
The next morning, the snake slipped onto the desk and looked at Callum and Gobs. Callum was pulling his jacket on, the one with the soft pockets, and Gobs was sitting on the desk with his tail twitching.
“I have come to a decision,” the snake said.
“Ugh, he’s not coming, is he?” Gobs asked. “We never used to have to take a snake with us everywhere.”
“It’s hardly fair to leave him behind,” Callum said, and picked up the snake before he could react.
“Hey,” he said, wriggling in protest. “I’ve got something to say!”
“He looks really keen to come,” Gobs said. “Really happy about it.”
Callum deposited the snake on one hand and lifted him to eye level. “Do you want to come?” he asked.
“Well, he can’t tell you, can he?” Gobs said. “He’s a snake.”
“Oh, sod off,” the snake said, feeling fairly sure he was using the expression correctly. He heard it often enough. “I need to tell you: I have a name now.”
“I think he wants to come,” Callum said. “I worry about him staying here in the cold.”
“You would,” Gobs said.
The snake rubbed his snout affectionately on Callum’s thumb. “Yes, I should like to come. But, just so we’re clear, you can now call me Sidney Percival Shakespeare.” He thought about it. “No, Snakespeare.” That sounded good. Almost perfect, in fact. Then he thought of the books again. “The third,” he added, because it seemed right to recognise that he’d taken the names from three books. But only one name from each, in case it was bad form to take both names. He thought it might be.
“He’s coming,” Callum said, and shook the snake carefully into a pocket.
“Did you hear me?” the snake demanded, sticking his head out.
“Bloody Green Snake,” Gobs grumbled, heading for the door. “Just don’t get eaten, alright? I’m not getting between you and a hungry sprite.”
“No one’s eating Green Snake,” Callum said, following the cat.
“Sidney Percival Snakespeare the third!” the snake shouted, but no one answered him. He dropped back into the warmth of the pocket with a sigh, but it wasn’t a terribly sad one. Instead he curled himself around his name, tasting the words on his tongue and his scales.
Sidney Percival Snakespeare the third. It was terribly grand. And suitable. It fitted, like new scales after old ones had been shed.
He fitted. He flicked his tongue out a few times, imitating the cat’s purr.
Sidney Percival Snakespeare the third.
He wondered if he could get it on a card, like the ones Callum and Gobs had. He’d like that. Maybe they could all be on the same card. His name would take up the most room, of course, but that was okay. When one had such a good name, it should be given the space it needed.
He had an anchor to hold himself to the world now. And there might be custard.
What more could a snake want?
And that is how a snake gets his name.
If you fancy more newsletter-exclusive short stories, some behind-the-scenes-type things (often featuring the Little Furry Muse), the chance to become part of the pre-launch reader team, and the odd giveaway, then get signed up below!
And if not, that is entirely fine too. I shall see you in the next book!