The Ouroborus 1

The Ouroborus A little more than an eighth, but a little less than a quarter of a century ago, there was a small girl called Esme. She was a very lucky small girl, and often very well-behaved, but, I am glad to say, not always. She got lots of presents on her birthday from her parents and grandparents, her aunts and uncles and cousins and friends. She had five god-parents, which is rather more than anyone really needs, but who loved her very much and mostly remembered to send something on her birthday too. If they didn’t, her mother, who was very thoughtful, reminded them. On her fourth birthday she received an unusual present. It wasn’t really unusual in itself, and it wasn’t even an unusual present for Easter, which had just been, for it was an egg. It was quite large, and there was no card or message with it. But the name and address had been engraved on the egg-shell, and next to the address was a stamp, with a picture of a white and gold unicorn on a blue, red and green background, and a purple postmark just covering the left hind hoof and writhing across the surface of the egg. Her father examined the postmark for several long minutes. ‘It’s from China,’ he said at last. ‘Who do we know in China?’ said her mother. ‘Nobody, I don’t think. Perhaps it’s from one of your godparents, Esme, gone to explore the mountains and deserts and learn ancient languages.’ But Esme wasn’t listening. She was staring at the egg, which had rolled over, creasing a loose corner of the brightly coloured stamp. The egg lay there, doing nothing, but promising everything. They put it on her bedside table so that she could see it when she went to sleep at night and again when she woke up in the morning. As it was quite large they moved the bedside light. They piled the books and the toys in the angle between bed and table to make a

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staircase up to the egg. ‘Just in case it wants to go somewhere in the middle of the night,’ Esme said. But the egg was still there the next morning, and the next. In fact it did not move or do anything except gather dust for a whole year. By the time Esme’s next birthday came around, when she would be five, she had got so used to the egg that she hardly ever looked at it, and thought about it even less. The staircase of books had long ago been read and the toys played with or put away. So she was surprised when she woke that morning to find the egg on the floor, its top neatly removed as if someone had quickly, surely swiped it off with a sharp knife. Next to the egg, curled up with its tail in its mouth, was a small, wrinkled, brown-green crocodile. Now and again it would let go of its tail and raise its head, snapping its narrow jaws together to test them out. When her father came in to wake her up for breakfast, he nearly tripped over the crocodile and Esme cried out in alarm. But the crocodile just lay there calmly, its tail in its mouth. ‘It’s called an ouroborus,’ he said, 'Because it has its tail in its mouth. It’s a symbol of something, I can’t remember exactly what, though.’ ‘It’s called Esme,’ said Esme. Esme forgot about all her other presents that day, and played in the garden with the crocodile. There had been a heavy fall of snow in the night, which is quite unusual at the end of April in England, but much stranger was the fact that everywhere the crocodile went the snow melted immediately, not into water, but directly into steam, and then quickly vanished. That night Esme rebuilt the staircase of books and toys, and they both climbed it and curled up, the small girl in the bed and the crocodile on the table. Esme didn’t have a tail to put in her mouth, but she imagined that she did.

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‘Good night!’ said Esme. And Esme snapped her jaws in the air once or twice, before they both fell fast asleep. The days became weeks, and the weeks became months, and the months became years, and Esme the girl and Esme the crocodile grew and grew. The girl went to school, made friends and was invited to parties, learnt to ride a horse and to play the drums and to look after sheep when they were lambing and to clean out the chickens. She was joined by two little brothers, Diggory and Louie, who were funny and boisterous. Esme spent less and less time with the crocodile, and the crocodile slept more and more, and eventually, when it became too big for the table, it moved under the bed, where you could sometimes hear it snoring softly in the middle of the afternoon. Eventually Esme didn’t think very much about the crocodile under the bed, and when she did, she only thought how ugly and useless it was, and got on with the important things she was doing, like homework, or mucking out the ponies, or organising sleepovers with her friends, or driving lessons, or working in a café so that she could pay her car insurance. Esme changed rooms so that there was more space, and her old room became the guest room, but nobody thought to move the crocodile too. They had all quite forgotten about it. ‘It’s called amnesia,’ her father might have said, if any of them had remembered that they had forgotten. But none of them remembered even that; every thought of the crocodile under the bed had vanished. But one day, fourteen years after the egg had arrived from Brazil, and thirteen years after it had hatched into a little crocodile, Esme woke to a distant rumbling, like a train going through a tunnel, or the sound a gas boiler makes when it fires up in the morning. ‘It’s my eighteenth birthday,’ she thought. ‘I’m grown-up. Of

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course, I’ve been grown-up for ages; I can drive, and vote, and drink, so nothing’s going to change, really.’ And yet she did feel a little different. Perhaps it was because the house had started to shake. The rumbling had turned into a roaring, and there was a noise of splintering wood and stones tumbling to the ground. Esme sat up in bed just in time to catch ‘The Wind in the Willows’ as it fell from the shelf above her head, and then the other bookcase toppled over with a crash. The wardrobe doors swung open and flapped from side to side, and, with a groan, a crack opened up in the far corner where the spiders lived, scattering them along the ceiling and down the walls. The air was noticeably warm. ‘Quick, come on! Esme, Diggory, Louie, it’s an earthquake, quickly, outside,’ Esme’s mother called. Esme leapt out of bed and rushed into the corridor which was lurching from side to side. ‘This must be what it’s like to be inside a python,’ she thought as she struggled along the carpet towards the top of the stairs. She passed the door to the guest room, and the heat grew fierce; the smell of burning gripped her nostrils. The door bulged and shuddered. Smoke and steam hissed between the hinges and through the gaps. An urgent thought tugged at the corner of her mind, lit by the orange light which glowed from the cracks opening up along the walls. She had a sense of remembering, though she could not recall what it was that she had supposedly just remembered. There was a thing she knew she needed to know, and she could not tell what it was. She reached the top of the staircase. The orange glow filled the corridor and the wooden stairs, as if the walls had first turned to gold, then caught fire, and were burning up, starting with the guest room. Her mother grabbed her hand and they ran downstairs and out of the front door into the yard, where the Buff Orpingtons squawked and fluttered around the dogs, who cowered against the

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outside wall of the barn. ‘Come around here!’ shouted Esme’s father from the other side of the house. She pulled her mother around to the other side of the house, where her father and brothers were standing with their mouths open, staring at the guest room, or rather, at where the guest room had been, for the walls had vanished. The old brass bed seemed to have risen up like a throne against the clouds, and in the middle of it, stretching and flapping what appeared to be wings, sat Esme the crocodile. Esme remembered what it was that she had forgotten. The crocodile had grown, and two little horns like snail’s eyes had sprouted on either side of a tuft of green hair. And of course there were the wings. Esme the dragon turned her head, and looked Esme the woman straight in the eye. Fire and water swirled in her stomach, and made her tingle to the ends of the nails on her fingers and the skin on the bottom of her toes. Esme the dragon flew down from the bed, and landed near the five people standing in the garden. Esme the woman knew just what to do, and walked up to the dragon, put one leg over its neck in front of the gently beating wings, sat astride the dragon’s shoulders, and grabbed hold of the tuft of green hair. The dragon and the woman turned and looked at Mother, Father, Diggory and Louie, and then, with a gasp and a roar, flew up into the air. ‘This is Life,’ called Esme, and Esme snorted in agreement, accidentally setting a magnolia bush on fire, as they tumbled and cartwheeled over the chimney-pot, then over the trees, then over the moor and up into the sky.

For Esme, with love from Dom

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