Renata was the most beautiful girl in the entire island and had her pick of any bachelor (and some non-bachelors) she chose.
In her sixteenth year, she chose Reynaldo, a dowdy widower, forty years her senior and then some.
Renata did not love him, but love had never been the key to her happiness. No, what she loved was money, and Reynaldo was the richest man over several villages.
Theirs was a match made in heaven. Reynaldo adored his young bride, and could gaze forever into those jade-colored eyes, and when he touched her hair the shade of honey, he was absolutely transported.
Renata, on her part, would never dream of hurting one who lavished her with so many presents. She knew that like many of her suitors, Reynaldo would try and pluck the stars from the sky if she but asked, and she felt that of anyone she knew, he with his lovely money could come closest to accomplishing it.
Their wedding was a huge affair with foreign dignitaries and other men of import, visiting the island to congratulate the couple. The entire village was of course invited as well, and there were many family members and friends from far away who braved dangerous waters to attend.
The festivities lasted for several days. To entertain his guests, Reynaldo hired dancers, singers, clowns, fire-eaters, acrobats, knife-jugglers, and fortune-tellers. And the food was exquisite, with many of the ingredients coming from Reynaldo's own coconut and mango farms, or from his rice paddies, or fished off of the long stretch of oceanfront that he owned.
The newlyweds' happiness was nearly total. Renata was the center of attention and was so lavished with both attention and jewels, that she was near to swooning all the time. And Reynaldo was amazed that he was able to win such a gorgeous woman as his wife, and his joy would have been complete had it not been for the absence of Nellie.
A few decades ago, soon after his first wife died, a grieving Reynaldo was taking an aimless walk through a mango grove. It had been a beautiful day, the sun not at its peak, but still hours away from setting in a cornflower-blue sky peppered here and there with fluffy clouds.
Reynaldo noticed none of it, choosing instead to stare at his feet as he walked, still despondent over the death of his wife. It was because he was looking at his feet that he noticed a tiny egg, too small to be a chicken egg, lying on the ground.
He picked it up and carried it home and kept it warm. After several weeks, it hatched, and out came a delicately tiny snake, like a yellow worm. Reynaldo was delighted that his care had paid off in the birth of a live creature and promptly named the snake Nellie, after his deceased wife.
He fed it by hand, insects at first, and then field mice, mastering his repugnance with the love he felt for his second Nellie. After a time, the snake learned to hunt on its own, although it never strayed far from its master. For a radius of miles, people were spared the sight of insects, then mice, then bats, and then no one ever needed to worry about the feral dogs, wildcats and thieving monkeys that used to roam the area. Nellie ate and grew copiously. By the time Reynaldo first saw the beauteous Renata and determined to ask her for her hand in marriage, Nellie was forty feet long and was as wide as the trunk of a young palm tree.
During their courtship, upon learning that her husband-to-be owned the fearsome reptile and without even laying eyes upon it, Renata resolved that she would have nothing to do with Reynaldo, despite his impressive (monetary) endowments.
When she was a little girl, about the time that Reynaldo first switched Nellie's diet from bugs to mice, she had carelessly wandered where she shouldn't have and fallen into an abandoned well, breaking her leg. The bottom of the well was covered in about a foot of water and served as a nest for hundreds of snakes, called balila. The poison of these snakes were not fatal to larger animals or people, but were very painful. Young Renata was frightened out of her mind, and by the time she was rescued a couple of hours later, covered in little pinprick snakebites, she had been reduced to a gibbering idiot.
In time the scars would fade, both mental and physical. She started recognizing where she was a couple of months later and was able to talk sanely again, the bite marks healed very quickly, and though her broken leg forced her to walk with a limp, as she got older she converted this limp into a slow, deliberate-looking feminine sashay that looked very fetching.
But she never got over her fear of snakes. So she gave an ultimatum to Reynaldo: "Me or the snake."
This was very difficult for him as he was very attached to Nellie. But eventually the lonely old man decided he wanted to marry one more time, and he took Nellie to the deepest part of the forest. It took a cart pulled by two carabao, to carry the giant snake. Reynaldo undertook the journey alone because he wanted to be by himself when he bid goodbye to his faithful friend, and because none of his servants would go anywhere near Nellie, even at threat of a beating.
"Goodbye, old friend," said he as he opened the crate that held her. She slithered away, looking back at him once, holding his gaze for what seemed minutes, before turning and disappearing into the thick underbrush.
And so the wedding was marred for Reynaldo as he lamented his poor snake-child left to fend for herself. But after the guests had gone, and their marriage officially started, Renata proved herself to be the ideal wife, as far as Reynaldo was concerned.
She was indeed lovely to look at, so that when they ran out of things to talk about, he was perfectly happy just gazing wistfully at her face and form. While she, when they ran out of things to talk about, delighted herself with the many, many toys and baubles that Reynaldo bought for her.
This went on for one year. But then their idyll was ruined when a disease emerged in the village. No one knew where it came from, or how it was passed. No one was safe. Strong men would fall in the street, children in huge families would contract it, as well as religious hermits living on the outskirts of the town- there did not seem to be a pattern as to who would be next.
The disease itself was not fatal. The initial symptoms included a high fever; then a few days later the fever would break, but the sufferer could no longer move or speak, and could only open their eyes.
After a few months, though there was not a single house that did not contain such an invalid, Reynaldo and Renata and their dozens of servants were still healthy.
Until one day, when Reynaldo sat fanning himself on the porch, worrying about his neighbors and hoping the food supplies he sent them would be enough, one of the female servants rushed out to him, crying.
"Oh Sir! It is so terrible! The Missus! She will not wake," she cried. Reynaldo rushed to his wife's side but it was too late. The disease had hit her faster than most, and she had not even shown signs of a fever before falling into a catatonic state.
After she fell ill, Reynaldo took it upon himself to ensure his wife had the best of care. He had her placed in a room on the North side of the house, so she could have a cool breeze on her still brow. This room was darker than the others as neither the setting nor the rising sun ever touched it. This was a hardship for Reynaldo as his sight was not as sharp as it used to be, but he wanted for Renata to be as comfortable as possible.
Her care and the upkeep of the room was entirely his doing- his servants begged him on their knees not to make them go near his wife as they had families of their own that would be jeopardized if they were to catch her illness. And so it was Reynaldo alone that would bring her breakfast, lunch, and dinner. He would prop her up on pillows and spoon-feed her. He gave her sponge baths and made certain that her bedclothes and dress were always clean. At night, he would read to her by candlelight, until his eyes would fail him and then he would make up stories that he thought would amuse her. All throughout this, Renata lay on the bed, seemingly insensate; her delicate features frozen into an impassive mask, her jade-colored eyes open, staring upwards.
After a good-night kiss on his wife's perfect cheek, Reynaldo would pass his hand over her eyelids to close them, and then sleep on the mattress that he had his servants pull up outside of her room. And so, Reynaldo, the richest man on the island, owner of coconut and mango groves, rice paddies, and beaches, would sleep on the floor outside his wife's room every night like a faithful dog.
And every morning her eyes would be wide open.
This went on for years. Reynaldo became an even older man, shoulders stooped, with cavernous, sad eyes under a careworn brow, but his wife, unable to smile or frown, except for the fact that her honey-colored hair changed to silver, remained the lovely unwrinkled sleeping beauty that she was.
But then one day, one of the women that worked in his kitchen came back from buying supplies from the market with marvelous news. A foreign doctor from far, far away had heard of their plight and had brought strange medicines. Already he had cured some of the children that were among the first inflicted. The woman described the parents of the children, taking them outside for the first time, to take their first steps in years, clumsily done as their limbs were longer then when they first took ill. The children described their ordeals as living deaths where they could see and hear but could not move or speak.
Reynaldo immediately called for his most trusted servant, the major-domo of his household and entrusted to him a sapphire half as big as a hen's egg. He told his man to give it to the doctor with the promise of more, IF he could bring his cure to Renata post-haste.
The doctor appeared late that same evening. He was tall, gaunt and mysterious. His hair was impeccable and shiny with Brilliantine. He smelled slightly of sweat as well as of the Brilliantine, which was not unexpected, as he wore a knee-length jacket of some sturdy material, even in the summer heat.
Reynaldo, without a word, led him to where Renata lay. The doctor opened his leather bag and brought out a vial of liquid which he opened and poured carefully, little by little, into Renata's mouth.
He gave instructions to Reynaldo to let her sleep and told him that she would wake up in the morning, able to move. Reynaldo gave him an emerald then, a little larger than the sapphire before it, and set in gold, to thank him for coming. He promised the doctor an even more expensive gift to give to him, should he prove right and Renata actually wake the next day. The doctor made a snorting sound, partly insulted by the suggestion that he would fail, partly in greed at the thought of a more precious jewel than what he'd already been given.
The doctor left the house then, to walk through the darkening jungle back to the village where he was lodging. He refused Reynaldo's offer of an escort as the village was not far. It is not known what happened to him after that because no one ever heard from him again.
But, sometime in the early morning hours, as he promised, Renata was once again able to move. Reynaldo was lying on his mattress outside her door as usual for that time of day, when he was startled awake by her screams.
The entire household came running then, to see what the matter was. But there was nothing wrong that they could find. Renata was huddled in the corner of the room, frothing at the mouth and screaming unintelligibly despite their efforts to calm her.
A doctor was called for, but the doctor from last night being missing, one had to be boated out from a village several islands away. It took many days for this doctor to arrive, and in all that time, Renata only stopped screaming to take a breath, or to have silent but violent fits, in which she would roll on the floor banging her head, or run around the room, careening into walls and furniture. Her husband stayed with her and would from time-to-time try to hold her. He stopped doing so only when he realized that it was worsening and perhaps even causing her paroxysms.
The servants were convinced that Renata was possessed and would again not go near her, despite that she was cured from the sleeping disease. It was night-time when the doctor arrived. He had his nurses restrain Renata and he studied her for a few hours after which he conferred his diagnosis to Reynaldo.
"Incurable insanity," he pronounced. The doctor had heard of a sanitarium, on the mainland far away, whose caretakers were said to be the best, and suggested that Reynaldo have her taken there.
And so she was. Reynaldo kissed her cheek one last time as they took her away, bound in a straitjacket, and gagged to prevent her screams from startling the driver.
He went back into his house, into the room where for years, he had taken care of his beloved Renata. He sat in the chair where he used to sit in order to read or just talk to her, and there the old man died of a broken heart.
The doctor was called for again, and then a mortician to collect Reynaldo's remains, and it was the mortician that made the discovery.
As his assistants held the body's shoulders and legs to move it onto a pallet, a tiny yellow snake appeared on the lapel of the dead man. The morticians, who were three very strong fortitudinous men, and recognizing the snake to be a tiny representative of python, which killed its victims by squeezing them rather than poisoning them, were unfazed. They looked around curiously to see where the snake came from. Moments later, another snake fell onto the bed, yellow like the little one, maybe a little bigger.
The men looked up.
And in the dim light of the room, up on the ceiling, they could barely make out the form of a gigantic snake, perhaps forty feet long, wrapped around the rafters, surrounded by generations of her brood.
It was Nellie who years ago, finding herself pregnant, had decided to come home and make herself comfortable, in the coolest part of the house, in sight of a captive audience.