Claudia's eyes are the eyes of a snake, but most people don't hold it against her.
A garter snake in the underbrush, looking for frogs. The ground warm from the summer sun, though it's already dark out. The feeling of sliding on dirt, over broken leaves and through the grass.
Her eyes are yellow, with flecks of brown in the middle and green around the edges, and pupils that look like skinny diamonds.
Other times, they are sandy brown, with pupils so big and round, it's like she's a cat on nip. Or perhaps they're red-orange, with only a sliver of black that makes it look like they were cut in two. Maybe silver with black diamonds again, but fatter diamonds. Or green and veined with gold, or green and even brighter green, or yellow-striped--
Claudia has the eyes of a snake, but it's not always the same snake.
The smell and sound of water. Mud below. Strange things around-- food? Threat? Only one way to find out. . .
Sometimes, when she's bored, or upset, or wants to be anywhere else, she will let her eyes go lazy, staring off into nothing at all. Sometimes when that happens, the room blurs and shifts, indistinct shapes turning into different --but still indistinct-- shapes. Sometimes, she can see, but not with her eyes, with something else she doesn't know the name of, something that lets her feel the heat in the ground and the air, or the noise hitting off things that look like nothing, but she knew are rocks or trees.
Claudia is quiet much of the time. Her parents used to appreciate this; they could take her to business dinners or fancy-dress parties and display her like a doll. Her mother's friends (who, despite having human eyes seemed entirely more snakelike than Claudia) would pay her mother backhanded and saccharine compliments about Claudia's behavior and clothes, and Claudia's mother would smile, her eyes dancing knowing that they were envious.
Claudia barely noticed. She would let the empty voices float above her head and instead focus on burrowing through the earth in search of food, or sunning herself on warm stones.
One day, when she was a rattlesnake, she was hiding in the barn and frightened the stable hand there. The snake didn't bite him, just tried to rattle him away from its spot in the wood pile. For a moment, it looked like it had worked. But then the boy returned, and when he came back, he was carrying a shovel.
At the restaurant, as she stared down at a plate of food her parents thought she should like, she suddenly thrashed wildly, screaming and crying. She upturned her chair and sent nearby dishes smashing to the floor, and didn't stop crying until long after her parents had excused themselves and brought her home.
It was after the boy and the shovel that things turned bad for Claudia, as though that one incident unlocked all the bad luck she'd been able to avoid.
When she sunned herself in the road, the snake would be run over by cars, and she'd fall, gasping and crying, to the floor of her bedroom. When she wove her way through the tree tops, leaping occasionally from tree to tree with unexpected strength, the snake she whose eyes she shared would be snatched up by taloned birds. Claudia would have enough time to feel her sides being pierced, feel herself be squeezed near to death, before she'd open her eyes and be back in her family's library.
Not every snake met a bad end while she was with them, but the ones who did stuck out so strongly in her mind, that she soon became afraid of looking through snakes at all. She tried to keep her mind from wandering, tried to stay in the moment, but that only brought more attention to her odd behavior.
The moment, it turned out, was boring. The doll clothes her mother made her wear were suffocating and itchy. The shoes were too tight, the cuffs too lacy. The parties were likewise suffocating, though in different ways, and the women with their painted faces and alcohol laced breath poking and pinching her cheeks made her want to scream. She began to fidget, began to pick apart her clothes thread by thread, and when people stopped looking at her, she fled to the bathroom or guest rooms to hide. And, when her parents inevitably found her, they had to drag her back to the party proper.
“I don’t want to,” she said finally, raising her voice for what felt like the first time. “I don’t want to go!”
And, for a brief moment, her eye shone yellow, her pupils cat-like slits, and when she opened her mouth, her teeth weren’t teeth, but spitting fangs.
Her parents were appalled, not by her fangs, but by her hissing.
From then on, when they attempted to take her out, she fought and bit and spat venom that burned holes in the hardwood, until eventually they stopped trying.
They left her alone at home, not wanting even a nanny to witness the shame in their family. But despite her hopes, the isolation was worse. Now there were no painted women or itchy clothes to focus on hating, and the lives of snakes slithered into her mind, blurring the edges of what the snakes knew and what Claudia knew. She hunted nonexistent mice in the halls, crawled beneath the bed on her belly, tried to force herself up the stairs without using her arms and legs.
And when she had completely lost Claudia, when there was nothing but a green snake escaping out the second story window, attempting to leap to the nearest branch--
--That’s when a woman caught her.
“There you are!” she said, her voice like a sun-warmed stone.
The snake in the body of a girl writhed in her arms.
“Is there a little girl in there?” the woman said. “Or only a snake?”
The snakes hissed and spat, fangs dripping.
“Or are you many snakes?”
The girl tried to bite, but wherever her teeth landed, the air was empty.
“Come on, honey,” the woman said. “You can visit snakes all you want, but you can’t let them live inside you. It’s as confusing for them as it is for you.”
It wasn't working; the girl was gone, and there was nothing left inside of her but angry snakes. The young woman set her down on the grass, but kept tight grip on her arm.
"Alright, honey," said the woman. "It's time to come home."
It was as though the veins in her arm were suddenly filled with a golden light, muted slightly by the surrounding flesh, but bright enough to be seen even in broad daylight. She placed her glowing hand onto the girl's forehead.
The snakes inside calmed. The light was like the warming sun, and they found themselves suddenly sleepy. They adjusted themselves, made room for one another, and Claudia opened her eyes.
The woman smiled.
"Hello, honey," she said, kneeling so she was level with Claudia's eyes. "My name is Miss Olivia, and I think you're very special. May I come in? I'd like to speak to your parents, if they're around."
And Claudia said nothing, but the last remnants of the snakes inside slept, content, and for the first time in what felt like forever, she could think like a human again.
After a moment, she took Olivia by the hand and led her inside.