Snake Oil – by Bob Corpening

Snake Oil Writer's Block

The first episode of the new series Writer's Block, Snake Oil explores the life of a traveling salesman in a fictional medieval world. Written, performed, and edited by Bob Corpening. Cover art by Noah McNerney. Tune in again next week for the next episode! I hope you enjoy Writer's Block. 

The Salesman stood atop a hill, watching the sun rise over the quaint village below, roosters crowing at the approaching dawn. Within hours it would be bustling like a busy bee hive, of course. He slipped his trusty old flute back into his waistband and watched the grass ripple down the hill, towards the village. The Salesman hated this part of the job; it always made him feel like just another slimy good-for-nothing thief. But what could he do? Business was business. He threw closed the door of his wagon, the cages rattling shut, and made his way into town.  

By the time he reached the village it had come alive, the streets packed with panicked faces, shopkeepers calling for brooms, wives calling for husbands, children calling frantically for runaway cats and dogs. The Salesman shook his head. It was the same every time. People lined the street corners, beating senselessly at the ground with whatever was at hand. Shouts echoed from inside houses, the sounds of surprise and terror melding into a cacophony of panic.

The Salesman set up his cart in the center of the town square and unfurled his banner, announcing himself as a traveling merchant specializing in rare elixirs. At first, the townspeople paid him no mind, but they would come around, he knew. Usually by the afternoon they would turn to him, pleading, begging on their knees for help of any kind.

There was another shopkeeper next to him having a field day out of selling brooms, shovels, and washing poles to assorted passers-by. The Salesman strolled over to his stand, marveling at the empty shelves. Whatever was going on was sure great for business, he remarked to the man. But what was going on, anyway?

The shopkeeper explained that the town had woken to a plague of snakes; that very morning, they found snakes in nearly every home, slithering through the streets, slipping into the food stores. All at once, they were everywhere. The townsfolk had no idea what to do.

The Salesman nodded sagely, offering his sympathies where appropriate, lending his ear where best. The best salesman, he had learned long ago, is first and foremost a great listener. Let the buyer convince themselves, he always said. So, when the moment came, he leapt on it. He explained that, as an elixir specialist, he might just be able to help. The shopkeeper was suspicious, but the Salesman bode him be patient; he would require no longer than a minute of his time. The Salesman retreated to his cart, quickly producing a series of vials from a compartment within the wheelbase. He then arranged before him a series of empty glass containers, and into these he poured a series of colorful, viscous fluids. Finally, he poured everything together in a single, massive jug of a bottle. The mixture bubbled and popped before calming.

Satisfied in his creation, the Salesman returned to the shopkeeper and handed him a vial full of the strange substance, the liquid within shining a vaguely phosphorescent orange. Pour it around your shop, the Salesman promised, and the snakes will leave you well enough alone.

The shopkeeper seemed unsure, but, as the Salesman had guessed, could not resist such a simple solution, and certainly not one that came at no cost. He snatched the vial away and poured it in a grand circle about his stall, emptying the last few drops onto his counter and around his own feet. And, sure enough, within seconds dozens of squirming forms slithered up from under the stall, out of the wooden boards and away into the street.

The shopkeeper was astounded, of course. They always were, when they saw how effective the Salesman’s solutions proved. He begged to learn more, but the Salesman said nothing, save that his Snake Oil would be on sale for the remainder of the day, for a modest price per vial, of course. Its effectiveness was guaranteed; after all, had the shopkeeper himself not seen it at work? What’s more, the Salesman promised the shopkeeper a nominal fee for every customer he brought in. Greed clouded the shopkeepers’ eyes as he hurried off into the streets, singing the Salesman’s praises. Now, the Salesman knew, he need only wait.

Soon enough, the whole town was before the Salesman, begging for his help in their time of need, pleading for a chance to purchase his magic Snake Oil elixir. He smiled, and produced vial after vial, the coins of the townsfolk plinking down on his cart, jingling pleasantly in his coin pouch.

Before long, he’d sold out the last of his elixir; his vials ran dry. He would have to replenish his stock before he could sell so much as another drop. The townsfolk were desperate, but he assured them that, with liberal use of the product they now possessed, their problems would surely see their way clear to resolution. With those words, he packed his cart and began the journey out of town.

The townsfolk thanked him heartily for his help. Surely, such a chance encounter could not have been the work of luck alone. The Salesman assured them he too was grateful for the opportunity to assist; that he garnered no pleasure greater than aiding his fellow man in times of need. Secretly, of course, this could not be further from the truth. His greatest pleasure came from the clinking of cool metal in the coin pouch that bounced even then against his chest.

He trundled on up the cobblestone road and out of town as the people of the village poured his orange elixir across every surface and into every nook and cranny in their humble homes and stores. Sure enough, out slithered the snakes, beaten with broom and pole up the road and out of town, scattering into the trees and grasses, disappearing as surely as the sun was then doing beyond the horizon.

Night fell, and the Salesman found himself perched atop the same rise he had sat that very morning. He fingered the flute in his waistband aimlessly, wondering whether this would be the day he became an honest man.  

It was not, of course. He flung wide the door of his wagon, sliding the ramp down to the loamy earth below. Then, sure as the setting of the sun, he drew the flute to his lips and blew.

A haunting melody drifted over the land, its piercing notes calling far and wide. Waves rippled through the grass, and soon the Salesman found himself surrounded by hundreds, nay, thousands of serpents of every size and stripe. Yet on he played, that strange, sickening melody drifting over the land still. The snakes slithered their way quickly into the wagon, and the Salesman, sure in their count, threw closed the door. He turned the lock, unhitched his horses, and swung into the saddle, ready to sell another day. For business is business, as they say.

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