The Cockatrice Den

by Joanna Michal Hoyt

Even before he guesses about the basilisk, Kazimir fears that he may be going crazy again. He and too many others. Craziness, he knows, spreads like any other epidemic. His whole army unit—his whole army—both armies—were surely crazy in the last war, or they could not have done such things to each other.

He does not want to remember what his people did—what he did—to people who were not even in the other army. The old man’s thin shouting, his bony wrists tied together behind his back, his left sleeve unbuttoned and rucked up, the weight of the gun in Kazimir’s hands, the sound of the shot…

Kazimir clenches his fists, stares straight ahead of him, mutters through clenched teeth for the millionth time, “May his soul rest in peace. May I never, never do such a thing again. Not even if they order me. Not if they threaten me. Not if my friends are dead around me. Not…”

He still does not know if he is praying to God or defying God. He no longer prays in the usual way. After the old man’s death, whenever Kazimir bowed his head and folded his hands, whenever he said the holy names, he turned sick with the memory of the prayers he and his comrades had said every morning, asking God’s blessing on their holy cause. Kazimir does not know whether God can ever forgive him, or whether he can ever forgive God. So he prays angrily into emptiness, and sometimes he cries.

Kazimir can cry now. He has not healed, but he is flesh not stone. He no longer stands rigidly for hours on end staring at what is not there and will never not be there. He notices when the storm blows the tiles from his neighbor Irina’s roof. He replaces them, since Irina’s son, who marched off to the war with him, is buried in another country under a cross and a flag. He notices the savor of the herbs in the soup Irina brings him. He hears the songs her grandchildren sing as they play under the pear tree. On Sundays he hears the cathedral organ in the distance, though he knows better than to approach more closely. He is not healed, but he is alive.

These days, since the new war that they are not allowed to call by its right name began, to be alive is to be afraid. The war is not in Kazimir’s country now, but the harm is. Soldiers’ bodies come back from the other country in closed coffins; they come and come and come. Some men come back with missing limbs, and others with hard blank eyes that stare at nothing.

It is worse, of course, in the country which no one is allowed to say they are invading. Kazimir has seen the forbidden images. The walls collapsed, the trees leafless in the midst of the green spring, shattered like dry bones. Dead men, women, children, lying under the cold sky. Petrified people who did not die and yet cannot live with what they have seen.

Kazimir does not want to look at those pictures. But he promised himself, when Irina’s kindness brought him back to life, that he would not forget the old man’s yellow-white hair, the way his left foot turned out, the way his wife stared and slowly collapsed on herself when she saw what they—what Kazimir—had done. Now he makes himself read the reports and look at the pictures. And then, before he can completely break again, he buries himself in old stories. There is horror in those tales, but many of them end happily, and all of them end. Or so he thought until he read the tale of the beast that ravaged Warsaw (which is far away, but not far enough for comfort) more than five hundred years ago.


The city folk did not know what assailed them. Night after night the earth shook. Walls collapsed and plumes of fire billowed into the air. Morning after morning the people found trees and grass blasted and dead. They found, also, houses broken open, the occupants turned to stone, staring at something that was not there and would never not be there.

They never saw their enemy, but they knew where it must be. Children had always dared each other to go into the catacombs under the city. Now they didn’t return.

Heroes donned armor and clanked into the dark tunnels, clutching swords and crucifixes. Some came back saying they had smelled a foul odor in the air but had not found their enemy. They had, however, found the men who had found the enemy, the men who had not come back. These stood cold and unseeing, horror in their rigid faces. Their crosses and their swords were cold dull stone in their cold stone fingers.

A learned doctor consulted his books and announced that they were under attack by a basilisk, also known as a cockatrice, a monster with a bird’s head and a snake’s tail, venomous breath and a deadly gaze. To free them, he said, someone must bear a mirror down into the basilisk’s cave: if the beast once saw itself, it would turn to stone. He added prudently that he could not undertake that task himself since he was in poor health.

Perhaps the city’s heroes had all been turned to stone by then. Or perhaps none found a mirror so comforting to hold as a sword or a cross. There were no volunteers.

The people who would not face the beast despised each other almost as much as they despised themselves. Men looked sidelong at each other and quarreled over nothing. When the father of a little girl who had disappeared into the catacombs was found dead on a barroom floor after a brawl, the town’s old women whispered their doubts about whether the little foreign tailor who was sentenced to death for the murder had actually struck the blow. But he was foreign and alone. No one spoke aloud in his defense except one crone who urged the city fathers to offer him a full pardon if he slew the basilisk.

The tailor chose to face the monster rather than the hangman. He came blinking out of the dark cell. He donned the jerkin covered with small mirrors which had been prepared on the doctor’s advice for the hero who did not come. He picked up the hand mirror and the torch. He walked to the opening of the catacombs, followed by a silent crowd. Down, down, down he went into foul-smelling darkness. He passed stone children who stared fixedly, and others who laughed. The heroes all looked terrified. Here and there a gleam of metal took the light—some weapon or talisman fallen from a nerveless hand just before its owner turned to stone.

Something breathed raspingly in the fetid dark. The tailor closed his eyes and brandished torch and mirror toward the sound. He waited for a long time, the blood beating in his eyelids, after the sound stopped. At last he looked.

The blind stone basilisk’s grotesquery was more pitiable than frightening. Its livid skin was warty. Its tail, curled above its shapeless body like a scorpion’s, was no longer than the tailor’s forearm. The crown on its cock’s head was a stumpy, pathetic thing in grainy stone.

The tailor looked down at his hands, then wrenched his head aside and flung the mirror to the stony floor. He had glimpsed a reflection of the living basilisk, its crown glinting. He thanked God that he had not quite seen its eyes.

The mirror fell in shards which reflected, not the basilisk, but the light of the blessed sun falling through a shaft high above. That light touched the stone statue of a staring child, and the little body stirred with living breath.

Together the tailor and the restored child dragged back another child’s statue into the reflected sunlight. After two more children were thus freed, they bore a stone hero back into the light. Before night fell all the stone prisoners had surged back up into the bright world, to their frightened and wondering families and friends.


Kazimir closes the book and does not understand why his hands are shaking, why he does not believe this story has ended. He falls asleep at last. In his dreams the images of bombed cities and the hard faces of the men back from the front merge with the images from the story in the book, and when Kazimir wakes he begins to understand.

He tries to tell Andrei, who came back from the war crippled instead of frozen, about the basilisk. Andrei turns away from him, turns the television up, takes another swig of vodka. Kazimir tries to tell Feodor, who works with him repairing houses. Feodor snorts and pulls his earphones on. Kazimir tries to tell Irina, who looks worried, reaches for him, lowers her hand.

“I’m not crazy,” he says. “I mean, no more than we all are. This war—”

“Sss!” she hisses in his ear. “You don’t know who might be listening! The last thing we need is for you to get sent to prison.”

He gulps, nods. The trees up and down the street are bright with new leaves, the walls stand intact, but here too the air is poisoned. At work, in the shops, on the street, people look sidelong at each other, look away. Neighbors have vanished. Faddei and Aksinya were arrested publicly after holding a banner that said NO WAR on the cathedral steps. Nadezhda tried to stop her son from joining the army, and she has not been heard of since. Matvey the grocer’s place has suddenly been taken by his assistant. When Kazimir asked the assistant about Matvey, the assistant talked loudly about the weather. When Kazimir asked Irina she said, “Don’t ask!” so he knew what must have happened. What could happen to him, too. He cannot bear to be locked away from Irina and her grandchildren, away from the bright world and the blessed sun, with only his foul memories for company. He will hold his tongue. He is no convict-hero. He has not broken his country’s laws, he has not been condemned, and he is not innocent. He cannot slay or petrify this beast.

On Sunday afternoon Kazimir drinks tea in Irina’s garden and her six-year-old granddaughter Yelena brings him early violets. Yelena’s older brother Aleksei marches by with a stick leaned across his shoulder at a stiff and purposeful angle.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Irina says, low and angry. “That branch is all over moss and you’ll spoil your best coat.”

“I’m a soldier for God, like they said at church,” Aleksei says. “I’m going to kill the bad people.” He takes aim at a pigeon on the garden wall.

Kazimir hears Irina snapping, “Put that down!” just before he hears himself beginning to keen. He claps his hands over his mouth. He will not scare Irina’s grandchildren. He gets up clumsily, spilling his tea and Irina’s as he knocks his thigh against the table. He runs across the street and back into his house.

When Irina pounds on the door and shouts his name, he lets her in. Once, not long after his return from the last war, she smashed a window and came in to find him with a gun in his mouth. He does not want her to think he is doing that again.

“I’m sorry,” she says. “Aleksei should know better. But I… But it’s hard to tell him to stop now. I can’t say he’s wrong where anyone can hear, and even if I say it inside, if he tells anyone else…”

“What did they say at church?” Kazimir asks. He has not gone into a church since he came back from the war.

“You have a television,” she says. “You know what they say.”

“And you know they lie,” he says. Pauses. “Don’t you know? If you don’t, it’s my fault. I didn’t want to tell you what I did. What your son did.”

“Hush,” she says. “You told me enough, on your bad days. You know I don’t want my grandson… But what can I do?”

“Nothing,” he says. He sits with his stormy head in his hands and says no more until Irina goes away. Until the sinking sun sends the impossibly lengthened shadow of Irina’s pear tree into his living room, one black branch pointing at him like a stiff clawed hand. “Don’t point at me,” he tells it. “There’s nothing I can do.”

It seems to him that the words come hissing from his mouth and leave a foul taste in the air. He bites his lips and hurries out the front door.

The little street where he lives is quiet as always. The larger streets on his way to the Cathedral are busier. The passersby glance sidelong at him, at each other, then stare at the ground. The paperboy at the corner cries the news of another holy and glorious triumph attained by their peace-loving nation in a voice so cracked and shrill that Kazimir wants to choke him. He thrusts his hands deep in the empty pockets of his coat where they cannot hurt anyone.

The Cathedral brims with the light and music of Compline. Kazimir plods up the broad steps and stands in the back of the sanctuary. The people lean in toward the altar as toward a fire in midwinter. Their eyes and their hands twitch slightly, just out of rhythm with the steady cadences of the music, but perfectly in time with the harsh rasping wheeze that grates under the music. Is the pipe organ going bad? No, Kazimir is not hearing an organ—not one with pipes. This is the breathing of a living thing. Or at least of a thing that is not dead.

Kazimir edges up a side aisle. There is supposed to be a body, miraculously transformed, in the monstrance behind the altar. Can that be groaning in some horrible half-resurrection?

No. No, the sound isn’t coming from the Host in the sanctuary. Kazimir drifts, listening for the noise under the music, snuffing the rank smell—metal and wet stone, fire and rotting flesh—which seeps under the incense. Finally, his feet take him to the door leading down into the crypt.

Yes, the smell and the sound come from there. It must be the basilisk after all.

Fear holds Kazimir rooted until the service is ended, the worshippers gone, the lights dimmed, and the doors locked, leaving him, unobserved, inside. Is he alone? He can’t see anyone else, but sometimes he thinks he can hear something else small and frightened breathing in the space with him.

On the great altar, and also on the Lady’s altar, candles flicker in the unquiet air. Kazimir walks toward them. He will need a light. A light, and something that reflects.

He avoids the Lady, with her tired patient face like Irina’s. He turns toward the main altar, averting his eyes from the dead man on the wall above. He cannot bear to think about dead men now.

Terrible eyes stare into his. The basilisk isn’t in the crypt, it’s on the altar. His heart labors; his throat constricts…

No, the eyes are his own, reflected in the polished chalice. He forces himself to breathe. Picks the chalice up. That is sacrilege. That doesn’t matter after his other sins. And perhaps it serves God right. He marches himself back to the crypt door, a candle in his left hand, the chalice in his right, feeling that he stands behind himself, aiming a gun at his back, forcing himself through down the cold stone steps, the way he once forced… No. He must not remember that now.

There are no cobwebs hanging from the ceiling, no dust on the floor. The smooth marble arches gleam wetly in the candlelight. The air reeks.

A woman appears in the flickering light, her back and her bound hands turned toward him. He shoves down memories, hurries to her, murmuring, “I’m here to help, don’t be afraid.” He reaches out gently to touch her bound wrists and feels not flesh but stone.

It is not at all reassuring to realize that he is not crazy, that the basilisk is real.

It is still less reassuring, when he shines the candlelight on her horrified stone face, to recognize Nadezhda. Near her stand Faddei, Matvey, Aksinya—the ones who said something, who disappeared. Heroes. Failures. Statues.

The breathing in the darkness seems closer now. It is hard to be sure. The sound bounces strangely through the arched compartments of the crypt. That must be why he hears faltering steps after the echo of his own feet should have faded. He turns his head slowly, trying to fix the source of the sound.

His eye catches a different kind of reflected gleam. Not the chill white of marble, but the rich gold of a crown.

The golden gleam expands, fills the sky. Kazimir sees himself reflected, haloed in golden light like the ikon of a saint. Saint Kazimir the Brave, going forth against the dread beast; Saint Kazimir, protector of the motherland.

The foul smell has turned to the heavy sweetness of incense, and the sound of chanting fills his ears. Of course! The priest is blessing the troops as they go forth to do God’s battle, to serve their people by their lives or deaths. The congregation murmurs praise. Kazimir bows his head in devotion and reverent joy as he did on that first day when… before…

As he lowers his head his gaze slips from the golden crown to the basilisk’s eyes. Like the gold of the crown, they expand rapidly to fill Kazimir’s field of vision.

First Kazimir sees his own face reflected. Or something like his face, but surely his eyes are not so cruel, his face not set in such hard lines; and why is there blood trickling from the corner of his mouth?

His face fades, and instead he sees the thin old man lying on the ground, his wrists bound, the back of his head a bloody mess.

There are other bodies. Some made so by Kazimir, some by his friends. Kazimir cannot weep, cannot pray, cannot beg forgiveness, cannot curse himself or his God. His flesh has gone stiff and hard. All that lives in him is his tormented mind, seeing again what he has done, what cannot be undone.

The old man rises like a puppet clumsily operated, not like a man. Around him other corpses rise. Their eyes are terrible as Kazimir’s were when he first met the basilisk’s stare. They advance on him, stiffly, awkwardly, unstoppably.

Kazimir would relax if he were not stone. He will be punished. That is fitting. They will destroy him, quickly or slowly, and his nightmare will end.

But they are not looking at him. They are looking over his shoulder. Behind him he hears a gasping intake of breath and a child’s ragged cry.

They are children, Kazimir wants to say. You can’t… But some of the horribly risen dead are children too, and he remembers…

“Get back!” the living child’s voice shouts wildly behind Kazimir. Aleksei’s voice.

It seems there is still some reflective substance between Kazimir and the oncoming army. Kazimir’s reflection appears again, pale and insubstantial, before him. And, smaller and sharper, Aleksei’s reflection. Aleksei still holds the slimy tree branch, though now he clutches it like a club not a gun. “Get back!” he shouts, walking unsteadily forward. “Go away! I’ll kill you!”

One of the undead children stalks toward Aleksei, mirroring his posture. Its hands clasp not a branch, but a bar of sickly-colored light.

Go back! Kazimir screams. Aleksei, this isn’t your fight, it isn’t your fault; get away while you can! But he screams only inside his mind. His jaw will not move.

Suddenly he is moving, but not by his own will. Something else has seized his sinews, is forcing him to twist toward Aleksei, candle and chalice raised as though to strike…

“Stop, Aleks!” cries a high shrill voice. “Don’t hit it! It’s hurt!”

Kazimir can still hear the arrhythmic steps of the creatures behind him. In front of him he sees Yelena running past her brother, her empty hands held out. He catches his breath in horror.

The dark seems to fold in and then expand again around him. A voice, urgent and directionless, echoes from every side. An old woman’s voice. Irina’s voice.

“And the sucking child shall put his hand on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice den. They shall not harm or destroy in all my holy mountain, says the Lord, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”

Kazimir grew up with a modern Bible that spoke of snakes not cockatrices, but Irina still keeps to the old words. He had forgotten, but she remembered. She listened after all. In some space that he doesn’t understand he can see her praying, staring at her children’s empty beds, her veined hands clasped, her face set hard, not entreating but demanding, though it’s streaked with tears. She says the words again. Again. Again. Kazimir wishes that he could pray with her, weep with her…

He can’t speak, can’t weep, but somewhere in the darkness of his mind other words take shape. “They shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him, as one mourneth for his only son, and shall be in bitterness for him, as one that is in bitterness for his firstborn.”

Kazimir is mourning. Is weeping. Aleksei, who has dropped his branch, is staring at something behind Kazimir. Kazimir turns—he can turn!—to look at what the boy sees.

Yelena stands with her hand out, very gently touching the oozing wound in the back of the cockatrice’s head. He can see this because the beast has bowed its head. The heavy crown lies at its feet on the floor. The front of the crown flashes with gems, but the back of the rim that enclosed the beast’s head is sharp and bloody.

The vision of the undead army has faded, though now there is a sound of weeping that echoes from all sides as Irina’s voice had done. Kazimir sees only the wounded beast and the concerned girl. And then Aleksei, running to his sister’s side to be sure she is all right.

“What are you doing here?” Kazimir asks hoarsely.

“I followed you,” Aleksei says, his hand on his sister’s back, his eyes on Kazimir. “I knew you were angry when Babushka wanted me not to play soldiers, ’cause you’d been one…” The boy’s voice falters, and he chews on his lip. Kazimir wonders what Aleks saw while Kazimir was under the basilisk-spell.

“I was,” Kazimir says. “I did… I did terrible things. I hurt people. I hurt God. It was very bad. When I came back, I wanted to be dead, but your babushka helped me be alive again.”

“But they say that our soldiers don’t do bad things, that it’s the enemies—”

“They lie,” says Kazimir.

The boy shivers. “Well, I saw you, and I went after you so I could tell you I was going to be a soldier anyway.”

“I came too,” Yelena says, still stroking the basilisk’s heavy beak. “I told Aleks, ‘You take me or I’ll scream.’” She beams with satisfaction.

“I’m glad you did,” Kazimir says. “I think you and your brother and your babushka set me free. That was a brave thing to do. But don’t… don’t do what I did, Aleks. Not even when you’re old enough. Did you see…”

Aleksei stares, gulps, nods.

“You freed us too,” says a voice behind Kazimir. He turns. It’s Nadezhda.

“But how could the basilisk have enspelled you?” he asks. “You never went to war.”

She grimaces. “No. But I thought… I must have fallen into a sort of dream when they pushed me into the crypt here. I thought the Leader was here in front of me, smirking that hateful little smirk he always gives after he tells his lies. I forgot my hands were tied. I thought I could kill him. I thought I was killing him. And then the vision changed.” She shudders. Looks down at the girl and the basilisk. “So that’s all it was,” she says wonderingly.

“That, and the evil in us,” Faddei says, coming up to stand beside her. “What do we do now?”

“We take it upstairs at tomorrow’s Mass,” Kazimir says. “We show the people. We tell them.”

“Will they listen? Won’t they just send us off to a proper prison where we’re held in by steel doors instead of nightmares?”

“I don’t know,” Kazimir says. “It’s worth a try anyhow. But first, someone needs to run and tell Irina her brave children are safe here in the cockatrice den.”

Joanna Michal Hoyt is an itinerant farmer, community volunteer, and freelance writer. She presently lives and works in western Massachusetts on a therapeutic farm community which hosts adults dealing with mental illnesses. She’s still trying to understand what it means to live rightly as a Christian and an American in a time when so much harm is done in the name of her faith and of her nation, and she imagines that Christians of other nations might have similar struggles.

Joanna’s short speculative stories have appeared in On Spec, Factor Four Fiction, Daily Science Fiction and others, and in the single-author collection Believing is Seeing. Read more at

Author’s Note: The fairy tale Kazimir reads is based on the legend of the Basilisk of Warsaw (which is generally called a basilisk and given the physical description of a cockatrice). In some accounts that basilisk is petrified by a convict, in others by a child. Irina’s prayer comes from Isaiah 11:8. I’ve used the King James version, which is the Bible with cockatrices I thought most likely to be familiar to Anglophone readers. There are also older Russian and Polish Bibles in which this verse mentions basilisks.

“The Cockatrice Den” by Joanna Michal Hoyt. Copyright © 2023 by Joanna Michal Hoyt.

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