I didn’t know what to make of it. Crotalus horridus. Here I am, gazing at the blank page as if waking from a trance, and there at my feet a rattlesnake is writhing itself out of its skin. Yes, fear suddenly freezes in my spine, and I’m too paralyzed to think it through. Pen in hand and writing tablet on my lap, I sit numb as a stone and watch the creature twist and turn itself inside-out until its labor is done. Then, as if I suddenly exist, it fixes me with those eyes for the stillest moment of my life.
Emilio DeGrazia has authored four books of fiction, including Seventeen Grams of Soul, winner of a Minnesota Book Award, and Enemy Country, winner of a Writer’s Choice Award. A founding editor of Great River Review, he has co-edited (with his wife Monica) 26 Minnesota Writers and 33 Minnesota Poets. His most recent book is a collection of essays entitled Burying the Tree. He lives downstream in Winona. All Downstream blog entries ©2008 Emilio DeGrazia.
Later, in the safety of my city house, I find time to review the scene. You know how sometimes it’s good to get the days mixed up—how you wake on Saturday thinking it’s already Monday again, until it slowly dawns that you can curl up to the luxury of not going to work. Right after the rattler finally slumped down and slithered out the cabin door all naked and new, it put me in a holiday mood.
And even now, when the cabin is in its deep winter freeze, there’s no getting Crotalus horridus out of my mind. Staring at snow I’m warmed by the thought of ancient serpents shimmering in a haze of midsummer heat hanging over the grasslands of a receding Tigris or Nile, or yet camouflaged in desert landscapes littered with stone ruins. In the rippled water and sand of these dim pasts serpents undulate like speckled molten glass, while in pagan palaces sages gaze in wonder at the mazy motions of woman and serpent performing concerts of sacred ritual, their meanings inscribed in code on statuettes, walls, tablets, vases, and amulets. Wherever the serpent lurked in ancient times its beauty and venomous powers inspired fear and respect, its veneration linking it to the Bride, the Tree of Knowledge and Tree of Life, and to the Great Mother Goddess of earth, harvest, and fertility. Other ancient myths confer on snakes the power of healing, wisdom and peace, hardly works we associate with princes of darkness.
How far we are from those times. How difficult to imagine these days why all children in a West African village once achieved their life insurance by touching a serpent’s tail, or why in the Punjab the snake was worshipped for nine days by members of all religions and castes, or why in Madras anyone who killed a cobra was deemed a murderer who had to do penance for three days and nights. Closer to home we learn that the Cherokees considered the rattlesnake as chief of the snake tribe, that anyone harming one was required to beg pardon of the snake’s ghost, and that the Seminoles dreaded doing deliberate injury to the rattler, wary that any wrong could be righted by the reptile’s relatives. One of my most modern medical encyclopedias celebrates the Crotalus remedy for a wide range of serious disorders––hemorrhaging, strokes, infections, delirium, angina, blood disorders. In 1837 Constantine Hering, homeopath of great repute, established that the remedy was especially effective for those who are melancholic, sluggish, and forgetful of their names and of their way home.
What am I, child of reason and technology, to make of such beliefs, or of the fact that one of those relatives made itself at home just a few feet from my chair, the one place where solitude and quiet conspire with me to constrict experience into words. Was that individual Crotalus horridus heaven-sent to inspire me to a conclusion of some sort, an agent there to lift the spirits of my pen? Or was its mission entirely dull, the shedding of its skin before my eyes nothing but a function of biology blindly—fatally?––happening in my small time and space?
We struggle to see ourselves clear, past superstitions, into whatever scripts happen before our eyes. Curled and writhing, the rattler is a fluid hieroglyph that like all significance easily slips away. Not often are we privileged to get a close-up view, particularly to read the thing’s eyes, which are, as we like to say, something else. From our distances all snake eyes look alike, their stare narrow, unmoved, intense, and slightly askew like the dots of a deuced roll of the dice. Such eyes offer us nothing warm-hearted and liberal like the large owl eyes of deer, dark-skinned children, and certain mutts. Entire contexts disappear in the spell of such eyes—the branches and leaves dancing in the breeze and brushing the cabin window just a few inches from my left arm, the two hawks circling high above, now and then suddenly present as shadows overhead, even the box-elder bugs trafficking in the sunlight on the window sill. The snake’s eyes, zeroes narrowing to nothingness, spell hate on minds gone blank.
But these are not the true eyes of Crotalus horridus, which we will see by turning to the pages of an appropriate book. There we learn that the rattler’s pupils are vertical, as if perfectly designed to take some primitive version of us, homo erectus, in. If, as Einstein is said to have said, we only know what time it is when there is but one clock in the room, time froze the moment the serpent locked its eyes on me. There I was, as if imprinted on the serpent’s mind, and I don’t know what broke the connection of that straight mutual stare. When the rattlesnake averted its eyes my world became bigger than both of us again. I remember how the snake relaxed its head on itself the way a lazy cat uses its own body as mattress, pillow and down comforter, then, as if I were a privileged spectator, resumed its skin-shedding business at my feet. When it finished, turned tail and slithered toward the door, my heart began pounding like a drum that must have sent small creatures in the grass deeper into their hideaways.
Experiences of this sort take us down and in. We begin remembering our dreams, where inevitably a serpent rears its head. Our hearts are running away with us and we see ourselves scream, for the thing is catching up, this one faceless, an enemy with no name, one we’ve never personally wronged. We close our eyes to swoon into unconsciousness, and later we tell everyone that’s when we woke up.
Trouble-makers these snakes, this particular one invading my writing space to come clean. We ask, Why don’t they stay with their own kind? My cabin is situated on a Mississippi River bluff where rattlesnakes are known to have congresses of their own on rock ledges and in caves. Does leaving a cabin door ajar grant any one of them the right to invade my turf? I can say yes now that I recall one of the signs of the times, as obvious as the flags saying “Don’t Tread on Me” were to the Redcoat mercenaries: The molting happened on July Fourth, my wife Monica’s birthday, a revolutionary time. That snake, busy with the business of turning itself entirely inside-out, apparently believed it had a right to be wholly indifferent to my feudal rights. The Laws of Nature conferred on the rattlesnake a right to my space, perhaps one more deeply grounded than the permit that allowed me to crowd my cabin so close to the snake’s bluff.
In lucid generous moments we’d rather not step on toes or tails, prefer to live and let live, and that’s when we like to take a walk in the woods. But our problem follows us there, sleeps in the weeds, basks in the sun warming a rock ledge, ready to ambush a mouse too casually taking in the sights and smells. The testimony of friends and movies warns us that such ambushes really occur, from trees, yes, but more often when giant reptiles rear their jaws from the yawning depths of city sewers “to eat people,” as one movie reviewer notes, “in interesting and visual ways.” We emerge from the safety of movie houses in places like New York, Detroit, and the Twin Cities and walk home to our beds, looking in vain for a psychiatrist to see us through the night. Something big in those evil streets lurks with intent to devour us whole.
My dear friend Tom, local expert on black holes and knots, bears witness to an extraordinary visitation from on high. A buddy of his, a tough Montana cowboy, once confused a rattler with the low-hanging limb of a dead elm. For God-only knows why, the cowboy couldn’t resist the urge to grab. Suddenly the limb went soft and curled out of his hand, dropped down on his shoulder, and sank its fangs into his arm. Legend has it that our hero believed a barroom claim that rattlers were wimps, too scared to release their venom except as an afterthought when their fangs were hightailing it out of an arm or leg, like bandits shooting back as they run for the hills. So our cowboy stayed cool, took a strong hold of the snake’s head and held it in place before it could make its getaway. He hung on for dear life as he walked to his Chevy pickup, and with one hand drove the twenty miles to the clinic where the doctors and nurses, somewhat aghast, watched him cut the rattler’s head free from a body furiously winding itself up to pump every last drop of its venom into him. The fangs slipped right out, and the cowboy slipped out of the clinic, Tom swears, with the undying fealty of the clinic staff and nothing but a small bandage on his wound.
A pretty true story we have here, cowboy tall-tale with a nerve-rattling twist, and about as true as all good stories aren’t. Being snakebit—imagine it, the pinpricks of pain, the surprise oozing with blood where fangs enter flesh, the slow dawning that the event really is, followed by the flurry of panic and heartbeat stampede, the silent oh no not me shout in the dark as we feel the black hole of life widening to take me, yes me, in, even as we begin our eventual surrender to the inevitable, our hearts becoming serene as if suddenly satisfied by the undulating waves of darkness swallowing us as it coils like a galaxy swirling out of control in bottomless night, our own eyes now reptilian, unblinkingly open to the wonder invisible at the tunnel’s end.
Once bitten himself, a lawyer in a nearby river town has made a profession of performing tit for tat on rattlesnakes. Even on coffee breaks he is known to slip away into the grass on the nearby bluffs armed with nothing but a pistol and fork-tongued stick. He knows exactly where to go, and within minutes he returns with a whopper and story about the bigger one that got away. Once upon a time he was famous for entertaining his clients with savory cuisine, until word leaked out that he was serving them snake steak and calling it frog, fish, chicken, and even beaver tail. One particular client said it wasn’t the taste that disgusted him, but the idea that rattlers on occasion eat rats, tail and all. When people ask the lawyer how he stays so slender he says it’s a combination of diet and exercise and an avoidance of criminal litigation, pro or con. To the lawyer the rattlesnake is not only dolce but utile. Snake heads, fangs, rattles and hides he wholesales to dealers in flea markets, saving the prime pieces for his own boots, belts, elbow patches, and ties. When he comes out for lunch and the sun hits him just right, it’s tempting to think of him as a shining success. On the wall behind his desk he displays a hide measuring six feet plus in length, and someday, he says, he’ll fashion it into a nice shawl for himself, with a slit for his head to pop through.
Unless symbols may be deemed useful, it’s hard to say if the ancients had any such practical uses for snakes. If the very earliest humans engaged in bear cult ceremonies—perhaps because those hairy beasts, when erect, are venerable exaggerations of ourselves—it is also well-known that serpents, from paleolithic until classical times, were among the most popular latter-day saints, especially among women. But if human development is evolutionary, what are we to make of the shift from bear to serpent ceremonials, given that reptiles are assigned a rung on the evolutionary ladder far below bears? Was serpent worship throughout the millennia of human biological progress an atavistic expression of the avant garde, or did culture miss good old biology? Or are we missing something: Did snakes have special powers back then that we’ve left behind in history like the empty skin next to my writing chair, a thing (let’s face it) that reminds us of one of civilization’s great advances, the condom?