This essay appeared in our Fall 2012 Print Issue. It is available for digital download and also in Kindle format.
The first snake I saw that wasn’t in the pages of the encyclopedias my mother bought from a door-to-door salesman was a rattlesnake hit by a speeding car on the curve by the Railroad Pass Casino, the driver probably unaware of having extinguished a life. It was definitely dead, even though its rattle twitched in the air as my father slowed the car for us to see what had happened. For days, my six-year-old self saw ghost images of that twitching tail, almost like a message from the other side saying we should have stopped and laid that creature to rest (or at least paid our respects).
During the summers, my brother and I spent hours roaming the Mojave Desert south of our red-shuttered, whitewashed house in Boulder City, searching for hideouts of who-knew-what creatures. We were valiant explorers, Steve and I, mostly picking on red ants, whose species had bitten the toes of our bare feet one too many times. We burned a few of their hind ends with our magnifying glass and a hit of direct sunlight. But mostly, we hoped we might see a snake’s eyes inside a dark hole, just enough to scare us but not enough to be dangerous. We never saw one, though there must have been a few watching us with bemused detachment, biding their time until we crossed paths with them.
Then there was the day when the July heat blazed like a campfire, the never-fail blue sky turned yellow, and the sun was pulsing against its own circumference. The ground beneath me was hard clay—the way desert soil gets when rain dries and sun sucks the moisture out. This was the day I was out playing on one of two T-shaped, six-foot- tall iron stands my father had cemented into the ground to hold our clothesline in place. The morning wash was baking in the morning sun; the diapers and towels had stiffened into thin boards. I hung upside down, holding on with my knees, swinging back and forth. Observing my backyard through the tangles of my gravity-pulled hair, I watched my stretched-out hands swaying limply over my head—hula hands portraying trees swaying in an ocean breeze. And there it was, stark as stark could be, crawling across our backyard. SSSSS. I could see the diamonds on its back, even the scales rippling as it moved. It had no feet to make tracks, only the S movement of its body for propulsion.
I pulled my long, thick bangs to one side to check out its rattles pointing upward, the ones that increase in number every time the snake sheds its skin, my father had told me. I saw something I’d been warned about, something deadly with writhing scales on its back, diamonds connected to each other like the chain-mail curtain over a knight’s face, a triangle head, eyes resembling shiny black beads, the snake seeing everything, especially me, in its ever-open eyes.
Using every muscle I could muster, I flipped myself up to catch hold of the crossbar, scrambled to a sitting position on top, as far away from the snake as I could. I needed distance from the tail that sounded as if small drops of noisy water swirled inside.
“Daddy, watch out. There’s a snake.”
Not far from me, my father dug with a hoe, making a deep hole around the base of the apricot tree so we could give it bigger drinks of water during the hostile months. He wore a white safari hat his brother had bought for him at the five and dime. His eyeglasses refracted sunlight when he looked up. I hoped he saw the snake crawling across the hardscrabble earth.
He took a few dead-on steps, raised the hoe over his head quick as quick, then bared his teeth like I’d seen him do a few times before—a menacing expression that meant for whomever was in his way to move aside and fast. With one swift stroke, he severed its head. I could see its back end still wriggling, still raising its rattle of a tail, and shaking it like a maraca player in a mariachi band.
When I saw the head separated from the body, the back portion still trying to get traction, I felt something for the creature. It had been a living thing. It had a mother somewhere. Who were we to chop its head off, just like that, just because it might hurt us? Why couldn’t I have stayed on top of the clothesline and my father just backed out of its way?
But maybe the snake could have raised itself up high, bit me, and shot its venom into my dangling foot. So Daddy may have saved us that day. Saved us from something awful and menacing and dangerous and evil and bad. Or not.
PHYLLIS BARBER is the prize-winning author of eight books—a novel, two books of short stories, two juvenile books, and three memoirs: How I Got Cultured: A Nevada Memoir (1992), Raw Edges: A Memoir (2010), and To The Mountain: Memoir Of A Mormon Seeker (2014). Her deeply-held desire is to help dissolve the “us” and “them” view of humankind.
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