Reflections on Spirit

Note 9: Snake, Rattle, and Roll. 6/9/99

This is a story told by Snake:

I could feel him coming up the slope of the mesa for nearly an hour before his face appeared suddenly in front of me. He was so close I could actually smell the heat radiating outward from his body. Human smell is something you can never forget, so much like a thing that only buzzards eat. I had never managed to get that close to a human being before, not that I had ever wanted to in my life, since they were mostly bent on killing us on sight. If you leave aside the times I had spent in the company of the old man, if you overlooked the fact that he was maybe somehow either more or less than human in reality himself and simply accepted the possibility that he might actually be one, or something enough like one, to qualify to the class, then the one in front of me at the moment of my strike was only the second one of their kind I had ever seen. The old man had no odor at all which gave me every reason in the world to doubt what kind of thing he was.

The body-heat projecting from his climb was moving out in waves across the air. The ridge behind the ledge where I was coiled in a tight defensive mode against the possibility of birds who thought to make a meal of me while I was sleeping off the mid-day sun was trapping every particle of smell his body pushed against my face. A drop of sweat fell off his nose and disappeared into the sand an inch or two beyond the reach my flicking tongue could touch. He must have caught that motion with his eye because he jerked more upright, back a foot or so away from me, and surged into a fall that carried every ounce of human flesh he had out of the line my strike was taking toward his face. The living presence of his mammal's blood, even if it smelled like death itself, was more than I could stand, was such an overwhelming force of hunt and kill, of food, of life itself, I could not stop the thrust of fang his being there demanded as response. Had I killed the one the old man sent, he would have skinned me on the spot and made another belt out of my hide instead of leaving me behind to make my way out of this waste of sand and rock with hardly anything to eat.

We hunt by sensing heat along the surface of our tongues and when we feel the mammal's blood, that sun-warmed liquid surging just beneath the surface of their skins, we strike another death-blow to their kind that keeps us moving through another turning circle of our own. When that moment comes, there's nothing any one of us can do to stop the strike. The old man told me not to kill the one he planned to bring along the path that day and I had come as close to doing that as I have ever been before or since to taking life away from one who meant no harm to me that I could see and would have been as useless anyway for food as stones and cactus leaves would be. I wouldn't want to build a false impression here by speaking out of turn with high pretentious claims that human beings have it in them to be kind to us, that we love to share our space with them, and do not suffer at their hands. We have a reputation far outside our realm of having charm enough to get a certain kind of fruit to fall out of a tree, a fable I would like to end here by the simple act of telling truth instead of lies. I never hunt or kill for sport and leave that kind of madness to the ones who think more of themselves than they have ever thought, or will, of one of us who only sticks to business in a striking twist to keep us free of them. Even worse than killers who go out for sport are the ones who think we did some wrong to them in ages past and so deserve to be their prey, be hunted down to right the evil in their twisted souls that they invent to make them seem more valued than they are against the perfect face of what they call their God.

I'm here to tell you that they lie about the way things are. There's never been a time or place where serpents, like the kind I am, ever had a cause or reason to begin a dialogue with humankind. Evil, of the kind they fear the most, would not be able to assume a form like ours because the twists and turns we make to get ourselves along the ground would bend that ill-intent into a sign so normal and so earthlike in its mother's tongue that no deceit could get out of its mouth. Evil is a thing that has no place among our kind. We hunt. We kill. We only do it to protect ourselves from death, like any other thing living thing would do. That makes us evil only to the ones who see themselves as better than the rest of everything that lives against the surface of their fear, the ones who claim they never harm a living thing to eat and stay alive, the ones who only lie to make it seem they're better than they are.

The old man made his way along the river bank where I had always made my home. I saw him coming soon enough to hide inside the rocks and crags that stretched along the twists and turns that gave the river name to anyone who took a second look at how it cut the earth, the mountain, and the plain from where it started to the lake that swallowed it like monster serpents swallow hatchling birds. I rode the river's flood one time when I got caught on low ground by a sudden rain that flashed me down two canyons to the river's mouth inside the lake. It turned and twisted me into a knotted piece of skin the old man used to tie his house together from a pile of stones and sticks he said had been his bones and flesh before he turned himself into a man. He left me hanging in the smoke-hole of his house for as many cycles of the moon as time itself can count before nine stars have cut across the sky seven times twenty-seven times. The old man sang me songs and played a flute cut from an eagle's bone until my head and tail grew back together in the way they were before the river took me down into its emptiness.

I could have hidden in the rocks and crags, or gone into the cave's deep darkness to escape the searching call the old man whistled through his flute, but that would be the same as telling him I had no sense of obligation for the way he put me back together when the flood had torn me down to skin and broken bones. He started in to tell me how he planned to turn a mind out of a path it took away from all the value that his people knew and would I be so kind to ride along with him into a likely desert that he knew would be the place to start the task of changing how the world appeared to those who knew no truth and could not see beyond an ancient greed to have what never could belong to them. The old man's turns and twists of voice ran counter to the way I take to hearing sound and what he said that day was mindless chatter like some bird would make when sitting safely perched on tops of trees beyond the reach of fang or tearing claws that only meant to make a meal of it. I listened and agreed to go along not really knowing what a desert was since where I lived was grass and timbered meadows lush with life and every kind of growing living thing.

He put me in his leather bag, tied it on his back, and so I rode along with him by stretching out my neck to rest my head upon his head to watch the passing landscape as we moved along with giant stride and massive leap that took us down a continental ridge where waters split and flowed both east and west from where they fell out of the sky. The old man played his flute to heal the gaps our passing made in trees and stones his weight and giant stride broke down beneath his heel. He bruised a forehead here and there and made more life appear than he destroyed but turned it all around again to mark the passing of his way of life. Time went before us like a flag in waves of rippled heat but conquered nothing that it did not count among its own. We got where we were going half a thousand years before his time ran out. He put me back against the earth again and taught me how to wait against the desert's sun by seeking out the shade that moved from east to west as every endless day turned hot then cold again at night. He left me there forever with a promise that my kind would be remembered for its willingness to bend and twist a twisted thing back to its rightful task.

I threw my strike out at an empty air the way he told me I should do each time the shadow of the ridge behind my golden coil came half-way up the spur of sand in front of me. One day, the old man said, his target would appear exactly in that place. "Be sure you roll him down the hill," was what the old man told me I should do and so I did exactly that and nothing more.

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