There are few situations more frightening than sitting comfortably with your back against a smooth rock on a gloriously hot, dry, and sunny day breathing pristine mountain air without a worry until hearing an agitated buzzing and realizing you are face to face and within striking distance of a rattlesnake. A rattlesnake with a body thicker than your flexed bicep. A rattlesnake in a tight coil, neck cocked in a tense ’S’ where the slightest breeze would release the hair trigger, and the only escape route is through or over the snake. One should be afraid. One should be terrified. But I was not. Perhaps it is because I, a self-avowed Desert Rat, have a strange affinity for snakes. Perhaps the flicking black tongue hypnotized me. I’m not sure. All I remember from the moment at Petroglyph National Monument was feeling mesmerized.
Midday in the summer at White Sands National Monument in New Mexico is brutally hot and searingly bright. I found myself constantly squinting because my sunglasses were not dark enough to block the brilliance of the sunlight reflecting off the pure white, gypsum dunes. It was as if the white sands magnified the intensity of the light and we were the insects being fried by a sunbeam focused through a magnifying glass. To escape the hottest parts of the day, we spent afternoons visiting New Mexico sites at higher elevations with thinner, cooler air. One of those was 3 Rivers Petroglyph National Monument where I encountered said snake.
Getting To The Petroglyphs
About 45 minutes north of our hotel in Alamogordo, a bit longer if one stops at Del Sol to buy souvenirs, is the 3 Rivers Petroglyph National Monument. It is renown for the more than 24 thousand petroglyphs etched into the sides of large rocks. They were created sometime between 1300 and 1700 AD.
I love ancient art much which modernity arrogantly classifies as primitive. Primitive artistry is that of a child learning to scribble lines onto paper. The creations are without underlying meaning transmitted between souls. The pictographs and petroglyphs scattered throughout the Southwest United States and the cave paintings in Sochaux France are different. They were either a message between peoples or communications connecting peoples with their Gods. Any art that has meaning for the creators, connects people, or seeks communion with the Gods and has stood the test of time is high art no matter the technique.
I first encountered the ancient glyphs during my first trip to Moab in 1986s when I saw the famed Newspaper rock. It is on the road approaching the Needles section of Canyonlands, National Park. I had no idea Newspaper Rock existed until I came upon it by accident. It is decorated with hundreds of glyphs picked into the very dark desert varnish.
Petroglyph National Monument requires a $5 entrance fee paid on the honor system. Grab an envelope, throw in the money, scribble some info, and drop it into the tube. We grabbed a trail guide, found a place to park in the shade recently vacated by a roadrunner and planned our excursion. The guide warns of rattlesnake danger. There is another rattlesnake warning on a yellow sign at the trailhead. My wife and I both became agitated. Her for a deep dread of snakes and her uncanny ability to happen upon them in the wild. Me at the prospect of finally coming face to face with Rattlesnake and losing myself in the depthless black eyes.
The Gentleman with the Forked Tongue
I am a snake aficionado. Possibly because I too regularly shed my skin though mine sheds after the sun burns my epidermal layer which dies and sloughs off where snakes shed as they grow. Rattlesnake is a sun worshipper eagerly absorbing its warm caresses after a cold night like a hungry lover. I enjoy the sun but tend to avoid direct sunlight because the rays pierce my skin like a thousand microscopic snake bites leaving me red and pained. Perhaps it is because snakes carry a stigma of evil as we gingers did in less enlightened times. Of all the venomous snakes, I view Rattlesnake as gentlelady or gentleman. They courteously give warning before protecting themselves with a two-fanged defense.
In the three decades I have visited Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico I have yet to encounter Rattlesnake. Not for want of trying. I have poked sticks in various snake habitats without ever hearing the characteristic buzz and feeling a joyous chill snake up and down my spine. Someday…
The chief function of the forked Rattlesnake tongue is to sense heat. It has the unparalleled ability to discern variations in temperature down to 0.002 degrees Celsius which is more sensitive than all but the most advanced scientific equipment. Heat sensing being the primary responsibility of the tongue is a postulate of those discarding spiritual mysteries and believing science can explain all phenomena.
I posit another theory, one braiding together physical Rattlesnake, spiritual flow emanating from all that is created, and the interconnectedness of all existential beings past, present, and yet to be. Rattlesnake is a spirit animal, a truth known to many of this continents aboriginal inhabitants, a truth mostly ignored or written off as heresy by the waves of Christianized immigrants flooding the land over the past 500 years. Rattlesnake is feared as a harbinger of violence and revenge. And prized for the magical properties of their rattles. Love-Hate. Yin-Yang.
The flicking, forked tongue is a divining rod reading the liquid soul deep hidden beneath the surface flesh. It can discern the soul of Prey from the soul of Predator and take appropriate action. It can taste the difference between the fearful and the fearless. It can smell the stirrings of the heart and distinguish between friend and foe. When it lapped in my aura, the friend centers were tickled so I did not die. But, I get ahead of myself.
1000 Petroglyph Trail
The trail to the Petroglyphs is a rugged 1/2 mile climbing 100 feet in elevation. In the beginning, my wife stuck to the beaten path while I bounced from rock to wobbly rock photographing glyphs not visible from the crooked trail. They were etched into almost every rock that had a sheen of dark brown desert varnish. Some glyphs were barely visible suffering years of exposure to the elements while others seemed fresh as white milk. I wish I had packed sturdier shoes because seeing many of the glyphs required walking off trail over rocks, many unstable, many sharp. I could feel the stones digging into the soft soles of my sneakers.
There are 11 markers on the path indicating points with either dense glyph activity or a particularly striking image. We started out on our own enjoying the search for traces of ancient minds with the only sounds being our whispers to each other or the wind echoing in our ears. It was peaceful. We were peaceful.
At trail marker 1, a family with young kids caught up to us. The kids were loud, yelling, eagerly shouting to each other when they discovered an image. Our serenity was shattered. Rather than stay immersed in the cacophony, we hung back for a bit until they pushed ahead a few markers and we were separated by enough distance to wrap ourselves in the comfortable semi-silence.
The trails divide providing views from both sides of the etched stones then reunite a bit further on. Think of a double helix squashed two-dimensional and you get the idea.
I used to climb rocks with the agility of a goat. As the year’s progress, I am becoming less sure of my climbing abilities. My balance is suspect. Still, I chose to take a risk and climb a copse of rocks to see what was on the other side. At this point, I did not realize the trail was a double helix. In the jumble of boulders, I found a set of glyphs not visible from the trail.
The meaning behind most glyphs is either unknown or pure speculation. Only one, here, had an obvious interpretation even to my untrained eye. The Rattlesnake glyph with coiled body and head elevated in a defensive position. I needed a closer look at the symbol residing at knee height. I brushed aside small rocks and dead scrub for a place to sit without sticks and stones chewing into my ass cheeks, dropped down and pulled in my feet sitting Buddha style.
I was at eye-level with the glyph, most likely, in the exact spot as the ancients responsible for birthing this art. It was marvelous. It was intriguing. What was the ancient trying to say? Was this to honor Rattlesnake? Was it a totem to warm others away? What did the undecipherable images on the surrounding rocks represent? Were they simply graffiti? My mind popcorned these and many more questions but none were buttered with a definitive answer. Questions. Questions. No answers.
I am a writer. I write daily. In a thousand years, will my writings be as mysterious to future generations as these glyphs are to me? I am sure the yet to be born will have technology capable of translating my scribblings into a future language but my recorded imagery is born of my time, rooted in the deep loamy earth of David. I am misunderstood by my own generation. Is there, then, any hope for future generations? How will future explorers understand images born of events too subtle to make a ripple in anyone’s history except my own? History continues generating ripple waves. Soon, today will be absorbed in the tsunamis of collective history and my messages will be obscured.
I wasn’t able to sit Buddhist style for long. Wear and tear on my knees from years of reckless athletic activity made them less flexible, prone to pain when bent to extremes. I stretched out my legs as best I could and put my hands behind me. The stone was hot. So, I put them in shadow openings beneath the rocks after first making sure there were no creepies in those spaces not baked all day in the solar furnace.
No sooner was I comfortable, I felt a sting in my right hand in the meaty part at the thumb base. Heat rushed from my hand up my arm and spread until my entire body was enveloped. My body felt like it was being stuck with thousands of fiery needles. My thoughts slowed. My sight tunneled until I could only see a circle of light, a circle that kept shrinking until it was a pinpoint outside of my reach. My body elevated, was sucked into the light, spit out on the opposite side.
My mind had been ripped out of my body and seeped into the thin slice of space between the living and the dead, the thread separating yin from yang, the sliver of brachiated light wherein exists the spirit of all beings ever to have blessed or cursed Earth with their presence, the forms held before recycling into other beings. If this is my end or a new beginning? If a new beginning, I hope I am recycled as Condor so I can soar high in the clouds descending to Earth only to feed or carry departed souls into the Heavens.
The sunlight was bifurcated. The light beam entering my left eye contained a faded version of the visible color spectrum, faint as watercolors carrying too much liquid. It was as if a color vampire had sucked out the vibrancy. The other eye filled with light bleached of all color saw only shades of gray. Once they reached an equilibrium, I experienced the world in the sepia. It was like looking at old photographs from the late 1900s faded from exposure to wicked sunlight over many a year. When I was finally able to adapt my focus, I found I was sitting behind the shoulder of an old man, a very old man.
He was thin as a stalk of corn. Yet obviously strong. Had long white hair reaching to his waist, skinned bronzed to the color of red Earth. Leathery skin from living life in the biting sun. Morning hours hunting in the hills, afternoons farming in the valley, and long treks over a land without much in the way of shade. His firm, taught muscles flexed as he chipped a coil into the coffee brown surface of the rock’s skin. A rock tattoo. It was obviously the creation of the snake I had been admiring. It was half complete. Perhaps, I could get some insight into these masterpieces. First I had to figure out who the old man was assuming he was real, not a product of my imagination.
“Who? Who are you?”
“I am your great, great, ancient ancestor. Call me Grandfather.”
“Grandfather,” I asked, “why are you carving a snake into the rock?”
“I am not carving Snake into Rock.”
“If not a snake, what are you carving?”
“I am not carving.”
“But Grandfather, I see you chipping away at the stone.”
“You are looking but not seeing. The eyes look, the heart sees.”
He turned toward me. Only then did I realize sunlight no longer penetrated his eyes. They were milky with thick cataracts. Grandfather was blind.
“I am freeing clan Brother Rattlesnake. It is his time. He has been trapped in this rock since the creation.”
“How did you know it was there?”
“Because my eyes no longer carry light from the sun to my heart does not mean I cannot still see.”
“I don’t understand, Grandfather.”
He returned to his work. Chipping and scraping with stone tools. Stopping to caress the rock. Chip. Chip. Chip some more. The coil finished and the neck was slowly being revealed. He worked for long minutes without uttering a word. Compact movements with much force. I grew antsy in his silence.
“When will the image be finished, Grandfather?”
“It is not an image, grandson.”
“But I see you are carving a snake. How do you know where to chip?”
“Rattlesnake is cold blooded. He absorbs heat from the surroundings. It concentrates in his body. I can feel His warmth when I rub my hand on the rock. My purpose is to release Him.”
“We all have a purpose grandson.”
“We do? Do you know my purpose? Do you know Why I am here?”
The old man paused in his work. A slight smile creased his wizened lips forcing the sun cut lines in his leathery face to scrunch into ravines. Only his eye teeth remained in his mouth.
“I dreamed you to visit this sacred mountain. I dreamed you to sit in front of Rattlesnake in your world. I directed baby Rattlesnake to bite you. Then when you were balanced between life and death, I pulled you through the light tunnel into this sliver world between worlds.”
He continued, “As a child, I was bitten in the leg by Rattlesnake when I walked too close to her den. I was deep in thought so did not hear the rattle warning and crushed one of her children. It was the spirit of the crushed snake that bit you in the hand in your world. The heat from the poison crawled up my leg and I fell into a trance where I experienced a vision. In that vision, I had a grandson with hair the color of fire. This fire hair was strange to me because our people have always had hair as black and glossy as Raven feathers. Even when old, our hair colored retained a rich blackness. I always thought of us as belonging to the Raven clan. In my vision, the fire hair was the sign of the one who would continue our family mission and carry the message of Rattlesnake to future generations.”
He stopped talking. Rubbed his hand on the rock. “I can feel the beating heart of Rattlesnake. It is close to time.” He again chipped away. Kept chipping until Rattlesnake was fully revealed.
“I have 23 grandchildren. All but one was born with Raven’s hair. One was born with a white streak in her black hair and our people believed her to be the emissary. But I knew she was not the one. My four daughters have since grown barren so, I thought, I had angered the Gods and they turned their back on our people. This made me sad.”
“My second grandson married a woman who had a white grandfather. His second child, you, were born with the full head of hair like fire. My sight had been fading for a long time and was almost gone and I feared I would return to the spirit world before seeing my vision come true. Seeing your fire hair, I knew there was still powerful magic in my vision. And I knew my life candle was nearing the end.”
His speech was slowing. At times, he spoke haltingly seeming to be short of breath.
“Grandson, we are clan brothers to Rattlesnake. It is your destiny…your purpose is…”
Before he could finish, he turned to dust. Right before my eyes, he turned completely to dust. His form hung in the air momentarily. Then, as if the God’s exhaled, a gentle breeze carried his form high into the sky where it dispersed and floated toward the valley below. I was left alone, wondering…what is my purpose, my destiny? More so. What the hell just happened?
“Grandfather!”, I yelled into the sky. “I am 57 years old and still don’t know why I exist. I was so close to finally understanding my purpose. But you abandoned me. Why does everyone abandon me?” My eyes moistened. I rubbed them vigorously. No tears. Not now. Not here.
“He cannot hear you anymore, my brother. Hisss purpossse isss fulfilled. Hisss journey isss finished. But yoursss…yoursss isss jussst beginning. Now, your quessstion…”
“The quessstion of abandonment. Our kind alwaysss end up alone. It isss not abandonment. It’sss dessstiny. It’sss the natural order of life. Wolf people live in community. Our people…well most people fear our people. When we gather together, their fear increasssesss. They kill what they fear ssso we exist alone. It is sssafer that way.”
I knew it was a rattlesnake talking before I saw him because his words were accented by a pronounced hisp and accompanied by a gentle rattling sound. I turned but not too quick so as to betray my heart pounding terror. The rock where grandfather chipped was seared bright white as if blasted by intense heat. Sharp details were burned into the rock including Rattlesnake’s fangs and each rattle segment. The image was carved deep, a reverse sculpture. Coiled in the spot where Grandfather had been sitting moments earlier was a rattlesnake with a body thick as my flexed bicep rattlesnake. The rattle had 20 or more segments. It was deathly still except for the flicking tongue. With each flick, my heart trembled as if the tongue was penetrating into my soul.
“B…B…Brother? Did you call me b…brother?”
“Yesss. We are brothersss as were Grandfather and I. Our peoplesss have alwaysss been brothersss and sssistersss.”
“Ever sssinssse we emerged into thisss fourth world. Before that, there was only the Godsss. It was the Godsss who sssealed me in that rock. They sssaid I broke sssacred lawsss. I asssked which lawsss and to sssee the textsss. But they sssaid the lawsss were too powerful to be written down. I had to trussst their wordsss. They never did explain which lawsss. Truth isss, the Godsss are frightened of me, of usss ssso they locked me away in the rock.”
If I was surprised when I could understand grandfather though we did not speak each other’s language, I was even more astonished realizing I could understand the thoughts slipping off Rattlesnake’s forked tongue.
“Ok. I’ll bite. Why are the Godsss…the Gods…afraid of us?”
“We are the guardiansss of thisss boundary universsse between. It isss here we give the gift of visssionsss. Visssionsss allowing other beingsss to glimpssse knowledge the Godsss amasss for themssselvesss. The Godsss are jealousss beingsss. The Godsss are vindictive. The Godsss hoard the knowledge for themssselvesss becaussse the knowledge givesss them power, power over othersss they are unwilling to ssshare. Ssso they persssecute our kind.”
“What kind of power?”
“The power over life and death. The power to manipulate humanity for their pleasssure. They crave absssolute power. They are absssolutely corrupt.”
“They? Gods? There is only one God and he is the Lord Jesus Christ!”
Rattlesnake’s head swayed from side to side in annoyance. For an instant, I expected a final, venomous bite. Instead, he spat in disgust, “Foolisssh boy. Foolisssh, gullible boy. There are many godsss. Layersss of demigodsss, sssub gods, and psssychophant godsss kisssing asss to win favor and move up the god ranksss. At the top, there isss a committee of big G Godsss. Each isss vying for the heartsss of humankind ssso they control everything. The big G Godsss routinely and sssecretly from the other big G Godsss sssend prophets to infiltrate humankind. They are attemptsss to sssway the masssesss to worssship them and them alone. Numbersss equal power. All thossse prayersss ssshift collective consssciousssnesss toward one of the big G Gods. Ebb and flow. Ebb and flow. Think of it asss a human electoral college. You sssilly humansss hear one Godsss twisssted mutteringsss and asssume it represssentsss all truthsss. You fight warsss tipping the balancsse. Ebb and flow. Ebb and flow. Humansss sssuffer. Animalsss sssuffer. Ssspiritsss sssufer. Only the Godsss win.”
The longer he talked the more agitated he became. His entire body spasmed. Drops of venom flew from his fangs, landed on my lips and tongue. I swallowed before I could reflexively gag. My tongue, throat, esophagus, all burned until the pain settled in my stomach and scorched. I felt like I had swallowed liquid fire. It took a while before the pain diminished and my lips only tingled as they do when I’ve eaten a meal sprinkled liberally with chile de árbol or long kissed my gorgeous wife.
“Wife?” I was walking with my wife. It was my turn to be agitated. “Where am I?” She and I were searching for glyphs together. “Where are you?” I called looking around trying to catch a glimpse of her raven hair. As I started to get up, I felt a dual-pronged sting in my neck and a searing heat, the same searing heat when my hand was bitten. The hotness enveloped my brain almost immediately giving way to a massive head rush lasting minutes. Hours? Longer, I realized as I watched the moon arc overhead and the sunrise again.
“You are a ssstrong one Brother, asss ssstrong asss Grandfather. Mossst don’t sssurvive the firssst kisss. But you, you have sssurvived two. You may need even require another to remain with me in thisss between world.”
When the sun was again high in the sky, the headrush subsided. Heat seeped into my body like the runoff from a heavy rain through a narrow crack in an otherwise sturdy foundation. Slow. Steady. Until I was flooded with a tingly calmness from my toes to my hair. My heartbeat slowed to 1/2 time.
“Now that we are refocusssed.”
Rattlesnake kept referring to us as we. I’m a me not a we. I’m a me!
“As there are many Godsss there are many truthsss. And there isss one truth you need to hear to put all in perssspective. It isss about the book you worship as Holy Bible. The Godsss cassst my type as demonsss becaussse we were not afraid to ssspeak the truth about them, are not afraid to expossse their secrets to mankind. Ssso, they convinsssed the prophetsss to write about firssst sssnake as the decsseiver, the tempter faulted for the fall of man. It isss the original fake newsss.”
For the most part, I believe the Bible was a source of truth. But, I would not be being honest if I didn’t admit to harboring doubts about the claims of Biblical inerrancy. There were conflicts. There are conflicts between the stories.
“You are telling me, the account of the fall of man at the tongue of the snake is fake news? That the Bible is built on a foundation of misinformation?”
Rattlesnake rolled his diamond shaped head in exasperation, let out a long hiss, and a few, short rattles from his tail. I imagined he also rolled his eyes but couldn’t really tell if the elliptical pupil rolled in the eye socket or when he rolled his head, the sun glinting off the eye made it appear the eyes rolled. Nor do I know if their eyes can roll. Cross-cultural communication is always difficult. Cross-species nearly impossible. Body language easily misinterpreted. Either way, I definitely felt his disdain.
“It isss not all liesss. There are ssscattered truthsss. The Godsss know the bessst way to disssguissse liesss isss to wrap them in a plausssible veneer of truth. People rarely put in the effort to sssee passst the sssuperficssial making you a creature easssily manipulated. The herssstory of humanity is littered with disssguisssed truthsss…”
Rattlesnake entered into a long, long story, a sing-song story during which he wove all origin tales into a single creation/evolution epic. A long braid combing all myths into a single rope stretching from the origin of the Gods, through the creation of Earth, the rise of all life forms from single cells up to and including the age of man. The entire time he sang, his head moved side to side hypnotically, dancing to a rhythm to which only his Rattlesnake soul was privy. The sun and moon changed places during the monologue song. Is this the 2nd or 3rd day?
“And we come to you, Brother David.”
“How do you know my name?”
He rolled his head in an exaggerated circle and hiss-sighed. “Ssshit. Let me get thisss ssstraight. I, Sssnake, was freed from inssside an ancssient rock by a blind man who vanissshed in a cloud of dussst, have ssspoken to you in a language you underssstand. But you are sssurprisssed I know your name?”
“Ya. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Okay, on with this. To recap, I am 57 years old, already on borrowed time. I better hear my purpose before the Grim one returns to collect on the debt or your story will also be lost to time.”
Rattlesnake uncoiled. Recoiled clockwise. Uncoiled again. Recoiled anti-clockwise. His scales rubbed against each other sounding like sandpaper abrading rock. He was contemplating his next move. Would he move a Pawn and we would dance longer or go big and choose the Black Knight pinning me with a show of force? He flicked his forked black tongue. It was disconcerting to have him tasting the stress I was trying to hide. Time to try some flattery. Advance a Pawn and put him on shaky ground.
“Brother Rattlesnake, I see you are old, ancient by your story, blessed with the wisdom of the Gods. It seems to me you should also be recognized as a big G God. Yet, you appear to not have a clear vision into future days passed? Are you inferior to the Gods?“
“Never, bother! I am wissse, asss wissse asss the wisssessst God. Thisss offendsss their petty egosss ssso they conssspired when I was resssting and limited my ability to sssee into future daysss. But even together, their combined ssstrength wasss not enough to completely block my ability to know futuresss. My visssion of near future daysss isss cryssstal. It quickly loosssesss focusss when thossse daysss reach beyond a moon cycle. Then I mussst rely on my dreamsss of could be futuresss. In sssome of my dreamsss you are prominent, sssome a ssshadow figure disssappearing in the breath of a god, othersss I tassste no trace of you. In all dreamsss where you appear, there are two consssissstensssiesss. You wear a medisssine bag the color of sssunrissse. It hangsss from a leather cord and ressstsss over your heart.”
“Brother, I don’t own a medicine bag. I did once…”
“Yesss, yesss, yesss, I know. You did oncsse but it isss long sssincsse lossst. You were carelesss. Earth hasss cleaned up and repurposssed your messs. It wasss crafted by an indigenousss, decorated with Porcupinesss quillsss, and held the ssspirit of beingsss important to you. It wasss made from Deer jussst like the one in my dreamsss. The dream bag, though, doesss not have quillsss ssso it isss a different bag. ”
“Thisss dream time bag will find it’sss way into your handsss. When it doesss, the firssst sssacred object you mussst include isss the creamy flowersss from a wissse Yucca. A flower in full bloom with a calming perfume. The plant mussst be old with a ssstalk asss thick asss my body. Wrap your hand around my neck for a sssize comparissson.”
I hesitated. It was one thing to talk with Snake quite another to touch this demigod or demidevil, I’m not sure which. After hearing Rattlesnakes stories, I see little difference between the two.
“Brother, you hesssitate. Not to worry. I won’t bite.” As snake spoke the corners of his lipless mouth turned up in a sort of forced smile, a smile tinged with evil? “If I wanted you dead you would already be. I am the vulnerable one. Your hand around my neck preventsss me from biting. Sssqueeze too hard and I will choke, posssibly to my own death.”
I reached out with my left hand while the right searched the ground for a sharp rock. If I was to be attacked, I would return the favor. But hadn’t Snake foreseen this in his dream time so would know my plan? The girth of his neck was large, my fingertips did not touch. There was a good two-inch gap between my middle finger and thumb. Never had I touched a snake with such thickness. I had seen large pythons but never held one. My experience was limited to garter snakes and once, when a kid, a slender green grass snake no thicker than my pinky. I would have like to keep it as a pet. But mom’s tend to not be enamored with snakes or worms.
Mostly we caught garter snakes in the field near our home. It was a field next to railroad tracks where we jumped our bikes on precariously narrow ramps catching sky. The local trains sometimes lost thin sheets of metal roughly the dimensions of a window fan box. Snakes would hide beneath. Once we found a dozenish intertwined beneath a single sheet. A nest? An orgy? We caught a few and took them home where we tossed them in a wheelbarrow.
These were also a good size for snake pets. But, garter snakes secrete a stinky odor that sticks to the hands so holding them has consequences. I was bit once on the fleshy meat of my left palm. The teeth were much too small to do any damage. They barely broke the skin. To this day, though, there is a slight mass beneath the skin at the point of the bite.
The garter snakes and every other snake I ever touched felt cool. Which makes sense because snakes are cold-blooded and tend toward ambient temperatures. Not so with Rattlesnake. He was warm. The longer I gripped his neck the hotter he became until my hand burned and I had to let go. There were scale mark patterns in my flesh. It soon came to me, while my hand was around Rattlesnakes neck, I did not feel the expansion or contraction of respiration.
“You don’t breathe?”
“No, Brother. I don’t breathe. I don’t need too. I am not mortal.”
“If you don’t breathe then I could not have choked you. You were fucking with me.”
“Hisss, hisss, hisss.” Never had a laugh sounded so evil. I tried to hide my irritation and continued digging for information.
“Your neck is quite thick. I have never seen Yucca with a stalk anywhere near your girth. Where do I find such a being?“
“A few exissst. Fewer each passing year. They are the ancssientssss, ssso old they are often missstaken for immortalsss. They are not immortal in their own right but live longer than the average human ssso ssseem to be immortal. They have an inner ssstrength gained through meditasssion allowing them to sssurvive everything man and Earth throwsss their way. Drought, highwaysss, pessstisssides, pollusssion.”
“Pollution? Here? It’s pristine. The sky is untainted.”
“You, Brother, have never ssseen prissstine Nueva Méxican ssskiesss. Thessse are tainted, have been graying ssslowly for decadesss. There was a time you could sssee hundredsss of milesss. Today, you are lucky to sssee ten. They are laden with poisssonsss emanating from La La Land California. But thisss isss not relevant to our conversssation.”
“Find a venerable Yucca and put a few fully bloomed flowersss in your medicssine bag. Do it before you leave Nueva México. The yucca in Texasss are of a different lineage and will not do. And don’t forget to thank Great Grandmother Yucca before acsssepting her gift or ssshe will caussse you to bleed.”
“And why do I need a Yucca blossom?”
Rattlesnake’s tail vibrated. The shaking worked it’s way up Snake’s body the way a dog shakes from head to tail when ridding itself of water. Snakes entire body vibrated with the same frequency as the rattle. It took a few moments until he calmed leaving only the rattle shaking. That, too, became still.
“You book sssmart people can be ssstupid to the core! Have you not been lissstening? I am the current ssstep, a guide in your journey, a sssegment in the rattle, a cairn ssshowing you the direction your path undertakesss. Asss isss Yucca. Asss isss Tukó.”
“Toku? What’s a toku?”
“It’sss Tukó. Tukó!”
“Toku. That’s what I said.”
“You did not. It isss Tu asss in the number two and Kó. Tukó” He emphasized the last syllable. “Not Toku. When you meet, don’t call her by the wrong name or ssshe will pretend ssshe cannot ssspeak and ssscurry away. Your opportunity will never again return.”
“Ok. What is Tukó?”
“The mossst common form of Tukó isss sssnake with four legsss and a fat tail without a rattle. Tukó alssso appearsss asss a woman sssteeped in poverty. One never knowsss ssso mussst alwaysss be ready for the unecsspected.”
“Snake with four legs? Sounds sorta like a lizard.”
“What is lizssard but a sssnake with legsss.”
“Pay attensssion. You will meet Tukó in the Philippinesss before the next fat moon.”
“Fat moon? Uh…Do you mean full moon?”
“Fat. Full. Sssame thing.”
“I am not going to the Philippines until next year. You are very mistaken. In a couple of months, I will be in Peru visiting Machu Picchu. Not the Philippines.”
“Peru is an ilusssion. You will be in the Philippinesss and meet Tukó BEFORE the next fat…er…full moon. When you sssee Tukó, give him one Yucca flower.”
“Him? Earlier you called Tukó she. Are you forgetting your lies serpent?”
“Tukó isss a ssspirit animal. Like all ssspirit beingsss and many humansss, it isss a nádleehí with the power to transssform into any gender, female, male, llamana with two ssspiritsss, or fourth gender femminielli. Ssspiritsss are gender fluid, gender non-binary. They become whatever isss needed. It isss the natural way of all life.”
“By the time you sssee Tukó, Moth’sss egg will have hatched and Worm hiding in the flower will be a juicssy treat. Tukó will acssept the flower, eat the worm, then and only then will Tukó ssspeak with you. Ssshe will reveal the next phassse of your purpossse journey. Lisssten closely for ssshe is ssshy, not talkative like me. Ssshe will ssspeak her peacsse oncsse and ssskitter away.”
“What if Tukó is in woman form?”
“The delicate ssscent of the Yucca flower…”
I interrupted, “Yucca flowers have no scent. I sniffed some yesterday at White Sands. Nothing. No smell.”
Rattlesnake long sighed, “Jussst becaussse you don’t percsseive doesssn’t mean sssomething does not exissst. We ssspirit beingsss live in a ssstate of hyper sssensssitivity. We sssee the cream of the Yucca petalsss and the ultraviolet to which you are blind. We sssenssse the delicate aroma, not unlike a fresh rossse with a hint of desssert Ssspring, of the flower to which you are nossse blind. Now, ssstop interrupting and pay attensssion. Our time together drawsss to an end and there isss ssstill knowledge you need.”
“The delicate ssscent of the Yucca flower combined with the echoing heartbeat of the young worm will drive her to ssshape shift into her typical four-legged sssnake form.”
“Why are there so many steps to find my purpose? Why don’t you just tell me the entire story?”
“The big G Godsss limited my visssion. Another punissshment for letting the created beingsss know they are pawnsss in the Godsss twisssted gamesss. We learned to sssee futuresss by tasssting with our tonguesss. It hasss evolved to help usss hunt and to know when the big Gsss are trying to sssneak up on usss ssso we can hide.”
“My tassste is limited to a future bounded by one moon cssycle. Beyond that, all blursss and I mussst rely on my dreamsss. Thisss clear tassste isss how I know you will meet Tukó before the nexsst fat moon. In my visssion tassste, there isss your flavor, the flavor of Tukó, and a definite acsssent of balut. The balut tellsss me you will be meeting in the Philippinesss. This is all I have to sssay. I am done.”
It was time to roll my eyes. “Oookayyy…” If I had a rattle tail, I would have shaken it in mockery. “I am NOT going to the Philippines until next year at the earliest. And even that is speculative. So, you can either see further than you claim or are an outright, fork-tongued liar and the Bible is right calling you, serpent, the father of all lies.”
Rattlesnake seemed to be moving slower like his muscles were stiffening.
“Mock me all you want, Brother.” Snake weakly spat. “It won’t change the revealed truth. A Tragedy isss coming that will take you to the Philippinesss. You mussst bring a Yucca flower if you want to learn your purpossse. If you choossse to ignore my entreatiesss, you will go to grave wondering why you were created.”
Rattlesnake stiffness consumed his entire body but for the head. It was stiffening into the exact same shape Grandfather carved into the rock.
“Wait! I have one more question. How will I know which is Tukó? ”
“My time isss done, Brother. I return to the rock prissson. Heed my wordsss or forever be lossst to you purpossse….”
“The Philippines has lots of lizards. How will I know?”
Spell Is Broken
Before Rattlesnake could answer my last question, he turned into solid rock. I tapped it a couple of times to make sure it wasn’t a trick. Nope. Solid rock. I picked him up, he was surprisingly light and put him back into the rock, a perfectly fitted puzzle piece. A blinding light like lightning flashed in the seams between rock and snake welding it into a solid structure leaving nothing of Rattlesnake but the petroglyph. It took a few blinks for the spots in my vision to fade and see clearly again. The sky was again vibrant. The clouds milky white. My vision was back to full color. No more Sepia.
“David, let’s go.” It was my wife’s voice. She must be worried. How many days had she searched for me? I recall at least two moon risings. So three days? I stood up from between the copse of rocks.
“Here I am.”
“I know. I saw you sitting in the rocks. You need to be careful. The signs said there are lot’s of rattlesnakes in the area.”
“I know. I looked for them. How long have you been looking for me? You must have been worried.”
“Looking for you? I wasn’t looking for you. I saw you climb between those rocks. I walked around looking at the petroglyphs. There is a sheep with arrows over here you’ve got to see. When I got to this side, I saw your white hair…”
“My hair is red.”
“It may have been red once. It is white now and I think it’s starting to get thinner on top. Anyway, I walked around the rocks shooting a few pictures of the petroglyphs. I love the pics from this iPhone. They are so clear. Now, let’s keeping moving. I saw another car pull up and I want to keep distance between them and us.”
I could feel the sweat trickling down my face. The high sun was beating down and the wind dropped off to the occasional breeze. “I’ve been sitting here for a few days. I was in some kind of trance.”
“Sure. Whatever. There’s lots more to see and I want to get to the pistachio store back in Alamogordo before it closes. Let’s move.”
“I saw a Rattlesnake. I talked to a Rattlesnake…” She looked at me, her eyebrows in the I am getting annoyed arch.
“Stop with the snakes. You know I don’t like them. I don’t want to hear snake stories. I don’t want to talk about snakes. I don’t want to think about snakes. No Snakes!”
I looked at her. My mouth stuck agape. A story crouched on my tongue ready to spring into being. Because of her growing annoyance, I was torn between sharing my experience and really pissing her off. She said there were only a few minutes between me climbing in the rocks and her walking around the copse and asking me to continue our walk. That was impossible. I watch multiple moons arc overhead. I defended myself.
“It’s not a story! It’s true. I talked to a Rattlesnake. I have proof. Look at the bite marks on my hand and neck.” I showed her my right palm. But there was no evidence of penetration. I rubbed the area of the bite and felt two hard masses beneath the surface almost an inch inches apart. I reached for my neck. Again, no wounds. There I also felt the masses but these were three inches apart. Was Snake’s head really that huge? Could I have healed that fast?
“If you don’t stop talking about snakes, I am going back to the car. Stop now! It’s not funny.” The arched eyebrows morphed into the I’m really pissed face. If I didn’t stop now, for now, the red mist would descend and the rest of the day would be lost.
“What time does your Fitbit say?”, she asked.
I tapped it twice to bring the screen to life. “Umm, 1:20 pm”
“When we pulled into the lot I asked you what time it was right before we saw the roadrunner. You said it was just past 12:30 pm. We have been here for less than an hour. Now let’s hurry along before that group catches up to us.”
There are times in life my dreams feel more real than reality. And I have been known to unconsciously appropriate other’s stories and weave their way into my life narrative believing I was the original actor in the play. Did I just create my own story? Did I acquire a narrative form one of the many books I’ve read on Indian lore? No answers now. For the sake of my peace and our harmony, I opted to keep quiet and return to searching for petroglyphs. There were a great many to see.
After our hike, I stepped into the porta john to pee. The day was hot and very dry with humidity in the single digits. My pee was approaching jello. I, we, needed to get some fluids. The water in the car was much too hot to cool us down but I drank some anyway. Hydration is more important than the temperature of a drink. But, where to get a cold drink? I remembered, on the way in, we passed a trading post. It was the last landmark before we turned off the highway and onto the street leading to the monument. We stopped there for some cold beverages. Irene also had a cup of hot coffee. Hot coffee on a hot day? Why?.
The trading post was an art gallery specializing in Native arts and crafts, many made by the owner’s husband. The paintings and sculptures were nice. The pottery gorgeous. Sadly, we have no place in our home for additional trinkets. The Jewelry was over the top expensive. My favorite piece was the 20 inch Kokopelli kachina. The goods, including $275 kachina, were fairly pricey and too big to squeeze into our already bulging luggage. There were coffee mugs. These were in my price range but we already have a cabinet full.
I continued to wander the store drinking a frigid Dr. Pepper, contemplating a second can, while the coffee was brewing. And what do I find hanging on a carousel tree? Medicine bags. A bunch of them. They were not fancy. No beading. No porcupine quills. No decoration of any sort. Just simple bags in various colors with a matching leather cord so it can be worn around the neck. There were white, shades of brown, cream, and one, just one the color of sunrise. It was buttery soft like so was likely deerskin.
I checked the price tag on the bag. $10. I decided to purchase it as much for the simple elegance, for the nostalgia of the bag I lost, for the words of snake still hissing in my ears that I would need a medicine bag in the near future. There was one more test. I threw it over my head. It hung exactly over my heart.
Coincidence? I could go with coincidence.
I don’t believe life is a series of random accidents without meaning. Nor do I ascribe to a belief that life is governed by a panel of gods arranging interactions designed to move us along a predestined path. Sometimes a coincidence is a coincidence and sometimes a coincidence is part of the bigger picture.
I see coincidence as organic. Life, all forms, every rock, tree, animal, human are part of a collective consciousness. Earth is the massive brain. The inhabitants are cells working in concert. As antibodies assemble to ward off disease so, too, there are interactions between individuals to ensure sustainability of the Collective Consciousness.
This, however, I chalked up to mere coincidence.
We spent a good part of the next day at White Sands. A few hours were used for a five mile, early morning hike where we saw bright white dunes but barely any vegetation let alone a fat stalk yucca. As we drove around the monument and hiked the shorter trails, I allowed my eyes to drift over every yucca, made forays toward those looking promising from a distance. No stalk was more than an inch in diameter. We stayed until moon the moon rose large over the horizon. I kept looking, searching. Not one stalk was anywhere close to the size Rattlesnake told me to look for. I failed. One simple task and I failed.
We left the next morning for El Paso. It was another sunny day with wispy clouds overhead. The nearer we came to Texas the fewer the yuccas decorated the landscape. Then about 3 miles from the border, I saw what looked like a massive yucca with a long skirt. I pulled over. A little too fast for the drastic change in momentum woke my wife.
I hurried out of the car, ran over, and grabbed the stalk. My fingers did not touch. There was a full 2.5-inch gap between my middle finger and my thumb. I reached high for a flower in full bloom and was struck by a few needles from the spiked leaves. I rubbed my leg. My fingers came back sticky with blood.
Yet another coincidence? Two in such a short time may be too many to be accidental. I would have to do some probability math when I got home and calculate the odds of this being happenstance or an indicator of nonrandom events.
To be safe, I stepped back, placed my palms together and, as Rattlesnake had instructed, made peace with Yucca. “Grandmother, I am here to borrow a couple of flowers as instructed by Rattlesnake. I thank you for this lovely gift.” This time I grabbed the flowers without incident and stuffed both into my medicine bag.
The Phone Call
Two days after we returned home to Chicago, Irene received a late night phone call. There was a family death in the Philippines. We need to flying out in less than a week to attend the funeral.
This last coincidence convinced me my time with Rattlesnake was true and his spoken words were of future days to be. When I packed for the Philippines trip, I made sure to include the medicine bag with the yucca flowers. And I wondered if the worm had turned.