On This Mountain

Entry by: wmconelly

2nd April 2015
On this Mountain

Camp lore said the second Boy Scout passing a coiled snake would be the one bitten. The first Scout’s footfalls would alert the lethargic creature, the next Scout’s provoke a strike.
Rick and I were hiking on our own, angling up a pine-shaded trail a mile or two behind our Troop’s Serra Nevada campsite. This was a Sunday afternoon over summer vacation with no woodland talks scheduled, no organized activities. We were simply out for a walk. Then Rick spun, planted both hands against my chest and shoved me backwards.
The snake was a three-foot timber rattler, invisible to me until it uncoiled and swept downhill across our path. We were dressed in hiking shorts and low-cut boots. My calf would have passed inches from of the snake’s loose, deadfall-colored coils.
I was 14 that year, Rick 15; I was a little taller; he was a little stronger. We stood in suspended time a moment, watching the snake disappear into the dark beneath a boulder. Then we scrambled after it.
“Had it rattled?”
“It rattled when Rick jammed a dead tree limb under the boulder.”
“What did it sound like?
“Dry peas shaken in a jar.”
“Were you scared?”
“Rick and I were two of the oldest boys in our Troop, volunteer conservators of California’s highest mountains. We’d cleared undergrowth five yards back all around our Troop’s tent walls; we'd dug fire pits and circled them with stones, insurance against any whipping flame. We’d laid a stone dam across Strawberry Creek, so trout could bask instead of fighting white water currents…”
“And the snake?”
“We riled each other over it, shouting from one side of the boulder to the other, Rick levering, me brandishing a flat rock. We play-acted. We pretended it would sweep downhill after dark and attack a camp full of eleven year-olds.”
“Melodrama. Rick levered the boulder up six inches and the snake broke past me for the stream. I crushed its head. Spasmodically, over and over it rolled, over and over, ending white belly up while we stood staring. Then Rick cut its rattles off and we walked back to camp to prove what we’d done.”
“Want to say what you’d done?”
Through the Doctor’s office windows, between louvers, I saw the light outside as a dusty orange, the color of a blood moon or solar eclipse. I didn’t look at her.
“A snake is God’s own simple animal. They can’t strike racing away from you. I killed something easy to kill.”
“You mention God…”
“Its rattle had four distinct pieces, and a button where a fifth had begun to grow.”
“Okay. Looking back from here, here today, what do you see?”
“I see Rick and me upsetting the simple balance of the wilderness. I see us injecting a human choice onto a mountainside that didn’t need it. It’s easy to kill.”
“Are you altering our subject, Mr. Baden?”
“Same subject. Same summer. There were girls camped across the lake. After dark that night, after taps, Rick and I snuck away from the Troop tents. We unchained a canoe and paddled over to meet them at a soda joint. We spent fifty cents on a jukebox and danced. I bragged to one girl, a thin, older girl about killing the snake. I claimed the rattles were in our canoe, down at the docks. If she wanted, she could walk back with me and handle them. She could hear what they sounded like. She wasn’t talkative; she was smoky blond and kind of strangely resigned to me, accepting whatever I said.”
“What did you say?”
“I told here there were no rattles in the canoe, and the lake was too cold to swim. We kissed. She let me touch her. This is where the nightmare starts.”
“I dream—I keep dreaming—that a snake rears knee-high out of timber colored coils. There’s no girl. Rick has vanished, the rattles lost long since. The snake’s body is thick as my forearm, its brown, triangular head in easy striking distance. I wake up frightened, shaking, knowing I’m poisoned.”
“So the rattler bites you?”
“No. And there's no sound. I wake before the snake's fangs ever touch skin, before its venom ever hits blood. I just wake up shaking, knowing I’m poisoned.”