Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Dance of the Rattlesnake: A True Story

It was Memorial Day, I think. Definitely somewhere toward the end of summer because I distinctly remembering the sound of cicadas: miles of forest in all directions, God knows how many of those little buggers in each tree. Individually, the tymbals on their bellies make a rapid buzzing sound. The series of staccato bursts rise in pitch and volume before going back down through the spectrum like a wave. When you’ve got hundreds of thousands of these little bugs all cycling through their song, it almost creates a single sound. Sounding strange and alien, it’s all too easy to imagine some primordial creature lumbering just over the next ridge and bellowing out its call. But I digress.

I think it was Memorial Day because we’d come to tend a graveyard. This was one of those old, family cemeteries nestled way back in the hollows. Remembered only by people who had kin buried there, trips usually involved a pickup rattling and bouncing over dirt roads so rutted that even at a snail’s pace you still ran the risk of being tossed from the bed. This particular graveyard was bordered by rusted barbed wire stretched between wooden posts, most of which were askew. Three strands, one gate. Inside the fence, the grass had grown so tall that the rounded tips of the weathered markers looked like lion ears poking up from a savanna. Outside the fence, it was just as bad, the only real path being where the grass had been parted, barbershop quartet style" a thin strip of trampled earth surrounded by walls of bent grass.

We’d come here to make it presentable again and my uncles were armed with scythes, sickles, and the like. My mom made me stay very close to her side because rattlesnakes were a real danger in these type of conditions and I clutched a forked stick in my little fist in case I stumbled across one.

At some point, my Uncle Bobby did. It was coiled in the graveyard, its tail shaking furiously as its head reared back and exposed those two, curved fangs. As I watched, Bobby lopped off its head with a machete. I don’t really remember any blood. The image which stuck with me most was this headless body, twisting and turning on the ground as if possessed. My uncle took the forked stick from me and slid one of the prongs under the snake’s belly. Holding it at arms length, he walked to the edge of the cemetery with my close by his side and tossed the carcass as if he were throwing an underhand pitch.

He went back to work but I stayed behind, watching through the dappled sunlight as this headless body thrashed on strands of barbed wire.

Bad day for the snake. Good day for me.

True story.

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