Disposable – Walker Thomas

Southwestern Blacktail. Author photograph
Southwestern Blacktail. Author photograph

“You can call me Mr. S,” my ninth-grade biology teacher told the class on our first day, “for the sssss a snake makes.”

Eyes sunken behind wirerimmed glasses, he had a wide mouth with no lips that I recall, and long, stubble-blue cheeks like leather stretched tight to the bone. While he lectured, a red squirrel ran up and down his legs and torso and from shoulder to shoulder. His head nodding rapidly behind a rush of words punctuated with manic laughter, Mr. S seemed ready at any moment to leap through a window and bolt into the treetops.

He caught two timber rattlesnakes at the same summer camp where he’d caught the red squirrel. He preserved and mounted the rattlers and displayed them on a shelf in our classroom. He showed us a movie of one in the same pose, rattles straight up from the center of its coils, neck raised and twisted into a tight s-curve of serpentine spring behind its head. It didn’t move. Even its rattles were still. All the motion was behind it, out of focus, a vague image of a man dropping to his knees.

A blur of flesh tones descended on the rattlesnake. Hands snatched it up. One hand clutched it behind the head. The other held the body. Both hands twisted as if in a struggle against great force. The snake rose past a green and white, Camp Columbus T-shirt until it was backed by the blurred image of Mr. S’s broad grin.

Until I saw that film, I thought it impossible for a man to move more quickly than a rattlesnake strike.

Only later, after he agreed to teach me how to catch a rattler by pinning its head with a stick, did he admit that he faked the film with one of the dead rattlers.

He also had a plaster cast of a coiled rattlesnake, a whole-body death mask. I offered to paint a pattern on it. The timber rattler I found in a color pictorial in Life magazine was sunlight and shadow on a forest floor: bright-moss-green marked with dark chevrons, each edged with a scale’s-width of gold. An alignment of its pattern to the geometry of its scales made the cast a virtual Paint-by-the-Numbers project. I just needed a steady hand to cut in the catlike pupils with the tip of a brush. White highlights gave the eyes a glassy depth. The soft sheen of oil paint matched that of snakeskin, right down to the glistening black of the tail. The original, flat, straw color of the cast was perfect for the rattles.

Mr. S forgot I had the plaster snake that sat on a shelf in my closet while its paint dried.

*

I got to camp on a Sunday and took the fake snake down to the wooded path along Bamber Lake. I put it in dappled light under a low branch of pitch pine. I told another camper I saw a rattler and sent him running.

Mr. S arrived with an entourage of campers, parents and counselors. Gripping a cedar walking stick, he dropped to one knee to peer under the pine bough.

“Beautiful! How’d you see it?

I hesitated to break the spell. He’ll catch on soon, I told myself.

He paced, stick in hand, eyes fixed on my art.

No one spoke.

He crouched, leaned in, slid the stick into the space under the bough and over the snake. He brought it down hard, chipping plaster.  He said nothing as his eyes narrowed and held mine.

I went on nature hikes, helped Mr. S with his wildlife menagerie in the camp rec-hall, and volunteered to split logs for the Friday-evening campfire. While I did, he prepped me with science trivia about whatever critter I’d caught on his nature hike that day, so I could field questions as I showed it between reels of the evening movie. My wildlife show-and-tell gained favor. Mr. S proclaimed that I’d become irreplaceable. Camp administrators offered room and board and a refund of camp fees if I stayed on as woodcutter and nature program assistant.

*

Near the end of the summer on an overcast, hot and muggy August midday, twelve disgruntled campers and the counselor in charge of the hike dogged my heels on abandoned cranberry-bog trails through swamps. The snakes and turtles that usually basked on logs were nowhere to be seen. No ghostly images of deer or herons moved in the distance. Black gnats swarmed around our heads. Emerald-green deer flies with big red eyes delivered ferocious bites.

As I looked back at a grumbling camper, a harsh sound like the blast of compressed steam from an old locomotive stopped me in my tracks. Everything stopped for that sound. The nerve-jangling intensity of it reverberated in my skull, my throat, and deep in my stomach. My foot hung in the air while a rattlesnake uncoiled beneath it to slide into the swamp.

Four feet long and as thick as my forearm, it wore the same look of shadows on the green, browns and gold of sunlit moss that I’d painted on the plaster cast. Its motion over level ground was fluid and straight, but in water it undulated, submerged except for its head and rattles. With something like human vanity, it held its rattles up, out of the water.

Quickly shoeless, I waded in.

I lost sight of the snake, but heard it rattle from an island of fallen cedar. I climbed onto the tussock at what seemed a safe distance from the sound. I saw the rattles’ blur four feet away. I picked its light-and-shadow markings out of moss, bark and sand to follow the shape of its back, its sides bulging with each breath, to where its head rested, inches from my bare foot. We each backed away into the water.

As the rattler swam out across open water, I dipped the tip of my cedar pole between upraised head and rattles, hefted its weight with both hands and swung it up onto the trail while campers frantically cleared a space.

I climbed back onto the trail and blocked its retreat with the pole-tip until it settled, still rattling, into a coil.

Mr. S had warned me not to handle one if he wasn’t around. “Each of my rattlers moved its lower jaw to the side and its head folded in. Just seemed to collapse. I struggled to keep it from slipping through my grip while fangs worked closer to my fingertips. I mean, really close. I was sweating bullets.”

I was to kill any rattlesnake I encountered without him present. But he had no social life, never left the camp, and was never so far away that a camper couldn’t run to fetch him. I didn’t anticipate finding a rattler on his one day off.

I sent a camper running back to camp, hoping he’d hung around.

*

The camper returned alone.

“One of these kids gets bit,” the counselor said as they pressed him forward by his outstretched arms, “Your ass is grass, and so is mine.”

I dropped to one knee and brought the pole down, pinning the rattlesnake’s head against its coils the way Mr. S did with the plaster cast, though more gently. I put a knee over the pole to maintain pressure with my shin and pressed my fingers down on the rattler’s broad head. I slipped my thumb and last two fingers around its neck behind the flare of its jaws. I thought I might succeed, until the muscular head tensed and then became soft and pliant and hard to hold. I released my grip and reached back.

“Give me your hatchet,” I said to the counselor.

I held the hatchet, but made no move. Clouds broke overhead and sunlight bathed the trail. The rattler’s colors grew more vibrant, its body shape sculpted against its darkening shadow.

The counselor reached for the hatchet. “I’ll kill it if you don’t have the nerve.”

“Mr. S doesn’t want me to damage it.”

I tapped tentatively with the blunt end of the hatchet. It winced down against its coils and nearly slipped free of the pole. We’d be safer if I lifted it back into the swamp and let it swim away.

Or better, I thought; I could maneuver it back to camp.

An exuberant line of campers followed the counselor who followed me. Sometimes I picked the rattler up on the end of the pole and took a few steps until it slid off, but mostly I just guided its crawl along the trail.

*

Mr. S had been snorkeling in Bamber Lake, stalking the rare, banded sunfish. He’d returned to camp by the time we arrived at the pace of a rattlesnake’s crawl.

He seemed more at ease than in his encounter with the plaster snake. Maybe he broke that one to teach me a lesson. He deftly and gently pinned the live one, picked it up behind the head and carried it to a cage in the rec-hall. It bit at the air as we walked, spilling venom from its pearly fangs. He dismissed campers and counselors with a promise to show it before evening movies.

*

“What if one of those boys had been bitten?” he said after they left. “You were supposed to kill it.”

“But, nobody’s hurt,” I said, “and it’s alive.”

“The boss will be furious. It’ll be all I can do to talk him out of sending you home.”

“It’s safe now. We can show it tonight and then turn it loose way out in the swamps.”

“We couldn’t drive far enough to satisfy the boss,” he said. “We have to kill it.”

S knew damn well I could have left it where I found it and no one would see it again.

“It doesn’t matter what we know. He sees a threat to campers, a lawsuit waiting to happen. Another rattler shows up before the season ends and he’ll swear it’s this one. No matter how far away we take it, he’ll think it homed back.”

“But he’ll listen to you.”

S wouldn’t budge.

He told me to hold the snake’s body while he held its head on the ping-pong table.

“Don’t flinch,” he warned as he inserted a dissecting probe into the skull behind its eye, careful not to leave a visible trace, and began to prod.

“Macerating the brain.” He spoke like a doctor instructing his residents.

He coiled the dead snake on the bottom of a wooden box with a hinged lid and padlock.

*

I held a dried-gourd maraca under the table that night, to shake when S opened the lid.

But when he did, the sound of venting steam echoed through the hall and drowned out the feeble rasp of the maraca. The snake struck out of the box at his face, its jaws agape, fangs erect. In what seemed the same instant, it recoiled into the box, still rattling. S slammed the lid shut and fumbled with the latch.

My face must have shown my pleasure at the foolish look on his, and in the snake’s survival. S looked at me as he would a madman. In a quavering voice, he told the assembled campers and counselors that we had to postpone the rattlesnake demonstration until it was more settled.

“This is a golden opportunity,” he said after they left, his voice low, but excited. Then, with his furious head-bob-and-nod, “The tailless baby red will never tame. We can film a strike.”

*

We set flood lamps around a patch of white sand, the movie camera on its tripod. S centered the coiled rattler in the lens. Its head listed. A young red squirrel that had lost a tail when we caught it gnawed in angry panic on the metal mesh of a Hav-a-Heart trap. I released the trap’s gate and S began filming.

The squirrel dashed into the bright lights and froze at the sudden blare of rattles. It remained upright and atremble on hind legs while the snake shifted as if to center a strike.

After a long, static moment, the squirrel reached out and nipped it on the nose and ran off toward its nest tree.

“Let it go,” I said.

S injected glycerin and formaldehyde into the live rattler’s head and body. It writhed and lunged in the box, thudding against sides and lid. S went to his cabin.

He returned later to find me still sitting beside the thumping box and told me to go to my cabin and get some sleep.

Before breakfast I went back and opened the box. The snake continued to twist in its death agony.

I watched from the back of the rec-hall as S thrust his hands into the box. He grinned. The dead rattler hung like limp bowels from his fists.

*

I saw S once more after that summer. He’d changed schools. The original pair of mummified rattlesnakes were on his shelves, but not the one I brought him from the swamps. The plaster cast I’d painted was gone, too. He told me it was too badly chipped and he threw it out. He grew quiet then. I left without asking about the missing third rattler. Was it always disposable? Something to toss out like trash?

Southwestern Blacktail. Author photograph

*

A note about the photos: I’ve spent most of my adult life in the American Southwest and have no pictures of the eastern timber rattlesnake, but the southwestern blacktail in the photos is similar to the yellow-phase timber except for a pattern of rhomboids where the timber has chevrons. The blacktail is as easily aroused as the timber to defend itself, but I’ve learned that a gentle touch with a long stick as intermediary convinces it of my benign intensions. It soon stops rattling and relaxes. It approaches, then, in an inoffensive manner, as if just curious. Once, instead of stepping back, I lay down on the rocks, focused my lens to two and a half inches, and waited.  The blacktail rattler approached to study its reflection in the lens. It put its nose against the lens for a closer look (rattlers have poor normal-light vision). To get the picture, I had to push back with the camera and then pull away slightly to get it in focus. Afterwards, it went calmly about its business.

Walker Thomas lived alone in a cave on a mountain. “Disposable” describes one of the earlier life experiences that led there. It was previously published as “The Feeble Rasp of a Maraca” in the small-college anthology, Stories from the Other Side: Thematic Memoirs, Sixth Edition, 2011, edited by Francis Edward Crowley, Ph.D. Walker’s nonfiction has appeared in Outside, Natural History, Adelaide, The Green Mountains Review, as well as Stories from the Other Side, fifth and sixth editions, and another anthology, The Freshman Writer as Artist: A Reader, Rhetoric and Stylebook, edited by James Prothero, 2010. 

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