I wrote the following tale last summer. Somehow it escaped publication. So, though this cool February day on which I’m posting it is hardly copperhead bite weather, I figure it’s as good a day as any to appear on our blog…
Somehow it wasn’t as bad as I expected. The pain was not so much in my swollen foot, where I was bitten. Instead it shot up my thigh minutes after the bite. A bruise slowly bloomed there from the inside out, a bouquet of yellow with black spidery veins. Enzymes digesting me from within.
Not that I was comfortable. It’s just that it was pain I could manage without losing my head. I was restless and strangely giddy, entertaining myself with silliness I’ve now forgotten. At one point a whole vision passed through me, not a hallucination, but almost. At the puncture wound tiny brown snakes were injected into me. They slithered toward my heart to penetrate it, wiggling aggressively through networked rivers of blood. Some reached dead ends, but others finally made it and squirmed through the walls of my heart. There they swirled round and round through chambers and arteries until a moment later I opened my mouth wide and birthed a fat pit viper, its forked tongue tasting the fresh air of a new world. Must be the morphine, I thought. Then they came in and offered me some, revealing that they hadn’t put me on any yet. Emily did a little research and found that venom can affect people this way.
I grew up playing in southern woods. Which means I’ve seen venomous snakes. But on this day, driving with my family on a high mountain road to go hiking, I didn’t see it coming.
We stopped because both grownups had foolishly drunk tea before a road trip and needed to heed nature’s call. As we pulled over we hit something that banged around under our van. A branch maybe. I stepped out to kneel and see if we’d done any damage to the underside of the vehicle. I never found out, because I was suddenly struck with a sharp sting. I thought I’d stumbled into a yellow jacket nest until I saw blood on my heal and felt quickly expanding pain through my foot. I recognized a copperhead coiled in the grass, looking exactly like the dry oak leaves carpeting the ground below it. Our eyes met and it seemed to say,”I am here. If you sleep walk too close to me I’m going to wake you up.”
I photographed this silent messenger, then slipped back into the van to turn around and get to a hospital in Asheville. At the ER they monitored me to see if I’d need anti-venom. My children had been hysterical in the van. They wondered if I was going to die. While their crying in my ear wasn’t helping the situation, still I curled into the warmth of their love, feeling strangely rich as any king while at the same time rattled by noise and uncertainty. Somewhere in my childhood I remember hearing that a copperhead bite is rarely fatal. But the thought crept in as I breathed deep to calm my blood circulation..”Is this how it ends? OK then. I’m ready to die.” A family member was by chance in the area and picked up our kids so Emily could just sit with me for the hours of measuring the swelling to see if I was to receive anti-venom. They don’t just administer it, as it can cause problems of its own.
I lay peering at coiling IV tubes in my arm, thinking about whether everything means something or nothing means anything. Or both. What are the chances? All those hundreds of miles of mountain road…We could have stopped anywhere but we stopped exactly where my door was lined up so I’d step directly onto a poisonous snake. An omen? Totally random? Is anything random?
I tried to remember all the stories I knew about snakes. The aboriginal rainbow serpent swallowing its tail as it arcs through the sky after rain. The kundalini serpent rising through the chakras of the Hindu yogi in a trance state. Medusa cursed with an updo of snakes. Tiamat, the Babylonian mother of the world, a huge serpent of the deep. Her body is ripped inside out by the four winds to form the terrain of Earth. And then there’s the snake who appears in Sumerian carvings coiled around the tree of life at the center of the world. She controls sex and death, the forces that bring us into the world and take us back out. Sometimes she’s pictured spiraled with her mate around a tree, their dance conjuring whatever animates living things.
You can still see them on the back of ambulance doors. And there’s the biblical line spoken by Yahweh as he curses the sons of women and snakes, “He will bruise your head and you will bruise his heel.”
A thousand years or more after the Sumerians carved the snake in the tree, the writer of Genesis calls the serpent the “subtlest” of creatures as it winds around the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Two and a half millenia of clergy called this snake a liar, tempting Eve to disobey her maker and lead her trusting husband astray. And yet…it always seemed to me the snake was not evil so much as a trickster figure, cracking a hole in reality as Eve knew it, triggering an awakening to the true complexity of being alive. At the time of the writing of Genesis it seems the snake was just a snake (it was 600 years later that the writer of revelations pegged him as Satan). The snake’s words challenge Eve to consider whether she will blindly do what she is told (remaining a child) or plunge into the uncharted mystery of her own will (growing up). Yahweh tells his divine court that “man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil”, and casts the two lovers out of the garden to prevent them from finding and eating the fruit of the tree of life, which would make them never die.
I recall thinking of this story in my teenage years. We shake loose of our parent’s authority and, trembling but trying not to show it, enter a topsy turvy world where we have to find out if we can trust ourselves. My boyhood indoctrination on the church pew aside, I’ve come to read this story as one in which a snake prompts in Eve a self-confrontation. Her rebellion is also an act of bravery, facing what she knows not of. And like all of us, she can never return home.
There’s also a personal snake mythology, tucked into my fuzzy earliest memories. I stood at dusk with a bunch of neighborhood boys carrying sharp sticks. We watched a black snake swallow a squirrel whole. We’d been told in our culture’s stories I suppose that snakes were evil (and the squirrel, furry and cute, was good). I think several boys stabbed the snake with their homemade spears. I remember it trying to slither away. I don’t remember if they killed it.
I don’t know what meaning to glean or make up from these tales. I don’t know if I was awakened or turned inside out or anything.
So it was just a snake bite. People go through much worse. Maybe I’m writing this to work through the whole thing, as it was a little scary and weird. Maybe every day when we wake up and start trying to negotiate with chaos, every human being is quietly asking Einstein’s question, “Is the universe friendly?” I’ve been changed, softly. I scan the ground much more carefully now, though I still don’t wear shoes too often. I was made aware of how much I’m loved by those I share this life with. Often people don’t hear this love expressed, then when it’s finally said aloud it’s at their funeral. But what’s hardest to explain is that standing in the grass with a bleeding heel, shaking and locking eyes with my attacker, I felt something close to the word honored. There was an intimacy between our two kinds, a conversation. Initiation. A little gift of the taste of death. To remember the taste of my life.