I’m crouched on a dirt road, the dust a mix of gray and ochre. Bits of gravel texture the surface as I imagine they do on dry, dead planets. I have stopped my motorcycle – killed the engine and jumped from it, barely taking the time to plant the kickstand. Something on the road has grabbed my attention and my adrenaline floods. Whenever I ride these high desert canyon roads, I watch the twisting gray and encroaching sage, hoping to see what I think might now be lying in the dust. I float over the road surface, careful to keep from making any large or aggressive movements. The short, slender rope body pulls into an even shorter sine curve before coiling itself and shaking its tail. There is no noise, no tell-tale static rustling of alarm. It’s a snake but a very small one; a hatchling Western rattlesnake, hardly eight inches long and no thicker than the thinnest part of my pinky finger. Its arrow-shaped head lifts and follows my body as I squat in front of it. It can sense my heat through the pits on either side of its skull, the pits that give this family of snake its name—pit viper.
The snake relaxes a moment but holds the strike-ready coil. A small, black bead—the shape and texture of a chip of obsidian—caps the snake’s tail. This is the base for what will become a long, effective rattle. Each time the snake sheds its skin, a new rattle bud will stay behind, hollow clickers piling on each other like loose vertebrae. When the snake is older and its rattle more capable, the sound it will make will be more like air escaping a bottle of seltzer than that of a rattle. It will be able to flick its tail more than sixty times a second.
I keep my eyes on the hatchling and move around it to the side of the road. A thin stick, fewer than twenty inches long, lies just off the washboards in the dirt. I know better than to pick up this small snake, but I know enough about handling them to trust a stick two and a half times the snake’s length to do the job. The snake follows my giant heat signature. It springs at me; a warning strike when I move too quickly. Its coil-pop assault is still pathetic and short, the snake’s body extending two thirds of its length in the strike, the momentum moving the base of its coil slightly forward in the dust. The strike is faster than a flash, though, and while small, I know packs a dangerous, likely lethal, punch.
Rattlesnakes hatch venomous. The adult female incubates her progeny inside her body, though the mechanism for incubation is more egg-like than uterine. Each tiny serpent grows in a leathery pouch that remains inside the mother snake until it is ready to hatch. She births the snakes and the shells at the same time, though usually the infant snakes already have broken free of the eggs. Some consider the process live-birth, setting rattlesnakes apart from most other egg-laying reptiles. The baby snakes, immediately abandoned, are ready to hunt and protect themselves from first breath drawn into long, single lungs caged by hundreds of twinned ribs that curve away from zippered spines. Young rattlesnakes have not, however, developed venom administration control or the ability to identify realistic prey. Unlike the bite of an adult rattlesnake, which may be dry if the snake is simply warning, if this young snake were to connect with me, to pierce my flesh with its retractable sliver-like fangs, I would receive the full contents of both its venom sacks.
I lift the young snake with the end of the stick, careful to keep the length of wood between my fingers and the snake’s tiny, flicking tongue. And I wonder: what would it feel like? What would a bite from one of these do to me? Most rattlesnakes produce a potent hemotoxin that, once injected through those long crystalline fangs, courses through the bite victim’s blood, breaking down tissue, causing swelling, hemorrhaging, and unrelenting pain. Some rattlesnake species produce a mix of hemotoxin and neurotoxin – the victim of a bite may succumb to hallucinations or paralysis. Of the thousands of people who are bit in the United States each year, only a handful dies. In many cases, infection from the puncture or the resulting necrosis due to tissue destruction becomes a bigger medical issue than the bite. In fact, most bite victims never see treatment that includes antivenin (a medicinal cocktail, developed using rattlesnake venom milked from live adult snakes, that can counteract the venom injected into a bite victim the way antibiotics declare war on bacterial infections) because the risk of an incorrect dose increases the odds of fatality. Bite victims are monitored, suffer excruciating pain, and usually recover. The unlucky few who don’t are usually children, elderly, or allergic to rattlesnake venom.
I know, holding this little snake, that the danger of a bite from a hatchling is far greater than the danger of a bite from an older snake. A full-grown diamondback rattlesnake might inject up to a hundred milligrams of venom in a bite, whereas a Mojave green rattlesnake can be lethal with fewer than fifty milligrams. This baby snake, a western rattlesnake, the only kind that lives in the high desert mountains of Idaho, will only ever produce a comparatively mild hemotoxin. The bites are said to be quite painful, but there have been no fatalities in years. I know if a local rattlesnake bit me, I’d survive. Probably. But this snake, this hatchling, has yet to develop any control over its dose. If it bites me, it will inject everything in its venom sacks. And its body is so slender, I can tell it has not eaten recently (or possibly ever). This means its venom sacks are full.
I am tempted to pick it up and risk the bite. No, I am tempted to pick it up and encourage the bite. I want to feel the electricity in its fleshy, pink mouth, to know the burning of its hemotoxin as it races through my body, to know the suffering through days of blinding pain, of cramping, delirium, possibly, hopefully, hallucinations. Bite victims speak of remarkable dreams, of lucid experiences while under the influence of rattlesnake venom, of flying, of leaving their bodies, of watching themselves from above: pain-free spirits hovering over their writhing physical counterparts, unable to feel the thrashing.
But it is neither the pain I’m after, nor the experience. Not really. I want what follows. The myth, believed by some western Native American tribes and naturalists, is that the medicine of the snake exists in a bite victim’s body for the rest of his life, warding off cancer and other hemo- and cellular-diseases. Some bite victims even tell of recurring hallucinations years after the bite. I want to know what it feels like, this eternal thing that is in a bite. Eternal, potentially magical. I am just a short, slight, white man—privileged and protected. I want the danger of the snake in me.
But I cannot bring myself to handle the snake, and I do not let it bite me. Part of me knows better, scolds me for even considering it. And part of me only half wants the experience – this rattlesnake biting me, while at the same time not wanting it to be on my terms. Down deep, I think the medicine might refuse to enter my bloodstream if there is no surprise, as if, unless the wilderness I respect surprises me with a bite, it won’t work. I won’t contrive the experience; I can’t force the magic. I want it as a gift, not something I have stolen.
The snake has become comfortable with me. It no longer flicks its single rattle tip. Its tongue tastes the air; its eyes, unblinking—unable to blink—pretend to see as it tracks my heat. I think I could hold it and it would not bite me now. We have become kindred. But that is not enough for me. I do not want the safe rattlesnake in my hand. I want the dangerous one to surprise me. I want the forever medicine. I want it to choose me.
A graduate of Antioch University’s MFA Program, Lee Stoops teaches and writes in the mountains of Idaho with his wife and children. He is a fiction editor for The Citron Review and has served as an associate nonfiction editor for Lunch Ticket. His work has recently appeared in Spry, Bartleby Snopes, Writer’s Digest, and Annotation Nation. Visit him at leestoops.com or follow him on Twitter @leestoops.