The following piece is one of my earliest stories; the original version was good enough to win 1st place in the annual creative writing contest at Angelo State University and was printed in the campus literary magazine. I made a few changes to the story over the years, and the editors at Snow Monkey accepted it and published it in 1999. This story was inspired by my then-job as a weekend attendant at the San Angelo Nature Center. The snakes in the story are all real, but the people are completely imaginary.
I carefully raised the lid on the styrofoam cooler. The water snake lay inside, quiet at last, coils relaxed into a damp double-S. His only movement was the lazy flicker of his black tongue. I reached down and grasped him behind the head. Immediately, he flipped around in my hand and made a series of whipping strikes before he fastened onto my thumb.
"Damn!" I jumped back, cracking my head on a low wooden support beam. I pried his jaws off my thumb with my free hand and then grabbed him behind the neck again. I held him clamped in my fist and glared at him as he tried to thrash free.
"Rotten snake," I muttered. He only glared back with those angry, rusty eyes and hissed. "Pull that again, and I'm gonna make you into a wallet. Comprendo?"
Of course he didn't. You couldn't fill a thimble with his brain. I'd been feeding him and cleaning his cage for a year, and he hadn't learned to recognize me. Probably, he never would.
"Damn snake." I pried up the lid of his clean aquarium and dropped him inside. I quickly clamped the lid down and then heaved the tank into its slot in the display wall. After everything was situated, I looked down at my hand. Four rows of perfectly spaced pinpricks were welling up blood, and the skin on my thumb was torn as though I'd been slashed with a tiny hacksaw.
I stomped out from behind the exhibit and into the main room. Carlie was cleaning the front of the 500-gallon fish tank. "What were you yelling about?" She spritzed the aquarium with Windex. A striped bass snapped at her hand as she wiped the glass.
"Snake bit me," I grumbled.
"Oooh, is it bad?" Carlie stopped wiping and trotted to intercept me as I walked towards the laboratory. She shoved her glasses up the bridge of her nose and squinted down at my injuries. "Oooh, he really got ya, huh? When's the last time ya had a tetanus shot?"
She was still following me as I got to the basin and began to vigorously soap my hand.
"I bet you'll need a tetanus shot."
"It's just superficial."
"Yeah, but the snake's been in that scuzzy water, and he's probably got --"
"I don't need a tetanus shot!"
I wished Carlie would lose her morbid obsession with the diseases we could contract from the animals. When we had an opossum, she was on a rabies kick. When we got our snapping turtle, it was salmonella. So far, nothing had made me sick but Carlie.
"Hello, ladies, how are you doing today?" George Bloom, our curator, stepped into the laboratory. He was cheerful and tidy as always, dressed in tan slacks and a striped shirt. His gray hair was still damp from his morning shower.
Three years before, he'd retired from teaching at a university in Arizona and had moved to Edgewater. His wife, Edna, had family in Edgewater, and George liked the area's lakes and small mountains. I met George soon after they moved to town. The nature center was just getting started, and George and I were both hired in the same month. At first, I pretty much dismissed George as just another old guy who liked animals.
My opinion of him changed drastically after I joined the local Natural Adventure Club and went on one of their rock climbing trips. As we were getting our gear out of the jeeps, George slipped out of his sweatshirt to change into a T-shirt. He was fifty, but from the neck down he didn't look any older than thirty-five. Every muscle on his torso and arms was defined in hard, tanned flesh. I was impressed. And I was even more impressed when we hit the rocks -- George could climb like a gecko.
The final stage of my attitude readjustment came when I was going across a rock ledge. Stupid me, I was checking out the buzzards circling overhead instead of watching where I was stepping. My foot slipped on a loose rock, and suddenly I was half-falling, half-tumbling down the canyon face. Somehow, I managed to grab a prickly little bush that was stubbornly growing from a crack in the rocks. I hung there, thirty feet of air between me and the rocky canyon floor. My hands were bleeding from the thorns, and I couldn't have climbed back up even if I wasn't scared out of my mind. Visions of quadriplegia danced in my head when I realized that the bush's roots were giving out.
But then George was beside me, holding onto the rocks with his legs and one arm while he tied a rope around my middle with his free hand. Then they hauled me up the face like I was a sack of flour. George saved my life -- I don't think anybody else could have gotten down in time to keep me from falling.
"Liz got bit by the water snake," Carlie announced enthusiastically.
"It's just a scratch," I said. "But I hate that damn snake!"
"That's probably why he bites you," said George, smiling.
I noticed the cloth collecting bag in his left hand. "Hey, George, whatcha got?"
"I found a surprise on my morning walk." He cleared off a spot on the counter island and laid the bag down. We crowded around as he opened the bag and slid his hand inside. "But be gentle -- he's just a hatchling."
George pulled out a tiny white serpent. It took me a second to realize it was an albino hognosed snake. It wasn't entirely colorless; the eyes were a light blue-gray, and it had faint, cream-colored diamond spots on its back.
"Oh, he's darling!" gushed Carlie.
"Hey, what's up?" asked Frank, the center's supervisor, as he came out of the office. "Oh, hey, would ya look at that," he exclaimed softly. "Where'd ya find it, George?"
"Beside the creek near my house."
"Good job, George. This thing'll be a heck of an attraction; I bet a lot of people haven't seen an albino anything before, much less a snake."
"It'll be hard raising this one," said George, frowning a little. "Albinos don't generally have good health, and he'll only be able to take tiny frogs. And it hasn't rained since May, so most of the tadpole ponds have dried up."
"Ah, we've got plenty of little frogs," said Frank breezilly. "Liz caught a whole mess of 'em when she went out to the river last weekend. The little guy's gonna do just fine."
Frank did an honest-to-God local media blitz. We had "Snake Mania" week at the center with the little albino as our spotlit centerpiece. There was a snake-naming contest for the kids, and at the end of the week the defenseless little guy was tagged with the moniker "Snowflake the Snake."
Flake was the perfect Show 'N Tell specimen. I could carry him around the center twined in the fingers of my hand. He didn't seem to mind being handled; I guess people's body heat felt good to him. It always amazed me how many kids, and even adults, came into the center thinking that snakes are slimy. In the pre-Flake days, if I brought out a snake during a tour, a few people would invariably scurry away and refuse to come within ten feet of the reptile. But people were always willing to touch Flake, perhaps because of his size, but probably because he was pretty. I even got one middle-aged woman, who wouldn't even look at our other snakes, to run her finger along Flake's back. I think she washed her hands afterwards. But she touched him.
The trouble began on the first Saturday of August. It was a feeding day, and I always started with the snakes. I fished a cricket frog out of one of the bait tanks and dropped it into Flake's terrarium. The glistening frog hopped across the gravel and landed plit! in the water dish. But Flake didn't even raise his head in response to the movement. Something was wrong. I gently turned him over. He barely moved at my touch, and a trickle of blood was oozing from his vent.
"Oh great," I muttered.
Then George and Frank came out of the laboratory, arguing.
"... but we have to release them now so they'll get acclimated before the first freeze," said George.
"I told you, we're not releasing any animals. They can hibernate in the center just fine," Frank replied.
"It's too warm in here for the reptiles to hibernate, and we won't be able to get live food for some of them. And we've already had most of them a year. We've never kept individual animals longer than that."
"Well, we will now. I don't see the point in getting rid of perfectly good specimens."
"Frank, you don't -- "
"Not another word, George! They're staying here, and that's final." Frank turned on his heel and went to his office. George stood there and rubbed his temples. There were deep shadows under his eyes.
I approached George. "Still got that headache?"
"Yes, it's been on and off for most of the week. I wish I could shake it, but aspirin isn't helping. And neither is Frank. We really need to release some of the animals; they've been here far too long. I'm worried that their survival skills will atrophy so much that they can't be released back into the wild. And some of the lizards and turtles have become such picky eaters that I'm sure they're not getting a proper diet."
"Um, I have some more bad news."
"Flake's sick ... he's passing blood."
George went behind the exhibit and took Flake out of his tank to examine him. I noticed that his hands were trembling.
"What do you think?" I asked.
"Don't know ... could be parasites, could be stress. Either way, I don't think he'll eat." George rubbed his eyes as though they wouldn't focus.
I asked, "So what do we do now?"
George didn't answer. He was leaning heavilly against the back wall. "I don't feel so good."
His knees buckled, and he fell down among the buckets and junk that littered the floor. He lay there groaning. I stood there in a paralysis of stupidity for a few seconds, but then I jumped over him and dragged him out into the exhibit hall.
"Carlie! Frank!" I yelled. "Call an ambulance!"
I had thought that George had a heart attack, but the situation was much worse. He had brain cancer. The doctors said the tumor was the size of a lemon. They helicoptered him to Evansburg and did emergency surgery, but it didn't go too well. A clot formed and George had a stroke that left him paralyzed from the waist down.
I drove up to visit George three weeks after his surgery.
"Hey, how ya doing?" I asked softly as I entered his hospital room.
George lay motionless in bed, the sheets pushed down in a rumpled heap around his knees. The crown of his head was swathed in bandages, and his face was dark and puffy.
"Guess I can't complain too much." His speech was a little slurred. "There's not much pain, at least not now. They have me on so many painkillers I doubt I'd feel it if someone kicked me. How are things going at the center?"
"Okay, I guess. One of our hatchling box turtles died, but everything else is healthy. Except Flake, of course. He still bleeds sometimes, and he's not eating well. I hope the little guy doesn't die."
"What's Frank going to do if he does?"
"Frank wants Carlie to pickle him."
"What for? Frank keeps collecting preserved specimens, but no one ever looks at them." George stopped to cough weakly. "He should just let Flake go and let nature run its course."
"But he can't possibly survive in the wild."
"Better than dying a captive." George coughed again and turned his head to watch a mockingbird fly past the window.
"So ... uh, what do the doctors think?"
"It's a glioma," George replied tiredly. "It'll keep coming back until it kills me."
When he said that, I felt as if somebody had slugged me with a sack of wet concrete. I spent the next few seconds trying to recover from the shock and trying to think of the proper thing to say.
"But ... but they're getting better with chemotherapy," I finally said. "More and more people are surviving this kind of thing." My words sounded pretty weak to me.
George shook his head. "Even if it did go into remission, what then? I'm a cripple, and nothing can help that. I can't even go to the bathroom without help. Once I get out of here, if I ever do, Edna will have to hire a nurse to take care of me."
"But what about rehab ...?"
"I'm on the wrong side of the hill, Liz. If I survive the cancer, I'll just be waiting for something else to take me out." He looked out at the clouds that were leisurely cruising across the bright sky. "I can't live like this," he murmured to himself.
"Can ... can I do anything for you?" I asked, desperately seeking the right words and not finding them. "Can I ... get you anything?"
"Maybe." He paused, frowning. "Liz, you're old enough to drink, aren't you?"
"Uh, yeah ... I turned twenty-one a few months back. Why?"
"I want you to bring me a bottle of Everclear. If you can't find that, then any other high-proof liquor will do. With all the pain pills they have me on ... well, it shouldn't take much alcohol to do the job."
"Huh?" Then it sank in. "Oh wait, no --"
"Listen to me. I'm going to die, and I want to do it on my terms, not on the doctor's, and not on the cancer's. And I don't want my family to go broke trying to stave off the inevitable." He sighed and rubbed his eyes. "Edna would try to stop me if she knew I was planning this, but I can't stand to be a burden to her." He paused, staring at me. "I would suggest that you buy the liquor and some assorted items at a store, then 'forget' your bag on my beside table."
The door opened and a nurse came in. She was small and chubby and had big hair. Her candy-coated smile was so wide it showed her molars, and I wanted to smack it right off her face.
"Miss, I'm afraid you'll have to leave for a little while. It's time for Mr. Bloom's bath," she said cheerfully. "You can come back in an hour or so."
"Will you be back?" asked George.
"I ... I don't know," I replied. I felt sick and dizzy. "Maybe. Look ... I'll ... try to come back later, I guess ...."
"I hope you can make it."
My whole body seemed to have turned to cold lead as I went down to the parking lot. I got into my car and drove away, not really knowing or caring where I was going.
Then an image of George drove into my mind like a knife. I saw him sitting alone in a wheelchair in a nursing home, dressed in an ugly green bathrobe. All his hair was gone but a few dry stands like spiderweb, his eyes sunk so far into his skull you couldn't see what color they were. His skin was a sickly white, looked like it hadn't seen the sun in year. The flesh was so thin on his face and hands that he looked like the men in the old photos of the Nazi concentration camps.
I started to shiver, and then I started to cry. I had to pull off the road at a little park beside the river that ran around the city. I got out and stumbled across the grass and sat down on a concrete park bench to try to get the chill out of my bones and my head. I closed my eyes and breathed in the warm summer air, trying to forget the hospital.
When I opened my eyes, I realized that the park was beautiful. The grass was a perfect emerald green. The nearby flowerbeds were a bright riot of pansies, chrysanthemums, and marigolds.
Then a flash of orange and black went past my face: a monarch butterfly. It fluttered dizzilly to a nearby oak and landed on the rough bark. The monarch rested there, delicately folding and unfolding its wings.
I got up from the bench to get a better look at the butterfly. Startled, the monarch fluttered up into the safety of branches ... right into an orb weaver's web.
Dismay washed through me. I stepped up to the tree to look at the butterfly struggling in silken trap. The monarch was caught spread-winged, the sticky strands pinning it as though the insect had been mounted for a collection. Black legs wiggled frantically and the web shuddered as the monarch tried to pull free. I almost imagined that I could hear it screaming.
I wished that the spider would hurry up, get it over with. But when I looked for the orb weaver, I saw a shrivelled husk in the corner of the web. The spider had been dead for some time; perhaps it had starved, as the butterfly was going to starve.
I looked at the struggling monarch again. I knew it was just an insect, probably couldn't feel any pain, but still ... it was beautiful. Beauty didn't deserve an ugly, slow death in an abandoned web.
I reached up to the web, tried to tear the silk apart to free the butterfly. I managed to free one wing, and monarch tried to fly off. It tore off the upper half of its other wing and fluttered to the ground like a falling autumn leaf. The crippled butterfly lay twitching in the grass, still trying to fly.
I stared down at it, feeling sicker and sicker with each passing second. I wanted to look away, walk away, but somehow I couldn't. Finally, I crushed the butterfly under my sneaker and went back to my car.
I drove to a little grocery store and bought an Anxiety Kit: Rolaids, Tylenol, M&Ms, and a flask of Everclear.
When I got back to the hospital, George's wife was in the room. I greeted her and set the bag down on the bedside table, the mouth of the bag facing George. Then I sat down in the chair beside Edna and we all chatted for a long time. I can't even remember what we talked about -- my heart was still hammering and I spent most of my concentration on keeping my voice steady. George was perfectly calm and almost seemed cheerful.
Finally, the nurse stuck her head in and told us visiting hours were over. Just as Edna and I stepped out into the hallway, she said, "Oh, Liz, you forgot your sack."
"Oh, yeah, almost forgot." I reluctantly went back into the room and picked up the paper bag. "Goodbye, George."
I went down to the parking lot with Edna. After I got into my car, I peeked into the sack. The Everclear was gone.
I ended up eating most of the roll of Rolaids on the trip back to Edgewater, and I played the car stereo at just below pain level. It was dark when I hit the city limits, but I didn't go home. I drove straight across town to the center.
After I got inside, I took Flake out of his tank and twined him in my fingers of my left hand. Then we went to the closet where Frank kept all the preserved specimens. I turned on the flickering overhead light and walked inside.
The collection seemed especially eerie that night. The fishy smell of decay and formaldehyde hung in the air. The metal shelves were loaded with an assortment of dust-covered jars. Dead, cloudy eyes stared at me from every corner. On the bottom shelf was the huge jar that held the remains of our python. It had been sawn into pieces before it was preserved, the once-beautiful skin broken by jagged gray edges.
I looked down at Flake, who was tasting the air uncertainly. He was warm, warm from the heat of my own hand, and I could feel his sides rise and fall with every breath.
"You don't really want to be preserved for posterity, do you?"
Flake looked at me, startled by the sound of my voice. The gray eyes held no comprehension. His existence centered around little frogs and warm rocks. He could never care about how he died, or how his pretty skin and eyes would turn yellow and disintegrate inside a formaldehyde time capsule.
I tucked him inside a cloth collection bag and took him back to my house. I broke out my camera and arranged Flake on a sheet of blue construction paper. Then I took slides of him from every angle, as George always did before he released an animal.
After the roll of film was used up, I drove out to George's house on the edge of town. I got out my car with the collecting bag and walked down to the creek that ran beyond his back yard. The night was warm; I guessed that we wouldn't have a freeze until October. Maybe Flake would manage to acclimate and go into hibernation. If not, he would fall prey to a neighborhood cat or perhaps succumb to whatever ailed him. But he would have died anyway -- at least something would get a gourmet meal.
I lifted the little snake out of the bag. His scales shone pale and ghostly. I dropped him on the ground beside a thick patch of marsh grass. He didn't move right away. Instead, he looked up at me blankly, his eyes black beads in the moonlight.
And then he slid into the grass and was gone.