March 11, 2016

“Rattlesnakes” by Kathryn Holzman

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“Rattlesnakes” by Kathryn Holzman

“We also spent entire nights in bed and I told her my dreams. I told her about the big snake of the world that was coiled in the earth like a worm in an apple and would someday nudge up a hill to be thereafter known as Snake Hill and fold out upon the plain, a hundred miles long and devouring as it went along. I told her this snake was Satan. “What’s going to happen?” she squealed; meanwhile she held me tight.” – Jack Kerouac

* * *

“Rattlesnakes can swim.” Valerie grabbed the nun’s wrist, desperate to get her attention.

Thirty demonstrators walked down the highway median with children and dogs in tow. Despite the chilly January wind, the ragged line of walkers was determined to show support for a proposed rattle snake sanctuary to be built on a protected island in Massachusetts’ Quabbin Reservoir

Sister Margaret, a Buddhist nun who lived at the Leverett Peace Pagoda, pulled her hand-knit cap down low over her forehead. She wore large white-framed sunglasses and pulled a cranberry-colored wool scarf tighter around her neck. Her tone was soothing out of long habit. “All creatures have a role to play in our peaceful kingdom.”

“But snakes can swim.” Valerie repeated louder, as if the nun were hard of hearing. “She wrapped her Burberry coat snugly around her waist. She was determined to disrupt the demonstration. When she had accepted an instructor’s position at UMass, she had looked forward to living in the town that had nurtured Emily Dickinson but she had quickly tired of the liberal politics of the college town. She spent the previous week making her case against the proposed sanctuary to the local media, composing e-mails to the local TV stations. She had written her state legislator and encouraged her friends on Facebook to do the same. As a result of her efforts, the WWMA News van was parked on the corner and, if she had her way, the station would carry both sides of this story.

“This is just the latest example of Boston lording it over the less populated part of the state.” Valerie raised her voice so the other spectators could hear what she had found to be a persuasive argument. She was confident that after many years of trying she had lost her Boston accent and the irony would be lost on this crowd.

The nun placed a reassuring hand on the younger woman’s shoulder. Her hands, encased in tweed mittens, were meant to calm. Sister Margaret, a long-time advocate of environmental justice, was used to opposition. The nun thrived on controversy and was certified in non-violent reconciliation.

Valerie transferred her attention to the young reporter who was zipping up his down jacket and slicking back his photogenic blue-black hair. His breath was visible as he tested his microphone, preparing to interview a representative from the Massachusetts Division of Wildlife.

“The Timber Rattlesnake is endangered because of its rarity and declining population,” the scientist read off his Xeroxed FAQ sheet. Jeff had recently returned from a six-month-long trek on Vermont’s Long Trail. He was still uncomfortable in crowds. “We plan to breed and raise 150 snakes and turn them loose on protected land in the middle of the reservoir.”

“But why the Quabbin Reservoir?” the reporter who introduced himself as Gary, asked. Although speaking to the scientist, he looked directly at the red light that indicated that the camera was on. The story of the proposed sanctuary had the potential to bring him to the attention of the Station’s management at last. Already, the network staff was preparing the poll of listeners for their nightly talk back segment. If more than 500 viewers participated, the story would be deemed a success.

“Aren’t you concerned about the safety of the local communities?” That should get listeners’ attention.

“What could go wrong?” Valerie muttered as she looked for the nun who was now marching three abreast in view of the camera. On one side, a bearded man carried a placard stating “Nature in Balance.” On the other, a short-haired young woman with a serpent tattoo on her neck was greedily eating a granola bar.

“I can’t think of an animal that is held in greater contempt or persecuted more than the rattler.” Jeff looked up from his fact sheet. Valerie snorted but the scientist continued. “Rattlers are shy. They only bite when threatened.” His voice gained momentum as he gestured, waving the Xeroxed FAQ like a flag. “The biggest misconception is that they wander around like marauders in the forest looking for someone to eat. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

The cameraman, having captured his five minutes of film, signaled to the reporter before retreating to the warm news van.

With the camera lights out, the demonstrators decided to take a break and headed for the local diner.

“Join us,” Sister Margaret asked Jeff and Valerie, alert for the opportunity to bring warring factions to the table. The reporter joined them, hoping for a few usable quotes.

*****

Over a cup of hot chocolate, Jeff continued to make his case. “Rattlers only leave their dens during the warmest months.” This was his area of expertise. He had volunteered to represent the agency at the demonstration.

“But they swim, right?” Valerie ordered iced tea. 150 snakes, breeding. She shuddered at the thought. The cold liquid made her even colder.

The bearded man laid his placard at the end of the booth. “Have you thought of building a wall around the sanctuary?” he asked the scientist.

“The rattlers were here before any of us,” Jeff ignored him. “There haven’t been any fatal bites since Colonial times.” This wasn’t quite true, he knew. A metropolitan Boston police man and kept two rattlers illegally in his home. When one bit him, he tried to drive himself to the hospital and died in a car accident on the way.

“The bottom line is that we don’t need them,” Valerie pushed her iced tea away, eyeing Jeff’s hot chocolate enviously. The idea of encountering snakes had begun to obsess her. She heard their rattle in the rustle of her morning newspaper, the crumpling of napkins as the protestors wiped their noses when they dripped from the cold. Last night, instead of falling asleep lulled by one of her cherished books of poetry, she had dreamed about sinuous snakes swimming around her ankles. She woke up in a cold sweat.

The bearded man pointed to his “Nature in Balance,” placard. “I’ve read that timber rattlers are a source of food for hawks, bobcats, coyotes and foxes.”

“Predators every one,” Valerie felt outnumbered. With relief she noticed that the reporter had not written anything on his pad. She tried to think of a quote that would sway him.

“A peaceful kingdom,” Sister Margaret chimed in, “thrives on diversity.” She removed her hat; damp hair clung to her wrinkled, unadorned face.

“Wasn’t there a hiker whose collie was bitten by a rattler last year?” Valerie flagged down the waitress and asked for a cup of hot tea. “Wouldn’t the station have a record of that, Gary?” The reporter sat directly across from her.” Turning to Jeff, “The open space around the reservoir is very popular with hikers, you know.”

Gary was taking notes now and the steam from her tea was warming her up at last.

“Walking is a beautiful feeling,” Sister Margaret said. “You have your feet on the ground; you move through communities; people look at you and you look at people.”

“It’s not just about people,” Jeff looked at the nun with reverence. “Walking the Long Trail, I felt at one with nature. I began to understand my place in the universe.”

Valerie would happily have put a finger down her throat. “Snakes, people. Focus.” She looked pointedly at the reporter who was finishing his hot chocolate with a satisfied slurp. “Serpents lurking in the grass.” She supposed Buddhists didn’t believe in Adam and Eve, but they certainly talked enough about the root causes of suffering. “Life is hard enough; we don’t need to import additional dangers.”

Time was running out. “There are always repercussions.” Her knee brushed that of the reporter. He didn’t pull away. “Think of Australia, overrun with rabbits. New Zealand’s thirty million possums.” She had spent her gap year down under. “Better we leave things as we find them.” She directed her comment at the nun and her scientist sidekick.

“That ship has sailed.” The nun’s sarcasm caught Valerie unprepared.

“Damn, the van left without me.” In the steamy diner window, Gary watched as the news van pulled away.

“No worries,” Valerie remembered Australia warmly. “I’ll give you a ride to the station.”

*****

Valerie wore white khakis, the better to spot the deer ticks that carried Lyme Disease. She rolled her socks up over the cuffs and sprayed her hiking shoes with Deet. She tied her hair in a ponytail and secured it beneath the wide brim cloth hat that she had bought in Australia. With the arrival of spring, deer ticks were just beginning to emerge from the leaf litter. She imagined the tickle of a tick on the bare skin of her neck, the warmth of a spreading circular rash.

Gary had suggested the hike. His initial story had been a great success. 654 viewers had responded to the evening survey, 400 against the sanctuary and 245 pro. Nine votes had been discarded for provocative language. Now he had been asked to do a follow up and an interview had been scheduled with Jeff tomorrow. Valerie had been pleased when he had called and asked her to join him. Her efforts were beginning to pay off.

The trail followed the edge of the reservoir. A few pieces of ice still floated on the dark water. The deciduous trees glowed with insipient buds as the towering pines swayed above them. Valerie shivered despite her light jacket. Last night she had the dream again.

In the dream, it was summer. A pregnant female basked in the hot sun on a rocky ledge high above the water, its mate nearby, coiled to protect. Valerie was in bed, her white ankle exposed by the sheet she had kicked aside. There was no time between the deadly rattle and piercing pain of its fangs. She tried to scream, but she lay on a rocky beach beside a large expanse of water and there was no one around. No one to hear her. No one to administer the anti-venom before the poison travelled up her leg towards her heart, her vital organs. She had tried to tell them. The nun just laughed and the scientist walked away, his hiking stick striking granite below the soil as eagles soared above their heads.

Gary said “I think that’s the island there.” He handed her binoculars.

The island, closed to the public, was further out than she had imagined.

Gary read from the fact sheet that Jeff had sent him. “The typical hunting behavior of timber rattlesnakes consists of long period of lying motionless, with intervals of prowling.”

The water reflected the winter sky, clouds floating across its surface. It was impossible to know what lay beneath.

“The snake resorts to striking and biting only when cut off from retreat or actually touched.”

She had never been so terrified.

“I don’t know. I don’t really see the threat.” He folded that paper and put it in his back pocket.

He aspired to become an anchor on the late night broadcast. At first, she had been impressed by his ambition, his carefully laid out plans to gain visibility in order to move to a larger market. Lately, though, she had become frustrated with his insistence on seeing all sides of an issue.

He used too much pomade on his hair. He was obsessive about his weight. On the air, he spoke with great authority, but she knew he waffled. If it were summer now, the protected forestland around them would be teeming with wildlife, bears and coyotes, ticks and disease-carrying mosquitoes. He would not be able to protect her.

“What’s wrong?” he asked as she headed back to the car. She didn’t turn around, not once.

At home, she stood naked in front of the full length mirror. She checked every inch of her body for ticks. Despite finding none, she was unable to sleep, just thinking about the miniscule insect sucking her blood, causing irreparable harm.

*****

“He didn’t show.” Gary’s follow-up with Jeff had to be rescheduled. When he called the scientist, Gary told him, with great enthusiasm, that he was joining the Buddhists from the Peace Pagoda on a walk to New York City to protest unfair discrimination against persecuted immigrant communities.

Valerie was relieved that the interview had been cancelled. The story was getting away from her. Gary had started talking about the sensitive “balance of nature.” The timber rattlesnake, he told her last night, was important as a native top predator of the area’s deciduous forest communities.

She didn’t feel well. Living in the Pioneer Valley exacerbated her allergies. She woke up every morning with itchy eyes. Before she could make a cup of tea, she started sneezing. Her glands were swollen. She barely had enough energy to lecture on modern poetry. In Amherst, poetry was all about Frost and Dickinson. She longed for the discipline of the classics, Shakespeare and Wordsworth.

“This isn’t working out,” she told the reporter.

“I know. I wanted to strike while the story was hot.”

He had been promoted to the evening shift. She watched his broadcasts before she went to bed, looking for signs of betrayal as she polished her toes nails with a defensive red polish. One Friday night, when spring had almost arrived, the station teased the story she had been waiting for. “Today the State legislature approved the establishment of a Timber Rattlesnake Sanctuary in the Quabbin Reservoir.”

Gary, his hair shorter now, wore wire-framed glasses that made him look older. He announced the management recommendations with great authority. They included restricting human access to key habitats in order to avoid disturbing or stressing the snakes.

In her dream that night, she carried a gun. If necessary, she was prepared to shoot. Someone had to put an end to this nonsense…

* * *

KBH-AUTHOR PIC

 

Kathryn has published poetry in the U.S. and Hong Kong and had recent short stories accepted by Calliope Magazine, Zodiac Review and Cowboy Jamboree. She finds inspiration in Western Massachusetts and the Green Mountains of Vermont.

 

 

 

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