Well of Souls
My father called to tell me that I shouldn’t worry about running into deer on my bike; I should worry about running over a snake. Running over a snake, he explained, especially on a curve, would lay me out. My father knows a lot about snakes; he lives with my mom in a house on property that borders National Forest, and before the house was built, when the land clearers arrived to cut and burn trees, they killed upwards of 60 copperheads and rattlesnakes. In the last quarter of a century, my parents have killed nearly 100. Often, when my father kills a venomous snake, he cuts off the head, peels the skin off like a banana from its body, which continues to writhe and jerk, then razors open its belly, to see what it’s been eating—I’ve seen him pull out all kinds of things, and once watched as he unfurled the sopping wet tail of a squirrel. If he finds fetuses, he counts those up and adds them to that year’s total killed snake tally. He’s kept a few as pets before, in terrariums, on a screened-in porch—there’s a picture somewhere of him blow drying a frozen mouse to make it warm enough for the snake to be interested. Once, when moving a stack of logs on my parents’ front porch, I decapitated, using the blade of a shovel, four copperheads. Regrettably, I also ended up killing a black snake who, before I identified him, was just another writhing body I had to contend with. My mother has video of me with a Ziploc bag of these snake heads; when I raise it to the camera, one of the heads opens its mouth—almost like a yawn—and bears its fangs. I grew up thinking that the serpent was the most beautiful creature in the Garden of Eden, and that it had wings and could fly through the air; in my head I pictured glittering ribbons slithering through the air. Flying snakes—or “Chrysopolea”—don’t really fly, but they can glide for long distances by sucking in their stomachs, flattening their bodies, and making continual serpentine motions, undulating laterally from tree to tree. Remember the “Well of Souls” snake pit scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark? Turns out, not all of those snakes were snakes: some of them were legless lizards, others pieces of rubber tubing. To generate the sound of thousands of snakes slithering around on top of each other, Ben Burtt—a famous sound designer who used a scuba regulator to create Darth Vader’s iconic respirations in Star Wars—slid his fingers into a cheese casserole, and rubbed wet sponges against a skateboard’s grip tape. To create the whistling noises made by the spirits leaving the ark at the end of the movie, Burtt ran the cries of various animals—including humans, dolphins, and sea-lions—run through a vocoder, a device that was invented by a man named Homer Dudley, in part to help the United States communicate its military secrets during World War II. Whenever I hear the name Homer, it makes me think of the old mountain man who lived not far from my father’s office—an old man who only had one ear and carried a buckeye in his pocket for good luck, and once gave one of his doctors a toothpick, then much later told him it had been carved from a raccoon’s penis. I hadn’t known this as a kid, but Homer also carried, in his wallet, a bear vagina—an old, hairy piece of leather that he’d bring out as a curiosity, conversation piece. Perhaps that’s what my father was thinking when he used the United States Postal Service to send my son the skin of a snake he’d recently killed. It arrived in an envelope, in a Ziploc bag. We opened it but it smelled bad and was greasy in a way that struck us as unpleasant, so we closed the bag tight. It stayed like that for a long time, until one day, when cleaning out a drawer, I came upon the skin again, and after thinking about how strange it was to have the outer covering of a creature that had once been alive—that had survived childhood, learned to hunt, hibernate, absorb sunlight, perhaps even mate—I admired the crossband pattern, and threw it—with little fanfare—into the garbage.
Signs of the Times
In the Kroger gas station, a man behind a wall of bulletproof glass wearing a name tag that said “Mark” and then under his name “I Can Make Things Right” took my credit card, so as to charge me for a single 12-ounce sugar free Red Bull I was buying, because—and I’m not afraid to admit it—I was feeling a little low, and Red Bull “gives you wings.” I couldn’t help but wonder if and to what extent Mark would go in order to remain true to his nametag’s word, and if so, what that might entail: always providing exact change? refilling the squeegee buckets? exchanging a rancid pre-packaged pimento cheese on white for a non-rancid one? I wondered if Mark Who Can Make Things Right had read The Gospel of Mark, which the vast majority of religious scholars believe—for a number of reasons, including the fact that so much of its story reappears in both Matthew and Luke—that it is the most ancient of the gospels, and if so, whether or not he—that is, Mark Who Can Make Things Right—was familiar with the ending, the one that appears in the oldest version of this particular gospel, in which two women who visit the tomb of Jesus find it empty and, after having been addressed by a stranger who tells them that the Christ had risen, and that they should go tell his disciples, they run away from the tomb, and say nothing to anyone, because they’re afraid, and then that’s it, end of story. If Mark Who Can Make Things Right isn’t familiar with this shorter, older, and perhaps more authentic version of Mark, he no doubt had read the headline of today’s USA Today—a stack of them were sitting in a metal cradle by the door—which claimed that Donald Trump’s supporters were not clichés. I tried, as I exited, to think what that might mean, and why it was at all relevant, at least until I got distracted by a poster in the window of the Subway next door, which promised me that the chain’s new buffalo chicken had been raised without antibiotics, a pronouncement I jeeringly slow-clapped to in my head. On the way to Radford, where I went to pick up my son and his friend from soccer camp, I found myself behind a car whose rear window was stickered with various messages: one, using individual letters, spelled out, simply and slightly wonkily: “Ted Cruz”; another implored me to “Never Forget Benghazi.” I have to admit that I am not the type of person to glue signage to the back of my car (though my wife did once put an “OBAMA” sticker on the back of our Volvo, which the friend we sold it to clawed off with his fingernails after he broke down in the middle of West Virginia); I therefore have failed to identify myself to the other travelers on America’s byways as a “Friend of Coal” or a person who hearts mountains, or as a person who thinks of himself as a Jesus Fish Person or Fish with Legs Person or a Fish With Legs Person Eating Fish People Person. The only bumper sticker I can think of that I’d be interested in is one that I could place over that one that says “Never Forget Benghazi,” but I have a feeling that “Never Forget How the Bush Administration Ignored Warnings about 9/11 and Then Based on Faulty Evidence If Not Outright Lies Waged a War with Another Country that Killed by Lowest Estimate 150,000 Lives and Highest Estimate Over a Million and Then Failed to Meet the Needs of Its 32,226 Wounded Soldiers, Not to Mention The Countless Other Veterans Who Returned With Serious Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, Many of Whom Committed Suicide, So If You’re More Concerned with the Four American Lives Lost in Benghazi Than that Other Mindblowingly Farcical Fiasco I Have No Other Choice But to Hereby Christen You ‘A Piece of Human Garbage’” probably wouldn’t fit on a bumper sticker, at least not one big enough to read. Still, I’d like to get some made. I would’ve given one to the guy I saw at a local bar—The Underground—the other night, an older black man in a ball cap who asked me how I was doing and when I said, “Pretty good and you,” replied with, “I’m alive and breathing, and if that’s the case I got no complaints,” then proceeded to tell me that, years ago, he’d been in Iraq—the Gulf War, I guessed, but didn’t ask—and that he said he’d done everything he was asked to do, because that’s how you survived that shit, you shot men, women, and even children if you had to, because over there, children weren’t just children, they were small humans who may or may not have clay bombs strapped to their chests. “I did what I had to do,” he said. “And I didn’t think twice about it,” he added. “And now here I am.” He lifted a tumbler of ice and pale green liquid to his face. “I guess you had to learn how to be a machine,” I said, but if the man heard me, he didn’t reply. His eyes were glazed over, and before he turned to go away, he held up two fingers, and said that he hoped I had a blessed day.