How Sharper Than a Serpent's ToothbyAdrian Leverkuhn©
The woman walked up the scrub-brush and sage covered hillside; from a distance it was apparent she was having trouble walking up the loose shale and gravel that covered the modestly steep slope. She had a walking stick, a whittled cedar staff really, that she used assiduously to pick her way up through the rocks and brush that peppered the hills and bottom-lands of Montana's Paradise Valley. For all her apparent effort, however, the woman appeared happy as she whistled old show tunes - her pace revealed that a measured, leisurely day was unfolding. She paused every now and then to stop and look out over the valley - the staggeringly majestic mountains that lined the east and west walls of this valley that led to Yellowstone National Park- and occasionally she bent down to examine a bright purple wildflower, and a gentle smile would cross her face. To anyone looking on the scene, she would have looked like a woman lost within the overwhelming beauty of a glorious summer day. The mountain air was crisp and cool, the dome of the sky bright blue - and not a single cloud crossed the sun-dappled mountains that held the women within their embrace.
The reddish rocks often gave way under the woman's feet, and she would slide for a brief moment, then catch the drift with her staff. These capricious slides upset the woman not at all; she seemed to relish them - revel in her proximity to the dangers of nature - then she would resume her upward trek. The sage and scrub thinned as she gained elevation; taller trees loomed in the distance, perhaps another five hundred feet higher up the slope. The loose shale gave way to broad swathes of granite covered with dark grey boulders and rust colored rocks, and the vibrant wild-flowers that had covered the lower slopes grew more stunted at this altitude - if they grew at all.
The woman heard it on an instinctual level before she reacted - the unmistakable sound of a rattlesnake - and she seemed to freeze in mid-stride. The sound was difficult to locate, in fact, it seemed to come from all around her. The buzzing rattle filled the air, an occasional hiss accented the warning and filled the woman with a cold dread borne of instinct. She remained still, but turned her head slowly as she tried to locate the viper.
She saw it! there! between a rock and some brush. But no, this snake was motionless; in fact, a wad of translucent stuff was massed about halfway down the serpents body. It was molting - shedding it's skin - and was in no position to rattle. Still the sound continued, indeed, seemed to increase. The woman looked around to her left, up the hillside, and her heart froze. Not more than a yard away she spotted a small rattlesnake coiled, looking at her, readying to strike. Even as she took in this threat she saw another to the left of the coiled viper, and watched in horror as this rattlesnake moved down the hill toward her.
The coiled rattlesnake launched through the air - striking - and the woman reacted in time to move her walking staff. The three foot long snake struck the staff, and sensing it's mistake, fell to the ground at the woman's feet and began to re-coil. The woman hopped down the hillside - away from the coiling snake - and the rattling grew louder still! As she came to a precarious rest, she looked down the hill to her right and saw one, no, two more rattlesnakes. Too late, the woman realized that she had walked into a nest of molting rattlesnakes. Hadn't the woman at the inn warned her that rattlesnakes were aggressive when molting? She heard another viper join the chorus, this one she sensed was behind her, and she spotted another one right ahead of her position.
She was surrounded.
The closest snake that she could see was about five feet away and coiling; she swung around wildly now, trying to identify the nearest threat, and she kept the staff firmly in her hands to counter the next attack.
Which came from a rattlesnake right behind her - one she hadn't seen - and the impact of the strike felt like a burning hammer-blow as the serpent's fanged-head drove into the calf-muscle of her right leg. She screamed and swung her staff around, knocking the snake off her leg and down the hill. The woman looked down at her leg and saw a small tear in the taupe gabardine of her trousers. She saw a small red stain beneath the fabric, and she felt her heart race, the blood arcing through her veins, pounding in her temples. Presently, she became very afraid of death, of dying on the side of a mountain in Montana while on vacation, away from her beloved Manhattan. Visions of her son spending the summer with his father flashed through her mind's eye, and she recoiled from visions of the bitter divorce and custody fight that had defined the past two years of her life. The woman lifted into airs of recent years - of her life reeling off in sepia-toned playback, the mistakes, the simple joys, hopes realized and dreams deferred . . .
. . . Another rattlesnake was readying to strike, but the woman was now almost oblivious to the threat. She seemed to sway, her staff began to falter . . .
Through visions of her son's happy smile, the woman heard a tinkling sound - bells! she thinks. Bells?! She feels light-headed, and her right leg burns - like a muscle cramp, and she seems to remember the sensation from some other existence. She suddenly hears the warning from the nearest viper, the one off to her right, but she continues to hear bells. Little bells . . . coming for her.
Are they Angels? she thinks. Oh, God! Not now. . .
She watches with cold dread filling her soul as the snake strikes, and seems startled by a brown and white blur that flashes through her field of view . . . as the snake arcs through the air the blur intercepts it in mid-air, and it is gone.
A dog has the snake in it's mouth, and she watches with curious detachment as it viciously shakes the snake in it's mouth and tosses the broken body away. The woman is barely aware of another dog behind her, and then the beating of a horse's hooves drumming up the rocks farther down the slope. She hears the loud report of a rifle, and bits of rock fly up from the ground by her left foot. She looks down to her left and sees the bloody mess of a dead rattler twitching and roiling as death consumes it, and the feeling of dissolution becomes overwhelming . . .
The woman feels herself falling . . .
. . . as she hits the ground she becomes aware of another rattler - on the ground - looking her in the eye . . . readying to strike. The viper seems huge, it's body as big as a large grapefruit, and as it coils, preparing to strike the woman in the face, she has the feeling that an endless evil is looking down right through her. Within the fathomless black eyes of the snake she feels the eternal emptiness of death . . .
. . . And then the snake strikes . . .
. . . And again the woman is aware of a brown and white streaking blur - and the snake is gone. In its place she hears the howling screams of a dog in agony, and she tries to lift her head and look, but her face feels like hot asphalt melting in the sun, and she is glued to the rock and gravel that bind her to the earth, to this life. . .
. . . She sees boots on the ground, moving around, moving . . .
. . . She feels her disembodied self rising in the air, but she feels strong arms under and around her, lifting her; she smells sweat and sage, and then she is swinging through the air. There is nothing left to feel, she thinks. She senses a man, feels his shoulder against her face, and she can hear the hurried beat of the hooves as the horse makes it way down the mountain. She thinks she feels cold, but isn't sure, and suddenly it is night.
When her eyes open, it is dark.
She is aware of pain - pain everywhere. Her right leg seethes with pain, as does the top of her left hand. She feels as if her body is on fire - yet she is cold to the innermost core of her being. She feels sweat running down her face as her leg boils and ripples in poisoned agony, yet on another plane she is aware that she cannot really feel her leg, that it is dead to this world. She is living in the mirror of her dreams, past and present fused in silent agony, echos of unknown futures fill her hearing, and destiny denied covers her eyes with the darkness she loathes.
A woman - a nurse - is bending over her, shining a light in her eyes. A probe in her ear, soft-warm fingers reading delicate pulses, a cool wash-cloth soothes her burning face. She tries to speak, but her throat feels like gravel. A spoon of crushed ice, then another, and the waiting darkness returns.
Sun-dappled waves reach distant shores. Lavender air roiled in coiled memory leaps at unsuspected innocence, and pain sears the blind man. He cries 'How could this be' as his life washes away from his sightless eyes. So soon, too soon, was it but a dream?'
Who was the man?
The room is full of early morning light, and she looks at her left hand. The coiled plastic viper has struck, and the serpents fang has lodged in her hand. Clear fluids flow into her, and she screams in horror, reaches for the wound, pulls at it. Searing pain, blood, and it is night again.
The blind man is there again. He is holding her in the womb of night. He is caressing her face. She can hear him. 'You'll be alright. Just hang on.' Spider's webs of lightning dance across her mind's eye and she smells the man, feels his strength flowing into her, feels the core of his resolve pulling her from the cold grasp of night. She has never known such peace.
And he is there.
The room is full of light. Mountains float above pale mist as in a Chinese landscape. But the smell, disinfectant? Not sage covered hills. Beige walls, the steady hum of electrical equipment, she notices an IV bottle hanging from a metal pole. Her left hand is heavily bandaged, a new IV line dangles from her right arm, and her hands are bound to the bed. She tests the restraints, and she wonders why they are there.
The man is there in the room, he is sitting in a blue chair looking out the room's solitary window. She watches him, studies him.
He is an older man, maybe fifty, perhaps older than that. His skin is sun-worn and rough, his face is creased from the simple cares of a hard life, and his hair dances between silver-grey and reddish-brown. The beard he wears is white, it covers a chiseled face capped by piercing blue eyes. The man is wearing an old work shirt - faded blue from years under the undiluted sun of the high Rockies, and his jeans appear faded from honest work. She sees wisdom in the man's face, and peace.
His eyes turn toward hers, and he sees her eyes as if for the first time. A smile crosses his face.
"So, you're back with us, huh. Decided to rejoin the living after all?"
She tries to speak, but nothing emerges from the sand and gravel that fill her mouth.
"How 'bout some water? Nurse said it's OK."
She nods her head and he is beside her, holding a plastic cup to her mouth. He takes the curved straw and places it in her mouth and she pulls a sip of ice cold water into her mouth. Then another, this one much longer. The liquid catches, and she coughs; the water spills out of her mouth onto her pale blue hospital gown. The man pulls the glass away and has a towel under her mouth in seconds; he blots her dry.
"Take it easy, girl. There's plenty and I can get more." Without having to ask, she feels the straw at her mouth and she cautiously takes it and drinks again. She has never been thirstier in her life and somehow this man knows that. She can see worn out empathy all over his face.
"Better?" he asks.
She nods. "Dogs . . . I saw dogs."
"Atticus Finch and Scout," the man says.
"You a lawyer?" she asks, a little smile dancing across her face.
"Don't believe in 'em," he says, smiling.
"I heard one scream. Was it . . . is it OK?"
"Yeah. That was Scout. She's still at the Docs. She knows better, but that was one helluva big snake. She knew you were a goner, so she took a chance. She had a tough two days, but she's gonna make it."
"Yeah. I pulled you down the mountain Saturday morning. It's Tuesday. Tuesday Afternoon."
"Where am I? Tuesday Afternoon? Isn't that a song?"
"Bozeman. Bozeman Methodist Hospital. You were pretty sick, girl."
"I think I would be pretty dead if you hadn't come along."
The man looked down at the floor, his face flushed a little. "Well, you got yourself into a pretty bad spot, Mam. Finch heard your scream, I think, before I figured out what it was. He led me to you. You'll need to thank him, not me."
"I will. What's your name?"
"Jake. Jacob Corrigan, Mam. Nice to meet you." He reached out and put his hand on hers and gave it a familiar pat. "Just thought I'd drop by and check and see if you were doing better today. You had 'em pretty wigged-out after you yanked your IV out."
The woman looked at her left hand. "That's what that was?"
"Hasn't anyone talked to you yet?" asked Corrigan.
"Figures. Uh, is there anyone I can call for you, Mam?."
"My room at the inn . . .?"
"All taken care of. When I rode in, Mrs Parker called the paramedics, and she packed your stuff up. I brought it down yesterday."
"When can I get out of here?"
The man shook his head. "No word yet."
"Oh, excuse me, Jake. My name is Madeleine Townsend, and I'm from New York."
"Well, OK, Madeleine Townsend from New York. I'm gonna go find a nurse or a doc and find out what the program is. Back in a minute . . ."
Madeleine sat there in the bed, and for the first time realized that her right leg felt very, very strange. She felt the room spinning, and darkness reached out for her . . .
"Madeleine, Miss Townsend, I'm Dr Payson. You awake?"
Madeleine shook herself awake, tried to focus on the woman floating above her, but she felt foggy and on fire. She nodded at the woman.
"Madeleine, the antibiotics and anti-venoms haven't done the trick. Gangrene is setting in. We're going to have to operate on your leg. I don't think we'll have to amputate, but we'll probably have to take some tissue. Do you understand what I'm saying, Madeleine?"
"Yes, ah, where's Jake?" Jake, she's thinking. Who is Jake?
"I'm here, Madeleine." Her head moves toward the voice, and she sees the only friend she has in this strange new world. She looks across her now-tented leg, across the bed, across the infinite gulf of her little room to the face she now trusts above all others. "Will you be here when I come back?"
"You betcha," she hears the man say, his smile warm and his eyes radiating hope.
"When do you need to do this," Madeleine asks.
"Sooner the better. Now. We've got an O.R. all set, all I need is your OK."
"This is the best option?"
"I'm afraid it's the only one at this point. If this stuff spreads up into your thigh . . . Well, I don't want to think about that right now. We're not gonna let that happen, OK?"
"Then let's do it."
The physician patted her on the arm and gave her a gentle squeeze. "OK, I'll see you upstairs."
"Yes, Madeleine, I'm here'. What is it?"
"Jake, I, uh. Have you been able to get in touch with my son?"
"They're on their way. Your son and your, ah, husband."
She hears the concern in his voice. "Ex-husband, Jake."
"I'm gonna meet 'em at the airport. Five-twenty."
"Is it Friday?"
"Nope, Girl. Saturday. My, you can sleep!"
"Jake? I love you . . ."
Madeleine is sitting up in the blue chair, talking with her son about his kayak trip around Mount Desert Island with his father. She listens as he talks about seals and eagles and the sun dancing like white diamonds on the cold black waters of Northeast Harbor. She can feel the chilly warm scene on her skin like the memories that gave birth to the smile on that boy's face oh so many years ago and she is back there, lost to the present, drifting.
"Mom? Did you know he was an astronaut?"
The words jerk her back into the present. "Who?" she asks.
"Jake. Man, Mom, he was a shuttle astronaut. Made three trips. He's really cool. You didn't know?" Her son is talking, relating all he's learned about the man from nurses and other locals, but she doesn't hear him anymore.
She sits in her silence, pondering the meaning of it all. An old cowboy with two dogs saves her from a herd of rattlesnakes, and he's some kind of national hero. She feels like she's been falling in love the Horse Whisperer and all of a sudden she feels like a fool. She wonders where he is; she hasn't seen him in what feels like days, and she knows in her heart she misses him, wants, no needs, to see his eyes and hear his voice. She feels like she'll never be able to breathe again unless he's there. And now she knows it's all been a dream, her need for him, the intensity of what she feels in her heart for him.
She looks down at the stump that was her right leg, and she feels an emptiness like she's never known before, and it feels as if she's falling into a black hole, and all that lies ahead is a yawning chasm of infinite despair.
She hears her son's voice again, and pulls out of the dive that threatens to consume her. "Really? An astronaut?" she says. She feels a hand take hers and looks up at Jake. But . . . she was listening to her son; where is he?
"How you doing today?" she hears him say, and she looks down at the stump of her leg with that consumptive emptiness spinning in the air all around her, and she feels herself falling.
"Where's Toby?" she hears her voice, so thinks she must have asked a question.
"Where are you, darlin'? That's the question I'd like to know the answer to. Where are you?"
She is looking at Jake the cowboy and trying to do the calculus that says the man in front of her is an astronaut, a hero, and it doesn't compute. She feels a sudden fullness in her face, and her skin begins to burn. A tear forms in her eye, and falls, a silent sentinel guarding the walls of her resolve, but the wall crumbles, and she is aware of nothing but shame. She covers her face with her hands and falls into the darkness that hovers in the air around her like a vulture.
She feels old, time-worn hands on her hands, then wind-chapped lips brushing her forehead.
"Madeleine, I'm here. You need to talk to me . . ."
But she is gone, drifting in silence. He holds her face, kisses her forehead again. He looks into her eyes, watches as the blackness of her depression envelopes her, watches as she withdrawals from the world of the living.
She is sitting in a wheelchair on a small concrete patio, a nurse at her side. The air is much cooler now, the sun lower in the sky. She looks around at the mauve colored brick walls of the hospital; it feels like a prison to her now, but it feels like home, too. She shifts in the wheelchair, her stump lifts the blue blanket covering her lap and it begins to slide from her lap. She reaches for it, but too slowly, and it falls to the ground. She tries to reach for it, but can't, and feels angry at her inability to do even simple things anymore. She can feel the depression beating in the air around her, and resolves not to give in to it.
She sees Jake walking toward her, and her heart soars. And there is a dog. Brown and white, curly hair, a short tail. It looks like a Springer Spaniel, she thinks, and she is instantly focused on the animal, watching it as it comes closer, feeling an infinite love for the deep brown eyes and proud demeanor. The dog walks beside Jake, seems fused to him, but there is not deference in the animal; he walks not beside a master, but a friend. She watches as Jake leans down and points toward her, and the dog trots ahead and comes right up to her chair. The dog looks at her face, then her legs, and noticing the stump of her leg he moves his head there and sniffs.