Intersecting the Snake
by Iza Bruen-Morningstar
It lay half coiled in the road, mottled red and tan, the tail end spread out straight beyond where tires had intersected its body. The snake was alive, with a half-paralyzed body and squished center. I knew nothing of snake anatomy, nothing of what I had flattened. I stood directly in front of its head suspended above the dusty dirt road. It looked at me, tasted me, forked tongue flickering. Masticophis flagellum piceus, Red Racer, meets Homo sapiens sapiens “man wise wise,” who just ran over the snake.
The snake got crushed by two vehicles, and four sets of tires, front back, front back. I imagine that once the first set of tires passed over the stretched body, it tried to move off the road and couldn’t. What does it sound like when a snake’s ribs shatter, when insides are forced out? If you lay nearby when it happened, with your ear to the ground, would you hear a faint series of cracks, and a finally an emphatic, muted pop?
I drove the first vehicle that crossed the snake; a coworker drove the second truck. We were young field biologists in Central Nevada, studying the long-term effects of grazing and fire on riparian bird communities. The snake was slender-bellied and long, more than six feet. I crossed closer to its tail than head, the car behind me a few inches closer to the head. I saw the snake, the car behind me didn’t. When we got out of the vehicles the snake had coiled the still-mobile portion of its body up towards a clear sky.
“One of us has to kill it,” My coworker, Lauren, said and she began to cry immediately. “It must be in pain.” A blinding Nevada day, no clouds, morning heat shimmering off the negative space between shadscale and greasewood.
The question we all struggled with was how. How does one kill a snake that’s watching you from where you stopped it on the road? What does that death look like? Does it come in the form of a jeep aiming itself toward the golden-dollar-sized head of a snake? Or does it look like a steel toed boot-heel twisting hard against the crushing skull? If so, would the snake strike as the boot attempted to make contact? Should this death come in the form of a shovel falling with extra heavy gravity toward an endless neck? Perhaps the answer was simple—just kill the snake, just get it done—but in that elongated moment it didn’t seem so. We deliberated while it sat two feet away, tongue flick flicking.
Lauren ran back to the car and grabbed the shovel. She took a fast step toward the snake, raised the shovel high and stood quivering with it in the air.
The snake. It just watched.
After a long moment, Lauren lowered the shovel. She couldn’t do it.
I asked my coworker Frank, “Can you do it?” His long dirt-browned fingers trembled.
“No!” He fixed his eyes on my face, expression all angst. He’s a vegan; he doesn’t hurt animals on purpose.
It’d be me, I knew. I’d be the one who killed the snake. I saw it first, I crushed it first, and I was the least immediately afraid of death.
“Give me the shovel and walk the fuck away,” I said. Lauren handed me the shovel and paced away sobbing, her hands on her forehead, Frank right behind her.
And then it was me and the snake. She—for I imagined it to be female—looked at me and tasted my scent and I looked at her and couldn’t taste her. No smell. Flies swarmed around the place where insides peeked out.
She was conscious, in some way, and I knew it. I stood in front her and felt acutely perceived; seen; noticed; tasted. The day heated and ravens called nearby, maybe talking about food, or perhaps love. The snake first tightened her coils and then loosened them, eyes prone on me. I leaned on the shovel. She saw me and saw me and saw me.
I couldn’t make myself watch when I stopped her watching me. I shut my eyes and raised the shovel above where I knew her head hung in the air and I brought the shovel edge down strong. When I opened my eyes a limp pile of crimson and beige curves lay at my feet. Still barely attached by bits of stretched skin and sinuous muscle was a diamond head with bulging eyes and a forked tongue, reaching away. The body of a snake.
I stood for a moment trembling, leaning on the shovel, and then knelt to move the body from the road and into the dappled shade of a greasewood. I pulled the head—barely attached by sinew, by stretch skin—from the lengthy torso. One trip for the smooth sun-warmed body, coiled around my hands, and another for the head, nearly weightless in my palm.
Being there with the snake I wasn’t sure if cutting her consciousness was the right thing. I’m still not. Who am I to determine whether life amid pain is less desirable then the unknown entity of fresh death? The common human assumption is that death is preferable to extreme pain, but what if it’s not? What if consciousness, even amid agony, is precious? Maybe it wasn’t my business to kill that snake, to determine her fate based on my utterly different human experience. But that snake was my business, and I was hers; the last item in her life. Maybe the right thing to do was sit down in the road and wait for her to die, even if that death came in the form of ravens ripping her apart as she faded. Or maybe, the right thing to do was to kill her, consume her flesh and thus keep her—in some small way—in my body. To string her lovely mottled skin out on a long flat board and keep it near me in times of hidden ritual and prayer.
A year later, working a morning bird point count along a road in the Northern Great Basin, I came upon another Red Racer just hit by a car. It lay coiled, inert; but for the flat place near the middle of its length it could have been napping. All its organs remained in its body. I squatted beside it and placed a finger on its back. In the chilly morning, the flesh felt icy, frozen. I leaned in and peered at the body through a magnifying glass, rounded scales stacked upon one another, shimmery red. When I walked back past it two hours later, the snake had not moved, but its flesh and skin had been consumed; only glistening, freshly cleaned white bone remained, 53 sets of ribs curved as hours before the snake had curled.
About Iza Bruen-Morningstar
Iza Bruen-Morningstar is an avid naturalist who prefers empty, jagged places. She spent much of her twenties working as an avian field biologist in remote parts of North America. Iza is currently pursuing an MFA at Iowa State University, where she teaches composition classes to resistant undergraduates. She loves her job, although she misses life outdoors and topography.