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Image by Timo Stern


An Expert at Snakes

          The short hike in had been pleasant enough, the narrow, sandy trail slicing through the forest. The blustery conditions here at the Pacific Overlook though, were another matter. At the cliff’s edge, a chilly wind pummeled my husband and me and the half dozen or so others taking in the view. Earlier, back at the crowded parking lot, the stench of outhouses in the warm, still air had wafted through my nostrils. Then, after I’d done my business, I joined my husband who was talking to someone, a maintenance man dressed in overalls and rubber boots. “Just the other day. Right over there,” the man had said, pointing to a patch of tall grass at the far end of the parking lot. Then, spotting me, the man grinned. “You’d better watch out.”

          After that, at the trailhead, when I’d asked my husband about the conversation, all he’d said was, “I’d hardly call him an expert. Nothing to worry about.”

          At the overlook now, the wind continued to gust. Folding my arms across my chest, I peered down the steep cliff to the ocean, the blue-green waves crashing against the dark rock. One piece of crumbling cliff and down we’d go. The whole scene, for some reason, reminded me of a student I had, a teary-eyed French girl who, after class, had confided in me, a card clutched to her chest, a brief Dear John tucked inside. She’d wanted to know what it meant, the letdown penned in English. As I was about to mention it to my husband, another gust blasted through, and the woman on the other side of me suddenly flailed her arms, teetering, as if she’d lost her balance. But it was only her hat, already airborne, she was trying to save. My husband leaned toward me. “Ready?” He was always in a rush. But last night, while packing for the trip, we’d agreed on one thing—not to linger, Monterey our destination, an ocean-view room at the Seal Cliff Hotel, where presumably we’d start patching up our marriage.

          My husband and I headed back to the trail. At the small, shady opening, we stopped. Sheltered from the wind here, I touched the back of my head, my hair all knotted up, askew. I looked back at the overlook where, from this distance, the people there looked strange and dreamy, their clothes billowing. After rubbing my eyes, I looked back at the return trail. “We should have worn boots. Pants,” I said.

          Chuckling, my husband suddenly lifted me up in his arms. “Too late for that, my darling. But I’ll protect you.”

          I laughed. “Or hurt your back, darling.” “Darling,” an adornment neither of us had ever used on each other, and only once, in our youth, had he carried me over a threshold; now we were sleeping in separate beds.

         But instead of easing me down, he tried tossing me up a little, as if I were a child. I could feel his arms strain, the weight of me. He slowly slid me down.

          Still, I tried to keep it up. “You’re not going to beat your chest now, are you?”

          “Who’s to say what I’ll do, man that I am. There’s plenty of trees to swing from.” Turning, my husband slipped into the trees, back onto the trail.

          “Man that you are.” I laughed again, following him in. Laurels, willows, cottonwoods, the park sign back at the lot had said, and beside it, the official warning: Snakes Live Here. Stay on the Trail. “But seriously. If we see one. A rattler, I mean.”

          My husband stopped and turned to me. “It’s not like we haven’t seen wild animals before.” True, up in the Sierras we’d run into bears and mountain lions, but it was our own clumsiness, small things, like stumbling over rocks or branches, that actually got us hurt.

          “Come on. Let’s pick up the pace before that horde at the cliff catches up.” He reached for my hand.

          But I stayed behind him, the trail too narrow, keeping my head down, my eyes peeled. “You’re such a misanthrope.”

          “Misanthrope that I am.” “Hey, you never told me what he said, back at the outhouse, the maintenance man,” I said, louder this time mainly to warn off any dozing snakes we might startle. My husband stopped suddenly. I sucked in my breath. “Ahead,” my husband said. “Lots of them.”

          I looked past my husband where the trail briefly widened. There, people—pale legs, t-shirts, elbows, the backs of heads several layers deep–voices, calling out.

          “Don’t panic!”

          “Stop shouting.”

          “What the hell?”

          “You’re going to scare it.”

          “Get a stick.”

          “How big is it?”

          “Somebody get help.”

          Then came another voice, even louder, a woman, screaming, “Henry! What are you doing? Stop it! Don’t you dare go near it!”

          My husband glanced over his shoulder at me. “Best get a look.”

          But before I could protest, he started walking ahead, pushing his way through the crowd.

          Afraid of being left behind, I followed, trying to squeeze through too, but I was smaller, a woman. “Excuse me. Excuse me,” I had to say as others uttered, “Careful, dear.”

          “Watch out. Lady coming through.”

          “You don’t want to get bit.”

          “Where do you think you’re going?”

          I could feel everyone looking down at me, seemingly annoyed as if I were cutting at some sideshow. Then up beside my husband, I finally saw it. Where the trail narrowed again—coiled at the trail’s edge, thick and muscular, its tail lifted, rattling. I’d never seen one in the wild, so close. Shuddering, I stared at its stony head, raised a few inches off the ground, its dark tongue darting in and out. It was beautiful. It was horrible.

          My husband turned around and raised his hands in the air. “Listen, folks,” he shouted, “if everyone could just back up. Give it some space.”

          The crowd hushed a little.

           “If you could just back up,” my husband tried again. Meanwhile, I watched the snake, studying its beaded pattern, its brown-gray patches outlined in black.

          My husband turned to me. “No way it’s backing off. Not with all these people. But I don’t think it wants to hurt us. We’ll just have to test it.” He suddenly took one giant step over to the far edge of the trail and, hugging the edge, simply walked by.

          Behind me, I heard people gasp.

          Facing me now, my husband reached out. “Come on. Just pretend it’s not there. It’s only a few steps.”

          Though my husband was right, the gulf between us now seemed enormous. I tried to move my feet, but the sand here was deep, loose. If I lost my balance, the snake would be all over me, and everyone would be watching.

          “Remember, the snake just wants to be left alone. Doesn’t want to hurt you.”

          I could see he was watching me intently. Maybe he cared. Maybe he really did love me.

          I looked at my husband’s footprints, his stride far longer than mine. This wasn’t the first time I’d frozen. Out in Zion National Park, on a ledge thousands of feet above the valley, I’d clung to the safety chain bolted into the rock, other hikers growing impatient behind me.

          Then someone shouted, “Oh, come on, man, why don’t you just go get some help and leave your wife alone?”

          “My peace I give you. Not as the world gives…” I thought I heard someone else praying.

          “Come on, you can do it,” my husband said, his arm still outstretched.

          I lifted my foot, moving one leg and then bringing the other to join it. Then at the edge of the trail, I froze again.

          “Okay, just a few more steps,” my husband said.

          I felt my feet moving again, and then my husband’s powerful hand around mine, pulling me forward. Afterward, we both turned facing the crowd.

          “If you just give it some space,” my husband tried once again. Those bothering to pay attention just gawked at us while the others kept talking, and the snake kept rattling.

          “We can’t just leave them,” I said.

          “Well, I can’t drag them across. There’s too many of them.” My husband turned and started walking.

          “Someone’s going to get hurt,” I said, coming up the rear. “Best we can do is notify a ranger.”

          “Or the maintenance man.”

          “Oh, funny. That guy claimed the babies blow all their venom while adults dry-bite.”

          “But didn’t you say the snake didn’t want to hurt us? I mean, how can you know what a snake wants?” I let out a laugh, the whole thing was ludicrous. Just because my husband had saved me. Yet I had to admit I felt elated now, how I always felt when we stumbled into something that could kill us. Maybe it was the adrenalin.

          “I don’t. But that’s an old wives’ tale, the dry biting.”

          “So now you’re the expert at snakes?” Then I remembered a story my husband had told me when we’d first met about him sitting on a boulder in the Sierras, how a rattler came slithering between his legs. I’d assumed he’d lied.

          My husband chuckled. “I wouldn’t say that. But the maintenance man …”

          “Creepy, I’d say.”

          “All men are in one way or the other.”

          “Including you?”

          “Especially me.” He grinned back at me.

          “I don’t think I’d like to be a man,” I said.

          “A snake then.”

          “Boy or girl, do you think? How do you sex a snake?” I was still feeling pretty good, even thinking our trip might not be a waste, that maybe we could reconcile, and put things back together. But that’s how I always felt out in the wilderness, out of the man-made world.

          My husband shrugged. “You’d probably have to get close to it.”

          “You don’t think they’ll hurt it, do you? All those people.”

          The trail started to widen a little now, and ahead, I saw the opening, the light.

           “I think they’d have done it already.” My husband stopped and reached back for my hand.

          “They could be out there all night.”

          “I doubt it. They’re not that stupid.”

          In the lot now I didn’t see any rangers or even the maintenance man. My husband unlocked the car, and we got in. I couldn’t see the trailhead anymore, but people were walking through the lot toward it.

Janet Goldberg's novel The Proprietor's Song was released from Regal House last summer, and her story collection Like Human is due out Fall 2025 from the University of Wisconsin's Cornerstone Press. She also serves as the fiction editor for Deep Wild, a journal devoted to wilderness experiences.

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