Little did I know that everything I did that day, every mundane chore and every errand, every stop in traffic at a red light, and every footstep taken on my hike would lead me to the exact moment I almost stepped on the head of a snake. The red copperhead slithered out from under red, dead leaves onto the trail right as I was passing. I stopped midstep, stunned, as if I had come across the writhing head of Medusa as it rolled out of a bag. Unlike Perseus, I could not look away. My leg and foot were just inches away from a strike and a release of venom into my bloodstream, for poison to pump its way to vital organs and the heart, with every heartbeat. But the snake, itself, was destined to meet me as well. Every stop it made that day along the way to cool down under an outcrop of rock for shade, every slither around a lichened stone and across the browning stalks of grass brought it out into the open, and right under the sole of my size 10-and-a-half ASICS shoe.
“WATCH OUT! CORAL SNAKE!” I shouted to my wife, putting my arm out in front of her like a driver does a passenger in the front seat before slamming on the brakes. We jumped back, showing nothing but the white of our eyes, with muscles tight and bones stiff, joints locked-up from adrenaline. I looked like the detective in that famous photograph of Jack Ruby jumping out to shoot Lee Harvey Oswald. But that snake was scared, too. As soon as I shouted, that thing reared up with demonic surprise like some vampire caught in sunlight, like some buck naked adulterer who didn’t lock the door, standing up on the bed, clutching the sheets, dancing backwards into the brush like a flared cobra, never to be seen again.
I was panting. I tried to get a picture, but he was gone. It wasn’t a coral snake. The flash of color duped me into thinking it was. It was red, or copper. Maroon. Or pink? I couldn’t tell. But definitely red, I think? Snake demon. Let’s just call it what it is. A Demon species of snake. I thought to myself, “I’m just a hippie, man. I write poems. Stories. I hike! This makes twice now. I stay on the trails (mostly). Nobody wants to step on you. Look at my hair, man. Look at my long hair. Pony-tail. Look at these Dad shoes. I’m done pickin’ fights. Retired from that riff-raff. Nobody wants any smoke with you. Shoot, I had an evening cocktail on my mind. And a burger and fries. Not you.”
Besides, I thought only horses reared up like that. Or a Kraken. But a snake? A venomous snake? We were on the dirt road that led to the water tank on the big hill of Bull Creek Preserve. This dirt road had already become a critter crossing. Shortly before the exorcism we just witnessed, we came across a tarantula, minding his own business. We huddled over him like we were standing over a litter of puppies, watching him crawl over the white rocks right by the edge of the road with his ten hairy legs. And just before we reached the water tank, we came across a headless lizard laying on its back as a colony of ants made quick business of its oozing body parts. Sir Darwin would be proud, I thought.
We weren’t very far from St. Edward’s Park, either, where that visitor from Colorado was bitten by a copperhead in July. He was hiking in sandals by a creek bed below a 30 foot slope and left in a stretcher to St. David’s in Round Rock for anti-venom. His foot swelled up like an eggplant and his face turned grey. He broke into cold sweats and the nausea made his stomach churn. He can now just fit his foot into a shoe, after 3 weeks of recovery.
As for me, nearly stepping on the head of a snake was like getting surprised by a flash of lightning behind me, and realizing it was much closer than I would like to think. Knowing that I never saw it coming, flashing before my eyes, all of it over and done with, before I could even blink.