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My Life as a Rattler

Karen Heuler's stories have appeared in over 100 literary and speculative magazines and anthologies, from Clarkesworld and Daily Science Fiction to Weird Tales, as well as a number of Best Of anthologies. She has published five novels and four story collections with university and small presses, and her collection The Inner City was included in Publishers Weekly's Best Books of 2013 list. Her latest collection, The Clockworm, was just published by Tartarus Books. She has received an O. Henry award, been shortlisted for a Pushcart prize, for the Iowa short fiction award, the Bellwether award, and the Shirley Jackson award for short fiction. She lives in New York City with a large dog and two codependent cats.

***Editor's Note: Adult Story***
It all began in an innocent way. Judith was walking outside the perimeter of her property and dumping weeds and kitchen scraps and branches in the forest, which sloped up and away from her garden, rolling through trees and branches and grasses up to the ridge, which rolled up to a higher ridge.
There were rattlesnakes around, and she'd seen a few and they were always evident to her--ahead of her on the road, or coming down from out of the open brush on the hillside. Lounging in the sun. Moving off into the shade. She'd heard rattles a few times. She'd seen one rear up slightly. But she knew enough to stop, step back, walk slowly, and it had all been good.
So it was a surprise, one late spring day, to finally be bitten. To hear the rattle too late to avoid it, to swing her eyes around, lost as they had been in thought, and look down. To regret wearing shorts and sandals. To see some blood running down her calf. To wish she'd brought her phone. It was only a few hundred yards from her front door, but it was better not to move with venom in her veins, it would spread the poison faster. Still, there was no other choice. The snake continued to stare up at her, weaving its head gently back and forth. Her calf had a burning feeling, the fang marks in particular. She shouldn't think about it; she would imagine too much. But she could feel the not-so-slow creep of it, going through her veins. The snake was still watching her.
It could strike again. She knew that. Do not surprise the snake. But how to avoid that? It was there, coiled like a hose at her feet, with the head up, the eyes with their slits watching her. An intelligent stare. Judging her. It flicked its tongue. Tasting the air, tasting to see when its victim was dead. She was not dead. But she could feel the tightness of her ankle, and looking down, she could see that it was swelling, ballooning up. Her sandal felt tight. Why had she been wearing shorts and sandals in the woods?
In defiance of knowledge. In defiance of good sense. The snake opened its mouth.
Not yet, she said.
Her legs were burning now, and even her arms. Her skin had little tears in it, it was bursting open into a new pattern. That was the swelling the descriptions had warned about. It was happening swiftly. She had to turn--step back, the snake was so close--she couldn't wait for it to move off, though she was sure it wouldn't move off, the way it held its gaze on her, waiting for her to drop down in front of it, its mouth unhooking its jaws, its tongue flicking.
She did fall down. It was impossible not to. Her body had fused, all the poison going through her blood stream, melting her skin, invalidating her fingers. Her eyes were open but strangely had a faceted vision--everything was glowing, the leaves the twigs the small mosses the ants moving like rush hour commuters, all of it in front of her and shockingly vivid. The snake had its eyes on her still, and it began to rear up, bobbing its head. Not to strike; it didn't strike.
She found herself rising up, too. The toxins had made her very tall and very thin and her skin had thousands of feelings to it, and it engulfed her like a sweater made of fingertips. The snake swayed and she swayed and she found a taste in the air and stuck her tongue out and ate musk and rot and a heady, calling scent. The snake's rich eyes stayed on her with steady invitation, with longing. She could feel his heat, bundles of thick separate heat, and she flicked her tongue to identify it and found that the touch of heat and the taste on her tongue gave her a sense of him that went past vision. He was a weight and a field of heat and a touch of scale on her tongue, all of it like liquor. They swayed together and fell down separately and rose up again and began to twine, an experience that was exquisitely beyond what she'd ever known as touch; it had intoxication and dizziness and a yearning that buzzed through every scale on her skin, separate yearnings, plated yearning, until completely coiled they fell down on the ground, rolling away the debris around them, twist and braided together.
There was a final, perfect coil and he produced his penis, searching for her opening and probing it, pulling tighter and tighter. It was familiar and shockingly new, as if the thrum of his penis were invading her whole body. He rippled in his scales, as did she, turning endlessly through sensations, her body swirling. And when it stopped, the snake very slowly and carefully began to unbind itself, loosening each curve of his body, surrendering her body, rolling off gently, as if he were a lover leaving his sleeping partner.
She lay there stunned. She could feel his leaving, and she wanted to call out, Stay! But it came as a hiss, a low hiss, a sound even she recognized as a farewell. She had a moment of stillness, and then she felt the leaves and the moss and the bracken against her skin and she rolled a little, shimmied a little, as if she were shaking a rag. A small small effort and she had moved a few inches and she began the shimmy with her body unrolling like a hand being raised. She learned to control the coiling and moved away from the spot where she'd met the snake. To home or not to home? She paused, thinking about it, her tongue glittering out, giving her information she'd never had in her old skin. The taste, the heat, the shape. The smell of it living life. To go home was to go to cell phones, to ignorance, to a shuttered sense, a world that was strangely unaware of the mosaic of forms surrounding her, the eyes the tails the teeth the throats, the touch of life.
Her moment with the snake was over and she didn't mourn him, his absence, but in her mind there was the sense-sensation of the coil, of the act, of the feel of snake on snake, a feature of life that had all new sensations to it. There were probably more, more things she had never felt before. The rustling of the dead leaves, the quick heat of a mouse, the sudden strike, the feel of its brief struggle, the way her jaw would unhinge, becoming huge, throating the mouse down inch by inch, the satisfaction of a belly going about its business, the world scurrying away. She considered, too, how marvelous it would be someday to find a friend come looking for her, walking carefully in the woods, its heat signature tall and stiff, its eyes not seeing her, not soon enough, never soon enough, and the joy of her fangs in its skin, the taste of its blood, the spilling of her own secret pleasures into the brief moment when it gazed on her, and froze. And oh to see them again and pierce their bravest skin. Dear friend. Dear, dear friend.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, March 15th, 2019

Author Comments

I live in a forest in the summer, and this past summer came upon rattlers two different times. Rattlers are fairly common, but I don't always see them. A neighbor's dog was bitten by one and survived, so of course these snakes became a preoccupation. I expected to stumble on them everywhere. The reason they were more obvious this summer was that a drought coincided with the time when male rattlers leave their den to find an unrelated female rattler. So they were searching for water and searching for rattler love.

- Karen Heuler
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