“The phobia, which hoards the past, can be the one place in a person's life where meaning apparently never changes; but this depends upon one never knowing what the meaning is.”
Adam Phillips, On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored
We meet a fat diamondback five minutes down the trail. He is stretched across the path, dozing in the shade of a juniper bush. I’m an adult, so I want to act like one, but I’m crying so hard I can’t inhale and snot is dribbling into my mouth. It takes me twenty minutes to inch past the viper, while his tongue whips the air. After that, I search out a long, heavy stick to thump on the ground and jostle the creosote scrub before passing. My husband, Kevin, and our two friends are sympathetic, but my pace is agonizingly slow, and they drift ahead. I hear them chattering, always around the next bend, while blood bangs through my head like a Taiko drum.
The whole park is rattlesnake color, and it’s breeding season. We camp among the mating snakes for three nights. We hear no rattles, receive no death threats. Exhaustion renders my terror quiet and viscous. “Snake,” I breathe, as we ease past yet another languid viper looped beside the trail. They’re draped everywhere, as in my dreams.
The last one we cross is pasted to the frontage road. It must have bitten an oncoming tire; its mouth is spread open like a flower, the tiny yellow points of its teeth splayed. The pink flesh of its throat is turning to leather in the desert sun.
“Joshua Tree is such a powerful place,” Dad says in our next So how the heck have you been? conversation. “Big energy there. I’m jealous you got to go.”
Now that I’m grown, Dad and I are long-distance phone friends. We talk several times a year, our conversations clotted with jokes. We’re both more comfortable this way, knowing we can hang up and return to our separate lives. I tell him about camping during breeding season.
“Oh, you must have loved that,” he chuckles. “You used to cry if you had to walk past a rope on the ground.”
“Remember the time you got bit?” I ask.
He hesitates. I picture his face squinting into the empty spaces eaten into his memory by the double-whammy of epilepsy and psychedelic drugs. “Not sure I know what you’re talking about.”
“How could you forget? You showed me the fang marks when I was little and it scared me to death. I never got over it.”
“You must be thinking of someone else…”
I don’t believe him. We argue about itpolitely, since we’ve both come to value our friendly distance. Then I call Mom, so she’ll take my side. Dad forgets everything and she remembers everything. That’s how it works.
“Not that I know of, honey,” she says. “Your father did some dumb shit, but I think he steered clear of rattlesnakes.”
Dad sits on the edge of his bed. I’m curled on the rug at his feet, an Alice in Wonderland pop-up book open on my lap. I am six years old and I do not understand why his eyes look so strange, his ice-blue irises walled behind dilated pupils. He has just returned from a week alone in the woods, what he calls a vision quest.
He’s come home snakebit.
Dad rolls up the left leg of his lavender bell bottoms to show me the weeping punctures. His calf is swollen, the skin waxy and yellow like pork rind. Blue rings moondog the fang marks and raised gray veins jitter to his ankle.
I’m sweating in my footie pajamas, the canary yellow ones that are so small they force my toes to curl. I’ve been told countless times that rattlesnakes are deadly, so I don’t understand why he’s still alive. He could die in front of me. The hot flannel constricts around my body and I tear at the metal snap at my throat.
How could this, possibly the most vivid memory of my childhood, inspiration for decades of ophidiophobic behavior, be false? This moment feels solid in my history, a flagstone lodged between our trip to Disneyland and the death of my first cat.
If I invented this memory, I don’t know why or when. The question gets under my skin. I write essays about my father, scour childhood memories, and peek between my fingers at YouTube videos of snakes, scaring myself so badly one night that I run to find Kevin.
“You’ll give yourself nightmares,” he chides.
“I already have them.”
Snakes take up inordinate space in my memory bank. I recall fifty-two specific encounters with wild snakes, a card deck of terror. Each image is crystalline. The snake’s pattern. The sunlight gleaming on its skin. Whether its body was looped or unfurled or some disorienting combination of both. Whether it darted, oozed, or froze.
Equally sharp are times when I thought I saw a snake, and it turned out to be something elsea lizard, a half-buried rootbecause my mind thought snake! and triggered phobic hyper-awareness. My highlight reel even includes photography from nature books and some truly awful YouTube clips. The viper whose decapitated head bites its own dying body. The snake that eats a spider, which then consumes it from the inside out. The infant who sleeps peacefully on a platform surrounded by hooded cobras.
I want to anchor my fear to a moment in time, but I can’t find a sturdy one.
When I was a child, we lived in a former boardinghouse, a long-ago stagecoach stop on the Eel River in North-ern California, an hour’s drive from the nearest small town. The boardinghouse stood on wild land with majestic boulders, acres of mossy oak and dusty manzanita, and a cool green river, gentle in summertime. Peacocks nested on our shaded porch and we had a box freezer for making fruit slushies.
Behind the house was an empty chicken coop. My parents bought a dozen chicks from the feed store in town and brought them home in a cardboard box, together with a metal feeder and incubation lights. Peeping yellow puffballs with sharp little beaks. I gave them silly names like Fluffy and Muffy and Sunshine, though they were impossible to tell apart. I remember their smellnot fetid like grown chickens, but fresh and sweet. Miniature talons squeezing my fingers. Unearthly softness against my cheek.
One night, a snake crept into the coop and massacred the tiny chicks. It left one survivor flailing in bloody dirt. Half the chick’s leg had been ripped away and its screams were tinny and tireless. Dad drowned it to end its suffering.
Only it wasn’t a snake, Mom told me recently, but a fox.
A fox makes much more sense. A fox could cause frenzy in a chicken coop. A snake…well, couldn’t. After two or three little chicks, a snake would look like a sock stuffed with tennis balls. It would be too sluggish and protuberant to slither back through the wire. Slaughtering eleven chicks would require a whole den of snakes. I have to remind myself of this. Because for me, it has always been a large brown snake pouring itself through the chicken wire and lurking in the straw until the first innocent blundered near.
I should have a fear of foxes: vulpophobia.
But I’m not afraid of foxes. I’m not afraid of spiders. I’m not afraid of rats. I’m not afraid of bats. I’m not afraid of needles. I’m not afraid of earthquakes. I’m not afraid of worms. I’m not afraid of germs. I’m not afraid of funerals. I’m not afraid of meteors. I’m not afraid of dogs. I’m not afraid of God. I’m not afraid of Satan. I’m not afraid of turbans. I’m not afraid to fly. I’m not afraid to die.
I’m not afraid to be bitten. I’m not afraid of the venom.
It’s something else.
They are shape-shifters. Snakes materialize out of nothingordinary rocks, twigs, and leavesreminding us that perception is untrustworthy. You can never tell just how long a snake is, where its body begins and ends. They may fold themselves three times, six times, a dozen times. They move like water and shine like grease, but their skin is dry as dust.
Snakes are deception, surprise, mutability. They violate the predictable. Snakes are agents of chaos.
My friend at the barn where I ride horses says she’s afraid of snakes. She hates them, she says. Yet Diane tromps out into the grassy pasture like it’s no big deal. She watches where she puts her feet, while talking of other things and enjoying the unseasonably warm weather. Spring has been coming earlier as the drought deepens. I saw my first snake of the year in January.
A wispy, harmless garter snake has darted from underneath a feed bucket and is now creeping around the barn, making my skin vibrate with dread. Where will I confront the snake next? In the feed room? In a stall? Diane finds it near the manure pile and grabs a pitchfork.
“What are you doing?” I say.
“I’m just going to carry it to the bushes.”
“Please don’t,” I croak. “Please.”
How can I tell her that the image of that strange, nimble body writhing between the tines will cycle on repeat through my brain for weeks? Even if I look away, I will know that it happened. The only thing worse than a snake on the ground is a snake off the ground: flying snakes and falling snakes and climbing snakes and swimming snakes.
Diane laughs, her expression bemused. I see that she is going to do it anyway, so I rush into the barn and wait it out in the dark, hands clamped to my face.
“Whoa, you’re a fast little guy,” I hear her say to the snake.
I am ridiculous, I know that. Among my worst fears is that my horse will unwittingly step on a small snake on the trail and I’ll be forced to pick a bloody segment of its body out of her hoof. If I have to pee at the barn, I open the Port-O-Let’s plastic door in minute increments, worried that a snake has squeezed through a crack to bask in the rank heat.
When Diane says she’s afraid of snakes, she means that she is afraid of dangerous snakes, biting snakes, aggressive snakes. Delicate garter snakes don’t qualify.
Fear and phobia are different planets, separated by vast, airless space.
Snakebite is easy to avoid. Don’t step on a snake, don’t taunt a snake, don’t threaten a snake, and it won’t bite you. I often fail to notice pretty butterflies and birds because my eyes are glued to the ground. A twig lying in my path will knock my lungs into my shoes. My chances of mindlessly stepping on a snake are practically nil.
Moreover, none of the snakes native to California could kill me with one bite. A perverse part of me hopes I’ll get bitten so I can prove to myself that the worst-case scenario isn’t that bad.
But venomwhich is to say, real dangerhas nothing to do with this. When a startled snake whips into action, the ground itself appears to move. Solid becomes liquid. Inanimate becomes animate. Nothing is what you think it is. Nothing is safe.
I keep returning to the false memory of my father’s snakebite.
A grand mal epileptic with a penchant for going off his meds, he was profoundly unreliable and prone to sudden dramatic changes. He took LSD and peyote. He changed his name and then changed it back. When I was nine, he suffered a psychotic break, shaved all the hair off of his body and face, and plucked his eyelashes out.
Because my dad’s instability disturbed me, I believed him snakebit. As if all things not what they seemed must be touched by snakes.
In dreams, I walk gauntlets of coiled snakes. Snakes tangle in my hair. They bite my hands or my feet. They wriggle into my open mouth. I find snakes in my bed, in the ocean, in the car, in the sky. They invade good dreams and bad. Sometimes they are beautiful.
At least one snake lurks in every dream I remember.
Which is to say that if I have a dream without a snake, it’s forgettable, unimportant.
Isn’t this persistent terror also a hope, also a call? By obsessing, I keep them close and present, inflating the importance of these humble, belly-walking creatures beyond reason. Again I think of my father, how parenthood temporarily transforms a half-broken person into a sort of god whose thoughtless gestures define his child’s world. It’s unfair to be a parent, unfair to be a child.
And what did any snake ever do to me? Nothing. I’m the stalker.
Kevin takes me to an upscale hotel restaurant offering a prix fixe menu of wild game. It isn’t an anniversary or a birthday, but we dress up and celebrate, just because. Live jazz piano lilts through a room of low light and adult conversation. We sip a fine Pinot Noir bought on a road trip through Oregon before we married.
Our black-tie server arrives with the appetizer. Crispy Rattlesnake Pot-stickers with Persimmon Chutney. I stare at the golden-brown pockets of dough and meat. Just like chicken, I think, my heart quickening. Like chicken, like chicken. Acrid saliva swamps my tongue. The fork feels so light, if I let it go, it will float up to the ceiling.
Kevin plucks his potsticker barehanded, smears it through the chutney and pops it into his mouth. “Mmm,” he says. “You’ll love it.”
Being terrified of an appetizer is embarrassing.
The standard treatment for phobias is exposure therapy. Eating this snakedigesting it, absorbing itcould be a step in the right direction. Using the side of my fork, I slice the potsticker open, releasing a ghost of steam, and lift the morsel to my lips.
It’s hot and bland on my tongue. I taste nothing, not even the chutney. But when I blink, I see the meat regenerating into a diamondback that will live enveloped in my intestines, eating what I eat, dreaming what I dream.
Ducking, I spit the half-chewed bite into my cloth napkin, fold it tightly and tuck it under my stockinged thigh. I push the plate toward my husband.
He shrugs and pops my potsticker into his mouth. “Your loss,” he says.
Kevin and I are at Diamond Caverns in Cave City, Kentucky, approaching the visitor center to purchase tickets for a cave tour. A jet-black snake four feet long whips across the footpath in front of me and slips into the center’s decorative garden. I spin, making guttural noises, and speed-walk in the other direction. My husband grabs my shoulder, hoping to comfort me, but I cringe away from his hand. I feel turned inside-out, as if my organs suddenly pulsed on the outside. I hyperventilate in the parking lot, until Kevin promises the snake is gone.
After the tour, I look out at the garden through a plate-glass window. Between plants, I see what looks like a looped black hose, but I know. I stand with my nose centimeters from the glass and watch the liquid black body wind through the flowers. It seems to touch everything, to be everywhere at once. In the afternoon sun, it looks dipped in oil. The snake pauses and lifts its head out of a bed of tulips. The face and neck are surprisingly delicate for such a hefty body. Maybe it’s because of the pink tulips, but it strikes me as female. I watch her taste the air with her tiny vibrating tongue. The snake has seen or heard or felt me watching; she watches me back with keen black eyes.
I’ve never subscribed to the idea that animals are dumb, nobody home, driven by mindless instinctyet this is the first time I’ve sensed a snake’s intelligence. She’s just going about her afternoon business, maybe hoping to score a meal, while soaking up enough sun to stay mobile at night when she must avoid the owls. She is herself and I am myself, and we have nothing to do with each other.
My exhalations have fogged the glass, but I notice that I’m breathing calmly. I’m seeing past my own trickery. How I use snakes as scapegoats for terrors I will not face. How they are my favorite shield. The phobia does not end with this; walking through grass will always make my blood hammer. But I’ve been granted a reprieve here, a moment of empathy for this she-snake, and with that, compassion for my most stubborn parts. The parts that refuse to mend.
Alia Volz is a Spanish interpreter born in San Francisco and educated in Havana. Her work can be found in Tin House, The Rumpus, and elsewhere.