Monday, September 18, 2017

Javier and the Giant Snake



An examination of the details of the ceremony, particularly the secret rites in the kivas, can leave no doubt as to the purpose of the ritual. Each part carries with it some symbolism toward the bringing of rain.

—Lawrence M. Klauber, 1972, on the Hopi snake dance.


   
      In Mexico there are giant snakes that can eat an unwary vaquero. Care must be taken to avoid your horse’s tail falling into a creek, lest it turn into swarming horsehair worms, which are thought to be snakes. Snakes invade barns and drink cow’s milk from the udder, and sometimes sneak into homes to commit the same sin against nursing women. These stories are believed literally by ranchers in Chihuahua. When pressed for specifics about millksnakes, Pepe told us that his brother Lalo had seen it with his own eyes. Later we asked Lalo, and he told us that, while he had never seen it himself, an acquaintance over the yonder sierra had. Such mystical properties extend to more human spheres. Everyone in Chihuahua is convinced that the regions’ most famous drug lord Pablo Acosta is still alive. It was his double who died in the dramatic shootout with authorities at Santa Elena in 1987.  Likewise, a double was extradited to the United States in 2017, not El Chapo Guzman.
           
       I’m not saying these people are stupid. It’s just that in Mexico there is a thinner boundary between fact and myth, faith and knowledge. And that’s not even true. Ask an American whether they’ve seen a black panther and many have a story to tell. They tell tales of water moccasins chasing them. Many believe that Elvis or Tupac faked their own deaths and live on. Perhaps it’s just easier to spot a culture’s myths from the outside looking in.

            But a giant snake lives out behind the Rancho Amapolas. I saw it myself.

            We drove up to a white ranch house next to a pond, cottonwood grove, and the llano amapolas. The grassland was guarded on all sides by rocky volcanic hills. We were greeted by an old vaquero on horseback. He had worked there for decades. He was given an allowance for food and supplies but no salary, and when offered a salary he refused it. He was 83 years old, his face like rich leather, the color of a cherry wood table, with a downturned nose and underbitten mouth turned into a permanent grimace from getting kicked in the face by horses. We sat around the kitchen table in the cool of the old adobe upon which the ranch house was agglomerated. Pancho Villa used the place as his headquarters in 1914 before the sack of Ojinaga. He made some adjustments by knocking out several walls to use the house as stables. When Don Antonio found out what we were there for, he mentioned the giant snake.

             Gesturing with his worn old hands, he described a tan, eleven foot snake, and tried to make a circle with his fingers to demonstrate its girth, but failed to close it. He pointed out to the alamo and suggested we go have a look for it, and when we returned we’d have lunch. We returned an hour later having failed to find the snake. The house stunk of fish and we glanced worriedly at the open sardine cans on the counter. But the lunch—fish in a spicy sauce—was terrific.

            We returned to the Rancho Amapolas last summer with Javier Ramos, one of my students from Sul Ross State. Javier’s family owns the Rancho Amapolas. Javy is 20 years old, with a round face and close-cropped black hair. He smiles often and talks about things matter-of-factly while glancing away. He is a mariachi, quick with a tune and good at picking his guitar. Sometimes I find him out in the courtyard on campus singing Mexican folk songs. He is studying criminal justice and wants to be a border patrol agent. He grew up hearing Antonio’s stories about the giant snake. He first heard of it when he was just seven years old and mounted little expeditions to the cottonwood grove to find it. He once saw its giant tail disappear into the undergrowth before he could kill it.

            We first searched the corrals near the house, where Javier saw countless snakes over the years. The yards were enclosed by rock walls of varied ages and condition; some were more recent, neat, and mortared, but the older ones were simply partially collapsed rows of rocks. Javier started throwing rocks at rabbits. I asked him why he was throwing rocks, and he explained that he hated rabbits. I asked him why. Because they pissed him off. Javier was afflicted with that curious bloodlust typical of young men. I secretly hoped he would brain one of the rabbits so he’d have to explain himself to his concerned younger sister.

            We walked down the hill toward the big trees. In their shade we were transported from the surrounding desert hills into the dim of a forest. Past years’ yellow leaves crunched beneath our feet, and kingbirds conversed in the canopy where this year’s leaves did endless green revolutions. The forest floor had that cottonwood texture: gnarled roots forming caves and crannies, grey canyons of bark. And that cottonwood smell: sweet, dusty, stamped in the mind since that first grove in Utah years ago.

            We were soon out again, the grove only an acre of venerable trees. We searched the rock walls and knobs near the grove, walking the edge of small ponds. I made my way up the broken hills flanking the trees, which had a view of the ranch house, the alamo, the llano stretching like a yellow-green lake of grass, and a mushrooming afternoon thunderhead to the west.

            “Boys,” my buddy Laine said, waiting for us to look over. He pointed down at a shrub with both index fingers. “We’ve got business.”

            I walked over, wondering what he found, when I heard clicking. Just two or three notes. A rattler.

            Below the shrub, coiled tight on sticks and prickly pear pads, was one of the biggest rattlesnakes I’ve ever seen. The sticks and vegetation were the home of a wood rat. The snake was waiting for the rat to make its rounds, when it would spring its trap. I called for the snake tongs and worked the big snake out from under the shrub. It was a Western Diamondback, Crotalus atrox, one of those monsters you hear about. This is probably the commonest snake in the area, but I had only seen small ones up to about three feet. Additional feet add corresponding girth, so that snakes over four feet are impressively massive. This one was pushing four feet long, with the girth of my lower leg. I strained to hold it up for everyone to see. It now rattled continuously, a dry white noise.

            “That’s the snake,” said Javier, his eyes never leaving it, “We need to kill it.”

            “Why?”

            He picked up a big rock. “I can’t let them know I didn’t kill it.”

            “Then we won’t tell anybody we found it. It’s just sitting here. It wants to eat that wood rat. It will never come near the house.”

            “It’s the snake. We need to kill it.”

            “I’m not letting you kill it. We’re just going to let it go.”
            
          We returned the snake to its ambush site. Despite its size, it vanished in seconds.  

            We talked about the giant snake on the way back to the ranch house. We used all the standard talking points: snakes aren’t dangerous if you leave them alone; snakes control rodent populations; snakes are part of nature; snakes give Mexico its character. But he looked for that snake his whole life. He was convinced it was the same snake Antonio told him about when he was a boy. The snake was decades old, an ancient enemy hiding in the cottonwood grove. He missed his chance to slay it. But he soon agreed that he was glad it would live on. Its legend would only grow.

            Back at the ranch house I was relaxing and enjoying an afternoon beer when the storm came.

            Hysterical lightning. Curtains of water pummeling the tin roof and surrounding country. A soupy haze of rain deep blue in all directions. A roiling brown-red creek formed in the driveway and rushed under the window. The hail started, hammering off the roof like the ricochets of a German machine-gunner. Marbles, then ping pong balls, then cue balls. It was 20 degrees cooler in the house.     
   
            A half hour later it was all over, the big thunderhead gliding off toward Coahuila. The pond grew acres as new streams flowed in. New arroyos that would never run again in anyone’s lifetime. The hail gathered in drifts. The Ramos family was all smiles, and the storm was the talk of the area for days. The green grass of the llano would grow greener still. Nobody could remember seeing anything like it.

I asked, “Javy, you know why it rained?”

“Because we didn’t kill the snake?”

“That’s right. You think it was a coincidence? This is Mexico.”

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