Fiction

RATTLESNAKE: A Fable, Rewritten by S.A. Bowden

Author’s Note

In a book called Decision Point, I read a fable about a boy and a rattlesnake.  (If you’re interested in reading it yourself, Google “boy and rattlesnake story” or “you knew what I was when you picked me up,” and you should find some versions.)  The fable’s been told with numerous variations by numerous cultures from Aesop to Hindus to the Apache.  Even Donald Trump referenced it in a speech, comparing Syrian refugees to the rattlesnake and Turks who help them to the boy in the story.  

But I didn’t like how the story ended.  I found it in a chapter about courage, being unafraid, doing good things.  On the metaphorical rattlesnakes, the book said, “It is the very nature of these things to turn on us and strike us down.”  It urged the reader to have courage and walk away from those rattlesnakes.  I felt like it contradicted the theme, like it was saying, “Be kind, but not too kind.  Be trusting and helpful, but not too much.  Be brave, but not that brave.”  

So I was inspired to rewrite it.  

~~~

There was once a Native American tribe in which it was custom for a boy, once he reached a certain age, to go out and survive in the wilderness on his own for a stretch of time to prove his manhood.  One particular boy ventured out into the forest for his test.  The first few days, food was plentiful, weather was not extreme, and he was in good health.  The boy thanked the spirits for his good fortune.  

Then came the seventh day.  

The boy woke up to freezing temperatures and a cold, sharp wind.  He wrapped himself in furs, but he was still cold.  Nonetheless, he ventured on.  He found no food, at least nothing safe to eat.  With stiff hands, he dug up roots and ate them, but his stomach still felt empty.  

The boy sat down and attempted to start a fire.  A sputtering thing came to life, a pathetic excuse for a fire.  He squatted before his infant flame and got a good look around him: trees, more trees, still more trees.  

Mountain.  

A mountain would expose him more to the icy wind, but it was better than nothing.  He picked up the spearhead he was fashioning, currently a dull point.  As if to make up his mind for him, a strong gust snatched away his fire.  The boy took this as a sign from the spirits to get moving.  

He set off and before long reached the foot of the mountain.  The only way next was up.  So up he went.  

About halfway up the mountain, he stopped to rest on a wide rock.  The moment he sat down, he heard a hissssss!  

He whirled around.  A few feet away lay a rattlesnake.  The boy leapt to his feet, prepared to flee.  

“Wait!” the rattlesnake cried.  “Don’t leave!”  

The boy halted.  The boy and the rattlesnake stared at each other.  The boy asked, “What do you want?”  

“Please help me,” the snake pleaded.  “I am frozen half dead.  I need to get back home.”  

The boy took a wary step back.  “I know what you are.  If I pick you up, you’ll bite me.  I could die.”  

“I won’t bite you.  Please just help me get down the mountain.”  

The boy’s stomach rumbled.  “Are you hungry?” the snake asked.  

“Yes. . .” the boy answered slowly.  

“Tell you what.  If you help me down the mountain and to my home, I will share my food with you, for I am skilled at getting food.  I have plenty to spare.  And you can warm up in my cave too.  You will be my honored guest.”  

The boy considered the offer.  The snake was being awfully earnest for a rattlesnake.  “Do you promise not to hurt me if I help you?”  

The rattlesnake raised his rattle as a man might raise his right hand when making an oath.  “I promise.  I promise to give you the respect and kindness you show me.”  

The boy finally relented.  Carefully, he picked up the snake and wrapped him in a fold of his furs.  Once he warmed up a little, the snake gave the boy directions down the mountain.  Eventually, they arrived at an immense cave.  The snake told the boy, “This is my home.  You are welcome here.”  

The boy set the snake down and started a fire.  This one was more sturdy and strong than his fire from that morning.  The boy and the rattlesnake squatted in front of the fire.  The boy watched the snake and thought to himself, “How similar we are, sitting together by this fire to keep warm.  What’s more, the snake could strike out and bite me right now.  But he hasn’t.  He holds to his word.”  

Now that he was warm again, the snake turned to the boy.  “I will go out and find some food.  I will be back shortly.”  He slithered off into the forest, leaving the boy in the cave.  

The cave was empty but not intimidating.  The boy was proud of himself— he was not afraid of big, empty caves like he was when he was younger.  He thought, “This is proof: I really am a man.  I’m courageous now!”  He thought of the snake who lived here.  “He must get lonely sometimes, all alone in this big cave.”  

Then he heard the snake’s voice.  “Come quickly!  I’ve caught a badger!”  

The boy ran out and helped the snake pull the dead badger inside.  Then he cooked the badger over the fire.  As he worked, he told the snake about his parents, his grandparents, his brother and sister, and the test of manhood he was undergoing.  The snake told the boy about his parents, and his many brothers and sisters, dead or scattered all over the land now, and how he learned to survive on his own.  The badger was cooked, and they feasted together.  The boy told the snake about his tribal music, which he especially loved, and the snake made music for the boy, hissing and rattling as he slithered along the floor like a river.  And again, the boy thought, “How similar we are.”  

They began to sing and dance together, and the boy’s music and the rattlesnake’s music blended into one beautiful new song.  

And all of a sudden the snake struck out at the boy.  

The boy dodged narrowly and ran out of the cave screaming.  The snake went out after him, calling, “Come back!  Why are you running?”  

The boy yelled, “Stay away!  You promised you wouldn’t hurt me and you nearly killed me!”  

“Kill you?”  The rattlesnake drew back in reproach.  “I didn’t even touch you!”  

The boy fell silent.  While the snake had come within an inch, he realized the snake hadn’t actually touched him.  

“I saw a rat beside your foot, and I knew it would take our food— or worse, bite you.  So I struck out and killed it.”  

The boy regained his nerve.  “You’re lying!”  

The snake jerked its head toward the cave.  “Go in and see for yourself.”  

The boy felt like a fool for trusting that snake.  He wasn’t going to be a coward now and bend to the snake’s words.  “I won’t!  You’re trying to trick me!  Just like all rattlesnakes!  I should have known.  I knew what you were when I picked you up!”  

“Knew?  What do you know, boy?” the snake snapped.  “Why must you humans generalize and categorize and assume without experience or question?  You didn’t know what I was when you picked me up!  So I’m a rattlesnake.  Does that make it my very nature to turn on you and strike you down?  I can, yes, but did you know that this one time I chose not to?  I wanted to show you I’m capable of good.  I trusted you.  Do you know the courage I needed to ask for your help?  Do you know of the antipathy between our kind?  No, you don’t.  You hear so much of my kind hurting yours, but what about your kind hurting mine?  You scare away our food, take over our hunting grounds, and attack and kill us unprovoked.  

“I did so much for you hoping I could earn your trust— I didn’t bite you, I let you carry me and welcomed you into my home.  I shared my food, my stories, and my music with you.  But the moment you doubted me, you ran away.  Not only that, you denied me and our amity and you cursed my kind without even listening to my side.”  The snake made a disgusted sound.  “You really are just a boy.  You’re no better than your kind, just as you thought I was no better than mine.”  

The boy and the rattlesnake stared at each other.  Finally, the snake said, “So this is how we’ll part: with antipathy.  I thought we could change our natural war.”  The snake began to retreat.  “Maybe someday I’ll find someone with the courage to not walk away.”  

The rattlesnake was gone before the boy could say anything more.  Not that the boy had anything to say.  

The boy didn’t want to return to the cave, but he knew he needed the food inside.  He walked into the cave stiffly and poked at the dying embers.  As they flared up again, the boy gasped, then began to weep bitterly.  Near the wall, just by where he’d been standing only a minute ago, he saw the carcass of a rat.  

Fiction

The Elevator by S.A. Bowden

 

Special Acknowledgement: to Mom

PICTURE IT:

In the dark parking garage at the Towson mall, bottom floor, standing by the elevator at 10:32 PM, a girl checking her phone.  Battery nearly dead.  The girl petite, slender, cute blouse and shorts.  Pretty, with an air of innocence.  Eighteen years old, just submitted an enrollment deposit to Washington College.  Walking back to her car after a night out with her friends, pushing her eleven o’clock curfew.  Looking nervous.   

The perfect victim.  

This is how all the horror stories on the news begin: the girl about to get robbed, or raped, or worse.  The girl knew this.  Clutched her purse strap tighter, shifting her weight between her feet, checking her surroundings.  

She hadn’t seen anyone except an angry blonde woman.  Stormed by with hardly a glance as the girl was walking to the elevator.    

10:33.  

The girl looked up and her heart jumped.  

The man walking up.  Maybe thirty years old, trench coat, jeans.  Good-looking.  Stopped a few feet beside her, glanced at the glowing UP button.  Turned to her, smiled politely.  Said: “Evening.”  

He had a friendly voice, she would later tell the police.  

The girl eyed him.  Of course a man shows up now.  The horror stories.  

Wait.  Don’t panic.  

She consulted her gut.  She’d read The Gift of Fear.  A chance to put it to use.  She listened.  Her gut was quiet, even. . . calm.  

The police would later ask her why she felt that way.  She would tell them in the moment, logic begged to differ.  It would be logical to avoid the man, take the stairs.  She would tell them, sheepishly, perhaps the gut feeling was in part because the man kind of resembled a singer she loved, but as she sized him up and assessed his possible threat, she actually felt a little less nervous.  

She decided to trust her gut.  Replied: “Evening.”    

At that moment, the elevator doors opened.  Out of nowhere, she remembered the stories of people stepping into elevator shafts— or being pushed— and dying.  The man held out his hand to the doors.  “Ladies first.”  

This is how the horror stories begin, said logic.  

But he said it in a way she liked.  Genuinely chivalrous.  So she checked that the elevator was there, not just the shaft.  Walked in.  He stepped in behind her.  

The doors closed.  They stood on opposite sides.  

The man asked: “What floor?”  He was by the buttons.  

The girl answered quietly: “Top.”  

“Me too.  Funny coincidence, huh?”  

The girl fiddled with her ring.  Silver, with a little heart.  Christmas present from her dad.  Wondered, briefly, if he was lying.  Didn’t have proof either way.  

The man startled her: “Nice ring.”  

“Thanks.”  The girl put her hand behind her back.  

They began the creaky ascent.  

Neither said anything.  

The girl consulted her gut again.  It was nervous.  It didn’t like the silence.  It whispered: Say something.  

Suddenly the elevator stopped.  Another patron?  

The doors didn’t open.  

The man sighed: “Uh-oh, looks like we’re stuck.  Don’t worry, I’m sure it’ll start up in a minute.”

The girl muttered: “Great.”  Her voice strained.  Logic said: This is not good.  Her gut was unsure.  How best to handle this. . . ?  

“You okay?”  

The girl looked at the man.  She would later tell the police how sincere he looked: the concern in his eyes, his furrowed brow.  Before she could answer, he did: “Stupid me, of course not.  No girl would be okay stuck in an elevator with a strange man.”  He leaned on the wall.  

The girl shrugged, glanced away.  

The man looked at her for a second.  Told her: “I have a sister, you know.  She works with Damsel in Defense.  Ever heard of it?”  Like he was trying to start a conversation.  

She shook her head.  “No.”  

“They sell self-defense products aimed at women, like pepper spray, stun guns, purses to conceal weapons.  Their aim is to help women defend and empower themselves.  It’s pretty neat.”  

That caught the girl’s interest.  “Sounds cool.”  

Another silence.  

The elevator man went on: “I understand if you’re nervous, what with all the horror stories on the news.”  Paused.  “I kinda thought you’d take the stairs.  I would’ve, for your peace of mind—”  He leaned over, rubbed his right knee: “— but this knee gives me problems.”  He looked up at her.  “I don’t want to rape you or grope you or something gross like that.”  

The girl opened her mouth, but he took her words first: “And I know, that’s exactly what I’d say if I was a rapist.”  Paused, then asked: “Do I seem like a rapist?”  

That question surprised her, not just in itself but in the manner it was asked.  Not a teasing, of-course-I’m-not way that an ordinary rapist might adopt, but as if he was really wondering.  

The girl looked him over.  Tentatively told him what her gut said: “You don’t give off a rapist vibe to me.  And you haven’t hinted at any. . . interest in me.”  

“I’m not interested.  I bet you have a nice boyfriend anyway.”  

The girl would tell the police she didn’t say anything, but her blush must have given her away.  

He smiled, a quiet smile.  Thought for a moment.  “Would it make you feel better if I told you I just got back from a date?”  

The girl blinked, caught off-guard.  She would tell the police she knew she had no proof, but she didn’t have any proof against him, either.  So she responded: “How’d it go?”  

The elevator man’s face brightened.  “Really great!  I felt like we got a real connection, and she said the same thing.  We were at the Starbucks in Barnes and Noble.  You teenagers would probably laugh at that, but we both love it there.”  

“That’s sweet.”  She didn’t tell him she frequented the bookstore herself.  

“We already got plans for next week.”  He checked his phone.  

10:35.  

A moment passed.  He added: “I just got out of a bad relationship.”  Shook his head.  “She was. . . possessive.  I mean, we started out great, but as time went on she grew, well, worse.  Didn’t want me hanging around female coworkers, always asking me where I was or what I was doing— and I mean like a police interrogation.  Sometimes asked people to keep an eye on me when she couldn’t be there.  She thought what we had was a privilege she bestowed on me, like I was a little kid with a new toy, and I could only use it if I followed all her rules.”  He fell silent for a few seconds.  

The girl was listening.  Realized that she cared, without logic or experience, solely intuition and instinct.  

Finally the elevator man said: “Anyway, I don’t want to dump my problems on you.  I guess my point is, if you want free advice: love is respect.  I got out of it a month ago.  Of course, she didn’t go easily, but we haven’t seen each other, and she doesn’t know I’m seeing someone else.”  

The girl would later tell the police the way he said that last part was what made her a little concerned.  

She gave the only reply she could think of: “I’m happy to hear you’re okay.”  

The elevator man looked surprised.  Then suddenly, the elevator rattled into motion.  The girl had forgotten about it.  

The elevator man said: “You’re a good girl.”  

From some other stranger, in some other situation, the statement might have made her back away.  But from him, it felt honest.  

The girl finally said: “You’re a nice guy.  You give off a good vibe— to me, at least.”  

The elevator man blew out a breath.  “That’s a relief.  Really.  I’ve been working on my vibe.”  The girl couldn’t help smiling.  “I want to protect girls, not hurt them.”  He glanced at her.  “Sorry, that— just popped out.  Didn’t mean to come off as preachy.”  

She faced the doors.  “The world needs guys like that.”  

Ding!  Top floor.  Like before, he let her off first.  

She would later tell the police it was here, just after she got off, with the elevator man behind her, that her gut started telling her something.  Something bad.  Thought maybe it was the lack of people, or the dark sky, or the eerie quiet.  Whatever it was, she started power-walking to her car.  

Checked her phone.  10:37.  

“Hey, wait!”  

Her coiled-up nerves sparked, and she whirled around as the elevator man caught up to her in long strides.  Held something out to her.  “You dropped your ring.”  

The girl gasped: “Oh my word!”  She took it from his hand, slipped it back on her finger.  

“You might want to get a ring guard.  The mall has a good jewelry place where you can get one.”  

“I’ve been meaning to.”  The girl met the elevator man’s eyes.  “Thank you.”  

He smiled.  “You’re welcome.  Thank you.”  

“You’re welcome.”  

Both pulled out their car keys.  He raised a hand in farewell.  “Take care.  Drive safely.”  

“You too.”  

Beep-beep!  

Beep-beep!  

Two adjacent cars flashed their lights.  The girl and the man looked at each other,  laughed.  

He said: “Funny coincidence, huh?”  

She almost laughed again when she saw the car beside her mother’s Focus: light blue punchbuggy.  She thought: Punchbuggy blue, no punch back.  

Then a voice behind them sneered: “You taking her somewhere?”  

The girl saw the fear in the elevator man’s eyes.  The fear told her: Be afraid.  

They turned around.  

A woman stood a few yards away.  The girl recognized her: the angry blonde woman she saw while walking to the elevator.  

The woman held a gun in both hands.  

The elevator man’s voice was tight.  The girl would tell the police she stood frozen as he said: “What are you doing here?”  

The woman pointed the gun at him.  “I told you I’m always watching.  I saw your profile on match.com.  I was outside your house when I heard you call her and arrange a date.  I saw you together in the bookstore.”  She grinned like a little girl pleased with an accomplishment, a forced grin.  Said in a singsong tone: “I was spying on you.”  But the girl heard the anger and hurt underneath.  “You didn’t think it was over when we went our separate ways, did you?”  She glared at the girl.  “And now you’re groping this girl in an elevator and taking her home to do God-knows-what!”  Her voice cracked, tears on her face, the barrel quivering.  

The girl, mute, shook her head no as he stepped forward.  “She has nothing to do with this.  Listen—”  

The woman shrieked: “I didn’t come here to listen to you!” and pulled the trigger twice.  The girl screamed as the elevator man collapsed, two bullet holes in his chest, coat and hands bloody.  

Then the only sounds were the girl and the woman breathing hard.   

“You!  Quit gawking at him!”  

The girl clamped her mouth shut, looked up at the woman.  

The woman’s tone shifted, gun quivering again: “Stay right there.  Don’t move.  I’m going to get a bag for him from my car, and then we’re gonna have a little talk, okay?  Just nod.  You hear me?”  The woman spoke calmly and gently, like a rescuer, not the one who pulled the trigger.  Made the girl even more afraid.  Play along, her gut said.  Be scared.  

That didn’t require much pretending.  The girl nodded feverishly.  Tears welling up.  The woman holstered her gun, ran off.  

The girl stared down at the elevator man.  Dead.  

Never knew his name.  

Saw the car keys in his hand.  Remembered hers, clutched in her fist, the first thought to penetrate her numb skull.  Ran to her unlocked car, flung open the door, started the ignition, not caring about the noise.  Everything telling her: Get out get out get out get out.  

Logic said: Call the cops.  

She decided: Get out, then call.  

Autopilot.  Ignoring the speed limit, swearing when she saw the booth at the entrance.  Stopped.  Checked her mirrors.  Panting.  All senses alert: a voice, a face, a running car.  Something.  

Nothing.  

10:40.   

Paying took too long.  Rolled up the window.  Slammed the gas.  Get out get out get out.  

Out.  Just enough juice in her phone to dial 911.  Threw it onto the passenger seat.  

“911, what’s your emergency?”  

The tears tumbling out, racking her body.  “I’m leaving the Towson parking garage— there was a man— the elevator—”  

“Shh, shh, it’s okay.  Did he assault you?”  

“No!— He— his ex-girlfriend— she shot him!”  

The operator changed tone: “Where are you?  Is she there?”  

“I don’t know— where she is— he was shot on the top floor—”  

“We’re sending the police.  Are you out of the parking garage?  Do you have a car?”  

“I’m out— in my car—”    

“Okay, just stay calm.  I’m going to direct you to the police station.  What street are you on?”  

The girl would tell the police the 911 call was a blur, it was all a blur, making it to the station, calling her parents.  

10:50.  

Her mom holding one hand, her dad the other, the girl sat down with an officer.  Box of tissues in front of her.  Sobbing.  The officer started the recording, pushed back her hat, wiped her brow.  Spoke gently: “You’re all right now.  You’re safe.  None of this is your fault.  Now, can you tell me what happened with you and the man in the elevator?”  

The girl took a shaky breath.  Began to talk.