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.
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.