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.  

Fiction

A Very, Merry White Christmas by Kelly Anderson (Winner – Creative Writing Contest: Hope for the Holidays)

It was a cold December day. The sun was shining brightly as Lyra walked to school with her friends Alex and Charlotte. It was the last day of school before winder break. They all wanted the school day to go faster, so they could go home, or in Lyra’s case, go to her grandmother’s house for Christmas.

And so they went through their classes for the day. It started to snow while they were at lunch. While Alex and Charlotte were excited by the snow, Lyra was worried. There was already so much snow on the ground, and it was falling in large amounts, so she might not be able to leave. Lyra expressed her worry to her friends, and they reassured her that the snow wouldn’t get that bad.

Despite their reassurance, the snow was steadily getting higher and higher. The day was almost over. All that was left was the Christmas assembly. It was really fun, too. There were singers, dancers, poets, and more. This year’s assembly even had a play. Lyra was so excited to go home, but just before they were dismissed, an announcement came over the loudspeaker:

Due to large amounts of snow that have blocked the entrances and exits to the school, all students will stay inside the building. Until we have cleared the doors, nobody is allowed to leave.

All of the students started to loudly complain.  I want to go home, someone said. I can walk in the snow! another student said. After the students had stopped complaining (for the most part), they decided to do other activities to occupy their time. Lyra and her friends went to the art room to make holiday-themed crafts. They were having so much fun that they forgot they wanted to leave. Spending time with her friends made Lyra realize that is wasn’t so bad being stuck there. But, it also could have been the art room’s TV.

By the time the school had been dug out, the girls had smiles on their faces. It was 7:00 at night and parents were there to get their kids. Lyra’s mom asked, Was it okay being in the school for that long? Did you have anything to do? and she replied, It was actually okay. Way better than I thought it would be. And so, she learned that you can always find some good in a seemingly bad situation.

Happy Holidays!

Fiction

The Downfall of the State – Prologue by Savanna Zachau

In the year 2027, war broke out in the U.S.A. It was a civil war led by a group of extremists who wanted a completely new government and moral system in the country. They were led by one man and one man alone, the Boss, he was a ruthless tyrant who cared none about the consequences of his war only the outcome. It was either he had his way and the entire form of government and morals in the United States changed or under his leadership a new country would form within America.

The civil war lasted for an extensive amount of time. It spanned, in total, over seven years of bloodshed and loss for both sides of the fighting. There were some times of peace when both sides were not economically stable enough to support a war effort and therefore couldn’t possibly fight each other. The entire war left the southeastern region of America in shambles. Cities and towns were left in ruin and families were destroyed by the amount of young men and women that had to go into the military to fight the Boss’s surprisingly strong army. He had received help from some of the States’ strongest enemies while the U.S. looked to its allies for the help it needed.

All in all, the losses on both sides were far too great to count so they had to estimate the amount of bodies that laid dead in the fields. In total about 4,000,000 were killed in combat, 2,000,000 were wounded, and 500,000 were reported missing. The casualties were massive yet the Boss’s morale was unscathed. At the end of the civil war he stood tall and the U.S. backed down. It allowed the Boss to have the land that was South Carolina as land for his new country. This land and all of the people in it were taken and made into a new country simply called The State.

 

Fiction

The Mask and a Half by Chiad Onyeje

A man marked for death walked into his home away from home, the job he adored so. The job all others had abandoned for the day to retire to their abodes. This man had come to finish his report, for he was a man of the paper. Through day and into the night, he worked and toiled until his brain could take no more. Today was no different, to him that is. As he paced the aisles of cubicles to his desk, a 3 digit numeral of 364. You could tell as he walked by the rows he was drowsy, and who could blame him? The whole office was a bland grey, the darkness outside was of no assistance either. As he reached the door of his office, the marked man held out his hand to turn the door. To his surprise, the door was locked, for he was sure that the door had never been locked, especially since he was the only one with the key to lock it. As he searched for his key, on the other side of the door, I prepared myself for the grand entry, the next chance for perfection. A marked man turned the key in the lock, and to his fearful surprise and my fractured joy, we met face to mask, man to distortion. Before he could run he was already trapped in place with expanding fright. I moved quick and gracefully around him and my doubled smile not wavering an inch, checking to see if he was indeed the perfect mark. He stood stock still until I spoke to him for the first and only time “You of course know exactly who I am, but are you the one I seek?” He hesitantly nodded and shook respectively and relinquished his fate into the capable hands of death, just like the others, he was prepared to answer to death’s horrific song. To me, it’s a most wondrous melody, but…, it wasn’t perfect.