The Venom is the Juice
Katie tells me to close my eyes and reach out my hand, which I do, then she smacks my knuckles with a wooden spoon.
If I was a snake you’d already be bit, she says. The angle of her right eyebrow tells me that she doesn’t think any of this – the snake, the wicker basket – is real.
It’s winter in Minnesota and there isn’t enough ice for me to ride my toboggan. Reports on the news speak to the unpredictability of weather.
We had both decided, after a long and spirited conversation, that we haven’t been living life, we haven’t tasted what’s there. And yes, I know how that sounds, how it sounded when we spoke it, both of us laughing at the absurdity of our existential dread, but here we are with the basket and the snake, halfway between religion and sin.
Do you think it’s okay, I ask, meaning the snake, which appears to be sleeping or maybe dead, an unmoving black coil at the bottom of the basket.
She says the snake is fine and I trust her word. I have no reason to doubt this friend of mine who never seems to flinch, like when the deer struck her Honda on the highway and I watched as she removed its antler from her gas cap.
The closest I’ve come to death: the slick descent of a toboggan run, with nothing but a plank of wood between me and the ice. It is in those moments of speed, rushing down the ice, when I feel the closest to losing control.
We bought the snake from a guy on Craigslist who said he was an expert. He claimed this rat snake would be perfect for what we wanted, that it was docile and possibly depressed. He said it wasn’t poisonous.
Katie is convinced that she will be able to raise the snake from the basket, like what we saw online, like the guys in India.
We need one of those flute things, I say. We need to play music.
When I was a kid, I learned that snakes hear sounds by detecting vibrations through their bellies. I lie on the floor of Katie’s living room and don’t hear a thing. It’s then that I see her reaching inside the basket. When she pulls out her hand, a long black snake, its body twisting and curling, hangs from her fist.
Whoa, I say.
Whoa, she says.
She doesn’t hold it for long and puts it back in the basket. I peer inside as the snake resumes its coil, flicking its forked tongue.
On the news, a pastor from West Virginia handled snakes and lost his life. The congregation claimed that their god would protect them. In those moments at church, dancing, sweating, holding their serpents up high, they must’ve understood: to have power over the snake is to have the power to heal.
I flip through a crate of Katie’s records until I find a best of George Clinton collection. I figure we need funk and grooves. After I drop the needle, the first bars of “Atomic Dog” begin to blast from the speakers. George Clinton’s bass is sending vibrations into the floor and I figure the snake must be able to hear it. Katie sits crossed-legged by the basket and I join her. She uses the wooden spoon to grab the snake’s attention, tapping the rim of the basket in time with the beat, and yes, it begins to stir. At first, the snake tests the limits of its enclosure, then, slowly, it raises its head.
Look, Katie says over the music, but she doesn’t need to say a thing.
When I broke my arm on the icy slopes of the toboggan hill, losing control at the bottom, my toboggan sliding out from underneath me, I didn’t move. Yes, I knew my bone was broken, but I didn’t want to forget. Snow fell and collected around me, on me. The sky turned from blue to burnt orange. I was alone that day and I didn’t know why.
The snake’s head is now well above the basket and Katie keeps its attention by waving the spoon. “Atomic Dog” continues to pulse from the speakers, its sound enveloping the room. When the snake pulls back it happens before we can react: the snapping forward, the jaws opening, the fangs sinking into the soft flesh of Katie’s wrist. Screams and shrieks pierce through the music, Katie yelling for the snake to get off. I go to her wrist but it won’t release its bite. Her screams match the rhythms of the music, both competing for attention. The snake, strong and unyielding, is a rope squeezing tighter.
Hold it, I say. Wait.
We’d like to think that in times of great stress our best selves will show. We hope to not be alone. I hammer the snake’s head with the wooden spoon until it releases its jaws and slithers away.
Katie holds her wrist, blood smearing her fingers. I take her hand into mine and pull it towards me.
The venom, I say, even though we both know the snake isn’t poisonous. When I press my lips to her wrist and begin to suck, her blood fills my mouth. What I wanted from this moment I do not know. What I do know is the taste of her blood, the taste of her skin. We stay that way until the song ends.