Rattled

It makes our hearts pound and our palms sweat. But superstition and folklore have poisoned our minds against Texas’ scariest snake.

A lifelong fascination with deadly creatures inspired Gordon Grice’s The Red Hourglass: Lives of the Predators, a series of ruminative essays about the black widow and other dangerous denizens of the Great Plains and Southwest. This excerpt deals with Texas’ most dreaded resident, the rattlesnake. Grice is a contributing editor of Oklahoma Today and a lecturer in English and humanities. He lives in Guymon, Oklahoma.

IT LIES HALF-COILED IN A STAND of dusty green weeds, its jaw against the ground to catch the vibrations of any moving thing. Its body, patterned with the colors of dead grass and earth, is touching a stack of iron pipe. Its forked black tongue slips out of its closed mouth, slashes in several directions, and slips back in. It is licking up particles of airborne scent and brushing them against the mass of olfactory nerves in the roof of its mouth. Its pupils, which would be only slits in the sun, have ballooned in the near dark.

The rattlesnake has stopped to wait at the turning of a scent-path. The prey, whatever it is, has the habit of following the shape of these discarded pipes. The rattlesnake is still except for its active tongue, which slides out every few seconds. I don’t see the field mouse arrive. He is suddenly there, tentative in his movements. His coat is pale brown on top and white on bottom; his eyes are the sleek brown of apple seeds. He stops, runs to one side, stops, runs back the other direction. He seems to know something is wrong, but probably that’s my imagining. I look to the snake and can’t see it—only dirt and weeds and scraps of iron. I blink a few times, and there it is in exactly the same place, my eyes and brain finally interpreting its pattern. The mouse is a few inches from the safety of the pipes, but he darts around in the open. Does he smell the snake? I can’t decide whether I smell it or not. The mouse runs onto a higher clump of dirt to look around and sniff. But it’s not a clump of dirt. He is standing on a thick loop of the snake. The snake does not move.

A blurred movement, the rustle of one weed—something happens too fast for me to see. The mouse leaps into the air but makes no sound. The snake isn’t moving now, but it’s watching with the heat-sensing pits below its eyes. Its strike, gauged by means of the pits, has hit home. The pits work with heat as human eyes do with light, creating stereoscopic “vision” and thus a fine discrimination of direction and distance.

The mouse rolls on his side, breathing heavily, spasms rocking the forelegs and head. The snake waits. After a long while, it slips closer. Its tongue runs over the mouse, which is still twitching. Then it swallows the mouse headfirst, the hollow tube of its glottis pushing to the front of its mouth so that it can breathe while it eats, its delicate bones momentarily separating, its muscles working and rippling. The swallowing is a long process; the mouse remains partly visible for perhaps five minutes. Before he disappears entirely, I see a hind leg twitch, and then for a long while only the mouse’s dark tail hangs out, and then it is gone.

NOTHING RILES A TEXAN LIKE A RATTLESNAKE. The reptile may be a state icon, but it is a venerable, not a beloved, one: Its status as symbol derives not from fondness but from fright (and a vicarious sense of power). The snake’s aggression and toxicity account for endless horror stories; some are true and some are tall tales. Folklorist J. Frank Dobie devoted an entire book to rattlesnake lore. There are ten rattlesnake species and subspecies in Texas, some thirty species between Canada and Argentina—and many of them have subspecies too, for a total of more than ninety.

The Western diamondback is the most common, accounting for almost all the serious rattlesnake bites reported in Texas every year. But other species are equally or more lethal. The venom of a rattlesnake is a cocktail of diverse toxins. Each subspecies serves a different mix, and each snake makes individual variations on that recipe. The Mojave species’s neurotoxin is the most lethal of all.

Most rattler venoms break flesh down chemically. They help snakes partly digest prey before it is eaten. In fact, rattlesnake venoms evolved from digestive juices, and the poison gland of the rattlesnake is a specialized salivary gland. A good dose of venom makes a human’s limb burn with pain as the venom digests it. Chunks of skin and flesh may die and eventually fall off. Small animals usually die of shock long before the venom has softened them up, and the same can happen to a human. We can also die from such systemic effects as damage to the liver or kidneys, or from gangrene of the dead flesh.

Rattlesnakes are born venomous. They can already hunt for themselves. Some people claim that young rattlesnakes are more toxic than adults. A certain medical student, assuming the young harmless, handled one. He showed off for friends, telling them how ironic it was that such an emblem of fear could be handled freely. That’s the way most people get bitten: an urge to handle fire. These days the young doctor has nine fingers. A bigger snake is more likely to kill you because it has more venom to spend. That fact makes the diamondbacks, the biggest rattlesnakes, especially dangerous. Western diamondbacks generally have less patience for a human than most. They’ve been known to chase a man a short distance across open ground.

Rattlesnakes like to stay in holes in the ground when they are not hunting or basking, but they’re not equipped for digging. Their transitory hunting-season homes are shelters they acquire opportunistically—they simply find the place and move in, killing any occupant that objects. Rattlesnakes are often found in the former dens of prairie

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