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Contents | About | Issue 1 2 | Print | © SHORT FICTION
SETH MULLER

"Out In Searchlight"

I remember my ankle swelling, and my head swimming. My body convulsed and I pitched forward. I rolled onto my back and shut my eyes painfully tight. They already stung from sweat. I thought I would die underneath the limited shade of that Joshua tree. I heard a crow cawing to my left. It was perched on a fence, casting a glance to the cloudless sky.

Out there felt better than in here. I lay here at the hospital in Laughlin, Nevada. It is sterile, white, and unnatural, with sharp angles, steel bed rails, and smells of antiseptic. I did not die in the desert. The thought of death scared me, and I could not relax or comfort myself in its finality. Therefore, some paramedics arrived in an ambulance, pulling me from the desert before it could claim me.

The swelling in my leg has subsided, and the poison has broken down and left my body. I will be allowed to leave the hospital today. My landlord will drive me back to Searchlight, and I will be held in the town's isolation, again. But I will leave Searchlight soon. A sidewinder convinced me of this.

Most mornings I walk through the desert. In the summer, daybreak offers cool temperatures perfect for walking. By 9:30, the temperature hits the 90s, and by mid-afternoon it reaches over a hundred, and I avoid the outside at all costs. I stay imprisoned in my job at the Sandy Rock Hotel, or my air-conditioned, streamlined trailer-turned-mobile-home. If not for those cool mornings in the summer, and the cooler evenings, I would never leave the indoors. It would be like living on the moon.

But the beauty of the desert wakes me each morning. The rocks under my feet, the occasional stumble, the prick of a spiny bush or cactus reminds me that I'm alive. My Walkman serves as a companion for my hikes, as the moody acoustic renderings add to the experience. I turn it up loud enough to drown out the sounds of nearby cars or people.

My hikes head out in all directions of the desert, and usually last about six miles round trip. Searchlight is surrounded by the desert landscape. It is a town standing as an island in an uncompromising ocean of sand and rock. I am out swimming.

Two mornings ago, I hiked southeast in the direction of Cottonwood, a small town ten miles off. The sun pierced bright off to my right side, and the shadows of juniper and Joshua trees stretched long behind them. The air was still cool, but I worked into a sweat from sun and activity. So I stopped directly behind a Joshua tree to enjoy its shade.

I put my hands on my hips and leaned back to stretch my neck. As I was stretching, a searing pain darted through my right leg and threw my body into a fit. I shook my leg violently in response, only to see a large sidewinder had its mouth gripped around my ankle. Afraid to touch it, I swung my leg around to whack its body against the Joshua tree. The snake hung on for the ride. It seemed panicked too, as it tried to unhinge its jaw to release me. I think it sensed trouble.

I fell backward screaming, shaking with fear. My headphones fell off my ears and dangled around my neck. I noticed a palm-sized rock two feet from my left hand. I grabbed it, aimed a bit, and threw it at the snake. The rock struck its tail, and it began contorting wildly in response.

In a passing moment, I felt a connection with the sidewinder. Not just the physical connection of it attached to my leg, but also the connection of the two of us on a chance meeting, trapped in the confrontation. We were scared, panicked and tortured with pain.

I motivated myself to end it swiftly. I tried to stand, but I was shaking and felt weak. Instead I leaned forward, found another rock nearly the size of the first, held it tight in my hand, and struck the snake a few inches down from his head. My hope was to sever the head from the body. It didn't work. The sidewinder pitched more violently, so I struck it in the same place over and over, until the only life remaining was the occasional nerve twitch of a dying animal.

Still in panic, I worked to pry the snake from my leg. My hand was sticky with both of our bloods. I pulled myself away from the snake's body, but kept looking at it, studying its features. The rattle was most distinctive. I thought of the rattle, and how it sounded the alarm when I encroached. Normally, instinctively, I would have heard the rattle and kept a distance, but the music from my walkman drowned it out.

I estimated myself to be three miles away from Searchlight. My survival instinct took over, and I stood immediately, attempting to walk. I was shaky, sweating, and favoring my right leg. I stumbled, broke down and cried. The fear of death lingered.

I told myself I would be fine. I mumbled to God to help me, and begged him for favor, though I'm not exactly religious. I moved forward unconsciously, and occasionally glanced at my swelling ankle.

I kept a pace, stumbling forward, and tried to ignore the pain and fatigue.

My shirt, shorts and sport bra were soaked with sweat. I thought about the sweat. I missed getting a drink that morning. Dehydration was taking its toll. The bun of my thick black hair was coming undone. My head was hot and swimming with delirium.

I noticed the road a mile ahead. The road I could follow back to Searchlight. But I felt the poison working the roots of my nerves. My muscles twitched randomly. When I thought I could make it to the road, my body convulsed, and I pitched forward. I rolled onto my back and shut my eyes painfully tight. The desert prepared to take me. A crow, a desert scavenger, cawed to my left on the fence, an old, broken-down fence no longer able to contain livestock or keep people out. I contorted my neck, winced at the pain to view the crow. I saw it perched upside down from my vantage point. It was casting a glance to the sky. After a moment, it flew out of my vision. And I relaxed my neck.

It was all I could remember, besides not being comfortable, or ready with the thought of death. Once the crow took to the sky, consciousness left me. My sense of time eroded. Thoughts scattered....

Consciousness returned in blotches, which I pieced together. I gained a sense of the surroundings in the hospital. I recalled what I could of the incident. Mostly, I thought of the sidewinder, our encounter, and how my life almost ended. Luckily, I saw my landlord, Ed, sitting out on his lawn chair reading the paper that morning. I told him I was walking in the direction of Cottonwood, that I hadn't gone that way in awhile. Ed liked to worry, and especially about women who took long walks by themselves. Last time he saw his wife she was leaving for a walk into town. She had a stroke on the way.

Ed sensed I wasn't coming back either, unless he made the effort to find me. He discovered me unconscious, and the paramedics followed. So I lie here in this hospital gown, sore, sobbing. I am leaving Searchlight at the end of the month. I've been stranded there for a time, but I was not meant to die there.

I think of the sidewinder, its body decomposing under the hot sun. Its bones picked by crows. I remember our struggle, and how I had to end the pain for one of us. The sidewinder was confused and scared. I was, too.



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"If Man scorns Nature, so you think he would care about Words?" �- Thomas Moore, Utopia