We didn’t see the snake until we were on it.
We were walking the pasture owned by a friend of my father’s, looking for prairie dogs to shoot. We weren’t really hunters — or we didn’t think of ourselves that way — but Dad collected guns, and even a collector’s guns want to be shot. Ranchers around our small Kansas town welcomed us onto their land to help check the prairie dog population. Prairie dogs aren’t dogs, but little rodents that thrive in great underground communities, filling a pasture with a complex of tunnels as elaborate as an unconscious. Cattle could step in holes and break legs, sending them to the packing plant before they’re ready.
Dad could walk well with crutches then, his legs weakened from polio but his arms powerful from adapting to it. Still, he preferred to drive the jeep straight out onto the field with his powerful .222 rifle across the passenger’s seat. My brother and I walked next to the jeep while Dad kept the valuable cluster of cattle behind us in case we did see something we wanted to shoot at.
My brother, two years older, carried his new .22-caliber rifle, a gift from Dad for his 14th birthday. It held 10 slight shells in a tube running under the barrel you filled through a cut out the size and shape of the bullets. It was semi-automatic, which meant that once the bolt was pulled, each shot let loose a slug and loaded another until the gun was empty.
I had the old .22 rifle given to my father by his mother. Its short barrel was enveloped by stock nearly to the tip, the wood dark and smooth from years and hands. It was bolt-action, loaded by moving a lever up and back, pushing a shell into the chamber with your thumb, and returning the bolt forward and down. The hammer was a little nob behind the bolt; you didn’t pull it out until you were serious. The trigger had lost its guard (or maybe it never had one), and it hung down in the open like a comma ready to insert a pause.
Prairie dogs are used to being hunted, and we could hear them broadcasting danger up and down the field. Rattlesnakes hunt prairie dogs too, and I knew that we might come across one, but we hadn’t seen any in the many fields we had walked. Snakes were a real but still abstract threat, an idea with more thrill than scare, like the Soviet ICBMs aimed at us from thousands of miles away that we knew could bloom on the horizon at any minute.
We saw only dry pasture nearby, and we sent our attention downrange. Luckily, the snake was a five-foot-long arrow of menace aimed away from us instead of a coil of fang. When we finally noticed it moving slowly between us, I froze. My brother, startled, remembered the weapon in his hands, and jumped and fired at the same time. He missed wide, the bullet ricocheting off the dry ground out into the unknowable. The shot made Dad stop. As my brother and I backed away, he calmly leaned out the window with his rifle and shot the snake clean through the head. Dad slid out the old machete he kept between the driver’s seat and the console and handed it to my brother. “Cut off the head and the tail,” he said, “and put the tail in the toolbox in the back.” I held my brother’s rifle while he did as he was told.
We went out just a few times together after that and never saw another snake. My brother never came to enjoy guns, preferring to shoot baskets and drive fast as soon as he could. I, however, stuck with it. Like my father, I was a good shot, patient and deliberate with the weapon. When I could drive, I would head out to a pasture with my own birthday rifle, a Winchester-style .22 magnum, more powerful than the older gun. I liked how the land looked flat and featureless from the car but revealed curve and give once you were out in it. I liked to walk in a ways from the road and sit until the prairie-dog barks quit and the field’s regular life rose back up around me. I liked how past the fence, the horizon was impossibly distant and how everything between it and me appeared untouched, unowned. Nothing bigger than that sky, nothing still. Sometimes I just let the rifle lay on my lap until I left, alone and far away from the encroaching facts of adolescence.
I’m in the basement of my parents’ new house in the city, visiting with my kids. They left the small rural town where I grew up to be closer to my brother’s kids and to the kind of medical care that aging demands. I’m helping Dad think about selling his guns. We begin to go through them, unboxing each pistol and sliding each rifle from its soft case. I haven’t held them for years, but they feel heavy and familiar still, even in my older hands. My seven-year-old son M runs in, all youth and industry, busy working himself into every corner of grandma and grandpa’s house. Dad tells him to come over. He rips a strip of masking tape and sticks it to the side of my brother’s now old .22 and writes M’s name on the tape. A gift has been given. But M hasn’t seen a real gun up close before (we live in New York City), and he won’t touch it. Excitement and fear mix in him like fuel and air in an engine, and he’s off again, quick up the stairs to the kitchen and then outside where the world is open and his.
Dad chuckles, and I do too. He goes back to the guns. I notice that he’s lingering over a pistol that he’s just examined, trying to determine whether he’s seeing it for the first time. Like at breakfast asking how our flight was, and then asking again.
I notice that the hinge on the gun-cabinet lock looks loose, and I tell Dad that I’ll take care of it. In the garage, I pull out the big red toolbox’s drawers one after another looking for a screwdriver. As someone who has more books than I can likely read, I both understand and don’t understand why he still keeps so many tools. There, in the middle of the Phillips heads arranged by direction and size, is the rattlesnake’s rattle.
Maybe none of it happened like I think it did. Maybe my brother didn’t shoot at all that day. Maybe I took the tail off with the machete instead of him. Maybe he wasn’t even there. Did we come across the snake already dead? Were we south of town or north? Did I go out on my own not for the solitude but for the danger I brought to the field, the power of it? I close my eyes and concentrate, but I don’t trust what comes. So much of who I am now, how I think about myself, lives in the recollections of my parents, but memory seems so precarious. Children begin as stories told by their parents, and I feel my story start to contract and teeter. I’m not sure that I’m ready to be the custodian of my whole self — not sure if I’ll ever be ready.
The guns will all go at auction, including the .22 rifles, probably to become gifts carried into fields by new kids. Dad will tell me they sold well; when I ask how well, he won’t remember exactly, only that they brought a good price.
All these years and the rattle has new menace. I guess it has never cared what shook it.