Snakes and Stars

They approached from opposite ends trying to find the best entrance into the labyrinth of holes and passages. They nodded to each other, and both stuck their poles in to the rock pile from separate ends. They were immediately greeted by the insidious hiss of a rattlesnake.

Snakes and Stars
Photo by Cody Nottingham / Unsplash

By  S.R. Schulz

Dale and Mickey decided they needed one more snake. Reveille was at 0600 sharp the next morning, so this was their last chance to finish their plan. The sun was blistering in the spring Arizona heat. Dale sniffed some cocaine out of a little bottle he kept around his neck and Mickey took nothing because he was tripping on peyote and trying to decide if the rocks were crabs or pillows or severed heads. He kicked one. It gave a lazy roll onto its side kicking up red dust. 

“How many is it for the day?” Dale asked.

“Hard pillows,” Mickey said. “Fucking crabs.”

“How many snakes you dumbass.”

Mickey looked up at the sky, “Four I think. Two diamondbacks, a mojave green and a sidewinder.”

“Are you sure?” Dale asked. He stuck a long metal pipe between two rocks into an impenetrable darkness. He’d fashioned a wooden handle to a piece of cable, and he shoved it through the pipe and down through the other side. A loop of cable emerged in the dark between the rocks. Dale listened for the buzzing of a rattle snake. He froze, the loop open and ready to snatch an unseen snake.

“I’m not sure. It’s at least a mile back to the truck. I’m not walking back there just to count them,” Mickey said. He kicked over another rock. 

Dale moved on from the hole and went to another pile of rocks. Mickey walked over to a saguaro standing majestic and strong. He touched its leathery side between the needles sensing the water deep inside protected by the sun hardened skin. 

“You shouldn’t be here,” Mickey whispered to the cactus. “It’s a wasteland. Full of snakes.”

Dale stuck his pipe into another hole. “What the hell are you doing, Mickey? Let’s get to work.”

Mickey nodded but continued staring at the saguaro. “Ain’t no snakes in you ol’ boy.”

Dale shook his head and kept walking. He noticed a distinct pattern in the rocky red dust.  Oscillating parallel lines running west. A sidewinder.  

“Hoo wee,” Dale shouted. “Mick, come over here. I got a fresh track.”

Mickey reached out to the saguaro and ran his fingertips along the sides of a needle. It felt like stone or bone. “OK.” He walked over, cautious to avoid any rocks in his path.

They both followed the tracks until they disappeared in a pile of porous black rock. Dale pulled out his pipe and cable contraption. Mickey had a long dowel with a coat hanger fashioned into a hook at the end. They approached from opposite ends trying to find the best entrance into the labyrinth of holes and passages. They nodded to each other, and both stuck their poles into the rock pile from separate ends. They were immediately greeted by the insidious hiss of a rattlesnake. 

“Gotcha,” Dale said, and he closed the loop around the snake and pulled it out from the rocks. Writhing at the end of the metal pipe was a yellow-tan snake, five feet long. Its tail continued to emanate the hiss of its rattle. Dale held it up to Mickey’s face. The snake’s beady eyes stared at Mickey. Because of the small horns on its head, Mickey felt like he was staring down the devil.

“Give ‘em a kiss, Mickey.” Dale said, laughing.

For a second Mickey thought the snake was crying and had the urge to reach out and free it but it quickly passed. The high from the peyote was in a strange transition, leaving the world blinking from reality to fiction—moment to moment. 

They drove their burnt orange colored Datsun truck across the desert, backlit by a splintering red sunset. Lidless clear plastic containers held the snakes from the day along with the other twenty they’d been keeping. Mickey glanced back at the snakes after the truck jostled over a large hole in the gravel road. The snakes caught air but stayed in their clear containers. Dale did another bump of cocaine from the small bottle around his neck. He offered it to Mickey who politely declined. He was drinking a warm Schlitz with condensation flowing down the bottle. 

“We could do this every leave,” Dale said. “I mean this is way better than selling weed to the enlisted men. We could make a lot more money and we’re doing a service. Service to our fellow countrymen.”

Mickey took a drink. “We’re scientists. I always wanted to exercise my brain. Stretch my expertise, you know?”

“We’re saving lives,” Dale said. “Saving lives. Could be saving little kids lives, right? Not just nutters who are out for a stroll in snake country. Little kids get bit and their mommas crying for Jesus to come save ‘em, but they’ll tell ‘em, hey you know, don’t worry, Dale and Mick have the antivenom. They risked their lives to save your child.”

Mickey smiled. “Plus, the money.”

Dale rolled down his window. “Well, of course.”

It was nightfall by the time they pulled up to the University’s Herpetological Society Research Center. The lights were still on, and the sign said they were open for another ten minutes. Dale parked and got out carrying one bin toward the front door. Mickey carried the other bin of hissing snakes. They set them down on the cement walkway out front and knocked on the door. A young man answered, clean shaven and wearing glasses. 

“Can I help you?” he asked. Dale and Mickey beamed back like cats presenting dead birds to their owners.  

“Well, as you can see, we’ve brought you a bounty,” Dale said.

The young man nodded. “OK. And why have you brought these snakes here?”

Mickey laughed. “For the antivenom. Of course.”

Dale narrowed his eyes at the young man. “Are you an intern or something? Maybe you better get your boss.”

The young man nodded and went inside. A middle-aged woman in a white coat came out a few minutes later. 

“You must be who we talk to about getting paid,” Dale said. “And if the price is right, we can bring you regular shipments of snakes.”

The woman did not smile. She walked over the inspect the snakes. “Did you capture all these?” she asked.

Mickey nodded. “Been doin’ it since I was a kid but didn’t think about how they could be put to good use. Usually just make belts out of ‘em.”

She cocked her head. “I don’t know what you’re saying. We don’t buy snakes. This is a sanctuary and research center.”

Dale stepped forward. “We got them for the antivenom.”

“Excuse me?” she asked.

“The antivenom. We keep hearing about how it’s in short supply so we thought we’d sell you these snakes so you can make more of it.”

“Save some little kid’s life,” Mickey added. 

The woman forced a smile. “Did someone tell you that we buy snakes for antivenom?”

Dale and Mickey shook their heads.

“Did you read it somewhere?” she asked.

They stared blankly at her.

“We don’t buy snakes, gentlemen. We breed them in captivity and develop antivenom from that. We don’t need more snakes. Ever.”

Dale and Mickey looked at each other. 

“Then why is it in short supply?” Dale asked. “The antivenom.”

The woman shook her head. “Please return these snakes back to the wild.”

Mickey threw his hands up. “But we did all this work!”

“No one asked you do to this,” she said and walked back inside. 

Dale and Mickey drove in silence with the bins of snakes in the truck bed. The desert night was pitch black and the stars shone brightly. 

“You think we should start a snake farm? Like a zoo?” Dale asked.

Mickey rolled down his window and stared up at the stars blinking through the dust kicked up by the truck. 

“You ever think about how some of the brightest stars are dead? The died a long time ago but their light remains. Some remnants traveling across the galaxy to greet us. Does that make them real?” Mickey asked.

“I just don’t know what we’re going to do with all those snakes,” Dale said. “It’s not like we can take them back to the barracks.”

“It’s like their existence is an idea. A thought. A story that keeps getting told so we believe it’s real.”

“The stars?”


S.R. Schulz is a writer with work in HAD, Rejection Letters, Autofocus and McSweeney's. His forthcoming novel SUPERSYMMETRY is out Feb 2025 with Ooligan Press.