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Rattlesnakes: The Fable of the Boy and the Rattlesnake, Rewritten
There was once a tribe in which it was custom for boys, once they reached a certain age, to venture into the forest in pairs and survive together from full moon to empty moon to prove their manhood. Our story begins with two such boys who were also best friends. One was named High Cloud and the other was Bright Light. This was High Cloud’s second attempt at proving himself. The first time, he was forced to return early because his companion Rabbit Foot was bitten and killed by the feared rattlesnake, and every tribe member knew that no man, woman, or child can survive anywhere alone.
But that is not our story. High Cloud and Bright Light took their spears and set off. The trees were dense and dying. Sheets of dead leaves amplified their footsteps. Occasionally the tooth-sharp mountaintops peeked above the trees. The first six days, food was plentiful, weather was not extreme, and they were in good health. The boys thanked the spirits for their good fortune.
Then came the seventh day.
The boys woke to freezing temperatures and wind sharper than their spears. They found nothing edible. With stiff hands, High Cloud dug up roots to eat, but their stomachs still felt empty. They ventured on.
When they stopped to rest, Bright Light started a fire. A sputtering thing, hardly a fire, came to life. He squatted before his infant flame and looked around: trees, more trees, still more trees. Mountain.
“Let’s go up the mountain,” suggested High Cloud.
“But that will expose us to the wind,” argued Bright Light.
“It’s better than nothing. We might find a cave or den to shelter us.”
As if to make up their minds for them, a gust snatched away the vague fire.
“It’s a sign from the spirits,” said High Cloud. “We should move.”
They set off and before long reached the foot of the mountain. The only way next was up. So up they went.
Halfway up the mountain, the boys found the opening to an immense cave and cheered. Before they could run inside, Bright Light pointed to the side. “Look!”
A rattlesnake lay a few feet away, curled up in the snow. High Cloud screamed and jumped back. “Get away from it, Bright!”
“But High, it’s not moving. I think it’s frozen!”
“You know what rattlesnakes are. If we pick them up, they’ll bite us and we’ll die!”
“It doesn’t deserve to die, though. Please, can we let it thaw by a fire?”
High Cloud was not about to be around another rattlesnake, but Bright Light was so persistent that he finally relented, on the condition that they keep the snake at a safe distance and carry sticks to beat it back if it attacked. While High Cloud started a fire, Bright Light scooped up the snake in a fold of his furs and brought it in. At least now they had a strong fire that warmed their muscles and bones. The snake lay on one side of the flame, and the boys stood on guard on the other, each armed with a stick.
“It’s still not moving,” Bright Light sighed. “What if it’s dead?”
“All the better,” High Cloud muttered.
“That’s a strange pattern on its back. I don’t think I’ve seen any snake that looks like this one.”
The rattlesnake’s head stirred. The boys gasped. Bit by bit, its scaly body wriggled, as if shedding a frozen skin. Neither of them dared to move or look away. After several minutes, the rattlesnake raised its head and flicked its forked tongue at the gawking boys. Smoke curled from the tip of its tail.
“Did it catch on fire?” Bright Light whispered.
In a puff of smoke, the snake was gone, and a dusty brown mouse sat in its place. Puff! The mouse became a gray cat. Puff! Now it was a black bear cub, and the boys cried out. Puff! An old man sat at the fire, hands folded. His long gray hair was tied back from his weathered face. The boys gasped and dropped their sticks. This was one of the Shapeshifters, the subject of legends the elders told. They were admired and feared, for they could use their powers for good and evil.
The Shapeshifter smiled. “Fear not, good children. I mean you no harm. I am old, and my powers are weakening. I attempted to become a fox, but I turned into a snake instead. I would have died had you not found me. You two saved my life, so I will save yours. What do you need?”
“Shapeshifter, we are very hungry,” explained Bright Light, the first to recover from his shock. “We can’t find any food.”
“I’ll help you. I’ll search for food for the three of us while you keep the fire going.” The Shapeshifter walked to the entrance of the cave. In a cloud of smoke, he turned into a dove, then a mottled owl. He flew into the dusk.
Bright Light watched in fascination as the Shapeshifter flew off. “Wouldn’t it be amazing to be a Shapeshifter?” he asked.
“Perhaps,” High Cloud answered behind him. “But if you were, people would never know your true form.”
Bright Light turned around. “What do you mean?”
Puff! A cloud of smoke swallowed his friend. When the smoke cleared, in his place was a rattlesnake. Bright Light shrieked and reached for a stick, but he wasn’t fast enough. The rattlesnake sank its teeth in the boy’s vein. In minutes, Bright Light dropped dead.
Puff! High Cloud changed back to his human form. He wiped his friend’s blood from his lips and walked to the cave entrance, thinking back to when he’d killed Rabbit Foot. It was almost laughably easy. He’d have to kill the other Shapeshifter, for the old man would figure it out. And he’d need a believable story to tell the rest of the tribe.