That Christmas, my father shot an eastern diamondback as it slithered up his horse’s leg. He shot it from the saddle. He shot it with the only gun he had on hand, a .410 shotgun that had too much firepower to keep things looking pretty at close range. He shot it not knowing for certain whether or not he might, in doing so, cripple his best horse. The horse, Ayatollah Khomeini, was a prancer and dancer, muscular and midnight black with a long, shaggy, black mane and tail. The diamondback was muscular as well, and dirt brown with cream-colored markings. When it encountered my father its mouth was open, fangs at the ready like two slices of the moon. The millisecond before he blew its head off, those fangs were three inches from my father’s boot and a foot-and-a-half from his horse’s heart. Fair or not, we gained more respect for the horse that day than for my father. The Ayatollah was not known for a calm and sunny nature, yet a snake of obscene proportions climbed his leg and a shot was fired just off his left shoulder and he never spooked. His eyes got wide and he danced sideways a few steps but he never tried to rid himself of his rider. As for the rider, we knew him to be a settled man, so the nerve it took to address the problem at hand surprised us not at all.
These were the days of Instamatic cameras and someone had the presence of mind to record the moment. The photograph taken soon after the event shows my father down off his horse, his right arm raised straight up in the air, holding the dead snake by what would have been its head, while the tail and rattles rest on the red Georgia clay. It was easily a seven-footer.
What the picture doesn’t capture is what I’m here to tell you about. As with so many great historical moments, the heart of the happening, the emotional heart of it, occurred outside the frame. My father lowered the creature to the ground where, to my astonishment and horror, it writhed for several minutes more. This was the first time I’d encountered this particular phenomenon, this life after death. The rattlesnake’s nervous system simply refused to believe in its own demise. It willed the body across the red dirt and into a thick patch of briers and out again, clean as a lightning strike. The long fearsome muscle traveled the road and jumped in and out of a ditch and there was nothing like it, nothing at all. It was a long dusty tongue, whipping back and forth, talking to an audience I couldn’t see, possibly a chorus of angels. I was terrified and fascinated, then as suddenly as the headless creature had taken flight, it realized it was dead. It stopped right there alongside the road and anyone could approach it, though my father and I were the only ones who did. I felt solemn, but he only laughed at its antics. He brought his knife from his pocket and cut off those rattles, thirteen in all, and handed them to me with a little blood and snake flesh clinging to them. He said, “Merry Christmas, Moo Cow.” That was what he called me back then, Moo Cow.
Years later, I stood in front of the ancient Greek sculpture of Laocoӧn in the Vatican and saw not the agonized man of marble, but my father. And I saw myself in one of his sons, the one on the left who has already succumbed to the serpent, and I realized how lucky we had been to escape the wrath of the gods, and to suffer only mortal dilemmas, like how in the heck do I send this diamondback to its death without killing my horse? The gods were not to be tangled with, as Laocoӧn discovered, but suffering such as his was not unendurable. It was, in fact, in marble, meant to appear beautiful. Virtuous. Inspiring and noble. As I stood before the statue many feelings erupted within me. The most notable one was this: The eastern diamondback of that long ago day, that Christmas day, carried its terrifying beauty much as Laocoӧn did himself. The muscled body purled out before us in an energetic agony I was blind to at the time. Its redemption was its dance across the road.