With the exception of the viper on the floor, it looked to be a lovely morning.  The equinox moon, still present above the trees, had ushered a surprisingly early blue sky, empty of the week’s overcast beginnings.  Birdsong, forty-seven days in and no longer startling, provided its familiar delicious welcome.  Sleep, too, had arrived deep and worthy, the trace of a curious but un-troubling dream fading into the dust particles dancing in the sun stream pouring through the sliding-glass door.  But all of that was fiction now.  Only the viper remained, curled in front of the door, perhaps a foot and a half long, if stretched for measuring, it was not fiction.

      Mortality turns out to be a cold word after all.  The cliché is true.  While I’d slept in my bed, the viper had found a way into my hut to escape the night’s chill.  It is possible that it had just entered, but more likely it owed a full night’s rent.  I shivered in the already warm Andalucia morning.  What do I know about vipers?  They are poisonous.  Mortal.  The only poisonous snake in Britain, I’d recently learned, but this was Spain, where it did not have the distinction of being the only one.  But it didn’t need to be the only one, as long as it was one, a deadly snake, and it most assuredly was.  In my hut, curled, just inside the only door, mortality waited.

      The hut was a quarter-mile from its nearest neighbor in the secluded ravine, which up to this morning had been a stunningly peaceful home for me, ensconced among staggering granite walls just fifteen miles from the sea. There wasn’t a working phone for three miles.  I was on solitary retreat, my food delivered once a week to a basket at the base of an almond tree two-hundred yards up a trail to the west.  The deliverer was good:  I had neither seen nor heard him.  No one would look for me for another nine days, until the end of my eight weeks.  If the viper did do its worst, though, it wouldn’t matter a whole lot if anyone did come calling.

      The little desk where I did my writing and reading stood less than a foot from the viper.  From my perch high in the middle of the bed (I saw no percentage in stepping on the floor), when I was able to look away from my visitor I glanced at the surface of the desk. The room was small enough so I could easily note the words I’d played with last night, writ large in thick blue ink, the words I’d intended to contemplate this morning, following meditation. The words:

       The merit of a man who lives each day knowing it could be his last.

Irony.  Timing is everything, according to the comedians.  I wasn’t smiling but maybe the viper was. Can a viper smile?  I decided I didn’t need to know, figuring the further I was from its mouth, the longer my life expectancy.

      I sat, arms locked around my knees, my back supported but not comforted by the wall.  Comforting would have been a window behind me.  What was the wall made of?  Could I punch a hole in it, expand it, and climb to liberation?  For the first time I regretted not packing a sledge-hammer.  Cumbersome, sure, and a tricky thing to get through security, but right now it would trump every single dharma book I’d lugged from the Pacific to the Atlantic, to and through England for another two weeks, then the train through France to the Iberian Peninsula and to this paradise whose expiration date had suddenly imploded from October 1st to September 22nd.  Just as with tofu or cottage cheese, you don’t want to be around on the drop-dead date.

      Of course, my clenched teeth chattered over the din of my pounding heart, the viper could simply leave the way it came.  It had no reason (had it?) to further invade my space (did it?).  What would a viper want with a mattress atop a simple wood frame, covered with sheets and two thin blankets?  Oh.  Oh.  Sometimes I wish I didn’t read The New Yorker.  One of its memorable cartoons showed one snake conversing with another, advising him with words something like: “You know, you can hide, but you can’t run.”  For all I knew, the viper might like nothing better than to secret itself in the bedding, with or without my breathing presence.  If I were to startle it, what was to say it wouldn’t come in my direction, to burrow beneath me, rather than bolt outside, however it had come in?  Did it remember how it had come in?  I always thought the sliding door to be airtight, but I guess a snake, even if it can’t run, can find an opening that a human can’t.

      I sat.  A true practitioner surely would have seized the opportunity, and meditated deeply, perhaps the six-element practice.  It was the stuff of sutras, assuming survival, that is.  I wonder how many times potentially inspiring sutras have been snuffed out, for lack of a living recorder?  What if Hui Neng wasn’t able to figure out those koans, or, perhaps as a better parallel, figured them out, but before he was recognized as a master, died from frostbite or rabies from sleeping with the rats and garbage and mud?  I guess I wasn’t as true as I’d like to be.  I wanted to be alive, alive and elsewhere.

      The viper remained.  Smiling or not, it did nothing but remain.  On a campus where I once taught, once a month every clock would freeze for a minute or two, apparently to allow the system to correct itself.  It is disconcerting to stare at a classroom clock that will not advance.  Students get nervous.  Something like that, then, was this experience.  The viper wasn’t budging.  I looked at my bedside clock that innocently ticked away.  It had been eighteen minutes.  Eighteen minutes, in a certain light, is little different from a lifetime, and the room was bathed in that particular light.  Perhaps that’s an exaggeration, but if it had showed an hour and eighteen minutes, I would have believed it.

      It wasn’t easy to get my body to this place, to create the time, to finesse the money, to find the courage.  I’d surprised myself, and a goodly number of others, when I actually drove off on the adventure that was to culminate in this two month solitary.  My longest previous solitary:  two days.  My longest retreat of any kind:  two weeks.  And until today, no regrets.  Tom Rush’s “No Regrets” filtered into my mind:

        No regrets, no tears goodbye

        . . .         

        The hours that were yours, echo like empty rooms 
            The thoughts we used to share, I now keep alone

        . . .

        It felt so strange to lie awake, alone.

      In a lifetime of songs, that was the sweetest and saddest I ever knew.  I once vowed to finally learn to play the guitar, solely to be able to play and sing that song.  But I never did take a lesson.  Vows spurted from my lips more readily those days.  Integral to this retreat was writing time, so that I could re-visit and re-work my short stories, and at long last decide whether to weave them into a novel.  Could I write a novel?  That was another corollary benefit of the decision to do the retreat.   If I really could do a two month solitary, surely other once-scary things will fall away.  And I had used the writing time well, finding the necessary threads to make it work, to hold it together as one coherent piece.  It wasn’t finished, but a true first draft was close.  I couldn’t get it done in my remaining nine days, so the trick was to manage well my post-retreat time.  That re-entry time would be my next great challenge.  If I didn’t keep at it over the next four weeks, the draft wouldn’t gel, and I’d be back at work a frustrated man, looking backwards at another wasted opportunity.

      And then I remembered my most-favorite-of-all New Yorker cartoon.  This one I’d taped to the outside of my laptop, which rested, its battery long dead, the re-charger equally dormant, in its dusty carrying case just inches from the viper.  And that memory led me to recall my almost empty “thoughts-in-the-night” notebook that was only inches from me, next to that exasperating clock.  The long-faded cartoon I couldn’t quote exactly, but it was pretty close to this, the words underneath a sketch of the classic Death figure, hooded and carrying his scythe, standing ominously at the side of a man sitting behind a desk, a computer in front of him, and the man looks up and says:  “Thank God you’ve come.  I can’t get anything done without a deadline.”

      And I reached for the notebook.

Tony Press lives two miles from the Pacific. His fiction has appeared in Lichen, Menda City Review, Temenos, and
MacGuffin, and  will soon appear in Rio Grande Review. His poems have appeared in 34th Parallel, Contemporary Verse 2, Spitball, Words-Myth, and the anthology The Heart as Origami, among others.  The Viper's Smile first appeared in Lichen (2006).


Cohesion can arise amid truth and mendacity, exaggeration and imagination.  I did once meet a viper on a long retreat but The Viper's Smile itself is firmly fiction.  Next time, though, I just might pack the sledgehammer. 



Copyright 2009