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:
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
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
The thoughts we used to share, I now keep alone
. . .
It felt so strange to lie awake,
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.
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).
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