We went at night, without headlights, because camping there was illegal. The man called Guy had a permit to do what he did but the rest of us were only unauthorized accomplices. And anyway, the federales, cared little enough for Americans and their permits. They needed no provocation to stop us, tear the van apart and, finding nothing, plant some opiates under the hood then haul us into Mexican jail for drug running. We were not interested in crossing paths with the federales.
We were interested in the interspecies colonies that grew up in pockets in the volcanic desert environment of the Pinacates, a little known national park just north of Puerto Penasco. Elephant tree, senita cactus, brittlebush, cholla, creosote bush. A plant started out solo then gained friends as it drew the sparse rainfall to it, creating moisture and shade and eventually an intimate nursery at its feet. The elephant tree was named for its gray elephantine bark. When wounded it oozed a thick reddish sap like frankincense. It was smooth and patriarchal and while it never grew larger than bush size, its thick limbs—each one a trunk of its own—stretched out to create a welcoming shade. An invitation. The man called Guy studied that invitation and the guests that arrived because of it. We were there with tape measures and soil testers, stubby pencils and waterproof notebooks to help gather data and drink some excellent tequila and fall in love with that corner of the desert. Why the notebooks were waterproof I have no idea.
Our first night out in that splendid corner of the Sonora was not quiet. The desert birds and mammals come alive in the cool of night. I came alive too and walked away from camp to be in that greater energy. What I saw surprised me. I had missed it by daylight. The lava which covers most of the Pinacates shone bright black in the moonlight but here and there the marks of passage were clearly visible; old pathways across the lava; old human pathways. In the morning I asked Guy about it and he said the trails, invisible by day, needed only be visible at night for that was when the people traveled. Of course. The marks of many feet—I could almost hear them scuffing the lava—led people to where they wanted to go. Night walkers adapted to the desert. Night walkers walking as the animals in the cool darkness came alive.
When I was a chubby six-year-old, I had a starring role in a little-known horror film called Blood and Guts. It was written, directed and filmed by a man whose friends and co-workers never suspected his Hitchcockian tendencies. He even had a walk-on role in the movie, á la Hitchcock, in which he played the part of a buxom nanny. This man was my father.
We lived in New York City at the time, but the filming took place at my grandmother’s house in New Jersey where we spent the summer. A great big chunk of New Jersey was its own horror film in the late 1950s, or so ran its reputation. Industry along the turnpike belched smelly black smoke that had us rolling up the car windows and crying out, “Pigs, you stink!” Pigs probably had little to do with it; in that part of the state there wasn’t a farm animal in sight. But farther out, towards Bernardsville, cows grazed and the land got lush. Here was the garden state of New Jersey’s license plate.
My grandmother’s garden was glorious: beets, carrots, string beans, tomatoes, and every kind of lettuce you could think of. We were city kids but we knew about walking barefoot between the rows to yank a beet from the ground. No matter how carefully we washed the dirt off them, they still had a strange, bitter aftertaste that clung to our tongues, and they stained our clothes magnificently. In summer the sky, when not host to thick thunderclouds, ran a pale, sickly blue, and the humidity forced us into my grandmother’s brilliant blue swimming pool. My mother lay in the sun and my father worked in the city, commuting every day by train. We kids did nothing but play and eat Dairy Queen sundaes and read books and talk back to our mother. Maybe it was our talking back and our unemployed state that inspired my father to make the movie. All I know is that in the hottest days of the hottest July on record in New Jersey, our director decided to start filming.
The movie’s plot line was simple but unsavory—so unsavory, in fact, I’d be wise not to reveal it here. The world has changed since 1959 when my father bought an 8 millimeter camera and decided to put his own twist on home movies. Back then, horror films were more dopey than horrifying, a kind of slapstick entertainment that might involve three naughty children tying their mother to the railroad tracks and jumping up and down as the train approached. Throw in a visiting devil, equipped with horns and a tail, and a black cat, and you have yourself a nightmare of Freudian proportions.
How could we have had so much fun creating something that sounds so disturbing? For one thing, it was a family project. Instead of going fishing together we stayed home and tied our mom to the railroad tracks while Dad kept the camera rolling. All week I looked forward to the weekend when I’d wake up and be in his movie. It started when we picked him up at the train on Friday evening. My mother drove us to the station in our pajamas. Dad would get in the Rambler on the passenger side and we’d go to the Dairy Queen. We’d drip ice cream all over the seats and bounce around on the way home, and if we were lucky we’d hit the tracks just as the crossing bells started up, and my mother would laugh and fly across and wait, looking back at the train. We were mesmerized by trains. Their pounding wheels gave me goosebumps; they still do. Some evenings we kids would put a penny on the track and if we were lucky we’d find a squashed piece of copper, too hot to hold, after the Erie Lackawanna went by. At home my dad would put us to bed, something he never did during the week. He smelled of newspapers and city things, and here it was summer and we were far from the city. It was comforting to know he was in the house, eating supper with my mother, and tomorrow we’d wake up and be in his movie.
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 fire power 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 enormous snake’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. It was December 25th. 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.