The Snake: August 2022

The Snake
A Short Story by Stephen Crane

Where the path wended across the ridge, the bushes of huckleberry and
sweet fern swarmed at it in two curling waves until it was a mere
winding line traced through a tangle. There was no interference by
clouds, and as the rays of the sun fell full upon the ridge, they called
into voice innumerable insects which chanted the heat of the summer day
in steady, throbbing, unending chorus.

A man and a dog came from the laurel thickets of the valley where the
white brook brawled with the rocks. They followed the deep line of the
path across the ridges. The dog–a large lemon and white setter–walked,
tranquilly meditative, at his master’s heels.

Suddenly from some unknown and yet near place in advance there came a
dry, shrill whistling rattle that smote motion instantly from the limbs
of the man and the dog. Like the fingers of a sudden death, this sound
seemed to touch the man at the nape of the neck, at the top of the
spine, and change him, as swift as thought, to a statue of listening
horror, surprise, rage. The dog, too–the same icy hand was laid upon
him, and he stood crouched and quivering, his jaw dropping, the froth of
terror upon his lips, the light of hatred in his eyes.

Slowly the man moved his hands toward the bushes, but his glance did not
turn from the place made sinister by the warning rattle. His fingers,
unguided, sought for a stick of weight and strength. Presently they
closed about one that seemed adequate, and holding this weapon poised
before him the man moved slowly forward, glaring. The dog with his
nervous nostrils fairly fluttering moved warily, one foot at a time,
after his master.

But when the man came upon the snake, his body underwent a shock as if
from a revelation, as if after all he had been ambushed. With a blanched
face, he sprang forward and his breath came in strained gasps, his chest
heaving as if he were in the performance of an extraordinary muscular
trial. His arm with the stick made a spasmodic, defensive gesture.

The snake had apparently been crossing the path in some mystic travel
when to his sense there came the knowledge of the coming of his foes.
The dull vibration perhaps informed him, and he flung his body to face
the danger. He had no knowledge of paths; he had no wit to tell him to
slink noiselessly into the bushes. He knew that his implacable enemies
were approaching; no doubt, they were seeking him, hunting him. And so he
cried his cry, an incredibly swift jangle of tiny bells, as burdened
with pathos as the hammering upon quaint cymbals by the Chinese at war–
for, indeed, it was usually his death-music.

“Beware! Beware! Beware!”

The man and the snake confronted each other. In the man’s eyes were
hatred and fear. In the snake’s eyes were hatred and fear. These enemies
maneuvered, each preparing to kill. It was to be a battle without mercy.
Neither knew of mercy for such a situation. In the man was all the wild
strength of the terror of his ancestors, of his race, of his kind. A
deadly repulsion had been handed from man to man through long dim
centuries. This was another detail of a war that had begun evidently
when first there were men and snakes. Individuals who do not participate
in this strife incur the investigations of scientists. Once there was a
man and a snake who were friends, and at the end, the man lay dead with
the marks of the snake’s caress just over his East Indian heart. In the
formation of devices, hideous and horrible, Nature reached her supreme
point in the making of the snake, so that priests who really paint hell
well fill it with snakes instead of fire. The curving forms, these
scintillant coloring create at once, upon sight, more relentless
animosities than do shake barbaric tribes. To be born a snake is to be
thrust into a place a-swarm with formidable foes. To gain an
appreciation of it, view hell as pictured by priests who are really

As for this snake in the pathway, there was a double curve some inches
back of its head, which, merely by the potency of its lines, made the
man feel with tenfold eloquence the touch of the death-fingers at the
nape of his neck. The reptile’s head was waving slowly from side to side
and its hot eyes flashed like little murder-lights. Always in the air
was the dry, shrill whistling of the rattles.

“Beware! Beware! Beware!”

The man made a preliminary feint with his stick. Instantly the snake’s
heavy head and neck were bended back on the double curve and instantly
the snake’s body shot forward in a low, strait, hard spring. The man
jumped with a convulsive chatter and swung his stick. The blind,
sweeping blow fell upon the snake’s head and hurled him so that steel-
colored plates were for a moment uppermost. But he rallied swiftly,
agilely, and again the head and neck bended back to the double curve,
and the steaming, wide-open mouth made its desperate effort to reach its
enemy. This attack, it could be seen, was despairing, but it was
nevertheless impetuous, gallant, ferocious, of the same quality as the
charge of the lone chief when the walls of white faces close upon him in
the mountains. The stick swung unerringly again, and the snake,
mutilated, torn, whirled himself into the last coil.

And now the man went sheer raving mad from the emotions of his
forefathers and from his own. He came to close quarters. He gripped the
stick with his two hands and made it speed like a flail. The snake,
tumbling in the anguish of final despair, fought, bit, flung itself upon
this stick which was taking his life.

At the end, the man clutched his stick and stood watching in silence.
The dog came slowly and with infinite caution stretched his nose
forward, sniffing. The hair upon his neck and back moved and ruffled as
if a sharp wind was blowing, the last muscular quivers of the snake were
causing the rattles to still sound their treble cry, the shrill, ringing
war chant and hymn of the grave of the thing that faces foes at once
countless, implacable, and superior.

“Well, Rover,” said the man, turning to the dog with a grin of victory,
“we’ll carry Mr. Snake home to show the girls.”

His hands still trembled from the strain of the encounter, but he pried
with his stick under the body of the snake and hoisted the limp thing
upon it. He resumed his march along the path, and the dog walked
tranquilly meditative, at his master’s heels.

Stephen Crane is generally regarded as one of the great American writers. He spent much of his youth in Forestburgh, here in Sullivan County, and as a young boy was bitten by a rattlesnake near the Mongaup Falls. His short story, “The Snake,” is in the public domain.