The Serpent Holder

I came here to dream. Miles away from the nearest person, with a ridiculous amount of snow on the ground—remnant of a big winter, melting the while, pillowy in its hardness, decaying in the afternoons. I often do not sleep well, and rarely remember what goes on in the night theater, and yet I came here with the purpose of dreaming.

I did not choose this purpose. I did not think, I am going up there to dream. I knew it as I was trekking up and in. Aha. This is why I am going. I am going to dream.

Not, picture a rosy future, or wish for my deepest desires. Not that kind of dream. Real, literal, sleep-dreams.


Arcturus is as red as Mars, rising over the far ridge as the night falls. The Lion’s forepaws point, as ever, at the Hydra’s head. Then, in the middle of the night, dreams interrupted by a tremendously long pee, I open the door and stand on the front step. I am greeted by the Serpent Holder, rising, snake in hand—and Hercules, arm outstretched, reaching for that serpent’s head.


The next afternoon I come back from a little jaunt and step into the square of good earth by the house that I have shoveled free from snow. The sun is hot, and the snow is wet—but even here, right by the house, half a meter high.

I jump back. A viper is sunning himself, stretched out straight along the line where the house meets the ground.

He sees me and moves, not fast, behind the shutter propped against the wall. I lean down to follow him with my eyes in his strange tunnel. He emerges from the other side of the shutter, contemplates climbing the front step, then turns left. There is a tiny hole at ground level in the wall. He sticks in his head and slowly starts to wriggle in.

I will grab him. I open the front door and find a work glove for my right hand. His passage is tight, so he moves only slowly into it. If you didn’t realize there was a small hole there, you would see a snake evaporating into a wall. As in a dream.

I grab his tail, hold tight. Slowly pull. The walls of the hole resist. I pull back delicately, not wishing to injure him. And then he is out—slightly hurt nevertheless, a yellowish goo on on the side of his triangular head.

And here we are. My arm stretched out. He tries to coil and strike but doesn’t have the musculature to get close enough to land a hit. I am standing on the front step looking out onto the snow, a serpent hanging from my hand.

I hadn’t been expecting the Serpent Holder last night, at 1:23, as I opened the door after my pee to have a look at the sky. I might have figured it out, if I had thought about it, but I prefered to be surprised by the night sky. And now I am myself the serpent holder.

I step inside the house, and with the hand that was not occupied I empty the covered basket I keep waste paper and cardboard in, to be burned when it is full. With one hand on the cover and one on the viper I slowly drop him in, then jam the lid on tight. To make sure it stays down I place a bag of firewood on top of it.

Now I can breathe. I go to the larder and find a date bar to eat, then go to the sink and drink long from the tap. In the middle of the room is a basket with a viper in it and a bag of firewood on top. Next to the basket is a few weeks’ worth of paper trash, and candle butts, and burned out matches.


My plan is to take the snake across the stream and let him free. I like snakes but the company’s too close when they’re venomous and living in my house. The problem is that there’s a meter of snow on the ground and it’s a steep hike up to where I can  cross the stream. It’s midday and the snow is soft, and I have little confidence in this African basket with a lid that could easily drop off.

Upstairs, however, is one of those blue plastic casks with a black top and a metal ring that seals it on. It’s full of sleeping bags and mats, keeping them safe from the mice. The last time I carted a snake away, last summer, this cask worked like a charm. So I go upstairs to get the cask.

It isn’t there.

Why isn’t it there?

There’s only one place it can be, and that’s under a trapdoor to a little storage space under the upstairs floor. I move the ladder that’s blocking the trapdoor, open it, and see, to my delight, the cask. I empty it of gear and carry it downstairs.

There’s now a pile of sleeping bags on the upstairs floor and one of trash on the floor below. And I have to get the snake from the basket into the cask.

Hollah! The basket just fits in the cask. I drop it in, removing the lid as it falls, then seal the cask. I have a cask full of a basket full of a snake.

The cask is about a meter high, but it has useful black plastic handles and is relatively light. I put my snowshoes on, and, carrying the cask in one hand and my skipoles in the other, start up the hill. But the snow is indeed soft, too soft, and I slip back with almost every step, and with the bad ones I sink in, despite snowshoes, up to my thighs. It’s impossible to find a rhythm. I am soon sweating madly and out of breath. But I carry on, through the deep snow with my cask and my basket and my snake.

The stream is tricky. The soft snow borders it on both sides with a wall a meter high. I find a weak spot, then wade up the stream, my snowshoes scraping along its smooth stone bed, until I reach the weak spot on the other side. I don’t know where I’m going now, but am scanning the landscape for some morsel of steep southern slope where the sun will have melted clear a few square meters of grass and rock. As this is the south side of the stream, and therefore a north-facing slope, such a spot is hard to find.

I step, I sink, I flail, I sweat. I drag the blue cask along the snow, or use it to prop myself up. I think of the snake inside, in the darkness. Nothing ever prepared it for this. I think that perhaps, in the history of the world, no man has ever snowshoed up a mountain with a viper in a basket in a cask.

Finally I see the spot. It’s steep, and at the top of a gully that leads straight back down to the stream—but it’s grass, and it’s rock, and my snake will find a hole there somewhere to slide into. And for now he’s got the sun to warm him up.

Time to get down to business. I open the metal clasp that seals the cask. The black top is a tight fit on its own, and I have to struggle to loosen it. I have, I must admit, completely forgotten about the basket; in my mind, only the snake is inside. In a quick move I pull off the lid, tip the cask, and shake. The snake slides onto the grass. The basket rolls down the gully. I watch it, shocked and helpless, as it flies over the wall of snow into the stream. Then it is gone.

The snake lies in an undisciplined coil on the grass. It has stopped moving. It will probably lie there, still, for some time, warming in the sun.


I take my cask and head for home. As I approach the stream I see the basket. It has got caught in a backwater among some branches, and is half full of water, but stationary. I cross the stream and head down it to see if I can rescue it. I am worried about what to do with my burnable trash, and besides, it was a gift from my mother, brought home from Kenya, and I would be sad to see it lost.

Rescuing the basket involves a good fifteen minutes of acrobatics, climbing on thin tree branches, in snowshoes, down a cliff to the stream, and using my two skipoles as pincers to capture it. As I had walked up I had at one point realized the idiocy of bringing both skipoles—after all, both up and down, I would have only one free hand. But to rescue the basket the two poles were essential. I brought two poles to rescue the basket. And I came up here to dream.

Finally, the rescue involves stepping into the stream with both snowshoes and grabbing the thing with my hands.


The basket has dried in the afternoon sun. The trash and sleeping bags are in their usual places again. The serpent is across the stream. It has just gone dark outside. I am about to step out and have a look at the first stars. Arcturus, red, will have climbed over the horizon. The Virgin’s head will be coming up, behind the Lion’s tail.

I don’t remember what I dreamed last night. I only remember what I saw on waking as I stood on the front step: the shock of the Serpent Holder clearing the mountain called Moncucco, and Hercules’s arm stretched out toward the serpent’s head.

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