Snakebit by Sharon Frame Gay

A Navajo Indian at the start of the 20th Century tells the story of his life and imminent death; by Sharon Frame Gay.

I'm about to die from snakebite. The snake and I were both surprised. Of all the things I thought would kill me, this was pretty far down the list. But not as far down as being hanged for rape, so I guess if you look at it that way, it turns out that maybe this won't be half bad.

I stare down at my forearm, and the calf of my leg, turning red, purple, then black. That rattler must have had a helluva lot of juice in him, is all I can say. Things are feeling pretty bad right about now, I admit to feeling foggy and grey sighted, and I think it's what those bible thumpers say - ya start to see your whole life spin out right in front of your eyes, before God or the Devil comes to fetch you up and lay claim to your sorrowful soul.

I'm part Navajo Indian. Part somethin' else. My Granny, Shamasani, laughed and said that the Indian part musta been what went over the fence last, because sure enough, the Federal Government called me a Redskin and left me on the reservation with Shamasani, to be raised up a Navajo, after my mother run off and left me high and dry in the birthin' hut down by the Colorado River. Who knows who my daddy was, but I suspect his name was Peter, because that's what everybody calls me. Pete. Injun Pete. Born in 1902, right when the US Government decided that they needed to tend to those damned Indians trickling out of the reservation, the way rivers rise during a flood and spill over on the canyon floor. They dreamed up some hare brained idea to send us Navajo children to a white school, in town, away from our home and families, so we could learn to read and write. When I was seven years old, I found myself looking out the back of a broken down old wagon, hitting every pothole and rut there was into town, until I thought my bladder would bust. They crammed me and about twelve other boys in an old lodge, with two people fostering us and feeding all our hungry mouths, an ancient couple, worn out and tired, like old deer hide.

In town, I sure enough was an Indian then. People looked at me as though I was going to scalp 'em, and half the time I wish I could. Not one person ever cared or asked if I was part white. I was simply Pete Drinkwater and that was that.

As soon as I was old enough to learn to read and write, and sign my name, I walked out of that damned school and never looked back. Wasn't missed none, either. I just headed on down that same rutted old road and back to the reservation, where I lived for a while with Shamasani, and she showed me the old ways, the best ways, the Indian ways. How to track a rabbit, make a fire, keep cool in the summer, the Navajo language, and plenty of stories. About brave warriors, and Eagle feathers.

And that's what I wished I was - a brave warrior instead of some half breed loser who walked the railroad tracks at dawn, looking for anything that I could eat, sell, or trade. Licking the booze out of old, tossed away bottles and finding that the burn in my belly matched the fire in my head.

It was hard to find work back then. Times were tough for anybody, especially an Indian. I considered myself one lucky sumbitch to get a job on the railroad . I did all the grunt work, and took the abuse, lifting the heavy stuff the white boys didn't want to lift, gettin' tripped and spit at, but come pay day, we were all alike. I took my coin just like anybody else and fell to eating and drinking every Friday night in whatever town the railroad took me.

Got a gold tooth in my mouth, right in front, just for a rainy day. Figure I'll pull it out if I'm starving, and it ought to buy me a few rounds of whisky and a loaf of bread or two. In the winter, that damned tooth is cold as hell, and in the summer, when I run my tongue over it, it's warm like the desert clay.

I worked the rails for some years before the Depression and then when the bottom dropped out of this country, they decided that white men were the only ones who get to work, and left me high and dry with a few bucks in a chaparral town in New Mexico. Far from home.

I thought a lot about those Eagle feathers and how the braves came about getting them some, and I wished like hell that I wasn't so confused about who I was and where I belonged.

But now, looking back, I see that I was headed plumb to hell through no fault of my own. And it's just because my skin is darker and my hair the color of a raven. I should have stayed among my own kind and given up any sort of dream of being something more than what I was, but that damned gold tooth and a few bottles of whisky made me think I was startin' to channel the white side of me.

She was just a girl in that high desert town. The kind of girl that slaps your food down in front of ya in the cafe, and walks away. The kind of girl who for sure seen better days, bloomed out before she could even ripen, her eyes already saying goodbye a few steps ahead of her. After a while, though, she began to talk to me at closing time, and I admit I hung around until she turned off the lights and locked that door. Well, one thing led to another one night, and I found myself pouring her over the top of the counter and giving her what for. Looking back, it was an act of desperation for both of us. One of us wanted to fly, the other wanted to belong. It felt so good for me, and I suppose for her, that my feet found their way back there about every other night or so and things were going along okay until her boss walked in one night and caught us. Right away, she began to cry, and when he asked her if I raped her, she hung her sorry head and said yes. I fumbled for words, as I fumbled for my fly, and all I could think of was that I was about to die. I tried to run for it, but the man hit me in the back of the head with something and knocked me cold, and the next thing I knew, I was being dragged out of that cafe by my hair, and down the street like a dead deer. It was at this point that I found my feet, and with a quick jerk I busted loose from the men who had me, and after kicking them in the crotch and head, I took off like a bat out of hell. Now I had assault added to the rape of a white girl. I was gonna swing like a wind chime.

So here I am, out in this wilderness, about 100 miles from nowhere, running from the law, and I got this crazy idea to get me some Eagle feathers so that when they hang me, I will have them wove in my hair as a sign of bravery.

Shamasani told me how to go about it. You catch yourself a rabbit, wring its neck, then dig a deep hole in the desert sand. Drop yourself in like a lost spirit, then cover the hole with sage, sticks and tumbleweeds. Place the rabbit on top, above your head and then sit and wait. Wait in the heat and the wind. Chant, and dream, and pray the Eagle sees that rabbit and swoops down after it. Then, just as he reaches out for that meat with his talons, I'll thrust my hands through the sage and sticks and grab his legs, then hold on for dear life til one of us gives up. He'll try to hook my eyes out, and I'll do my best to hold him down and wring his neck. It won't be easy, but what in this life is?

I sat in that hole for so long that my legs went numb. The sun rose and set for two days and still I sat, sweatin' and thinking of that there girl, and the men looking for me. I thought about my ancestors, and the reservation, the US Government and Shamasani. I thought about the white man school I went to, bare feet forced into leather shoes, hair cut short like a bowl around my neck, walking in two worlds the way a ghost would. And I wondered if I would die brave.

The sun was straight overhead when I saw a shadow slippin' above me, going right for that dead rabbit. I tensed and peered through the sagebrush, but didn't see much. Then, without warning, this damned rattler dropped right into the hole with me. We both stared at each other for a second, then he coiled himself up in the corner, and began moving his head like one of them dancers from Egypt that I saw at a side show in town once. I knew I was as good as snakebit, so I reached down and tried to grab him, hoping to fling him out of the hole. He struck first and fast, right into my left calf, and I barely felt it, I was so full of fear and such. I grabbed at his head, and wrapped my hand around it but not before he got me good again on my arm, and then I shook the hell out of him and tossed him out of the hole. He lay there, all dazed and confused. I must have broke a vertebrae or two. He got his revenge in my arm and leg as they began to swell, and the pain shot through me like a shaft of sunlight right between my eyes.

So here I am, about to be a dead man and that damned snake didn't care what color my skin was. No judgment there. Just death. I felt my heart speed up and my legs get weak.

I heard a cry from way up above the clouds, and when I peered up out of the tumbleweeds, I saw him. A great Golden Eagle, his wings so wide it blocked the sun. He tucked them in like an arrow and shot straight down at this little scene in the desert, me, the rabbit and the snake, and quicker than the venom gallopin' through my blood, he grabbed that writhing snake off the ground and flew up into the blue, gone before I had a chance to laugh. In the white man school they would have called this irony.

Partin' the twigs and sagebrush, I stood up and looked out at the ground. The rabbit's still there, still dead, and there's nothing else around for a hundred miles. But, laying there in the dust, is an Eagle tail feather. Beautiful and golden and soft looking, like in my dreams, and I commenced to struggle and cry, and climbed myself out of that hole.

I picked up that feather and stuck it in my hair. For bravery. Then lay down on the desert floor, like some sort of half breed sundial. I know they'll find me soon. I stretch one arm out, pointing towards home, and wait for my spirit guides to take me up, and finally set me back where I belong.


  1. I was totally enthralled by this story - its reach and lyricism were compelling, thank you so much,

  2. yes, it really is a powerful story. I too was totally taken by it, a fascinating piece of writing.

    Mike McC

  3. A moving story with all its facets fully coming together at the end...Its voice reads well, I'm not familiar with Shimasami Navaho but sounds convincing to me!
    B r o o k e

    1. Shimasami, or Shamasami, is the Navajo name for maternal grandmother. The work is pure fiction from my rattled brain, however. :) Thanks for taking the time to read it and for your comments!

    2. oops - meant to type Shimasani or Shamasani with an "n" - too early in the morning in America! :)

  4. A stark comparison to our lives. Well written.

  5. Beautiful, gripping and poetic - Sharon, this is a wonderful piece of writing - a true accomplishment!

  6. What a great story! Fast-moving and absorbing until the last word. Well done, Sharon. Keep writing!

  7. It kept my attentions till the last alphabet. Thank you

  8. I am humbled and touched by all your wonderful comments. Thank you so much for reading my story!

  9. I liked the gold tooth. Also, imagining how it would feel to lie still, waiting for the eagle. Quick question: would it not be "snare" a rabbit? Tracking seemed unlikely to me and was was the only time when I was bumped out of the story. Not a criticism as much as a question.

    Solid beginning, great story, pace & structure just right.

    Migwetch, as they might say a little further north.

  10. Mitchell, Good point! One does snare a rabbit. I stand corrected!