El Serpiente del Cañón
A New Mexico folktale
The morning Don Epifanio Tafoya saw the serpent he was on his way to his cousin's house, hoping she'd invite him in for a meal before sending him home. He'd planned to have gotten a turkey for her which is why he was in the woods at all. But his hunting was unsuccessful. For one thing, he'd forgotten his rifle, and for another, he'd seen none. Not a single sign of them or any other wildlife in the entire monte he'd traversed for last the two hours. So he was on his leisurely ride back to the valley on his faithful companion, Dos, a stocky little palomino whose short legs made him an excellent trotter, but not much of a runner. The horse knew his way home by instinct and walked much like a sleepwalker, one step at a time along the cowpath carved in the middle of the valle, the flat meadow reached only after a steep climb of a mile or so.
Published on LatinoLA: October 31, 2017
Don Epifanio was known for several traits among all who lived in the little valley known as Cañoncito de Las Manuelitas. The first was that he loved food, anything cooked by anyone besides himself was his favorite. This is one reason why he visited his vecinos up and down the ten miles or so of road that connected our little valley to other communities. His visitations led to the second characteristic he was well-known for: He always "paid" for his meals, from chopping wood to fixing farm equipment to painting or patching up sheds, chicken coops, or rabbit hutches.
Whatever the woman of the house asked him to do would be completed by the time she laid out the meal of the day for his consumption. Never mind that she had her own husband or male family member to do what ever chore she had on her list of honey-dos, if she spotted Don Epifanio coming down the driveway or cowpath to the house, the vecinas always had something left over just for him. The men didn't mind either, knowing their vecino would finish something they didn't want to do or they left on purpose knowing he'd do it for them. Because his meal stops were either at married couples' homes or at those of elderly women, this act brings us to the third characteristic: his aversion to marriage. Oh, he loved the ladies--old ones, young ones, thin or stocky ones, brunettes, blondes or grey-haired ones--didn't matter to him. He didn't discriminate, especially if they invited him to eat. However, he refused to accept invites from any of the single ones, out of self-preservation. "Me quieren casar," he explained to anyone who'd ask why. "They all want to marry me, and I am not the marrying kind."
He was rich in land (a whole acre), and not much else. Not quite handsome with a round face, he had a pretty round body to boot due to his eating habits. We joked it was as though we were all his personal restaurants being that every woman of the house had their own specialties. He always showered each cook with lavish praise before he left their homes, and the women accepted it as genuine. Don Epifanio was known for his honesty; to him, lying was sinful.
So the morning he came galloping from out of the woods and burst into the clearing of his prima's backyard, both he and his horse glossy with sweat and shaking with panic, no one doubted they'd experienced something horrible.
The spring breeze wafted through the pine needles of the tall pines and blue spruce on either side of the path, whistling here and there when it picked up from time to time and then falling still. There were minutes when Don Epifanio heard only the rustling of the leaves and needles on the ground or the occasional sharp clomp when the horse's shoes struck a stone. The air smelled of wet grass as the dew dried in the sunshine. He was grateful for the recent rains because otherwise the ground would be dry and the trementina, or sap, from the trees would smell like kerosine. The strike of a horseshoe on a rock could emit a spark that could start a wildfire when the monte was that dry.
As horse and rider made their way toward the bend in the path where they'd turn right and begin their downward descent a mile from his prima's house, Dos whinnied softly. Don Epifanio noticed the forest had grown more quiet than usual. No birds twittered in the trees, no squirrels scampered about, not even a cricket made a sound. It was as still as a tomb. Don Epifanio looked around in all directions, feeling like the air had warmed and he was in some kind of cover, like a blanket that made the air dense and breathing difficult. It didn't feel like a comforting protection though. It made the hairs on his arms rise and sent a warning tingle down his spine. Both he and Dos stood completely still, only their eyes looking from side to side as they searched for whatever it could be making them uncomfortable.
Dos began to fidget under Don Epifanio's control. He whinnied again and tried to get his owner to move, raising and lowering his head in protest and trying to go forward against the restraint of the reins. Up ahead was a snag of fallen trees and broken branches, the center of which looked dark, like a hole had been made among the tangled limbs. Then the blackness of the aperture filled with something. Something lighter in color than the black was spilling out and down to flow forth like a blob of grey lava from the mouth of a volcano. Now, the only sound was the rustling of leaves and the crackling of twigs as the thing just kept falling from the hole and moving in a snakelike slither along the forest floor. When two yellow-green slits opened slightly and something pink shot forward from beneath, that's when Don Epifanio knew he was looking at a culebra. Not just any snake, a serpent that was as round as the belly of the horse and as long as…as--he didn't know, couldn't tell and didn't wait to find out. The thing was still coming forward, the body still emerging and no end in sight. When the reptile's eyes widened and mouth opened big enough for Don Epifanio to see the sharp fangs, the sound of a thousand rattlers filled the air. That's when the man stopped trying to control the horse which had been side stepping and rising in little jumps on his hind legs to get his owner moving. Dos shot forward, and Don Epifanio clung on lest he fall and become lunch to the biggest snake he'd ever seen.
"Apúrale! Ándale, Dos!" Don Epifanio hollered from time to time, looking back every so often to see if the monster was in pursuit. So when he and his horse flew out of the woods that afternoon looking like the devil himself pursued them, the first to see them was his Prima Paula, who was behind her house hanging linen on the clothesline. Hearing the thud of galloping hoofbeats, she stopped her work to see who was coming. Don Epifanio told her his story after catching his breath and while brushing Dos down. The brave little steed drank water from a pail Paula'd placed on the ground and finally stopped his shivering under his master's brushstrokes. Don Epifanio was still shaking though, which served to give his account more credence with his cousin as witness.
Within a few hours every resident of our little valley heard about el serpiente, and among them was one who'd lost one of his cows the day before. Don Perfecto and his faithful Blue Healer, Chiva, had walked the entire monte from fence line to fence line, from the valle to Las Cañadas to Las Tusas and everywhere in between. Neither snake nor cow was found, and of course the general consensus was that the cow had become a meal to the [i]serpiente. So all the men from each location gathered to put a plan in motion to see for themselves and to rid their mountains from such a deadly creature if they did indeed find it. About twenty of them saddled up their horses early the next morning after Don Epifanio's encounter, and they rode up the mountain in a line, each horse and rider separated from the other by about thirty feet or so. They'd persuaded Don Epifanio to come with them and show them where he'd seen the beast. Along the way they threw rocks into the large snags or holes in rock ledges they found, in case it had more than one den or hiding place.
After several hours of finding nothing, they had to conclude that el serpiente lived in the deepest, darkest part of the woods, in a place undiscovered by man. The only evidence it left behind were pieces of shed snakeskin like gossamer caught in the branches of trees when it blew up from the pine cone and fern-covered forest floor and the large paths it carved on the ground through the years. We knew when the wildlife was absent from the monte it was feeding again, so we all concluded the cow wasn't missing after all--and we thanked her silently for her self-sacrifice so that the rest of us could live in peace and without fear--until the next time el serpiente awoke hungry and slithered out of its den to hunt.
Because the wildlife disappears roughly every five years even to this day, there are some who believe it still resides here. And it only feeds during these long absences of our four-footed friends: the bears, cougars, deer, and elk which normally abound in our little green valley. They disappear like clockwork every fifth year for months at a time, only to return to their familiar grazing locations thereafter. What's so weird is that when any of us goes up into the mountains which surround our valley, we still see the large cleared path which snakes through the undergrowth and meanders between the pines and piñón trees; we still see the large snags with dark holes in the center, and we wonder if those are small dens it occupies as it travels the hundreds of acres all around us. We wonder how such a creature lives and survives in our midst, yet none of us has seen it except our Don Epifanio who passed on in the 1960s. With the recent discovery of large reptiles in the United States, even a 700 pound one found in the mountains of North Carolina, who's to say the culebra seen by our ancestor in the early 1900s wasn't one such monster? Or that its descendants are still alive and thriving in our New Mexico Rocky Mountains? Just because we haven't seen it doesn't mean one of these days one of us might. We'll let you know if and when we do--if we run fast enough to tell our own story…
Carmen Baca is the author of El Hermano, her debut novel. She has three other short stories and one article published and has two more awaiting publication.
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