White dawn. Golden rays separated around the opening of a teepee, the one where I had spent the night. My body was cold, colder than I ever remembered being. I lay, contracted at every joint, my knees pulled up to my belly, my fingers curled into fists, my arms tucked tightly against my body, too cold to even shiver. The fire had burned out in the night, and the flimsy zipper of my sleeping bag ripped violently open the first time I rolled onto my stomach. My last hope at warmth was the white light of morning slipping through every crack in the teepee canvas and the overwhelming smell of coffee and campfire. I would have to uncurl. I would have to shake this inexplicable drowsiness that felt more like preparing for death than sleep.
I could hear the rustle of Micah outside of my encampment, and although I had only met him the night before, I felt his presence comforting and familiar. I had told him the night before that I was heading to meet friends in Albuquerque, but that was just one of the many lies I had found myself telling. I was actually headed north to Colorado, where I knew nobody, and no one knew me. He was an Apache Indian, this was his land, tribal land, his teepee, his sleeping bag.
I uncurled, the pain from being so cold was unimaginable to me. But I needed to move, I needed to follow the light and the fire and start to thaw.
“Well, good morning, Sunshine.” He beamed such warmth. “I’m surprised you made it! Fourteen degrees out this morning!”
I smiled, my lips cracked and bled, I could taste the salt and iron, but the warmth of my blood felt like a promise that I was alive, I was here, my blood was still warm.
“Come get a cup.” He gestured and began to pour from an iron kettle.
I sat with him beside the fire. The mountain was aglow with crisp sunlight and frost. A light snow covered cacti and shivered white with a bouncing sparkle. It was magnificent. The hot cup in my cold hands ached, but I could feel the blood begin to flow, and my body began to shiver.
“Did you hear the coyotes last night?” He was amused by my suffering, his boyish grin betrayed him. He had the precocious face that lingers with most men, the same face from boyhood, the one that delights in the torment of girls.
I had heard them. They had startled me just after I had fallen asleep. They were close, so close that I could hear their moans and whimpers, their paws slipping in the gravel and sand.
“Just admit it, you were scared.” He was playful and teasing, but I wasn’t much in the mood for it. “You know, you could have slept with me…”
I rolled my eyes. I enjoyed him, appreciated him, his company, our banter, but everything inside of my body was aching to go. I know these exchanges, I know how these things pan out. I know where this road leads. I’m headed in a different direction, and I’m going alone.
“Just so you know, those coyotes are the least of your problems up here. There’s scarier things out here than a pack of wild dogs.”
My entire life I had known men like him, men who get their rocks off trying to scare girls like me. It’s a way of taming us. They see the wild in us and they want to break it, and when they do, they own you. I am the wild horse. He is the rancher.
I played along, but only because I enjoyed him.
“Ok,” I probed, with an air of sarcasm that I hoped was subtle enough to not be rude, but blatant enough to not be missed, “Tell me all the things I should fear in the north Santa Fe mountains. Tell me what’s dangerous enough to make me want to sleep with the likes of you.” I nudged him gently; the feeling of his body touching mine felt like a pull into an abyss. I quickly shifted away from him. “Like a drowning man grabbing an anvil,” echoed in my mind. The line from a poem I had read years ago, that resurfaced and breathed new air into me whenever I met a man I found attractive.
“Well, for starters, we’ve got rattlers the size of my arm.” He made sure to flex in front of me, his arm a well developed mass of muscle. I could see the veins that began in his hands, and I imagined how they snaked up his arms. He was powerful, yet gentle, a beautiful combination.
“Okay?” I half questioned, half stated, more apparent in my irritation now. I felt let down by his talk of rattlesnakes, I wanted to hear tales of something foreign to me, I was hungry for the unfamiliar, “What else?”
“I don’t think you understand, missy. Our rattlers aren’t those little polite northeast types that give a shake when you get too close. Ours wait for you, silent, poised.” He hunched his shoulders and slowed his speech, he turned to me, crouching, ready to lunge and grab me, springing forward and uncoiling he grabbed at me, but I was ready. I shook away. He laughed; and as he laughed he said, “Our snakes are different, man; their rattle is their kill song. The last thing you hear after the venom hits you.” His breathing was heavy from laughter, the wide clouds of cold condensation escaping him with every breath looked like smoke from wildfire.
I was no stranger to men like him, and I was no stranger to rattlesnakes. I had grown up in California, had lived on both coasts and had spend more time in the deserts from California to Arizona than I could count. I wasn’t letting him win this one.
“First of all,” I listed, “It’s fourteen degrees out here this morning. They are burrowed. Second, I was very little when my dad taught me exactly what to do if I was bit. I’m pretty sure I can handle it.”
“Oh, she thinks she’s tough. Okay then, tell me exactly what you’re going to do when you get bit by one of those nasty suckers.” He couldn’t resist the urge to taunt and test me. I could feel my stubbornness waking: it uncoiled inside of me, moving up my spine, sitting me up straight, it traveled to my face, furrowing my eyebrows and deepening my voice.
“You tie it off real tight, like a tourniquet, and then you make an incision. You bleed it out.”
He laughed again. But less hearty this time, the wind had left his sails. “Tough girl, good speech. But could you actually do it?”
I paused. In fairness, he had tapped into one of my universal truths, one of the causes of all of my profound shame. I always had a problem with execution. I could feel a sense of defeat that was well known to me, and as I sank into the feeling. My stubbornness was a rattlesnake that lived within me, one that I could feel recoiling, one that would lie in wait for the next man who dared to challenge me, where I was going and what I needed to do.
I imagine that first cut would be the hardest. After that, I imagine that burning feeling would pass, the venom and blood would flow.
Leanne Woods is an island dwelling surfer who loves to travel and write about her grand adventures. She funds these hobbies by working as a paramedic. Leanne is a first-year student at North Shore Community College.