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The Healer and The Serpent

An Excerpt from Chapter One: The Painted Desert

By Brannan K.Published about a year ago Updated about a year ago 10 min read
The Healer and The Serpent
Photo by William Rouse on Unsplash

"Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour." - 1 Peter 5:8


Late August, 2015 - Somewhere along Interstate-15, Nevada

The asphalt stretched across the sands, a black scar marring the carefully painted canvas of desert, forging ever onward toward a final destination. Brightly painted lines wound eternally through the landscape as the road joined and exchanged with others like it, thrusting its passengers ahead like destiny itself. Some travelers allowed themselves to be guided by the hypnotizing curves and straights, following the streaks of yellow and white endlessly winding before them; unquestioning wanderers with a general direction in mind but trusting in the road to take them there. Others had meticulously crafted itineraries, where any detour could prove apocalyptic. The only constant was the premise that every ending and beginning would be different for each soul who traveled upon it. Every nexus a new opportunity to turn back, adjust course, or continue forward.

The desert it traversed displayed a natural and malevolent beauty. The myriad shades of tans and browns washed together blandly at times, but often found themselves contrasted against vibrant splashes of red and orange. Diminutive and wanting greens sprouted beneath a typically azure ceiling pocked with towers of white. The boulder-strewn hillsides rose and fell across the horizon, granite visages sculpted by centuries of weather as they stood watch over the land. Large cacti reached upwards with their exultant arms, architectural spires crafted by nature herself. They were earthen skyscrapers with spacious apartments for various insects and birds. The ground was scarred with deep, irregular cuts where water once flowed plentifully this way and that, erosion exposing gem-encrusted riches beneath. The rugged topsoil mostly disintegrated to dust, split by the roots of vegetation as their tendrils ventured forth from the earth, grasping for the elusive lifeblood that would quench their thirst. Animals, both furred and scaled, eked a survival out of the harshness that seldom provided for them in abundance. Salvation was often found in the sacrifice of another.

It was an inhospitable environment, yet particularly romanticized by some and alluring for all the wrong reasons to the naïve. Its real charm was captured by those who respected it for what it was. Perhaps that was where the divine artistry of the matter lie; every day the truest essence of life and death performed as actors upon the arid stage. It was a cinema of unbridled natural selection, witnessed and revered by those who relished in visceral pursuits. There was no curtain call ending here; the play continued in an endless loop.

The stage was currently obscured by the type of pitch black darkness akin to genesis. It was the kind of darkness that is only realized when one is miles from the lights, sounds, and machinations of civilization. A humbling and encapsulating darkness - punctuated only by the mass of twinkling delight above - that makes one acknowledge their miniscule stature in the world. But even the stars were hidden by a mire of impenetrable clouds this night, drifting onward where they may. Storms often appeared and disappeared there in such a manner; a sudden and fierce deluge ravaging the land before a rapid exit was made.

In the midnight hour, little was visible without an eyesight honed by millennia of evolution and suited to nocturnal predation. You would likely hear the play before you saw it; the thundering roar of thousands of tons of water careening down a ravine, destruction in its wake. The fevered yelping of coyotes as they closed on a frantic jackrabbit. An agonized squeal as the chase concluded, the hunted entering the void via the maw of the hunter. Primal instincts would take hold; body and endocrine system flooding with adrenaline, mixed with memories and fear borne and passed down through generations by men who dwelled in caves. Life and death.

There was a stillness along this lonely stretch of interstate that bordered such a ruthless kingdom, broken only by tractor-trailers laden with tons of goods, thundering by with haste through the night. They followed the disinteresting tar as they drove on, perpetually ahead of one but behind another. Their high-beams penetrated the darkness for moments at a time; light crashing against the dark, repelling it backward like the vanguard of a superior force advancing the battle-line. The light was repeatedly thwarted as shadows rallied, counterattacking and enfolding the world in their cold embrace once again. Snippets of the darkened world about were revealed and forgotten almost as soon as they came.

A Mojave rattlesnake - lengthy, with a thick girth - slithered onto the granulated surface of the road. The unnatural texture abraded its underbelly as it undulated slowly across the lanes. The asphalt transferred a wealth of heat into the serpent that was retained since the setting of the sun hours ago, encouraging its meandering pace. Its forked tongue spat out and rescinded rapidly as it tasted the air around it. It searched for the flavor of any prey or threat. Sensing a vibration deep in the earth, the snake paused, lifting its angular head and gazing around for the source. The vibration built in intensity, shooing the snake quickly across the remainder of the road. It dove into the underbrush, concealing itself in the depths of creosote and desert marigold that lined the drainage. The snake vanished with a perturbed flick of its tail.

An van trundled into view, the white paint an inverse of the blackness that abounded. Yellow-tinged headlights barely pierced the veil of the night. It slowed and pulled to the right, crossing over the rumble strips meant to awaken drowsy drivers. Each divot gave an audible warning, demolishing the surrounding solitude. The tires crunched onto the gravelly shoulder, brakes scraping with the slightest screech of metal on metal. The whine of a loose serpentine belt took over, pervading the night as the van was shoved into park and the engine began to idle. It sat, a curious sentinel on the empty desert plain, mere feet from where the rattlesnake coiled defensively, watching.

Pale light flashed into being as the overhead lamp in the cab was switched on. A trembling hand descended from the ceiling to slowly tousle a head of unkempt graying hair. The hand repeatedly massaged near the right temple, as if to dull the pain of a throbbing headache, then moved south to finger an unruly beard. The rimmed glasses framed deep, brown eyes, set within circles of sleeplessness. His face was stricken with apprehension and indecision. He stared through the windshield, somewhere far past the headlights and into the blackness. A bead of sweat collected on his brow, unusual inside the air-conditioned cab. It was a telltale sign of his distress.

A tumultuous battle raged within as he moved both hands to the steering wheel, knuckles whitening with his tightening grip. The hair on his arms stood upright. He broke his grip and smoothed the front of his button-down short-sleeve shirt, taking a deep breath and exhaling slowly. His features settled, a grim determination spreading across his face. He unclipped his seatbelt, ducking behind a loosely drawn curtain into the rear of the van.

The sliding door on the passenger side clicked resoundingly in the calm night air. The wheels thundered like horse hooves at the derby as they rolled down the track. The man supposed the racket could have been heard for miles and cringed at the noise. The scene held the unflinching gaze of the audience; the boulders on the hill, the cacti's disturbed guests, and the snake. The inside of the van was illuminated by tepid moonlight filtering through a freshly parted hole in the clouds. All surveyed the cargo area with bated breath, stage-fright seizing the man's heart. Pieces of the puzzle began to form a reprehensible picture, shocking the crowd.

Plastic lined the floor of the van. Bottles of bleach and ammonia, latex gloves, and lidded buckets of water were strewn about. Most ominously, a jumbled mass of cotton and polyester lay in the center. All was on display in that moment and the man trembled at the thought. He reminded himself why he was there as his stare fell upon the heap at his feet; it was time to begin. He mused for a moment, ceding the realization that he had already begun long-ago. Now was just another leg of the journey. He fought intermittent waves of panic as they crashed upon his already compromised conscience. The message hidden under the array of disheveled sheets - his testimony to God and man alike - would be revealed. Finally.

"Don't worry about it, there's nobody here! Just get it done!" he chided himself. He was acting like a fool. He found comfort knowing that the desolate landscape would not betray him as a witness. Conversely, the worst depths of him relished the the thought that his work would soon be discovered. His insides writhed and squirmed as his adrenal glands released more epinephrine into his bloodstream, a sick form of Stockholm Syndrome affected by his own satisfaction.

Grunting at the task, the man bent low as his hands sought purchase under the heavy rolls of fabric. He exhaled and heaved upright, crouching under the low roof as he hefted the load to the open door. He hunched there, bearing the physical weight. He held both the burden of his animosity and despair. The product of his passion was suspended in his arms and time. The weight was juxtaposed to that within him. He still harbored a modicum of hope deep inside; a hope that wrongs could be righted, and that salvation was indeed possible. Not only for him, but for the many lost souls wandering the path he harvested from. Gravity pressed upon him like so many anchors sinking in the depthless sea. Or was it...guilt?

He craned his head back and cried out, discarding the burden, physical and otherwise. He flinched, hearing the thump of dead weight meeting the ground, rebounding slightly before it settled. A flush coursed through his body as all sensory systems were inundated with stimuli. He felt more alive than he had of late. He remained stooped in the doorway for a moment, his breathing ragged, staring down at it. As the temporary elation faded, a morose despondency commonly felt by one who has parted ways with something of great significance gripped him. He broke his vigil.

The door rolled on the tracks again and slammed shut, a note of finality that none would hear. The transmission grinded into gear, tires crunching down the shoulder gradually, like a quarter-horse gaining momentum at the beginning of a wagon-pull. The man gazed into the mirror, transfixed on the lump as the tail-lights cast a red aura upon it. A ghastly haze lit the scene. The light faded as he continued, relinquishing his control into the clutches of a derelict and lonely twilight.

The heap lay there, motionless and shrouded in darkness. It remained so as countless vehicles filled with the unwitting passed through the night. One such truck-tractor passed so closely, the vortex of air it left in its wake parted a fold of the fabric. It exposed a human hand resting limply in the dirt, fingertips bloodied raw as if worked to the bone with sandpaper. The desert was overly-familiar with the blossoming shade of red added to its canvas.

Intrigued by the new addition to its territory, the snake slithered out from its hide, hesitantly approaching the grotesque lump. Again, it tasted the air for any threat. Its infrared pits detected naught but a cold stillness radiating from the unmoving mess. It nosed the limp hand and flicked it with its tongue, finding the strange flavors distasteful and not to be consumed. The snake crossed over the bony wrist, its scaly girth sliding across exposed flesh. It was no benevolent servant of Asclepios this morning, and no miracles transpired there. Snakes cared not for the mysticism ascribed to them. It continued on its way, seeking a hovel to shelter in before the brisk chill that accompanied sunrise set in.

The beckoning sun crested the horizon to the east, rising higher each second. The orb signaled the arrival of a promising new day and adorned the clouds above and sands below with iridescent hues of radiance. The picture-perfect scene of a postcard spread rapidly, light from the heavens washing over the land. It would be witnessed in unadulterated splendor by those present enough to see it firsthand. Morning doves and quail cooed softly in mesquite trees and underbrush nearby, stirring from their peaceful slumber. Field mice trod cautiously, making their way back to their den from another dangerous night of foraging.

The rumble-strips gave a loud report as a small sedan pulled onto the shoulder and stopped. A whimsical, slender young lady looked upon the canvas before her with fervor and joy. She exited the driver seat and opened the rear door, pulling a tripod and digital camera from the backseat. She turned on the camera and fiddled with settings, eyeing the phenomenal vista with glee. The frame of a once in a lifetime photograph was emblazoned in her mind's eye. The way the sun silhouetted a particular cactus on a hill in the distance - perfectly centered in the rising star - gave an appearance of one worshipping to the heavens. She smiled, imagining what one would be praying for in that moment if it were to be. She finished her programming and rounded the rear of her car, purposed in her pursuit of cherishing the moment and capturing it forever.

She would indeed capture it forever. Her shriek shattered the ripening dawn as her camera fell from her grip. She backpedaled, weak knees losing strength as they crashed to the earth. Her hands reflexively shielded her face from the horror. The screams continued as the morning doves rocketed into the kaleidoscopic sky.



About the Creator

Brannan K.

****Vivid prose and thrills****

Favorite Reads:

Terry Brooks - The Shannara Trilogy

J.R.R.Tolkien - Lord of the Rings

James Rollins - Ice Hunt

Ernest Hemingway - The Sun Also Rises

Cormac McCarthy - Blood Meridian

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Comments (3)

  • L.C. Schäferabout a year ago

    Scene perfectly painted on the inside of my eyeballs, I felt like I was THERE!

  • Zack Grahamabout a year ago

    You really took your time painting the southwestern badlands; I felt like that stretch of desert could be familiar to anybody. The colors, the textures, and the chaos was all given life through your colorful guidance. Loved the omniscience of the terrain and the animals dwelling within. I can see this being an incredible opening chapter to a dark crime novel.

  • The mystery and suspense was so gripping right from the beginning! Your sentences had a poetic touch to it, very brilliant! I also admire your attention to details. This was such a well written fantastic story!

Brannan K.Written by Brannan K.

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