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Writing Contest Winner: "Courage" by Travis E. Taylor

November 30, 2022 (Last Updated November 30, 2022)

48 Hour Books

We are pleased to announce the winner of our 2022 “In Nature” Writing Contest:

Courage

By Travis E. Taylor

Copper watched the sun reflect off the lake at the bottom of the hill. The little crests of water shimmered as if the surface was littered with precious diamonds. From the cover of a fallen tree branch at the top of the hill, he licked at the crisp breeze that gave the first tastes of fall. He took his midday nap in the shade of the browning leaves that clung pointlessly to the rotting wood. The mole he had caught the day before sat warmly in his stomach. The view from the hilltop was spectacular. Too rarely did snakes get to look down at the world. It was unfair when it came right down to it. And here he was in his throne surveying the expanse of green grass, swaying melodically back and forth with the wind. The field was dotted with lethargic white dairy cows, painted with sloppy black patches. An unruly line of bushes absorbed an aging wooden fence to his left that wrapped around behind the hill. To his right the farmer’s barn and house looked small and insignificant.

It wasn’t luck that he found this spot, his spot. He had traveled quite a distance to get here. From his hole, he spent most the morning slithering through the expanse of woods where his den was at the center. Crossing the river had been refreshing but not without its hurdles—battling the current a persistent rain had brought the day before. And finally, he risked the passage between the barn and the farmer’s house. A passage that in the past had ended with more than one of his compatriots losing their heads at the silver point of a broad shovel.

Snakes were not often afforded good days. Today was special. Copper toasted his hard work and the comfort it appointed him. After years of research, he knew that no one in this world would see his success for what it was. No one saw his courage, or they just feared shining light on it.

It was up to him to celebrate himself.

The picturesque landscape had him on the very cusp of peace, true poetic peace—a feeling he longed for. Restless by nature, he chased the feeling, squeezing it too tightly, risking its suffocation.

One of the farmer’s massive cattle lumbered toward Copper’s resting place. Hateful anger swelled dangerously. His body unwillingly coiled tightly; every muscle ready to lash out. He was hidden well underneath the bend in the limb, making it impossible to meet the plump cow’s gaze. She munched apathetically at the grass, meandering past Copper. He cursed her obliviousness, the callous way she shredded his moment of clarity and calm. With an endless stretch of land at her disposal, she decided to plod belligerent past his spot. It was his spot. His. The absolute arrogance. The sheer lack of respect. His jaw loosened at the hinge and without a second thought his body launched lightning fast at the cow. Two razor sharp fangs bit quickly into the meat of the cow’s front leg, just beneath the knee. Rearing up, she cried out a panicked moo and ran away as quickly as her hefty body could accelerate.

Copper drew back under his branch. A pinch of guilt came bubbling up and was deftly squashed. He did what he had to do. It wasn’t always easy standing up for yourself—standing up for what's right. His friend Rattler knew how to communicate, knew how to set healthy boundaries. That wasn’t Copper’s strong suit. He did the right thing. You can’t just let yourself get walked all over. What kind of life would that be? And with that thought he celebrated his bravery.

As the sun descended from its highest point, Copper started considering the journey home. The idea of another sprint past the farmer’s house made his scales shiver. Instead, he would take the long way home, down the back of the hill, through the cluster of houses. He would have to cross a road, something he usually avoided, but it was not a busy one.

And with that, Copper left his spot, slithering sedately past the mighty oak tree that loomed over the hill and down the far side. The grass softly brushed his belly and he tried to recapture the serenity that damn cow had stolen from him, with little success. He passed under the line of bushes, dotted with delicate little flowers. A sparrow caught sight of him, sounded the alarm and the whole flock scattered like dandelion seeds in the wind, treating him like a villain. They all thought he was a monster—wanted him to feel guilty for just being himself.

Passing through a chain-link fence on the far side of the brush, a wild rabbit stared him down from across the fresh cut grassy lawn. He considered following the rabbit, in hopes of finding a nest of babies, but he was still digesting his last meal and the thought of the hunt made him tired in a sad way.

He continued forward and the rabbit bolted under the fence, gone with a white flash of tail. The house before him had a wide deck, low to the ground and he could smell the cool moist dirt underneath. The earthy taste reminded him of the home he had shared with a female the previous spring. She had criticized him in a manner he didn’t care to remember. Afterwards, the thought of staying with her was unbearable. He left her one night while she slept. It was a pity, but unavoidable. The idea of crossing paths with her now—seeing the tragically beautiful ridges of chocolate and bronze that ran down her long sleek body—made him sick.

In a hurry, he made his way to the line of fledgling Japanese maples, candy stripped by prospering hostas that lined the side of the house. He weaved between the plants, until he could see the road he must cross on the other side of a well-manicured lawn. Pausing under the shade of the hostas’ dome of acorn shaped leaves, he licked curiously at the soil. A family of mice frequented this garden and their scent was everywhere.

A door opened on creaky hinges from behind the house and slammed suddenly. Claws scrapped haphazardly on the deck and then their owner followed its nose onto the lawn. Copper could hear its sniffing and didn’t need to taste the air to know it was a dog.

Copper hated dogs. Hated them. They never outgrew the carelessness of infancy. They followed their nose, as if to not follow a smell was akin to fighting gravity. Copper was minding his own business, just passing through, but he knew he was certain to attract the dog's attention. He considered booking it for the road and hoping to cross onto another property before the dog sensed his presence. But his decision was taken from him. Before he knew it, there was a large wet nose pushing its way through the broad leaves of Copper’s cover. He circled into himself and lashed out, teeth bared, catching the dog on the tip of its nose—opening a sizable slash. The dog yelped and hopped back. Copper had made his point - no point in sticking around. He started again toward the road. The dog ran in a circle squealing in pain before deciding to take on the fight. It ran back up on Copper. The pitiful whining turned into a deep bark, and it pounced forward threateningly, dropping its heavy paws next to Copper, shaking the ground. Its short dark hair gleamed with sweat—Copper’s venom taking effect.

Copper had seen bigger dogs, but not many. The oversized head was supported by a thick muscular neck. The barking continued as the dog thrust its snarling mouth forward. Its teeth clicked as it bit at Copper’s tail, getting closer each round. He knew it was him or the dog. This time there would be no warning bite, he had to put the creature down. And with that thought, the next time it came at him, he launched himself, hooking his two fangs deep into the beast’s neck. Copper recoiled and so did the dog, running away with its tail pinned between its legs.

Copper took the opportunity and slithered rapidly across the lawn and over the road—not bothering to consider traffic—and into the thick forest on the other side.

Well into the safeguard of his own personal sanctuary, he finally took a moment to stop on a cushion of fallen leaves. What the hell is wrong with dogs? Why had he put him in that situation? He shouldn’t have made Copper feel so small.

He was lucky he was able to defend himself. Not all snakes were. That dog would’ve gone around bullying any snake unlucky enough to cross its path. Just another deed no one would ever care enough to salute him for. Why did he even bother?

He continued forlornly toward home.

The sun set behind him, casting rays of golden light onto the forest floor. He trudged through the undergrowth, sticks and mossy stones—everything still a bit damp, as it would be for a day or so more, even without another heavy rain. The day had not gone as he had hoped, as he knew he deserved but it was good to be home. This was his terrain. He knew it well and he was well known here. Maybe not quite respected, but the creatures here kept their distance and Copper supposed that was pretty close to respect. As he put more space between himself and his day, he counted the ways he had been wronged by the world. His intentions had been pure this morning—only looking to live the best he could, to practice self-care. But would the world allow that? Absolutely not. His only consolation was that he did what he could to stand up against those that would disrespect him, and that was worth something.

As darkness fell, he saw the inconsistent flicker of light ahead. It danced against the trees, giving the illusion that they were moving to the music of the night. Fire. And so close to the hole he called home. With it came a cackling laugh that split the quiet darkness.

Humans. The thought was slick and grimy. They spread like a disease, filling every space, chopping down trees, calling everything their own. If there was one thing Copper hated more than anything in this world, it was humans.

He wished he hadn’t gotten so close, for now he could feel the vibrations of their giant clumsy feet heading out away from their fire—coming toward him. A log to his side offered a narrow opening underneath where he could wait out their trespassing. Squeezing in, he doubled his body back in on itself until he was invisible.

How embarrassing. Hiding in his own territory, like he was the intruder.

As he stewed in his anger, basked in his fury, footsteps edged nearer, pausing with a rustle of leaves before drawing ever closer. Copper’s fury peaked and there was zero deliberation as the small child lifted the log that covered him. He plunged blindly into the night toward the pudgy little girl’s calf. Copper squeezed his teeth as deeply as he could into her as she screamed soundlessly, running back toward her fellow humans. He unlatched and dropped to the moist dirt, followed shortly after by the collection of sticks she had been gathering.

Copper vacated the area before the other humans could come back to find him. As he traveled the last bit of his journey, he felt tired. His body ached in a comforting way. And wow did he feel good. He started to see the day for what it was—a series of victories over those that would do him harm. A day of sending clear messages to those that didn’t respect him, that cared not for his wellness, his boundaries. This day, he fought the good fight. And he won.

Entering the marshy land that was home, he found his hole at the base of a white cedar. A home he shared with no one. No one there to talk about his day. No one to tell him what of course he already knew—he was a good snake, a brave courageous snake. A snake that stood up for what is right, stood up for himself even when it wasn’t easy.

At the base of his cavernous pit, he slept just fine knowing that he could count on himself. He slept well while a dairy cow vomited alone in a dark field, while a young couple poured the last shovels of fresh earth over the grave of the dog they had adopted together when their relationship was new, and while a family steeped in fluorescent light, nervously surrounded the hospital bed of a little girl the doctor playfully nicknamed Lucky.

 

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