Snake-O-Rama: An Ophidian Extravaganza part 1

Reptilian Grove by Joaquín V. González
Translated by Gilbert Alter-Gilbert


The Hooded Serpent (1774)


Pedro, the high pastures shepherd, was well-skilled in carving crude reed flutes. Obliged to go alone through the wilderness, among desolate forests rank and overgrown with a havoc of toppled hardwoods, slimy, hooked vines, greasily oozing carob trees, briar thickets, and nettle-torn glades, eternal hours behind his flock, with no other company than his dog, he developed the habit of entertaining himself with native melodies, which gushed from a hollowed reed, coaxed by gusts of his breath and by the agile movements of his dancing fingers.


His canine companion was completely entrusted with the flock for long periods of time; his frequent barks were consensual signals to make known site and distance, and the news that might crop up in the lonely valleys, and on the thorn-tangled hillslopes.


It was true that since childhood, they had lived together, fed on the same milk sipped from the same clay saucers, and from the time they took their first steps, both learned to trek with the sheep, skittering up and down the most intimate paths of the earth, negotiating with equal nonchalance the jagged passes of the loftiest peaks, the sticky silt of the bogs and mires, and the slippery banks of the torrents, whose finely-pebbled sands were smoother and softer than the rugs of Smyrna.


When they came upon one of those brilliant and limpid clearings where the sun gleamed like the surface of a diamond, Pedro would be knocked down by his frisky companion, and would bowl over the dog in turn, and they would roll and tumble in the clover, Pedro hugging his frolicsome playmate, who howled happily and wildly from joy, not without throwing, from time to time, intently serious glances toward the mossy and flower-carpeted hillsides, where the cotton-white flock denuded the tenderest meadows.


It didn't seem strange to either of them that they could read one another's thoughts, that they communicated from afar their watchwords and their fears, the one conversing with his polychromatic barks, and the other with whistles or with shouts, or with the rustic melodies of his handmade flute.


For them, the loneliness of the mountains was not lonely. Although they knew that there was no other living soul within leagues of their surroundings, they gave no thought to the matter: valleys succeeded other valleys, separated by the intervening hills, which reproduced to infinity, in tones ever more diverse though each time softer and more nebulous, the innumerable echoes of nature, of the flute, of the birds, of the wind, of the arroyos.


The repercussions of the dog's barks, sharp and penetrating, lasted a long time, and it seemed as if some other dogs and shepherds answered them from remote mountaintops and distant valleys, or beckoned them to mingle their sheep, to share their cares, and to accompany them on their migrations.


In this way, the loneliness of the mountains wasn't so lonely Here, all song had its reply, every shout had its echo, and every difficulty was proclaimed by invisible waves throughout the land.


Peaceful and happy were their excursions during the spring and fall.


Wintertime froze the dew on the grass and the flowers of the fields, arrested and congealed the torrents in their courses, and the poor shepherds were barely able to stand the sunlight hours, even when condensing clouds did not conceal them for days on end...


They had everything, on the other hand, in the spring: enough sun to get drunk on, and to cozily warm them, together with their flocks and their pastures tapestried with clover, green, and gold like newly-budded fennel, because in these Andean regions, nature was exacting and honest to the point of severity: snow, frost, and the mist in the winter; flames and wildfires in the estival months. They looked forward to autumn and spring as if starved for loving kisses and raptures of delicious pleasure.



Rattlesnake, Samuel de Champlain (1602-ish)
Many more wild images from this series at the JCB Archive


Shepherds suffered most when the summer sun scorched the boulders, seared the pastures, converted sand into smoldering embers, and dried up the springs and fountains. And Pedro, he of the rustic melodies, rising at sunup, and returning at dusk, spent countless hours wilting during the blazing afternoons, when all life in the valleys, forests, and hills seemed to consume itself, and his bedraggled flock came limping back exhausted, huddling under the trees and the rocky overhangs of the cliffs, while his inseparable friend droopily circled him, panting and suffocating, tongue lolling, eyes moist and supplicating.


Then, even if the loneliness of the mountains didn't seem lonely, his weariness and abjection transmitted itself to all the objects which at other times repaid his moods with happy echoes and harmonious resonances. And his juvenile imagination, excited by the perennial caress of nature, reeled and swooned and, as during a feverish delirium, dreamed the most extraordinary things, and saw in the trees, and among the distant pinnacles, and in the mirrory surfaces of the wavering air, a welter of weird and rarefied images, frantic, superhuman, diabolical, ominous.


Only at these moments was he frightened, and wished that his companion had words with which to speak. But he contented himself with watching his eyes, reading in them the heartfelt expression of fraternal affection and, turning to scan the horizon, searched the snarled screens of the forests for scenes of familiar reality. Then the reverberations of the atmosphere would stir up his thoughts and scatter his impressions, and he would succumb all over again to the febrile disorientation of solar asphyxiation.


On one of these most stringent of days, he drove his flock up the narrow throat of a mountain pass, so as not to miss out on the shade and the refreshing breezes; and before noon the bordering ridges were dotted with sheep, like the folds of Lebanon, in the Canticles. At the bottom of the gorge, a torrent burbled among enormous stones; gigantic trees followed the fissure, gradually thinning out as they climbed the mountainside until the leaves of the last of them brushed the summit; there, aloof and immune, some condors wheeled in their forbidding cerulean fastnesses, and the January sun began to foment a swelter among the currents of the air.


Soon enough, afternoon arrived, and with it the hour of the oppressive and deadly siesta. Poor Pedro took refuge under the limbs of an ancient oak which had become uprooted and fallen on its side. His lambs, sheltered in secure asylum, needed no care: keeping vigil over them were their mothers and the loyal dog, who never slept on his watch. But if the heated air weren't agitation enough, some indefinable fear lurked in the lonely woods, some mysterious, loathsome threat abided in the caves and in the deserted nests and forsaken dens, while the shepherd dozed on the baking sand. Siestas are friends of midnight, and in them appear rapacious goblins, menacing insects, fantastic and terrifying visions of suffocation and silence... Then again, the brain of an adolescent is rich in strange ramifications, aberrant memories, and the stinging fears engendered by tales heard on fog-shrouded nights.


He was fearful of everything around him; in spite of the intense heat, a freezing twinge of apprehension contracted his tanned and weatherbeaten skin; he glanced behind him left and right, determined to defend himself against attacks by beasts, demons, or witches, and climbed the trunk of a corpulent tree where, at a goodly height above the ground, he seated himself on a massive bough, screened off by spiky foliage.


His dog, brother in upbringing, and lifelong friend, busied himself by keeping his post and, a true sentinel, was inviolable. Just at this moment the boy might have begun to believe that the solitude of the mountains was solitude indeed, if he hadn't remembered his flute, whose little mouthpiece made from tree resin was peeping from one of his pockets. Ah, no! the loneliness of the mountains was not so lonely, after all, despite the subtly fleeting phantoms of the January afternoon, which dissipated like puffs of dust in the candent air, with the echoing birds and beloved songs.


When the sacred and sepulchral silence of the steep granite bluffs, with which the somber noises of night had been lulled into desultory accord, was disturbed by the flute's first notes, the narrow canyon widened into a smile which the shepherd, though terrified, could not confine to his face. He summoned up, one by one, and dispersed amongst the infinite sinuosities of the mountains all the melodies he had gathered from the ancient valleys, without knowing where they came from; for him, they were like the rushing torrents, gushing up from the earth, and flowing through the mournful flute from forgotten times and distant lands and, as all the world of memories, generations, and races, moaned and dreamed in the pastoral musician's mellifluous tunes, the sun retreated briefly between two neighboring crests, warming the earth down to its entrails, drilling into the hollow, scooped-out world of caves, dens, and burrows, and expelling, with its radiant pokers, the mysterious and infected world of reptiles.


And the reed and resin flute continued to elicit from the silence of the solemn siesta all its dormant echoes; it was as if their soft and plaintive confidences, surging from the heavy foliage which hid the artist, were the invisible tones of the forests, modulated by this wandering soul of the mountains, never revealed in their true forms, but in the harmonious vibrations of space, in the songs of the birds and the melodies that the shepherds executed on their rustic flutes, without knowing what or whom they might be luring...


Half put to sleep by the somnolence of the atmosphere, by the ecstatic rapture of his music, and by a vague fear beyond all control, Pedro kept his eyes squeezed shut and, in this way, found himself more confident and relaxed. But it was necessary, at some point, to rest from playing and, when he suddenly broke off his song and its inebriating spell, he surprised, as if during the course of a delectable dream, three monstrous serpents with flecked, varicolored skin and fascinating stares which writhed in violent, entranced contortions above his head, encircling him with their shiny elastic loops, and slithering in spirals along the rugose and enormous trunk of the tree which served as his refuge...


It was at the shock of this unexpected and horrendous vision, that the poor shepherd boy let loose a strident scream that sent a shudder a thousand times, then a thousand times again, through the slumbering hills and ridges, the relentless mountain spires, the dense forest canopy; he plunged into alarm the nests, the grottoes, the flock, and the bands of wandering guanacos which responded with loud, startled whinnyings. In the branches of the tree, blocking immediate exit, twisted and twined in an impossibly prolific confusion before the shepherd's bulging eyes, hundreds of vipers and lizards which, gripping him with terror, clambered, jostled, darted, and dangled, emitting sparks of blood from their rancorous eyes, gnashing fangs of ivory fineness, agitatedly coiling themselves into indissoluble clusters, and dropping in knotted clumps onto the ground. On all sides the sand was alive; moving, crawling, as if each of its innumerable grains were covered by undulating, oscillating, reptilian life, in spontaneous and marvelous generation. The tree's ponderous trunk, its leaves, its stems, its red roots with their parasitic plants, its cracks and crevices, its gashed and hidden places, acquired in Pedro's horrified eyes the sinuous curves and restless wrigglings of a viper, and were colored with its inimitable tints, blazing around him like light and fire.


The hideousness of the situation reached its climax when he saw that they threatened to imprison him in their scaly hoops and frigid folds, to clamp onto his flesh their ivory hooks and the forked filaments of the scarlet tongues which flicked furiously from their gaping gullets; wreathing, winding, intertwining, the snakes viciously bit one another's twitching, resonating, rattle-tipped tails and, irritated by their own poison, sank their dripping teeth into the peeling bark of the tree, or lashed out at their own flesh in delirious and suicidal frenzy...


To the horrific scream of fright, the faithful dog responded with a dolorous, flebile yowl which sowed panic in the resting flock, and by the time the poor animal had reached his unfortunate friend, the latter had arrived at the supreme resolution of leaping to the ground to try to make a desperate run to save himself from the ophidians, which he could hear everywhere around him, hissing, sibilating, crepitating in his ears, rubbing, grazing, scraping his cheeks with their cold, scaly skin, and boring into his neck with the points of their mortiferous lancets. Every few yards, he swiveled his bewildered, horror-stricken face, mesmerized by the same nightmarish spectacle, and saw that the reptiles crept faster and faster in a hungry, hissing horde, struggling to reach the fugitive prize, in order to wallow in his youthful blood.


Aghast, the poor shepherd frantically tore off his hat, his poncho, and the rest of his clothes, so as to fling them to the voracity and avidity of the diabolical swarm of persecutors. These, in a gasping, writhing heap, squirmed in blind fury over the heated earth, to molest him, to torment him, to pierce him with holes like a sieve. As they fastened onto his cast-off garments, puncturing them again and again with their needle-keen teeth until all that was left was a handful of pulverized shreds, the luckless boy managed to hobble quite a distance in his demented flight before he lost all awareness of the whereabouts of his pursuers, and of the canine comrade who trailed him whining, and of the cloud of dust raised by his panicked flock retreating towards the far-off corrals...




This marks the first publication in English of the story. And possibly González's first appearance in English. (If you know of any others, get in touch.)



Joaquín V. González (1863–1923) by Gilbert Alter-Gilbert


Writer, statesman, educator, jurist, and bibliophile from a family settled in northern Argentina since the days of colonization, Joaquín V. González was one of the architects of the modern Argentine nation. Over the course of a distinguished political career, he was elected to the Chamber of Deputies, and served as senator, governor of his province, Minister of the Interior, Minister of Foreign Relations, Minister of Public Instruction, and Minister of Justice under various administrations. In 1905, he authored the Argentine Labor Code, notably advanced for its time and, when anarchist and socialist immigrants threatened insurrection, González instituted the Law of Residence to keep them in check. He founded the University of La Plata, to which he donated his spectacular personal library. Beginning his literary career as a belated romantic poet, González was not caught up in the concerns of his "modernista" contemporaries. He was not so much as assimilationist of international literary trends, as he was a latter-day encyclopedist; he authored fifty books in a variety of genres covering a wide spectrum of subjects. Numbering among his opera are Canvas and Bronze; Sentinel of the Andes; Native Fables; and The Fires of San Juan and Other Stories.



via pablodf's flickr
One of the Gonzalez homes in the areas of La Rioja, Argentina (just outside of Buenos Aries), which he twice lost while playing cards



Visit the Samay Huasi Museum in Chilecito, Argentina once owned and occupied by González.

A large stone statue of González looms above Avenue of the Roses leading to the colonial-style hacienda



***

Part 2 of Gilbert Alter-Gilbert's mini-series: his translation of Melitón Barba's "

PK of BibliOdyssey helped me find the incredible snake illustrations.



Snake Skeleton, 1856, from the NYPL digital gallery