Tuesday, October 6, 2009


The Ambien wore off around 3:00 AM. Wide awake, and with my pineal gland still somewhere over the Atlantic, I decided I might as well get an early start tidying around the construction site. The excavator is coming to install the water cistern on Thursday, I hope, and there is lots of rock to stack.

It was shortly after dawn and I was picking up a cabbage-sized stone when the viper sleeping loosely beneath it gathered into itself like a strip of bacon hitting a hot griddle.

From the sloppy coil, it raised its triangular head.

Still clutching its comfort stone in my bare hands, I backed slowly away.

I knew exactly what it was because of the diamondback rattlers I’d seen in the Sierra Nevada foothills near my childhood home. And because I'd been warned by just about everyone. And because of the triangular head.

The European horned viper is the same venomous species Linneaus (founder of modern taxonomy) labeled Vipera ammodytes, and the same deadly reptile Abbe’ Felice Fontana (founder of modern toxicology) studied in 18th century Tuscany. This one was about 20 inches long. A juvenile, I guessed.

Here's what happened when a guy got his thumb bit by a juvenile.

I was glad the serpent was still cold and slow and not aggressive. And a juvenile.

Like a strand of spaghetti sliding off a plate, it slithered into the grass.

I set the stone down and went over to my tool bag. I pulled out my thickest pair of work gloves and put them on. I went back to work in different part of the yard.

No longer an Italian myth to me, this is one of the things I have found in Tuscany. Just 30 feet from my front door and 2 inches from my fingers. A viper.

Now I know there’s at least one on the property. Looking for another rock to sleep under. And growing.

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