Because of some of my extra-curricular activities, occasionally someone asks that I interpret a dream for them. I try not to. There are certain generalities that apply to dreams and what they mean, and different cultures interpret dreams differently. To the plains Indians, for instance, animals in dreams have great meaning. A horse often calls for the dreamer to be strong, a mouse encourages one to view the whole and not get caught up in details, a lynx advises the dreamer that secrets are afoot, a snake counsels learning and wisdom, and so on. I believe most dreams are little more than mental masturbation, a way for the mind to remain occupied so the sleeper does not awaken. There are, however, some exceptions. There are dreams, and there are dreams.
It was early morning. I opened my eyes to a lightly overcast sky above towering lodgepole pines. I was warm and comfortable in my sleeping bag, and I struggled a bit to remain awake. As I lay there feeling the cool damp breeze on my face, I became aware of a weight on my chest, inside the bag. The weight moved. I froze. A snake! It had to be. I’d read stories of how snakes would sometimes crawl into a camper’s sleeping bag to take advantage of the sleeper’s warmth. Oh, Damn. I hate snakes.
There were two possible safe resolutions to the problem. One was to lie still until sunlight struck the bag and heated it to a point the reptile became too warm and crawled away, but I lay in tree shadow, and it would be hours before the sun reached me. The second option was to open the bag and expose the animal to the cold, so it would leave in search of a more protected location. My pulse was pounding from fear. Ever so slowly, I eased the zipper down to waist level, and carefully lifted the top portion of the bag off my chest. Lying over my heart, looking me directly in the face, was a rattlesnake. He flicked his tongue at me and, as the cold air struck him, crawled between the buttons of my shirt and settled himself inside my clothes.
This was a radical departure from normal snake behavior, and a portion of my fear turned to curiosity. I was surprised that he wasn’t slimy, but felt quite dry and cool. He seemed comfortable and content. God knows I wasn’t going to try to grab him and wrestle him out of my clothes. I didn’t want to get bit. Carefully I sat up and got to my feet. He coiled himself lightly about my waist, and stuck his head out between the bottom buttons of my shirt. I didn’t know what to do. I needed help, and set off up the trail in search of some.
As I walked the path between the trees, the snake would shift position from time to time, his head appearing above the collar of my shirt to look around, or protruding out of my sleeve against my wrist. As time went on, I realized that as long as I did not challenge the animal everything would be fine. But he was still a rattlesnake, inside my clothes. He might not mind, but I did. We walked a mile or two, and on low rise beside the trail I saw a small, white, block building. A sign above the door read “Department of Herpetology”. Aha! Somebody in there would know what to do about a snake in my shirt. I opened the door and went inside.
I found myself in a small anteroom, bounded by heavy wire, looking into a laboratory of some type. Seated twenty feet away was a white-coated man, his back to me, peering into a microscope. I spoke to him, but he ignored me. I shouted. Nothing. I complained of a snake in my clothes. No reaction. He continued to work as if I did not exist. Department of Herpetology, my butt! This guy could care less that I had a poisonous snake crawling around in my shirt! I turned to leave, and the door swung open to admit several small children. The snake stuck about a foot of his length out of my collar to see what was going on. I felt his rattle drumming against the small of my back. His body squirmed against me as he became agitated at the activity of the kids. I cautioned them to stay back, to keep away from both me and the snake, but one small girl would not be denied, and pressed forward to see him. She was less than a foot from me when the snake struck. I felt his body tense for the strike, and threw up my hand to protect her. His fangs punctured my left palm. The pain was terrific, like fire, and it immediately began to creep up my arm. I looked at the wounds, and as I did, they began to close. The pain left, strength returned to my knees, my head cleared, and I was fine. The children and the snake were gone. I turned to the man in the lab coat and berated him for not offering any assistance through the ordeal. Still facing away from me, he replied.
“You didn’t need me. You needed trust and faith, not microscopes and medicine.” He then swiveled his chair to face me and I saw him clearly. I was looking at myself.
The shock was brittle and I lurched to a sitting position in my bed and peered at the clock. 7:12am. Woof! I was drenched in sweat, shaking and weak. I even inspected my hand for bite marks. Damn, it was so real! I threw on a robe and staggered into the kitchen to make coffee, the remnants of the dream clinging to me like cobwebs, and heard a knock on my back door. Who the hell would be here at this hour? I opened the door and was surprised to see my friend John, a full-blood American Indian, grinning at me. The last time I had seen him was at a pipe ceremony nearly two years before.
“Here,” he said, extending a closed fist at me, knuckles up. “This belonged to my grandfather. It’s very old. It’s yours now.”
I held out my palm. Into it, he dropped a rattlesnake rattle on a small loop of copper wire. A chill took me as I looked at it. When I raised my eyes, John was fifty feet away, walking to his car. He never looked back but offered me a casual over-the-shoulder wave. We’d talk later.
There are dreams, and there are dreams.