The Serpents of Tenoka by Ron Shiflet

Snakes are just reptiles, or are they?

Night on the outskirts of Tenoka, Texas can be as black as any environs imagined. The tall East Texas pines block what scarce light is cast from the dim and distant stars. A person walking among such woods, even during times when a bloated, yellow moon hangs in the sky, will have difficulty in finding his path among the tall, silent evergreens. It was a moonless night that I first spent in the small but clean house that I had inherited from my uncle, Henry Teal.

Uncle Henry had died of a heart attack while leading a solitary bachelor's life on the several thickly wooded acres that surrounded the small dwelling. I had been aware of his seemingly high regard of me, but was still very surprised and pleased upon learning of my inheritance. I had assumed that his property and remaining resources would be split among the surviving siblings, though they and he were frequently at odds with one another. More surprising still was my two uncle's attitude during the execution of Henry's will. They seemed quite happy for me to receive the property and even slightly relieved that the place had not been bestowed upon them.

My Uncle Link patted my back and jokingly asked me how it felt to be "a man of property." Uncle Stuart commented that he "never wanted any part of the goddamn place." When I questioned him about the reasons for his obvious dislike he half-heartedly laughed the whole thing off with comments about the oppressive humidity, "the skeeters" and his distaste for solitude. However, Uncle Link winked at me and said, "Don't listen to him boy ... he's just scared of the goddamn snakes!"

We left the proceedings and ate a delicious meal at Tenoka's only cafe. We shared memories of my deceased parents and vowed to "stay in touch." Upon parting I made the three hour drive to my apartment in Crandall. I had one week to work before beginning a two week vacation that was desperately needed.

Well, I survived the work week, eagerly anticipating my two-week getaway to Tenoka. I packed my things on a Thursday night and left for Tenoka on Friday after clocking out early from the furniture factory where I was employed.

The drive was uneventful and I entertained myself by listening to a variety of music tapes, brought especially for the vacation. The thought of solitude was not unpleasant but I still needed the reassurance of familiar sounds. I also brought my guitar and hoped to finish some songs I had been composing.

Arriving in Tenoka at about 4:30 p.m., I bought some groceries at a small store run by a rather taciturn couple well past middle age. I questioned them about my uncle but they seemed almost reluctant to speak of him. They admitted to knowing him and of his death but offered no words of condolence. In fact they seemed relieved once I had paid for my items and prepared to leave. It struck me as odd when upon leaving I heard the older man softly say, "God help him if he's as batty as his uncle."

"What's that you say?" I asked through the old screen door.

The balding old man glared at me and replied, "Nothing son ... nothing."

I shook my head in a combination of disgust and bewilderment and carried my remaining sack of groceries to my truck. My uncle's house, mine now actually, was situated on about twelve acres just two miles east of sleepy Tenoka, a town with just a few less than prosperous businesses in its small town square. Uncle Link was certainly right about the awful humidity. It was only the middle of June and even with my truck's air at maximum cooling I still "sweated like a pig." Irked from the cold reception I had received at Boyd's Grocery, I popped a Jerry Jeff Walker tape into the cassette player in hope of lightening the mood on the short drive to my newly acquired property.

I took the winding farm-to-market road from Tenoka proper until reaching the winding dirt road that lead to my house. There was an old metal mailbox by the main road where my uncle Henry had received his mail. Stopping the truck I opened the box and nearly crapped my pants as a small, copper-colored snake hissed and slithered from the box onto the sandy soil. It seemed to look up at me with an expression of malevolence. In fairness to the reptile I must admit that I found all snakes repulsive and evil even though the idea is wholly irrational. The copperhead seemed to glare at me and I was struck by its unusual marking. On the top of its head was an odd crescent shaped design that to my admittedly limited knowledge did not occur on this type of snake. I shrugged it off as some fluke of nature or strange mutation. After about a minute the snake hissed again and slithered off into the tall grass of the bar ditch and disappeared from sight. Fortunately the snake had not attempted to strike me for which I was truly grateful. I had no idea how the creature had come to be in the mailbox unless deliberately placed. However, I soon gathered my wits about me, thinking the incident to perhaps be the sick prank of high school rowdies who sometimes get drunk and engage in such behavior.

Finding no mail I got back into my truck and proceeded down the gravel and dirt road for a couple of hundred yards until the small frame house came into view. It was a well-constructed and maintained abode that had electricity and running water. While not particularly large, it was certainly comfortable enough for an old bachelor with no family. Uncle Henry had lived in the house during the last several years of his life. The house stood in a small clearing and was surrounded on all sides by old, tall pines. It was a quite lovely place though I had never desired to live in East Texas due to the oppressive humidity of the long summer months. Actually, I hoped to sell the place once my vacation was concluded.

My immediate plans were to place the food and beer into the refrigerator and get settled in. Thankfully I had the foresight to see that there was no disruption of the electric service. Secondly, I hoped to sort through my uncle's effects which would hopefully tell me more about the man whom I had always liked. He, as I knew, was of an artistic bent though entirely self-taught. One need only look around the house to see that the man obviously loved carving wooden figures, mostly of the "old west" variety. He was also quite good at sculpting small busts and animals in soapstone and other workable materials. I understood that Uncle Henry had supplemented his military pension and social security checks through the sale of such carvings at a twice monthly trade-day in Nacodoches.

There were at least fifteen to twenty of these old west carvings in the house along with a handful of miscellaneous pieces. There was also a large, oak work table in one corner that was cluttered with several sketch books. Most of these contained pencil drawings of western scenes. Cowboys, Indians and buffalo seemed to be my uncle's favorite subjects. Each sketch was initialed and dated so it was a fairly simple matter to determine what he had been working on near the time of his death. I casually perused the pencil sketches but failed to find anything that had not been done two to four months earlier. Well it was no big deal as I would have more than ample time to look through the books at my leisure.

Deciding that the remainder of the sketchbooks could wait until morning, I went to the old but serviceable refrigerator and grabbed a cold Lone Star. Unscrewing the bottle's top I took a large swallow and proceeded to connect my boom-box and play some of the ludicrous songs that I had been working on. The tape's first song was "The Ballad of Ed Gein," the opening piece to a rather sickly humorous "country opera" that I had been working on.

In the cold state of Wisconsin, eating Banquet, eating Swanson,
Was a local boy who craved for something new,
So he hacked up an old geezer, then hung her in the freezer,
Making Ed Gein t.v. dinners 'cause nothing else would do!

I leaned my wooden chair back on two legs and sighed while experiencing the pleasant little feeling one gets up the spine when the alcohol first makes its presence felt. Downing another third of the bottle I grinned trying to imagine Jerry Jeff Walker singing the song instead of hearing my own weak, flat vocals.

Was it in December when you started to dismember?
Did you do them in and put them in a stew?
Do you think that you're a sinner, who'd you have tonight for dinner?
They say that you are what you eat, so tell us, who are you?

I was really getting into my song when a loud knock on the screen door caused me to jump. Embarrassed, I hurried to the kitchen counter and punched the off button on the tape player and looked towards the door. A large man wearing a law enforcement uniform of some type was grinning at me through the screen door. I walked to the door, my face slightly red.

"Hi, what can I do for you? Didn't hear you drive up, what with all the racket!"

The big man held out his hand to shake and said, "How do son, I'm Sheriff Blair ... You must be Henry's nephew."

I clasped the sheriff's offered hand. "That's right, good to meet you." I followed this up with, "Anything wrong?"

"No, son, nothing's wrong. Just wanted to drop by and meet you -- see if you were getting settled in alright out here."

"Yeah, everything's fine ..." My staring must have been obvious for Sheriff Blair began to laugh and slapped me on the shoulder.

"I know -- I know! I'm the spitting image of Robert Mitchum! You wouldn't believe how many times I've heard that!"

I too began to laugh and replied, "Sir, I believe I can!"

I offered the man a beer which he accepted since he was officially off-duty and about to leave for his home. Blair was an easy man to talk with, quite affable and easy-going. We talked about my Uncle Henry, about whom he had nothing but good things to say. He and my uncle had also drank beer together and "shot the shit" on numerous occasions.

"He was a good man, always level-headed and easy to talk to except up until shortly before he died."

"What changed and why?" I questioned.

Blair thought for a few moments as if trying to decide how much to say. "It was crazy son. The few times I spoke with him before he passed he acted flat out touched in the head ... no offense son."

"How was he crazy?" I asked.

"Well," said Blair. "He latched onto this crazy notion that all the snakes around these parts were conspiring against him. Towards the end he became obsessed with the damn things. But hell, son ... it was probably just the underlying symptoms that something was physically wrong. He may even have suffered a light stroke that maybe changed his thinking. It's hard to say, what with him living out here alone."

Sheriff Blair finished his beer and prepared to leave. He told me he was "glad we met" and that next time he would "buy." I told him to drop by any time and waved good-bye as he drove his car down my rough, dirt drive.

I spent the remainder of the evening drinking beer, listening to music and attempting to stay cool. Thankfully my uncle's old window unit did a reasonably good job of keeping the temperature inside the room fairly comfortable. The day had tired me so I determined to turn in early, do a little reading and spend part of the next day exploring the property.

While placing fresh linen on the bed I happened to find a rather bizarre stone carving or sculpture on a shelf of the linen closet. It was the figure of a grotesque-appearing snake-man. The base of the sculpture was about six by six inches square and the subject stood about ten inches in height. The word Yig was cut deeply into the base. A closer inspection and handling of the statuette revealed the material to be something much harder than soapstone which I had originally thought it to be. Being no geologist I cannot say what type of material was used. I inwardly shuddered while holding the piece and placed it back upon the shelf where it had previously rested. Had my uncle sculpted the repulsive figure? I did not know but thought it unlikely in light of his feelings about snakes, especially if Sheriff Blair had spoken the truth. Its placement in the linen closet made me think that perhaps my uncle was hiding it away for some strange reason. But why? Did it somehow play into his wild delusions of a reptilian conspiracy which he felt to be aligned against him? And where or how in God's name had he developed such a wild idea? Perhaps Sheriff Blair's theories of stroke and resultant mental changes were plausible.

After placing "Yig" (whoever the hell he was), back upon the shelf I began to experience a feeling of faint dread and uneasiness. This was not helped by a strange coincidence involving the sculpted figure and the copperhead that had been in my mailbox. The Yig figure also possessed the unusual crescent marking upon its head! I closed the linen closet and went to bed. Reading a Thompson novel called Savage Night I eventually became drowsy and drifted off to sleep.

Not surprisingly my dreams were unpleasant and nightmarish. The ones I remember involved my being imperiled by snakes. In one I was wandering, lost in a labyrinth beneath some strange underground city whose inhabitants worshipped this Yig character and punished those who transgressed against his "children." Apparently my great sin had involved slaying a serpent that had attempted to strike me as I worked in the mines that produced the fabulously exotic gems used as an energy source for this race of beings. In my nightmare I was blindly stumbling through the darkened corridors as massed, rolling coils of serpents hissed, spit and snapped at my heels.

I awoke from this particular nightmare in a cold sweat, thankful that it was nothing but a dream. I swung my legs off the bed, needing to use the bathroom, and screamed as I stepped down on the long, snakelike vacuum cleaner hose that partially protruded from beneath the bed. I repeatedly kicked and cursed the offending inanimate object until I realized how foolish I appeared. I laughed hysterically until finally able to calm myself. Feeling like a total ass, I sheepishly made my way to the bathroom without further incident.

I returned to bed and slept fitfully until morning. Awakening early, I arose and prepared myself a breakfast of eggs, chopped onions, bacon and canned biscuits. Too many beers the previous evening had left me hungover and slightly depressed. However, breakfast and four to five aspirin took the edge off my hangover and I began looking forward to exploring the property.

Shortly after breakfast I stepped out onto my wooden front porch and was unhappy to discover that it was going to be another oppressively humid day. The porch had not been recently swept and I noticed winding trails in the thin layer of dirt and dust which caused me discomfort in light of my recent experience. The mailbox, my uncle's obsession and my nightmares of the previous evening had made me rather touchy on the subject of snakes. Strolling through the pine-covered acreage I could not help but notice the many areas that could easily conceal the creatures that now seemed to preoccupy my thoughts. The sandy soil displayed many winding trails similar to those that I had seen on my front porch.

The property also had one large pond, or stock tank which looked promising for fishing. I decided to try my luck when it became cooler in the late evening. As the day quickly heated I returned to the house with the intent of continuing the inventory of my uncle's sketchbooks. As the house came into view I made a mental note to question Sheriff Blair about the strange sculpture that I had found in the linen closet. Had my uncle perhaps showed it to Blair during their occasional visits?

I was heavily perspiring from my tour of the property and welcomed the prospect of air-conditioning and a cold beer. Approaching the wooden steps of the porch I heard an unusual noise but could not determine its origin. Shrugging it off I stepped on the lowest step, receiving a terrible fright as a large rattlesnake struck at my ankle. Loudly hollering I wildly kicked my leg in a frantic effort to dislodge the serpent that had managed to hang his fangs in the top of my leather work boots. I did not feel a bite and prayed that I could loosen the repulsive and poisonous creature before its hollow fangs fully penetrated the footwear and caused me harm. I suspected that the snake was just as eager to be free of me as well. I would kick and the snake would coil itself around my leg attempting to extricate its fangs from my boot. Finally I caught sight of some rusty looking hedge clippers on one end of the porch and with trembling and unsteady hands I severed the writhing creature's body just inches below its head.

The snake's blood thickly oozed from the mortal wound as the severed body writhed and blindly thrashed in its death throes. I shuddered with revulsion and almost lost my breakfast. Still, I somehow found the fortitude to carefully dislodge the rattler's head, using the same shears that had served to kill the reptile. A chill went up my spine as I noticed the unmistakable crescent marking atop the snake's wedge-shaped head.

I confess that the sudden attack had unnerved me more than any other event that I could recall and it suddenly seemed to me that my two week vacation was fast becoming a nightmare. I pretty much decided that I would spend one more day and collect my uncle's sketchbooks, carvings and other items of interest. Upon the completion of this task I would happily return to my home in Crandall and contract with a realtor to sell the godforsaken place! After my own experiences, occurring in less than twenty-four hours, I could more easily relate to my uncle's delusions. There might be no conspiracy at work but there "was for damn sure" too many snakes for my peace of mind. Disgusted, I disposed of the snake's remains, rattles and all. I did not want any part of the damned thing!

Once safely inside, I opened a cold bottle of beer and immediately drank half its contents. Sitting at the kitchen table and drinking the remainder of the brew, I finally began to feel somewhat better. I drank a second bottle of Lone Star and finally felt steady enough to shower and change my clothes. The two beers and shower went a long way toward calming my jittery nerves. However, I still felt some unease, irrationally, I then believed, about the sculpture of Yig that was resting at the back of the linen closet. I somehow managed to banish this feeling after drying myself and changing into some clean clothes. After opening a third bottle of beer I finally found my uncle's most recent sketches. They were in an unmarked box along with a spiral notebook that apparently served as his journal.

I was not really surprised to find that the sketchbooks consisted almost entirely of snakes. So, Sheriff Blair had not exaggerated my uncle's obsession in the slightest. I leafed through the pages seeing snake after snake. There were rattlers, copperheads and cottonmouths. All were well rendered and all possessed the same bizarre crescent marking with which I had become familiar. There was also the occasional drawing of Yig, with written comments by my uncle. The words "loathsome bastard" frequently accompanied the sketches, written in ink with exclamation points at the bottom of the page. Uncle Henry had great natural ability and it saddened me to think that his final days were spent in drawing the likenesses of such cold-blooded and unappealing creatures. In disgust I put the sketchbooks down and turned my attention to the journal which I rightfully feared would continue to highlight my uncle's mania.

The first mention of anything noteworthy concerned his finding of the grotesque figure of Yig. Uncle Henry had been out metal detecting in what was locally reputed to be "a place of evil." I could not suppress a smirk at this bit of cliché tripe but continued to read. The figure, or something, had caused the detector to give a strong, positive reading. My uncle enthusiastically dug in hopes of perhaps finding gold or silver coins, buried by Spainards, Confederate renegades or any of the numerous "bad men" who had once roamed this part of Texas. He had dug about three and one-half feet when he found the statue. It wasn't exactly what he had hoped for but perhaps it might be of some value to the "right" person. He carefully dug around the figure, now wanting to damage his find. Grasping the object, he gently worked the base free. This was the point at which my uncle's account became wild and unbelievable. The stone figure was freed from the soil, revealing a slanted, gopher sized tunnel. As my uncle began to poke and pry at the mouth of the opening with his spade he received a strong fright. According to his account an abnormally thick, eyeless, albino serpent slithered from the hole and attempted to strike. It missed only due to my uncle losing his balance and tripping over the metal detector which was lying near the fresh excavation. He described the snake as poisonous due to its wedge-shaped head and fangs. It also possessed the crescent marking with which I was now all too familiar. My uncle grabbed his shovel and after two or three unsuccessful attempts, managed to cut the bizarre viper in half. The repulsive reptile wildly writhed and continued to blindly snap its jaws. Suddenly the creature began to disintegrate into a fine, white powder and was soon scattered across the field by the spring winds.

The journal went on to describe how my uncle covered the hole, placing the sculpture in a sack which he carried for whatever "loot" he might find on his jaunts. In a semi-state of shock and disbelief he returned home and began to question his mental health. The next couple of entries were rather non-eventful except for a mention of the figure being cleaned and placed in a prominent place of viewing in the kitchen, where my uncle did most of his sketches. I wondered what had prompted my uncle to later place the statue in the linen closet.

A couple of more uninteresting entries were read and then the tone of Uncle Henry's writing seemed to change. The journal began to relate a series of incidents in which my uncle had been threatened or attacked by snakes, all of whom had the odd crescent marking on their heads. Uncle Henry believed that there was an obvious correlation between his taking the Yig sculpture and the increase in aggressive reptile activity. The bizarre markings on the serpents convinced him beyond a shadow of a doubt that the events were linked. He also wrote of terrible nightmares since bringing the likeness of Yig into his home. These dreams usually portrayed him as a victim of some divine retribution, carried out by serpents in dark corridors beneath a fabulous underground city.

Believing these things to be connected, he still refused to get rid of the sculpture. He had spoken to Sheriff Blair about many of the incidents but omitted the one concerning the vanishing albino creature. Blair tried to convince him that the events were mere coincidence and nothing particularly ominous. He agreed that the crescent markings upon the snakes were indeed odd but chalked it up to some type of local mutation. The writings reflected an escalating trend of incidents and also a growing fear on the part of my uncle. Later entries made reference to his consideration of selling the property and moving. The final entry indicated that he considered himself a doomed man but could perhaps escape his fate by returning the sculpture to where it was found. However, he did not live long enough to accomplish this task. The last words written showed my uncle to be a very shaken man. His final sentence was, "God help me, I fear that Yig is coming. ..."

I was admittedly stunned upon reading these words of a man who had always been practical and level-headed. The journal disturbed me greatly and I resolved to leave Tenoka the next day. I still damn myself for being a fool and staying one last night. That fateful night I drank many beers before retiring, hoping that the alcohol would make sleep come easily. In a semi-drunken condition I searched the house, trying to reassure myself that all was secure. Finally I went to bed, falling asleep while still in my clothes and recall no dreams, or anything else until the sound of my splintering door awakened me to face the thing that I most dreaded. A thing that logic dictated could not be!

As the cabin's wooden door gave way under the relentless pounding, snakes of many types and varied sizes slithered as one huge, writhing mass into the stifling room. I screamed in horror at the fate that was now mine. Momentarily paralyzed with fright I knew that my minutes in this world were numbered and considered turning the pistol in hand upon myself. Still it was not in my blood to surrender without struggle and I determined to destroy as many of the loathsome reptiles as possible in the short time available before succumbing to the deadly venom which would soon be coursing through my veins. I cocked the hammer of my .20 gauge and reassured myself that my uncle's .45 was still tucked in my belt. Preparing to squeeze the trigger of my weapon I paused as a large shape seemed to fill the open doorway. Slowly, a huge, monstrous creature slid through the doorway.

I shuddered in terror and revulsion as I recognized the creature as the living embodiment of the grotesque figurine that had belonged to my Uncle Henry. Whoever sculpted the figure had done an incredible job in capturing the essence of Yig, who was glaring at me with his inhuman and riveting serpent eyes. The vile figure's facial characteristics were both reptilian and humanoid. His scaled head was hooded much like a cobra. The nose was somewhat blunted and he possessed a thin, wide mouth from which a long, forked tongue obscenely flicked. The thing had stunted arms and a torso which merged and melded into a long, unnaturally thick serpentine body.

Yig -- as I now knew this creature to be, had a noticeable effect on the snakes that slithered and writhed across the floor, attempting to encircle me. His unnatural presence seemed to have a calming affect on the cold-blooded bastards. However, it also allowed me to realize just what had caused my uncle's heart attack. Surely such a sight as this would have caused the old man, with his history of heart disease, to suffer cardiac arrest. Suddenly my mind was flooded with childhood memories of my Uncle Henry's kindness to me. Rage unthinkingly overcame fear and I fired the shotgun, its lead pellets tearing into the coiling, ever-squirming mass of snakes. Heads were severed and bodies torn apart. A collective and soul-chilling hiss of pain and anger was directed towards me as the innumerable survivors slid across the bloody floor with renewed purpose.

I emptied the chamber of my pistol, throwing the now useless weapon into the writhing mass. Quickly grabbing the discarded .20 gauge I put it to renewed use, clubbing and knocking aside the first reptiles that reached me. I crushed the head of one viper with my leather boot heel but soon felt numerous hot, searing bites through my jeans. Realizing that I had only moments to live, I staggered towards Yig in a last vain effort to avenge my uncle, a score of reptiles attached to my thighs and lower torso. The devil slid towards me and I absurdly noted how it sounded like a dresser being drug across the wood floor. Weakened and numb with shock from the poison coursing through my veins, I swung the butt end of my weapon at Yig's leering excuse for a face. Sadly he easily avoided my pathetic attack. With my remaining energy I screamed in rage as his long, retractable fangs sunk deeply into my neck.

The next morning I miraculously awoke upon the floor. Thinking the previous night's events some wild hallucination, I attempted to stand. My body was instantly racked with excruciating pain and my head felt like it was going to explode. I struggled to my feet but instantly collapsed into a handmade wooden chair that was nearby. Painfully raising my hands to wipe my sweating forehead, my blood was chilled as I learned of the grotesque and horrible changes that my body had undergone. My skin was peeling, sloughing off like snake skin, revealing a dry scaly covering beneath. Grabbing my head in revulsion and horror I began to sob as large tufts of my thick, brown hair, fell to the floor. Staggering to the small bathroom I somehow found the courage to look into the mirror. My hairless head was becoming wedge-shaped and a familiar crescent marking was plainly visible. My entire body was scaling and mottled, and my legs were now attached to each other through a rapidly toughening membrane of spotted skin.

* * *

I have written these words while my withering arms and hands still function. Even now I feel myself beginning to think less like a man ... soon I will shed this pathetic human flesh and slither into the woods to find Father Yig and take my place among the serpents of Tenoka.

Send your comments to Ron Shiflet


© 1997 Edward P. Berglund
"The Serpents of Tenoka": © 1997 Ron Shiflet. All rights reserved.
Graphics © 1997 Old Arkham Graphics Design. All rights reserved. Email to: Corey T. Whitworth.

Created: October 21, 1997; Updated: August 9, 2004