Tuesday, July 21, 2009
An account of a fantastic reptile, excerpted from the Chicago Inter-Ocean in an 1890 issue of Current Literature: A Magazine of Record and Review.
The Snake of Fire—From the Chicago Inter-Ocean
Among the Indians of New Mexico there are told many legends of a nature so weird that the blood of the white listener often runs cold at the recital of them. Among them all there is probably not another so startling as the tales they tell of the culebra de lumbre, or snake of fire. This reptile, according to the natives, overcomes its enemies by emitting from the mouth a long, thin streak of fire, which pierces the vitals of the being against whom it is directed, and actually scorches the life out. Many persons, say the Indians, have been seared by the flames, and in nearly every instance death ensued instantly. It was the good fortune of a member of the United States Geological Survey, who was recently transferred to a post on the California coast, after having spent many years in New Mexico, to meet with an aged Indian who maintained that such a reptile really existed in years gone by, and who related the circumstances of personal encounters had with the serpents. The narrative of the Indian is presented below exactly as the official referred to wrote it down:
The members of the Geological Survey who were with me in New Mexico were encamped one night in a canon close to the bank of a river. There had been a fire in the underbrush not many yards from where our tents stood, and no man in the party was able to give a plausible explanation as to its origin, and the discussion of the subject was about to cease when an explanation of the mystery came from a source whence we least expected it. " Maybe it was the culebra de lumbre." Everybody turned toward the person who had spoken. It was Pablo, squatting in his usual corner, with his knees drawn up so that his chin could rest upon them, while his hands were clasped around his shins. Pablo was a patriarch among the Indians of New Mexico, but he was also an excellent cook, and that accounted for his being one of our party. Just how old Pablo was nobody—not even himself— could tell, but it is a fact that he was a man before the eldest of those who surrounded him was born. '' The snake of fire," said I, who had never heard of it; " what do you mean, Pablo ? " " Then the senor does not know of culebra de lumbre," ejaculated the aged Indian, as his eyes opened with wonder. Certainly I knew nothing of it. Then Pablo told us it was a serpent whose species existed only in that immediate vicinity—a reptile which at full growth was about ten feet long and several inches in diameter, wonderfully quick in movement, whose color was a vivid scarlet, from whose skin, when enraged, there diffused a yellowish glow, while from its mouth it would emit long lightning-like streaks of living flame. Its breath meant death to anything it touched, and where it writhed its way along the ground there was left a trail scorched as though by fire. At our looks of incredulity Pablo merely shrugged his shoulders. "Oh, amigo mio," said he, " there is a curse upon this land, but its blight is passing away, for with each year the number of these serpents grows less. But when I was young I have seen them out there in the grasses, these snakes that spit fire, many of them. Many of the Indians call them culebra colorado." Pablo ceased talking, but we were interested and questioned him closely, being rewarded with the information that these luminous snakes were dreaded even more than rattlesnakes. They were aggressive, climbed trees, ran on top of the brush as well as on the ground, and would attack a man or other animal, and pierce with the flame. He had seen them many times, when the moon was hidden by clouds, squirming over the grass and through it, casting a phosphorescent glow around them, while at short intervals fire would flash from their mouths, searing the herbage around, and causing living things to hasten from the vicinity in terror. That their existence was well known to the older natives, Pablo said, was attested by the fact that many rocks in the vicinity have crude pictures of the serpent, and he knew of rocks the pictures on which must have been drawn by ancient tribes years ago. I can attest the truth of this last statement, for I have seen pictures such as Pablo described, and often wondered what they meant. Pablo was asked if he had ever had an encounter with one of the snakes, and, with a shudder, he nodded affirmatively. Then, lifting his long black hair from his face, the old Indian exhibited a scar which was undoubtedly caused by a burn. "It was twenty years ago," he said, by way of explanation. "I, with a number of followers, was riding down the cafion. We had with us a large dog, which had drawn badgers, and killed in short combat many wildcats and coyotes. He was running on ahead of the horses, when suddenly I heard him yelp, saw him rise in the air, and then fall over sideways and lie quite still. It was strange, I thought. He could not have been bitten by a rattlesnake, because they do not cause instant death. I spurred forward until I came to the dog, when, stooping down. I placed my hand upon him. He was limp and lifeless. As I rose to my feet I was conscious of a sickening odor permeating the atmosphere. I was becoming dizzy, and strength was leaving me, when suddenly I saw in the grass a few feet from where I stood what appeared to be a long line of fire. With a great effort I vaulted on to my mustang, and just as I gained his back I saw that line of fire spring through the air toward me. Instantly my mustang commenced to rear and snort, and looking down I saw curled around one of his forelegs a large specimen of the culebra de lumbre. Suddenly the mustang plunged forward, and I, already very much unnerved, was thrown to the ground. As I touched the earth I was conscious of a blinding flash of light, a sensation as though a burning brand had been thrust into my face, and then my senses left me. Nearly five hours later I awoke to find myself with the others of my party around me. They had seen me thrown and rode quickly forward. Disappearing through the grass, they knew I had been scorched by the deadly breath. Luckily for me, the flame struck me in the face instead of in a vital part, and after much work they succeeded in restoring me. That flame, however,had seared its way through my face, and when the wound healed, as it did after many months,"this scar was left. Where the snake had twined itself around the mustang's leg the flesh had been burnt away and the bone was exposed. Once I saw one of the snakes stretched on a limb of an oak tree, its brilliantly-colored body and copper-colored head causing it to be visible from quite a distance. Another time while hunting I had occasion to pass through a thick patch of chapparal. Suddenly, while resting, I saw a bright flash overhead, and looked up in time to see a scarlet snake gliding over the top of the brush fully four feet above me, and vanish in an instant. At the same time a cotton-tail rabbit brushed past me, and, dodging about with every evidence of fear and bewilderment, darted into a small opening not more than twenty feet from me. Again I saw the scarlet gleam, then the yellowish flame, and all was over with the cotton-tail. To those who know nothing of the snake of fire it is a source of much surprise and mystery whenever a fire sweeps the prairie or burns over. hundreds of acres of brush and timber land in the mountains. Still the fires frequently burn, and are particularly noticeable during the hot, dry months of July and August. Old Indians believe they are caused by the awful snake of fire."