Those raised in the south may encounter rattlesnakes at a young age. It is not uncommon to find one sunning on the porch. Children learn especially not to touch the head, which can bite even after decapitation. Though there are many species of rattlesnake, all are known for their capacity to disfigure, or kill. For this reason, we let out a beacon of fear when the rattle is heard.

Sweetwater waited for me–a gory dream, a terror. A little to the west. Hasn’t everyone wished for something that is sure to maim them? Hasn’t it beckoned you home?

Snakes have no capacity to create their own body heat. In this way they are wanton with need. For a snake the stakes are different. A snake’s heart might beat only twice in one minute, or once in three minutes, and yet he remains alive. He is still with longing. At any moment, heat might signal him–he goes, goes and binds to it.

My focus has always been on the roundup in Sweetwater–it is the largest and oldest remaining. Like me, it is Texan. I dreamt of rodeos where snakes were used for lassos. An unbidden tether grew, linking me to Sweetwater. It seemed the only way to sever the line was to travel its length.

There are many ways to segment a rattlesnake, which is useful to know in case you ever need to sell one. You can sell its head to one person and its tail to another. The rattle alone can go for upwards of 20 dollars. In fact you can sell its teeth to different people. You could sell the tongue but it’s so small you might lose it.

We know that snakes can bite after decapitation because of a study conducted in 1956, which, using 13 individual rattlesnakes of a variety of species, determined that a bodiless head can continue to exhibit biting and envenomation responses for between 20 minutes and an hour after death.

Going home in March meant fulfilling, for the first time, a promise. Houston was full of newer, bigger houses, all rebuilt since a flood in the previous spring. It smelled nearly the same as always. On one night in particular it rained and rained and rained. On the lip of this flood I left for Sweetwater.

Can snakes climb trees? Can they die for lack of freedom? For a cause? I saw one on the roof, swear to god. Its eyes looked down and I thought, oh lord, what has come for me.

A rattlesnake roundup is not a church service, but it is a gun show. A rattlesnake roundup is not a safety net, but it is a beauty pageant. A rattlesnake roundup is not a call, but it is a candle. A makeshift slaughterhouse. I want to avoid dramatics but language in Sweetwater is naturally extreme.

On the final day of the festival, children have the opportunity to dip their hands in snake blood and leave palm-prints on the wall.

There are four snake pits in the arena. Each pit has eight wooden walls painted white. Set into each of the eight walls composing the four pits is a rectangular acrylic window installed two feet off the ground, so that children may peer inside. Each pit can hold anywhere from a few dozen to hundreds of live rattlesnakes, often concentrated against one wall in a dense pile. This produces a variety of sounds and smells, which are not contained by the pits, which do not have ceilings.

My first experience with a rattlesnake was at age 16. It watched me from the asphalt. Above us the milky way was fully lit. The snake’s body moved in several directions at once (a livewire, a bottle rocket).

There is one booth where rattlesnake is being fried as a delicacy. I watch as one man takes a bite: in his mouth the meat is grey and fibrous. I have heard it is tough, gamey, but there is nothing like eating what you know to have died mere moments before.

One of the snake pits is devoted to scientific demonstrations, which include the milking of venom, and taking measurements. This data is later used to award prizes for collection accomplishments. The 2016 prize for longest snake collected went to Eric Timaeus; the snake in question was over six feet long. The prize for total weight of snakes collected went to McIntyre, whose catch weighed in at 3,428 lbs.

The first serpent I ever met was brays bayou. It has that sweet S-curve so common in snakes. If there is one thing I’ve been taught about bayous, it’s that they’re perfect. For all varieties of life. In a bayou may live turtles, carcasses of seagulls, and certainly fish. I have even seen one river otter, and many snakes, and then there is the teeming water itself, very alive. Occasionally the bayou’s banks run over. At that moment the air becomes weighted, like a sponge, by floodwaters.

It is true that fewer than five people die from snake bite in the United States each calendar year. However, consider their suffering. Consider the manifold sloughing off of soft tissues in the arm when, midway through sermonizing, pastor Jamie Coots was bitten on his right hand. The rattlesnake, it is said, had been handled many times before, again and again attesting to the majesty of god. “They SHALL take up serpents”, so said Jesus in his last breaths. It took Pastor Jamie perhaps two hours to die, and from there how he walked to salvation!

It stinks so bad near the snake pits, that’s what everybody talks about here. Oo-ee it stinks! They say. By Jesus what is that smell.

The best way to butcher a rattlesnake is to cut down the belly and peel the skin off, like a glove. It is smart then, to build a kind of gallows. PVC can be arranged so one long pipe runs the length of a folding table. This pipe is supported by several stanchions which sit on the table’s surface, and from the overhead pipe hang hooks, and snakes may be tied to these hooks by their tails.

Rattlesnakes teach people to keep their ear to the tall grass just like bayous teach water to run, to sit like blood. When the bayous run over in Houston, we are warned against wading in the streets. We are told there is the threat of running head-on into a snake. And so when it floods, folks stay out of the waters.

Imagine, a snake’s entire body is his fist.

Snake venom is so chemically complex that it becomes difficult to describe any “average” composition. Rattlesnakes in particular produce a cocktail of toxins which may target the central nervous system and the body’s soft tissues, the blood, musculature. Individual ratios vary widely. The venom of a snake living on one mountain might have extremely different makeup from that of a snake on a mountain just to the left. In this way, envenomation is like reaching blindly into a river.

This year the total weight of rattlesnakes collected was 24,262 lbs, a new record for the festival.

I left for Sweetwater out from the flood, I left for Sweetwater out from the flood and its terrible shadow, I left for Sweetwater and when I came back the parasitic wasps had once more taken up residence in the yard.

Imagine how a snake goes through the world, understanding largely with its mouth. Snakes even cry into their mouths. They produce oily tears which, after clearing debris from the eyes, empty through the palette. Of course, these tears are purely functional, and could not be used to prove the presence of lamentation.

In Sweetwater babies can touch the void. You can hold up your baby and nothing will stand between her and The Snake. Its tail is going to sit in her tiny hand and buzz, going, rattle, zzzz, rattle! She’s opening and closing her fingers instinctively. She loves this like she just loves it all, like any baby loves the world. It’s so gorgeous, your baby thinks, and the snake –

Those manning the skinning station are eventually coated in viscera up to their elbows.

The poor snake has no limbs with which to carry belongings. It has no fine hairs to raise in the cold or in fear. It has no scalp to soak. No lover returning home.

I am amazed by hands in Sweetwater. Clasped over noses to mask the smell. Adjusting inflatable snake hats to fit over heads. Pulling meat from a barbequed turkey leg. Extending over the lip of a snake pit, wanting just to touch the air. To feel it.

The snake’s tongue is an interpretative machine, and all of the information it absorbs is processed by chemosensory organs in the mouth. Oh, goes the snake, Oh, Oh–

I came up with so much to say. But in a way, we were appositional to language. We drove on the edge of disaster. It looked like an undivided highway, crossing pastureland and swampland. It looked like a child might. It looked right back.

Two Poems by Olivia Olson

muscles / remember even in sleep / what they repeat / in daylight, over and over/ and over

Fat Fuck

Tell me my belt wraps the world’s waist / then beat me with it.