When Tess O’Toole was twenty-one, she interned for a wilderness reality show where contestants humiliated each other for cash. Each night after filming, the crew camped by a burbling creek, and there Tess fell in love with Keith, the logistics tech, who in turn fell for a camera-woman closer to his age, and by the season finale, Tess understood the self-serving nature of all humanity. So when the others crowded into a Suburban destined for the highway to take them to the next series, Tess resolved to stay. Her secret goal was this: to hunt and eat the snake that would reveal her goddess within.
And so, in earnest, Tess stalked the snake each day. In the evenings, she sat cross-legged by the fire and rationed the food left by the crew: a single vacuum-sealed pouch of curried lentils lasted nearly a week. After she ate, she licked the inside of her tin cup and dropped it back into the food box where it clanged against a jar of powdered milk, a brittle and hollow sound.
Alone in her tent, Tess often thought of Keith. She remembered how he’d once pulled her aside, held out his camera, showed her a clip of the reality star who’d shimmied a tree to retrieve her obese cat, Athena. Tess knew that next the cat would claw the star’s face—it was all according to the unwritten script—but Keith hit pause in the moment before, zoomed in on the woman’s cheek, the glimmer of a tear.
“It’s not her. It’s us. We’re all just so—” Keith’s voice had caught.
How astute he’d been in his observations! Tess thought. How handsome he’d been in his jeans!
But Keith was too old, Tess reminded herself, and unavailable, and perhaps even morally weak. Whereas Tess was (nearly) divine, (almost) a confessor to the universe itself.
So Tess squelched her loneliness and continued her pursuit. The hunt for the snake, the rationing and preparing of food, the building of fires, these activities filled her days until on the fourth day of the sixth week, she belly-crawled through the brambles, digging for roots of thistle, and she spotted the iridescent body, the scales like pearls. Tess reached into her back pocket for her knife, but the motion caught the snake’s attention and she raised her pale green chin, defiant. Tess made a clumsy thrust. The serpent easily dodged the blade. From yards away, the snake glared back at Tess.
“How cruel you are to want me dead,” she hissed.
“I’m not here to make friends,” Tess said.
After the first snowfall, Tess found an abandoned forest service cabin at the foot of an overgrown trail. She moved inside, continued to search. She turned over stones in the snow, peered into hollows in trees, but the serpent could not be found. Though the winter was mild, Tess’ toenails turned black and died. Her hair grew into coarse ropes. Her clothing faded and thinned at the seams. She slept through the long nights, twelve hours at a time, taking pride in her austerity. In truth, ascetics merely squander youth, but who doesn’t long to command the wind? To love and be loved in turn?
When finally the snow began to melt, revealing soggy patches of black mud, Tess began to doubt her purpose, to plot when she should leave. She considered graduate school. Or organic farming, perhaps in Mexico. But on an early morning in the month of June, just yards from her latrine, she spotted the snake again, coiled beneath a fallen log. Tess’ heart pounded as she took aim. In one swift motion, she sliced her through the neck.
Tess could hardly breathe as she draped the serpent’s body over her shoulders, carried her back to the fire pit. She gathered wood, struck a match, draped the glistening muscle over the flames. The serpent’s scales charred, and her ruby eyes sizzled, popped. Tess’ stomach churned, but she did not want to feel remorse. Instead, she removed her clothes and sang. We are the champions, my fri-end.
When Tess figured the snake must be done, she used her knife to carve a chunk from her belly. She worked the meat between her right molars first, then left. Between her front teeth, she nibbled the stray bits. There was a pleasant note of molasses in the bones.
By noon, the sun was white-hot overhead, and the snake was fully digested, but Tess felt no alteration within. Either the serpent held no charm, or her soul concealed nothing divine. Tess looked down at her naked body, brown and strong and hairy, freckles spattered across her chest.
Tess felt acid in her throat. She spun on her heels and ran to the nearest boulder, climbed to the highest point. For hours, she bawled into thin currents of air.
Eventually, she grew tired, cold. She dried her eyes, then stood, stretched, yawned. She kicked rocks at a gray-feathered bird.
The bird flapped her wings, but did not retreat.
“Be afraid!” Tess waved a menacing fist. The bird pecked at something on the ground. Blood pulsed in Tess’ ears. She charged toward the bird, her lips white and murderous, but as she leapt over a fallen log, her foot caught on a broken limb. Tess’ body lurched forward, up and over the edge of the boulder. As Tess began to fall, she clutched wildly for the solid ground behind her, for a reality better than the present. Her fingernails scraped only dust from stone.