Serpientes. Rafael, the resort guy, said, “las serpientes.” I knew zero Spanish besides greetings and single-digit numbers, but serpent was a word that slithered past language barriers. It took on amped menace out in the dark forest and thunder. I hoped against hope Rafael had stopped us on the drenched trail to stress his careful lengths devised to avoid snakes entirely. I was here at Punta Papagayo installing a hospitality-grade printing and scanning solution with in-room network capabilities. No way, no how did I sign on for serpiente-by-night Costa Rica.
Rafael grinned and waggled his arm like a sidewinder coming in hot. My chest caught as if the poncho added a sudden hundred pounds.
“You copy, Front Desk?” I said into the walkie. “There’s a snake situation.”
Static fizzled off the radio. “Beck!” came Marta, the resort liaison, voice broken in spurts. “How is your hike?”
“Repeat: imminent serpent encounter.”
“It is nothing. Enjoy your walk.”
No right mind labeled sidewinders as nothing. This cove eco-resort teemed with a great many beaked, clawed, and fanged man-killers. And I had fangs inbound. Amid a monsoon. I deserved a hazard bonus and cover story in every printer-copier trade journal going.
Rafael swept his flashlight where our muddy excuse for a path wound past monster trees tangled with vines like a snake god itself designed the forest. At the hilltop, the highest point from beachside stood the satellite dish at its reinforced shack. No, I had not trekked up there yet. Yes, this was Wednesday, and the easy-install timetable guarantee had ended on Monday. The resort manager vowed beet-faced to drop-kick me out into this very serpent den tonight unless he printed high-res color menus. It wasn’t my fault his business plan hinged on sketchy wi-fi and phone cable strung down from Snake Central.
It was Punta Papagayo’s laminated nature handbook that’d gotten me. It flapped open as twelve folds front and back, seven folds dedicated wholly to snakes: bushmaster, fer-de-lance, coachwhip, burrowing python, jumping pit viper. A handbook suspiciously unavailable on their website for advance reading.
I fell in behind Rafael grudgingly. Here was what I knew about him: not a frigging iota. He’d materialized at my elbow after Marta presented the shack key. Rafael might’ve been a credentialed naturalist, or he might’ve been a second shift bartender, or he might’ve been the insane operative of a hillside snake cult. He’d brought no rifle or machete, no first aid. He wore a resort golf shirt and khakis and looked set to greet any arriving boa or cougar. Punta Papagayo had big cats, Marta happened to mention only after I’d signed their liability waiver.
Marta. As soon as the Liberia shuttle dropped me off car sick from backroad ruts, Marta thrust at me a guaro sour, which I discovered was sugar and lighter fluid. She’d brought my room service meals herself, plantains and conch ceviche, and this beans and rice breakfast called rooster. She’d tried teaching me the marimbas and introducing me to the resident macaws. Basically, those were jackass parrots. The red one that dangled upside down from the lobby gutter and didn’t respect me a lick was named Duende. No clue what it meant. I might’ve asked Marta if she wanted to get a beer or something, but women like her would’ve had boyfriends with better jobs than copier guy, plus Duende always hung there ready to snip me open.
“Escorpiones,” Rafael said horror movie sharp. For unnecessary effect, he flicked his index finger like a striking tail.
“What about scorpions?” I said. Rafael grinned his serial killer grin, so I asked that same question of Marta on the walkie. “You’re obligated to explain.”
“Relax,” Marta said, almost lost in crackle. “The animals are not much out in the storms.”
“About that. You said the heavy stuff rumbled some ways off over some mountains.”
“Yes. It arrives from the cordillera soon. Hurry with your work, please.”
Rafael turned his other arm into a mock snake that sprung on the unsuspecting scorpion finger. “Seriously,” I said, and here I was pressing the talk button pretty hard. “Tell this dude we’re scrubbing this mission. Tell him I no hablo.”
“Say no entiendo,” Marta said. “‘I do not understand.’”
“Do you get much cult activity here?”
“This is good for you, Beck. Tonight, you experience Guanacaste.”
Lightning flashed the trail into 3-D shadows. I understood Punta Papagayo enough. I understood I’d been lured to a coastal reptile park fretting each next moment could anger a viper with mad vertical leap. Afternoons, I would venture out to network the bungalow wall tablets, dozens of bungalows engulfed by tropical snake habitat. Other than that, I kept myself shut in my room where at least I had a solid defensive position unless that raccoon picked the window locks. Night by night, it seemed to be making headway on the lever mechanisms.
It mystified me what jazzed people over soaking dire experiences out of life. It was like when I’d quit Wiffle ball. I’d owned my brothers at Wiffle ball until I found that mammoth corn snake sunning itself on home plate. It’d swallowed a rodent of some kind. Mom tried swearing that corn snakes meant a vibrant backyard, to which I said she could go cut the grass then. Mom took me to pet stores and zoos so I could acclimate to reptiles, but forcible snake-viewing turbo-charged my desire for an indoors technical career with survival not in regular doubt.
For a while, Rafael strode on at his clip, me wobbling after him. Somehow, I broke an all-over sweat in driving rain. Best I could decipher, Rafael was pointing out the various plants and their tropical leaves fit for smothering a guy and something that, based on how he wriggled his arm again, was truly horrible there lurking in the branches. Rafael grinned on while Marta was all chuckles over the walkie.
“What?” I said. “What’s so funny?”
“You would have to know Rafa,” Marta said.
“Was it about snakes?”
“Arbóreo,” Rafael said.
“Hang on,” I told him. “I’m getting you translated.”
Lightning zipped across the clouds. The radio dissolved into perma-static. Great. Now it was Rafael and me, and he was tapping a sneaker at downed palm fronds. “Aqui tambien,” Rafael said. With that, he tromped up the path. I jabbed at the radio’s talk button while I stumbled after him. This was how I would go out, then. Bit and constricted to death over Punta Papagayo’s under-investment in satellite broadband.
Rafael stopped and shone his flashlight on a leaf bigger than the steering wheel of an ATV I should’ve been escaping in. Squatting in his beam lay a neon green frog, its eyes a brimstone red.
“Muy rara,” Rafael said.
My heart threatened to break through my ribs. I would’ve expected amphibians oozed a stepped-down menace from major reptiles, but this thing glistened with dangerous and deadly skin, and it seared me with radioactive eyes.
Rafael photographed his devil frog at multiple zooms and angles like it was nature’s own miracle. With him distracted, I could double back, text Marta my resignation, and hammer in-room beers until the morning shuttle rode me bone-jarred to Liberia Airport. I might’ve done that, except these were gale-force conditions, and downhill was super dark, and shapes moved through the forest. New plan. I could root myself nice and quiet on this path, pray that red-eyed frogs didn’t crave flesh and the rain kept apex predators somewhere dry. It was ten or eleven hours to first light. I’d gone to the bathroom before we left. I could do this.
That frog blinked at me. Blinked. At me. Kept staring. My road to sweet bunker safety meant fixing whatever mess waited in the receiver shack.
I motioned Rafael to get us going. He was gone up the trail with speed and a grin. Sure, he might well spring a net or pit trap, but I’d stopped blaming him for anything. Cultists did what they did. This was all on Marta and her persistent encouragement about life experiences. Her never-you-mind over a seven-fold horde of snakes. I dismissed her masterminding a plausibly deniable murder-slash-human sacrifice only because whacking the copier guy didn’t make sense before their print-and-copy solution was fully installed.
Further up the hillside, the trail narrowed to where Punta Papagayo was a constant scratch and scrabble at my arms and legs. I followed Rafael across a run-off stream—Costa Rica had water moccasins, per the handbook—and plunged through nettles and thorns and who knew what poison leaves. Headway. I’d made actual headway before lack of oxygen bent me over.
Troops of ants carted leaf bits off for nowhere humans ought to follow along the ground and branches. Probably they had a species name like shrieking bloodbath ants. The immediate question was how debilitating their bite, and I could’ve guessed that answer.
It was strange what a person mulled through in forest primeval with himself and a billion ants and a demon frog around. For one, how those ants didn’t swarm me. Those ants farmed their frigging ant hearts out, leaf scraps on their backs. Second, I’d been in Guanacaste for days without a snake sighting. Not an airborne pit viper going for the jugular, not even a shoestring spot-belly or snail-eater. Possibly, the Punto Papagayans had developed mutual boundaries with the wildlife except for creeper macaws.
Third, and this might’ve been an onset of dengue fever, I had a life experience right here in the sideways rain. I was, if not communing with these ants, at some level communing near them, without need of medical triage.
I edged around the farmer ants and maneuvered uphill. Look at me, I thought as I picked safe footholds in the slope. Every meter scaled burned my calves, rang through my body. Soon, my brain set the climb to marimba accompaniment. I plowed onward, rain-pelted and branch-thwacked. I would slap my torn poncho on the property manager’s desk and connect him to printing and copying so high-resolution it earned me the presidential suite with unlimited beer and tamper-proof windows.
I broke into a hilltop clearing hacked from the forest. The aluminum receiver shed wavered on a concrete slab that someone must’ve laid before wi-fi was invented. Steel wires held the satellite dish from getting swooped off by storm gusts. Grass as tall as my soaked frame surrounded a dirt channel across the clearing. A stalking ground, but I crept ahead at a slower marimba beat and reached the shack neither pounced on nor constricted.
Rafael was there and gestured me over toward another apparent degree-of-difficulty caught in his flashlight beam. On closer approach, a hairy mass of spider, its front legs reared for action like a mini martial artist.
“Tarántula,” Rafael said.
Tarantulas. This was officially a true butt-kicking level of copier installation. If I pulled this off, I might score myself a reality TV adventurer gig. Producers would drop me semi-equipped in Patagonia or the Mojave or Arctic tundra, and I would have to battle raw nature and cobble together makeshift printer-copier solutions.
I undid the shack’s padlock and peered in for a light switch. There wasn’t one. Horror movies, there never was.
“Cuidado,” Rafael said.
“Exactly,” I said, “if that means extreme IT. I can get you in on a TV deal, maybe.”
“Cuidado. Por favor.”
I eased my head into the shack. This was it, either next-level overcoming of raw nature or a cultist temple. Inside, I made out a glow off a satellite receiver box and the bulky frames of old-school relay cabinets. Beyond that, the shack corners loomed darker than dark. I shuffled deeper in among junk equipment and circuit board clutter. Above the satellite box table, somebody had strung a bulb on a wire. I fumbled it on, and bam, lumped beside the receiver cabinet, lay a diamond-backed rattlesnake of significant heft.
I froze in my tracks. Adios, marimbas. Hola, serpent maracas. We stayed like that for a near eternity, the snake and I, rain pounding the sheet metal.
“Hello, friend,” I squeezed out.
By sound and appearances, the snake didn’t feel too friendly. A childhood rewind like you always heard descended upon doomed souls descended on me. Forcible zoo exhibits and my brothers forever sneaking plastic snakes into my bedsheets and lunch bags. Making me watch horror movies where, in death’s irony, a poor fool repairman always met his end right at the busted equipment.
“Friend,” I said over a whoosh in my ears. “This is weird, I know. But I kind of need to get components installed.”
The diamondback coiled itself round and round, clearly willing to re-set my timetable.
“Cuidado,” I heard someone say from behind. Then a camera shutter rapid-fire as my pulse. Rafael, and too late, I could gauge what cuidado meant.
I said, “How about I step off some?” I started to do that, but the snake jacked its hiss factor plenty. “What?” I said. “What, then?”
The snake flared its scaly nostrils. In my impending death fugue, I was running the Wiffle ball bases under a red sun, a raccoon latched onto my leg, Duende, the macaw, perched squawking on my shoulder, and Mom shouting how she was proud my ant-farmed corpse would sustain critical forest. Marta stood at third, hands raised for me to stop. I high-fived her as I staggered around for home. The rattlesnake blocked the plate in strike pose. I heard Marta call, “Beck, you miss the signal.” Either she’d spoken life’s essential meaning, or else it was my parting break with reality.
Signals. Fugue Marta had nailed it. Punta Papagayo sent constant signals. Damned if I’d fathomed one yet.
“No entiendo,” I said.
The snake flicked its tongue. Paused its rattle a second.
I risked shrugging an apology. With a final head flourish, the diamondback twisted down the table leg and swept its long, extended self out past Rafael and into the underbrush. Rafael kept photographing the whole time like this was just another Wednesday at Punta Papagayo.
My fugue lingered on awhile. It must’ve because I heard myself cackling like Duende. Eventually, wracking chills came on, and I smelled musk and rain. Rafael was setting my tools while the wind roiled the shack. Hell, this was just another Wednesday at Punta Papagayo. Just a Wednesday night and the rattlesnake also felt I would benefit from more life experience. Hard to argue. I hadn’t even mastered the swim-up bar. Whenever I saw Marta later, raw nature permitting, after her strongest guaro sour, I would print her my man-serpent dialogue photos and brag how I’d even used some Spanish.
About the Author
Robert Mangeot lives in Franklin, Tennessee with his wife and cats. His short fiction appears here and there, including Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, The Forge Literary Magazine, Lowestoft Chronicle, Mystery Writers of America’s Ice Cold, the Anthony-winning Murder Under the Oaks, and The Oddville Press. When not doing any of that, he can be found wandering the snack food aisles of America or France.