Carol Scott-Conner

All Coiled Up and Hissing

You played dead, but you never bled
Instead you lay still in the grass
All coiled up and hissing

“Keep On Loving You,” REO Speedwagon

Lying-in-road deaths happen like this. A man—it is almost always a man—has been out drinking, and as he stumbles home it seems a good idea to lie down on the road, where the blacktop still holds the warmth of the sun. Another man, who has usually also been drinking, but who has a pickup truck or maybe an old Chevy, runs right over him—lump, lump—front tires, back tires—and never feels it. These sorts of accidents happen with sufficient frequency, particularly in the rural South, that there are papers in the medical literature about it. I myself have never seen a case.

Once, a surgeon in our department admitted such a patient to the Trauma Service. This man had been lucky on two counts: he was lying near the shoulder of the road rather than right in the center so that the car ran over his legs instead of his torso; and the driver, a teenager on his way to pick up newspapers for his daily paper run, stopped and called 911. His luck continued. Buckthorne County Ambulance service was not out on another run, and he was picked up and brought to the emergency room before he had lost much blood or had time to go into shock. The surgeon on call was one of our best trauma docs, a guy who was just back from serving six months’ tour of duty in the Middle East.

That was when I first heard the term “lying-in-road death.”


Last week, I ran over a snake. I was on my bicycle, and it was the perfect cool of a spring morning after rain. About four miles into the ride, I entered a wooded part of the trail. My old bicycle was running smoothly, my legs pumping a comfortable rhythm. A woman walking a small dog approached me from the right and it was, in part, because I was so preoccupied with the dog that I failed to see the snake until it was too late.

The snake lay stretched out full length near the junction of the macadam and concrete. From a distance, I suppose it might have looked like a line in the pavement. I saw it for what it was in the instant before I felt my front tire, and then my back tire, run over it. Lump, lump. It felt just like running over a slightly flaccid garden hose. I was glad my tires were soft—I had not had time to add air this morning—but I didn’t hold out much hope for the snake.

My first instinct was to keep pedaling, as if to provide deniability. I didn’t run over that snake, I couldn’t have run over that snake, I’m not that kind of person. But I could not resist the urge to go back, to see, to bear witness to what I had done. So I braked and turned around. I was perhaps 15 or 20 feet down the trail.

I looked back and saw the snake writhing in a disorderly coil, slashed to ribbons as if by a saber blade, just as I feared. I could see blood on the cut ends. But then—just as the rational part of my mind reminded me that no bicycle tire could have done that—the light shifted through the trees, and I saw that the snake was intact. The mottled pattern of patches on its back, designed to confuse the eye and provide camouflage in dense woodland, combined with the dappled play of light through the leaves and my own guilty conscience had deceived me.

I was reminded of the scene in Kipling where Kim is placed under a trance and sees a pottery jar first broken, then intact.

I have seen snakes lying on the road, on the sidewalk, on the trail, on chilly mornings. I’ve seen this with sufficient frequency that I’m alert to them. I sometimes stop and gently nudge them off to the side. I’d never run over one before.

This one had coiled itself into a hissing mass when I got close to it. It drew itself up and struck in the general direction of my sandaled foot. It missed by a foot. It was a good sized bull snake. The woman and the dog approached the snake from the other side.

“Is that what I think it is?”

“It’s a snake,” I said.

“It looks like a rattlesnake.”

“I don’t think so.”

“I’m from rattlesnake territory. I know what they look like.”

The bull snake lifted the long slender tip of its tail and shook the tip. It had no rattles. I looked at its head and neck carefully. The neck was thick, the head was slender. In venomous snakes, it’s the exact opposite.

“See, it’s a bull snake, it’s only pretending to rattle,” I said, and turned back to look at the woman. But she and her dog were gone.

The snake sidled slowly into the tall grass beside the trail. I had a sudden urge to pursue it, to pick it up, run my hands over its sides, check its ribs; but the memory of its attempted strike was too fresh. I let it go, rode on.


The man’s hospital course was rocky. Nearly died several times over. He’d sustained severe crush injuries to both legs. Bones broken in multiple places, dead muscle, skin avulsed, dirt imbedded in the tissues. He lived alone and worked on a local farm. The surgical team decided to attempt to save his legs, rather than take the easy course and amputate one or both.

He was in the ICU for about two months, and had multiple trips to the operating room. They saved both legs, but toxins from his legs poisoned his kidneys. When he left the hospital, he was walking with crutches, but he was on dialysis for his renal failure, and it looked like that would never get better.

Two months later my colleague got a letter from an attorney. The man had brought suit, alleging malpractice. The gist of the suit was that if my colleague had amputated both legs when the man first came in, all of the ICU stay would have been avoided and he would not have ended up on dialysis. The letter failed to mention that he would have never walked again.

He showed me the letter. The thing dragged on for several years, then finally was dismissed. A couple of months later, my colleague redeployed to the Middle East. I follow his blog. He writes a lot about uncertainty, about randomness, chance encounters that can turn deadly or magical in less than a heartbeat. Desert air shimmering with heat, sand storms that lasted for days, veiled women, blood feuds that have endured for millennia, an entire town built of stones scavenged from Roman ruins. Wild poppies grow amidst the few remaining broken columns, he writes, and there are seven kinds of snakes so venomous that there is no known antidote.


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