By Kimberly Collins
Alexis dared not tell her mother or grandmother she would be traveling to Sweetwater to photograph the solar eclipse on Monday. A superstition about eclipses—solar and lunar—had migrated down through four generations of her family. From a young age, her great-grandmother, her grandmother, her mother, and all her aunts had terrified her with warnings about the curse of the eclipse. Of course all of these warnings only served to make her more interested in all things lunar. She never felt more alive than during a full moon and new moons always held some special insight.
As a photographer, Alexis couldn’t pass up the opportunity to photograph the great American eclipse—and it was right in her back yard. She had convinced her cousins, Morgan and Kayla, to join her at the family farm in Sweetwater to view the event. The farm consisted of a three-room log cabin and fifty acres that had been in the family for years. There was a waterfall, a creek, a few cows, and a spectacular view of the mountains. And come Monday afternoon, a total solar eclipse.
Sunday morning, Morgan propped herself up on Alexis’ bed and watched her pack her photography equipment. Alexis checked her packing list. “Two cameras; two tripods; extra batteries; solar lenses. What am I forgetting?”
“A sheet? I thought we were taking sleeping bags?” Kayla strode into Alexis’ bedroom and plopped down beside Morgan on the bed.
“She needs a white sheet to place on the ground to video the shadow snakes during the eclipse!” Morgan informed her.
“Shadow snakes? What in the world are you talking about?”
“Just before totality and just after, this crazy thing happens that looks like shadow snakes crawling on the ground.” Alexis said.
Morgan sat up on the bed and explained, “They’re actually shadow bands—not snakes. It has to do with the sun’s rays coming through the turbulence in the atmosphere. It looks like they’re jiggling, or in this case slithering. They’re basically a distortion of the sun’s final rays of sunlight beaming down through the atmosphere.”
“Well, all righty then. Always the scientist, Morgan.” Kayla said.
“Wow, you just took all the magic right out of it, Morgan. Thanks.” Alexis folded the white sheet.
“But wait, Alexis, you hate snakes.” Kayla said.
“It’s a love-hate relationship. I love them in art. I find them rather fascinating in theory. But a real snake will creep me out faster than anything. I’m not
really sure how I’m going to react to seeing shadows slithering across this sheet.” Alexis patted the sheet and tucked it into her overnight bag.
“Morgan, are you taking a camera?” Kayla asked.
“No. I photograph dead people and crime scenes all day. I want to eat, drink, and be merry this weekend. This looks too much like work.” Morgan pointed to Alexis’ photography equipment.
“Well, you need to change out of your death investigator outfit. We need to hit the road soon or traffic is going to be a nightmare. Chop-chop.” Alexis clapped her hands.
Morgan pulled a t-shirt and shorts from her overnight bag. “Did either of you tell Grandma we’re going to watch the eclipse?”
Alexis zipped her camera bag and placed it by the door. “Are you crazy? She takes this curse stuff seriously.”
“So, what was in the letters you found in her attic last week?” Kayla asked Alexis.
“Apparently, our great grandmother’s sister, Elizabeth, ventured off to visit family in North Carolina for her nineteenth birthday on May 28, 1900.
“May 28th? That’s my birthday!” Morgan exclaimed, pulling the t-shirt over her head.
“They watched the eclipse and had a birthday party for her. Everything was fine, until she woke up the next morning with strange bites on her neck, back, and arms. A little bit later, she was, by all accounts, crazy as a loon.”
“What bit her?” Kayla asked.
“They don’t know. Some say they looked like spider bites, but they were big.” Alexis said.
“Didn’t you say they sent her off to Northshore?” Morgan asked.
“Yes. Much later. She came back to Knoxville and spent a few months in the hospital. They thought the bites were infected. They got that all cleared up. Then her parents brought her home and she stayed in her bedroom for the next fifteen years. Never saying another word.”
“How did she end up in the psych hospital?”
“After her parents died, there was no one to care for her, so the family sent her to Northshore psychiatric hospital. Where she eventually died at the age of one hundred and one.”
“That’s crazy. Like really crazy. How many letters did you find?” Kayla asked.
“There were dozens of them, spanning fifty years.”
Morgan pulled her hair back into a ponytail. “Well, there are a number of things that bring on psychosis. She possibly presented with schizophrenia. She was at the right age. She could have been bitten by some exotic spider that triggered temporary psychosis. There are lots of explanations—the eclipse not being one of them.”
Alexis was up early Monday morning scouting out the best viewing spot. She spread the sheet on the ground and placed rocks on the corners to keep the wind from carrying it away. After setting up her tripods, she went back inside for coffee and breakfast.
“Ready for those snakes?” Kayla asked.
“Funny girl!” Alexis buttered a croissant. “I found our spot. Now, we wait.” She poured a cup of coffee and joined Morgan on the front porch.
The girls packed lunch and headed to their viewing area. It was a beautiful warm day. The sky was crystal blue.
“You want a glass of wine?” Kayla asked.
“Not yet. I need to be on my game today. Definitely, after the eclipse. I will take one of those sandwiches, though!” Alexis joined Morgan and Kayla on the quilt, beside the sheet.
“What if the eclipse curse is true? What if there’s some crazy thing that happens and we all three lose our minds?” Morgan poured a glass of wine.
“Does anyone know where we are? I certainly didn’t tell my mother.” Kayla said.
“I didn’t tell anyone.” Morgan said.
“Me either.” Alexis chimed in. “I was afraid it would get back to Grandma.”
“Great. So, we could get eaten alive by this eclipse thing and go stark raving mad, and nobody even knows where we are.” Kayla nibbled on a slice of cheese.
“Well, if it does bite you two, that’s one way to shut you up.” Morgan said.
Kayla threw a wine cork at Morgan’s head.
Alexis checked her watch. “The witching hour approaches.”
Alexis had one camera aimed at the sheets to video the shadow snakes. It was set to run for the duration of the event. The other camera, focused on the sun, had a remote shutter release and was for still photos.
The girls donned their viewing glasses; it was time.
The moon crept into view and slid over the sun. Inch by inch. At first it was nothing significant. The girls chatted casually, Morgan and Kayla sipping their wine.
Then daylight gradually faded; the girls fell silent. The birds stopped singing. An eerie silence engulfed the mountaintop. The sky darkened, the temperature dropped, and the girls were in total darkness. Only the sun’s corona was visible.
Alexis kept clicking her remote shutter release. The video camera kept running.
As the moon moved on, shreds of light appeared behind its shadow and the diamond ring appeared. All three girls gasped at the magnificence.
The diamond ring gently faded away and Alexis saw something move out of the corner of her eye. She looked at the white sheet. And there they were.
The shadow snakes. She could barely breathe. The other two girls noticed her movement and looked at the sheet.
“Did you see them?” Alexis said.
“They looked like real snakes.” Morgan said.
“Creepy.” Kayla shuttered.
“I’ll have that glass of wine now.” Alexis announced.
Alexis clicked through a few of the photos on the camera. “I have so many. We can look at them later tonight back at the cabin. And the video! I can’t wait to see the snakes!” She placed the cameras in the bag, leaving the bag unzipped and lying on the sheet.
She returned to the quilt and her glass of chardonnay. The girls sipped their wine and discussed the eclipse. The birds began to sing again.
A gentle breeze ruffled the white sheet, as a shadow snake slithered into Alexis’ unzipped camera bag. It coiled around her zoom lens. And waited.