The festival had started many years before, but it was Hemingway that made it famous. Bashing away at her typewriter, cigarette in mouth, she’d send back many reports to Country Club Heights, Indiana marked “from our correspondent abroad”.
A hard-drinking, hunting and shooting sort of dame, the locals quickly took to this ballsy American with her purple eye shadow and taste for strong liquor. They’d crowd around her as she slurred out tales of her exploits, in words that few of them could understand.
Of all her assignments around the world, it was the Chase that caught her imagination most of all. It happened once a year in the little mountain town. Young men would dress in white with a scarlet sash around their waists. After a night of drinking and vomit, these wild youths would stagger out into the winding alleys, their faces tinged green, some with wallets missing, their clothes emitting the scent of rosemary, lamb and grease.
One year, Hemingway’s third at the festival, she was gifted an article for her readers. It started, as always, at dawn.
All around the town, the locals waited, hunched on wooden gates, far out of danger, from the narrow lanes at the start of the Chase to the square where everything came to an end.
A hush fell as a group of porters in mackintoshes appeared. They wheeled five cardboard boxes into the open space at the start of the course. Each one had a row of small black holes punched along its sides. Safe behind the barriers, children gazed into the darkness in the hope of spotting the creatures within. To their disappointment, no eyes peered back.
Finally, the mayor shuffled onto the balcony of the city hall. While a small mushroom of plaster dust puffed out from a crack beneath the terrace, he gave a speech proclaiming all his improvements to the city sewage network. Meanwhile, the crowd swatted at flies and shuffled their feet.
At last, he gave the signal and a great holler went up from the throng. With a hiss like a jet of escaping gas, a small firework fizzed into the sky and broke into red petals with a crack. As one, the porters inverted the cardboard boxes using pullies and ropes. Inclined forty-five degrees, their top flaps opened, and five lithe dark shapes slipped out, glistening and quivering on the floor. The running of the snakes had begun!
Enraged and maddened, the black mambas surveyed the unknown territory. Motion caught their attention. The human participants were already tearing away down the zig-zagging streets. The black mambas slithered after the runners, covering the ground in supernatural speed.
How the snakes flew! Their bodies stood almost a metre off the ground, heads still, as they bobbed and weaved over the cobbles. Tails whipping, bodies throbbing, the creatures shot along the streets. Closer, closer, closer, they gained on a lone inebriated tourist. He was slowed by the rubber sole of one plimsoll, which was flapping loosely around.
Holding rolled-up copies of magazines in their hands, the other runners were bashing the serpents over the head as they got within spitting distance. The flurry of blows provoked guffaws and elbow-digging among the crowd. Others hissed in glee and hooted with delight. It was hilarious to see those terrified animals whipped across the face so hard that it stung their eyes.
Finally, the inevitable happened, and a fate arrived that no monthly glossy could prevent. The snakes caught the slowest runner, two of them slithering around him. With the roar of the spectators in their heads, and the dizzying angles of the alien streets around them, one mamba stuck its fangs into an exposed buttock. The other pierced the flesh of a chubby calf.
Shouts caught in the throat. Hands paused in mid air, never touching, never clapping. Shaken fists stopped moving, frozen in action. Children frowned, not comprehending the sudden silence. A baby wailed at the outskirts of the crowd.
The venom of the black mambas contained powerful neurotoxins, which usually killed within the space of half an hour. That luckless traveller barely had time for self-pity. In moments, he started to feel giddy. Then nausea set in, and bile lapped at the back of his throat. He saw the blue sky, one or two clouds drifting past the tall houses, and then his respiration failed. With a kick like a tree trunk hammered down on his chest, the runner’s heart gave out and beat no more.
Leaving their victim white-faced with lips slowly darkening, the murderous mambas continued on their way, heads aloft, slim frames gliding, like a pair of ladies in fine dresses returning to a dance. Satisfied with their day’s work, the snakes thought of nothing but the square ahead, and bedding down in the warm straw at the bottom of a cosy box.
Before the ends of their tails had slipped behind the last building, Hemingway spat out a lump of menthol-flavoured chewing tobacco. She placed her glass on the counter, streaming with foam and with the imprint of her lips around the rim. Then she stuck a clean page in her Royal Arrow portable. Jagged red fingernails tapping away, the intrepid adventuress narrated her latest dispatch on that year’s ill-fated running of the snakes.
(c) Alastair Savage 2013